Its been almost a week since the reunion and Im still not completely plugged back into the real world. Well, what can you expect after just having gone through an experience that in many ways was heavier than anything most people ever got through in a lifetime? Four and a half days spent relieving something that happened over thirty years ago. A year out of our lives back then. But whats one out of thirty? Practically nothing. And look how much has happened to all of us since then. Since we left Nam. The most important things, really. First we finished our education, some of us anyway. Then we started careers, or tried to...Inched our way up the ladder or again, tried to. And maybe learned to downscale our expectations along the way. We met and married, those of us who were lucky, the women who would come to share our lives. And those of us who werent so lucky? Well, we arnt the only guys in the world with a couple of divorces behind us.
Weve had and raised our children and are getting ready to let them go, or maybe we already have. Hoping, as we watch them, that we did the right thing. Knowing that only time will show where we failed and where we didnt. Grateful if they even have a quarter of the idealism we once started out with...And now as the big five-oh approaches in the calender of our lives weve discovered our limitations, jettisoned our excess baggage. Were more compact now even if we do move a little slower. Nobody can fool us anymore, hell were survivors, right? So what is that one little year compared to all this? OK, we were young then and went through an experience more intense than anything anybody else of our generation went through. But surely time, the Great Healer, has softened the edges of that year in our minds like its done to everything else since then? And seen from this distance, buried under all the years, the layers that came after, it should have been tempered into perspective by now. A fading if still poignant memory, right?
Then how come its not? How come the events of that year are not only not faded but more vivid than those of yesterday morning? How come its memories still have the power when they choose, which thank god is not often, to tear through all those layers as if they were butter. Flooding our minds with a presence so intense that it sucks out everything else? Almost thirty years of hard lived life dissolve into nothing at those moments and the middle aged cynics weve become are suddenly turned back into young kids again. Kids confronted by something that stops their nineteen year old hearts cold. Doomed forever to ask why and never, never to get an answer. Yes, we all have our little box of horrors. The lucky ones can control when it opens and closes though there was a time when even we couldnt do that. At the time it scared the hell out of us and we couldnt talk to anybody about it, not even the people closest to us. And then one day we heard about this thing called a reunion. It woke up all kinds of things in us. Longings, resistance-I dont need this- and fears. And because of those you almost didnt go. But then the day came and there you were, standing outside the building trying to get up the guts to go inside.
Suddenly you find yourself in a roomful of middle aged strangers, not the guys you remembered at all, wondering if this wasnt the biggest mistake of your life and then...sure enough...it is. The two of you embrace. You find youre half crying and you dont give a damn. And then the memories, my god the memories...But not just of the horrors. But all the crazy, absurd, downright funny things that seemed to live side by side with the horrors. Your mind is firing a hundred a minute now; the names, the places come pouring out. Remember this, remember that? And that time we...? Because he came back later than you he fills you in on some of the things that happened after you left. You ask about so and so who, if anybody was going to make it back, youd have sworn it would be this guy who would always crack a joke just when you all needed it more than anything else. And you hear how he got it...He tells you about Kaz, who extended his tour to get any early out and who was given it alot sooner than he expected when his arm was blown off in an ambush.
And about Sammy. We all called each other by our last names but Joey was always Sammy. He was all set to go into Medical School when he got out, wanted to be a cardiologist. Except that he got shot in the head. He should have died, you hear, but he didnt. Instead he lives with his sister who gave up a job and a fianceť because somebody had to take care of him. Taking him by the hand so that he doesnt get lost, cutting up his meat for him, showing him where his mouth is, changing the bags he has to wear for his incontinence, and listening patiently to the ten or twelve words his brain painfully puts together into sentences that almost make sense. And then, because he kept in touch, you hear about the guys who came back with whole bodies but burned minds, guys who one by one just give up and take an early out on life, the latest one just last year...You find yourself looking at this guy sitting across from you suddenly realising how old his eyes are. And for a second you wonder if you look like that to him too?
On Saturday you go to the park, to the Memorial Service. Which, in some ways, is the heaviest part of all. You stand there listening to all those poor, tired words that always get said on those occasions, and are always the same. Mothers long dead could teach them to mothers not yet born. But thats not the toughest part, is it? No, its when you walked up to the Monument after the Service and saw them there for the first time in front of you...Theyre only names embossed on a bronze plaque, cold and impersonal, glittering in the afternoon sun. But you knew them, didnt you? Knew them when their blood was as hot as yours used to be. Hot with all the living still in front of them. You pulled latrine detail with these guys, cracked jokes, became hard together. Shared the mud and the dust and the fears and the dreams of the Freedom Bird. What they were and always will be in those terribly green fields where your mind holds them forever, ageless and always, always only nineteen years old... For the thousandth time you try to say goodbye and you cant, you cant...
But the reunion lasts two more days and in that time you meet an awfull lot of people. A few you know, most you dont and some you cant remember no matter how hard you try. So much gets packed into those four and a wake-up.
Youre still sorting out the names, the faces and the stories, jesus the stories. The late to all night drinking sessions, small knots of guys drifting in and out of each others rooms the way they used to do in each others tents. Bathtubs full of ice and beer cans. Bits and pieces of old uniforms, badges, pins, caps with their old unit insigna. Somebody lights up a cigarette "Third man on a match, remember that?" In the dim lights the fat, the wrinkles, the special diets, creeping rheumatism, everything age throws at them, is gone. Kids again, laughing and joking; opening up,letting go. The power of the group validating their sanity, their deep need of that, "All those years thinking if my wife ever knew some of the things going on in my head shed pack up the kids and take off like a shot." Mementos, old snapshots, get passed reverently around. Cracked, faded, stained; put your nose down close you can still smell the jungle. Faces in steel pots and flak vests grinning back at you...Never had they been so alive before and never would they be so again. A few talk quietly about old wounds. A 28 year old trail of pills and pain and botched treatments in VA Hospitals. Bits of old bullets never removed, migrating shrapnel, "On rainy days I can feel that sucker movin around.
Its already done two tours of my insides."...An artificial bridge spanning two sections of spine. "My legs give out every once in a while, Irene knows just what to do"....Next month another operation, another something added, removed, corrected, shored up. "Hell, they already opened me up so many times Im thinkin of askin em to put in a set of swingin doors." Then somebody says, "Hey, remember Tweety?" Suddenly their faces break open and its all forgotten. "Tweety?, yeah, do I ever. Remember how he used to get the ass everytime we called him that?" Rough, warm, laughter. Everybody else had another story about this guy with the voice that reminded you of that famous bird. "You wanna know what I remember most about Tweety?", the guy whod had three quarters of his stomach removed over the years said. "That first night we was on bunker duty together,the four of us, me, Freeman, some guy whose name I cant remember and Tweety. And all of us just two weeks incountry. What did we know? Hell, the whole damn regiment was still cherry.
Anyway, me and Freeman are off shift cutting Zs when all of a sudden all hell breaks loose. Tweetys opened up with the 50, yellin were bein overrun. The rest of us grab our weapons thinkin, "Holy shit, this is it", and start pumpin lead through that slit. Then the whole perimeter on this side starts openin up, friggin tank right next to us, blowin out them 90 millimeter rounds, jesus,my ears are still ringin. Its like a hundred 4th of Julys out there. Were all so busy nobody notices theres nothin comin back in at us." He stops, takes a last hit from his can of beer and heaves it onto the mountain in the wastebasket. "Last time I ever saw him he told me what really started the whole thing. Tweety fell asleep behind that 50 and dreamed the rubber trees had turned into a whole NVA regiment.
He woke up and just pressed down on that butterfly trigger." They laughed."Yeah, them rubber treesll do it everytime"......Never had they been so alive before and never would they be so again. And then, before you know it its over. One more group photo for the album, a last embrace, promises to keep in touch. As you watch them walk off to their cars with the decals from their unit plastered over the bumper, and give a final wave, you see how the years have quietly slipped back into them again. Slower, heavier, some a little stooped, they move back out into a world where the things that changed their lives forever mean nothing. Where friendship is not formed in an instant and forever when two guys under fire jump into the same hole. But where it is a carefully drawn up document with lots of fine print and one or two escape clauses. And where all their training will not prevent them from bunching up as old age picks them off one by one. This reunion has been a direct hit on all your stores of defenses. It will take you awhile to stuff everything back inside and close it up again. But somewhere along the line its reconnected you to a part of yourself that was lost for too long. And though you know that the kid with his questions will never go away, and there will still be moments when you find yourself scrambling for the high places, youre not sorry you came. Even if you never make it back for another one. It was a necessary chapter in your healing process that only ends when your life does. Or senility waves its decrepit wand and sends you back there forever.