I was up and about early this morning. Drove down to Walmart for an oil change on my minivan. After I had signed up for service and turned over my keys, I walked out the back service door, not wanting to walk around the store in 7AM air-conditioning. So I went out and parked myself on the bench outside.
Sitting there was a guy about my age, wearing an Arizona Diamondbacks baseball hat and wearing dirty jeans and a camouflage army shirt; not the desert cammies that our boys wear today but the old jungle fatigue shirt we wore in Vietnam. The guy was smoking an unfiltered Camel cigarette, allowing it to rest on his lower lip, the smoke billowing up into eyes still crusted from sleep, cigarette ash dropping in flakes onto his brownish gray beard.
He ventured a few glances my way, then asked if I could spare a dollar. I took out my wallet and fished out a buck and handed it to him. He didn't offer any thanks, just nonchalantly assumed the dollar was somehow his due. Somehow his apparent homelessness was "dues paid" for anyone willing to offer him money.
I've seen more than one homeless guy donning old military garb to elicit sympathy and a greater payout from stiffs willing to donate. So, still a little irritated that he hadn't thanked me for the dollar, I ask him where he was stationed in Vietnam. "Chu Lai and Khe Sanh" he said and told me enough about it to convince me that he had been there, done that.
We then shared some experiences in common, Bier 33 and jungle heat and how we felt when we first arrived in country. That kind of set him off and all of a sudden he wasn't talking to me anymore. He was looking out on the parking lot where cars were waiting to be serviced...but he wasn't really looking at them anymore either. Instead, he had that "thousand mile stare" that I've seen in some Vietnam vets before.
And he started jabbering. A bit ill at ease, I may have slid a couple of inches farther down the bench away from him. I was ready to write him off as just another one of those drugged out old vets who never really "came home" and, thus, have never found a home.
He kept saying "god-damn it, they never lets us forget!"..."never let us forget". "Forget what?", I said. For the first time he turned and really looked at me. What I saw in his eyes was someone lost and frightened, then he said it again. "They never let us forget!".
He turned away and lit another Camel and resumed that "thousand mile stare". He then said "they never told us!"..."they never told us!". I looked at him curiously and he turned to me again and said "They never told us what war really is!" "They never told us that the war never goes away...and they never told us, god-damn it, that those faces come back to you in your dreams, and the older you get the more often the dreams come...the more often those young faces of people you killed come back to haunt you in your old age."
"It never matters where I'm sleeping..whether I've got a bed for the night, or a park bench, those god-damn faces come back and haunt me in my dreams...I can hear them moving through the brush, and all of a sudden I wake up at I'm at "port arms" and I'm killing them all over again!". "Aint' nobody gonna whisper "sweet dreams" to me cause there ain't no sweet dreams anymore!" He then dropped his head and a few tears fell into his lap and he fell into silence.
I sat there and looked away and felt like an intruder. I looked down at my arms and saw chill bumps moving up and down my arms. I couldn't look at him again, nor did he turn to me again. Instead, he hiked his feet upon the bench and laid down, a small bag pillowing his head. He closed his eyes...intent on some early morning sleep, I guess.
I rose from the bench and stumbled into the store and retrieved my keys and walked out to my car. Before I drove away I looked back at the old fella on the bench. He was still lying there, eyes closed, but with lids dancing as he played out another of those nightmare dreams.
As I drove home I thought about what he had said. He's right of course. The politicians sent us to war. The military turned us into fighting machines. But they don't tell you how to deal with the aftermath, with the dreams that haunt, the nightmares that return in spades at an age when all one longs for is peace. They never told him that the ghosts of those he killed, the ones with faces as youthful as his own, will come back for an encore just when you're trying your damnedest to forget.
A dollar for his thoughts...and I got far more than I bargained for.