I was at the barber’s the other day. The barber shop, located in a strip shopping center near my office, is part of a national chain. The barbers don’t seem to stay around long. They always do a credible job, although I’ve only had the same hair cutter on one or two occasions. This time, my hair cutter was an older man of Vietnamese heritage.
After inquiring how I wanted my hair cut, he asked if I had been in the armed services. I told him that I had.
“Navy or Air Force?”
“No, I was in the Army.”
He asked if I served in Vietnam and smiled when I told him I had.
“What did you do there?”
Tiny hairs on back of my neck abruptly rose at his question. The last time I was in a barber’s chair with a Vietnamese barber was on the Army base in Bien Hoa, South Vietnam. Even though I knew the man was friendly, I had a difficult time not reacting when he shaved me with a straight razor. After all, the Vietnamese were our enemy, and I couldn’t help but fret that the man so close to my jugular vein with a straight razor might be a barber by day and Viet Cong by night.
“Infantry,” I answered.
“Oh, what weapon did you carry?”
“M60 machinegun,” I said.
“Then you weren’t an officer.”
“No, a private.”
“When were you there?” he asked.
I had to think a minute before answering, “Parts of 1970 and 1971.”
“I was an officer from 1971 to 1975,” he said, still not offering if it was for the North or the South. “Where were you in Vietnam?”
“We operated in triple canopy jungle off of Firebase Betty, not far from the Cambodian border. At least during the six months or so I spent as a grunt patrolling the Jolly Trail System. Later, I got a job as a company clerk on Firebase Buttons, near Song Be. Did you lose friends or family in the war?”
“My family survived. I lost a few close friends. I was drafted into the Army after two years of college. Following the war, I was imprisoned for three years. When I got out, I escaped the country on a boat. The journey took fourteen days and there were many of us on board.”
“I’m glad you made it,” I said. “Sounds like you should write a book.”
“A book, yes,” he said, smiling, his accent making his words hard to understand. “America lost many men—58,000.”
“Vietnam lost 1,500,000 people,” I said.
“Yes, from both the North and South.”
The half-grin on his face looked contrived, almost as if he were trying to keep from crying.
“No one even remembers the war anymore,” I added. “It was a senseless conflict. I didn’t believe in it, even then, and that’s why I refused to be an officer.”
“I hate war,” he said. “I worry about our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
After dusting loose hair off my shoulders, he led me to the cash register, nodding when I said, “Nice talking to you.”
As I walked out the door, I realized we’d never exchanged names.
I was shaking when I reached my car. More than forty years have passed since boarding a jet plane leaving Vietnam. I’d almost forgotten. Funny how old memories come flooding back when you least expect them.
The story above really happened. Some of my Vietnam stories were fictionalized in my novel A Gathering of Diamonds. Tom Logan, a Vietnam vet suffering from PTSD, battles his demons as he participates in an epic adventure and the romance of his life, high in the Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas.