THERE I WAS, strapped in the cockpit of a Navy A-7E Corsair jet high above the Nevada desert, staring directly above me at the sleek gray underside of John “Skid” Roe’s Corsair while our two jets plummeted together from the clear blue skies in a five hundred mile-per-hour bombing dive. I was thinking: Something’s wrong. We’d just rolled wings level out of a synchronized high-G wing-over maneuver—known as a section roll-in—to commence our forty-five degree dive. On the desert floor a mile below us burned a white-phosphorus rocket—our practice target—which had been fired there by our Forward Air Controller, the pilot of a third Corsair circling overhead the bomb-drop zone whose job it was to guide us to the target and observe our hits. I dared not look for the sun-bright flame and white smoke; that was Skid’s responsibility as lead pilot. My job was simply to maintain tight formation just outside of Skid’s right wing, and release, or “pickle,” a bomb at exactly the same time as Skid. There was just one problem: I wasn’t flying off Skid’s right wing—I was directly beneath him. Somehow I had botched the section roll-in maneuver. Even under less demanding circumstances, flying beneath another aircraft was difficult and dangerous. But my situation now was doubly alarming. For just above my Corsair’s Plexiglas canopy—a mere ten feet away—hung a dozen olive-drab five-hundred-pound bombs, swaying precariously from their ejector racks under Skid’s swept-back wings like overripe fruit in a windstorm. Seeing them this way, from beneath, and so close I could almost reach out and touch them, caught me by surprise. I stared, transfixed—until a flash of chilling realization exploded in my brain: any moment, now, Skid would be releasing one of those bombs—on top of me.
The realization came too late. Before I could roll my plane to the side or even reach for the radio switch to call for an abort, a burst of bright yellow light flickered from atop the forward-most bomb on the rack. I’d never seen a release cartridge firing before that moment, but I recognized it instantly. A sudden icy fear wrenched my stomach. Time ground to a crawl. I couldn’t move, couldn’t do anything except watch as the bomb slowly detached from the rack and fell away from Skid’s airplane, directly toward me, looming larger and larger in my astonished face like an obscene balloon inflating. I heard a voice cry out, the sound coming from far away, muffled by the din of cockpit noise.
Oh, fuck, it said.
The woman’s somehow-familiar voice didn’t come through my radio earphones. I couldn’t tell where it came from. It didn’t fit.
Wait, I thought. This isn’t how it happened.
The scene instantly crumbled in my brain. Blue skies, the Nevada desert, the bomb falling toward me—all disappeared. In their place was a huge parking lot crammed with cars, over which I sat staring from a large dayroom window on the seventh-floor—the psychiatric ward—of the Seattle Veteran’s Administration Medical Center. The effect was immediate, and overwhelming: a crushing sadness washed over me like an ice-cold wave. Outside, the overcast winter sky seemed to suck the color from whatever lay beneath it—tree-covered hills, buildings, the Seattle streets teeming with morning rush-hour traffic—blending everything in a blasé hue of sameness that made it difficult to fix my gaze to anything at all. The only color was a tail-light beacon from a private airplane that skimmed the western horizon about a mile away, its red glow beating like a tiny heart against the dark skies. I’d seen this same airplane practicing touch-and-go landings at nearby Boeing Field several times over the past few days, but hadn’t given it much thought. Today, for whatever reason, glimpsing it had transported me nearly ten years into the past, to those final moments in the cockpit of my Corsair—moments when, despite being so close to what I’d thought was certain death, I’d felt strangely more alive than I had at any other time of my life. Now, being yanked back to the present, I felt something vital leave me. The deep ache it left behind made it hard to breathe.
I should be dead, I thought.
“Mr. Campbell, is there something going on outside the window you’d like to share with the rest of the group?”
I sucked in a breath and turned from the window back to the fluorescent-lit dayroom. A string of thirty or so dour-looking combat veterans, interspersed by a trio of prim hospital staff, sat facing each other in chairs arranged in a large circle. Morning PTSD group. The sight of them brought an even sharper ache to my gut. They could have been a funeral detail on an active battlefield. Bleak faces stared into the gray tile floor at the center of the room as if into a freshly dug mass grave; others scanned the perimeter with darting eyes, alert for an invisible enemy who was sure to attack at any moment. Poor sons of bitches, I thought: still fighting a war that was over nearly twenty years ago. I pitied them. But I also resented having been, in a sense, drafted to fight alongside them. I had my own war to deal with; I didn’t need theirs, too.
No one spoke. Across the circle, Dr. Chris Chavez, the group moderator, stared at me, apparently waiting for me to answer her not-so-rhetorical question. I’d worked with Chavez in the past, enough to know I didn’t like her. She had a cool, aloof demeanor and a condescending air about her that I found irritating. I felt myself bristling under her stare. Suddenly I was back in Mrs. Osborne’s second-grade class, caught passing notes. “It was nothing,” I said. “I was just watching an airplane.” I didn’t bother mentioning my waking dream or how crappy the world outside looked or the life force I felt being sucked from me every time I laid eyes on these broken men. I figured that hadn’t been the point of her question.
“Mr. Campbell,” she said, her tone irritatingly patient, “please give the group the courtesy of your attention. As we have already explained to you, the success of milieu therapy is seriously compromised without the active involvement of each individual group member. We expect you to participate, even if it’s just by listening.”
I glared at Chavez. I’d never been good at weathering a public ass-chewing, and I thought briefly about saying something to her about it. Something provocative, perhaps. But right then I didn’t have the heart to argue about it. About anything. I nodded and tried to arrange my face into something contrite. The effort seemed to satisfy her. She shifted her attention to a small, shriveled-looking man sitting to my right a few chairs away. “I’m sorry for that interruption, Mr. Sloan,” she said. “Please go on.”
Sloan was one of those who had been gazing into the abyss at the center of the room. He cleared his throat and spoke toward it. “Well, as I said, we were out on patrol southwest of DaNang. The company commander called up on the field telephone and told us to join up with our sister platoon for a clearing mission—what turned out to be a ‘Zippo raid’, really—on a village a few clicks away.”
I looked at the clock, and groaned inside. There was still an hour to go in the session. I’d already heard plenty about these brutal “Zippo raids” from some of the other vets. I had no desire to sit through yet another “gook” village being burned to the ground. Around me, blank faces peered into space. They may or may not have been listening, I couldn’t tell. Sloan’s droning monotone was easy to tune out. I let my eyes close, and a dark expanse seemed to open above me. The voice floated up into it like a balloon rising into a night sky.
I was grateful for the pseudo-silence in my mind. But I was soon feeling lonesome and depressed, even more, it seemed, than when I’d first come to the PTSD ward (the acronym stood for post traumatic stress disorder) a week earlier. I was at the point where I could hardly stand the place. I was riding a runaway roller-coaster of mood swings that often seemed close to hysteria. I was not only angry; I was enraged. I was belligerent and profane. And I was both suspicious of and uncooperative with the hospital staff. This, despite knowing, at least intellectually, that these people really were there to help me. Despite my having come here of my own accord. Despite knowing that simply being on the ward quite possibly had saved my life.
Of course, I’d brought much of my rage in with me. Most of it stemmed, I think, from feeling helpless to crawl out of the deep pit I’d dug for myself over the past several years: three marriages, all ending in acrimonious divorce; friends and relatives running rapidly from my company; not one, but two bankruptcies; and the mother of my youngest child threatening to take away my visitation rights if I didn’t start coughing up money for child support. I was miserable in my brain-killing job as a waiter, thoroughly blocked when it came to writing (ostensibly my real profession), and the woman I called my mother would no longer write to me or answer my phone calls. In short, I had managed in less than ten years to piss away all the good things I’d spent my life working to achieve—not the least of which was my career as a Navy pilot, the one endeavor on which I’d foolishly pinned my self-worth and my identity as a man.
Being here on the PTSD ward seemed to merely add to that rage. I had no idea why. I’d been assured that attending these group therapy sessions twice a day would be helpful, but I had yet to see it. What I did see was a wall of resentment I’d steadily built up between me and these men. Don’t get me wrong: I couldn’t help but feel compassion for them, in view of what they had gone through, what they were still going through. But I had grown to loathe their company. From the first day, I had begun to feel alien to them. Of course, we shared many of the symptoms of that general malady known as being “fucked up.” Our marriages and other relationships were a shambles. We couldn’t get or keep decent jobs. We were vessels of shame and anger and depression, the weight of which often wore us down to the point of feeling suicidal. But there were other differences in our backgrounds that loomed huge between us. I had never been in combat, had never shot at another human being, let alone killed anyone, had never witnessed a man dying. I had never had to fight for my life in that way. After eleven years of military service, I had grown to despise and fear weapons of any kind, and the philosophy of violence that had made them manifest. I detested all wars, even the supposedly “good” ones. Those factors alone had me living on a different planet from these men, most of whom were proud of their service and would go back if they could. Even the pathology of our PTSD was markedly different. Theirs had stemmed from battlefields in the rice paddies and jungles of Southeast Asia. Mine had sprung from a different kind of battlefield: my own childhood home.
I kept thinking I didn’t belong there. But then, where did I belong?
I couldn’t keep my little break from the current reality for long. When I tuned back in, Sloan was finally coming to the climax of his story. “I heard a noise,” he was saying. “A—this young—Vietnamese—boy came out from behind some trees, where I guess he’d been hiding. It took me a second to realize he was pointing a rifle at me. There wasn’t time to think. I swung my rifle up and fired off the entire clip. The boy—fell.” Sloan looked down with glazed eyes, as if the dead boy lay there at his feet. “He was the first person I ever killed,” he said, his voice thick with emotion. “I’d been in-country six days.” He looked at Chavez. “I’d lied about my age to get into the Marine Corps. I was just sixteen years old.” He hunched forward in his chair. A man next to Sloan put a hand on his back and held it there.
No one spoke for nearly a minute while Sloan trembled. Finally, Chavez looked around the room. “Who else would like to share?” she asked. Chavez scanned the faces in the circle like a searchlight looking for escaped prisoners. I felt myself tense up, as I always did on these open invitations for these guys to spill their guts out for everyone to see. People had begun to fidget a little; I looked up at the clock and noticed, with no small relief, that we were close to breaking for lunch. Not that I cared that much for the bland mystery-meat and overcooked vegetables that was apparently the usual fare around here. I just wanted out of the room.
Chavez waited patiently for a volunteer. Gradually, a sound rose up out of the silence: the muffled roar from outside the window of a small airplane engine. I figured it was the same airplane I’d seen earlier, on its way now to another pass at Boeing Field. The sound grew louder, then diminished as the plane passed by. No one else seemed to hear it. A sharp ache jabbed at my gut. Again, the image of my diving Corsair came rushing vividly back to me, and the memory of that moment when I’d been so sure I was going to die. That had been me, I thought. Me! The ache rose into my chest to become a painful yearning. But a yearning for what?
“Mr. Campbell,” Chavez said, startling me once again into the present. “What’s going on with you? You’re obviously preoccupied.”
I thought about it a moment and shrugged. I couldn’t begin to articulate what I was feeling. I didn’t understand it myself. There were only hints, bits and pieces of things that didn’t seem to fit into any sort of cohesive whole. “I don’t really know,” I said.
Chavez looked at me as if trying to divine what was in my brain. Then she flipped through her clipboard notes for a moment, apparently looking for something. I thought I might be off the hook. But I wasn’t.
“I’m wondering,” she said, looking back up at me, “if you might want to elaborate some on what you’d said last week about your father.”
“My father?” I tried to recall. The events of the past week had been pretty much a confusing blur to me. “I don’t remember saying anything about my father,” I said.
She glanced again through her notes. “Let me see,” she said. “Yes, you talked briefly about your father last Friday. You’d said something about always believing that he’d loved you.” She looked up, her voice softening. “Despite the fact that he abused you horribly, both physically and sexually, before he finally abandoned you.”
I felt my face go suddenly hot. “I said that?” I asked, stupidly.
I didn’t have a clue what to say. Not only could I not remember what possessed me to say anything about my father in the first place, I couldn’t imagine anyone in the group wanting to hear about him. Why had she thought they would? I glanced over at Sloan, in silent tears, still eyeing in the burning battlefield of his mind the boy he’d just killed. Across the circle from me, next to Chavez, sat one of the two men I shared my room with, a cadaverous-looking man named Dave Hopper. I’d been horrified to learn his story. He’d been a sniper during the war, and had killed over eight hundred people. Eight hundred! He’d lived with it for twenty years before it finally got to him and he’d tried to hang himself. And a few chairs away from Dave was Mike Thompson, a brooding, scraggly-looking former POW who’d spent seven years in the Hanoi Hilton. Mike had watched his copilot being beat to death shortly after they’d been captured, and had himself been tortured so badly that he still couldn’t walk upright. Now he was in here after trying to drink himself to death. I glanced around the room at others whose ghastly stories I’d heard. I felt, more than saw, them all looking at me, thought I heard them all thinking, What the fuck are you doing here? I suddenly felt as if I hated them, all of them.
“I don’t—really feel like talking right now,” I said to Chavez.
Chavez nodded, then gave me a tentative look. “I remember you had also mentioned last week that you’d been feeling suicidal, that there was a situation at the restaurant where you work—with a girl, if I recall—that you thought might have triggered it.” She let a moment pass. “Did you want to talk about that at all?”
Chavez looked at me, her brow furrowed. She seemed to consider pressing the matter, but kept quiet.
We moved on. After a couple minutes of trolling by Chavez, another man began speaking. Through the thick fog that still hung around me, I caught that he was finally getting back disability pay amounting to over one hundred thousand dollars—after having wrestled with Uncle Sam over it for nearly twenty years. The check, he said, really was in the mail.
“That’s wonderful news,” Chavez said, smiling. “You must be very pleased.”
The man’s face reddened. “I thought I would be,” he said. “Now I don’t know. All that money.” He looked suddenly as if someone were pointing a gun at him. “The thought of going into a shopping mall. It scares the hell out of me.” He looked at Chavez with tears overflowing his eyes. “Isn’t that the damnedest thing you ever heard of?”
After lunch I met with Steve McCutcheon, the head of the PTSD clinic, for my first weekly review. I knew McCutcheon from the VA Day Hospital group therapy program I’d been briefly involved in more than years earlier, the same program where I’d also first encountered Chris Chavez. I didn’t like McCutcheon any more than I liked Chavez, and for the same reason: his overt, deliberate detachment. You could have told McCutcheon anything about what went on during the war, no matter how horrible, and his face would look as blank as a dinner plate. That bothered me. It was as if he’d turned off his feelings—or maybe didn’t have any in the first place. It didn’t matter which; I’ve always had a hard time talking to anyone who won’t or can’t react. It’s not natural.
I sat on one side of his desk while he read through my file on the other. Then he tossed it onto the desk, open, and leaned back in his chair with his hands clasped behind his head. “You’ve been on the ward for a week now, Bill,” he said. “How would you assess your progress here?”
I shrugged. “Alright, I guess. It’s a little early to tell. I’m—still confused about some things.”
He eyed me closely. “Any more thoughts of suicide?”
“No. Not since I’ve been on the ward.”
McCutcheon nodded. His expression didn’t change. Still, I imagined for some reason he didn’t entirely believe me. I had answered truthfully, if not completely. What I had wanted to say was that I was feeling as screwed up as ever, and that the only real improvement thus far was that the little voice in my head that had urged me to open my veins a week earlier was now strangely quiet. The truth was, I was still afraid the voice might start up again once I left the ward. But there was something about the way McCutcheon was eyeing me that made me not want to tell him about it.
Despite my relatively recent arrival on the ward, McCutcheon wanted to talk about developing a release plan, something that included a job, a place to live, a commitment to continued individual therapy, possibly medication for depression and anxiety. He took notes. Most of what he wanted was already in place. I still had my job at the restaurant. I was already putting out feelers to locate a cheaper apartment which, hopefully, would free up enough money to begin paying child support again. The VA offered free weekly sessions with a therapist if I wanted them, and I indicated I did. Finally, I told him I’d rather not get back on the antidepressants, at least for the time being. The side effects were difficult to handle, and my latest, Prozac, had just been documented as possibly inciting suicidal ideation.
McCutcheon finished his note-taking. He glanced through the list again, and nodded. “I’d like to support you on your plan, Bill,” he said. “I think it’s a good plan, and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to walk off the floor in, say, another two weeks.”
“Great,” I said, although the thought made my chest flutter.
“But I’ll be honest with you,” he said pointedly, “some of the staff are becoming a little concerned about your behavior in group. Dr. Chavez, in particular, has mentioned several instances, but these are things we’ve all seen. Profanity, yelling, belligerence. And a lack of attentiveness. Some might call it an overt refusal to participate.” He looked at me without blinking. “Do you want to talk about it?”
A trickle of fear began in my stomach. “Not particularly. Like I said, I’m still confused about things. Trying to make sense of them.” I shrugged. “I guess I’m angry. It’s a struggle.”
McCutcheon looked at me as if he were still waiting for something else. “Well,” he said finally, “it’s a concern.” He didn’t have to explain. Plan or no plan, nothing was set in stone. Unless I demonstrated I was willing to play nice, my voluntary status there could easily change to something more compulsory. I might even find myself headed toward more permanent state-run facilities. There was no telling just how far down I could fall. I didn’t want to know.
“I’ll work on it,” I said.
He nodded, which I took to mean he was willing to see how things went. I left him writing his meeting notes in my folder.
I used the few minutes before afternoon group to call the restaurant where I worked. I’d been putting it off until I had a better idea when I might be allowed to leave the hospital. The phone rang several times before the day bartender, an older woman I knew simply as Mama B, answered. “Franco’s!” The background noise in the restaurant lounge was loud enough that she had to yell into the phone. The place was hopping. I told her I wanted to talk to the assistant manager, Jay Schnebly. “Let me see if I can find him,” she yelled, and put down the receiver. I imagined people running here and there with trays of steaming clams and crab and salmon held over their heads, and the rich clientèle with their million-dollar yachts tied up to the adjacent dock. I thought of how I’d been a servant to these people.
Someone picked up the receiver. “This is Jay,” a voice said.
“Hi, Jay,” I said, trying to sound cheerful. “It’s Bill Campbell.”
There was a slight pause. “Yes, Bill,” he said. “We’re a little busy around here. Is there something quick I can do for you?”
I told him that, barring anything unexpected, I was two weeks away from being released from the hospital, and I wanted to be put back onto the dinner schedule.
“Uh—yeah, okay,” he said. “That would be the twenty-eighth.” I heard him riffle through some papers. “Let’s see. I guess I can fit you in Thursday through Monday. But we’ll have to move you to section two.”
A sudden pang of irritation flitted through me. I’d been used to having section one, the largest and most lucrative group of tables. Section two was much smaller, and was generally for the newer hires while they were being trained. But I held my tongue. I knew Jay was being generous in letting me come back to work at all. I’d be foolish to argue the point. “I’ll take it,” I said. “And thanks.”
Jay grunted. “I hope you know,” he said, “I had to go to bat for you with Bob. He wasn’t too hot about bringing you back.”
“I understand,” I said. “I appreciate it, really.”
“And just so you know, Mia’s working that shift too. She’ll be on one.”
Mia. A UW student majoring in photography, and young enough to be my daughter. She’d been hired at Franco’s shortly after my breakup from my girlfriend Tamara, and we hit it off as friends immediately. She was cute, perky, artistic, somewhat exotic. We often got together at one of the local pubs for a game of pool after work, went out with some of the rest of the staff for karaoke, and in general, just hung out together. Mia had been there, in the purely platonic sense, to help me through the pain. Looking back, given the vacuum Tamara had left in me, it’s no surprise that I soon began to feel an attraction to Mia. I kept it to myself as best I could, but she sensed it, nonetheless. She could have talked to me about it, settled it easily with a minimum of hurt feelings, and preserved our friendship. Instead, she chose to end our friendship altogether. There had been a blowup. Things became particularly ugly after (as I later learned) her therapist counseled her to simply stop talking to me, to behave quite literally as if I wasn’t there. The effect was suddenly to make her infinitely more important to me than she had been, to make me feel desperately crazy, and to bring out my most infantile behavior. And, as I had apparently admitted in front of Dr. Chavez and the rest of the PTSD group, I viewed what had happened between Mia and me as a major catalyst toward landing me on the ward.
I thought now about working next to Mia. Something bitter rose in the back of my throat, threatening to choke me. I swallowed it back down. “That’s okay,” I said. “I don’t think–”
“Truth be told, Bill, she’s afraid of you,” Jay said. “And, frankly, I don’t blame her, especially after that business you pulled with her car. It’s got a lot of people around here wondering about you.” He paused. “Me too, if you want to know the truth.”
“You don’t have to worry,” I said. “Nothing’s going to happen. As a matter of fact, she’s had me served with a no-contact order.”
“Yeah, I heard,” Jay said, snorting. “And we know just how far something like that can go in protecting a girl, don’t we?”
It was a cruel remark, and it stung me. I’d never laid an angry hand on a girl in my life, and wasn’t about to begin. But I did my best to let it slide. I needed the job. I assured Jay I was getting plenty of professional help, that he wouldn’t have to worry about Mia, that I’d cut my own goddamn hand off before I even got close to hurting her or any other human being. I tried not to sound like I was pleading with him.
Jay sighed. “I’m going out on a limb for you here,” he said. “You screw this up, I’ll fire you so fast your head will swim. Are we clear on that?”
I felt my face growing hot. “We’re clear,” I said hoarsely.
He hung up.
My mouth was dry. I thought about what I’d left on the outside to come to the ward, and felt a fresh stab of pain in my gut. It suddenly occurred to me that nothing out in the “real” world would have changed just because I’d spent some time here. Getting back into the swing of things, whatever that meant, wasn’t going to be easy. Particularly when I was still largely in the dark about the deeper issues that were causing my problems in the first place.
By the time I was finished talking to Jay, I was late for afternoon group. Chavez shot me a look when I came into the dayroom and took my usual seat by the window, but didn’t interrupt one of the younger vets who was whining about something. The rest of the group seemed collectively bored. The kid, whose name I remembered was Joel, ran a hand through his hair as he talked. The wrist it was attached to had a ghastly purple scar that ran lengthwise from the hand to nearly halfway up his inner arm. I thought he must have really wanted to go. Anyway, he was apparently in the middle of explaining how he’d got himself “fucked up” while on a weekend pass from the ward, which had resulted in his off-facility privileges being revoked. He swore it had all been an accident. He’d been good about staying off the booze and the drugs, was taking the Antabuse as he’d been directed to. But then he’d made the stupid mistake, he said, of buying an underarm deodorant without checking the ingredients. Of course, it had contained alcohol. That was how he’d happened to get drunk and fallen off the wagon. It hadn’t been his fault, he insisted. Even in the middle of his speaking, there came sporadic chuckles and groans from the rest of the group.
I couldn’t begin to pretend I was interested in this. I was still steamed, and not a little ashamed, over my conversation with Jay. The thought of having to work again with Mia made my heart seem to want to punch its way out of my chest. The ongoing discussion in the dayroom seemed to fade. My mind wandered. I was soon staring outside the window again. The sun had finally come out, and there was some color in the scene. I found myself searching for the airplane I’d seen that morning. I didn’t find it, but that didn’t prevent me from conjuring it in my imagination, letting myself be captivated by it until in my mind’s eye I was inside the cockpit, guiding the plane smoothly over the approach end of the distant runway, pulling back on the control wheel to begin the flare, holding the nose up as the plane settled, holding it, until the final satisfying erp! of rubber on asphalt as the main-wheels touched down.
“Mr. Campbell!” Chavez called to me sharply. This time she didn’t bother to hide her irritation.
I turned from the window. Joel had stopped talking. He sat in his chair, leaning forward, looking glum and deflated. Chavez glared at me. “Mr. Campbell,” she said, “perhaps you’d like to discuss with the group why you choose to ignore our simple rules of conduct. Rules, I might add, that no one else here seems to have a problem following.”
I just looked at her. Another angry heat gushed into my face. I felt like my head might pop. What the hell was I supposed to say? Obviously I couldn’t just take the ass-chewing and mumble an apology, as I had that morning. She was waiting for me to say something. They were waiting. But I couldn’t back down. I knew I was being stupid, but I couldn’t let her have this, not in front of them. “I don’t know why I have such a problem,” I snapped. I suddenly felt like I might cry. My raised voice felt thick in my throat. “And you don’t need to fucking talk to me that way.”
I shouldn’t have said it. I knew it as soon as the word was out of my mouth. Several of the group turned and looked at me, eyebrows raised. Even the ones I had thought were catatonic.
But Chavez didn’t flinch. “And what way is that?” she said calmly.
“Like I’m a goddamn child. I’m thirty-nine years old, for Chrissake. A grown man.”
Chavez sighed. Despite her irritation, despite being confronted by an obvious madman, her features seemed to soften. “Not on the inside,” she said almost gently. “Emotionally, you’re more like a child in an adult body, trying to pass as a grown man.”
She looked at me for several moments without speaking, while I struggled to understand what she’d said, to connect all the dots, to step back and look at the picture they formed. A cartoon image materialized in my head: a tiny boy, a sort of preadolescent homunculus, manipulated the levers and switches that controlled my life from a tiny chair in the middle of my skull, observing the events of the outer world through the windows of my eyes. I tried to shake the image away, but it persisted. I glanced at some of the faces in the group, hoping for something, even a twitch of an eyebrow to indicate some sort of dissenting opinion. There was no hint of one. I don’t know why I expected otherwise. Most of the group had turned their attention back to their sepulchral vision in the center of the room, if in fact they’d ever truly left it. I was alone in this.
“I’m sorry if that seems harsh, Mr. Campbell,” Chavez continued, “but I feel it’s important to be honest in here. Don’t you?”
“Oh, absolutely,” I said. My wavering voice had begun to sound frantic in my ears, as if a hand gripped my throat and squeezed, cutting off my breath. Some of the other guys fidgeted in their seats, as if they were suddenly weary of having to deal with me. I felt trapped. I didn’t know how to end this thing that had gone so wrong so quickly. My only choice seemed to be to press on. “So how old would you say I am, on the inside, doctor? Eight? Nine years old?” I didn’t try to hide the venom in my voice.
“I’m not sure you’ve even made it that far,” she said calmly.
Incredibly, just hearing her say it seemed to make it so. I felt my scrotum tighten, as if my testicles had begun to shrink and withdraw back up into my abdomen. I imagined she sensed it happening. “And how do I fix that?” I asked hoarsely.
She regarded me, thought for a moment. “I’m not sure you can,” she said finally. “The best you can hope for is to learn to live with it.”
Sudden tears splashed down my cheek; I jerked my hand up to wipe them away. “But haven’t I already been living with it?”
She smiled, pitying me. “Have you really?”
The question—a blunt accusation, really—settled over me like a freezing fog. I probably couldn’t have responded even if the words had formed in my brain. My face felt frozen, my lips sealed shut. I imagined I hated this woman. I wanted to argue, to prove she was wrong about me. But I found myself caving beneath her credentialed authority. The more I played and replayed what she had said in my mind, the more the very pillars on which I’d built the structure of my manhood began to crumble.
I looked at the men sitting around me and felt even more alienated from them than I had before. There was nowhere to attach myself, not even to my past, which tangible events I had thought I understood and could count on for meaning. I no longer knew who—or what—I was, or what I had been.
Chavez made a mark on her notepad. “Perhaps it’s best we moved on,” she said. She looked around the room, her eyes finally settling on an older black man. His skin was the color of rich earth, and his hair like fine white wool. “Mr. Davis?” she said. “You look troubled today. What’s going on with you?”
I turned my head numbly toward Davis and listened half-heartedly. He stared at the floor for nearly a minute while we waited. Then he closed his eyes and tears fell. “I had a friend,” he said, eyes still closed. “My best friend. Named Tommy. We grew up together. Enlisted together. Tommy knew some higher-ups in his wife’s family, and they arranged for us to get assigned to the same outfit.” Davis paused. “He got killed yesterday. I mean, yesterday back in ‘seventy-one. A sniper got him. I was there when it happened.” His eyes were still closed. A fresh round of tears splashed down his already-wet cheeks. His jaw muscles tightened. “We were at an LZ near An Khe,” he said. “Place called Buffalo. Resting up before a recon patrol that night. Things were quiet. We were outside the mess tent, smoking, telling stupid jokes. Laughing our asses off. Stupid jokes like ‘Who ‘dat?’ We’d just be saying that back and forth, rolling our eyes, and it didn’t make any sense, it was just funny.” A smile flickered briefly across Mr. Davis’s face, then disappeared. “Tommy was grinning at me, making this stupid face, and then—then—his head was gone! It was—like there was something inside his head that just sort of popped—pop!” Davis squeezed his eyes shut even tighter as if trying not to see what was there before him in his mind’s eye. “I never heard the shot.” Then there came from inside his throat a high-pitched whine that grew until he couldn’t keep it inside anymore and his mouth opened and out came a shrieking blast of pain: “And his head—his head!—it was all over my face. In my eyes. Tommy’s blood, his bones, his brains.” He didn’t say anything else, he couldn’t, his body racked with great rhythmic sobs that seemed to be pulling every ounce of strength from him. We sat there and listened to him cry for several minutes. The guy next to him reached a hand behind Davis’s back and laid it there, barely touching.
No one seemed to feel like talking after Davis’s little story. After he’d stopped crying, Chavez said she could see he was in a lot of pain, that he obviously missed his friend deeply.
Fortunately, it was toward the end of the period. We didn’t have to sit there much longer before Chavez said something about important work being done there today and dismissed us. The room emptied out. A couple guys stayed behind to help Davis out. He walked out slowly, bent over, like an old man who’d had the life sucked out of him. Someone used up and thrown away.
I was in a funk the rest of the evening. For some reason I was drawn to go to the gray tile bathroom and look at my face in the mirror. I did that several times. I talked to my reflection, listened to the timber of my voice, observed my facial gestures, figuring, I guess, to somehow gauge my maturity. Maybe catch a hint of that childishness Chavez had evidently thought was so obvious. But after awhile I couldn’t tell what the hell I was looking at. Even my voice no longer seemed to have a definite sound or character to it. It was like listening to a whisper.
We ate a tasteless, forgettable dinner. I sat by myself in the dining area. No one made any attempt to visit. I didn’t blame them. Afterwards, a woman came onto the ward with a cart filled with these craft kits, courtesy of one of the Disable American Veterans units somewhere in Seattle. I pulled one from the cart: a snap-together plastic model of an F-15 jet fighter. I worked on it for awhile, then got up and left it there on the table. I didn’t have the desire to finish it.
I read some from a self-help book I’d brought with me from home when I first came to the ward, Adult Children of Alcoholics, by Janet Woititz. But it depressed me. I thought I needed to laugh, so I went into the dark TV room and watched In Living Color: Jim Carrey portraying a guy named Fireman Bob, looking like he’d squirted flaming napalm all over his face. I’d seen the schtick before, and remembered having nearly laughed myself silly. Now it seemed flat and contrived.
I was feeling restless but I didn’t know what for. I got up and went back into the dining room. A couple of the guys were playing rummy, and I watched that for a few minutes before asking if I could join in. They made room for me, but they looked as if they’d merely begun dealing an extra “dummy” hand to an empty chair. They didn’t include me in their conversation, which I gathered was about motorcycles, something safe and mechanical and beyond feeling and speculation. I listened—I’d owned a couple of bikes in my time—but I was feeling increasingly alien to them, and I soon lost interest. No one seemed to have much of a competitive spirit. No one was keeping score. We were just passing time, waiting for something to happen. I kept looking at the clock, but for no reason I could think of.
At nine-thirty I went downstairs with some of the other vets for the last smoke break of the evening. I didn’t smoke, but I liked going down just to say I’d got off the floor, to breathe some outside air and feel the cool on my face. But I had the sudden feeling that I didn’t belong there anymore, as if some secret had been revealed about me in afternoon group that meant my membership in this men’s club had been revoked. I stood by, now an outsider, while the others talked about armament. LAWS. 9 mm Uzzis. Cannisters. Claymores. Quad-50’s. M-60’s. Mike-mike. 95’s. Mark-72’s. A few things I was familiar with; most I wasn’t. They talked about the “dinks” being nailed to trees by darts, or torched by foo-gas. Jokes and nicknames that were like code, the meanings behind most of which I had to guess. They made grimacing caricatures out of their faces—so many funny ways to describe a man’s dying!—and laughed, deep belly laughs. Then the laughter died and everyone stared at their feet or turned to face the parking lot where they didn’t have to look at one another. The smokers drew one last puff from their cigarettes and threw the butts onto the driveway already littered with thousands of them. Then we went back inside to the silent elevator ride back to the ward.
But I didn’t feel like going to bed just yet. I was feeling anxious, troubled. I stood in the hall down at the nurse’s station and thumbed through a copy of the World News while the two nurses on duty were busy writing reports in everyone’s folders. On the front page was a photo of Ross Perot standing near a podium. An extraterrestrial being stood behind him with his strange-looking hand on Perot’s shoulder. Perot looked surprised.
A younger Panama-era veteran, whose name I recalled was Walker, came out of the bathroom nearest the nurse’s station. He nodded as he walked past me, then a moment later he turned and came back. “Your name’s Bill, isn’t it?” he asked. I told him it was. “I’m Brian,” he said. He put out his hand, and I shook it. Then he said, “So, you used to fly?”
I was a bit taken aback by the question. “Is it that obvious?”
“Well, actually, I think you mentioned it in passing one day last week.”
“Ah.” One more thing about the previous week I apparently didn’t remember.
“So, what’d you fly? Fighters?”
“A-7s,” I said. “Light bombers. They weren’t very good fighters.”
“Oh,” he said, “right. A pig of an engine.” He must have seen the surprise on my face. “Oh, yeah,” he said, “I know all about A-7s. F-4s, too. F-16s, you name it. I used to have an older brother in the Air Force, flew F-105s–“Thuds”–out of Korat.” His eyes took on a faraway look. “Jesus, I loved those planes. Looked like goddamn rocket ships, you know?”
I knew. I’d been infatuated with F-105s myself, and had once dreamed of flying them. But by the time I’d begun my flight training in 1979, it had been with the Navy. And the Air Force had long since replaced the F-105 with something more modern. “Beautiful planes,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said, nodding wistfully. “Anyway, Jeff—that was my brother’s name—he got killed by a SAM over Hai Phong, be twenty-five years ago next month. I was still in third grade when it happened, too young to know what a SAM was. I thought it was a guy’s name.” He chuckled, then drew silent. “I don’t remember much about him, really, except he loved flying. Couldn’t talk about anything else, and always with his hands in the air like this—“ He put out his flattened hands and waved them around in front of him like two airplanes engaged in a dogfight.
I smiled. “We all do that,” I said. “Tie our hands behind us and we forget how to talk.”
He went on to tell me the story of how his brother had died, how he’d been blown out of the sky by a surface-to-air missile after making a third pass at an enemy gun position that had been threatening American ground forces—and after his jet had already taken a hit from ground fire. It’s likely he hadn’t known what hit him. But he had succeeded in destroying the gun emplacement, likely saving American lives. It had earned him a posthumous medal for bravery. It had also earned him the distinction of being a real man in his younger brother’s eyes. “I wanted to be a pilot, like him, but I wasn’t smart enough. I could be tough, though. That’s why I joined the Marines. I like thinking he’d have been proud of me.”
Walker’s face glowed with admiration when he recollected his brother. But the more I listened and thought about his story, the more depressed it made me. Jeff Walker had been a fighter. He had died a hero’s death, in combat, saving the lives of his countrymen. His plane had already been hit by ground fire, yet he chose to continue his attack a second, even a third time.
Conversely, I had never been a fighter. As a pilot, I’d been thousands of miles and nearly a decade away from anything resembling combat, and had been glad of it. And while most of the military pilots I’d known openly believed the more dangerous the flying was, the better, my own flying had been characterized by an ever-growing white-knuckle fear. Something which figured largely in ending my career as a pilot.
Of course, I couldn’t admit that to this kid. Right then, I had a more immediate need not to look like a sissy, a coward, a non-man. Abruptly, the need took over. “I was nearly killed, myself” I blurted out of nowhere. Desperation laced my voice. “Several times, in fact.”
“Really?” said the kid. “Wow.”
“I was just remembering one of those times this morning.” I recounted the incident over the Nevada desert, up to the point where I watched while Skid Roe’s bomb was falling toward my canopy, with no time to get out of the way. I left him hanging.
The kid’s eyes grew wide, fried eggs on either side of his nose. “But how–?”
“How did I get away?” I smiled. “I got away because my flight lead fucked up.”
He waited for me to explain. I told him Skid’s bomb was supposed to fall straight down from his wing. That had been the plan. But Skid had accidentally flipped the wrong weapons-control switch in his cockpit, remotely activating a cleverly-designed system of retarding fins on the tail end of the bomb. Just before the bomb would have come crashing through my canopy, the retarding fins deployed, like an umbrella popping open in a strong wind, and jerked the bomb behind me. The system, known as Snakeye, had been developed to protect bombers making a low-level pass at a target from being hit by their own shrapnel, by dragging the bomb well behind the airplane before impact. “The bomb couldn’t have been more than inches away from my head,” I clucked. “In fact, it was close enough I thought it might hit my rudder on the way back. But there was nary a scratch.”
Walker chuckled and shook his head, apparently impressed that I had so handily cheated death. “That’s great,” he said. “I’ll have to remember that one.”
An awkward silence arose. There didn’t seem to be anything else to say. I couldn’t help be aware of the obvious differences between this boy’s brother and me. Jeff Walker had died; I had lived. He’d died honorably; I had lived because of someone else’s fuckup. Like a botched abortion, this baby had lived.
I’d thought I was going to get an ego stroke; but in fact all I got was another story about someone I could never measure up to.
The conversation trailed, and we said good-night. He walked to his room. It was like a spotlight being turned off on me, and was now following him. I felt as if my manhood was walking down the hallway with him, and when he closed his door, all that was left behind was this little kid inside my head, wishing.
What exactly was it that made a man a real man? The question haunted me. I kept coming back to Chavez’s cruel (as I saw them) comments during group. What mechanism ostensibly existed in a man’s head that clicked or buzzed or chimed to signal to him that he’d entered that coveted realm known as manhood? Or was the mechanism merely something, or someone, external? Someone—a father perhaps, or some other trusted mentor—to evaluate him and to tell him he’d passed the tests? And, whatever that mechanism, why did it seem I’d never been endowed with it? Why had I never felt like a man?
I thought back to that afternoon’s group session. I’d looked around the room and I’d seen men. Broken men; hurting men. But men, nonetheless. Maybe they’d been men because they were broken and hurting. Men stepped up to the plate and took their lumps. These vets certainly had. I couldn’t say the same for myself. I’d joined the Air Force when I was seventeen knowing full well whatever duties I’d be assigned would most likely be a safe distance from enemy activity. Even flying had given me the sense that I would be well above the pitched battles of war, false though that sense might have been. I had known all along that I had an aversion to fighting, that I’d never been very good at it, had steered clear of it whenever I could. Real men, like Jeff Walker, had no such aversion. They looked for fights. Real men, like Davis, watched their buddies disintegrate before their eyes.
I folded up the paper and mumbled a goodnight to the nurses at the station, and went down to my room. It was dark. Hopper was already asleep, snoring. I left the light off. I got undressed in the dark and slipped into my bed. On the far side of the room, my other roommate, a featureless lump named Lempke, grunted in his sleep and let out a long fart. I thought with no small irritation that it was just a matter of time before the poison gas drifted over to my side of the room. Then I noticed the gentle hiss of an air conditioning vent in the ceiling just over my head, reminding me eerily of the sort of gas nozzle I imagined hung from the gas chamber ceilings of Auschwitz. The combination led to a long depressing train of thought that ended finally with a poem I remembered reading back in junior high school which had impacted me deeply, back when I was still infatuated with poetry and stories and movies about the glories of war:
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est Pro patria mori..
I lay there near to tears thinking about it. Yes, I was sad for the author of the poem, whose name I’d forgot but whose tragic life story I recalled. But I was even sadder because in some twisted way I yearned terribly to have been there in the trenches with him, if for no other reason than to have been, to be, a part of that tortured brotherhood of men. Men like those whose room I now shared: ghostly Hopper, and even gas-bag Lempke. Men.
Eventually, I slept, not yet even beginning to grasp the true nature of the craziness that had befallen me. Or really understanding in my heart the point the poet was getting at in the final lines of his terrible and beautiful poem which still echoed in my head:
Dulce et Decorum est / Pro patria mori.
“It is sweet and right to die for one’s country.”
That old lie. God help me, I still believed it.