Leaving for Nam -
It was a gloomy morning, which may have accounted for my morbid thoughts. Thoughts of today, and the past. I recalled a similar dawn, many years ago, a trip to Buffalo’s airport. We went by cab, Nanci, my wife and my step-dad, which was odd, but my stepfather Ralph insisted on it. He was a cheap person, some would call it thrifty, but I thought of it as cheap. I realize now that he was a poor man, but back then, I was not aware of it as I am now.
My thirty day pre-Viet Nam leave had come to an end, June 1967, I had worked for my brother Ralph‘s roofing and siding business while on leave to raise money for Nanci, and the baby she was carrying. I didn’t know much about roofing and siding, but I was strong, and being in the 101rst Airborne Division, had no fear of heights.
It was time to fly to San Francisco, and southeast Asia. We left my mother at home, crying; too upset that morning to even scramble eggs, never less coming to the airport. My kid brother Paul was sleeping.
Step dad was quiet during the trip, and it was only years later that I thought about what he must have been thinking. I wondered how if he had ever been sent to war, (he wasn’t) what would his father have thought, or how he would of seen him off to war.
We had arrived at the airport, and went into the terminal together. There were many other service men in uniforms, with duffel bags and overnight bags, a lot of mothers and fathers, wives or maybe girl friends, and even kids, probably siblings. There were even sharply dressed Military Police who walked through the terminal. This was an unusual sight just the year before.
The home front during the Viet Nam war is a study of extreme contrasts: sorrow and joy, partings and reunions, patriotism and cynicism, parades, demonstrations, and funerals.
I was flying American Airlines to San Francisco, and I got into the appropriate line, which comprised of mostly soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen, and some civilians, who looked like hippies, and who looked uncomfortable being in the same line.
My step dad wanted to wait but it looked like most of the families had left, so I talked him out of it. Nanci said she would stay and get a cab home. He shook my hand and said,
“Come home son.”
For a moment, I thought he was ordering me to leave with him and forget this idiocy of war. Then I realized he meant come home alive. I looked him in the eye and said,
“I will, take care of Mom.”
“Sure. Good luck Jim.” And he was gone. A few minutes later, I caught a glimpse of him watching me. We made eye contact; he turned and was again gone.
I checked in at the ticket counter and Nanci holding my hand walked down to the gate, where I discovered that this is where most of the families had disappeared too. In those days, anyone could go to the departing gates, before 911. I thought that my step-dad might reappear.
Despite the large number of guys my own age from the Buffalo area. I did not see anyone I knew. This is going to be the beginning of a period in my life of looking for familiar faces and imaging them on other people. So I stood there holding Nanci’s hand, alone in our own thoughts, nothing being said but the occasional ‘I love you”. Meanwhile people moved around us stood quietly, talked in low murmurs, or cried softly. I have never seen so many people make so little noise, except at a funeral.
A few Military Police officers stood at the edge of the crowd looking for signs of problems among the young men who were about to leave for points of embarkation and war.
In retrospect, this whole scene had made me uncomfortable: the MP’s, the mostly unwilling soldiers, the quiet families; the sum total of which was this very un-American feeling of government control and coercion. But it was wartime, though not my father’s generation war, which was as popular as any war could get. And in wartime, even the most benevolent governments get a little pushy.
This was June 1967, and the anti-war movement wasn’t yet in full swing in Buffalo, so therefore there were no protesters or demonstrations at Buffalo’s airport, though there were a bunch of them when we landed in San Francisco, and a lot of them at the Oakland Army Base, urging the soldiers not to go or better yet, to make love, not war.
I looked into Nanci’s eyes, as always, I saw love that day, but at that moment, but I also saw fear in her eyes, and maybe my own too. I remember I felt a sadness, a sadness that if I should die, what would happen to Nanci, who would love and protect her and the baby she was carrying inside her, as I do now?
This feeling is still there in me, even after all these years, when I have had a heart attack in 1991, or angina, I still ask myself today, aware of my mortality and poor health, who would love and protect her.
The announcer’s voice came on and my flight was boarding. So I told her,
“I love you, take care of both my babies.“
Meaning her and the baby that will be born in December 1967.
“Don’t cry baby, I will be back, so write me every day.”
She looked at me with her blue misty eyes and said.
“I love you too .“
We kissed and held each other tightly, her being brave, not wanting me to leave, and me, scared, but not wanting to show it.
I walked down the ramp afraid to look back, because I knew if I did I would cry, and I had too much pride to make this mistake.