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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