Come with me for a short foray into time travel. Forty-four years ago today I climbed on a plane to go to Vietnam. I was a lot younger then.
Friday, May 15, 1970/Travis Air Force Base, California
Waiting is so hard.
The terminal building is a large grey warehouse of corrugated iron; combat boots make hollow sounds on the concrete floor. Inside men in fatigues or summer uniforms wait everywhere, sleep on grey wooden benches, read paperback books with the cover folded back, or wander and smoke cigarettes. I’ve been down here three times only to be told I’m not yet manifested on a plane.
Sue and I are afraid. We have heard stories that the Viet Cong rape women prisoners, that they never take women prisoners alive, that in Tet of ’68 nurses were issued a suicide capsule. Since no U.S. service women has ever been captured, our imaginations, fed by boredom and anxiety, are overworked. We are afraid of being captured, raped, tortured. We are afraid of our plane crashing and never getting there. Most of all, we are afraid of somehow not measuring up.
A lot of the Army is like this, proving you are as tough or tougher than the guys. It is the kind of thing that worried us about going to basic. We had seen movies and heard stories about being awakened at 0430 and having to run 5 miles and do physical calisthenics for any infractions of rules. In the end it wasn’t like that at all. It was “Yes, Ma’am” and “No, Ma’am” from the enlisted men and the sergeants. Sometimes we were a little disappointed, as if they didn’t think we could pass the rigorous tests, so they never gave them to us. We wanted to be tested. We still want to be tested.
After supper, we take a walk along the fence that protects the airstrip. The sun is going down. A med-evac plane has just landed and casualties are being loaded from the plane onto a bus. We stand with our fingers interlocked with the mesh fence, our faces pressed up against the metal links. I wonder where the casualties have been, who they are, if I know the nurses are who cared for them. I am so tired of waiting, so keyed up that I want to jump the fence and do something—adjust I.V.s, check dressings, take vital signs—anything to be a part of what is happening. I look at Sue’s face and know she feels the same way. We have been preparing for this for a long time. We want to be a part of this war.
About 9 P.M. I make one more visit to the manifest desk. The rather bored Specialist verifies my name and serial number on a clipboard. “Two A.M. Saturday morning.” My mouth goes dry. I’m really going to Viet Nam! I go back to the Officers’ Quarters and say goodbye to Sue. I wish we could travel together, but she still isn’t manifested on a plane. We know we will probably never see each other again.
I try to sleep, but am too excited. Finally I get up, dress and fuel myself with several cans of Coke. I call a military taxi to take me and my duffel bag over to the terminal about midnight. My duffel bag contains everything I can cram into one long green cloth tube; what’s in there has to last me a year. Six sets of fatigues, two pairs of combat boots, a couple of summer dresses, underclothes, tennis shoes, a robe, extra shampoo and toothpaste, my diary, a small camera, a tape recorder, my address book and some stationery. The bag has my name stenciled on the side and it’s locked with a padlock. I wear the key around my neck beside my dog tags.
The night is dark and warm. A hot breeze blows across the runways and large orange lights illuminate the terminal. I hear a ghetto blaster from the barracks down the road from the terminal; the building is just too far away to make out the song. Inside the terminal, I’m the only woman in the building except for a black specialist checking names at the embarkation desk and a woman in a Red Cross uniform on the far side of the terminal who’s serving coffee, juice and cookies.
When it comes down to this hot California night, when my duffel bag disappears along the sterile aluminum chute, when I have a ticket in my hand and my name on a manifest list, I am terrified. I should be working in a hospital in New Orleans or Atlanta, surrounded by civilians and peace. Why have I gotten myself into this twilight zone of barn-like terminals, blaring intercoms, people with drawn and scared faces? I don’t belong here.
Yes, I do. When I saw those men carried off the plane yesterday, I knew I had to be here, to do what I am about to do. I can’t let them go to this war alone. It wouldn’t be honourable. When I was in high school I read Starship Trooper by Robert Heinlein. In that world people who had done a tour of voluntary service could vote and people who hadn’t, couldn’t. I think that’s the way it should be. We have to do something to earn the right to be citizens.
It’s more than that, a lot more personal. Viet Nam has been so much with me for the past five years. I saw the fear of this war on the faces of the boys in university every time an exam paper was handed back, felt it on the Halloween night when I was at a party and Johnson announced the mining of Haiphong harbor. This war had run through the past decade of our lives. My brother Ward can be drafted. I don’t want him to be here in this terminal. I can’t let those boys from university, from that Halloween party do this alone. And yet, it is only discipline that brings me to the ramp of the plane where a black sergeant looks over his clipboard.
“Name, rank and serial number?”
I rattle them off. I have memorized my serial number so I can rattle it off in short bursts: three numbers, two numbers, four numbers.
He salutes and I board the plane.
©Sharon Wildwind, Dreams That Blister Sleep: A Nurse in Vietnam, River Books, 1999.