Donny is telling his father what it was like “over there.”
“It must’ve been pretty bad over there. I was worried sick, watchin’ the news.”
“Well, that’s all pretty much in the past for me now. I’ve had six years of college to put all that behind me.”
“I could see on the news it was awful.”
He wanted to hear about it. People don’t want to talk about it, but they have a morbid curiousity to hear about it. I felt like a kid, telling my father how I had been abused.
“It’s a shitty place to kill and be killed, and thick; you have to hack your way through it. The sky clouds up and the trees get nervous and it rains, comes down like crazy, and it goes on and on. You think it’ll never stop. It’s hot and it stinks and it’s always humid. There’s always slithery things and aggressively curious rats, and insects like you’ve never seen before moving around you. I lived with my weapon in one hand and my knife in the other. I used to wake up in L.A. still feeling my rifle and my knife in my hands…”
I watched my father looking into me as I spoke. I knew he saw a change in me. Of course, I was not the same boy they had hugged and kissed good by. What I had done, what I had seen, what I had endured in the bloody, rotten, filth of those jungles had roughened me. He saw I had become a grown man, but he could see what had come with it. He saw that war is a test a man takes and then carries the results around with him for what’s left of his life. You can’t describe it. That’s why they say, “If you weren’t there, then you don’t know, so shut the fuck up.” Men who don’t go to war are victims of their own slovenly complacency, preserved for them by heroes who resent them.
“…the pure obscenity of war.”
“Ah. That’s my educated Donny talkin’ now.”
“Maybe. The obscenity begins where the marching and the brass bands and the relentless training leave off. That’s when the education begins.”
“Now, you’re getting’ over my head.”
“War is over everyone’s heads, pops. It’s a lesson. Not everybody gets it.”
“A lesson. What’s the lesson?”
“For whom? The governments that finance it? The generals who plan it? No. It’s for all the young, baby-faced guys who endure it and pay for it with their lives. Their receipts are written on their faces and their psyches. The lesson is desperation.
“One of my friends, Bobby Whitson, just a young kid from North Carolina, he had been blown to pieces, and as I held him, his life pulsing out of him, he said, “It ain’t so bad, Donny.” His grip loosened on my hand and… and he was gone. I could see by his eyes… I could… Oh, God, he wasn’t in there anymore.”
“I’m sorry, son. I’m so sorry.”
A drowning man forgets all he’s ever heard or been told about swimming. His desperation forbids it. Only when he stops thrashing and realizes it’s not so bad is the lesson learned.”
“If there’s a lesson, why in hell does it go on?”
“Every generation has to learn the morbid desperation of war. When the crippled no longer walk the streets and the battle-beaten men who sit in the wards, blank and vacant-eyed like clocks that can never be wound again are gone, it’s the next generation’s turn…”
And he saw what I had become in the loftier, more civilized state of learning at U.C.L.A., and how the more cosmopolitan society of Los Angeles had polished me. He knew it was that dichotomy with which he had now to become acquainted, and he would. My father had always been patient with me. He could see well into people, and that’s what he was doing as I matched a gruesome description of Viet Nam to what he had imagined. My father doesn’t see who I see in the bathroom mirror.
“… and the sound of a helicopter can be the answer to a desperate prayer, or the sweaty, merciful awakening out of a brutally bad dream .”
“It could have been worse. I made it through in one piece.”
My father stared at the floor, picturing what I was telling him. We sat quietly for a while. Then,“The Army treat you okay?”
“The Army doesn’t treat anybody, pops. You keep up or you’re kept out. You have constantly to qualify to die for your country.”