I met a vet at the gym today.
We walked down the stairs and at the end was a friend of ours – a NASA employee we had met at that very gym – and a stranger. As we approached, our friend was saying, “I have a friend who was in ‘Nam in ’71.”
“I was in ‘Nam in ’68,” the stranger said. “But I did everything my dad told me and I got home.” The two glanced at us as we joined them. Their conversation shifted to medaled soldiers.
“After they commend them – give them silver stars, gold stars- they move ’em somewhere safe, you know? They get ’em out of there,” the stranger was explaining.
“That’s good – that’s great,” said our friend.
“Save a hundred lives and they get you out, it really is,” the stranger agreed. At this point our friend recognized us. I gave him a nod.
“Oh, hello! I didn’t recognize you at first. How’ve you been?”
I nodded again as my mother said, “good! Good, uh, Cor just took – just got back from taking the ACTs this morning.”
“ACT,” I murmured, and she gestured toward me in agreement.
“You really didn’t recognize us?” she continued.
“Haven’t seen me since my haircut,” I suggested, as I had been the one to walk down the stairs first.
“Oh, really?” After a brief interlude on the nature of ACTs and SATs and our friend’s work, the conversation returned to the stranger’s time in Vietnam.
“And these medallers get shipped off somewhere safe… save a hundred lives and you get shipped off to, to the Philippines or something.” The two men shared a laugh at this. I wondered why the Philippines were funny.
Our friend continued, “but my friend, when he was in ‘Nam, they didn’t really get much, you know? They got mortared a few times but that was,” he shook his hand dismissively, “that was it. What about you?”
“Oh no, no.”
“Not much either? Only a few people in your squad…?”
“Oh no, no, 39 out of 42.” The three of us who had not been in Vietnam during a war double-took that last statement. “They were- it was-” he cut himself off.
“And you were one of the three who…” our friend continued.
“I don’t want to talk about it, I’ll start crying.”
“You must’ve been urban?” He nodded.
“But you made it out alright?”
“Oh no, I got hit right there,” the stranger said showing us the back of his right hand. There was a long, triangular scar on the top. Now that I was looking, I saw how his three rightmost fingers were swollen. A circular scar adorned his ring knuckle. “But I got the guy who did it.”
“And were you withdrawn for that?” my mom asked.
“Oh no, no,” the stranger shook his head, “just wrapped it up and…” He made a gesture. I wasn’t sure if it was meant to indicate marching or the holding of a gun. He gestured at his arm and chest. “I saw guys getting worse out there and they just, y’know, kept going.”
“And they weren’t withdrawn either?” Our friend questioned.
“No, we were surrounded, they had to med evac us from above.” He raised his hand and lowered it like a helicopter descending. He was soft-spoken and his face remained placid, but his scarred hand, unsupported in the air, trembled.