Vietnam. Fucking Vietnam, fiction by William Trent Pancoast

The dark­ness started on my lunch break at the fender fac­tory. I went out by myself that day, late in Feb­ru­ary with snow on the ground, yet with full sun­shine, the sort of day that promises some­thing but you know it can’t and won’t deliver any­thing. I drove to the local beer dock where I bought the usual six pack then sat in the park­ing lot with the truck win­dows down, a cold breeze fil­ter­ing through the cab.

Down a cou­ple of spaces from me, one of the guys from ship­ping was play­ing Billy Joel’s “Good­bye Saigon.” He had it turned up loud like you’re sup­posed to lis­ten to that song, the anger of it shear­ing the hum of the fac­tory in the dis­tance. The song fin­ished and he played it again, louder yet, the chop­pers, always the chop­pers in Viet­nam, the fuck­ing chop­per war, blast­ing their rotors loud and obnox­ious, the anger of the song blend­ing with the arriv­ing black­ness of my mood, and it was 1966 again, us high school kids stand­ing in the hall­way look­ing at a pic­ture of a guy who had grad­u­ated in the spring, just four months ear­lier. There on the bul­letin board in the hall­way was Tom Lane, a lit­tle guy, not ath­letic, not artis­tic or musi­cal, not hand­some, not any­thing that I could ever remem­ber about him. But he was patri­otic and dead. He had joined the Army and gone straight to Viet­nam where he got blown the fuck up. So the school put his pic­ture on the bul­letin board in the main hall­way, him kneel­ing in his fatigues hold­ing his rifle and wear­ing his hel­met, with a cap­tion that read, “Tom Lane, killed in Viet­nam last week.” That day in the hall­way was the first I had ever heard of Vietnam.

I sat there in the park­ing lot think­ing of Tom Lane and the next year of 1967 when Viet­nam was plas­tered all over the TV screen every evening, guys get­ting fucked up in front of us, and a great big What the Fuck was form­ing in my high school brain. I pic­tured my dad, the Army Infantry grunt from the Bat­tle of the Bulge who got through the rest of his life by con­sum­ing a hun­dred thou­sand dol­lars worth of alco­hol, watch­ing the news, eyes fixed on the lit­tle black and white screen but flit­ting over to me every once in awhile like he won­dered what the fuck I thought about it, or if I even under­stood what it was going to mean to me. He never talked to me about Vietnam—what I should do—join up, run, get a defer­ment, not a fuck­ing thing.

The next year I was a stu­dent at Ohio State Uni­ver­sity. That win­ter I got a phone call that a friend in my class from high school had been killed in Nam. He had been there a week and stepped on a land mine. His wife was one month preg­nant when he died.

I sat think­ing these things and see­ing these images, think­ing too of the day of the Kent State killings when my dad and I came to blows, and a fierce dark anger cov­ered me com­pletely, the Viet­nam War upon me again, a sick­ness that haunted every cit­i­zen in Amer­ica those years—Johnson and Nixon and McNa­mara send­ing nearly three mil­lion Amer­i­can kids to a fuck­ing worth­less jun­gle just because they could, like the kings of old. Pick a coun­try and make war. The dark­ness of all things set­tled over me that day at lunch in the park­ing lot of the GM plant and I didn’t go back in the place.

I sat in the park­ing lot with nowhere to go now that I was back in the mid­dle of the Viet­nam War a half decade after the war’s end. Back in the dark­ness, not going down together in Viet­nam with my class­mates and 58,200 oth­ers who got blown up, got sold out by the gov­ern­ment, for the glory of noth­ing. For Nothing.

A whole coun­try with PTSD—the Amer­i­can Legion guys hat­ing the hip­pies, and the hip­pies hat­ing the gov­ern­ment, the gov­ern­ment killing us all, and moms and dads and kids at every cross­road and in every cor­ner of the nation in con­stant sor­row for the lost or soon to be lost chil­dren, and the gov­er­nor of Ohio order­ing the mur­der of kids at Kent State University.

 

I was plenty drunk, me and sev­eral of the reg­u­lars, by the time John sat down on the bar stool beside me that evening. I could see that he was half in the bag too. “Hey. How’s it going?” I asked.

He just nodded.

I got this,” I told the bartender.

John nod­ded again.

We drank our beers. I had heard he was get­ting a divorce. Him and most of the other Viet­nam guys. Treat­ing their PTSD with alco­hol like sol­diers have done since alco­hol was invented. But so was I get­ting a divorce. So was I sit­ting here.

Where you work­ing?” I asked him.

He tilted his head to look at me with­out turn­ing his neck. “Nowhere man. There aren’t any jobs.” After a minute he added, “I think you got the last fuck­ing job in Amer­ica over at Gen­eral Motors.”

Not much around,” I said. I was past the dark­ness and way into the numb­ness and wanted every­one every­where to be for­given for every­thing and all get on with Amer­ica and our lives.

Your dad said he would get me in the plant. I can’t even take care of my family.”

I’m sure he did what he could.”

He promised me. He said it was a sure thing he could get me in.”

I imag­ined my dad sit­ting on a bar stool beside John up at the Amer­i­can Legion Hall, late in the evening and drunk, treat­ing his own PTSD from 35 years ago and World War II..

He said us vets got to stick together.”

I nod­ded, start­ing to lapse back into the dark­ness from the numb­ness. “Man, it’s hard to get any­one in that place.”

He got you in.”

I glanced over at John, watched him rotate the beer bot­tle and pick at the label, the con­den­sa­tion drip­ping onto the bar.

Yeah,” I said. The dark­ness was back on top of the numb­ness and the anger of Viet­nam was return­ing. I wanted to say I knew what he was feel­ing, but I didn’t because I couldn’t. I wanted to say that I was sorry I didn’t go to Viet­nam, but I wasn’t.

"You got my fuck­ing job.”

He did the best he could,” I said, think­ing of my old man, a bot­tom rung accoun­tant who had got­ten fired in 1956 for stand­ing up for vets where he worked then, when the com­pany was fir­ing them to beat them out of their retirement.

Your old man‘s a fuck­ing liar,” he said.

I don’t think so,” I told him.

A fuck­ing liar.”

Fuck you. Fuck­ing Viet­nam vet,” I scoffed, all the anger and the dark­ness and numb­ness all rolled into one big ball of ugli­ness now.

He was to my right, so when I saw the first move­ment of his bar stool toward mine, I nailed him with a big round­house left hook and knocked him clean off his seat. He got up fast and I was ready, blind to every­thing except the enemy, and got him another good one. He socked me one hard punch in the eye, then the bar­tender pulled him off and another guy grabbed me. He held up his hands, palms out to indi­cate he was done, the dark sad­ness of the day on him too, and turned and headed for the door.

What was that all about?” one of the guys asked.

Viet­nam. Fuck­ing Vietnam.”

pancoast"Viet­nam. Fuck­ing Viet­nam." first appeared in Issue #16 of Steel Toe Review. William Trent Pancoast's nov­els include WILDCAT (2010) and CRASHING (1983). His fic­tion has appeared in MONKEYBICYCLE, Night Train, The Moun­tain Call, and Sol­i­dar­ity mag­a­zine. Pan­coast recently retired from the auto indus­try after thirty years as a die maker and union news­pa­per edi­tor. Born in 1949, the author lives in Ontario, Ohio.

 

 


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