When Dad and I saw Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, I asked him what he thought of it. He'd been a helicopter medic stationed in Nakhon Phanom, Thailand, during the American war in Vietnam, and so I wondered how closely the film aligned with the experience of combat. I remember him saying he liked the film for the most part, but also him complaining that writers of war movies always get the same thing wrong.
"When I was pumping morphine into soldiers who had been shot or dismembered," he said in his deep, clear voice, the kind baseball announcers use during uneventful plays, "they never asked me to pass on information to their girlfriend. Mostly they screamed. And if they could say anything, they would say: 'I'm dying. I'm dying. Oh my God, am I going to die?' Burn victims were the absolute worst."
Growing up, Dad answered my questions with a similar level of candor and detail. No subject was too personal, too violent, too complex. Had he ever stabbed anybody? Had anyone ever stabbed him? Why did Bob Dylan sing like that? What's a Republican? Did he believe in God? Why not? And what did he do during Vietnam?
I'd ask him these questions as we drove the long hour from my mom's place in Belton, Missouri, to his place in Lawrence, Kansas. While I waited for his answers, I sat in the passenger seat and looked out the window at the acres of cut grass fields bordering that unremarkable stretch of K-10. He'd frown as he searched his mind for the right story, smile or wince once he found it, and reply with a perfect beginning-middle-end vignette.
Mom and Dad split when I was 2, and their custody agreement meant I only saw him for the weekend every other week. So the Q&A sessions served as a kind of road-trip game I would play in order to get to know him and the world as he knew it.
In an attempt to re-create those formative conversations in the car, for the last two years I've been conducting a long-form interview with him over e-mail. We've limited the conversation to the time shortly before, during, and after the 365 days he spent in Nakhon Phanom, because we both know God is dead, Republicans are bad, and Dylan rules.
At the beginning of his tour, he was a 22-year-old, conservative, evangelical atheist from Joplin, Missouri, who'd recently dropped out of the University of Missouri, where he says he majored in playing bridge.
Why did you drop out of school?
I'd become restless. I just didn't want to do it anymore. So one mildly intoxicated evening at the Italian Village bar, I talked my friends Prince and Tim into a grand adventure. Having read too much Kerouac at a young age, we all decided to head off to find America in an old blue milk truck.
Where did you go?
There was still snow on the ground—it was colder back then—so we went south. First stop was Joplin, Missouri. I explained to my puzzled father what we were doing and then we headed west on, of course, Route 66. The remarkable thing about the trip was how unremarkable it was.
I called my dad when we got to Salt Lake City and was surprised to learn that I'd been drafted. You'd think that I would have expected that, but I didn't. Apparently, the admins at MU had figured out that I wasn't attending classes, advised the appropriate authorities, and my academic deferment had been rescinded.
My immediate future as Vietnam cannon fodder was clear. I talked to an Air Force rep, and he—desperate to meet his recruiting goals as the war ramped up—agreed to backdate my enlistment prior to the date of my draft notice. I had to agree to a four-year commitment versus two years for the army, but he assured me that I'd have my choice of job assignments, so it seemed like a good deal.
So you decided to be become a helicopter medic?
Well, no. In addition to the incessant physical and psychological abuse we endured during basic training, we also attended classes on subjects that I no longer remember. The airman with the highest cumulative score on the tests given at the end of the classes had their choice of job assignments. You'll be proud to learn that your father, competing against those unable to avoid service during the dumbest war in American history, scored at the top of his class.
In the late 1960s, computers were just making the scene, and two jobs in that field—computer programming and data entry—were on the jobs list. As first in my class, I selected computer programming. Some hungover asshole in admin took my personnel card and tossed it into the medic bin. Given the news, I went into my barracks, laid on my bunk, and cried.
You didn't protest your assignment? As first in your class, wouldn't you have had the documentation to go up to someone in admin and tell them they'd messed up?
Ha! I have no words to express how unrealistic the idea of protesting my assignment would have been. The thought never crossed my mind. Any hint of disobedience, and I would have simply and immediately been "sent back." The joy of basic training starts over again at day one: "Hello, maggot."
What was your first day at war like?
A ramp extended from the rear of a C-130 airplane, and 10 or 11 of us walked out into the rain. We were wearing gray flight suits and black combat boots. We carried everything we owned in a large green duffle bag. We ran toward a double-wide trailer, past a small hand-painted sign that said, "Welcome to Hard Times." Dripping water and laughing, we scrambled into the trailer. We were directed to shut up, put our bags on the bench, form a line, and stand at ease. The thing I first noticed was the overwhelming smell of shit.
Why did it smell like shit?
All the military base laundry was done in the Mekong River by the locals. Each item was washed thoroughly, dried, and then neatly pressed before being returned. Unfortunately, Nakhon Phanom, a city of about 40,000, was upstream from the laundry facility. Naturally, many of the residents used the river for bathing and sanitation. All of the clothing, sheets, and so forth were soaked in the muddy Mekong. After a few days, you didn't notice the smell anymore.
Did you ever develop close friendships with any of the local Thai people?
Dang was a military guard at the base and was married to a woman who worked as an assistant in the dental clinic. From time to time, they invited me to their home for some authentic (and hot!) Thai cooking and to meet family, friends, and neighbors. Her mom lived with them. She was a fat, jolly woman with half of her teeth missing and a mouth blackened from chewing betel nut. (If you chewed betel nut, you'd be jolly, too.)
This group of Thais seemed to like Americans in general and the money they brought to the economy. Others resented our presence, pointing to the sharp increase in prostitution and drug and alcohol use in the community. Some didn't want us there for political reasons.
Dang and I would go to the Princess Bar, a local watering hole with a mix of Americans and locals. The bar had a pier that extended out into the Mekong River. At night, you could sit on the pier, have a Tsingtao, smoke a doobie, and watch planes bomb Pathet Lao positions in the mountains of Laos. It was quite the spectacular fireworks display if you didn't think about what was happening on the ground.
Did you ever see firsthand what was happening on the ground when the planes were bombing?
No, I was never under intense fire when I was on the ground. Once, during a medevac to Saigon, the base where I was staying the night came under mortar attack and we had to go to the bunkers. That scared me. In other situations when I was under fire—missions like air rescue, candlestick, litterbug—I was busy and didn't have much time to think about the risk. But just sitting there listening to the shells whistle in was hard.
In those moments, did you feel defenseless? Did you think at all?
I felt totally defenseless... and I pretty much was. The "bunkers" were basically big wooden boxes (above ground) with sandbags piled on top. They might protect you from shrapnel if the hit wasn't too close, but if a shell hit the box, your buddies and you were toast. As I recall, my thoughts were focused like a laser on the sound of the incoming shells, thinking: "Hit somewhere else, anywhere else, kill the other guy, not me." Not my finest hour.
What image overwhelmed you when you thought about your time in Thailand?
I remember dust. Once you left the Nakhon Phanom area, all you could see was jungle and dust. You'd think there wouldn't be much dust in a jungle, but it was incredibly thick and formed a haze 100 feet up. The pilots had beacons that would guide us to them.
Dust, ocher and omnipresent. It rained, the sun came out, and the dust floated into the air. They told us about scorpions—every morning we shook out our boots before inserting our feet—but nobody said shit about the dust. Guys showed up on sick call with ugly balls because of the goddam dust. We breathed it, spit it out, ate it, and slept in it. We didn't clean it. Granted, a lady came in and swept out the barracks occasionally, but they didn't pay her very much.
I remember looking through boxes when I was a kid and finding a lot of photos and medals. You have a couple purple hearts, right?
Yes, two. The second one was legit, but it's just a memory of a story. I don't remember anything from the base ops briefing before the flight until I woke up in a hospital bed in Clark Air Base in the Philippines. No doubt I was conscious during the medevac, but the memories didn't stick.
Our helicopter, the 43b "Pedro," carried a four-man crew: pilot, copilot, medic, and flight engineer. I never really knew what the flight engineer did, but I'm glad he was along on this trip.
A US pilot had parachuted into an open field. He was deceased. There was no indication of hostile activity and, standard operating procedure, we hovered about 100 feet over the body to make the recovery. I got hurt because I wasn't strapped in—I was getting the "horse collar" ready for descent. A couple of hostiles were hidden under the parachute and opened fire on the chopper. Apparently, the engine was hit. We lost power and auto-rotated to the ground.
There are two rotors on a Pedro—the better to blow fire away from a damaged aircraft. The rotors are beveled so that you can lose power at 300 feet and the force of air rushing through the rotors as you fall will create enough lift for the chopper to land safely. We weren't at 300 feet, so we landed hard. I had a fractured skull and greenstick fracture of my left tibia. The A-1s came in and drove away the hostiles, and we were picked up by another chopper. The flight engineer carried me on his back, under fire, to safety and got a bit of metal for his trouble. I don't even remember his name.
What about your first purple heart? That one wasn't legit?
I'm sure I've told you this story, but once we were flying out to a village to provide medical services (we did a lot of that) and got lost. The pilots were hovering about 25 feet over the canopy trying to figure out where we were when we heard a loud "ping" from the bottom of the chopper. Captain says: "Smith, take a look out the door and see what that is." Like a guppy, I did it. There was a kid in the treetop using a slingshot (bolo) to fling rocks at the chopper. Just as I stuck my head out, he let go of one and hit me right in the eye. Broke my glasses (they were made of glass!) and cut my eyelid. I still have the scar.
Hah! You got a purple heart for that?
Yes, I got a purple heart for that. Of course, it was all a big joke. After the paperwork was (unexpectedly) approved, we had a couple of beers and a couple of laughs, and didn't think much more about it. These days, they take those bits of metal a lot more seriously than we did then.
You said that one time in the bunker wasn't your finest hour. Did you have a finest hour?
I didn't have a "finest hour" in NKP—didn't really think of it that way. At the time, it felt like a yearlong hole in my life—away from everyone and everything that I loved. I missed family, friends, and especially culture. The late 1960s were a fun and exciting time to be a young American. The traditional culture and political order were being aggressively, sometimes violently challenged. Cities were on fire, revolution was in the air, and I was stuck in a boring dirty backwater jungle hamlet. I truly hated it. When I returned to the United States, however, I found that my experience had given me a coolness and street cred that I'd never had before.
Street cred in progressive circles for fighting in Vietnam? Was it considered "cool" to have fought in Vietnam?
I don't know that a civilized word like "progressive" was used very often back then. The counterculture thought of themselves as radicals, hippies, or freaks. I think that the first time that I became aware of my newly found street cred was during a conversation with a woman at the Fort Dix coffee house. We didn't know each other well, and she seemed to be a little bit in awe of me. I thought that was weird, and said so. She said something like, "You just don't see yourself—where you've been, what you've done—the way the rest of us see you."
I read about people spitting on soldiers or screaming at them, but that wasn't my experience. I didn't get a ticker-tape parade, but I didn't get any hate, either. People were interested in what I'd seen and what I'd learned. It probably helped that I was obviously on their side—joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War and stuff like that.
Do you remember any pain? When you first told me this story as a kid, you said you woke up in the hospital just as the nurse was pulling the catheter out of your penis. I remember you saying, "It felt like they were pulling a pineapple out of my dick, son."
It's always funny the things your kids remember.