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A Trip to Nowhere

By Michael Harvey

It is not easy to say goodbye to loved ones prior to going to war because of the specter of never again saying hello.

Five days after leaving Fort Gordon, Georgia and thirty days before reporting for duty in Viet Nam, my family and I pulled up to my mother’s home in Grand Forks, ND. The door opened with my grandma making a beeline for our youngest child, Wendy. Mom grabbed Justin while Margo and I tagged along inside.

Do you want to feel like an appendix? You know, useless, unnecessary, a vestige of something no longer needed? Try sitting in a room with a mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, sister and two cute, adorable, darling little children. The ladies no longer required my existence. I went out and began hauling in the required tonnage for transporting two children under two years old. Frankly, I hoped for a little fuss over me, since I was the one going to war.

I planned to do a lot during this thirty-day leave. Parting visits with friends and family.  Much of the time spent searching for ways to condense life-long relationships into a portable format to take with me on this daunting venture.  Handshakes turned into hugs, in spite of our manly reserve. Hugs felt tighter and lasted longer. Were the embraces strong enough to last forever? A look. A touch. A tender moment. All stored in a place of reverence within my soul as a safeguard against loneliness, desolation and fear.

As a girl, my sister, Joan, dreamed of being a June bride. Everyone decided on a May wedding to allow me to be at the ceremony. A cousin recently confided, “That change of plans was because we didn’t know what lay in your future.” Glad I didn’t know that then.  It may have broken my heart to realize the sacrifices family members and friends made on my behalf. Knowing others felt uncertain of my fate scared me.

Our father died in 1945 near the end of another war, leaving me the honor and privilege of walking Joan down the aisle. As we waited at the back of the church, I felt tempted to ask where did this beautiful, radiant woman come from and what happened to my little sister? With pride I wore my United States Army Dress Blue uniform.

Later in the war, returning soldiers received advice not to wear their uniform in public. A few people possessed more spit than good sense and self-respect.

The next month brought a dizzying stream of friends and family visits. With ten days of my leave remaining, Grandma asked me to drive her to the bus depot.

The bus depot was downtown then, right where Hugo Magnuson once owned a grocery store. Grandma carried only one cardboard suitcase and the standard issue twelve-cubic-foot, industrial duty, professionals only, black purse. She carried more on a daily basis in that purse than most people had in their car trunk.

We waited in the warming spring sunshine for the bus. Grandma reached into her purse, pulled out an envelope and handed me a picture of my grandfather, her husband, lying in his coffin.

My grief at his death came searing back without warning. Grandpa died a short while before. As with all other deaths in the family, relatives delayed notifying me until after the burial to prevent me from returning for the funeral. The military school I attended began the day after his funeral. No one knew how much I resented their “consideration”, for it denied me the chance to mourn as part of the family.  Grandma put the photo away as the bus rounded the corner. The driver took her suitcase from me and I returned to Grandma’s side.

Over the roar of the idling bus engine Grandma said that she best say goodbye and that we were never again to see one another. It finally happened, someone admitted that I might not survive the war.  Everyone had avoided any mention of my possible death in this fledgling war. Death became fearful for me to contemplate: it wasn’t an abstract concept, this death would be mine. Life was good; I wasn’t ready to let it go.

Talking braver than I felt, I told Grandma that I planned to return alive from Viet Nam, like her son, my Uncle, who survived World War II. She hushed me and said now, with Pa gone, she planned to visit her sisters one last time. Have you ever stood near a cliff and watched part of it slip loose and crash to the valley floor below? I did that day. I couldn’t think of a world without this woman’s presence.

At my birth the doctors told my parents to have me baptized right away as I might not live long. Grandma said, “That is foolish talk. Give him to me. He will not die now.”

Hour after hour Grandma held me and comforted me and fed me with an eye-dropper filled with my mother’s milk. Nurses and doctors came and took my temperature and blood pressure and performed their little tests. But, when Death knocked at my door, Grandma barred the way and said, “No. Not this child. Not now. Go away.”  And Death turned away. When my mother regained her strength, Grandma gave me back to her, full of life. Now this guardian of my life said that her death drew near and I did not have the ability to bar Death from her door.  She proved correct. She died, while I was still at war.

The month continued to slip away, only a single day remained. I kissed Margo and the children and drove myself to the airport. Actually saying goodbye required more courage than I possessed. I did it, parting with all those people and saying one eternal goodbye. I never truly left my family, only a little delayed in coming home from doing my nation’s work.

My beloved North Dakota was slipping away. Would I ever see the prairie again? When I once more met the soil of North Dakota, whose head would bow in reverence, mine or my mourners?

In spite of all of the brave talk around friends and family, I was uncertain of the length of my future. Not really scared, more in awe of how precious life had become. No, completely terrified is accurate. Behind me were family and friends. I was leaving them for what? A while? A one-year tour in Viet Nam? Forever? The only person in uniform, I stood out. The pretty lady directed me to my seat and smiled. I noticed her eyes shone—as did mine.

Averting my attention, I looked at the aging DC-3 airplane. There certainly would never be a pogo stick tournament held in here! This “tail dragger” airliner was definitely cramped. As I moved to the rear, the cabin floor and ceiling were determined to meet—somewhere near my belt buckle. I wondered if this was the same airliner Margo and I had flown to Winnipeg on our honeymoon.

Checking for fastened seat belts, the pretty lady walked the aisle. I felt securely wedged in without the belt, but clicked it shut, just to see her smile. The takeoff closely resembled a small child in a magic flying cape (in reality his mom’s dishtowel). The child flapping and hopping about on the front lawn, all desire and fantasy, with little actual flight. The airplane threatened to follow the child’s example.

Remember swooping over those dusty, dippy, daring country roads in a roaring car? The ones where, on each downhill run, your stomach made a marvelous maneuver? After a few dozen swoops high in the air, those maneuvers are not nearly so marvelous. The “Emesis Bag” was soon put to use, as designed, as were the two replacements.

In Denver, I transferred to a newer plane that had no memory of the 1940s which was long before this plane’s time. Those of us in uniform nodded to one another in acknowledgement that we had answered when our countrymen called us to duty and had not turned away.

It was true, but disappointing; the pretty ladies saved their best smiles for us servicemen who sat with practiced bearing. For a while, my ego was convinced it was just for me. Whether for the uniform, what it represents, or because I am a nice guy, the smiles were received with gratitude and a longing to get them from someone who knew my name.

This airliner, though much younger than the previous one, had mastered the magic of flawless flight. But, all too soon it became a matter of wills. The pilots and the plane sought to land. A dozen men in uniform were content to remain aloft and not land. We lost. The pilots won. The plane touched down in San Francisco—the last connection on my way to war.

We came from all over the United States. Most every branch of military service was represented. From senior commissioned officers to privates first class, fresh from combat-training schools. Eighteen-year-old men with short haircuts. Some older men belonged to the “41, 51, 61 Club.” They were called to war in 1941 for World War II. In 1951 they returned to active duty to fight in Korea. The construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 brought them back into service once again. Off to war in an airliner, instead of a troop ship. But off to war, nonetheless.

Among the men on that plane our common bonds were few. All of us had raised our right hands and sworn to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Each of us had lawful orders sending us to the Republic of Viet Nam. At the direction of the President, every man-jack of us was being placed in harm’s way. Harm’s way—what a stupid euphemism—we were all going where other men would try to kill us. Not for who we were or what we had done, but because we were in our nation’s service. Except for an occasional liar, everyone would admit to being afraid. Not the kind of scared when somebody startles you. Certainly not the terror we would come to experience. But rather the shock that this was indeed real and happening, right now, to us.

After days, weeks and, in some cases, months of wondering, we were about to fly into a war. Would we meet the expectations of friends, family and colleagues? Could we meet our own expectations? Just what was expected of us?

The processing was amazingly swift. Show your orders, check your luggage, get a boarding pass, file into a waiting room and wait. Sounds like your last airplane trip? Not hardly.

At the other end of your trip, there may have been friends or family to greet you. If you were returning home, there would be many familiar sights. The very terminal you had left. Streets you had traveled many times before. A door that opened with the turn of a well-worn key. Home, your own bed, a feeling of comfort and security.

If your last trip was outbound, maybe you’d be seeing some friends or relatives you could do without, thank you very much. It may have been a business trip with the same old boring round of meetings.

Psst, let me tell you a little secret. If you offered to trade that last miserable, bumpy, boring, dreaded trip with the men on this plane, you might be surprised at how many offers you’d get in return.

A pretty lady in a dark blue uniform used the PA system to invite us onto the airplane. Obviously, no command-voice training at flight attendants’ school. We were seated in a small room. All of us were men who knew how to respond to directions. She could have passed on her instructions in a moderate, clear voice. Instead she chose to use an amplified voice full of static and interference. But, she was pretty.

As we entered and filed down the narrow aisle, each man hastily stowed a carry on bag in the overhead, sat down and buckled up. No squalling kids. No harumphing old men squeezing past your knees. No teenagers giggling shyly at each other. No mothers about to hit their personal limits. No cranky businessmen sniffing at everyone not in pinstripes and wingtips. No embarrassingly-in-love young couples starting down the road of romance and life. Just two-hundred-plus men of honor, answering their country’s call.

The airliner crouched at the beginning of a long runway. The engines screamed, “go — Go — GO.” Brakes locked wheels to pavement and resisted this reckless defiance of gravity and logic. If mankind was meant to fly they would have grown . . .

The pilot intervened and cast his vote with the engines and the Brothers Wright. Gravity gave up, for the moment, and we sped toward destiny. A pretty attendant rose and prepared to tell us of flotation devices and exit doors and smoking rules.

From the back, came a clear tenor voice raised in a song made famous by singer Larry Verne in 1960. Startled, the pretty lady paused with an aching, haunted look and blinked away a tear, as the notes hung in the air, expressing the thoughts of every service member on the plane.

“Please, Mr. Custer, I don’ wanna go.”

In Hawaii, the pilot demonstrated his competence and the airliner drifted down for a whisper-quiet landing—like a wet paintbrush stroking a sanded pine board. During the re-fueling, we wandered through the terminal and gazed at the last American soil we would see for a year. For some, it was the last glimpse.

Dawn lightened the eastern sky when a pretty lady called us back to earth, reality and the airliner. The struggle for altitude seemed longer. Perhaps it was because the passengers were all perfectly content to remain in this tropical paradise — instead of the tropical hell that waited just beyond the curve of the planet Earth.

Talking became harder. Most everyone was slipping back in time. Back to home. Back to family. Back to love. Back to life. Still, the bit of metal that held us defied our thoughts and pushed aside the air while seeking a destination. Or was it destiny?

Always, before, the pretty ladies stood at the front of the airplane to make announcements or pass on information. Now, the coiled cord for the microphone slanted down the cabin wall to someone sitting very straight and staring forward. During the previous part of the flight the cabin crew was cheerful with lots of eye contact and smiles for us. Now, the cabin crew distanced themselves. They realized the ride was over. A well-rehearsed voice said, “Please extinguish all smoking materials. Please return your trays to the locked position. Place your seat backs in the full upright position. Check your seatbelts prior to landing.” Her voice went flat, “Gentlemen, we will be on a rapid descent into Ton Son Nhut Airport. Welcome to Viet Nam.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am sure the lady did not intentionally lie to us. Probably some corporate executive dreamed up the phrase, “rapid descent.”  That is NOT what occurred. All of Viet Nam was a combat zone. This made our aircraft a potential target. A slow, leisurely descent over areas where an unseen enemy might hope to shoot you down, was unthinkable.

The pilot finally confessed that the Wright brothers were, indeed, wrong. Powered flight was an illusion. Gravity rules. Demonstrating his versatility, the pilot slammed on the air brakes, bringing the airplane to a complete stop—midair. This allowed the airliner to fall from the sky like a very fancy rock. Our stomachs lurched as though we were on a roller-coaster. Except, our stomachs stayed up for the entire descent. We knew we were going to land, but prayed it would be with the wheels down and rolling on top of the pavement. Our pilot once again painted the sanded pine board.

Reluctantly, we had said goodbye to the real world of family and friends and now said hello—to the nowhere of war.

Michael Harvey served as the military police security officer for Saigon and Cholon, 1965-1966. He wrote his military memoirs, family stories and a book of children’s stories, “The Adventures of Theologis.” Michael taught courses for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI@UND) on preserving legacy and self-publishing.

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