When we were off duty in Vietnam, Al Rose and I, along with a handful of others, all of us part of an aviation rescue crew, gathered together at night. We sat on top of sandbag bunkers, drinking warm beer, passing a joint, sometimes more than one. We laughed, hurled insults at each other with harmless ridicule and false bravado. We talked about our futures, futures that stood upon fragile ground, and we made promises to ourselves and to each other.
The most brilliant part of the war happened at night. At night the sky lit up with a murderous display; at night came the thunder and flash of big guns that hurled devastation 10 miles through a dark sky. The bursts of light from the exploding shells danced across the distant horizon. Puff the Magic Dragon, an Air Force AC-47 twin-propeller World War II airplane, scripted the darkness with lethal lines from the Gatling cannons mounted inside the plane. The solid fiery threads crisscrossed the night. Parachute flares popped open, illuminating the sky before floating to the ground.
I had forgotten all these things.
When I returned from Vietnam, I’d consigned that part of my life to the past. I burned my uniforms, tossed dog tags in the trash, gave away every picture of my time in country, lost contact with everyone I’d served with. I went about the business of living.
The war started for me on the campus of the State Teachers College, now Central Connecticut State University in New Britain. Just a few weeks before Christmas 1965, just hours after final exams ended, I walked into the admissions office and surrendered my student I.D. Leaving school would allow me to work extra hours, and I needed the cash. I told myself the move was only temporary, just a one semester break; I’d be back by September. But leaving school changed my draft status.
A few days later, puzzled about the dubious change in my status, now 1-A, available for immediate service, I visited a recruiting office in Waterbury, my hometown. Within an hour, putty in the hands of a Marine Corps gunnery sergeant, I enlisted. By the following September, the same September I’d planned on returning to school, I landed in Danang with 200 other Marines.
Once I was back in the States, even though I’d promised others that I would, I didn’t go back to school. Hungry for money, a life outside the military, and in a hurry to put Vietnam behind me, I went to work using the skills I had. I worked the first few years as a mechanic. Eventually, I traded wrenches for a 30-year business career as a corporate headhunter until I retired. My career allowed me to retreat into the comfort of a life free from the daily demands of making a living. I’d happily remarried. My children, two sons, were grown with families of their own.
A few weeks after retiring, I learned that college tuition could be offset by my service in Vietnam. The idea of earning the degree I’d abandoned began to gnaw at me, and I decided to return to college. By 5 in the morning of the day I returned to campus, I surrendered to a restlessness that had kept me awake most of the night. I’d lain awake, thinking about the day ahead of me. I imagined the day as something special, a day full of promise, the day I would return to the college I’d left almost a half-century earlier.
I arrived on campus early, hours before the July sun would spoil the softness of the midsummer morning. I parked in the student center parking garage, built the year I became a student for the first time. When I checked my Blackberry, I noticed the date: July 10, 2010. I’d last been here early on the morning of Dec. 10, 1965.
Stepping out of my car, I slowly began to remember things that had happened years ago:
— leaving home just a day after high school graduation;
— withdrawing from college at the end of my first semester;
— joining the country’s rush toward the war in Vietnam;
— the smell of helicopter exhaust and blood.
An uneasiness began to take hold. It started to grow with each step I took through the mostly deserted campus. At the Veterans’ Center, I met with an Army captain, the center coordinator. I filled out paperwork that would ensure my tuition would be covered. Before I left, the coordinator lifted a salute that I returned. Army! Marines never salute indoors.
I headed toward the admissions office located in the same building as the Veterans’ Center, at the end of a long marble-floor hallway. My shoes tapped out a loud cadence that echoed inside the mostly empty building. Without realizing it, I was walking in step, marching.
The rest of the morning may have gone differently had my next stop been in any office other than admissions; instead I stepped into a room filled with my past. When I pushed the door open, I knew immediately that this was the same room I’d been in when I’d surrendered my student ID 45 years earlier. Sunlight radiated through a large window, obscuring my view of a young student behind the counter. My eyes narrowed against the light, creating a flash that lingered for several seconds. A prickly heat swelled from my shoulders into my neck then spread its crimson stain across each side of my face. The signed admittance letter slipped from my fingers into an outstretched hand. Things I had forgotten suddenly took up all the space inside me. Involuntarily, I gnawed on the inside of my cheek, pinching enough to make a hollow on the side of my face, an old nervous in-country habit. Outside I found a bench. I sat with elbows on my knees, hands folded together, propped under my chin, supporting my face while I silently wept, blindsided by memories I thought I had escaped.
The image of a charred corpse slowly took shape: Al Rose. I saw, for the first time in almost a half-century, his contorted limbs burned into grotesque positions. His hands, seared sculptures, reached out in a renewed gesture of embrace.
Until that morning, my life had been free from the memories of Vietnam: the nightmare of body bags coming off medivac helicopters; Al’s charred corpse; other friends I’d lost; a brutal and senseless murder of a recruit in boot camp; nights in a guard tower; rocket attacks that sent me scrambling into bunkers where I made myself as small as possible.
In the weeks that followed, I struggled to sleep. Some nights the smells returned. I breathed the blood mixed with exhaust from the medivac helicopters. I breathed the burnt flesh. The stink of death soured my dreams. Of all the things I would remember, still remember about Vietnam, nothing is more powerful than the smell of blood and helicopter exhaust.
The semester started. During those first few weeks I lived in a shell of loneliness. I moved from class to class with crowds of students, students who stared, students I wanted to avoid, and students I turned away from. There was nothing but a dissonance between us. They didn’t play the same music; we were out of tune. I folded deep into myself, less the full-time college student of 2010, and more the returning Vietnam veteran of 1967. I hadn’t felt this disconnected since my first few days back in the U.S.
“Why remember any of this, and why now?” I asked myself. This was not me. I’m not one of those guys. I’m not some Vietnam burnout. The war was over, in the past; let it stay there. Since coming home, I lived my life this way. Returning to college wasn’t suddenly supposed to force me to contend with a past I had never come to grips with. But everything about the campus pulled me back to the war.
While the first semester rolled into a second, I handled the academics with ease, but memories haunted me. I learned to expect their arrival as I walked to and from classes, their visits triggered by some campus landmark. In the classroom I stayed silent, learned and continued to succeed, but in the space between each class the ghosts would return.
At the end of my second semester a conspicuous yellow flyer announcing a nonfiction writing class caught my attention. I met with the professor, Mary Collins, told her I had stories I wanted to tell, but I left the meeting skeptical, reluctant. I was captive to a code of silence. One does not talk about Vietnam — for a lot of reasons. That’s the deal, that’s the hand dealt to every returning veteran from every war. Besides, there were some trees it was best not to shake. I waited out the semester, fretted over the decision and then joined her class.
As part of Connecticut’s 2012 Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day celebration, our writing class produced a book of interviews with Vietnam veterans. Each student in the class received a random assignment to a selected veteran. Jerry Winn, a former Marine Corps Vietnam veteran and Purple Heart survivor, was my interview. The morning of the meeting I awoke to a pounding rain reminiscent of the Vietnam monsoon. I sat in front of his house while rain pelted my windshield, beat on the hood, rolled off the rooftop, pulling me back to another time, a place where rain drummed on the canvas tops of perpetually wet huts. I contemplated driving off and sat listening to the rain. The rise and fall of my own breathing brought me back to the rifle range in boot camp; take in a deep breath and slowly exhale, squeeze the trigger of the M-14 and fire. Crack!
I left the car and stepped into the cold rain. The front door opened and there he stood: the former Marine lance corporal. We sat in his kitchen. He talked about his time in country in a calm, sometimes raspy voice. His hand, disfigured and missing fingers from the mortar blast of a booby trap, rested conspicuously on the table. The scars all over his body were hidden by a long-sleeve flannel shirt. The conversation was naked and raw. He told me his story and I tried to capture the whole of it. Weeks later while being interviewed on NPR, I read some of Jerry’s story, some of what I had written.
After meeting with Jerry, I became obsessed with the need to know more about Al Rose. We had been friends for less than six months in Vietnam, yet he had been a brother to me. I had to understand the friendship. I had to understand why he haunted my dreams. For months, I searched for information about him and came up empty. A stroke of luck landed me in the middle of his remaining family. A librarian in Taunton, Massachusetts, found an obituary on microfiche. That led me to the high school Al had attended, not far from Taunton. A retired principal had some information about the family which led me to Al’s sister-in-law.
I learned that his family life was worse than mine. Like me, he came from an unstable home life and poverty, and like me he voluntarily enlisted into the Marine Corps and risked the nightmare of Vietnam over a questionable future. The closer I got to Al, the more I remembered my own past. I thought about Al, Jerry and myself. We hastily joined the Marines and volunteered for duty in Vietnam without understanding the consequences. We were the raw meat feeding the insatiable hunger of the war and the draft, a draft that targeted 18- and 19-year-old boys, a draft that upped the quotas of the local recruiting offices on Main Street USA, while America began to eat its young.
I delved deeper into the war and my own past. Personal artifacts from the war and my time in the Corps had never been important to me. Medals, pictures, uniforms, none of it ever seemed worth keeping, but now I searched for anything that I might have stowed away in some discarded box of junk, rabid for any clue. I called old friends, asked if they had anything. Some began to send me items. An old friend sent an audio letter that I had made and sent to her. It was a common practice. The Central Connecticut State media department painstakingly transferred the 47-year-old tape onto a CD. I listened to my own 19-year-old voice, raw and unsophisticated. I shivered at the loneliness and heartache I heard. Memories of Vietnam gnawed at me. I couldn’t recapture the peace I had known for 45 years. What was it? What was I looking for? What was haunting me? In and out of class I continued to write. My past sifted through the strainer of words.
And there it was — “Promises.”
I remembered the promises I’d made if I was one of the lucky ones coming home alive. I promised to finish college and become a teacher. I hadn’t kept my promise.
Al was dead. So were other members of the rescue crew I served with. I don’t know why I was the lucky one, but I knew I had to complete college, get the degree, and teach. I understood now that I had to keep the promise I’d made one night, 45 years ago, drinking beer and watching the war.
On Dec. 10, 2015, a Thursday, after answering the final question on the final remaining exam of my final semester, I slid pencils, highlighters, and a large, pink block eraser back into the pouch of a soft, black leather portfolio. With the semester, and this last class behind me — 50 years to the day after I had left campus — I’d earned my degree: B.A. Creative Nonfiction, Magna Cum Laude.
Three months later, on an unseasonably warm spring morning, I stood in the Veterans’ Center on the CCSU campus, in the middle of a large gathering, the focus of much unwanted attention. A few minutes after he arrived, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, in a heartfelt celebration, presented a framed diploma to me, along with a U.S. Senatorial Proclamation of Special Recognition.
“I’ve presented many diplomas throughout my career,” the senator said, “but none have meant more to me than this one.”
As the reporters finished asking questions, their photographer tag-a-longs finished taking pictures, guests mingled, eating, drinking, telling their own stories, the senator, in a quiet moment, leaned toward me and asked why it was so important to me to earn the degree.
“I needed to keep a promise.”