After thirty-some years, I finally found a photo of Ken Doss, my high school drinking buddy, on a Marine website. Skinny, six-foot-two, chain-smoker; that was Ken, all right. The last I saw of him was in a lawyer's office in 1975 for (mind blowing as it seemed for the friend I knew) stabbing a cop, and stealing his car, and I always wondered where the heck ole Doss was. Probably six feet under, is my hunch.
The caption reads: The NVA Aiming Point for Khe Sanh 1968. Here he is Ken Doss with that Confederate Flag that he would not take down from the 1/13 area. This flag was the aiming point for a lot of NVA rounds. We Marines are a Brave? (stubborn) lot.
If there was a rating system for post-traumatic stress, I suppose Ken would stand out. Although in those days, he was probably considered just another shrapnel-skewered, shell-shocked Vietnam Veteran, who hopefully could convert his killing skills to productive use, upon return to civilian life. The repercussions of the Indochina conflict, with its tweaked-out crack prostitute personality, probably wreaked a more exotic havoc, upon our brave boys, than the present, more austere, if not Byzantine, Afghan-Iraq-Pak, desert campaign, but the results are the same--cries of death, madness, torture, and slaughter, with echoes of insanity, that cannot be exterminated, no matter how deep the needle sinks into the frontal lobes.
First, let me say that although Ken's Confederate flag flies in the face of today's Marine Colors, I never heard him issue a racial epithet. We were neighborhood buddies in Virginia Beach, twenty miles from Norfolk, Virginia, just south of the Mason Dixon line, a four-hour scoot from Washington, D.C., on the eastern seaboard. He knew a store where the owner would sell us beer, so weekends we would pile into a 54 Chevy, load up on Pabst Blue Ribbon, and head to the Dome, a dance hall, twenty miles down Beach Boulevard, where kids from various high schools congregated for Saturday night dances. By the time we got there, we were pretty blitzed. Same for some surfing trips; I remember Ken in a goofy-smile stupor, chasing a buddy with a long knife; he had a thing about knives; but we knew he was kidding.
Confederate flag?--I never had one--although Richmond was two hours away, and Appomattox, a hundred more miles west. Being Navy brats, my family moved too much to master any particular regional bias. Degrees of racism in the Old Dominion, however, although you could find exceptions everywhere, were institutionalized in the collective psyche. Schools and colleges were pretty much segregated. Country clubs, including the Beach's palatial Princess Anne Country Club, which later included such members as Evangelist Pat Robertson and wife, were off limits to blacks. From the white sands of Virginia Beach, the only glimpse one could catch of a black might be a hotel maid.
Ken was definitely Marine material--a Recon marine with two tours of Nam. Early on, from our forays in our suburb neighborhood, he established he would cover your back. Not that there was too much threatening about our neighborhood. Nice lawns, fairly nice houses, Carolanne Farms was a middle class/upper middle class community where men worked, women raised kids, and on Sundays, families went to church. After school, we played with whoever lived next door or down the street. Lots of kids.
There were premonitions that all was not perfect. I remember a speaker at our Episcopal church, an Air Force Pilot, who our pastor decided, for some reason, was going to talk about Vietnam at the weekly after-service social gathering, where punch and pastries were served. I remember his military uniform, haircut, and lean shoulders, and his explanation why he was dropping bombs, from miles up, on the Vietnamese, because...as he said with palpable outrage...the Viet Cong were cutting hands off of innocent villagers. Pretty intense stuff. Afterward, we nibbled on cookies, impatient to get home, get out of the suits, and watch Sunday cartoons, maybe catch a turtle in the lake.
For some reason, Carolanne Farms had more kids, per capita, that went to Nam, than any place in the country. Like a fast-spreading metastasis, Vietnam made its presence known, leaving an empty seat on a school bus here, a vacant bike on the steps there. I remember Tony Koster, a year or two ahead of me--getting on the bus--big blond football player--good looks, broad shoulders, and confidence. Then, no more. Marine Lieutenant, killed in Nam. I always wonder who else remembers him.
And Paul Benoit, who could forget him?--my little brother's friend--three brothers just like my family. I remember driving by when Paul's older brother was cleaning his motor bike, kickstand up and the motor running. We hooted something, and he looked up, and the chain cut off his thumb. Finally, after a search in the grass, we found it--like a pale shrimp. Paul, however, had a kind of elfin blond sparkle to him. He didn't last long in Nam--murdered with an M-16 by one of our guys. I remember his mother's perpetually sad face. Maybe, I suppose, you could add my little brother to the list; twenty-two years old; his grave says Vietnam. My older brother went into the Navy. The government had a veritable franchise; Me, I was drafted number nine into the Mac-Army. And then there was that quiet intellectual kid in the travel club who said, with visible anger, that he was tired of our country getting kicked around by the communists. A few years later, I saw him limping with a cane. "Shrapnel," he simply said.
Of course, there was good buddy Boyd, who couldn't get into the Peace Corps after school, so he joined the Marine Corps. Today, after several college degrees, and marriages, he is in China, chasing the Buddha and Chinese women. After a trip to a monastery in the Himalayans, his Master informed him he was a wanderer. And Russ down the street?--another Marine--actually came back and finished school, after a stint in a mental institution, and divorce. I remember him and Doss arguing about Recon--Doss saying, "if you ain't Recon, you ain't sh*t," and Russ firing a revolver through the ceiling of his rented house to punctuate a point. It all seemed somehow normal. Actually, it was Doss's old lady who was the instigator; she sensed that Russ did not like her, and said he reminded her of some other "sawed-off runt" that she knew. Bar fly mistake; you should have seen her smile drop. But Doss just kept smiling, a steely blue collar smile, that had a kind of arc weld light to it. He was not like us; he worked at the steel mill, and his father was some kind of metal worker. Maybe that was it. Maybe steel does not run, like the night we were drunk and the cops tried to arrest us--and I did run. Of course, I was faster than Doss. But like the Khe Sahn photo shows, running was not Ken Doss's forte.