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Without Reservation - A Vietnam Homecoming

Kate is the recipient of a shoebox full of letters from Vietnam. This short story is a fictionalized version of a soldier coming home.


Background to this Short Story

Background: This is a fictionalized story reflecting the feelings of one couple during the Vietnam War based loosely on my own experience. In reality, this short story reflects the feelings of only one person - me.

I would not be so presumptuous to assume I know one thing about war anymore. I thought I knew about war--during and after Viet Nam. I was hoping that that war had proven the futility of all wars. But there have been too many sacrifices too recently by too well of intentioned soldiers for me to make any more assumptions. Only those involved in the war in Iraq and Afghanistan can speak to that issue, not I.
My only purpose in writing is to try to explain my profound belief that because of my experience in the paradoxical position of being a protestor of the War in Vietnam and the wife of a soldier during that "conflict" is to share my conclusion. A conclusion that purports that it is important for each of us to examine the reasons why we participate in any organization, be it a church, an army, a corporation. We need to ask ourselves if we are letting ourselves be pawns of that belief system or whether those beliefs are based on our own full understanding and analysis of those beliefs. Are our beliefs merely an accident of fate? What would we believe if we had been born to another family, born into a different social stratum, born in another country? We have to force ourselves to examine what we would have believed without the influence of our parents, our families, our friends, the media. To get caught up in patriotism or religious fervor without being informed of our reasons and the logic of our choices makes us no less vulnerable than a young radical in any country who has been indoctrinated to believe that his vicious actions are on the side of good. We all want to feel as if we're on the side of good, but it's only when we truly examine what is good, that we can make decisions that are truly noble.

 Without Reservation by Katy MacAlpine

The first cassette tape was slow in coming, but Ellen cherished its arrival. It wasn't that the letters weren't nourishing or the calls on Sunday morning weren't longed for, it was just hard to hear his voice in the blue ink on the page or through the tinny "I love you...over.." on the transatlantic radio transmission. It was his voice that she had fallen in love with, and her hands trembled as she opened the air-mailed battered box that held the recorded connection to that part of him.

Ellen was glad now that she had purchased the expensive Sony recorder for last year's Applied Phonetics class. She placed the small reel on the left spool and then, as a priest would handle a Communion Host, threaded the tape through the tiny roller and onto the empty reel on the right. She pressed "Play".

"Hi, Ellie," he began, "How's my wonderful wife today?" He wove the word "wife" generously through all of his letters and phone calls so far, and it made her feel as if he relished the two weeks of married life they had together before he left, and that he cherished the role they now played in each other's lives.

"Well, here I am in Quang Tri, South Vietnam," he continued. The sentence was spoken on the breath of a deep sigh and "Quang Tri" was uttered slowly, emanating from the back of his throat as if he were trying to swallow a mouth full of liver or, perhaps, spit it out.

"I'm taping this in the control tower, Toots. Don't worry about the helicopters in the background. It's just a training mission." He continued to attempt to reassure her how safe he was at the air base.

"They assigned some of us Army guys to the airborne detachment. These guys have all been here forever and are really laid back. Did I write you about my first day? I don't think so. Anyway, the very first day I got here this deafening air raid siren goes off. I run like hell from my hooch to the ammo dump. Man, I grabbed everything I M-16...grenade launcher... a belt of grenades, the whole bit. The sirens are still blaring, right? So I run into the bunker and dive in. I'm totally out of breath, but I manage to look up. Everyone is already in the bunker! But guess what? They're all sitting on the ground in a circle--playing poker!

"How can you guys sit there like that," I ask. "Aren't you afraid?'

'Shit, man, the only thing we're afraid of is that you and that f***ing belt of grenades are going to go off."

Ellen laughed out loud as she listened alone in her bedroom.

"So you see, Hon, it's very safe here."

He continued the tape as he would continue all the tapes and letters that would follow in the months to come - with little talk of war, and mostly talk of love. He would tell her how much he ached for many days were left before they'd be together for R & R in Hawaii...what the rest of their life would be like when he came home. Ellen played the auditory and visual images over and over in her head until she memorized them all...the letters, the phone calls, the tapes. She memorized the Polaroid snapshot of him in his fatigue jacket, calf-deep in monsoon muck as he stood in front of his tin-roofed hooch surrounded by sandbags. There was the black and white photo of him in the makeshift van tweaking radios for the control tower. He looked so tall and handsome and she couldn't imagine she could love anyone more.

Like some cruel paradox, the words and images comforted her, and they nagged at her. They assured her that he seemed safe where he was assigned in Viet Nam; they nagged her because he was there at all.

From the day he announced, without warning, that he had enlisted, she was at her own personal war inside her head. They had met only six months before. For the first three of those months, they were busy with the falling part of falling in love...busy being amazed at how emotionally and spiritually in sync they seemed to be. For the next three months they were consumed with the being in love and the intimacy it brought with it. And because it was 1968 and because they were both so conscientiously Catholic, it was a tortured intimacy, an intimacy intensified by the Church's stance on abstinence before marriage. Up to now, all of Ellie's moral dilemmas were amazingly simple and solved inside the confessional.

"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. My last confession was a month ago. Father, I was impatient with...I was unkind to..."

"For your penance say three Our Fathers and three Hail Marys...

A month after meeting Jim, it seemed pointless to go to confession anymore. How could she speak of the passion that brought them to making love...almost. What would be the penance for allowing his wanted touch... for yearning for the sensations she had not allowed herself until they had met? How could she ask a priest which was more make love before they were married or to not make love before they were married?

And so they asked these questions of each other, and because they were the same questions, Ellen assumed she and Jim walked down all other decision-making roads together and at the same time. After he told her he had enlisted, she knew this wasn't true. His decision forced her to travel the road he chose because he loved him. It was one, however, that implied support for the war in Vietnam--a road she adamantly opposed.

It had happened that summer before she met Jim...the political awakening. She had time back then for it to happen. Her coursework at the U was done, she had her degree, and finally, after four years, she permitted herself to focus outward to the war and its implications.

God, how was I able to insulate myself from the world like this? she began asking herself in the months before her first job and before meeting Jim. Soldiers... civilians... thousands ... dying …and I was in the phonetics lab. Calley was shooting old men and women and children in a ditch in My Lai...and I was tracing tracheae and medulla oblongatas out of stupid Grey's Anatomy. Buddhist monks..setting themselves on fire in the streets...soldiers, coming home in body bags...and I went right on writing lesson plans...writing f***ng lesson plans.

By the end of the summer, Ellie was ready to join the protests, the draft card burnings, the marches. And then she met Jim.

For Jim, as well, there was no time to think about Viet Nam. There was Statics and Thermodynamics, FORTRAN..and most consuming for him, Ellie. When his grades began to slip, he went to the Dean of Engineering. Had it been the Philosophy Department, Jim's fate may have been different. With the announcement of the draft being reinstated in a few months, and no leeway from the dean, enlisting seemed, to Jim, the only option that might give him a chance at a good MOS...possibly in Germany. That's what the recruiter told him.

And so Vietnam swooped down upon them both like some fierce tornado they had been too busy to see forming in the Eastern sky. They were married in late December, two weeks before Jim had to leave, and they both hoped it was just the pressure of Viet Nam looming over them that caused their wedding night to be only an "almost consummated" wedding night. But they were in love; they had waited for the ultimate intimacy for all this time, and they could wait longer.

When Ellie drove Jim to the Armory where he would be "processed out," they were alone. She was alone on the drive back home as Peter, Paul and Mary, too coincidentally, sang John Denver's words..."I'm leaving on a jet plane...don't know when I'll be back again...oh, Babe I hate to go..." Jim was alone when he arrived several days later at Tan Se Nuet Air Force base in Da Nang. He was alone when the C130 picked him up to bring him north to Quang Tri, and when he would leave the war in Viet Nam a year later, he was alone.

But Viet Nam was never the only site of conflict during Jim and Ellie's time apart. There was the war raging inside Ellie's mind. It was a controlled, contained war, but escalating conflict. She spent a considerable amount of energy telling herself that Jim's choice was as brave as those draft resisters who gave up everything and fled to Canada because they perceived the war as immoral. It was that rationalization that surrounded the perimeter of the battle in her brain and kept the battle in check. She tried to remember the words Jim told her the night he announced that he had enlisted.

"Ellie, there are civilians being hung in the streets by the communist Viet Cong." Guys my age are over there dying to stop that. They don't have a college deferment. I can't let someone take my place."

All the while she was writing letters and making tapes, she tried to convince herself that he was right, that he wasn't lying to himself, that he didn't believe in some subconscious survival place inside his head that going to the war was easier than going to Canada...She tried to convince herself that perhaps a U.S. presence could stop a war long in progress rather than believe that the war was progressing because of that presence. Everything she had once believed seemed upside-down. Perhaps white was really black...perhaps black was really white...perhaps there never was white or black...only gray. Her love for Jim controlled her doubts and she directed her energy to try to make his life a bit more comfortable half a world away. And so she wrote more letters and sent peanut butter cookies. She wrote more letters and sent Phisohex. She wrote more letters and sent Dinty Moore beef stew. She never sent news clippings of the protests. She never told him she didn't tell strangers her husband was in Viet Nam. But then, in April, after the 6:00 news, there was no more gray for her. President Nixon announced the "incursion" into Cambodia. Everyone knew this translated to one thing...more bombing extended now to a new country. Even Walter Cronkite on the nightly news could not hide his frustration. Several weeks after the announcement, four students at KentState were shot and killed by National Guardsmen during protests there. The President, in referring to antiwar college students in general, used the word "bums". It was probably on hearing that word that Ellie's passivity became activism. It wouldn't be the activism of the students on the campus she had already left. It wouldn't be an activism that would dishonor her husband in Viet Nam, nor her father who served in World War II. It wouldn't be an activism that would hurt her father-in-law who had landed on the beaches of Normandy. It would be a quiet activism. The activism of her typewriter and clipboard were the most she could risk.

And so she began..quietly..simply..knocking on doors. "Hi my name is Ellen. I live down the block. As you are probably aware, President Nixon has, as of last week, ordered the bombing of Cambodia. I have petition here to send to Washington to protest this action. Would you care to sign?

She was surprised she was able to get as many signatures as she did. Mostly women answered the doors. She felt encouraged and energized. And then she came to the house with an older gentleman.

"Do you realize what you're doing, young lady?" he asked in outrage. "You have no respect for our men in Viet Nam. Do you even care about our troops? What are you some commie hippie? You don't look like a hippie. Don't you realize you're living in the best country in the world? Why, our soldiers in Viet Nam have more courage in their little finger than you have in your whole body. How dare you come to my door like this."

"Excuse me, sir, but I have a husband in the Army. He's serving in Quang Tri at the moment." She hoped he would soften at this and be shocked enough to listen.

He was take aback for only a second.

"Well then, Missy, you're doing a good job at trying to get him killed."

Ellie thanked him for his time and walked away, tears welling up in her eyes. When she got home there was a letter from Jim asking her to please stop sending any more information that the priest had given her about deserting.

"I know how you feel Toots, but if my C.O. read that, I could be in big trouble.a court martial.the whole bit."

She sent off the signatures to the White House telling herself that at least she did something. Besides things were changing. After Kent State, talk out of Washington shifted from bombing to early withdrawal of troops from Viet Nam. Ellie's guilt started to subside. She focused now on getting ready for their R & R in Hawaii. Finally, in October, Jim got his orders and flew east around the world to meet her as she flew west to meet him. They could have met in Clear Lake, Iowa or Timbuktu. all she wanted was him, and all he wanted was her. The right or wrong of the war, of Jim's enlistment, of his role in it and of her own should have been buried beneath the waves of kisses and caresses and pleasures... and it was....almost.

After Jim returned to Viet Nam and Ellie flew back home, their lives started to change rapidly. President Nixon indeed started issuing "early outs" and Jim arrived home exactly on their first wedding anniversary. Jim was assigned to Ft.Lewis, in Tacoma Washington and they started driving out west to Ft.Lewis in Tacoma, Washington, taking the long route out. It was a perfect time to get reacquainted...a perfect time, Ellie, thought for Jim to express some of the feelings she thought he must have about being in Viet Nam. He was the piece to the puzzle called "Meaning" that she was searching to solve, but aside from the story he told her about watching a helicopter's rotor fall off in mid air above the air base, he said little. His seemingly dispassionate telling of the tale disturbed Ellie, but her love for him allowed her to trust that his emotions ran deep.

They arrived in Washington without knowing where they'd be living. It surprised Ellie that it would be Jim and not her who was adamant about getting an apartment off base. After seeing FortLewisfor the first time, Ellie wouldn't have minded living there. The buildings were impeccably clean and white, and the order struck her as comfortable. It had the familiar feel of some World War II movie, maybe "From Here to Eternity", and romance of from the celluloid past was projected on to the scene before her. There were tanks and artillery out in plain view, but they all seemed unreal. She looked at them like a person with anorexia would look at food she didn't want to eat. They were objects, shiny decorations, something one would never make use of. She found herself thinking that living on this base could actually be fun. There would be other wives, finally women to talk to who had experienced the same loneliness and fear, perhaps even the same confusion she had felt the past year. Whatever she needed, she'd have to off base, and she did. The apartment they found was part of two little units of 5 buildings each that faced each other. Half of the renters worked at McChord Air Force Base, the other half at Ft.Lewis. There were kids and dogs and two people in love starting their first real year of married life together. Viet Nam seemed far away and long ago except for the times it seemed to hover around the nights when they made love…...almost.

Being in the Army now was much like going to a regular job, except for the times Jim was scheduled for guard duty or KP. Each day he took the car to the base and each day Ellie got a ride to her job from one of the speech clinicians who worked at the same school.

On the first day that Ellie had off since they arrived, Jim had to report for duty. Ellie looked forward to having the car to herself for errands and for checking out Tacoma. She woke up early to drive Jim to the hanger where he "tweaked" radios. She had only been on base that first day, and it was Jim who had been driving. There was a formality she wasn't familiar with as she approached the gates, and Jim told her she had to stop for the guard to wave her through.

"Why is he coming out of the guard house?" she asked Jim.

"I put the sticker on the right side instead of the left He can't see it. It pisses them off."

The guard walked to the window on the driver's side and motioned for Ellie to open it.

"Soldier," he shouted over to Jim, "your sticker belongs on the left side."

"Yes, sir," Jim shouted back somewhat mockingly, and the guard disgustingly waved them on.

The hanger was on the other side of the base, a good three-quarters of a mile away. As Ellie drove in that direction, she asked Jim why he had put the sticker on the right side.

"It's no big deal, Ellie. I just wanted to," Jim answered.

"Well, I just don't understand, Jim...I mean...." Ellie went on, knowing she was making it larger than it was and not knowing why. "What's the point, Jim? You could get in trouble, couldn't you? What would happen?" Suddenly all the feelings of her life being disrupted by a decision Jim was making surfaced to the front of her brain.

"What do you think would happen Ellie?" Jim's voice was deliberately course. She knew he was angry that she doubted his intentions.

"Well, I....

Jim interrupted her. "What the hell do you think they can do to me? Draft me? Send me to Viet Nam? For God sake, Ellie. I saw men falling out of a helicopter...out of a damn helicopter, Ellie. Twenty guys, guys like me. They were spilling to the ground.. they fell like rag dolls...and I saw it Ellie, I saw it." He was pounding the dashboard His speech was loud and angry and kept getting faster. Ellie pulled over. He didn't notice.

"What the hell are they going to do to me anymore...Are they going to send me to Viet Nam and have me drive a jeep to town so little boys......little ten year old boys (he was pounding the dashboard again) run up while I hear Henderson shout, 'Jim they're VC, shoot the bastards.' And for one split second...for a split second, Ellie, I almost did. Are they going to mess with my mind any more than that Ellie, tell me, are they, are they?"

Ellie couldn't bear to look at him. She held the steering wheel of the un-moving car with both hands, eyes straight ahead.

"Are they going to send me home again so when I land at the airport someone sees my uniform and spits on me?"

"Jim I didn't know.."

"You knew about the party when I got back. You knew all your activist friends were there, Ellie. You heard that girl call us baby killers...You heard her talking about the guys who went to Canada...the ones who were really brave...not like me Ellie...not like me... I wasn't brave enough to ask you to go with me to take you away from your family...I copped out...I didn't think I was coping out...I did the cowardly thing...I didn't think it was cowardly...I went to war...I went to the... Damn ...Ellie...I was part of it all...Damn! "His elbow rested on the arm rest in the door, his head was in his hand and he was sobbing.

Ellie hadn't noticed where she had parked. Two MP approached on Jim's side, ready to ask him to open the door. Ellie jumped out of the driver's side. slammed the door in a fury she didn't understand, and hurried to the passenger side. Suddenly the two MP's who were standing there symbolized everything she was angry at and she started shouting. She stood in front of Jim's door like some warrior goddess protecting the gates of the city.

"Don't you touch him...

"Ma''am...calm down...are you all right?"

"We're just leave us alone..."She was shaking her finger again and again at them, at the air..."You call Colonel Nelson right now and you tell him Corporal Keller won't be in today. Do you hear me? He's sick. You tell him that."

"Ma'am, are you sure everything's all right?"

"Just go. Please, just go." Ellie was holding back tears. "We're fine." She walked back to the driver's side, got into the car, turned it around and drove off the base. On her way out the gate, she opened the window and spit on the ground, just to do it.

Back at the apartment, she started to make some tea.

"Go lie down, Hon, I'll bring some in to you."

Ellie brought the tray into the bedroom. Jim was lying on his back, his arm across his eyes. She sat at the edge of the bed, took his arm away and kissed his eyelids. Slowly she moved onto the bed, caressing his face. Every word he said in the car was ringing in her brain, echoing in phrases across the synapses of her mind. She started to unbutton his khaki shirt as she moved to kneel on top of him. She looked into his eyes and she could see the little boy of him. She caressed his check and could see him as he watched the helicopter. She stroked his forehead. She could see the soldier jerk his head away from the spit. She could see him pounding the dashboard.

The caresses were long and giving...She let him surrender to her. The Tacoma rain drizzled outside their window and they made love for the first time...without reservation.