Sunday, May 8, 2016

Vietnam Vet Treated Right

This is the only true story of mine I ever fictionalized - changed the names and embellished the mother's character and a little more, but mostly it is how it happened. I was fortunate to live in Maine for awhile, where we all respected Vietnam Vets:

From Magic City Morning Star
Jungle Dirt
By David Robert Crews
Sep 2, 2005 - 10:42:00 PM

In 1969, Jerry was a nineteen-year-old kid working as a bear hunting guide at his Uncle Dan’s and Aunt Cathy’s lodge in Maine. In July of that year, a twenty-one-year-old guy named Sam and his millionaire stepfather came up to the lodge, from Florida, for a one-week black bear hunt.

The stepfather had called the lodge on the phone to set up the hunt on Friday evening, only three days before he wanted the hunt to begin. He had talked to Cathy and said, “I’m sorry it’s such short notice darlin’, but what ever it takes I’m willing to pay. Anything you want, darlin’, anything you want. I’ve got me a million-dollar concern down here. Just book me and my stepson for next week. I’ll take care of ya.’”

When she informed Dan and Jerry that she had just booked two more hunters for the next week, Cathy clowningly grinned with faux pride and added, “Oh, they're from Florida, one is a millionaire and the other is his stepson. Be ready to roll out the red carpet.”

In 1969, millionaires were kinda rare, but Cathy was just kidding, because all of the lodge’s guests got the same great treatment.

Jerry was standing in the lodge’s dining room on Sunday afternoon, talking to a few of the lodge’s guest’s who had just arrived for their week long bear hunt, when he looked out the windows at a car that was pulling into the driveway. He saw that it was a big, long, dark blue, fairly new Cadillac with Florida tags on it and two men in. One man was obviously much older than the other.

“Hey Cathy,” Jerry called into the kitchen, “this looks like your millionaire comin’ in.”

As soon as they walked into the lodge, the older man immediately introduced himself and the younger man all round to the lodge staff and other paying hunters who were there in the lodge’s dining room. They were indeed the millionaire and his stepson, Sam.

Then, Sam stood there quietly and uncomfortably looking down at the floor and then back out the door as his stepfather bombastically announced, “Everyone, I don’t care if I get a bear or not, this hunt is for my stepson Sam here, he just got back from Vietnam and was discharged from the army on Friday morning.”

Jerry took one look at Sam, and felt horrified for the guy. The young guide knew that there was no way that a bear hunt could offer the kind of rest and recreation that a guy needed who had just, two and a half days before, returned from a year of hard, bloody, muddy fighting in the Vietnam War.

Jerry thought, “That man’s a millionaire! What a jerk! He should be paying for that guy to be in a luxury hotel room in Miami with two high priced call girls, cases of booze and all the great room service meals he can eat!”

Sam sat down at the long, heavy wooden table that ran the length of the dining room. The stepfather walked to the far side of the dining room and began talking to some of the other hunters who were over there relaxing and conversing. Jerry sat down across from Sam and carefully engaged him in conversation.

Jerry had a natural ability to make guests feel welcome at the lodge and to show them a good time in Maine. He loved people and what they could share with him about their lives. He was deeply concerned, though, about Sam’s ability to have a good time there. He knew that Sam had earned and deserved a good, relaxing rest, but he felt that six days in a tree stand stalking bears wouldn’t give the guy what he needed at that point in his life.

Jerry looked at Sam with deep respect, admiration and wonder because of Sam’s ability to make it through the mud and blood of Vietnam without a scratch. Two of Jerry’s high school buddies had been killed in Vietnam, and the nightly TV news reports of body counts and filmed scenes of tired, frustrated warriors had sickened him to the point that he wouldn't watch the news anymore. Also, like many other nineteen-year-old American lads at that time, he was expecting to receive his military draft notice any day. Consequently, Sam was especially impressive to him.

As Jerry sat there across from Sam, he noticed a lot about the young warrior.

Sam had the perfect physique for survival in a jungle war. He looked like someone had put a vacuum cleaner hose to the bottom of his foot and sucked out all of the excess fat and muscle from his body. He appeared to be drained of everything except what he needed to act lightning quick, on a deadly level, without any wasted effort. He was more in control of himself than a bobcat. He never made the slightest movement unless it was absolutely necessary.

The pure survival mode that he was still locked into was far too intense to have ended at the completion of his tour of duty in Nam.

Sam sat at the table, very quietly, with his hands folded, his face tilted over his hands, and his eyelids covering the top third of his eyes. He found it impossible to look at anyone longer than it took to answer or ask a short question. Jerry and some of the other folks in the dining room were saying friendly things to him, but none of that could make him feel welcome there. And he seemed to have lost his ability to smile.

For months he had been shutting new acquaintances out of his life due to the hard, cold fact that too many ‘F-ing New Guys’ that he’d met in the previous months had died soon after landing in Nam.

Suddenly, Sam’s entire body grew taught, and he came part way up off of his chair. He pulled his hands apart, palms down, fingers straight and vibrating like a tuning fork, the way that they did after discovering a trip wire to an enemy booby trap. He stared at his finger nails with wide, well focused eyes.

“I’ve still got dirt from the jungle under my nails,” he said, in a low tone, using tightly strung vocal chords.

He looked up and around the room with a terrified appearance on his face and frantically, almost pleaded, “Who can lend me a pair of nail clippers? Who can lend me a pair of nail clippers?”

Cathy was in the kitchen, and when she heard his strange tone of voice she came to the doorway of the dining room. She stood there looking at him for a second; it was obvious by her mannerisms and the serious, sincere look on her face that she understood what he had experienced in Nam.

Cathy fetched him a pair of nail clippers real quick.

As Sam cleaned his fingernails, one of the hunters, who was Jerry’s age, sat down next to Sam, facing sideways on the chair towards the quiet warrior and leaning intrusively into his personal space like a trusted confidant.

That hunter idiotically asked, “How many of them did you kill?”

Everyone there knew that he was inquiring about Sam’s personal body count of communist soldiers whom the war weary young man had dispatched to the great beyond, because the bear hunting hadn’t begun yet.

Sam automatically wrenched his body and, wincing, turned his face away from the idiotic inquiry; overpowering, painful, traumatic memories engulfed the poor guy like a personal-sized flash flood. He froze up still and quiet, like when it wasn’t prudent to start firing at the VC soldiers moving through the jungle night just a few feet away from his listening post.

Jerry was stunned by the appalling idiocy of that hunter who was military draft material, too. The young guide felt a sickening whirlwind of concern, as he searched his entire insides for the words to rescue Sam from his anguish. But he didn’t have enough worldly experience to know what to say.

Other people sitting or standing around the table were in a state of shock, and they were also quietly thinking fast for a way to help Sam.

Fortunately, Dan, who had been awarded a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart for kickin’ commie ass in the Korea War, was standing behind Jerry. Dan jumped in with, “It’s usually nighttime when you’re fightin’ and ya don’t see who you hit. And with the modern automatic weapons you just throw out a field of fire, so nobody knows who killed who.”

From around the table, other quietly appalled individuals agreed with what Dan said. Then they took the conversation in a different direction, away from the rigid, silent young man’s recent war trauma.

Meanwhile, the stepfather was busy proving to everyone that he was a big shot.

The stepfather was short, round, bald on top and kept a big fat cigar in his mouth. He wore a white business suit and a dark tie, the kind of outfit that’s tailored from lightweight material and made for wearing in southern summer heat when lots of perspiration flows. He talked with a slightly southern accent in a deep, abrasive voice. The character Boss Hog on the TV show Dukes of Hazard was a spittin’ image of the stepfather.

The stepfather was into big business, and he made sure that everybody knew it. There was only one phone at the lodge, and there was no privacy when using it. Ole Boss Hog loved it that way, because he could make several phone calls a day loudly and intrusively discussing his business deals. After every call he’d strut ‘round the lodge bragging about his business.

After two days of that, Dan laid down the law and told him, “These other hunters came up here to forget about their business for a week, we don’t wanta hear about yours. No more phone calls.”

The stepfather had bought Sam the hunting trip, ostensibly, as a welcome home present. Jerry and most of the other folks working or staying at the lodge, though, thought that the stepfather’s intent was to impress Sam’s mother and to travel around showing off his son the war hero. Sam was a hero, he had kept a lot of his friends alive in Nam, but his stepfather had never really been any kind of a father to him.

Sam couldn’t stand his abrasive stepfather. The man was his mother’s third husband and, like her second husband, he was supporting his businesses using the money that Sam’s father had left to his family when he died.

Sam went along on the hunt to please his mother. He didn’t want to go, but he was just too tired and worn down from outwitting death to care about anything but being back home alive. Sam was a good son to his mother, and she loved him as best she could. She had hoped that this hunting trip would encourage a father and son relationship to develop between the two of them.

Problem was, Mom tested high on the social register but low on common sense.

On Monday, the first day of the hunt, Dan and Jerry had Sam ride along with them, in the lodge’s pickup truck, out to a dirt logging road where their string of bear baits with the most recent signs of bear activity on them was located; a carload of other hunters followed behind them into the vast Maine wilderness. They were going after timid, smart, and beautiful, wild black bears.

It was about three o’clock in the afternoon. Dan drove and Jerry jumped out at every bear bait to take a hunter into the woods and show him his tree stand and give him some tips on how to hunt that particular bait.

They had put Sam on the first bait. The last hunter on that string of baits was to drive the car back out after dark, pick up the others hunters, that he had dropped off along the way, and meet the guides who would be waiting in the lodge’s pickup truck near the first bait. Dan told them that they were doing it that way so that the guides could know as soon as possible if any of those hunters had shot at a bear and it needed to be tracked and retrieved.

What Dan said was true, but he had put Sam on the first bait so that the guides could pick him up first. That way they could spend more time with him.

The Combat Veteran Dan knew that Sam needed to spend time with a few understanding buddies, not out in the woods alone waiting to kill a bear. Dan also knew that when nighttime fell it would probably make Sam feel like he had felt the previous Monday evening, when Mr.Charlie Cong was out there in the jungle waiting for it to get good and dark before attacking Sam and his friends.

After deploying all those hunters, Jerry and Dan talked a little about their day as they drove on back out the logging road. It was less than a half-hour since they had dropped Sam off, but there he was sitting comfortably in the grass at the side of the road.

Jerry thought, “Damn right, good man, ain’t no sense you bein’ out here on a bear hunt after huntin’ heavily armed Vietcong Guerrillas for a friggin’ year!”

Neither Dan nor Jerry said a word. Dan stopped the truck, and Jerry got out to let Sam into the front seat between them.

“Your rifle unloaded?” Jerry asked his new buddy.

Sam tilted his head side ways, with a questioning look on his face, and asked,  “Aren’t you going to go in and get the bear?”

Jerry and Dan looked at each other in amazement.

In their heads, they instantly deducted the five minutes or so it had to have taken Sam to climb down from his tree stand and walk out of the woods from the twenty-five or so minutes since Sam had been showed his tree stand and realized that for the first time in the history of the lodge a six-day bear hunt had ended in just fifteen or twenty minutes!

Over the years, a very small percentage of the lodge’s hunters had killed a bear on their first day out, but usually not until late in the evening when it is peak hunting time. Hunters went out to their baits in the early afternoon, so that they could settle into their tree stands before the bears started their evening grocery shopping. Not only that, some people went on bear hunting trips to the lodge two or three different times before they even saw a bear. Of those who saw one, only a third were sharp and fast enough to shoot one, and no more than another third of them did everything right and killed their bear.

The bear that Sam killed was probably coming into the bait that early to avoid a larger bruin, which most likely had previously chased the smaller bear away from that bait. Like all wild bears, it had also been on the lookout for its only predator, man. It was very carefully doing its best to ease in to the bait unnoticed, by man or beast, while looking, listening and sniffing for danger. It wasn’t just casually strollin’ in for a snack.

Sam had skillfully tuned into his surroundings as soon as he had climbed into his tree stand, and the wind was right for dispersing his natural odor away from the direction that the bear came from. The bear had walked into the bait from directly behind Sam. It is almost impossible for a human to catch sight of a bear that’s easing in from behind them, and wild black bears usually sha-boogie on outta sight when they see any movement that is out of sync with the natural flow of their surroundings. But, that bear had mistakenly walked up directly behind a hyper alert, superb jungle fighter.

Quicker than the bear could blink an eye, Sam had swung his rifle all the way around 180 degrees and killed it. That was a thrilling fact to the professional hunting guides. They had neither known nor ever heard of any hunter being fast enough on the draw to do that.

No doubt some well trained, battle-hardened Vietnamese Communist Soldier had met the same fate as that bear had during the previous week. Sam shot the bear dead so fast that it didn’t have time to react. One shot to knock it down, and two more for a sure, quick kill.

After they had retrieved Sam’s bear and were driving to the closest country store for a round of sodas and snacks, Jerry looked at Sam and thought to himself, “If God has ever taken a direct hand in a bear hunt, he did it for this guy.”

It seemed right to Jerry, even when he considered the bear’s loss.

Sam’s stepfather was loud and self servingly proud about Sam’s successful bear hunt. Most of the folks at the lodge, though, were genuinely relieved to see Sam’s hunt end so mercifully fast.

Unfortunately, Sam's mother’s hopes that this trip would create a bond between her son and her third husband were in vain. For the rest of that week, Sam didn’t pay much attention to his stepfather.

Those folks at the lodge who understood the Vietnam Veteran’s needs made sure that he had a good, peaceful time for the rest of that week. They showed Sam the best of backwoods hospitality. The women working in the lodge treated him like a visiting cousin who could never wear out his welcome. The guides and some of the paying hunters took Sam along with them on rides throughout the picturesque Maine countryside. Their new buddy began to regain his ability to smile again, and he gave them his slight, easy smile often enough during those last five days that they knew his trip to Maine wasn’t a waste of his time.

Sam was finally getting the rest and relaxation that he so richly deserved.

Ten years later, when Jerry told this story to some new hunters at Dan and Cathy’s lodge, Dan added, “That was the only time that one of our hunters ever got a 180.”

Copyright © 2005, David Robert Crews. All rights reserved.

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