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The Ability to Choose

by Terry Sanville

The mini-skirted stewardess picked her way down the aisle of the shuddering 707 jetliner, bending every few steps to speak to a soldier. When she got to my seat, she stooped and murmured, “Have a safe tour of duty, Private.” I guess I looked scared. Outside, columns of dark smoke rose from Biên Hòa Airport, from the end of a runway that our flight angled toward. No one spoke; the rush of the air conditioning and the engines’ roar made the only sounds. Our trays had been stored in their upright positions, seatbelts cinched tight, prayers offered.

The plane landed with a hard thump. Its jets reversed, thrusting me forward into my long year in Vietnam. We rolled onto a concrete apron and stopped near a huge tin-roofed barn without walls. A crew of Asian men in coveralls rolled stairs up to the front exit. Someone barked an order. We stood and filed out through the door. The heat and humidity slammed me, took my breath away, made thinking nearly impossible. We searched for shade in the airport terminal crowded with GIs, Vietnamese families with lots of kids, caged farm animals, machinery and supplies, all adding to the miasma of odors.

Our group of new in-country grunts crouched in the meager shadows and waited for transportation to our units. I’d been assigned to the 101st Airborne. As I watched the currents of armed soldiers and coolie-hatted civilians flow around us, I knew I had made a blunder that could cost me my life. I’d enlisted in the Army five months before. My plan – to avoid the draft, the inevitable infantry assignment, and maybe even duty in Vietnam. I’d joined up with the guarantee of being trained as a surveyor – a person who knows where they stand and who measures angles and distances. I had no desire to kill or be killed. Yet there I was, headed for the 101st Airborne – the “Screaming Eagles” – one of the most renowned fighting units in the U.S. military.

A Buck Sergeant with a clipboard sauntered up and called out names. A few of us climbed into the back of a deuce-and-a-half, the truck’s engine belching black smoke into the sulfur-colored sky. We fought our way through thick traffic along a potholed road, through shanty towns crammed with refugees. Small emaciated men and women squatted in the dust outside their corrugated-metal shacks and stared at us as we rumbled past. Some of them waved and grinned, showing off blackened teeth. The pervasive stench of raw waste filled my head. I had envisioned South Vietnam as a country of lush tropical jungles with tall trees. But by 1968, the tangle of vegetation within hundreds of yards of the main roads had been poisoned with Agent Orange, to deny the Viet Cong cover, the Sergeant told us.

We rolled through the gates of the 101st Airborne’s immaculate compound and jumped from the truck. After being issued our gear, including brand new M-16 rifles, we sat on a bench in the hot sun while a Corporal handed us writing paper, airmail envelopes, and ball point pens. A Sergeant ordered us to write a letter to our parents, wives, or sweethearts, reporting that we had made it to Vietnam safely and not to worry. It seemed that a group of new troops, that arrived a few weeks before us, had been killed by a rocket attack before they could even write home. I guess the Army felt determined that its soldiers should at least contact their loved ones before making that final journey.

The next 363 days passed at the speed of viscous lava, with months of mind-numbing boredom broken by periods of panic and blind terror – standing perimeter guard in the Đắk Tô Valley on moonless nights, waiting for Charlie to attack; working as a stevedore unloading live ammunition from freighters docked along the Saigon River; being wakened after midnight by the ear-splitting scream of an exploding rocket and falling on my back onto a concrete floor; watching Cobra gunships strafe the attacking VC with red tracer fire during the ’69 Tet Offensive and waiting with loaded weapon to be ordered into battle. But in between those traumas, I settled in as a mail clerk for a transportation company, took up reading, played my guitar incessantly, drank beer, smoked pot, and thought a lot about what would come next.

By the time I left Nam, a well-aged 21-year-old with a painful arthritic back, I’d learned that solitude was often my friend, that the ability to choose, to speak out, to debate, to disagree, to move freely, to change my mind, to search for truth, to avoid those I distrusted, to seek out those I loved, was precious to me, was inviolate – and was contrary to the managed life of a soldier. It seems so ironic that to fight for peace and freedom, soldiers must give up so much of their own. It takes a special person. I learned that person wasn’t me.

Terry Sanville lives in San Luis Obispo, California with his artist-poet wife (his in-house editor) and one plump cat (his in-house critic). Since 2005, his short stories have been accepted by more than 170 literary and commercial journals, magazines, and anthologies including the Picayune Literary Review, Birmingham Arts Journal, Shenandoah, and The MacGuffin. He was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for his story “The Sweeper.” Terry is a retired urban planner and an accomplished jazz and blues guitarist. He once played with a symphony orchestra backing up jazz legend George Shearing.

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