by Randy Ford
Along the Avenue late afternoon there were only a few people who paid attention to him. Those who recognized him didn’t see him. Those people who saw him wanted to ignore him, so everyone ignored him. Day after day people ignored him. Day after day he was ignored. Day after day people saw him picking through garbage cams amd ignored him.
People didn’t know his name. People didn’t know where he came from. People didn’t know his story. People didn’t take time to learn his story.
Among those who recognized him none remembered seeing him, remembered seeing him after they saw him picking through garbage cans. Some of these people saw him day in and day out, three or four times a day, picking through garbage and trash and wished he’d go away. Some saw him eat out of garbage cans and wished he would go away. As a homeless man he surely hurt business along the Avenue. And there was a stigma to being filthy, smelly, and a wasted human being, a wasted man who spent his time ravaging through garbage cans looking for something of value and something to eat.
What was his story? Who was he? Surely he had a story. Surely he had a family. Where was his family? Where did he come from? Were people looking for him? Was he considered a missing person? Was he on a list somewhere? Surely people were looking for him. Surely he had a family. Surely he was on list somewhere? Where were his parents? Were his parents alive? Did he have a family: brothers, sisters, ex- wives, sons or daughters? Was anyone looking for him? Did anyone care? Was he human?
How many people assumed he was dead? How many people assumed he was dead since no one seemed to care, or no one saw him? A family, a sister or a brother-in-law, surely. Surely, someone. Surely, someone remembered him. A father, a mother, a son, a daughter, surely? How long ago had someone stopped looking for him? How long ago had people assumed he was dead? How long ago had people stopped asking about him?
And where did he did sleep? And where did he sleep last night or night before? Did he sleep? No one knew.
Didn’t his ex-wives say he was dead? Didn’t his sons and daughters say he was missing? Missing? Missing? Missing? Missing from what? Missing in action! They said he was missing in action and made a big deal of Memorial Day. They made a big deal of Memorial Day because they hadn’t heard from him and assumed he was missing in action or wanted to believe he was MIA in Nam, MIA in Nan. They knew he was drafted and sent to Nam. Drafted after high school and sent to Nam where he became a grunt. Yes, a grunt, a grunt, grunt, always a grunt. So he was on a list somewhere.
So let’s give him a name. On a list somewhere, so let’s give him a name. Chuck. Chuck, Chuck, not Chpmunk or Chunky. No, far from chunky. Starving. Eating out of garbage cans. Chuck was the only person who could fill in blanks, but a mortar that was aimed at someone else scrambled his brain.
Though most people didn’t pay attention to him, Chuck always began by cursing war. War! War! Whose war? Who gave a damn? Who gives a damn? Many of his buddies were gone. Many were dead and buried. Some were buried along side other soldiers, and a few were still missing. MIA. MIA! That’s not to say that there weren’t many success stories, and some of those vets ate and shopped on the Avenue. Many weren’t missing.
Action Chuck saw and tried to put behind him haunted him. It haunted him just as a nickname war buddies gave him. He still lived war, war in Nam, only battlefields changed, and it affected him more than people imagined. He relived action, battles, murder, murder of women and children, and death, death, killing, people he killed, people he was expected to kill. That was why he swore, cursed and laughed, and talked to himself as he ate out of garbage cans. He was relatively young then, in his mid-fifties, but he looked old.
Obviously the system … THE SYSTEM … what system … failed him. His teeth were rotten and half-missing; he shuffled, and he had a diagnosis. He suffered from untreated diabetics. He was lucky he hadn’t lost a leg. He had old battle wounds. He was lucky he hadn’t lost his life. When people saw him, he was ridiculed and what you heard about him was mean. Of course I thought about buying him a meal and would’ve given him money if I thought he would buy food with it. (I never gave him anything. When he asked, I never gave him anything. When he held out his hand out, I never gave him anything. I saw his deteriorating condition, and it broke my heart; yet I never gave him anything.) I knew giving him money wouldn’t help him. I didn’t see what I could do. My father fought in World War II, and he didn’t end up homeless. I wanted to clean him up, take him home, but I never did. I never did because I was always on my way somewhere.
The next one to disturb me was an African American, who almost ran me over with his bicycle. I was standing on the Avenue, and he almost ran me over with his bicycle. He rode down the sidewalk, when it was against the law, and he was in his late fifties, in his late fifties and a vet and had never been to the VA. He’d never been to the VA for anything or so he said before he added, “Nobody cares over there.” Though I knew better, I nodded my head.
His voice was filled with emotion when he said, “They don’t help. Nobody does. Nobody helps. No they don’t.” Well, he looked me in the eyes, which made me feel uncomfortable, and then he said, “You better get out of my way before I explode, and I don’t think you want to see me, me, me explode!”
He never exploded (or did he?), so I never knew what could have happened. But from tone of his voice I knew he intended to do something. Then he said, “I was a hero in Nam, you know, but here at home, they treat me like a nigger.” He then saluted me and said, “You’re in my way.”
After that we spoke whenever we ran into each other. I never learned his name. For a time the Avenue must’ve been on his route and he continued, with his bicycle, to act as if he owned every sidewalk, of course. And after Nam, I suspect he felt we owed it to him, owed him every sidewalk. I saw him all over town riding his bicycle and sleeping on sidewalks. And after the war, we all… we all who came home were disappointed with how we were treated when we came home. Along with that we can say he was a damn hazard, but he didn’t care, a damn hazard and didn’t care. He shouldn’t have acted as if he owned the whole sidewalk or should’ve gone back to where he came from. Here, I have to be careful about what I say. People could take it the wrong way for when I was growing up, we sometimes called African Americans niggers when we knew better … we called them niggers when we knew better. Then we fought together, and our lives depended on each other. We loved to call them niggers, but during the war they became our buddies. Then Nam came and the shoe was on the other foot because some of us were grunts and former niggers were in charge of us. Now I can’t help but think about it whenever I see Sam (I finally learned his name) barreling toward me on his bicycle and riding it where he’s not suppose to. I think when I look into those coal black eyes … well, I know what I think. I think I owe my life to a black man or an African American who used to be a nigger to me, and I never knew whether to hug him or push him off his bike. Then he has the gall to say that we’re treating him like a goddamn nigger … a goddamn nigger saved my life goddamn it! I don’t know how he can say that we don’t care. He saved my life goddamn it. Our platoon accepted African Americans, in fact the whole army did, and we fought side by side, joked, laughed, ate mess together. We depended on them, and they depended on us. We depended on each other, and they became our brothers. But now he has the gall to say that we’re treating him like a nigger. During Christmas season, I even invited him into my home. Now does that seem like I’m …? Well, I’m not!
We saw each other whenever we could, though it brought back memories that were painful. From time I came back from Nam I knew that she would be part of my life, and after we met, which only happened after considerable effort on my part- after we talked we knew our bond was solid. I can say of her what I have doubtless said of myself: she shouldn’t blame herself. No, she shouldn’t. And I shouldn’t blame myself. Here we should pause and pay our respects to Guy. When I came back from Vietnam and had Shannon waiting for me, I returned to a job that I had before I got drafted. I loved people and selling and promoting so I was naturally drawn to the Avenue. Working there gave me enormous pleasure. I dreamed of someday owning my own bar and opening it on the Avenue, but that’s another story. I think looking at faces of other veterans on the Avenue is something that helped foster my desire to find Guy’s widow. A part of me resisted it; then I felt relieved when I began searching, and of course, I had Shannon’s support. We were in the same platoon. I was alive because of Guy, and he didn’t get a chance to resume life as a civilian. His son would never know him. Birthdays and holidays were particularly hard on Guy’s widow. “Reported Guy to his draft board!” His ex-wife reported Guy to his draft board. All blame that she assumed for it … now that it was too late … was something that I knew nothing about. We were on the move as part of a search and destroy mission. That was when we engaged the enemy. An immediate exchange of small arms fire occurred, two Americans were dead, but that was only the beginning of a firefight that lasted until dark. I can’t forget it and would always remember two troopers who were initially killed. I always think of them at odd times. A sniper in a tree shot one of them. And sniper who shot him was also shot. As I remember … generally, we didn’t celebrate anyone’s death, but this time we did. Still, it was horrible. Guy always covered my butt and I covered his, in our late teens, fresh out of high school, covering each other’s butt. Nice Christian boys, kind of rowdy, scruffy boys, Protestant, both of us had women back home. Guy told us he was married. When asked about it, he shrugged and lower his head. I carried a picture of Shannon and showed it to everyone. We could never get a straight answer from Guy, but we didn’t have courage to make an issue of it. He gave me Melvina’s name and asked me to contact her if anything happened to him. I said I would and he said he’d do the same thing for me since we’d do anything for each other. Not only did we cover each other’s butt but we were like family. We ate together, we slept together, laughed and cried together: we had a bond that couldn’t be broken. And he made the ultimate sacrifice for me, so I wasn’t about to go back on my word. Since he did that for me, the least I could do for him was to go see Melvina. Over the years, I’ve gotten to know her, and their boy Ted, and I’ve sort of adopted him. Melvina, a beautiful person, would sit in her living room whenever I went to see her and she wouldn’t mention Guy, though I could feel his presence in the room. After I gave them a small box with Guy’s things in it, I never knew what they did with the box or his things. They never said, and I never asked. That there wasn’t a picture of him in the house seemed strange to me … at first. Melvina told me that she sold her wedding ring and even sold it while Guy was alive. That proved to me that they were indeed married. Half time we sat there and didn’t say anything. We didn’t have to. Women like Melvina … she made me feel comfortable and she understood how close Guy and I were, and she kept her emotions out of our conversations, so we could really talk to each other … first about our families and then about other things. There was Vietnam, “Nam” to us who have been there; there were members of our platoon, our extended family; there were the trips to San Jose to see Melvina, and I considered her family too. Once a year I tried to make this trip. There were expenses that I didn’t mind, and this became a part of a routine that I followed for many years. Eventually Melvina’s side of the story came out. “And now what?” I asked. “I don’t think it would matter to Guy. There’s no need for you to beat yourself up over it. Remembering he was a hero. Why not remember the positive, when the negative was so horrible? Before he died, Guy asked me to look in on you. But I’m still curious? Did he know that he had a son? To me it’s unbelievable that he didn’t, but he never mentioned or showed me a picture of Ted.”
“See. I had our marriage annulled. It was a very acceptable way for me to get out of our marriage, since I didn’t believe in divorce. To me,” she said, “we shouldn’t have gotten married. We eloped, as I remember. We shouldn’t have gotten married, but, but we couldn’t help … stop, stop when we should’ve stopped. Had to lie about our age in those days. Guy had a way with girls. You knew Guy. He had a way of talking. He was cool, and he knew it, and when I say I made a mistake I have to own up to it, it was just as much my fault as his. First time we did it, I couldn’t stopped him. He didn’t rape me, and when I turned up pregnant, I came up with the idea of eloping. At first I couldn’t have been happier. He could’ve taken me anywhere, and I wouldn’t have complained. There was a Justice of the Peace who knew we were lying about our ages: with a ring on my finger, I woke up next morning, questioning what I had done. The beautiful moment was over for me, and all I was left with was shame. At the same time I hoped my parents wouldn’t kick me out, so we went to live with them. I remember my dad telling me, “Guy is no good.” But what could I do then? That’s how young we were. We didn’t know what to do except move in with my parents. Rightly or wrongly, we had to depend on them. Because they weren’t about to let us … then there was Vietnam.” While she was telling the story about what she did to Guy, she took her time and it proved hard for her … except she said it felt good to talk to someone, especially to me. Living with her parents didn’t work out. She said the marriage wouldn’t have worked out anyway. Before Guy moved out, Melvina’s father arranged for an annulment. Then she notified Guy’s draft board, and they immediately drafted him. In the afternoon, after she finished her story, Melvina showed me that she’d kept a Purple Heart Guy received posthumously.
Then there was his son, a young man in his late twenties and good looking with blond hair and blue eyes and fair skin, and he was the spitting image of Guy. A handsome young man who was already balding and very much like his dead father, Guy, shot and killed thousands of miles from there and a quarter of a century before then. But Ted didn’t have to face the draft like his father did and once he came of age it looked as if he’d forgotten sacrifices his father made. For some reason he turned antagonistic towards both his mother and me, and I didn’t know why. Whenever I was around and he opened his mouth, he lashed out at his mother and me in an unkind way, and there was no need for it. He was nasty to me and yes his mother, forcing me to come to her rescue. It happened countless times, and I felt sorry for both them. And it got worse. I talked to his mother about it, but her response surprised me for she didn’t show any anger or frustration.
Like I said, her reaction surprised me. Yet she was a battler and no stranger to conflict. After having raised a son alone and having overcome adversity that often arose, she didn’t let her son bother her. Clearly this was someone she had given everything to and she wouldn’t stop giving to.
This was the prelude to us all going to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. Of the four of us (Shannon also went), I was the least prepared. Yes, Ted went, and of course Melvina wept. We all grieved in our own way. Up and down the Wall that day, there had to have been hundreds like us, looking for names, and often etching them after they found them.
PFC Guy Wilson
1 January 1969
DAK To, Vietnam
Listed as KIA February 8, 1969
We had only been in Nam a short time.
And with me reliving Nam and Ted with his unexplainable rage and Melvina with tears and with Shannon supporting us, our experiences were no more or no less intense than it was for others there that day. More importantly it brought us together, and closeness we felt stayed with us.
Though I grew accustomed to scorn we received when we returned from Vietnam (I for one had half expected it), I was caught of guard by Ted’s hostility. It made me feel uncomfortable, and I think he could see it. Ted and I were sitting in the living room. Melvina and Shannon were off somewhere else. He wanted an opportunity to speak to me, I guess. Now it had been twenty-five years, and Ted and I hadn’t talked about his father. He was twenty-six then, more or less on his own and a father (though he didn’t live with mother of his child), and while he had never knew his father, he had by then become a successful man and unassailable in many respects.
For many years I remembered every word of our conversation. Usually when someone brought up Vietnam, I wouldn’t say much. But on that day there was only two of us, and Ted and I started talking. I said what I said with apprehension because I could see that he was agitated, but he insisted that we continue. He carried a small photograph of his dad in his wallet, which he showed me. It looked like Guy I knew and was taken when he was in high school, but remember we were just kids. Guy, oh Guy, which Guy? Now I wasn’t expecting this.
Guy saved my life, and his son wanted to know details. He pressed me for answers and wouldn’t give up until I told him everything. About a sharpshooter in a tree: just how many shots did he get off before he was shot? Hill 737 stood alone, and we didn’t have much of a chance. We found that the North Vietnamese had constructed an elaborate system of bunkers and trenches, and we were in for a fight for our lives. That was the day Guy was killed.
After eleven days, the enemy retreated to sanctuaries in Laos. Quickly we then assessed our gains, and a week later we abandoned the hill. It all took place with astonishing speed, and Ted’s father … person who saved my life … lay dying in a field hospital, died in a field hospital after he told me that he was going to be fine.
His surgeon was said to be one of Army’s best. Like Guy, he was drafted.
In next bed to his right was a boy who had shrapnel removed from his stomach and would recover, only to be shot again. Guy wasn’t so lucky. (Guy was lucky yet unlucky). Though he was wounded, as it turned out mortally wounded, and a snipper got him, he somehow managed to drag me to safety. To this day I don’t how he found strength when he was so seriously wounded, mortally wounded yet found strength to drag me to safety. He received a Purple Heart but he should’ve received more than that … for his “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action” that went beyond call of duty. There were very few Congressional Medal of Honor Recipients to come out Nam and even fewer winners. If I sound bitter … and what Vietnam veteran hasn’t been from time to time … I think I have good reason to be, but I’ve tried to overcome it.
He wore a Paisley shirt, velvet trousers, and a high collard Regency Jacket, which seemed out of place to me. I still went to see my old high school play basketball and bumped into people I knew: old classmates, former teachers, and other friends. Of all people there that night I happened to sit next to a guy wearing a Paisley shirt, velvet trousers, and a high collard Regency Jacket and we once were friends. When this guy arrived with his wife well before the game started, I felt friendly and struck up a conversation with him. He had let his hair grow out, which hadn’t surprised me. He, however, hadn’t adopted a Hippie look and at first everything about our conversation was pleasant, and along with chatter we both had two big tubs of popcorn. Then, as we continued to eat and talk, it came out that I’d just come back from Vietnam. It seemed to take him a while to digest … that I just came back from Nam. I don’t know why, but it did. It was also worth noting that my battle wounds had healed, and scars weren’t noticeable. But when he came back to his seat after going to the restroom, which took more time than I thought it should, I noticed that his attitude toward me changed. He seemed sullen and unhappy. At which point I decided to concentrate on the game.
During the second half … after I went to the restroom and bought a coke … he turned to me and gave me a dirty look.
“What’s wrong with this guy?” I asked myself. He would no longer talk to me. To hell with him! If he was going to be like that he could have his Paisley shirt, velvet trousers, and high collard Regency Jacket.
“So this was the situation,” I told my wife later. “Here was a guy I knew in high school sitting there in his Paisley shirt, velvet trousers, and a high collard Regency Jacket, who was obviously pissed about something. What was I to do?” I ask.
“Okay. But then what? I had to know what was going on with him. Whether I ticked him off, or not. When all was said and done I wanted to get a good night’s sleep.”
“And I’d want to sleep too.”
It then came out of the blue, and it was if he’d struck me in the head. And he spoke quietly so I could barely hear him over noise of crowd. Yet I didn’t have any trouble understanding him.
On the other side of him sat a woman who I understood was his wife. Mother of his children only spoke now and then. She wore a mini skirt, leather boots, and fake eyelashes. I wouldn’t have expected her to come to my defense.
When we began Operation Apache Snow we intended to clear People’s Army of Vietnam out of the A Shau Valley. Parents of boys who died there would never have heard of the place. I think Guy should’ve at least been nominated for Congressional Medal of Honor, but he wasn’t. Just thinking about it causes my eyes to tear.
Then the guy in the Paisley shirt, velvet trousers, and a high collard Regency Jacket had gall to tell me that I represented everything he hated. “You can serve your country, and they’ll hate you for it. You can fight a battle, several battles, take a hill, and lose a bunch of brothers, and they’ll still hate you for it. You can die out there, yet they still hate you. Whatever it is, they hate you for it. I still cry when I think about my brothers. Always, we watched out for each other. And we carried our load, before we could legally vote, and some of us still die every day. You treat us as if we’re a piece of junk. Well, if you can do the job, do it better and win a war, I say go do it. Carry your weight, do your job, and come home safe. I represent everything you hate! Right! You have a terrific wife!”
Then they got up and left me sitting there alone because I didn’t want to do battle with the crowd, and since I’d already done my share of fighting.