Last Orders for Phnom Penh’s Drunkest Vietnam VeteranApril 19, 2012
“It must have been great taking acid and running around the jungle shooting gooks Pops?”
“What the hell! You’re talking about that goddamn stupid movie again; it was nothing like that! And I didn’t call them gooks.”
Pops wasn’t a big fan of Apocalypse Now to say the least. He hated that film as much as he hated Reagan for the cuts to federal funding that resulted in the meltdown of his subcontracting business back in the 1980s. We’d goad him a little about the movie but he could see the humor in it and didn’t take our remarks too seriously.
You could sometimes see a small smile forming but he never really seemed too happy about anything. Maybe he had been happy once, way back in his youth, but the war changed all that.
He served three tours in the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, and when he finally left the service as a 24 year old buck sergeant and returned to Oregon with his silver star and two purple hearts, things were never the same.
He’d volunteered to serve. He’d always make sure to point out that he was no draftee. One of the worst jobs in that war must have been the one he had – tunnel rat. The Vietnamese were good at tunneling and they honeycombed the areas they operated in with them, so someone had to go down these tunnels to fight them or flush them out with a knife, a pistol and a flashlight. The soldiers who got picked for this unenviable job were the shorter ones, and Pops wasn’t too tall.
Hot and full of stale air, booby traps and waiting enemies, it took a brave person to go down into such a malevolent and claustrophobic space. Armed with just a pistol and a knife, venturing into a dark abyss and almost guaranteed a fight, I can’t think of many worse places to be. Pops always said that his best day in Vietnam was when an even shorter soldier joined the platoon and and the new guy got the hated gig .
After Pops left the army he worked back home for a couple of decades, but somehow ended up back in South East Asia, at first in Thailand but then in Cambodia. He never wanted to go back to Vietnam but when he eventually gritted his teeth and made the pilgrimage, he found the small town near his old base to be changed beyond all recognition and the locals he went searching for to be long dead or untraceable.
And from what he said there wasn’t any reason for him to return from Cambodia to the States, he no longer had any family there and didn’t much like the place anymore either.
The problem was that he had ghosts. To quieten the ghosts he drank heavily, and took a lot of medication: painkillers and the like. Not one for socializing too much, he’d sit at home and drink a bottle of whiskey every night, until he’d knocked himself out cold. Next day he’d arrive at work dressed impeccably in his button down collar white shirt, blue silk tie, smart slacks and shiny loafers but looking red faced and saggy eyed.
Unfortunately his boozing resulted in a lot of accidents, and it was common for him to turn up at work with contusions from when he’d hit the edge of a table or the floor on his way down. He was in such a shocking state sometimes that it was surprising he kept his job at all. This could only be explained by the fact that he did one of the most boring and specialized jobs there was, but he did it well and nobody was either willing or qualified to replace him.
A few years ago he drank so much free Johnny Black at a work party that he ended up hospitalized after being dropped in the back of a tuk tuk. The driver had no idea where he lived so the hospital seemed as good a place as any to dump him, after first relieving him of his gold ring (given by his girlfriend in Vietnam who was later executed during the Tet Offensive for the crime of dating him) as payment.
When I went to visit him later that night I was sure he was going to die. He recovered though, and a few days later was at work bemoaning the fact that he’d been taken to hospital as the bill was huge. He reckoned he would have been fine if he’d just gone home, and he’d still have his ring. He’d had it for over forty years.
A few months back I heard he’s had another accident, this time a more serious one. The story was that he’d crashed his motorbike, and had brain damage. A few of us went to visit him in intensive care, and bumped into a few others who’d decided to visit the same day. So there were six of us going to see him, but when we got to his ward we realized it was a waste of time. He was covered in tubes and wires and was completely comatose.
He died a few days after our visit. Much later I found out that he hadn’t been in a crash: he’d fallen drunk in the shower and knocked himself senseless. His Vietnamese girlfriend had found him soon after but not fancying her chances of dealing with Khmer policemen she had panicked and ran off. So he was lying there for two days before he was found by his landlady and eventually carted off to Calmette hospital.
As far as I know, the US Embassy settled his medical bills, arranged and paid for the cremation but nobody went to his funeral. None of his friends were even given the details. It seemed a sad end to a life. Then again, if he’d stayed back home he would have been pretty miserable, lonely and barely able to afford his booze let alone any female company. So here’s to ‘Pops’ – you were a cranky old bastard but we liked you.