I’ve been following Ken Burn’s intense PBS series, The Vietnam War.
I’ve been live-tweeting it on Twitter with the audience across the country, with viewers sharing their own reactions to the compelling, horrifying, brutally honest history of that war. So many were not born until after the war. A shocking amount of people knew nothing about it until now, with this documentary series.
It wasn’t taught in school. It’s a blank space in the history books.
Because, you know. The US lost.
But it came alive to me, watching. It traumatized and decimated a generation. My generation.
When I wrote What You Don’t Know Now, I couldn’t ignore the war that was going on as Bridey turned 18. I based the following part of a chapter on a real-live Marine I’d met in Munich. We didn’t have this conversation I wrote. We never went to the Englisher Garten. He was on his way to Vietnam, though.
But I had to write about my own feelings about the war through Bridey, and the opposite reaction I ran into, meeting a different Lieutenant when I was in college in Washington, DC — at that point a hotbed of protest and division.
So here’s the except. Tell me what you think.
They found a table under a trio of enormous chestnut trees. The beer garden at the Chinesischer Turm was roaring with voices. People of every description sat at the green tables eating, and drinking from huge glass mugs of beer. The Chinese pagoda rose above them all, looking incongruous and beautiful in the setting of darkened trees. It was the biggest outdoor party Bridey had ever seen.
“I don’t suppose they serve soda here,” Bridey said to Brian. They were within sight of Father Clement and Papa Joe. It became apparent on their walk to the park that Father did not intend to play chaperone too seriously. He and Papa Joe walked together, ahead of them. Now they were sitting a few tables away, getting to know the people next to them, while Brian and Bridey sat beneath the trees.
“I think if you ordered a soda here, they might take serious offense.” Brian laughed. “You have to drink beer at a beer garden! The more beer, the better. It’s the only way to ingratiate yourself to the locals.”
“I can’t drink this!” Bridey protested when a mug the size of a pitcher was set in front of her.
“Fake it,” Brian said and clinked his mug against hers. “Here’s to the U.S.A.”
“Cheers.” She sipped the froth from her mug and licked her top lip.
“Your mom is pretty protective of you,” Brian said as he dug into his food.
Bridey broke a piece of the salted, doughy pretzel and nibbled at it. “It’s a drag,” she said. “I’m turning eighteen within days. She treats me like I’m a kid.”
Brian’s eyebrows knit together at this. He covered his mouth with his napkin, settling his expression into politeness. Bridey told him about the man in Ulm. When she got to the part about hitting him with her tote bag, the lieutenant nodded, chewing his noodles and sausage.
“It can happen here. Tourists, women alone, y’all are easy pickin’,” he said, swallowing. “But you have to be combat ready.”
“Combat? I hope I don’t have to fight my way through Europe.”
He smiled. “Are all you Yankee girls so tough?”
“When we have to be.”
He chewed another piece of sausage and leaned in toward her over the table. “Suppose I challenged you to a little hand-to-hand combat. What would you do with me?”
“That depends,” Bridey said. The way he looked at her, there was no mistaking his meaning. Her guard went up.
“On whether you’re a dirty fighter. If you are, I’d have to use all my girl tactics. You know – screaming, biting, scratching, kicking.”
His smile was superior. An amused, tolerant smile. Silly female, it said. “I can assure you, your tactics would be completely ineffective.”
“I’m trusting you’re a gentleman and I won’t have to find out.”
“Now, why would you think you’d want to fight me off? Who says it wouldn’t be fun? You might like it.” He winked and speared another piece of sausage.
Bridey popped another piece of pretzel into her mouth and checked to make sure Father and Papa Joe were within sprinting distance, just in case he wasn’t kidding.
“I apologize. When I saw you on the street, I was ‘about knocked out. You’re the prettiest thing I’ve seen since I left home. I couldn’t walk by you without giving it a shot and seeing if I could spend some time with you. I swear I would not hurt one freckle on that perfect nose of yours. I was just bragging on myself. It was stupid. Did I scare you?”
“No,” Bridey said. It didn’t sound convincing. The pretzel had gone down drily, probably because of the small nut of anxiety she felt as a lump in her throat. It made her voice hoarse. She took a small swig of her beer, hoping to wash the nut down. “I guess ‘action’ means something else to me.” She thought back to the few times she’d been alone with a boy in the front seat of cars, the interior heated with anticipation and expectation on one side, wariness on hers. There was no “action” to be had from her, but the boys she dated were decent enough to keep their disappointment and frustration to a minimum.
“I’m in the business of protecting our fair American ladies. If you can’t depend on being safe with a Marine, you can’t depend on anyone. That’s my job.”
“I know,” Bridey said. “It’s okay. You don’t have to keep apologizing.”
“Am I going on too much?”
“Kind of,” she hedged.
“You better take another sip of that foam,” he joked. “It’s gonna take you most of the night to get to the liquid part.”
Bridey picked up the stein with both hands and attempted to take a swallow of the beer. It fizzed around her nose and mouth, leaving a sudsy peak on her lip. Its bitter taste reminded her of her dad. He used to let her have a tiny sip of his beer when she was little, just a taste, because it always looked so good to her, bubbly and chilled. One taste was always enough. It wasn’t as delicious as it looked. Like a lot of things, she suspected. She took a big swallow and set the mug down with a clunk. The effort felt silly. “I can’t do it,” she said.
He reached over and tried to pat her upper lip dry with his napkin. “You look cuter than a kitten in a yarn basket with that mustache,” he said.
She dodged the napkin by wiping her lip with her finger. She was starting to feel too much like a kid with him, too inexperienced. “Where exactly are you going in Southeast Asia? Aren’t you scared?”
“I can’t say where,” he told her. “And why should I be scared?”
“They’re having a war over there. You know, with real bullets and bombs? Blood, guts, fire?”
“But isn’t that different from an embassy? What did you do there, help ladies out of limousines?”
His smiled faded. He wiped his mouth again and looked at her. “You have no idea what goes on at an embassy. Once in a while they have receptions and parties, but for the most part, a lot of sensitive work goes on every day.”
“My uncle works in embassies,” Bridey announced. “British embassies – he’s in Jordan now. He’s from England. So I do know a little about it.”
“Really.” The word was loaded with sarcasm and pointed like a barrel at her. “What’s he do there?”
“I don’t know,” Bridey said, dismissive. “Whatever they do. He doesn’t talk about it much.”
“I’ll bet he doesn’t,” said Brian.
She shifted in her seat, tugging her skirt to cover at least a few more centimeters of the backs of her thighs, which were stuck to the wooden bench, making her more uncomfortable. No one ever articulated what her Uncle Hugh did. They would only say ‘he works for the Foreign Office’ or ‘he’s with the embassy.’ She sensed that whatever he did, it was complicated and important. Just like her uncle himself. And even if she were to pluck up the courage to ask him – she knew he’d never really take her into his confidence.
Brian gave her a superior smile. “For my next tour of duty – I volunteered to go. I’ll be doing recon. I’ve asked to be sent there.”
“You volunteered?” Bridey said, incredulous. Every boy she knew at home was scared to death of going to Vietnam. Every single one. Most of them scrambled safely into college and a student deferment, but even then, you never knew. You could flunk out and once the draft got you, you were as good as dead. That’s how the kids she knew thought of it. If you didn’t die, you could end up like Peter Macchelli. He was two years older than Bridey. They dated for a semester when she was sixteen. He flunked out of his first year at Villanova and got drafted immediately. Before anyone knew it, he was gone to Vietnam and come back home already. But all he did now was drink and go to the racetrack. He never made sense anymore. He was drunk and angry and he looked too old to be barely twenty-one. He looked forty. He didn’t shave or wash his long hair. Nobody knew whether to be sorry for him or scared of him. Bridey was both. It was like the old Peter died in Vietnam and an alien took his place.
She didn’t tell Brian any of this.
“Damn right,” Brian said. He balled up his paper napkin and dropped it on his empty plate. “I want to get there before it’s over and help settle a score for my brother Marines.”
“I doubt you’d understand,” he said.
“I don’t understand,” Bridey agreed. “What’s Recon?”
“Reconnaissance. We go ahead, check out the VC before they know we’re coming. Take them out. Get them before they get us.”
“You talk about it like it’s a game.” She stared at his tanned, handsome face and clear eyes. Saw him in combat gear, his face smudged and camouflaged. In the movies it seemed sexy. But this wasn’t sexy.
“I guess, in a way, it is a game,” he said. He took a long swallow of his beer.
But you could die, Bridey thought. Is death real to you? Or did they cut a nerve so you can’t feel anything about it? How does it work? She wondered, but didn’t ask. If his thinking/death/fear nerve was dead, he wouldn’t have the answer she hoped for. Or wanted to hear. So she asked instead: “Do you have a girlfriend?”
“That’s what I call a change of subject.”
“I was just wondering.”
“Oh, yeah? Just wondering, huh?” A moth flittered on to his plate. He squashed it with a flick of his finger. One wing stuck upright as if in surrender. “Nobody recent. I dated girls in Austria. The last time I had somebody serious was back at Duke. I was about engaged.”
“About?” She felt sorry for the moth, just a powdery smudge on the plate and that one upright wing. He didn’t have to kill it. Live ones flickered like snowflakes in the glow of lights above.
“We were pinned, looking at rings. Except then I signed up with the Marines and she broke things off. Being a military wife was not on her program. She should have taken the fact that I was in ROTC for a hint. She wasn’t good at long-distance romance. I was pretty wrecked for a while. But I’m over it.” He reached across and picked up a remainder of her pretzel, holding it up for permission to take it. She nodded. After another drink of beer, he stifled a belch politely. “What about you?” Brian asked. “Got a sweetheart writing love letters while you do the Grand Tour?”
“No. No one.”
His brows lifted.
“I’m going to Georgetown in September. There’ll be plenty of fish to fry there.”
Brian smiled and shook his head slowly. “Oh, how you will fry those Hoyas, too! They’ll be lining up at the door. I pity the poor old boys.”
He leaned away from the table and stared off across the crowd. “You know, I’d actually like to get to know you better. Would you write to me? I may not be able to answer much, but it would be nice getting letters from you. Letters from home.”
“I wouldn’t know what to write,” Bridey said. “Basketball games and parties? All the while knowing you’re in a jungle somewhere, shooting somebody?”
“Those ‘somebodies’ are communists, and if they ever made it to your dorm, they’d have no problem doing slow, horrible, excruciatingly painful things.”
“They’re not going to invade Georgetown University. They’re fighting in their own country, against the army of a world power from the other side of the earth.”
“Spoken like a true leftist embryo! You’ve got no idea about what’s really going on over there.”
“Maybe I don’t,” she said. “But neither do people back home. Nobody can figure out what we’re doing there, taking so many boys away to die. And it isn’t just people at home — we saw graffiti all over Belgium and Germany. They don’t like the United States for what we’re doing.”
“That graffiti you saw? It’s all connected. There are subversives working in the interest of communist, genocidal regimes. Just like they’re working in the U.S. with all the mobs and firing up stupid college kids. Then they come over here – the hippies – and spray paint their propaganda. We have to fight it, wherever it arises.”
“Gee,” Bridey said. “I feel like waving a flag.” In the following summer, there would be blood on Chicago’s streets. In three more springs, there would be gunfire on an American campus and students would die at the hands of the military. But on this summer evening, Bridey felt safe enough to be sarcastic.
“Listen. You’re right about one thing. Nobody’s going to invade your dorm unless it’s a panty raid. Nobody’s going to keep you from strolling around campus, safe and sound in your miniskirt. And you know why? Because guys like me will be in a jungle getting our fucking asses shot off, making sure you’ll never have to worry. Pardon my French!”
She picked grains of salt from her plate and said nothing. She got into arguments like this at home, with her dad.
Brian Greene stared up into the trees for a moment and then blew out a long breath. “Again, I apologize. You got me going. It’s just hard, you know?” he said.
She gave a conciliatory shrug. “Getting into a political argument wasn’t what I thought about when I saw you, either.”
“We keep heading in the wrong direction, don’t we?” he said. “Look, if I gave you an address, would you write me once in a while? Even if it’s only about parties and basketball.”
“I might not be a good correspondent.” Bridey braced her hands against the edge of the painted table, shoving off from this rocky shore. “I should leave,” she said. “I’m really tired. All the sight-seeing.”
“Sure,” he said. “I’ll walk you back to the hotel.”
“No — you don’t have to. I think I’ll join Father over there. They’re going back to my hotel anyway, and… I’m sorry.”
“Hey, I didn’t mean to offend you or scare you. Or whatever is wrong.”
Bridey stood, tugging the skirt down to keep an illusion of modesty. “I …” She held out her hand. “I wish you luck. No, luck isn’t enough. Keep safe. Be careful. Crawling through the jungle and all.”
“It’s okay,” he said. He stood next to Bridey. They made a great looking couple, almost like an ad out of an American magazine. “I know what you mean. Sure I can’t walk you home?”
“Bridey, I’m not saying goodbye,” he said. “Even if you won’t write, I plan to look you up when I get back. Georgetown, right? Wait and see.”