10 April 2010

HOME IS THE SAILOR, HOME FROM THE SEA. . .

The plane landed in St. Louis at about 0600. I quickly collected my gear and grabbed a cab. The driver quoted a fare across the river and we were off. He was a 1/5 vet of Korea, who kept up a running commentary about his experiences in “a real war.” When we arrived, I threw my sea bag over my shoulder and walked up the drive to the front door. It was about 0645. On a whim, I knocked and stood there. Mom opened the door having apparently just gotten out of bed. She did not have her glasses on.

“Merry Christmas, lady.”

“Oh, just a minute let me get my glasses.” She turned to go back into the house.

Well, this isn’t what I expected. “Uh, Mom?”

She spun, screamed “Michael?” and then started yelling “Mary. Mary. Michael’s home.” Turning to me, she said “Oh, my. I thought you were the mailman.” (For our younger readers who are about to face Saturdays without home delivery—as if the generation of twitter and texting and e-mail will even notice—there was a time when, during the Christmas holidays, mail was regularly delivered twice a day.)

I was still standing on the porch. My Sister came running into the room and ushered me into the house . We had a quick breakfast as Mom and Sis readied to go to school. After they left, I showered and shaved and hit the rack, with the two cats nestled together on my chest. I slept the clock around.

The next day, I borrowed a car and drove up to ISU to see Maryann. I had talked to her and knew that she was in class until 2:00 pm. We planned to meet at the University Union.

I parked and walked across the campus. I was in uniform, and began to get a lot of looks—curious, then cautious, then disdainful. Suddenly, a scruffy looking co-ed stepped into my path. She grabbed me by the lapels, and screamed “How many innocent people did you kill, you mother f-----g pig ? You should rot in Hell!” The only reaction from the students was smirks and laughter.

I took her wrists and pulled them away. She laughed in my face.

When I finally met Maryann, and after a warm reception, she said, “Oh, I should have warned you not to wear your Marine costume. It’s best not to let anyone know what you do for a living.”

Costume? The Service is “what I do for a living?”

I drove her to Chicago the next afternoon for a reunion with her family. She did some last minute shopping for the wedding and I tried to ease back into life in the World. But I felt out of place. No one asked about my year in Vietnam or even alluded to the fact that less than a week before, I had been at An Hoa. I drove her back to the University on Sunday and then on to Granite City.

The next morning, I went downtown to shop for a car. I knew what I wanted and within 15 minutes had ordered a brand spanking new 1970 Chevrolet Nova, to be picked up the next morning. It cost me $1,978. 62, including tax, title and tags. Those were the days, my friends.

I next headed to the credit union to arrange for an auto loan. My folks had been members for years and I had gotten a loan two years before when I bought my VW Beetle. The President of the credit union, who was also our insurance agent, worked through the paperwork.

“Now, your Mother will need to co-sign this loan.”

“Really? She didn’t co-sign the last time.”

“Yes, but now you’re in the Army. We need a guarantee on the loan.” I bristled.

His son (and the VP of both the credit union and the insurance agency) looked up. “He’s a Marine, Dad. They don’t like being mistaken for the Army.”

“Oh,” Harry muttered. “Well, in any case, we need a co-signor when one of them wants a loan.”

One of them? “Really? Even though the last time I was just a college student and now I am a career officer?”

“You’re not a ‘career officer’ until you have 15 years in the service.”

His son, who had just gotten out of the Army, looked up again. “I know that is what the credit union has decided, Dad, but I don’t want to be here the day you tell some Major that he is not a career soldier.”

I had had enough. “Look, forget it. Just get the insurance papers put together. I’m picking up the car tomorrow.” He agreed.

I quickly drove out to the Granite City Army Engineer Depot and headed for the disbursing office. Luckily, I had brought my pay records with me, assuming I would need them at the credit union. I had already gotten cash back at An Hoa for my leave, including the honeymoon, but now I needed to buy a car.

A civilian disbursing clerk saw me coming. I handed her my ID card and pay record and said “I need to get some of the cash I have on the books.”

“No problem, Sir. How much?”

“$1,978. 62.” She looked up with a quizzical smile. “I’m buying a car,” I explained.

Ten minutes later, she was back. I signed for the cash and she handed me my pay jacket. “Do you have anything to carry your money in?” Damn. She saw my face and smiled again. “Here, I have my lunch bag. Will that do?” I walked out with the cash in a mayonnaise-stained brown paper bag.

I was really unsettled by this time. That night, I decided to take care of one other little piece of business. I drove to the local American Legion Post. It was Monday night and I suspected that the weekly ham and beans dinner would soon be underway. One of the Legionnaires at the front desk looked up. “What can I do for you?”

“I’m just home from Vietnam. Thought I’d join up,” I replied.

He looked at another guy at the desk, turned back to me, and snorted. “Another one of them, eh. Look, Sonny, why don’t you come back when you’ve won a goddam war?” They both laughed.

I spun on my heel and marched out. “How many innocent people did you kill?” Marine “costume?” One of them? Come back when you’ve won one? It dawned on me that no one—no one—had said “Welcome Home.”

Am I welcome? I had the strangest longing to be back with 1/5, in a place that I understood.




That was 40 years ago. Since then we, as a Nation, have had our ups and downs.

We've gone through the terrible years of the early 70s when we almost tore the Country apart and planted the seeds of political polarization that are still bearing fruit today. We have seen bad presidents—Nixon and the worst of all, Jimmy Carter(who delayed the raid to bring our hostages home until he could be assured that no Iranians would be hurt!), and a great president, Ronald Reagan. We have elected a draft dodger, who protested on foreign soil while my Marines were taking the battle to the enemy, and the first black American who is still writing his record on the slate of history.

We have fought and won one war using tactics based on the lessons of Vietnam. In General Powell's words when he spoke to the Naval Institute, we learned that when we go to war, we need to "gang up." But we are also in danger of forgetting that lesson of the need for overwhelming force as a new generation tries to ignore a war that is being fought by its best.

The Veteran’s Administration of the 1970s, with its hell hole hospitals and inadequate budgets, has been replaced by a VA that is a refuge to those of us who are still dealing with Vietnam, the gift that keeps on giving.

It was not until the 1980s that the American Legion really began to reach out to Vietnam vets—and then, mainly, as a matter of survival. The Vietnam War Memorial, a black hole in the ground designed by a college kid from an Ivy League college that did not want the ROTC on its campus, has now become the most visited site in Washington, DC. With the flag and statues that Jim Webb and others demanded and received, it is now a place of honor. I go there every time I am in the Capital, to talk with the names on Panels 35 W to 22 W.

We go to reunions, we Marines of Charlie 1/5, where we are fast becoming the old men of the 1st Marine Division. In 2007, I introduced Mike Tonkyn to the Division Commander as a Navy Cross recipient. The General shook Mike’s hand and said, “It is a real honor to meet you, Sir.”

Later, Mike said to me, “You know, Mac, never in this Lance Corporal’s wildest imagination did the Division Commander call me, ‘Sir.’”

“Ah, that’s all right,” I responded. “ He’s younger than you.” We both almost fell to the ground laughing.

The first time I was welcomed home as a Vietnam vet was in the parking lot of the Spectrum before a Philadelphia Wings game in December 1988, 19 years later! The local Vietnam Veterans of America unit was handing out little paper American flags and asking for donations as a fundraiser for their scholarship fund. The vet saw my Marine Corps decal on my car and asked “When did you serve.” I told him. He shook my hand and said, “Welcome Home, brother.”

I broke down and started crying. He just held me, and kept saying, “It’s OK, buddy. You’re home now. It’s OK. Welcome home. Welcome home.”

But in the dark hours of the night, I am still there. As I walk my dog in a foggy park, the tree line across the field is not in Pennsylvania--it is in the Arizona Territory. I wake up, checking lines or listening for mortars in the distance. Many nights--most nights--are in part or in whole just another re-telling of "that night."

And always they are with me. "At the going down of the sun and in the morning, I remember them:" Lucas and Zimmerman, Tews and Phipps and Unfried, and always, Chip and Jimmy Wandro.

I think often of Robert Louis Stevenson's Requiem. "Here he is where he longs to be. Home is the sailor, home from the sea, and the hunter home from the hill."

I'm still not really home, but I long to be. It has been a long voyage. Maybe we'll dock tonight.

© 2010 Michael R. McCarty. All rights reserved.

5 comments:

BigEfromLC said...

Mac,

Great finish to a long journey, brother. Welcome home.

You could not pay me to join the American Legion. I have contemporaries who served at the same time I did who have but I will never forgive their actions in 1969-1973.

Marlene said...

Thank you Mac for serving.

I was born in 1961 so have no real memory of what was happening in the world at that time. Thank you for sharing.

I continue to pray for peace.

Reformed Catholic said...

Mac,

fantastic memoir ... the screen got blurry there for a bit at the end.

Welcome Home, Marine.

Blessings

jim_l said...

Mac -

A thousand thank yous. I have read the stories from when you began and all the way through. I was too young (born in 59) to fully comprehend what was going on with Vietnam and those who served. I will never fully comprehend, but you certainly have significantly improved my understanding. Thank you for serving. Thank you for taking up the writing. Thank you for finishing the writing. Welcome Home.

Dead Man Talking said...

So much sour grapes. You/we did lose that war. And with good reason. What a stupid waste. What arrogance on our part. Of course you weren't welcomed home; what did you expect? Next time stay home to start with.