Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Chronicles of a Baby Boomer - Nam

I am not a war veteran.

I got my 1-A draft card two months before the war was over.
Nixon ended the war.
I was not called.

In the late 70's I worked for a defense contractor in Connecticut. Electric Boat. I was a clerk. No, Tech Aide. That's what they called us. Glorified clerk. In an engineering department in the South Yard. I knew a lot of great people. Distinguished people. People I respected and was glad to call friends. Chester, who I commuted into work with, had been at Pearl Harbour. He told me what happened when the bombs fell. How he ran around like a mad man and about his friend who was late for work. When he finally got there, his desk wasn't. Chester was a wiry little Frenchman. "Chester the Molester," we used to call him. He could swear like a sailor, which he was, and sex-talk like a, well, like a Frenchman.

I met a lot of interesting people at EB. A lot of vets. WWII. Submariners. Pacific Theater. Viet Nam. Engineers. Draftsmen. Just plain people. I worked in a big room clustered with military grey desks, built like tanks. There were no partitions. No 'cubicles' like in the modern Dilbert sense. Your desk probably butted up against someone else's desk, with someone else beside you. Maybe you were lucky enough to face a concrete wall. Maybe near the central pillar where they put the coffee pot, though that meant you had a lot of traffic at your desk. If you wanted to talk to someone, you just yelled.

I sat in various places, as the office reorgs shuffled. Once I sat across from a black veteran. He was fascinating. Served in Nam. After his tour he asked to serve in a far north listening post. That's where serviceman were stationed to monitor the Soviet nuclear threat. It was cold. It was boring. It was dark 50% of the time. And you hoped it would never change. You had only one companion. Why the fuck would anyone want to be there?

The military screens people who request to serve there. They don't want anybody who will go coo-coo and start a nuclear war. So they asked him, "Why do you want to serve a tour of duty in a place like that?"

"For the money," he said.
"If I put up with six months in that place, I automatically have my pick of where else I want to serve. Berlin. London. Paris. Hell, I can go anywhere I want!"
"You're in."

Every day I learned something new. Something important. I learned how to read blueprints. How to read engineering documents. How to make sense of military specs-that's not easy, and how to put up with my coworkers. 'Networking,' as they say today.

I learned what it meant to be an engineer, a veteran, a technician, and an American.

Larry was a draftsman. He worked in the same department as I. I was in the tech aide coral. He with the other draftsmen. He had served in Nam. Been on the front line. He lived in Jewett City and was one of my car pool buddies. He would sometimes talk about his service. He was an infantryman. Front line. Grunt. He talked about prying open mines to get at the C4 inside. You could take it out and put it on the ground. Then light it on fire. It would burn OK. Just like charcoal. But if you said, "Hey, Fred! That's on fire!" and Fred stomped on it, it would blow his foot off. Larry wouldn't do that to anybody, of course. But it was something he lived with. Daily. Using C4 to blow up fish in streams. To make little holocausts. To kill gooks. To-I never learned what else. He didn't talk about it.

Larry had a girl he loved. He talked about that, too. And a psychologist he saw in Hartford regularly. For his war problems. They used to call it Shell Shock. Then Battle Fatigue. Then Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It doesn't matter. He was in pain. He was holding something in that should never have been there to begin with. Larry and his girl had an on again, off again relationship. Like all of us. They did their best.

On New Years Eve, 1980, Larry put a rifle into his mouth and pulled the trigger.

I miss Larry. I hate war.

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