The only time I cried during my tours in Vietnam was in a hotel bathtub in Bangkok. I ordered a basket of fruit and several liters of icy beer. I drew a bath and sat alone drinking, watching the water turn murky orange. I drank more, emptied the bath, and refilled it. This time the water remained clearer tinged only slightly by the humus color of the jungle floor. I stared at my feet, hard and callused, marked by the places they had carried me, the fading gouge of a fragment wound on my right shin and the raised gash of a recent gunshot to my hip. It was an insignificant wound, but the scar was livid purple against my white skin, and appeared huge, refracted through the jungle-colored water.
Lying in that air-conditioned room in a strange city, I began to cry.
Once I started crying, I could barely stop. This was in April of 1968. I had gone to Bangkok for "Rest and Recreation."
By June of that year, I was a veteran of one tour in Northern I Corps. I was a Recon Marine, leader of a six-man team based at Quang Tri. We conducted long-range reconnaissance patrols, clandestinely locating elements of the North Vietnamese 320th and 324B Divisions. Inserted by helicopter deep in the mountains, we would remain for days or weeks. Sometimes we were successful, finding the North Vietnamese soldiers and reporting their location and activities. Other times, they found us. I completed thirty-four missions, then extended my tour of duty an additional six months. As a reward, I was granted thirty days leave.
My parents met me at the airport seventy-two hours after I finished a patrol in the Ba Long valley. The drive home was long, the conversation sporadic and faltering. It was the week of the Fourth of July. My family decorated the house with patriotic bunting and arranged a party. Friends and neighbors waited to celebrate my homecoming. When I arrived, they gathered on the front lawn, sitting on patio furniture fanned out around a keg of beer.
After the hugs and the handshakes, I sat silently under their scrutiny. They stared at my leanness; the bush cuts on my hands, the jungle-rot scars on my forearms, the big watch on my skinny wrist. They stared at my ribbons and jump wings. They watched me drink beer and chain-smoke. They asked questions about the strategy and morality of the war and asked for stories from the war. I don't remember what I told them.
Some neighborhood kids lit firecrackers under my chair. I didn't flinch or dive for the ground. I remained still except for a slow and deliberate pivoting of my head, scanning the area. First I examined the semi-circle of surprised faces and laughing children, then the street with its neat colonial homes and finally gazed over the roofs and treetops, my eyes fixed on a point of horizon. The welcoming committee appeared distressed and excused themselves, leaving crumpled beer cups and red, white, and blue napkins scattered across the yard.
That night, unable to sleep, I gathered a poncho liner, a pistol, a handful of Darvocet, and a quart of my Father's scotch. I went to the backyard, took some Darvocet, drank the scotch, stowed the pistol in my pants, and curled up under the poncho liner.
I woke to the sound of power mowers. We lived on a circle, backyards adjoining, forming several acres of common lawn. It was a Saturday, and each Saturday morning the grass was mowed. My father had already completed our yard, cutting a neat rectangle around the place I slept. I got up and went to my bedroom. From the upstairs window, I could see the body-bag-sized patch of matted, tangled grass, its borders delineated as perfectly as a cemetery plot in the expanse of freshly clipped lawn. No one mentioned it, but it grew nearly a foot during the month I was home, and I stayed quietly drunk until it was time to leave.
My parents were concerned and confused. I wanted to talk with them, but sensed I hadn't the words. And if I had, I doubted they wanted to hear them. I couldn't tell them that the front yard of their house seemed as threatening as an ambush site, nor could I admit I was secretly pleased when the firecrackers burst under my chair. The imitation gunfire comforted me in that strange place and brought me back to a truer home; familiar terrain, where I found solace sleeping on the ground with a pistol nestled in my pubic hair. It seemed a terrible but fair bargain. I was returning to Vietnam because there was nowhere else to go.
I was vaguely aware of the dissolution of the person I had been, and suspected the impossibility of comprehending what I had become. I understood only one thing, discerning it as clearly as the rectangular plait of grass growing snarled and wild amid that pristine lawn. I knew where I belonged and found cruel comfort there.