Coming Home



Fredrick Hudgin


 
© Copyright 2020 by Fredrick Hudgin



Photo of a Flying Tigers jet.

My trip home from the war. The only thing stranger than fiction is truth. I seriously considered being a cop after I came home into a full-blown recession.

 “Specialist Hudgin, where the hell have you been?”

Delivering your fuel, Top,” I laughed. “Where the hell else would I be?”

First Sergeant Owens was as hard as the diamond in his gold front tooth. Get on his bad side and you would suddenly be immersed in a black hurricane beyond your worst nightmare. I’d witnessed his temper a couple of times but had never actually been on the receiving end.

Hudgin, you’ve got twenty-four hours to clear Qui Nhon and get your ass down to Ton Son Nhut Air Force Base in Saigon. Here’re your orders.” He looked over at our company clerk, Specialist Duncan. “Duncan, carry this sorry excuse for a soldier to finance, to personnel, then to the airport. Get him out of here before I can think of a good reason to keep him in this shit hole for another year.”

Duncan walked with me to the arms room where I turned in my M-16 for the last time, then to the barracks. Packing took all of five minutes—I’d already sent everything else home. I threw my duffle bag into the back of the jeep, then off we went to collect my records.

On the way into Qui Nhon, we passed a convoy of tankers leaving the tank farm, full of fuel destined for the remote army posts and helicopter LZ’s—Landing Zones where the choppers refueled and rearmed. Most of the drivers were from my company, beginning another day in paradise delivering fuel to the American forces in the Republic of Vietnam.

I stood up, hanging onto the side of the jeep, as they passed and waved good-bye. Without exception, they waved back and blew their truck horns. At that moment, I was living the dream every one of them had—to go home to the parents, wives, girlfriends, jobs, and lives all of us had left behind a year ago.

Two hours later, all my records in hand, we were in stopped traffic a quarter of a mile from the entrance to the Qui Nhon Air Base. The air was thick with dust and sounds. Young women and children walked up and down the line of military and civilian vehicles selling anything that would sell. Sex, scenes from around Vietnam painted on velvet, fake gold jewelry, Rolex watches that would work until tomorrow, food that had only been dead a couple of days. The smells, as usual, were overpowering: flinty dust, spoiled trash, crap, urine, rancid water, curry, garlic, onions, noodles, worn out vehicle exhaust. But mostly dust. Dust covered everything with a light grayish brown. Dust that got kicked into the air by everything that moved—vehicles, people, animals, the rare puff of cool air that snuck in from Qui Nhon harbor. Even the rain made dust in Vietnam.

An ancient woman squatted beside us and urinated as we were waiting for anything to move ahead of us. She just lifted up her black pajamas pant leg and did her business. She saw me trying to look away and laughed, the lines in her face screwing up like a leather washcloth being wrung out. Her one remaining tooth was black from chewing betel nut.

Men and women passed us on bicycles laden with hundreds of pounds of rice strapped onto the seats, handlebars, anywhere you could tie a bag. Motorized rickshaws full of produce and animals bound for the market—chickens, fish, hogs. Some dogs looked out at me mournfully from their cages as if they knew they were going to be someone’s dinner that night. Small motorcycles with four people on them filled the air with two-cycle pop-pop noise and clouds of blue-gray smoke as they wove through the maze of humanity and animals.

A water buffalo was stopped in the middle of the street attached to a two-wheeled cart full of handmade chairs being unloaded into a sales stall that was backed up to the chain link fence around the Air Force Base. The buffalo chewed its cud and looked stoically at us as the traffic slowly parted around both sides of the cart, a pile of buffalo crap on the ground behind it.

The traffic jam disappeared as magically as it had formed, no reason for it other than too many people going the same way at the same time. The guard at the gate waved us through. Duncan got out and shook my hand at the transportation office.

We’d never been close during my tour. I’d done a short stint as the company supply sergeant while my truck was getting repaired. I’d traded in my old manual supply room typewriter on a spiffy new Smith-Corona electric. Duncan had complained to the First Sergeant I had a better typewriter than he did. The next day, I had Duncan’s shitty old manual Remington and he had my Smith-Corona. I don’t think I’d said two words to him after that. And the Depot had said our company was only allowed one electric. Asshole. He could have waited until my truck was fixed.

The flight from Qhi Nhon down to Ton Son Nhut took two hours on a noisy, drafty C-123 cargo plane. The pilot stayed at least ten miles out from the coast—so he wouldn’t get shot at, I suppose. I spent the flight looking out the window at the coast of Vietnam.

The seats we sat on folded down from the walls of the airplane and faced the center of the aisle. To look out, you had to twist around and look behind yourself. It was a beautiful country from 12,000 feet and ten miles offshore, all white beaches, dark green palm trees, and blue water.

Hidden behind all of that beauty was the crushing poverty that ground up the people who lived there. I never saw a middle class in Vietnam. There were the few very rich guys who were in control and the very poor who were everybody else.

Ton Son Nhut was even hotter than Qui Nhon had been. As I waited in line at the out-processing station, a guy behind me from the 4th Infantry Division pulled out a baggy of marijuana cigarettes. I got royally wasted with him and two other guys on that great Nam grass. I told the guy with the joints he’d probably flown in choppers that were burning jet fuel I’d brought to the 4th Infantry Division LZ’s in An Khe.

He laughed. “Thanks, bro!” then passed me the joint again.

The sergeant in charge of staging us for the next flight to the States had to call my name four times before I realized he was doing it. I just smiled at him and handed over my orders. He laughed when he saw how red my eyes were.

You board in thirty minutes. Think you can remember that?”

I looked around at the office, then out the windows at the country I wouldn’t miss. “I believe I can.”

You wouldn’t have any of that left, would you?” he asked conspiratorially, in almost a whisper, while he raised his eyebrows hopefully.

I laughed at that. “Nope. Figured I should finish before we boarded.”

Damn.”

Thirty minutes later I was standing on the tarmac waiting my turn to board a big, silver, Boeing 707 with Flying Tiger Airlines painted on the side. One jet engine was running on the other side of the plane. The scream from that engine made all other sounds fade to insignificance.

The heat rose from the concrete, making the hills behind the base vague and indistinct. It had to be 130 degrees there, standing in the sun. A couple of guys got wobbly and sat on the ground, but no one passed out. No one was going to lose his chance to get on the Freedom Bird for his ride back to the normal world.

The door opened and the second American woman I’d seen in a year stood at the top of the stairs beckoning us to board. She was short, slim and Italian looking with shoulder-length black hair. I blinked for a second, not sure if she was real or just an illusion from the pot, then we started shuffling aboard.

The other American woman I’d seen had been in the Red Cross Happy Hooch in Qui Nhon. She’d given me cold Cokes and a smile both times I’d been able to visit. She was black, plump, and laughed a lot. Her hair made a softball around her head. I hope there’s a special place in Heaven for her.

The senior officers and senior enlisted men got to sit up front in first class. The flight attendants seated the rest of us from the back of the plane up to where first class began, every seat filled with a healthy, muscled young man, eager to return to his memory of a normal life. I got a window seat. Through the window I watched our duffle bags being loaded into the belly of the plane. Half an hour later the plane began to taxi to the end of the runway.

The runway at Ton Son Nhut is two miles long. We had to wait for a pair of F-4 Phantom fighters, bristling with rockets and bombs, to launch, then our pilot began his roll. We went faster and faster until we lifted off the concrete and I felt the landing gear retract. We were still only ten feet above the runway and about halfway down the two miles of concrete.

I thought about that. The hotter the air, the faster the plane had to go to get enough lift to take off. Add all of the weight this plane was carrying with men, fuel, and baggage and I began to worry. Maybe we were too heavy to actually gain altitude. It would be just my luck to die in a plane wreck while I was leaving Vietnam. We kept going faster and faster until we got the end of the two miles, then the pilot pulled back on the stick, hard. It felt like we were going vertical.

The pilot got on the intercom after we leveled out at 10,000 feet and explained he did that to discourage any snipers from taking one last shot at us. I appreciated that. I’d been through too much hell to get shot as I was going home.

The only times you worried about dying when you are in-country were the first month and the last month. When you first got there, everything was scary and you were sure you were going to die. Then you settled down, learned your job and got so busy you didn’t have time to worry about anything else. When you finally got to your last month, you started to worry that you wouldn’t make it to the end.

The trip from Ton Son Nhut to McChord Air Force Base, next to Fort Lewis, Washington, took twenty-four hours. We landed at Midway Island in the middle of the night to refuel. I slept most of the way like everyone else. I woke up as we were descending through the clouds above Seattle.

Everyone else was still asleep. The plane went through one layer of clouds after another with no ground in sight. Suddenly we broke through a cloud layer and the setting sun was behind us, lighting up the clouds above and below us with shades of sunlight that went from almost grey to brilliant, burnished gold. It was like God was welcoming me home. I started to wake the guy next to me so he could see it also but decided against it. There wasn’t time. No one else witnessed our welcome but the pilots and me. I don’t think I breathed for the ten seconds it was in sight. Then we were into the next cloud layer and the sun disappeared.

Fifteen minutes later we touched down at McChord and rolled to a stop. The plane was absolutely silent. Outside, the lights of McChord Air Force Base were visible through the light rain. No one could actually believe we were back in the US—that for us, the war was over. Then simultaneously every soldier onboard erupted into a spontaneous, wild-assed cheer. We’d made it back alive!

At Fort Lewis, we went through classes about what we could and couldn’t do when we were turned loose. No defacing the uniform. No embarrassing the government. We were still in the army for 24 hours after we signed our discharge papers and we could be prosecuted if we did anything stupid. Our government was proud of us and our service … I slept through most of that too.

A doctor gave us a short physical to see if we had any diseases they wouldn’t let into the US of A. When that was done, all of us turned in our faded old jungle fatigues and got a new summer weight Class A uniform with black shoes to wear home.

The summer-weight Class A uniform was a lightweight, cotton-wool grey-green suit with shiny brass buttons and a foldable overseas hat that matched the color of the uniform. Our rank insignia and unit patches were sewed onto the sleeves. The two Vietnam Service Ribbons were now next to the National Defense Service Ribbon we’d been awarded after Basic Training. I felt a moment of pride when I put my Expert Marksmanship badge under the ribbons.

After three years, I could still remember the elation I’d felt when that last target had fallen on the rifle range and I’d qualified expert. My dad had won the same badge when he’d been in the army. Two combat service bars were now on the sleeve, one for every six months in a combat zone.

Twenty three hours after I landed in Washington State, I was standing in front of a rosy-cheeked, blond Second Lieutenant with his one National Defense Ribbon proudly displayed above his Basic Marksmanship badge. I bet to myself that he only had to shave once a week. He looked younger than me, for God’s sake.

Do you understand when you sign this DD-214, you will no longer be in the army? These are your discharge papers.”

I couldn’t believe that he had actually asked me such a stupid question. “Gee, I dunno, can I ask my wife?”

He looked out the window, shook his head, sighed, then handed me the pen. I wonder if he wrote down the things GI’s said when he asked that. Got to be a book there.

I picked up the pen and realized at that moment I was the shortest guy in the army. Shortest means I had less time remaining on active duty than any of the two million or so GI’s still serving. As people counted down their days, they got down to the last ninety and started screaming “Short!” Invariably there would be a shouting contest as to who actually was the shortest within earshot. “Shorter!” was always the reply when “Short” was screamed. Then people would start announcing how many days remained. “Twenty!” “Eleven!” “Three!” “Tomorrow!”

I turned to the guy behind me in line. “Short” I said, so quietly only he could hear. He started laughing but didn’t say a word. He understood exactly what I was saying. I signed the two copies of my DD-214’s. The lieutenant signed them and handed me back one to keep.

Protect this,” he told me. “It’s an important document. Anywhere you want to work will want to make a copy. You’ll also need it if you decide you want to reenlist or claim any veteran’s benefits.”

At that moment, reenlisting was not at the top of the list of things I wanted to do. I walked over to the queue waiting for transportation to the airport.

An hour later, I got off a big olive-drab bus at Sea-Tac airport with sixty other men in summer weight greens. White, black, yellow and brown people were everywhere speaking English, French, Chinese, Korean, Spanish, and Japanese. They were going in different directions, waiting for tickets, waiting to board, waiting for taxis, waiting for loved ones to arrive.

I just stood there without any idea of what to do, while people pushed around and past me. Babies were crying, teenagers looked around as they followed their parents, men and women shoved their way through the crowds. I wouldn’t have been surprised to hear Rod Sterling’s voice fade in from the background. “You have just entered the Twilight Zone.”

I blinked, then laughed out loud. I was back!

After I got my ticket and made my way to the gate, I had to wait until 5 P.M. to board a United Airlines 747 bound for JFK Airport in New York City. The sun was just setting again as we took off through the clouds above Seattle. I looked out through the rain but that special welcome home from the setting sun I’d gotten on the flight into McChord was not to be repeated. I put my seat back and tried to go to sleep.

A few minutes later, I felt a hand on my shoulder. A flight attendant was leaning over me. “Did you just come home from Vietnam?”

Yes I did,” I said, smiling up at her. She was a little older than me, but she was cute and she was smiling at me.

Come with me,” she said quietly.

I got up and followed her toward the front of the plane wondering what was going to happen next. We went into first class. She indicated an empty seat.

You can sleep up here. These seats are a lot more comfortable.”

I looked back and forth between her and the seat. “Really?”

Yep. My brother’s still over there. Enjoy the ride. Would you like something to drink?”

Sure.” I reached for my wallet. “Scotch, rocks.”

She laughed. “Put away your wallet. The drinks are free up here. Thanks for your service.”

The guy next to me was already asleep and snoring quietly. I had two drinks, then slept like a baby for the rest of the way across the country. I guess my body was still catching up on missed sleep. There’s always something more important to do than sleep while you’re in a combat zone.

I awoke as we rolled up to the gate at JFK. It was January 17th, 1971, 7 A.M. The captain announced the temperature outside was 17 degrees. He said it like it was a private joke. The summer weight uniform I’d been discharged in didn’t seem nearly as warm as it had in Seattle. Another GI I had been discharged with talked his parents into giving me a ride to his home in Elizabeth, New Jersey.

His whole Polish family had come to welcome him home. His six-year-old sister had to sit on my lap for the hour-long ride from JFK to Elizabeth. She put her head down on my shoulder and went to sleep as we crossed the Verrazano Narrows Bridge to Staten Island. Through the car window, I looked across New York harbor at the Statue of Liberty and the southern tip of Manhattan. The twin towers of the World Trade Center stood tall and proud.

They dropped me off at the side of the road on Route 1. His sister waved at me through the back window as they drove away, her face framed by her beautiful blonde hair.

I’d decided not to call my parents to tell them I’d been discharged until I’d gotten to Sea-Tac. They’d been crushed. Both of them were in all day meetings today and couldn’t come to pick me up. I picked up my duffle bag, walked to a likely spot, then stuck out my thumb.

I’d heard all the stories about soldiers getting called baby-killers when they came home, having rocks and worse thrown at them. Now here I was on the side of the road in my new uniform asking for a helping hand to get home.

Week-old snow and ice, now a dirty gray, lined the roadside. Tractor trailers and cars roared by, pelting me with cold air, salt dust, and diesel fumes. Two blurry days ago I’d been standing on the tarmac at Ton Son Nhut in 130 degrees.

I figured I had about a half an hour before I’d have to go find someplace to warm up. One car after another passed me by. Sometimes the kids in the back seat would wave. I waved back, then put my hands in my pockets. Surely someone would give me a lift, someone would remember a lowly truck driver soldier didn’t make national policy.

A police cruiser in the fast lane saw me, turned on its red lights and pulled over to stop just past where I was standing, barely missing a Camaro and a station wagon that swerved out of his way. He talked on his radio for a minute, then got out and walked toward me.

This wasn’t going to be good. I’d only been back in the US for two days and already I’m in trouble with the cops. Shit. They could have waited until I’d gotten home. At least the jail would be warm.

Did you just get home from Vietnam?”

Yep. 359th Transportation Company, Qui Nhon.”

Get in.” I started to get in the back wondering how Dad would react to me calling him to make my bail. “No, not the back,” he laughed. “Get in the front.” I did, wondering what was going to happen next. “Where are you going?”

Princeton Junction.”

I can only take you to the Elizabeth city limits,” he apologized, “but I’ve already called ahead to Piscataway. They’re going to meet us there.”

Sure enough, another police cruiser was waiting with its lights on when he pulled over. Piscataway took me to the city limits of New Brunswick. New Brunswick took me to East Brunswick. Cop cars sure look a lot different in the front seat than they do from the back.

Each one of the cops told me about his tour in Vietnam, Korea or World War II. Each one thanked me for going. Each one called the next jurisdiction to set up my next ride and shook my hand when I got out. I leap-frogged down Route 1, an honored guest of cops instead of a perpetrator on my way to jail.

East Brunswick said they had a traffic call and would be about five minutes. Will you be OK?”

Sure. Thanks for the ride.”

No, buddy. Thank you.” He shook my hand. I got out and he drove away.

As long as I was waiting anyway, I figured I might as well see if I could get a ride, so I stuck out my thumb. A ratty old pickup pulled immediately over. “Throw your bag in the back,” the driver called out.

I did, then got in. He pulled his tool belt to the middle of the seat to make room for me. He was wiry and sixtyish with short gray hair, dressed in layers of construction clothes with a week growth of salt and pepper whiskers growing out of his creased, leathery face. His calloused hands and neatly patched clothes were stained with dirt and paint.

You just get back?”

Yep. Going home to Princeton Junction. My folks couldn’t pick me up.”

We rode in silence for a while. “You see some shit?” he finally asked me.

Nothing really bad. I drove a truck, a 5,000-gallon tanker of fuel. We resupplied the bases and LZ’s up and down the coast from Qhi Nhon, in the middle of the country. Every now and then we’d go to An Khe and Pleiku in the central highlands.”

A tanker of fuel in a combat zone? I think you saw some shit. Tell me how to get to your parents’ house.”

We rode along in his old truck, him spitting in a cup, me watching normal people living normal lives. This is why I was in Vietnam, I told myself, protecting these people who didn’t even know I was there.

Half an hour later, we pulled up in front of my parents’ house. It looked like a Christmas card, the lights, and wreaths still up and snow in the yard. I started to get out.

The old man put his hand on my arm to stop me for a second. “Thanks for going. I know it was hard, but thanks. I did my tour in the Pacific during WW II. First Marine Division. From the beginning to the end.” He reached down and knocked on his leg which gave a hollow thunk. “Got this in Okinawa.”

I didn’t know what to say. I loved studying the history of war. Those Marines in World War Two had defined what “saw some shit” meant. He’d fought through the bloodbaths of Guadalcanal, Peleliu, and Okinawa. The First Division had slugged it out with the Japanese for almost four years, hopping from island to island across the Pacific. They’d suffered through 139% casualties. Twenty-two members of the Division received the Congressional Medal of Honor, most posthumously. All I’d done was drive a truck for a year.

I thanked him for the ride, swallowed hard, and got my duffel out of the back. He got out too, walked around his truck with a distinct limp, and shook my hand. Without another word, he got back in.

While he drove away, I stood at attention and gave him my last salute of my Army career, proud that I could do it while I was still in uniform.

*****

I have been writing poetry and short stories since I took a Creative Writing class at Purdue University in 1967. Unfortunately, that was the only class I passed and spent the next three years in the army, including a tour in Vietnam. After leaving the army, I earned a BS in Computer Science from Rutgers and struck off on a career as a professional computer programmer and amateur poet.

I find that my years of writing poetry have affected how I write prose. My wife is always saying to put more narrative into the story. My poetry side keeps trying to pare it down to the emotional bare bones. What I create is always a compromise between the two.




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