Saturday, September 10, 2011

And When I Die

War is a game I played when I was young. I didn’t know at the time, it was a reality that would steal my youth.

I was twenty three when I went to war. I didn’t get much time off during my stay at Fort Polk, learning how to kill, maybe two weekends. One of them I spent in Chalmette, visiting then wife Gail and her parents. I traveled there on the bus and the trip was memorable, not in what I saw, but in what I felt.

Leesville is the Louisiana town just outside of Fort Polk and one word describes it—seedy. The Leesville bus station fit the bill. I can’t remember how I got there, though I probably hitchhiked from the base. The lobby reeked with the vague odor of despair, the station empty except for the lady that issued my ticket without seeming to see me, and about a half dozen GI’s; like me, they were all privates.

I sat alone in the back of the bus, reveling in the legroom but saddened by the darkened loneliness. We were fifty miles out of town when one of the GI’s began to sing. I wasn’t very old. This kid was younger, probably no more than eighteen. There was a song out at the time called And When I Die. Laura Nyro wrote it and Blood, Sweat and Tears had a hit with the song. The young man had no accompaniment and sang it much slower even than Nyro’s version. His words tore the heart right out of my chest. The young man was an Eleven Bravo, same as me. We were both infantry bullet-stoppers bound for the human gristmill that was Vietnam.

Like me, he was probably afraid of death. I was afraid of something much worse—the decisive act of taking another human life. I didn’t know if I was up to the task, even though I’d had the act of ultimate enactment drummed into the very essence of my soul for the past four months.

The song’s lyrics ripped at my heart, though didn’t make me cry. I was drenched in the steel resolve of personal survival at the time. I would do what I had to do. I only hoped that any act of violence I might ultimately have to perform wouldn’t corrupt my soul—at least not forever.


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