Vietnam Vet

I stepped out of Bookshop Santa Cruz clutching my new purchase – a used book about shell shock. I hugged it like a baby, excited to get home and do research for my historical novel.  As I skirted a group of down-vested window shoppers, I saw a man huddled alone in the cold, holding up a cardboard sign: ‘Help a Vietnam vet?’  His face was hopeful, and his hands shook. I’ll call him Vince.

The stench of Vince’s clothes was softened by the hint of impending the rain, but I watched as shoppers gave him a wide berth, a myriad of emotions and acceptance on his face. I shook my head, shaming the crowd for ignoring Vince, all the while knowing this could have been me on any number of occasions. I fished in my wallet for a $5 bill. When the people moved on, I handed it to Vince.

Surprised, he smiled, then stammered, “G-g-good book?”

I nodded, a tightness gripping my throat. “My brother was in the war too,” I blurted. That came out of nowhere. I hadn’t thought of my brother Don, in years. He’d become a vague memory, a hermit unwilling to be found. But at his name, tiny bits of goodness bubbled to the surface, things I had long forgotten:big brother Don, walking me home from third grade during an air raid drill; teenaged Don, carefully explaining which wheels to buy and how to place them on the wood to make a homemade skateboard; college-bound Don, urging me to get the hell out of the house and away from Dad as soon as possible.

A movement from Vince brought me back to the sidewalk. I looked at him, warming to his grin, the memories of Don still lingering.

Vince lifted his chin.“N-n-navy?”

I nodded. “He repaired helicopters. You?”

Vince straightened.  “Corpsman. S-s-served with a M-m-marine combat unit.”

“Oh! Like a medic?”

Vince grimaced. “M-m-medics are army, but yeah. I could have loaded g-g-guys into your brother’s birds.”

And then it was as if some door to the past flew open and I was suddenly immersed in his jungle, where Vince was “Doc,” performing battlefield trauma procedures the average doctor wasn’t legally allowed to perform. Although they never issued him a gun, Vince was the first person his guys screamed for when they got hurt and often the last person to hold their hands if they died, and he loved his job.

Vince looked at me. “Brother m-m-make it out?”

I shook my head. “He’s not the same.”

Vince shrugged. “N-n-none of us are.”

Something about Vince’s eyes, his complete understanding, helped me unload the memories I’ve kept hidden: Don’s pet monkey during the war who had a habit of sleeping in a warm engine block and was killed one morning when Don started the engine before checking under the hood; the day Don wrote me high on heroin, telling me he hadn’t ever felt this good before, how it made it possible to do his job; how decades later Don never came to say goodbye to Mom before she died.

We continued like that, reminiscing about the worlds we inhabited 50 years ago, weaving a tapestry of connection, particularly with music, for we’d quickly discovered our mutual love of rock ‘n roll and folk songs.

“You s-s-sing?” Vince winked and closed his eyes, a familiar Dylan tune rising from his throat.  I stood rooted to my spot on the pavement, shocked that such a heavenly sound came out of his weathered body. Verse after verse, pure and angelic. People gathered. A chill ran through me as I realized Vince didn’t stammer when he sang.

 

Here’s the thing: We all lead busy lives. Why not decide to slow down occasionally? Notice magic and beauty around you. I promise you won’t regret it.

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