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Bum
by Matt Kritzer

 

I can't understand why these experiences are coming up now. Why now, more than 30 years later? The ghosts have been there all along, true, but lately they have wormed their way up, through my sub conscience and reached a level just under the thin skin of my daily thoughts or consciousness. It gives life more of a dimension, yet it's unnerving knowing that the violence and rage associated with those ghosts can be triggered and burst through at any moment.

Honestly, at times, it almost feels good expressing that anger in an "inappropriate social behavior". It's a mini high, almost like going back to the Nam. The wonderful horror of killing again. The ultimate power over life and death. A gift given to us when we were nineteen, then, suddenly yanked away. Well somebody forgot to turn off my power switch, the one that I never seem to be able to reach.

Now I am taught that the power no longer exists in the old manner but must be expressed in appropriate socially acceptable ways, ie., getting to the "top" and deciding who to lay off along the way. The trouble is that the expression of these primordial instincts never got totally erased from my circuit boards. Somewhere in that damp jungle, walking point or pinned down, laying next to a corpse during a human wave attack, something must have shorted out in 1967. Somehow their software got hard wired into my system. At times, the feeling of cutting through the "bullshit" and blowing somebody's brains out still reigns supreme. Sometimes that surge of raging feelings comes through so close to the surface that I must suppress it by sitting down and writing a few lines. Writing a few words looking in vain for an explanation but only getting a small release.

Years of suppressing ideas and feelings and then, all of a sudden, its OK to talk about them. We're no longer viewed as cowards, so its OK to cry at a Vietnam Memorial and the World War II vets don’t treat us like dirt any more. Yet, how can I as a combat veteran, forgive the American people, who, out of their own frustrations, turned on us and burnt us in effigy when we came home? How can I forget the greed of the large corporations; dictating the pace of the war, prolonging it, not letting us win it and then reaping its profits from their own son’s blood. Not literally their own sons, of course, but the real America’s sons and the Government went right along with the program.

Why wasn't it stopped or won? When the finger gets pointed, its always someone else who was responsible. And now it’s all being glazed over. Forgive and forget. Vietnam is now just a glossy photograph in the American Journal.

Well my photographs cannot be touched up, the memories don't erase that easily. When I stumble across a photograph of my best friend and I look into his eyes, I know that forgetting is totally out of the question. I must tell his story, and then mine.

Now, just a fading yellowing photograph, shuffled among a myriad of others, he lays somewhere in a drawer; doomed not to be found on purpose or often. It's playful facade of struttfull posing could never fit in a gilded frame or live on a prominent shelf. As a trophy it would belie the scourge of his ripping flesh; his smile would twist into the maddening pain of the ordeal of his slow death. No, I don't think that I'll ever put up his picture. Regardless, I'll always remember that he must have been brave in those last hours.

Brave but not a hero. Heroes are too hard to define, if they exist at all. None of us were heroes. We just did it, whatever it was, whatever it took. To accomplish the mission, to live through it and to help others do the same to get back home. Home the way it was, to be boys again in the reassuring warmth and safety of the past. We all missed home and, yet, we had no clue that it no longer existed. In the stupor of our ignorance, we could still numb the horror of the war by daydreaming of home.

Bruce Howard Bumgardener was a non stop daydream of home to me. Being with him was just like being home. We shared our inner most thoughts like brothers. Combat was merely a disturbance that had to be tolerated. Bum and I had more than a mere friendship, we were each others life line back to the world.

So when I left country, three weeks before him, he died.

Just two weeks after I left country, Bum spent the better part of a night bleeding to death in some shit hole corner of the Boi Loi Woods. As it started to get dark, a sniper took him down blowing off part of his left shoulder. Bum screamed for a medic, but when the medic tried to reach him, the sniper shot the medic between the eyes. For the rest of the night they could hear him, but no one tried to reach him.

Where was his mind as he cried and bled in the darkness? What were his thoughts before he finally fell silent as dawn approached and all of his blood laid on the thirsty jungle floor, our guys pinned down around him?

Was he thinking of home? Was he holding on to the thought of meeting me at Christmas in San Francisco or was he imagining me calling his house, asking to speak to him, and his father sobbing on the phone? What was he thinking in those long hours of torturous pain? Of me back in the world he used to know? 

Thinking of him, I can smell the rotting jungle vegetation in my nostrils. I can feel that cold, damp dew all over me. I can just barely make out the limp, useless arm still attached, laying next to him in the moon lit clearing. I can feel from the essence of my soul, deep in the truth of my heart that had I been there; he would have lived or I, also, would have died. 

For the rest of my life, I'll be crawling through that thicket, trying to reach him...

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