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you’re in San Francisco, not Scandanavia

March 25, 2011

After six months in the Gulf of Tonkin on the USS Princeton, I flew in-country to

go back to the states.  The final casualty I saw in Vietnam was a sailor who got his

leg caught under a wheel of the chopper being rolled out for my hop to DaNang.

His screams filled the pre-dawn air and punctuated the end of my stay there.


I spent the day with other Marines who were rotating home.  I got caught in the

officers’ showers, but I didn’t care anymore.  It didn’t seem to matter much to the

officer  who caught me, either.  He let me skate.  I walked around, read, had a few

beers and watched an outdoor screening of “Sebastian”, a nifty little film about the

British Secret Service that didn’t involve 007.  I missed some of the plot because

patrols just beyond the perimieter were in firefights, and gunships were spraying

M-60 rounds.  Red tracers from the choppers sliced up the night sky.


It also didn’t help that we were next to one of the runways of the busiest airport in

the world.  Jets were constantly screeching in and out.  A different officer yelled at

me for sitting too high on the sandbags that covered the quonset huts the screen

was between.  After the flick, I went back to my hut to sleep.  My colleagues were

crazy drunk.  I moved my cot to the roof of the hut.  I figured I had a better chance

of survival outside than inside with a bunch of armed and soused short-timers.


No officer found me and I slept well.  I flew out the next day, landing late at night

at Travis Air Force Base in the Bay Area.  Because we’d crossed the international

date line going east, we technically arrived the day before we left.  After such a long

flight and six months of distressing images, I welcomed the thought of going back

in time.


I went to get my orders stamped.  The clerk at the travel desk said, “Why don’t you

wait until after midnight and get an extra day’s leave?”  It was 2350.  I thanked him

and sat down for 11 minutes.  After I checked in, I caught a bus to the San Francisco

airport.  On the way, it dropped off some other troops at the bus station downtown.

I got my first glimpse of a city that I will love the rest of my life.


It was 2 or 3 a.m. when I was dropped off at SFO.  I wandered around the empty

terminals to stay awake.  I didn’t want to miss my red-eye to L.A.  This was my

first contact with the “world”, as we called it in ‘nam.  What I remember most

is the porn magazines on the news kiosks.  I gaped at them through the chain

barriers.


I wondered if I’d been driven to Scandanavia by mistake.  But the titles on the

covers were in English.  Vivid colloquial English.  I was indeed back in the U.S.A.


I was exhausted when I met my family at LAX.  My mother told me later that she

barely recognized me.  My son Chris, who had just started walking when I left, now

ran everywhere.  The hug I shared with my wife Suzy was like the one we had when

I got back from basic training, tender yet tentative.  My father hung back to greet

me last.  He wanted everyone else to get a chance.  He was thoughtful that way.


We went to breakfast, chatting amiably.  As we were getting out of the car at the

restaurant, I fell back in my seat, started crying and said “They’re kicking our ass

over there.”  My family looked at each other warily, not knowing what to say.  I

regrouped quickly and we went on to eat.


None of us said anything about it.  It was my first hint, though, that it was going to

be a rough readjustment.



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