Dirty Little Trinkets -- The Souvenirs of War
That I was talking to TJ was true to every part and participle. But to suppose I was talking with him would have been false in every way anything can possibly be. Teej was somewhere else, hearing and heeding the sounds and fury of demons that dropped by a few times every now and then, mostly the then; a then from decades long lost, in jungles whose roots had long anchored in his soul and in the blackest corners of memories that tokes on marijuana and dips into white powder only powdered over.
You could tell him: “It wasn’t your fault Teej.”
You could hold him, and the cascade of his tears couldn’t be dammed. That was so because he had been damned — sentenced — by the endless recon searches for what others in starched white shirts and silk ties in Washington claimed was there, claimed had to be rooted out . . . for freedom to take hold . . . at the end of the tunnel. A nation demanded it. A nation demanded to not be shamed. Others thousands of miles from the untidiness of clinging leeches and stinging, biting swarms of insects, thousands of miles from the salty bitterness of free-flowing blood and torn limbs and unrelenting days and endless nights of sheer, exquisitely defined limitless terror, others whose toils and concerns were restricted to the crawl of rush-hour traffic to and from urban offices demanded that their generation not be the first in the nation’s history to taste defeat.
After all, “Americans do not shrink from the call of honor’s duty;” so they said so many miles from the labors and perils they demanded others bear. It was their natural born right to not have to bear that ignominy. Such were their “other priorities at the time.”
I bet Teej had ‘em too; other priorities. A black kid hanging out on Peach Street corners in Atlanta in the summer of ’68, I don’t know what they might have been, his “other priorities,” but I bet he had ‘em. It was just that black kids hanging out on corners, or working in factories, or trying to save for a future that might have included a wife, a kid or two, maybe even college . . . or white kids in the same spot, or Chicanos . . . poor kids trying to figure it out just didn’t have the right “other priorities.” Doesn’t matter: I sure as hell bet they had ‘em, all the same.
Maybe, if they had chosen their daddy better their “other priorities” might have counted. As they didn’t, getting from the start of the patrol to its end with them in one piece, with those who walked it with them also returning in one piece, then the ‘X’ on the calendar that would see them aboard the big silver bird back to the “real world.”
Teej made it back. All in one piece; at least according to the Army that discharged him, honorably — honorably and decorated for TJ, not particularly honorably for the army, however.
In March of ’68, two months after Tet, TJ was on patrol in the boonies collectively called Quang Tri. The squad approached a collection of huts that everyone at first swore was as empty of any real life as the souls of those in the patrol. Records show it was Zombiewski — maybe it was Zombieski, or whatever . . . no one knew how to spell the kid’s name; he was just Zombi to everyone in the company — who let loose of his M-16 first. Charlie was everywhere. In Vietnam, even when he was nowhere around, he was THERE and everywhere. He was there. And over there. The glint of morning dew off a jungle leaf was an AK-47. An especially black shadow was part of the NVA, ducking down, taking aim. The faintest snap of a twig was a round being chambered; a round with your name on it.
And when Zombie let loose, so did everyone else. Nothing or something, failure to react had terrible consequences. After all, the idea, the only idea, was to go home in the cabin of the big bird, not in its cargo hold.
Teej swore it was his firing that had ripped the hut to shreds, that had ripped to unrecognizable as nothing that had ever been human the mother, the grandmother, and the toddler that had sought safety in the mother’s arms. Inside the hut, it looked as though Jackson Pollack on speed and a bucket of red paint had splashed every corner of his canvas in a furious, nightmarish frenzy. Gristle and body parts were everywhere stuck to the inside of the hut. But more than that, they were stuck to the inside of Teej’s brain, and they wouldn’t let loose, no matter how much grass he smoked or other pharmacological chemicals he ingested.
Ever. Teej swore it was his firing, his rounds. And when he swore, there were no words sufficiently foul or loud to push the rounds back into the barrel of his weapon, to put the mother or the grandmother or the child who had been in the hut back together. Ever.
Iraq is going to be like that. To one extreme or another, every soldier and every marine returning alive, at least physically comprised of “normal” vital signs, is going to fall somewhere along the human emotional and psychological continuum. Maybe for a while, it won’t be obvious that something in the veteran has changed. But it’s going to be there: the vile demon tick that sleeps just below the skin, to crawl from its pupa lair to attack its host when it decides the time is most ripe for attacking. And everyone around will know something very frightening is going on; the blank, dead stare; the crazed look that takes control of the eyes; the scream in the middle of the night, or during brightest daylight; the broken dam of spewed profanity . . . Over what? A pedestrian stepped from the curb right in front of the soldier. A backpack alone on a school bus stop bench, put there by a kid who has stepped a few paces away to play catch with a buddy. Or nothing detectable at all.