I just read a very moving op-ed piece in today's (7/30/2011) New York Times, "My Own Captain America," by Charles M. Blow. In the article Mr. Blow recounts his grandfather's service as a soldier in the only African American army battalion to fight in Europe and his grandfather's sadly belated recognition by America for his brave service.
And his article triggered a memory of my own service in my war as a medical corpsman in Vietnam and racism in the armed forces.
I has made it back to the Big PX after my tour of duty and saved a lot of my money over there. My reward was a brand new 1968 Camaro sports coupe, 327 engine, three on the floor, black vinyl top, dark English racing green body, bucket seats, AC and an FM radio. In the trunk of the car beneath the spare tire was beaucoup dope, cured and dried with a touch of opium - Frosted Flakes! They're Greaat! - I had brought back from Vietnam in the bottom of my duffel bag. I kept my hemostat from Nam in the ashtray. It made a great roach clip. And I preferred using it as a roach clip.
I was doing the Jack Kerouac trip, eventually heading across America to do the last two years of my enlistment in the Mojave Desert, blissfully stoned with the FM radio blasting psychedelic music and numerous pit stops for a cold six pack now and then.
I hadn't shaved in two days. And I had twenty-eight more days not to shave if I didn't want to. I was suntanned a deep chestnut brown, lean from all the weight I had lost, so glad to be alive with my arms and legs still attached to my torso. The theme song in my mind's eye was that old rock 'n roll hit from The Box Tops, "My Baby Wrote Me A Letter."
My baby was waiting for me in The Sunshine State. I felt hotter than Ciabatta bread just out of the oven.
So I drove from my hometown in northern Ohio down to Miami on a visit to my grilfriend at the time, who was studying to be an RN.
One morning after my usual couple of tokes I pulled into a gas station on the outskirts of Atlanta. It was a beautiful morning down South. A clear blue sky, the scent of fallen pine needles on the ground of the forest surrounding the gas station, a slight cool breeze in the humid air. The gas station was in the shade on top of a hill. The black ribbon of the road twisted and winded down the hill. And in the distance were the skyscrapers of Atlanta simmering and shining white like a mystical city on the hill.
A gas station attendant walked up to the car to pump the gas, which is such a quaint ritual from the past. I asked him where the restroom was, and he nodded to the right side of the garage.
But when I arrived at the side of the garage, there were three doors. And above the doors were three painted signs: White Women, White Men and Negro Women. My road trip movie moment evaporated quickly after seeing those three signs.
When I got done taking care of business, I walked back to my car. I asked where do black men go to take car of their business. The attendant looked up at me as he topped off the tank and with a smirk on his face nodded to the pine forest surrounding the gas station. I looked around at the pine forest then back down at the attendant. He laughed as he noticed the reaction on my face.
I wanted to slap that smirk off his face and into the middle of next week. But of course I didn't do that. Stories were already circulating about angry Vietnam veterans. Why add fuel to the fire?
I thought about all the wounded African American grunts back at the hospital. I distinctly remember how much the reddish-brown dirt of the pine forest ground recalled the color of the dirt in the cleats of the jungle boots of the wounded grunts after they were brought onto the ward.
That happened in June, 1968. It remains one of the saddest days of my life as a Vietnam veteran and still does. Over four decades ago, yet it seems like only yesterday.
So I paid the attendant, got into my car, and drove away out of the cool shade into the bright morning sunshine down the hill.
The attendant and I were white and fellow American citizens. But I saw the human face of war and I had changed during that year. It was one of the few good changes to occur during my year in Vietnam. It was a small treasure I have found in the garbage heap of war.
I knew within one or two months in country that the war was unwinnable. But now upon my return I was witnessing how the war had cut a deep wound in the body politic. I was surrounded by civilians like that smirking gas station attendant as surely as I had been surrounded by VC guerillas and NVA soldiers in Vietnam. That war was also unwinnable.
I felt profound defeat. It had a spiritual dimension even more than a personal or political one. I was an exile in my own country.
I carry these emotions within my body after four decades. But I had changed.