When Roger first arrived in Vietnam, he was assigned with another guy to keep an eye on the personal belongings of their unit while in transit to Bein Hoa. His first view of the country was seen from the back of an army truck riding on a mountain of duffle bags. This initial perspective was strange but also exciting in a way. He may have still felt some of the exhilaration a young kid feels riding a load of hay in from the field.
The war didn't really hit him until a little later, when he received his first incoming fire from the Viet Cong. Your tendency is to stand up and say, "Hey, time out, guys. This is Roger here. Obviously, since I'm here, this unit won't be taking any fire today, but thanks anyway."Suddenly, however, you realize that the bullets whizzing overhead are being fired by somebody who doesn't care about you at all. Someone is genuinely trying to kill you.
"I hadn't known before," he says, "that bullets make a noise." The sound of them buzzing through the air has a dead earnestness that demands that you perk up and take notice.
But the experience Roger remembers most clearly from his time in Vietnam was a day when, still fresh from the states, he was given permission to go to the dentist at Phy Bai. From the fire base to Phy Bai was about 20 miles. Since there were no helicopters going back, he was given a Jeep.
Everything went well at the dentist. On his way back to base, however, he came across a Marine who was hitchhiking back to his own unit. Roger stopped and offered him a ride.
The Marine gave him directions as they went along . . . a turn to the left, then the right. As they progressed, the road got narrower and narrower. Finally they found themselves in the middle of a broad expanse of rice paddies, driving along the tops of dikes in an area totally foreign to Roger. He had no idea where they were and had to rely totally on the directions the other soldier gave him.
Finally, the Marine told him to stop.
"This is where I get off," he said. "Thanks for the ride."
With that, he grabbed his rifle, slipped off the seat, and dropped down the side of the dike into the flooded delta. Within moments he had disappeared in the high grass.
Suddenly Roger realized that he was completely alone and totally disoriented. For a while he drove along the dikes, trying to gain some landmark that would help him find his way. But the longer he drove, the more lost he got. For all he knew, he could be in the middle of an enemy position, driving along the dikes like a sitting duck.
Never in his life had he felt so afraid and alone.
Darkness fell. He could only see as far as his headlights would shine. It was a hopeless situation, getting worse by the minute.
Finally, he stopped the Jeep and turned off the motor. The silence was unbearable. Every movement he made seemed to be blaring out over a loud speaker. The rustle of his clothing. Even his breathing. He moved his foot; it accidentally bumped the edge of the step and sounded like a bullhorn.
Grabbing his M16 and a bunch of grenades, he hustled down the side of the embankment. There, he curled up against the foliage and lay as quietly as possible, listening for whatever sounds might come from the darkness.
He stayed this way all night, afraid to make the slightest movement. By the time the light of morning came, he was beginning to feel a bit more confident, enough to cautiously climb back up the embankment and start the Jeep.
After several hours of trial and error, he finally made it back to his own company. By now, the reality of war in a world where the very landscape cannot be trusted was becoming second nature to him.
Increasingly, he would experience the constant tension war brings to those who confront one another across the field of combat, a tension that transcends the war itself. Even after the fighting ends, the emotional havoc wreaked on war's participants never goes away.
After listening to Roger, who is usually reticent to describe his experiences in Vietnam, I realize that I will never be able to understand the feelings that persist for him, even now. Why, whenever we go to a restaurant together, he always chooses a chair facing the door. Not that he's particularly paranoid. It just feels more comfortable.