2009.12.20 Why I Didn't Go to Vietnam
It was a bright, blue-topped Saturday in the summer of 1963. Dave Walker met me at the front door of his house in Glen Burnie. He was a big guy, with red hair, and I knew he had played football, unlike me, but like me had been a favorite of our English teacher, Mr. Forsythe. That's why we were getting together. Dave was just finishing his freshman year at Johns Hopkins, and I had just been accepted, so Forsythe gave me his phone number and suggested we get together.
His parents weren't home. I never met them, and if Dave told me what his father (or mother) did for a living I don't remember. I know they weren't military, but who knows, maybe one of them was with the NSA. All the time we were at Ft. Meade, we didn't even know the NSA was there, not even my father.
We would take Dave's car into Baltimore, where he was going to show me around the campus, but first we went down to his basement room. He must have been kind of proud of it, and rightly so, I thought. It took up about a quarter of the floor space of the basement, and what impressed me most was the desk, which he had built himself along one entire wall, complete with indirect fluorescent lighting. I vowed to have one just like it one day. A man -- a college man -- needed room to spread out on, after all, room to put things down and leave them undisturbed until you're ready to get back to them again, not some little postage stamp of a table that you have to tidy up constantly just for elbow space. Having lived on Army posts for most of my short life, I had never considered hammering and sawing my way into the very substance of our always temporary domiciles, our quarters, the way Dave had done in his family home.
There were some weights lying on a mat outside the door to his room. I lifted one of the barbells to my waist. I worked out fairly regularly at the post gym and was in pretty good shape, but this was heavy.
"What do you do with this?" I asked.
"Curls," Dave said.
"Too much for me," I said, putting them down. Maybe I could have jerked or bench pressed it, but not curls.
"Doesn't do a thing for your most important muscle, though," said Dave.
"Which one is that?"
"The one between your legs."
I chuckled -- knowingly, I hoped.
On the way to Baltimore, we talked about Mr. Forsythe. Forsythe had been Dave's English teacher, and also mine that senior year. He was, Dave and I agreed with great conviction, a true intellectual. He had introduced us to Freud, Joyce, N. O. Brown, and even written poems himself, one of which began, "Once upon a time when time crawled out of a beer can on cockroach legs..." More importantly, he had pitched a couple of years for a farm team of the Pittsburgh Pirates, which meant he could not only get away with writing poetry but also with saying there were a lot of fags in pro sports because it's a good way to be around naked men without arousing suspicion. It never occurred to me to ask him how he knew this.
We visited the Homewood campus on North Charles Street and Dave's frat house on Calvert St. He commuted that first year but would be moving into the frat house in the fall. I imagined myself living there, too, with a lacrosse stick hanging on the wall (maybe it would turn out to be my sport), weights on the floor for the less important muscles, a mattress for much-needed workouts with the most important muscle, rickety brick-and-board bookshelves, and an enormous desk spanning one entire wall.
Work hard, play hard, the Kennedy ethic. I was greatly impressed by JFK's ability to speed-read. Thousands of words per minute, they said.
The weather was glorious, our spirits soaring. We were eagles flying wingtip to wingtip over God's country, which was also ours. Gone were the pusillanimous days of high school with the hoi polloi. This was the big time. College! We had left the pack behind. We were on the team. Dave was a player, and so was I.
We stopped for lunch at a drugstore on St. Paul St., where the waitress flirted with us in a snotty sort of way.
"You guys a Hopkins?" she said, with an unconvincing sneer.
I blinked at the syntax, but Dave took the ball in stride.
"Yeah, hun," he said, looking her up and down and giving back her Ballmer accent syllable for syllable. "How'd you know?"
"I thought so," she said triumphantly, and flounced off, whirling her skirt to give us a good look at her trim legs, as if to say, "Ok, hot shots, get these!"
"Not bad," Dave said.
"She'd do in a pinch," said I.
"I wouldn't throw her out of bed," said Dave.
"She can take my order any time," I said.
I wondered if she had ever been inside a frat house. I felt sure I would be back in that drugstore sometime soon.
There was no daylight between us, Dave and me. We understood each other, and the world.
On the drive home, we talked about Mr. Wylie, another English teacher at our high school. I had him for journalism, and Davie had had the misfortune of having him for English one year. Wylie was, as Forsythe once told me in confidence, a poseur. I asked him what that meant, and he wrote down on a slip of paper "pompous ass." Later he gave me an example. Wylie had invited him home for a drink one afternoon and flew into a rage when he discovered that his wife had failed to stock up on beer. I could easily picture this, Wylie lashing the unfortunate creature with his sharp schoolmaster's tongue, no doubt hoping to impress his colleague in this way with his rhetorical skills.
Dave had had some run-ins with Wylie, too, and said he had even considered going back to the school sometime and "laying him out." I couldn't tell if he meant it seriously, but I could understand his feelings. Wylie was a big guy, too, but Dave could have taken him. A scene from ancient times came to mind -- my eighth-grade wood shop teacher, also ancient in my recollection, chasing Johnny DeFeo around the room and slipping and falling on the sawdust-covered floor. I was glad he didn't hurt himself. In Wylie's case, maybe I would have felt differently.
Then the subject of Vietnam came up. It was just getting into the news. I can't say for sure that it was the first time the subject entered my mind, but it was the first time I remember.
"What do you think we ought to do over there?" Dave asked me.
I had no idea what to say.
"I don't know," I said.
I knew he wanted me to ask him the same question, so I did.
"I think we ought to beat the crap out of 'em," Dave said.
I don't remember saying anything after that, or in fact anything more about that day. I was too busy looking for a place to land.
It took me a long time, many years, to figure out what had happened that day, and even now I'm not sure, but this is the closest I can get. It wasn't as if I had any arguments against the war, which hadn't really even started yet. That would all come later. But somehow it was clear from that moment on.
I was not on the team, after all. I was not a player.
Mr. Wylie was one thing, but the Vietnamese? Who the fuck were the Vietnamese?