The Time America Forgot
by: john harrison
Finally my war was over. That plane was so quiet on takeoff, but when those wheels came up, pandemonium reigned. I’ve been in firefights that weren’t as loud. Then, that 7-0-quick, freedom bird, flew us home.
This was a great day. I am Infantry, but I am sitting down. My rifle and my radio are in easy reach. I am in a war zone, but no one is shooting at me. Life was good, but it was also a very unusual day for us.
Everyone that was there has their own story of what it was like to return to America from the Vietnam War. But, the big thing is, one minute you are there, in country and then suddenly, you are home. Or, at least in California, and on the way. There was no transition, no time for decompression at all, and usually all of the people you came home with on the plane were strangers.
After my tour I came back in late 1968. I flew into San Francisco, caught a ride from the military airport to the spectacular Mark Hopkins Hotel sitting magnificently on top of a hill overlooking downtown San Francisco and the Bay beyond. That was where my Uncle John picked me up. I was standing there in front of the hotel in full dress khaki uniform, brand new ribbons pinned to my chest and all, but I had been sitting on a plane for about sixteen hours and I looked like it.
No one spit on me, but no one said, “Welcome home” until my Uncle said it, and then he hugged me. I don’t remember him ever doing that before, or since.
Pretty much everybody else had completely ignored me standing there in front of one of the finest and busiest hotels in America in my still shiny, black Corcoran jump boots, with a hard to miss, powder blue infantry cord, and then a big, bright Combat Infantry Badge over three rows of colorful ribbons pinned above silver Airborne wings. They all really stood out on those rumpled dress khakis. There was also a big, stuffed, Army OD green, overseas service, duffle bag sitting there right beside me on the curb.
However, as far as being noticed by the people of San Francisco, I could have been a tree, but I had a big smile on my face. I was really glad to see me back home in America, even if no one else seemed to notice, much less care. I was home!
According to my Uncle everything was fine until after dinner that night when I leaned back in my chair and it just kept going until I hit the floor. It might have been jet lag, but I think it was more likely related to the impressive amount of Jack Daniels, sour mash, whiskey, that I had consumed before, during and after dinner.
That was also my Uncle’s guess. He and my cousin Nancy put me to bed. It was the first time that I had slept between real sheets in about a year, but unfortunately I was way too drunk to notice.
While I had only been gone one year many things, some very important to a young man, seemed to have changed in America during that year. Now, after some bra burning that I had missed, women suddenly had nipples poking out, one on each side of their chest, and, with their girdles gone as well, they now had two round buttocks instead of just one large one. It was all quite startling for a young man fresh from a war zone.
I no longer knew what the rules were. I did not know whether I was supposed to notice these changes, or not. I wanted to act correctly, and to throughly explore both topics, but that would have to wait until I got home to Washington, D.C. First though, I felt a real need to reconnect with both my extended family, and my country.
I was back, and I needed to see them both. San Francisco was only the first stop on my return tour through America and my family that I had very carefully planned as my trip home from war.
My Uncle John was by then a Navy Captain and was the director of NCIS. I called him “Spy” because he had actually been one in Turkey right after World War II. He was working on his third war as a naval officer.
He invited me to lunch the day after I got back. I had a real hangover from all of that Jack Daniels, but I joined him at the Condor Club in North Beach. My aunt dropped me off at the door to meet him there. She was smiling, but she did not come in.
We were met at the door by a very pretty young lady about my age who was topless, and who was wearing the shortest, black leather, miniskirt I have ever seen. I got a good look at her face because I was trying very hard not to stare at her exposed breasts. However, I did notice that she had nipples. Two of them. One on each side. I counted them carefully as I ignored them completely.
I did not know what to say:
“Nice skirt.” seemed forced, given the circumstances.
“Neat nips.” seemed flippant, and perhaps too personal as well?
So, I did not say anything. She smiled at me. She seemed truly glad to see me. While I was wearing civvies, clearly out of date style wise, as well as being rumpled from being stuffed in that Army OD green, duffle bag, neither seemed to bother her. Nor did my very short, also very out of style, Army haircut.
She was the very first person that I met in America, other than my family, that had showed any interest in me as a person. I liked her immediately.
As we were seated at a small round table inside the club, Carol Doda descended to the stage on top of a brilliant white grand piano. You could say that she was wearing the piano since, other than a small black sequined G-string, that was all she was wearing. This was not a strip joint—they appeared stripped. Her two huge breasts were already famous as the “Twin Peaks”, or “Twin 44’s” of San Francisco, but I actually preferred the smaller ones on the young lady that had greeted us at the door.
During that long, liquid lunch with my uncle I found out that the “hair of the dog” does indeed work. Although that first drink goes down a lot more like medicine than like a proper drink would. On the other hand, the second drink and those that follow are, fine.
We were served by another young lady who I noticed immediately was also topless. Her’s split the difference between Carol Doda’s and the young lady’s at the door, and like her pert, blond pony tail, bounced a little as she moved. I liked our waitress too.
She was also dressed in an equally short black leather miniskirt. Just like the girl at the front door. That completely improbable black leather skirt was their uniform I finally figured out. It was also, all of their uniform. I thought that it was a real improvement over the Army’s shapeless uniforms that I was more used to, but I doubted that the Pentagon would ever approve such a change.
Several times as we sat there drinking quality American whiskey, in short, thick American glasses with lots of American ice, I noticed that my face actually hurt from smiling so much. Really, the muscles in my face hurt. I have never felt that before, or since.
There were several waitresses moving around the room serving drinks mostly and as I watched them I tried to get that big smile off of my face. I tried to relax my face, but it would not relax. I was so glad to be home and it was so much fun each time to order more booze from our ever more beautiful waitress. We took a cab home, I think.
After a few days with Spy and family in San Francisco, I went to LA to see my Aunt Elizabeth. I took the train down the coast from San Francisco to Los Angeles. It is a spectacular way to travel the West Coast. I had bought some new civilian clothes from the Presidio PX with Spy. So other than my short, obviously military, hair, I no longer looked so out of place sitting in the observation car, drinking alone, with only my big, stuffed, duffle bag sitting on the seat beside me to keep me company.
The bartender on the train was a man. So it was not as much fun to order as it had been at the Condor Club, but I overcame that and noticed that he had a delightfully heavy hand with the whiskey. He was the only person I spoke to on the train but then, other than ordering a drink or three, we did not speak.
Then it was on to Dallas, Texas to see my father and the Texas side of the family. No “welcome homes” so far anywhere, except from family. I was still carrying that big, Army OD green, overstuffed, duffle bag whenever I travelled, but both it and I were apparently invisible to everybody we met.
In addition, other than one time, there was no interest from anybody, including family, about what had happened in Vietnam, or what I had done there, or what was still going on there. Silence ruled.
Nor were there any more topless bars. While well covered nipples were in evidence everywhere, I think air conditioning helped that, evidently topless bars were a San Francisco thing. I regretted that, but I continued to drink whenever it was offered, and it was offered regularly. So, I was still smiling.
When we visited my father’s job in Dallas we learned that the son of an associate that worked there with him had been killed in Vietnam the day before I visited. So that part of the visit was quiet. No smiling. However, other than with my family, that was the only time that even the word “Vietnam” came up from people that I met during my extended trip home.
Finally, it was on to DC and home. I was surprised when I got home a little after lunch that day to find the front door of our house was locked. In all the time that we had lived there the front door had only been locked after the last person came in at night and when we were out of town. The back door to our house had never been locked—nobody ever had a key to the old fashioned lock on that door.
Now there were heavy locks and bolts on every door into the house. There had been riots in DC and many other cities after Dr. Martin Luther King had been murdered in Memphis while I was in Vietnam. Then, in Los Angeles Senator Bobby Kennedy had also been murdered while I was gone. So now we locked all our doors at night, and during the day as well.
One of the first things my mother did was to give me the two keys that I needed to open the front door of our home. Having a key felt so strange. Before I went to Vietnam, I had never needed, nor had a key to our home.
She also gave me back a .22 caliber rifle of mine she had taken out during the riots and loaded, but did not know how to unload. She thought you had to shoot it to unload it and she did not want to do that in the house. Even after I explained the process, she told me to take it outside to unload it.
That first night my Mother told me about a couple of friends that had died in Vietnam while I was there. One of them, a Marine named Tom Fleming, had been a very close friend. He had been killed by a mortar round. My brother said his casket was very light. They had decided not to tell me about Tom and the others until I returned.
Like several of my friends, our family dog had also died while I was in Vietnam. They did not tell me that either until I got home. I missed that dog. I had really been looking forward to seeing her again. Her name was Penny. She was a beautiful, pure bred, collie. Actually she was my little sister’s collie, but she was our dog and now she was gone too.
I was beginning to feel as though it was dangerous to ask questions about what had happened at home while I was gone. There was no good news.
Stranger still though, other than just once, and telling me about my friends’ deaths, nobody talked about Vietnam. It was on the news every night, but nobody talked about it. Other than my closest family and then only when we first met, nobody seemed to care that I had just returned from a war zone, from a still very active war zone where Americans were killing and dying everyday. But nobody seemed to care.
However, even in the family all was not entirely well about my tour in Vietnam. One time, I was asked by one relative when I first saw her:
“So, how many people did you kill?”
I guess I should have been angry, or insulted, or something, but it was the first real question about the war, about my war, and as it turned out; it was also the only question from anybody about what I had actually done while I was in Vietnam. While I was there, fighting for them. So, I answered it as honestly as I could:
“More of them than they did of me.”
But now I am not so sure that is true. With Agent Orange waiting in the shadows and killing more every year, with flashbacks and demons in the dark of night, I am not even sure sometimes that the war is over.
After I got back I made two promises to myself. I vowed, never again. Pregnant women and little children would go before I would fight for these people again. Next time, if there ever was a next time, I would only fight for myself and my family if I fought at all, and I would vote in every election. I’ve kept both promises.