Jelly and Uncle passed the first tree. It had a small wooden flag nailed to it. Jelly tapped the flag with her fingertips; she liked to do this, signal a passing. “So we follow the green flags all the way to the river?”
“Yup, green is the path that will lead us to the river. Green means go. Red means stop.” Uncle began his story.
“I didn’t mean to save their lives. It was an accident. Something to be done.”
Uncle had protested the war. In the big city square he had approached a man in a National Guard uniform. With his draft card in one hand, he set the card on fire with the lighter in his other. He was placed on a list and followed. The FBI camped outside his parents’ house and knocked on their door, asking where he was and when he would be back. His mother cried. His father frowned. His little brother thought he was a hero. Eventually Uncle turned himself in. The threats to his family were too much. Maybe he was just tired of dodging. Off to boot camp he went for training. Training and testing, and testing he did well—right into a secret corps of code typists. He was made. Set. This was going to be the luxury life for Uncle. No combat, no guns, no limbs blown off in a faraway swamp. But someone caught on. Caught on to the FBI surveillance. The burning of the card. Uncle was no friendly follower.
The big airplanes that transported troops were filled to capacity in those days—airplanes so wide-bellied you could drive five tanks and a company of men comfortably inside. Uncle ended up in one of these planes and got off in Germany: Secretary to a Field Captain. This was still a cushy job. Uncle was lucky. He typed the Field Captain’s notes, ran his laundry, his general errands, and once a week he drove 20 miles into town to pick up Chinese food.
The Field Captain was rigid, very specific—Uncle was never, not once, ever, to eat the Chinese food. Well, with all the marijuana floating around the camp and with Uncle’s general idea about where this war could go, along with this Captain, he did eat the Chinese food, and he did get caught.
They put Uncle back on the big plane—a plane full of men and tanks and bullets; letters from home, care packages, and MREs. Off this time to the South Pacific. Off this time to Vietnam.
The first time Uncle saved a life was when a bomb blew him up.
He was in formation, in line, his platoon was moving north. When the bomb hit, sound disappeared. Uncle was blown forward; his back hurt. He got up and turned around. The man behind him was missing an ear and those behind him a head, a torso, or now they were just a foot. The tank was on fire. Uncle could see the driver. The driver was alive. Uncle was at the tank, opening the door; it was searing flesh off his palm. He was grabbing the driver, pulling the man from the fire and pulling him out before the tank blew.
In the hospital back at base, Uncle was treated for burns. The hair on half his head was gone, his eyebrows vaporized in the heat. He rested for a while, healing. He was a hero and sent back to the front lines.
The land was a wet one, and the camps were hard. The boys of his unit told stories, stories about their homes, about the way the lakes rose in February rain and the Junebug clusters, about homes packed in by snowdrifts and snowshoeing to town to catch a train south.
Uncle would remember these stories when he went back to find them many years later. Instead he found he was the only one left. All had taken their own lives or disappeared into drugs and street life. Uncle still remembers the joints they passed around, and the other time he saved their lives.
Uncle had been sent out for a scout around. A simple circle of the area, then sit on the hill. He circled. He sat. And just inside the tree line was the enemy. Charlie.
“You guys called the Viet Cong ‘Charlie.’ Why?” Jelly never did know why, even though they mentioned it in so many movies.
“A phonetic alphabet. Alfa. Bravo. Charlie. VC: Victor Charlie. Our call signs over coms,” Uncle responded as he walked up a leaf-lined bank.
Jelly nodded her head. “Of course. Victor Charlie. I wonder if anyone has named their child that, on purpose?”
Charlie didn’t see Uncle sitting behind the small boulder, but it didn’t matter much. Uncle had been sent out on his simple sweep without a com set. He had no way to signal his company that an ambush was on. They were on the other side of the hill and would never see VC coming.
The only way Uncle could let the company know, help his friends, was to fire his gun, thus alerting Charlie that he was, in fact, there. Vulnerable. He would be killed in seconds. Uncle made his choice. He raised his gun and fired round after round into the trees.
“I saved them and lived. By the time my amo was finished, the entire company came running past me, hundreds, shooting. I was given the Bronze Medal of Honor, two of them actually, one for each ‘act of valor.’ But they took them away.”
Uncle didn’t respond well to civilian life. Drugs and sex were only masks to hold up and see through. Temporary. He would walk, “in these woods, in fact,” and sometimes the ground would open—holes with voices inside. The bomb that had gone off, the time he saved a man from a tank on fire, had left fragments patterned and deeply embedded all over his back. The VA sent him oversized bottles of Vicodin and other pain meds, but the voices in the ground kept whispering. Maybe the bomb had done something to his head, too; done something more permanent to his hearing.
He went west, to find the others of his unit. His mates, toke buddies—gone. Uncle was suffering. In his mind he was far from his family, far from the roads that ran over the old river with its ferryboat in the summer and ice cream vendors along the shore. He couldn’t enjoy the fresh apples in season—the bundles left out by the road, self-service. The colors they took on, green, pink, red. The different crisp tastes each had. It was nothing—gone. There were only the dreams and the holes with voices calling him in. Victor Charlie were in there.
Uncle knew he was cracking up. He thought about those men who did not make it. He though about those “acts of valor.” The 13⁄8 inches of ribbon, red with a thin strip of blue, the bright star hanging in a point at the end. He checked himself into the big VA psychiatric clinic. A train took him there, Virginia, outside of DC. He rested in this clinic and Victor Charlie slowly stopped whispering to him.
A man stopped by. A man with a pert hat and starched uniform. He handed Uncle a piece of paper. The army was calling him back. Back to active duty. Back to Vietnam.
“Uncle that flag, it’s red.” They both stopped and looked at the tree with a red flag nailed to its trunk. “Are we lost?”
He looked around and Jelly stood smelling the stark forest. She looked toward the sun, small and defused by cloud cover and old-growth trees. The light was starting to dim, the air chill. She pulled the scarf closer around her neck. Jelly was starting to think this was not the best of ideas. To have gone out onto this trail, so far away, with no one but Uncle.
“This path will get us back to the car; it’s just a different way than how we came. Don’t worry, I know where I’m going. I know these woods very well.
Uncle wasn’t going back there. He was never going back to Vietnam. So he constructed a plan. He told them things, the nurses, the other patients. He made things difficult for the doctors. He was difficult. Unsettling. Scary. When the man with the pert hat came back the next time, his eyes were tight. He did not like the way Uncle was acting.
“I’m not going back there, man. I’m never going back there.”
The man had come to make a deal. They had looked at Uncle’s record. The FBI surveillance. The draft evasion. The Chinese food. This was not the record of a hero, a Bronze-Medal-of-Valor holder.
“Two Bronze,” Uncle reminded the company man.
The man with his pert hat and starched uniform offered Uncle a deal. Discharge in exchange for the medals. Going home. Never to be sent to war again. The deal was made, the documents set. Uncle made a quick recovery.
Uncle had stopped talking. Jelly looked up; the road was in the near distance. He had led them back, going the wrong way. Jelly wished she had a flag to tap, to signal the conclusion.
Once in the car, Uncle reached over and easily placed his left hand too high up on her thigh.
He continued, “They did try at one point to make it a dishonorable discharge but failed. Even with the medals revoked, someone higher up wouldn’t do that to a hero.” •