Vientiane, Laos – If you guys were a class, you can see the front-row students, raising their hands to every question, asking questions, helping shape the direction of the conversation, accelerating the learning curve, feeding the ideas.
Then there would be the ‘B’ and ‘C’ students who are on board, but perhaps a bit timid, a bit involved, a bit careless about their G.P.A., party before homework. Most of you would be doing something else, talking to you neighbor, looking out the window, looking at the clock, drawing, writing a note, working on another subject, throwing spit wads, carving in your desk, asleep.
Many would meet and exceed expectations in the grade book and afterward in life, and one, once in every three or four or ten years, who would come along, the occasional supernova, who would surpass your own work, leaving you in the dust. You could be happy of that one, and them all, for having participated in their education, to have been a part of their foundation as mentor or teacher, or student, a part of their success story, a part of their lives.
If you were a class.
Memory of Things
Vientiane, Laos - When looking back on things in your life, can you see it accurately, through the passage of time, or distorted by the prisms of emotional involvement, ego-defense, or wishful thinking. Was it as bad as you remembered? Was it as good as it got?
One of my eight favorite all-time moves, in a game against the Celtics, no, wait, it was a pickup game on a university campus, I was taking it in to the hole, having juked the guy who was guarding me at the top of the key with a crossover, went into the paint on the left, big man dropped off for help out D, went up with the left hand, big man there for the stuff, brought the shit down to my waist, switched over to the right, falling backward, layed it underhand off the glass, and in.
Saaa-weeeet. Pick-up game, four-on-four, Lincolnway Ave. court, Valparaiso, IN, 1987. Everything I threw up there that night was going in. Ask Conrick. He was there. Rex, too. Remember that, Rex?
Okay, number seven? That was the Honeywell pool, Wabash, IN, 1964. Twenty guys on the sidelines waiting for court time, winner stays, four-on-four.
Down on the baseline. Another crossover to the right, around the guy, cutting into the paint across the front of the rim, help out D there, thinking I’m going to take another step for a jump hook, instead took it right up in his face, finger roll off the front of the rim, right in his face. Saaa-weeet. AND the foul! Took the big man out of his game, playing from anger thereafter, forcing it, missing his shots, contributing to his team’s loss. “SIT DOWN! Next!”
Once in the War
David was my medic mentor in the ‘Nam, around-the-world merchant marine by seventeen, ‘Hard Core’ Ashau valley vet with the 101st Airborne (badass guys now, no foolin’), in the bush as company medic with the radioman, the interpreter, and company commander.
He said he was an angel, from Venus, and had the most unusual deep set eyes in narrow face, could mesmerize the girls, spoke fluent Vietnamese, and had mysterious contacts all over the city. Two Silver Stars.
As a greenhorn Newbie, to me, he was a near God. He calmly and efficiently slit the guy’s throat and inserted an airway on our very first training mission, me watching spellbound, mouth hanging open, the guy turning purple from going through the windshield of a jeep, a crowd of people standing around watching him suffocate when we arrived in our helicopter.
In the air, he lit a cigarette with a 101st Airborne Zippo, calmly took a drag, then leaned over and ask his patient if he wanted a smoke, holding the cigarette up to the air hole, laughing.
The patient laughed, too, sitting upright, stiff-armed in the cargo deck, blood all over his chest, happy to be alive, in psychological shock, wondering about his future, glad at the prospect of getting out of the war, air whooshing back and forth through the airway, secured in place with cloth tape in an X pattern, just like they taught us in medical training school at Ft. Sam Houston, Texas, a lifetime ago.
The, ‘I’M GOING TO LIVE!’, look of relief on the choking man’s face was unforgettable; his throat full of blood and teeth and matter, his air running out, his lungs collapsing, the lights getting dim, then suddenly, AIR!
David and I made a pact that if one of us would die, we’d somehow let the other know there was life after death. He never got to have children nor live beyond 23. For years after he died, he tinked the light bulbs when it was quiet, whether they were off or on. Just a, ‘tink’.
Green and afraid as I was, I too, would someday become a hard core vet, starting whole blood I.V.s in the air.
On my first mission…there are others that stand out, of course, but you can easily recall the first…a nighttime mission under a red cabin light, my patient a Vietnamese guy, big for Vietnamese, but maybe because his whole body was swollen, peppered with white phosphoric acid nuggets buried into his flesh, burning on contact with the air, his uniform shredded by the blast, his 3rd degree flesh blackened and red and raw, squirming from the agony of the worst, the sucking chest wound from a nugget having penetrated his chest wall and lung.
The fearful frantic medic plastering the sucking chest wound, smothering the other wounds with canteen water and saline solution, running out of water, the steam rising from the cooking nuggets, pleading with the pilots to pour on the coals.
There was a chance to look at the puffy red charcoal face, the swollen lips, the skin burnt away, the eyes swollen shut.
After the drop off and refuel, I walked to the edge of the helipad, down to the rocks overlooking the South China Sea. There were scattered lights of Vietnamese fishing vessels out there. In the dark, trying to make the connection between head and heart, looking down at my hands.