"A short story of an experienced incident. On the way home from Vietnam. The tour had ended."
For The First Time In Many Years
Remembering (for the first time in many years) of an incident that I experienced when I was a young man.
Back in 1968, I was nineteen years old and a Private in the 101st Air Cavalry. I was on my way home from Vietnam. My tour had ended a little early because of an ambush that had consigned all but three of my platoon to bodybags or hospitals. Since we were ‘short-timers’, the powers that be decided it would be unfair to keep us there and send us to finish our tours with other units. Guys in that sort of situation were often in deep shit because their new comrades naturally took care of themselves and saved all the most dangerous tasks for new arrivals that they didn’t know or care about. Plus there were all sorts of widely-held superstitions about the increased risks faced by soldiers who were counting the days until their release and down to single figures. ‘Short-time’ was deemed to be the time when bad luck, the Devil or just plain, stupid over-confidence was most likely to kill a man. We all believed it, we’d heard stories of guys with two or three days to go being magically singled out by snipers, booby-traps and even accidental discharges of their own weapons. I didn’t even like walking too close to ‘short-timers’ when we were on patrol, I figured that I already had my own share of dangers.
There was no time to tell my folks that I was coming home, but I figured that it was going to be a nice surprise for them. The three of us walked across to the plane that was going to take us back to the States grinning like crazy. But the sight of dozens of bodybags, all lined up in neat rows next to one of the runways, wiped away those smiles and made us feel pretty sick instead. On the way into the country, straight off the plane, we’d formed up next to a similar collection of homeward-bound corpses, yet they’d made little impression on us. We were young soldiers and untouched by death. Like all teenagers, we were immortal and I knew inwardly that nothing was going to put me into one of those things. A few months later we just felt old and wasted, no longer invulnerable, just scared kids with no special immunity. Vietnam was our Kryptonite. We boarded the plane in silence and hardly exchanged a word for the entire journey.
A Greyhound bus brought me to (deleted). I couldn’t wait to get home and my mood lightened, got more upbeat and more positive with every mile that I got closer to the ranch where I’d grown up. It was early evening by the time the bus halted outside the old Magnolia Cinema on Main Street and dark enough for the streetlights to be on, but as I walked off the bus and stepped onto the pavement, it was as if a great and oppressive weight lifted off my shoulders. I smiled for the first time in days and thought about walking through the door of my home and the joy on my parents’ faces. Then I heard a loud bark and saw Duke, my dog, sitting on the sidewalk.
He was a big, shaggy beast of indeterminate breed, if a dog can smile, he was smiling then. He never wandered off our property, so it seemed incredible that he was waiting by the bus stop. How could he have known or sensed that I was coming back? I dumped my kitbag and suitcase and dropped to my knees so that Duke could say hello properly. He licked my face and wagged his tail so hard that I thought it might drop off. I hugged him, stroked his head and tugged his ears. I almost cried. Throughout all the time that I’d been away I’d missed my home and my family something fierce. But I think that, most of all, I missed the special times that I’d spent with Duke in the woods, fields and wild country where we roamed. I’m not ashamed to admit that thinking about my dog and how we were going to explore the quiet, familiar land together was the one thing that kept me from freaking out when we were under fire. In combat, random and inconsiderate death fills the air, you’re in a lottery. In battle you’re just a target, you have no control over your fate, so I suppose that lots of soldiers allow their minds to leave their bodies and retreat to more comforting places. Make no mistake about it, I was often so afraid that I didn’t care if everybody else knew it.
Duke frisked around me as I headed for the road that led out of town and through the outlying rural districts. It was over five miles to the ranch, but I was young and fit, I wanted to feel the landscape around me, to walk the length of the driveway to our front door. Half-way home the weather changed. It started to rain. Large, very perceptible drops fell on my face. They were warm, almost body temperature. For a second my thoughts flashed back to the ambush. One of my buddies was shot through the head as he stood next to me. I was splashed with his blood and brain matter. It had felt like the warm rain that falls on pleasant southern evenings. For a moment I felt sick and I came close to throwing up. But Duke came to me and pressed his nose against my hand and he was so much more real than that bad memory. His presence was like the arrival of the sun after a cold spell; I couldn’t help but feel better and more positive. I was home and only a few miles from the house. My parents were there and my dog was with me. I had a lot to be thankful for.
We reached a fork in the road. One route led to a wooden bridge over the (deleted) River (a nice place for fishing on Summer days) and the other went through Ulmann’s Wood, a small body of trees next to a farmstead which belonged to one of our neighbours. Since it was more dark than light, it made sense to take the bridge road, but Duke refused to follow me when I headed up in that direction. He planted his paws at the junction and barked. I urged him to catch up with me, he just stood his ground and barked. When I took a step back towards him, he took three or four steps down the road that went to the woods. Every time I turned towards my chosen route, Duke barked insistently. It was unlike him to argue about things like that. To him, one road was as good as another as long as I was with him. I decided to let him have his own way and he literally signalled his approval by bouncing up and down and trotting with obvious satisfaction towards the woods.
Ulmann’s Wood was full of roosting birds that twittered in loud complaint when we disturbed their uneasy slumbers. Duke barked at the ones that seemed to be the most indignant and I laughed like I used to before I went away. The weather worsened a lot during the next mile or so. The sky darkened and the rain turned from a gentle drizzle to a driving storm. The wind rose so much that trees swayed and bent and I found it difficult to walk without bowing my head and squinting into the oncoming deluge. But Duke knew the way home and I didn’t need to do much more than look at my own plodding feet and follow him. Even though the storm abated after a while, by the time we’d reached the long driveway to the house I was soaked to the skin.
When I got home my parents were completely stunned. They hugged me and asked a thousand questions. My Mother felt obliged to cook me a decent meal. She thought that I’d lost weight on all that insufficient Army food. My Dad wanted to know about the fighting and I told him what I could bear to put into words. I think he understood that I wasn’t opening up about everything that I’d seen and done in Vietnam, but he probably figured that I was sparing my Mother from the worst things.
As we sat at the kitchen table and plates were piled high with my favourite things, she spoke about the letters I’d written home. I told her that I’d needed letters from them just as badly. Choosing my words carefully, I started to explain how much soldiers look forward to words and news from home. That reminded me of Duke and I told my parents how he’d met me at the bus stop. There was a sudden, uncomfortable silence. My parents looked at each other with deep concern. I looked over towards the fireplace, expecting to see Duke drying himself before the blaze, but he wasn’t there. My Dad cleared his throat and said: “Son, you were mistaken about Duke being there. You see, last month he got sick, real sick and...” his voice trailed off. My Mother took up the thread: “Michael, we didn’t know how to tell you. We knew how much you loved Duke and how you already had so much to deal with in Vietnam, so we figured on telling you when you got home”.
I was about to argue with them, to tell them that Duke had been with me all the way to the front door. But then that door burst open and one of the ranch hands, a guy called Toby came in. He was drenched and covered in mud. For a few seconds he just stood there, dripping and leaving a slick on the floorboards. Then his mouth must have caught up with his brain because he started to speak rapidly and almost hysterically. Toby and another hand had been to town to catch a movie and sink a couple of beers. After the storm had finished, they’d got a ride as far as the junction and naturally headed back to the ranch via the (deleted) Bridge Road. The other hand had walked ahead whilst Toby took a stone from one of his boots just before crossing the wooden bridge. Neither of them realised that the timbers were in the last stages of rot. Toby was retying his bootlace when the bridge collapsed taking the other hand with it into the river. The poor bastard hit the water hard and drowned, even though Toby bravely threw himself into the river fully-clothed and tried to save him.
The local coroner concluded that the timbers had deteriorated over the years and that the unlucky ranch hand died because he was the first person to use the bridge after the storm had completely finished off its integrity. I firmly believe that I cheated Death that night. If I had not been prevented from taking the shortest, most convenient route home, I would have died in that man’s place. I know that Duke saved my life, that somehow he came back for long enough to make sure that I got home.
Somehow He Came Back For Long Enough To Make Sure That I Got Home
Topic by Michael. About remembering or the first time in many years.
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