I tried to enlist in the Marines soon after my 16th birthday. My mother wouldn’t sign the papers.
The 1968 Tet offensive dented her belief in the final outcome of the Vietnam Conflict, as the fallen were airlifted home in coffins and the wounded filled the VA hospitals. Discharged soldiers were portrayed by the newspapers as drug addicted monsters. They were wrong. Those killers were my friends, p>Dennis Halley had seen action near the DMZ.
A Marine hero.
The Boston Globe had mentioned his heroics during the Tet offensive.
And he was alive. and a neighborhood boy returned from the Far East with nothing more than a thirst for beer.
My hometown’s John Wayne was dating my next door neighbor. Addy Manzi was the prettiest girl on the South Shore. The three of us vandalized an abandoned missile base of top of Chickatawbut Hill. The police had arrested me and I never gave up Dennis' or Addy’s name. He was a god and after getting released by the pigs I told him about my plans to join the Marines, while we were sitting by the Manzi’s swimming pool with the night closing on suburbia.
"Why you want to go?" He stared at the stars.
"I want to get out of here." My suburban hometown had three red lights, fifteen churches, and no bars.
“Not a good enough reason.” Dennis had been decorated with medals and a puckered hole in his arm from shrapnel.
"And why not?" The Marines were proud.
“Marines are taking a lot of casualties. Officers are gung-ho for promotion. One fucking captain ordered my friend to get some beer. A mine blew up his truck. My man died for warm beer. Viet-Nam is fucked and if you don’t have to go, then don’t go. The only people there are dumb fucks like me and poor white trash and blacks who can’t afford to go to college.”
“What about serving my country?” I believed in the American Way; life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
“I'm done served this country enough for the both of us. I spent two tours humping around rice fields, burning villages, and shooting at an enemy I couldn’t see. But one of them saw me good enough to shoot me."
He touched his arm.
Addy kissed the wound.
I started to speak. He stopped me.
"If I hear you signing up for the jarheads, I’ll kick your ass.” The twenty year-ld Halley had killed VC and his eyes squinted like he was a stand-in for Clint Eastwood in THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY.
"What if I join the Army?"
"They are the real cannon fodder. Dead men walking, but if you want to leave this town, then join a carnival or circus."
“Okay.” I wasn’t arguing with my hero.
“Good, now give me some room.” He nodded to Addy. They wanted to be alone. I didn’t have to be told why and crossed the lawn to my split-level house.
It was painted pink.
The strength of Dennis' advice changed my life. I became a hippie instead of a Marine. I protested against the war. My father considered me a ‘commie’, but he didn’t want me to go to Viet-Nam. Like Dennis said the war was someone else’s fight and I avoided the last years of the war by attending college.
By the time I graduated in 1974 our troop levels were down to 1950 numbers, but more than 50,000 Americans had died in SE Asia and hundreds of thousands more had suffered grievous wounds to body and soul. Few of soldiers spoke about their experiences and those that had not gone wondered whether they missed the glory of war.
In 1975 Dennis broke up with Addy and moved to California.
In 1976 she and I kissed after my older brother’s wedding. I was too drunk to attempt anything more in my family’s Oldsmobile. I quit my teaching job at South Boston High School to relocate to New York.
Manhattan was heaven for a young man in his 20s. I had made. My girlfriend from West Virginia loved me and I worked at Hurrah, a rock disco on West 62nd Street. My days were free and I spent them going to the movies.
Double bills at the St. Mark’s movie house.
STAR WARS at the Whitestone Drive-in, ALIEN on May 25, 1979 at a Times Square theater, but none was more important than the release of APOCALYPSE NOW on 15 August 1979 at the Ziegfeld Theater, where the sound was state-of-the-art.
None of us knew what to expect from the Cannes Film Festival Palme d'Or winner, but an hour before noon several of my co-workers from Hurrah showed up to join a line stretching around the block. The Ziegfeld was the only theater in New York showing the film and none of us had to be anywhere else in the world, but here. Whenever someone asked why Anthony, Reese, and Frank Halliday and I were waiting, they disconnected from their day and bought a ticket.
By 11:45 the show was a sell-out and disappointed film buffs begged for tickets at any price. No one was selling and the thousand-strong audience filed into the West 54th Street theater.
My crowd bulled our way to the center seats.
We knew what was what./
At noon the lights dimmed to a semi-darkness.
None of us were ready for what came next.
A jungle filled the screen and the whoop of helicopters passing overhead strobed over the sound system.
Dust and fire.
The young boy next to me ducked, as if a rotor blade might slice off his head and then a byzantine strum of a guitar followed by chimes and the predominantly male audience gasped with recognition of THE END by the Doors.
A man’s face upside down overlapped with carnage.
A hundred matches ignited throughout the theater. Marijuana smoke clouded the air. APOCALYPSE NOW time-machined back ten years into the past.
153 minutes later I exited into the steamy afternoon with a better understanding about why Dennis Halley was so vehement about my not enlisting.
“Do you think it was really like that?” Reese asked after fending off the next sitting’s questions about the film.
“I really didn’t know, but I wish I had gone."
"To kill people?"
"No, and not to serve my country." I wanted to bear witness to the spectacle of power and glory humbled by determination and I would gladly have risked my life to have the distinction of being a Viet-Nam veteran.
Now many men of my age felt the same way.
We had missed out on the Big Show.
I had never fired an M-16 at shadows.
I never danced with hookers at a Saigon Bar, but my hair had been shoulder-length in April 1975 and I danced in the streets of Boston with hippie girls.
Our side had forced the peace on Nixon's silent majority and the country turned its back on the War and the aftermath.
Several years ago I flew over Viet-Nam on a flight to the States from Thailand.
The country hadlooked at peace from eight miles high and I stared down at the mountains thinking about grunts humping 100 pounds backpacks up and down the slopes. It was a long way from America.
Back at work in the diamond exchange I told the security guards about my trip. Andy had served one tour in 1968 as a grunt out of the motor pool.
"I flew over Saigon. I dnd't drop a bomb."
Fucking gooks." His war was still alive, but I said, “I’ve been writing the Pentagon for a pension.”
“For what?” Andy knew my stance of the war.
“For all the years I protested against the war. Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh, NVA is gonna win.” The chant had served as a slogan at demonstrations throughout the USA.
“Fuck that. You traitors will get nothing.” Andy spat out these words. The Brooklyn native was right-wing. His 2012 choice for president was the feisty Alaskan Sarah Palin. I wouldn't have fucked her with a donkey's dick.
"We did our part."
“And you deserve nothing. I landed in Saigon at the beginning of the Tet Offensive. Bullets smacked into the charter jet and the sergeants yelled at us to take shelter. I spent the first three days in a trench praying for a truce. Mortar rounds landed ten feet from our shelter. I stayed one tour and got the fuck out. I don’t get a pension for it, so why should some long hair peace-nik.”
“Hey, the Feds give money to everyone. Why not me?”
“But you were never in Vietnam?”
“No, but I was in Cambodia.”
“You served in Cambodia?” Andy didn’t figure me for Army and he was right.
“No, I visited Phnom Penh and Laos too.” Both countries were next to Thailand. Thousands of farangs travel to the borders for a visa renewal. I thought about Dennis Halley’s dead friend. He was one of thousands that didn’t come back to the States.
“Did you have cold beer?”
“A luxury. We drank it warm with it 95 in the shade and sweat pouring from every pore. And that is something worth fighting for?” I saluted the retired cop as a fellow veteran. "Not democracy.".
“Hippie scumbag.” He gave the finger.
“Baby-killer.” I didn’t mean nothing by it and neither did Andy.
My fingers split into a vee.
The gesture had many meanings.
Fuck the French to the English archers at Agincourt, since the frogs lopped off prisoners fingers to prevent their return to the killing ranks.
Churchill had transformed the vee into a sign for victory.
I remained true to the 60s.
“And love.” Andy returned the gesture, for war was a young man’s game made dead serious by the decisions of distant old men and like everyone else who lived through those times we were glad to be sucking air into our lungs.
Here there and everywhere.
To see the opening scene of APOCALYPSE NOW, please go to this URL