“Once … while with friends … I was asked what was the
most significant thing I’d ever done in my life.
It was a quick answer. Right to the point …
‘Being a Marine and leading men in combat’ …”
Ten thousand six hundred nineteen miles is a long way. But it’s not so long if it delivers you home … for the first time in three years.
Not such an odyssey if it leaves behind a war … and lands you on the other side of the world … back in the arms of your old life.
“I was intending to go to law school but was talked into going into the U.S. Marine Corps by two college friends … on the premise that we could have three more years of fun together. Those two never made it through basic training.”
Da Nang to Okinawa to California to New York City. The reverse route home … miles of smiles.
Everyone knew he was coming home.
Word had arrived the week before. So the house was on alert. On call.
He’d been gone for three years … and half of that time was spent in Vietnam. He left in the summer before my eighth grade. And when came home … several springs later … I was a sophomore … and not such a boy anymore.
“…. Thanksgiving was the loneliest moment of basic training. I was use to large family gatherings … I had a turkey sandwich at Diamond Lou’s.”
The phone rang just before midnight … and all hell broke loose.
It was April. I was up late … priming myself for a Latin exam. Had the house pretty much to myself.
He didn’t recognize my voice. Why would he? I’d changed a lot in three years And I’d find out soon enough that he’d changed a lot, too.
That’s what three years and ten thousand miles will do.
We grew up in a large Irish-Catholic family … a gang of six guys in a stack … and one indulged sister holding down the #7 slot. Lived in a pillared colonial … on the suburban rim of New York City. A somewhat charmed existence with lots of advantages.
But for those three years, everything had been disturbed.
“Things were quiet for the first few weeks … and then someone shot at us. Now, we were playing real Marine. I had only seen dead people in funeral homes. Now, I got to see what really happens when people die.”
During the Vietnam time, days rolled on … brothers grew up and that sister did, too. To outsiders it all seemed the same. But it wasn’t.
There were tell-tale signs … inside that white house … but you hadda be part of the tribe to notice. To understand. To get it.
Too much room at the table. Whispered night prayers. Strange maps. Morning masses. Nightly news programs. Letters read aloud. An empty Christmas stocking.
And a television in the dining room. A clear violation of meal-time protocol. There to catch any mention of Da Nang or Phu Bai. Or maybe a video clip of Marines in action. Perhaps one Marine in particular.
“ … none of us had ever been in a combat situation. Early on we had killed two VC in a night ambush. Division wanted body counts … so the bodies were brought to camp the way you would bring in a dead deer … on a pole.”
Of course, the neighbors knew. It was an Irish block. Everyone knew everyone else’s business. They made polite inquiries … promised to pray … that sorta stuff. But mostly they were thankful that their sons were still young. And safe. Like me.
“I felt sorry for the Vietnamese. If they supported the VC, we went after their villages. If they supported us, the VC went after their villages.
We sent … doctors to treat the villagers. Later that night there was a real commotion … shots and screaming. In retaliation … the VC had cut off the arm of a child who had been inoculated. I still think, we were the good guys.”
The days seems especially normal. School, sports, homework … girls, cars, and odd jobs.
Nights? Not so normal.
Dinner with a side of Vietnam. The nightly news became the family vespers. Then the silent racket of my mother’s all-night rosary vigils.
Others counted sheep … I counted Hail Marys … until I fell asleep … and left her all alone. With Jesus. And Brian.
“I was in the second wave of choppers … as it touched down, small arms fire raked the LZ, followed by enemy mortar fire. I hadn’t taken two steps … and I was airborne … on a mortar blast that landed several feet away.
Never heard a thing, No blast. No sound of incoming fire. Just the sensation of flying through the air … and then an ache in my back.”
But now he was almost home. Back to Gramercy Place. His full tour complete. To be reunited with his wife … and children … who’d been living with us since he shipped out to Vietnam.
Back to the big house and the crazy clan. Back the big dinner table … with the fat legs. Home to the most grateful mother and father this side of the International Date Line.
We could all feel the world shrinking back to normal.
So we were up all night … hurrying the clock until we could convoy to the airport. Every light in the house burned bright … like strobes … like runway lights … pointing the way home.
Chaos is part of big family life. But that moment … that was perfect pandemonium. Near naked guys jostling for sinks and showers. Unusual merry-making for 3 or 4 in the morning.
Towels snapping … brother punches … fun ball-busting.
“Showers were a luxury. They usually consisted of 55-gallon drums filled with cold water. Enjoyable in the summer heat; freezing during the winter months. Every several weeks you had to be de-loused.”
It dawned on me that Brian was swapping war-brothers for blood-brothers.
And I wondered what he was wondering at 20,000 feet. Trying to crawl inside his head. Imagining what he’d left behind … and what he’d carry around with him for the rest of his life.
“… we received some terrible news … Frank Reasoner was dead. He was with us in Hawaii … one of the most gung-ho Marines I ever knew. Sent to Chu Lai … out on patrol with his team … many wounded, Frank pulled several from the ambush …and was mortally wounded trying to rescue his radioman.
Frank received the Medal of Honor. I’ll never forget him.”
I’ve not a single recollection of the ride to LaGuardia Airport. Not one. The excitement just corked my memory. But there we were … at the gate. Waiting for the gangway doors to fly open.
I’d managed a slow-sneak up the gangway … for a first look. A first glimpse.
I studied the faces of my family.
Older brothers huddled in small-talk. My poker-faced father off to the side … doing his solitary thing. My white-haired mother … tangled in emotions. Hands clasped just under her chin … probably praying.
Then he was here … I think … in Marine greens.
Reedy. Sinewy. Hard. Trim. Coiled.
And his face was serious. And so seriously thin. I wasn’t even sure if it was him who passed by. I thought perhaps … that maybe he’d missed the flight. So I turned back to my mother … to gauge her heartache. And to see her heart break.
But she was twirling in the air.
In the arms of her soldier- son.
Her head flung back. Face toward the heavens. Arms out-stretched. Palms up. Like Jesus … when his was taken down from his cross.
And now she was taken down from her cross.
Put in the arms of her son.
And she smiled as he carouseled her.
And that night … at the table with the fat legs … crazy-normal came back to that stucco house on Gramercy Place. The television disappeared. Beers popped. And babies got passed around.
And no one said less … or smiled more … than the lady with the white hair.
The house got its cadence back. And each of us tucked way different memories. These are mine.
And these are his.
“I’m lucky. I have compartments in my mind. I’ve put Vietnam in a small, hidden place. Most of the time … it’s locked. Only I have the key. It’s my special, sometimes horrible place. But I own it.”
Today … November 10, 2017 … marks the 242nd anniversary of the Marine Corps. It’s one day shy of Veterans’ Day. Those days deserve to be side-by-side
“Nothing I have ever done …
or ever will do …
can compare with serving in combat
in The United States Marine Corps.”