As before, if you are just joining the story, it is advised you follow the links on the right to begin the story from Part One.
THE SCENT OF VANILLA - PART FIVE
By 1969 several Marines who had been sent to Vietnam during the early stages of the conflict began to return home, their tour of duty completed. It was also during this time that the United States was hopelessly divided on the issue of our involvement in that foreign war. The story of America in Vietnam has since been related in many ways and any single narrative cannot express the entire expression of emotions, events and reflections concerning this portion of our country’s history. The story is best told in individual tales. My current understanding of the war has only recently begun to come into focus and the vision that I have is indeed an ugly one. My first glimpse into the reality of the war was very different than the television news footage to which we were exposed daily, and which captured my attention but with little understanding.
Each camp season an active duty Navy or Marine paramedic would spend several weeks with the camp staff to serve as on-site emergency medical personnel. The GIs got to relax a while in the mountain air and on occasion be required to repair a skinned knee and perform first aid training, while the scout camp had access to expertly trained medics. Talking to the "Doc's," as we called them, was one of my favorite activities for they were full of stories of overseas adventures and experiences and were a never ending resource of the most disgustingly filthy jokes ever to be told. Both of these talents delighted me.
This summer was unique in that we had been assigned two Marines from the same unit who were being discharged soon. Both of these Marines were friendly, if a little quiet, but fast with the jokes and amazingly seemed to enjoy our camp food, which we considered to be one step up from lake algae. According to them however, "Marine Cuisine," was a contradiction in terms. Slowly, the camp staff grew closer to the Doc's, which resulted in an occasional story of Vietnam. Their stories would center around leeches and snakes, the look, feel and nature of the jungle itself and on rare instances the nature of "Charley."
The skinned knee business had been slow that summer and our marine Doc's jokingly requested that someone break a leg or something as they were extremely bored and had actually read all of our Playboy magazines. That evening, a group of us decided to liven up their dull existence by staging a fake emergency.
Our victim was to be Eddie, one the smaller staff members, wrapped in bandages and decorated with ample amounts of ketchup. After we were certain that the Doc's were fast asleep, we hauled Eddie on a stretcher up to the First-Aid Shack, which also served as their sleeping quarters. We excitedly beat on the cabin's door and called out, "Doc, Doc, Eddie's hurt - hurry! Doc..."
Suddenly, both men flew out of the door in their boxer shorts and began to bark out orders, calling for a Medivac, and demanding additional supplies. Their eyes were wide open and their faces were racked with concern. Their voices were excited and filled with soul deep fear. We all began to laugh as they began to tear at the fake bandages and Eddie's clothing. It was only then that they realized what was really transpiring. Each of us waited for them to join in our laughter or to be chastised with some good natured name calling, but it didn't happen.
Both of them stood slowly looking at us with disappointment and controlled anger. A long moment of silence followed and the larger of the two said, "This is not funny boys. God dammit, we thought we were still in 'Nam." As he finished those words he began to cry.
Immediately each of us started to tell them we were sorry, that it was only a joke, and that we didn't mean anything by it, everyone stepping on each other's words. But no amount of apology could undo the terrible pain we had caused. For a brief moment we had inadvertently transported them back to the hell on earth from which they had just escaped. They turned without another sound to try and go back to sleep. Shamefully, we walked in silence back to our tents with the terrible knowledge that our practical joke had injured someone in ways we could only begin to understand.
The next morning the perpetrators of the folly were called in to the Camp Director's office and were soon joined by the Marines. They explained that they understood that our prank was all in fun but there were things we needed to know about.
For the next hour they began to tell us a story of the Vietnam which the public would not hear for many years. They told us of the incredible horrors, the gut wrenching vision of hands-on death, the sleepless night fear, and of the paranoia that no one was going home alive. They further explained the reason they were taken out of action a couple of weeks before their actual tour of duty was completed.
Both Marines were the only survivors of a unit that had been ambushed in a rice field at night. All of their friends were dead and their pain was amplified since as medics they were unable to save any of them. Many times they would pause in their story telling to compose themselves and then continue. Looking beyond their eyes, the demon of fear and the monsters of war were still very much alive deep within their minds and memory.
Fortunately, I never had to face those particular demons myself, but I am often reminded of their existence whenever I see or hear of young men and women marching off to fight and kill other young men and women. As I look back over history, with very rare exception, I ask myself this simple question, “…and for what?” The demons and monsters of war may know the answer, but they ain’t saying.
They’re just laughing.