I nicknamed him Jamie after my favorite hero in one of my favorite novels, Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. Like my fictional heart-throb, he was Scots, tall, big-boned, and once auburn-haired in his youth. And he was a warrior.
As did so many men of my generation, he fought in Vietnam. He joined the Army at 18, newly married with a baby on the way. It was 1958. Few Americans had heard of Vietnam, much less knew where it was or what was going on there. Jamie entered through the backdoor of secret missions in Laos and Cambodia. By the age of 20, he had become the youngest non-commissioned officer in the Army. That earned him a dinner at the White House and the handshake of a grateful President Kennedy. It also earned him a return ticket to Vietnam, where American “advisors” were soon to be revealed as American military and intelligence forces. Jamie was both.
He served four tours in Southeast Asia, rising through the ranks to become a Captain. He was a Major on and off but kept getting demoted because of “conduct unbecoming an officer.” He was a bad boy who followed his own rules, often to the dismay and displeasure of his commanding officers. But, he was also given wide latitude by those same officers. I discovered the source of his rebellious behavior one hot summer night.
One of Jamie’s homes is in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains, nestled close to apple orchards and historic landmarks. It sits on a large acreage. The house faces a country road, in a bowl created by a gently sloping rise of land surrounding the house on three sides. At some distance from the back of the house, the Olympic-sized pool sits at the foot of the hill, below a ridge of tall pines. It is completely isolated, with its own cabana and fireplace.
Jamie drinks a lot. It is generous to say he is a heavy drinker. By most definitions, he is an alcoholic. Highly functioning, but an alcoholic nonetheless. His favorite summer evening activity is to crank up the pool’s heater to 90º, start a fire in the fireplace, place a pitcher of Magic Drinks (Manhattans) by the pool’s edge and stay in the pool for hours, hurling battle cries at the moon.
Fourth of July 2005. We met at his house just as dusk was creeping over the ridge. A long day apart. I was just happy to be with him. The temperatures were still high enough even with the approach of night to make me grateful for the pool. It had been a busy day so my aching muscles did not mind the water that was almost too hot for the balmy evening. We headed down the lawn, glasses and a pitcher of Magic Drinks in hand. Jamie lit the fire while I fetched beach towels from the cabana. Our icy drinks on the edge of the pool, terry robes in a heap by the pool’s step, fire shooting sparks into the darkening sky, the warm water beckoned.
Bliss. The air was warm, the water hot, the drinks cold and strong. We swam laps for a few minutes, kissing as our paths crossed, nuzzling between sips of Magic Drinks in the shallow end. Perfect. Or almost perfect. Perfection arrived around 9:00 with the start of the fireworks at the Empire State Plaza. We could see the really large fireworks displays as they shot high into the sky over Albany. Just above the pine-covered ridge, red, blue, white, purple and gold burst into dazzling light.
“Look, oh, look!” I pointed excitedly to the bright colors competing with the starlight against the black velvet sky.
Jamie smiled, amused by my childlike display of joy at the simple pleasures of fireworks on the Fourth of July. He pulled me to him, wrapped my arms around his neck and began towing me back and forth across the pool. We both had drinks in our hands, the whiskey and vermouth lending a nice buzz to our relaxed meanderings. A boom from the fireworks startled us both. His hand shook, the ice cubes rattled against the glass and the brown liquid spilled into the chlorinated water, swirling for a moment then disappearing. His other hand pressed more tightly against my wrists, clasped at the base of his throat.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah, the noise surprised me. It’s usually so quiet here at night.”
“It’s the fireworks, sometimes there’s a boom if it’s a big one.”
“Yeah, I know….”
But he jumped again at the next cannon-like sound. Then he began to talk. His voice had changed. It was a bit higher, a bit softer. It was somehow disembodied from the man I clung to.
“Sometimes at night, the shelling would come out of nowhere. You were supposed to know, but communications were sketchy and sometimes things just happened. The sky was so dark at night there, the stars were so bright, when it wasn’t raining. When a fire fight started, the sky lit up. But it was always the sound that bothered me.” He jerked at each blast.
He had not spoken to me in any detail about Vietnam in the nine months we had been seeing each other. He had told me soldier tales of Okinawa and China, Key West and Utah, but not about Vietnam. I knew about Air America money drops, missile silos, nuclear launch codes and fast motorcycles, duplicitous women and hard-drinking, risk-taking men. But, I did not know about the endless nights there. He never called it Vietnam, he never referred to it as being “in country,” it was just there.
Now, he could not stop talking about Vietnam. He held onto my hands, striding back and forth through the shallow end of the pool, with me floating behind him like Superman’s cape, while the firework’s booms punched holes in him like his own personal Kryptonite.
“The worst was when we were deep in the jungles. The paths were just muddy slices of dirt through all the undergrowth. Single file was the only way to go. I went near the end with my radioman. You know how young some of the guys were, they were as young as I was when I joined but they had been drafted. They were babies. Some of them were not soldiers, would never be soldiers, would never be able to fight, would never be able to kill. They were jumpy and nervous and made mistakes, dangerous mistakes. Some of them had been into drugs before and some got into drugs there. Some guys were high or strung-out all the time. They were useless to the unit. There was only one thing they were good for.”
He stopped by the side of the pool and poured another drink, his third or fourth. I could see his face in the firelight, it was drawn and tight around his mouth, his eyes were vacant, focused on that distant land.
“I put them in front of the line. I put the junkies there. The land mines were buried, they were placed so you could never see them, never see the trip lines, not even the really experienced guys found them all the time. Someone was going to step on one, it was inevitable, it was a crap shoot. So I used the most expendable. I used them up. I let them die to save the ones who had a chance, the ones who would fight and maybe survive.”
“At night, when we dug in, we laid out the perimeter of the camp. Someone had to take night duty in a fox hole on the outer perimeter. Then some were stationed nearer to camp. I put the expendable ones out on the perimeter. I staked them out like goats. I knew the Cong might get them but there could be some small noise that the better guys, closer in, might hear, might get a shot at the enemy and keep them away from the rest of the men. They died in those foxholes, with their throats cut or their bellies emptied out on the ground around them. I’d find them in the morning. I’d find them with their eyes open. I’d find the men I let die.”
What does a woman say to the man who tells those stories? It’s okay. You did what you had to do, you saved lives. It was a horrible time in hell and you survived as best you could. How do you take away those memories, those nightmares? Alcohol? Sex? Cuddling and coddling?
He didn’t remember in the morning. And I didn’t mention his confession. Not until some time later, while we were arguing about loving each other, when he said “You can’t love me. You don’t know what I am.”
“Yes, I do.”
“You don’t know what I’ve done.”
“I know some of it.”
“I’m no better than an assassin.”
“I know about that.”
“How do you know?”
“You told me, during the fireworks, you told me about the men in the foxholes, the men at the front of the line.”
“I TOLD you?”
“Yes.” I laughed a humorless laugh. “I hope you didn’t drink as much then, Jamie, because if you did, you probably spilled most of our national security secrets to the Chinese. Your mouth just runs when you’ve been drinking.”
It brought him up short. That someone knew his demons and could still speak to him of love.
“How can you love me?”
“Did you kill anyone for personal reasons? For personal gain? Did you enjoy it?”
“No”, was his tortured response.
“Then how can I not love you? You stayed alive and kept your men alive. It was all you could do.”
Now, the Agent Orange that was supposed to help save him there is killing him here. His cancer was caused by that chemical and, because of it, traditional treatments will not work. He lives on borrowed time, drinking even more heavily than before, this brave warrior of so many battles, terrified of the moment he must once again face the empty eyes of the men he killed.