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Realism

STORY TIME WITH REALISM

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So basically I've been thinking of starting a thread like this for a while, and oontz has been dead lately, so here we go.

 

I figured I'd post this because why the fuck not. If you like it, it will give you something to read day by day. There are 12 sections, this is 12oz, we're coming to the end of 2012, so I'll add a section each day. Enjoy, or TLDR at your convenience...if you don't like it, I'll just drink myself to death.

 

I know there's a few other good writers (huhuhuh) on here, so if this takes off at all it'd be cool to read stuff from some other people.

 

April 4, 1967

Saigon

 

The first image I had of Vietnam was a dark smudge below the cloud cover. As the fat-bellied transport plane descended, condensation wicked off the windows and revealed a sprawl of green that was broken here and there by muddy veins of road. To be honest, I found it wholly underwhelming. I craned my neck to try and catch a glimpse of Saigon, which should be coming into view according to the pilot’s voice over the tinny radio. I saw a partial reflection of myself in the window. Dark hair, and a thin face that was clean-shaven for once, with no expression of fear or excitement. I closed my eyes.

 

Everyone had a story about how they had come to be in that plane, banking left over Saigon and beginning its descent. I had heard a lot of bull from the guys I got to know throughout the course of training—dramatic withdrawals from college to fight for Uncle Sam after impassioned arguments with liberal professors, tearful goodbyes from girlfriends after having received notice after the perfect date. That type of story usually turned into sexual parable pretty quickly. I guess it wasn’t surprising they were among the most popular that people told during basic.

 

My story—the story of Flint, Randy A. 247-36-3650 O Pos. R Catholic—was less enticing, and unlike a lot of the other guys I didn’t try and hide it’s boring nature. I had spent the night at the bar with a couple of high school friends celebrating the culmination of a particularly drunk autumn. I had staggered out into the Seattle fog and slumped behind the wheel of my car. After a couple of false starts and retches from both the tired engine and myself, I lurched home, sometimes even remembering to shift gears. When I woke up that afternoon, the letter was on the kitchen table next to two Excedrin and a glass of water.

 

I glanced out of the window again and saw Saigon rushing up to meet me.

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I like to pretend I can write sometimes

 

The blank walls stare back, her broken mind twisting the cracks and spider webs in to leering faces; they accuse her, weighing her sins. She doesn’t look away, she stares on as if waiting for the paint to peel back and the bricks to talk. Her hair is matted and tangled, she looks like a feral child but she has no mirror to correct it. Not that she would anyway, all sense of being have left her. Her eyes bore vacantly ahead of her, they are disconcerting. It is as if she can see straight through the wall.

 

“no change?”

 

He turns around to find himself no longer alone in observing the small girl behind the observational mirror. The figure in the door is framed by the light spilling in from the outside corridor and he cannot place the voice. The visitor closes the door and the warm feeling of recognition floods his extremities, It is her mother.

As she moves towards him he turns back to the patient , the soft glow of the lone bulb in her room casts a haunting shadow of her against the wall. Maybe her shadow is conversing with her. It wouldn’t surprise either of the two people watching her. They know each other well now; Him, the Scientist, and Her, the Housewife. He turns to look at her, he cannot help but to analyze her. Her posture is slack, her eyes hooded. She looks tired, almost defeated. A wave of sympathy passes over him, almost forcing the Scientist to reach out and take her hand. Checking the urge, instead he turns to the charts on the table between him and the mirror.

 

“No changes, she is only lucid for brief periods of time, though they are becoming less frequent as we continue…”

 

The Scientist stops, noticing the Housewife is swaying on the spot. Sometimes he forgets that the child on the other side of the glass is her daughter. To him she is just another patient, a number in a file. A photo on a wall. Collecting himself, the Scientist hands her a tissue and stands awkwardly while she blows her nose. She turns to him, her lips tremble with a question that she dares not ask. The Scientist already knows what she wants. He shakes his head. No, she does not remember you. I am sorry. Awkwardness settles in the room, choking the words out of them both.

Biting her lip, the Housewife turns her gaze back upon the little girl she once held against her breast. No longer recognizable as her own blood and flesh. The realization that she has no recollection of her own mother hurts beyond words. No tears can express the futility, the weary sadness, that she feels with the world.

 

“I think I’m done”

 

He is puzzled at her words, done with what he wonders but he keeps his query to himself. He knows better than to question her. Still staring at the small, huddled figure in the other room, he sees her turn on her heel and move slowly towards the door again. Her shoes click on the cold concrete floor. She still likes to wear high heels. The Scientist hears her stop at the door but he does not turn around.

 

“she's your daughter too, you cold hearted bastard”

 

He does not respond, his gaze remains steadfastly pointed forwards. His eyes locked on the girl in the room. The door slams behind her and the Scientist is alone once again. With his thoughts and his patient. His daughter. His burden.

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Cool, tango...fap fap fap...

 

Here's part two. This particular piece is a dual narrative, so you'll probably read this and think LOLWUT but it'll be more clear as everything progresses...I'll italicize these sections for the sake of distinguishing them.

 

Seattle, WA

November 15, 1996

To Whom It May Concern:

 

The field notes contained in this short manuscript were collected over a nine-month period from May 1995 to February 1996. During this time, I spent the vast majority of my days working on an anthropology doctorate project, via a field study of homeless drug addicts outside of Seattle. Most of these notes were pieced together through written reflections during or immediately after the fact, or with the aid of a tape recorder. Any conversations transcribed herein are entirely verbatim. The language is often strong, and may be considered offensive, but I urge you to read it with an open mind. It has not been edited or retouched in any way in order to accurately convey the lifestyles and attitudes of those profiled.

 

I have refrained from including photographs in this project for multiple reasons. Although telling the story of my subjects is of great importance to me, I do not feel ethically sound including photographs of them at their lowest points, despite the visceral and emotional reactions such images would likely provoke. I would like to believe the story contained within this field study can speak for itself without images. Additionally, I did not want to include any images due to the simple fact that it would individualize the issues described within. The problem of addiction is not individual; it is an epidemic within every major city in this country. These men and tell their own story, and that of thousands of others.

 

To provide a bit of brief background on this project: my interactions were limited to a small core group of homeless addicts, largely one individual. The notes are arranged, in a rough chronological order, and I have only included what I consider particularly interesting or insightful in order to keep this relatively succinct. These notes are also in a rough format. If you accept this project as an article for publishing and desire additional material or relevant statistics, I urge you to contact me.

 

Although this undertaking was solely directed by my own efforts, I would be remiss in my duties if I did not give warm thanks to Dr. Russ Whittaker of Washington State University. And of course, those who those in my field (myself included) so often caustically dismiss as “subjects.” They let me into their lives in order to broaden my own knowledge and tell their stories, and I thank them most of all, especially James. Their tales deserve to be told, and I hope that you are receptive to the idea of publishing these notes as a case study. I thank you very much for your time and consideration, and look forward to hearing from you.

 

Sincerely,

Christopher Butler

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Part 3; TLDR warning...

 

April 4, 1967

Saigon

 

The first thing I noticed when I stepped off the plane was the heat. At first it was like walking into a solid wall. But as we stood in an uncomfortable line, with sweat trickling down our necks and creeping through the elastic waistbands of our underwear, the wall gave way. It became smothering and enveloped us like soft clay, entering our noses with a damp botanical odor and rushing in our ears. I opened my mouth and inhaled deeply. The air left a film on my tongue.

 

We were divided into our respective units; clean-shaven officers in khaki fatigues directing us with a calm efficiency. They couldn’t have been much older than any of us, and were unbelievably casual in their movements and directions, totally at home in the fabled ‘Nam. There was a palpable sense of surprise among us. None of these men were grizzled, and none raised their voices except to be heard. These veterans—as we thought them—couldn’t have been much older than us, and probably hadn’t seen an hour of combat between them, but we had no way of knowing that. The real combat veterans—Lieutenant Doyle, for one—turned out to be another story entirely.

 

We boarded trucks, rumbling olive drab things that crawled smoothly out of the gray and tan maze of Saigon and picked up a frantic bouncing pace as we drove down dirt roads and deeper into the wilderness. I looked at the men around me. Most of them seemed to mirror each other: young faces and crew cuts poking out from under standard issue military helmets. What struck me then, and now as I look back on it, is that no one seemed particularly nervous. Some closed their eyes with practiced ease. Throughout basic, sleep had been something of a commodity, to be taken advantage of whenever possible. And yet somehow, it was the last thing on Earth that I wanted to do.

 

It wasn’t that I was nervous. Like I said, I had found the place a bit underwhelming. But it was a neat looking country, not at all like Seattle. I wanted to drink it in while it still held novel appeal. The encroaching jungle was a hundred different shades of green, and even the dirt road was a rich yellow color. Once there was a frantic screeching and rustling, and a bunch of little monkey burst from the undergrowth in our wake, chattering frantically. Someone remarked he didn’t know that Charlie was so close to Saigon, or that he was so small. We got a good laugh from that.

There were people along the way, too. Rice paddies and dozens of little huts lined the road, some with cooking smoke seeping out of the doorway and occasionally an old man or woman staring at us as we went by and drawing deeply on pipe tobacco. Farmers wearing those funny straw hats (I found out later they were called non las, or something like that) stood by the roadside with pigs and oxen, probably driving them into Saigon to be butchered. They didn’t seem that fazed by us, which I took to mean one of two things. Either we had a pretty good handle on the situation, or maybe things had already gone to hell and they were just waiting quietly for us to leave. The latter was just a passing thought.

 

After about a couple hours, we pulled into a clearing. The edges were clearly demarcated by sandbags and barbed wire, and it was obvious from the stumps littered around the tents that this hadn’t always been a clearing. The truck wheezed to a halt next to a large tent that I took to be the mess. When we hopped down, stretching our legs and hefting our packs, I noticed that ours was the only truck from the Saigon convoy that had ended up here.

 

I stood with fifteen or so other privates, smoking cigarettes and swilling water from my canteen. A few of us shook hands and passed lighters around. I was talking to a guy called Howell, a hulk in uniform. He was from Fremont, and we were bullshitting about the humidity and how the heat here compared to California. He was adamant that it was no different.

 

“I’m telling you, Flint, it’s the same. Just that it’s a dry heat in Fremont and we have more deserts than jungles.” He inhaled his cigarette, pushing his helmet back to reveal a blonde crew cut. “I’d think you’d know about humidity, being from Seattle and all. It’s Atlantis up there with all that rain. The underwater city.”

 

“What, like Aquaman?” one of the others put in. I had heard someone call him Schell on the ride. “My kid brother reads those.”

 

Howell snorted derisively. “No, not like Aquaman. It was an ancient civilization, or it might have been. You never read any Plato, did you?”

 

“Plato? What the hell is that?”

 

“It’s not a what, it’s a who.” Howell squinted at the other guy like the sun was in his eyes, a look of vague distaste playing around the corners of his mouth. “A Greek philosopher. Ask Flint here about him.”

I had no idea who Plato was, but I nodded. “Plato. He was a Greek guy.”

 

“Oh, Christ,” Schell laughed and blew smoke out of his hooked nose. “I thought we were in Vietnam, not Harvard Yard.” He rolled his R’s; made them sound like an H. We found out later that he was from a town called Medford in Massachusetts.

 

“Harvard’s full of wimps. They can take a test, sure, but ask them to throw a football or row a mile and it’s lights out.” Howell paused and blew smoke straight up in the air. “Yale, on the other hand. That’s just the best of both worlds. Star offensive lineman and valedictorian of Fremont High, class of 1962.” He tapped his chest with a thick finger and grinned.

 

Schell was unimpressed. “OK, so you can read a book and throw a ball. Big deal. What’s that count for outside of college?”

 

The two of them bickered, almost good naturedly, and were pretty well into it when the mess tents flaps swept aside. The man who strode out was lanky and tall, tall enough that he stood an inch or so above Howell. His face was framed by dark stubble, and he had worked up a healthy looking tan. When I returned to the States, Lieutenant Doyle’s was the face that always seemed to stare at me through television screens covering the continued bloodshed, while Walt Cronkite’s voice played in the background. We might have been impressed by our handlers in Saigon, but it quickly became clear that Doyle was the real deal.

 

“Drop your cigarettes and close your canteens,” he barked by way of a greeting. He snatched the canteen out of Schell’s hands and upended it. Like the rest of us, Schell had pretty much drained his on the ride here, and maybe a half-cup sloshed out on the dry soil, where it wriggled like a snake before being sucked into the ground.

 

“Look at that,” Doyle ordered us. “This man just drank enough to last a day out in the jungle in less than an hour. He’s going thirsty and he’d better hope it rains tonight so he can slurp some leaves while he’s dug in. The only time you’re to drink like this is here in camp or when you’re on leave. Otherwise ration, understood?”

 

“Sir.” Schell acknowledged him with a salute, which even at the time seemed contrived.

 

“Saluting is for your drill instructors and for when you get shot in the ass and the brass hands you Purple Heart.” Doyle waved his hand around himself and the white t-shirt he was wearing, ringed with yellowish sweat around the arms and neck. “No stripes. Lord knows I’m not going to make myself a mark for some little monkey with a rifle in his tree.” He regarded us with an almost patent disinterest. “Welcome to Vietnam, gentleman. The Iron Triangle to be exact. Binh Duong Province, and stronghold of VC activity in the area.”

 

That night we lay in our bunks under a heavy layer of mosquito netting, quiet except for Schell’s complaining. Doyle hadn’t allowed him to fill his canteen up again, telling him that in the morning he could drink until he pissed himself. Eventually one of the older guys told him to shut up, and he fell silent. I lay on my back and stared at the swirling darkness above me.

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Part 4, read if you like...not gonna italicize

 

May 1st, 1995

Seattle

 

I first meet James at a bus stop downtown. He is almost an hour late, although when he does show up he is extremely apologetic, explaining to me that he was helping a friend through some troubles. I was put in touch with James by one of my colleagues at the University of Washington who had interviewed him for a previous case study. He is a slight man with a patchy grey and black beard, dressed in a dirty white hooded sweatshirt and paint spattered pants and boots. He later explains to me that he wears these clothes, especially when in the city, due to the ease they afford him in accessing construction sites to search for tools and copper piping that has been left out.

 

James is a longstanding member of Seattle’s homeless community that also fights the daily battle of heroin addiction. In recent years, heroin has become an increasingly visible symptom of the young transient community throughout the West Coast, although many of those who possess the most debilitating habits are men between the ages of 35 and 50. [Must cite relevant demographic source] James has been part of this community since his early 40s, although addicted to heroin since his 30s, which he immediately conveys with a firm handshake and a solemn assurance that he’s “20 years deep” and “the real deal.”

 

We walk several blocks up the street to a cheap diner, which advertises bottomless coffee. I order coffee and eggs for both of us, and over the course of our talk James uses almost every packet of sugar and Sweet’n’Low at the table, though he only picks at his eggs and eats a few strips of bacon. The sweetener that doesn’t go into his mug immediately goes into his pockets when we stand up to leave. I must have looked at him with surprise or reproach at this point, because he glares at me and explains: “I gotta fuckin’ sweet tooth, can’t help it.” This behavior of opportunistic gathering is common among homeless addicts, as is an affinity for sugar and sweet things, which provide cheap energy and calories in a usually sparse diet.

 

As we eat, I ask James a bit about his history. He shakes his head at any questions that he finds too pointed or direct—as an aside, many of my ignored questions would be answered later—although he is fairly thorough with those that he does choose to answer. He reveals that he has lived in a state of transience or complete homelessness for about 12 years, although his heroin addiction stretches back 20 or more. He is interestingly observant of his time spent as a member of the homeless community, and agonizes a bit over the exact number of years and months until I assure him that the closest estimate is fine. When pressed about his heroin addiction, however, he shrugs and states: “I don’t know. 20, 22, 25, 100 years maybe. Practically forever, man.”

 

I ask James to detail his living situation as best as possible, resulting in the following conversation and invitation to see his camp for myself:

 

Chris: Can you explain your current living situation?

James: Yeah, sure, it’s the Ritz-Carlton. I have room service and everything. Sometimes I’ll even pick up the phone and call for one of those high-class hookers—what are they called—escorts. That’s all on the house. [LAUGHS] Nah, it’s about what you’d expect. I move around a lot, we all do. Mostly around the highways.

Chris: Why the highways in particular?

James: It’s convenient. The stretch we’re all at is pretty near a few strips of stores and apartments, so copping and hustling [buying heroin and working, often sporadically or illegally] is never a problem. There’s a lot of room. Spots to sleep under overpasses, and if you have a good spot you can set up a real proper camp in areas where there’s a bunch of trees and no one can see you.

Chris: What’s the danger in that?

James: Being seen?

Chris: Yeah, is there any?

James: Not really from normal people, unless they’re on a mission to ruin your damn day. They tend to not notice what they don’t want to see. But sometimes some mother will get upset that her rugrats might see us, and that we’re uglying up her highway and city, making it more dangerous or something. No one who lives in the area gives a shit, hell, they’re probably a paycheck away from eviction themselves. But the commuters, they sometimes get this funny sense of do-good and then call the bulls on us, and that’s that. Then we gotta go.

Chris: So it’s like a camp. How big is a camp like this?

James: Hell, I ain’t got nowhere to be. You wanna see it?

Chris: Today? Now?

James: Yeah now. Look, your friend did right by me when I helped him out with his work, and he said you’re good people. But it’s one thing for you to sit here drinking coffee and taking notes, and it’s a whole ‘nother mess if you wanna really get in the mix. You’ll have to turn on a dime.

 

This “turn on a dime” sentiment would become a definitive way of conducting myself during this study; opportunities often had to be taken very quickly and, on occasion, without much thought. Not wanting to miss my opportunity with James, I quickly pack my things and pay the tab while he fills his pockets with the sugar packets. When it comes time to board the bus, James produces two transfer stubs and hands me one, explaining that there’s no reason for me to pay the full fare in case I have second thoughts. I try to tell him that I have previous experience doing work like this, but he waves me off. In hindsight, him providing me with a transfer ticket was likely in return for the meal at the diner—my later months with the homeless addict community revealed an “economy” predicated on bartering, exchange, and sharing as a dominant part of social interaction.

 

We ride the bus for about 25 minutes, well out of the downtown area of Seattle to an area composed of low-rise apartments and liquor stores. James points out certain things as we pass, here an alleyway that he overdosed in, there a vacant lot that used to be home to a vacant building he calls “a heroin hotel” that multiple addicts would squat in for days, shooting up and only leaving to buy heroin or hustle. He speaks of these things with a certain affection and bravado, and seems to have little qualms about recounting his overdose, almost as if it were a mark of distinction as to his commitment to heroin.

 

The stop we get off at is near the end of the line, in an area littered with trash and graffiti. James directs us down a side street and we weave around the back of several businesses in what seems an overly roundabout route. Finally we slide down a low embankment behind the loading dock of a small grocery store, and the rush of traffic can be heard. We push our way through some bushes and saplings, and a small collection of lean-tos and crude tents is revealed. Although the loading dock is still somewhat visible, the highway, aside from its noise, is completely obscured.

 

James: Watch where you step. What’s that they say? Mind the gap. [The ground is littered with empty malt liquor cans and the occasional syringe cap. It appears as though some areas have been used strictly for defecating.]

 

Chris: How big is the group here would you say?

James: That changes a lot. There’s maybe fifteen of us bouncin’ around the area, but not all in this camp. Like I said earlier there’s the bulls [police] to contend with. Then someone is always going to stay with friends, moving back in with mom, getting arrested, detoxing, getting clean. They come and go.

Chris: How often does that happen?

James: What, getting clean? [LAUGHS] Someone’s always getting clean, like I said. They almost always come back.

Chris: What about you?

James: Well, like I said too, I’m a 20-year man. There’s some people here that play around—a lot of young kids just being rebellious. Sometimes someone just has a bad period of a couple years. Not me, though. It’s all about the wake up, the cop, the hustle. Me and a few others, you could call us veterans. This is our full time job. Full time dope fiends through and through.

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Some of the worst erotica I've ever read, I can't fap to this.

 

Yeah, gonna have to agree. Make with the filth, hubby dearest.

 

 

(I only had time to read the first instalment but I'll come back to it tonight. Keep 'em coming.)

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Thanks to those that have read...I dunno if anyone is really keeping up with this thread or not, but I'm gonna get really drunk tonight so here's the next part in that spirit:

 

April 10, 1967

Binh Duong

 

My first foray into the jungle was memorable, there was no denying that, although not as colorful as we were led to expect. In the two days that we had spent in the tent camp—Binh Tent Province as some of the older guys called it—we had heard no end of stories about first sweeps into the jungle’s waiting mouth. Hordes of VC soldiers in black clothes that descended on platoons and vanished as so much smoke, taking American ears, noses, and teeth with them. The whispered snick of a tripwire, followed by a blast of dirt and shrapnel. Sharpened stakes lining deep pits covered with leaves and brush, snipers moving through the treetops at will. Even though stuff like this did happen, as we would come to find out, it happened in isolated bursts. Most of it was showboating by the older soldiers, although none of it did anything for our nerves, which had quickly started deteriorating.

 

It’s true that the men who told us stories like this weren’t really much older than us, although they were still the old hands of the platoon, the veterans. Their practiced cynicism and seemingly endless reserves of cool sharply contrasted the graphic stories, told to us while reclining in makeshift hammocks, one leg flung over the side and a cigarette precariously balanced on the edge of their lips. They admitted to fear and nervousness and told us we would be stupid, maybe even psychotic, not to experience the same emotions. But they spoke about even the most primal feelings and actions with such a casual cadence that one day, after an especially brutal story, Howell remarked that they were either lying through their teeth or fucking certifiable themselves. The way he said “certifiable,” tapping his head with the enunciation of each syllable, stuck with me.

 

The night before we were set to leave the camp's perimeter for the first time, I sat with Howell and Schell on the packed dirt outside of the mess tent's entrance. Despite the heat, we sat with combat shirts buttoned up over our bare chests to fend off the mosquitoes. Schell had remarked that fires kept bugs away, at least they did when he camped at some place called Walden Pond with his family during the summer. Howell agreed, and said he knew from camping in Northern California.

I had no idea what fire did or didn’t do for mosquitoes. The most I had ever dealt with them before Vietnam were small congregations in the backyard on humid summer nights—nothing like the feeding grounds of Binh Duong. What I did know was that Doyle absolutely under no circumstances allowed open fires, a point he had driven home with a barrage of physical threats, most of them involving castration. Cer-ti-fi-a-ble, I thought at the time.

 

So we sat with no fire besides the glowing embers of our cigarettes and looked out over the perimeter of sandbags and razor wire. The jungle stood all around us; black and inky as if it had been laid down with broad paintbrush strokes. We were mostly silent, just staring out at the tree line, which seemed to me more and more like a yawning mouth given teeth by the uneven treetops and mountains in the distance.

 

“Fuckin’ black,” Schell finally spoke. He laughed nervously and gestured towards the trees. “Wonder what it’s like out there now.”

 

“Probably black,” Howell answered tersely. His tension was palpable, and he hadn’t stopped shaking his knee since we sat down. Although he had loudly written off most of the stories we had heard, I could tell they had gotten to him. That was the case for most of us that had been unceremoniously jettisoned into the Triangle from Saigon two days prior.

 

“All that black.” Schell trailed off. “Imagine being out in it.”

 

I didn’t need Howell’s profane reminder that soon we would be doing just that for Schell to strike an internal chord. This was what we had been preparing for, and what we all knew we would have to inevitably do. The sense of the unknown hung around the jungle in an almost tangible state, similar to mist rising after the rain, and it gnawed at me. I said nothing to Schell, but the anxious feeling of uncertainty settled in the pit of my stomach. The jaded thoughts I had when we landed in Saigon were already long gone.

 

Morning came in an instant. We marched through the perimeter of the jungle, twenty-five of us in all, and were soon slowly moving in a ragged line through a rough trail that had previously been hacked out by other soldiers that came before us. Doyle had briefed us on the edge of the jungle. Standing with the sun rising behind him, he had been framed by light in a way that eerily reminded me of some of the scenes I had seen depicted on stained glass during baptisms and confirmations. It was oddly appropriate, I thought. Doyle was nothing if not God to this slice of the United States military, something of which he gladly reminded us as we stood in the tall, dry grass.

 

“Listen up,” Doyle said in an even voice. “This will be the first time that most of you will be taking a walk with Charlie—or entering enemy territory for the purpose of reconnaissance and engagement if you’d like to get poetic about it.” He spat on the ground. “Whatever you’re going to call it, you’re going to observe a very strict set of rules. You will not speak unless given clearance to. In the event that you are, you will treat this jungle like a goddamn library and not raise your voice above a whisper. You will not stop and sit without permission. You will not break the line for any reason. You will not chew gum, smoke cigarettes, or eat so much as a slice of Wonder-fucking-Bread. You will listen to everything that you are told to do, and you will remain alert at all times.” He looked around at us.

 

“Your time in camp and on leave, should you get it, is yours. Your time out there belongs to all of us. You do something you shouldn’t and like as not you’ll be dead. Worse yet, it’ll be someone else.” He gave curt gust of breath that might have been a laugh. “From now until we get back tonight, I am the Alpha and the Omega, and you’ll observe what I tell you like Holy Scripture.”

 

Every patrol in Binh Duong, every journey between the first one and the last one, just before the bloodbath that capped off my time in Vietnam, was officially centered on finding Vietcong supplies and fighters. Yet as clichéd as it sounds, and no matter how many other guys said it as if it were the most profound thing they’d ever thought of, the real goal was to stay alive. As we moved through the rough trail into the deeper jungle, no one spoke. Doyle marched near the front of the column, picking his way forward while quietly consulting with two of the older soldiers. One of them, whose name I didn’t know, carried a map and compass. The other was a sergeant named Collins. The only reason I remember is because I found it out later, after everything fell apart.

 

I had been moving in a strange state, half hyper-alert and half completely detached, in a way that I remembered nothing beyond what was happening in the moment. Howell told me later the word for that was “fugue,” although that didn’t seem to matter much. I was placing one foot carefully in front of the other, each previous step slipping out of my mind with every footfall. My eyes were glued to the ground; I think in hindsight I was terrified of catching myself on a tripwire, despite being near the middle of the column. Maybe everyone else was doing it too, which is why we never thought anything was amiss until we heard the shot.

 

At first I thought someone had stepped on a particularly dry branch, and kept plodding forward until a hand from behind me pulled me to my knees. Of the nearly prone bodies around me, a few loosed wild bursts of gunfire into the trees, bringing down palm fronds and splintering trunks and branches. Doyle was shouting for them to hold it, unless they wanted every fucking gook in Vietnam coming down on us, but the erratic bursts continued. When they finally stopped, my ears continued ringing.

Collins lay on his back, sprawled out in a way that was almost funny. I don’t know where he had been hit, but the entire front of his fatigues, from the neckline almost down to his crotch had turned a deep maroon. Our medic was fumbling with morphine and a roll of bandages, but after a moment threw them on the ground in disgust and swore, more to himself than the rest of us.

 

I’ve remarked earlier that the whole experience wasn’t memorable, and that’s a lie. For a flash, for one horrible moment of crystallization it was the most searing thing I’ve ever seen. Then it faded into neutrality. The closest thing I could compare it to was burning yourself when you ran hot water, and the noticeable change when you twisted the cold tap and the water cooled around your hands, going from scalding to what seemed like room temperature in a matter of a few deliberate seconds.

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May 15, 1995

Seattle

 

The first time I drive to the camp rather than take the bus, I park several blocks away in a retail plaza’s parking lot. Otherwise, James has warned me, I’d probably leave on the bus short a car or a few hubcaps. I come upon him in front of the grocery store, sitting on the pavement and engaging in what he refers to as “light work.” This amounts to staying in one place all day with a cup placed in front of him and a cardboard sign identifying him as a homeless veteran. He calls out a continuous stream of: “please spare some change, anything helps, God bless, have a wonderful day” at each passer by. It quickly begins to get repetitive. In between surreptitious sips from a 12-ounce can of malt liquor he holds in a black plastic bag, James begins to talk about the day’s efforts to scrounge money in his typically animated manner.

 

James: That’s what I hate about this light work. That’s what this is. You gotta say the same thing to everyone, everyone who goes by gets the same spiel. It’s effective, you know? Something streamlined. You gotta know what you’re doing, have a good line that you can get out quick and repeat easy. Only problem is saying it a bunch of times turns it into a fucking tongue twister. Makes me feel like one of those record players too, you know how their needles skip sometimes?

Chris: Why do you call it that? Light work, I mean.

James: Because that’s what it is, it’s light. It’s easy work. If I was filing papers you wouldn’t ask why I called it that. [LAUGHS] I don’t need to be hopping fences or dragging scrap metal around for this, so it’s light.

Chris: Is this how you usually get your money?

James: Hell no, and I’ll give you two reasons. First off, it just ain’t reliable. I’m doing this while I wait for you to get here, see? And I got a couple bucks out of it. But if I need to fix [common term for shooting heroin—compiling a glossary of slang and terminology may be helpful] bad, if I’m dopesick [suffering physical heroin withdrawals] or wanna make sure I have a cash for a couple days, I need to really get to work, and that means hustling. Second, I’m a man. It’s one thing for one of the girls out here to sit around all day, telling some story about how she’s gotta support a baby, bitching about that, whatever. She’ll get more sympathy even if she really looks like a fiend. But she also ain’t cut out for the real manual stuff, and she ain’t gonna pull off a real good hustle, least not on her own. And since I can, I gotta do that. I’m homeless, and I’m a goddamn heroin machine, but don’t let anyone tell you I ain’t motivated. I’ll work for my money, same as the next man.

 

The attitude James is projecting is one of masculine dominance and ideals, common among the homeless addict community. It is largely made up of men who hold stereotypical ideals about women. They often feel as though women are not cut out for the same sorts of activity they are, and there is a high degree of gender segregation. One thing I find particularly interesting is that James seem to idealize the concept of working for his money in an honest fashion, although he has simultaneously proudly admitted that most of it comes from illegal means.

 

We sit for approximately two hours and allow the cup to fill with change. At one point, James empties out a dollar or so and goes into the grocery. He comes back with another can of malt liquor, which he opens and hands to me with great ceremony. After I take a couple of sips, however, he begins to eye it and eventually snatches it back. When he is done with it, he smokes two half-finished cigarettes he pulls from his pocket and abruptly stands up. He says we have enough money, and it’s time I got a hands on experience. I’ve seen him shoot heroin several times over the past couple of weeks, although only ever in the camp. Today, however, he informs me he’s going to take me with him to cop [buy heroin].

 

After exchanging his change for a five-dollar bill from the grocery owner, we set off on foot. James tells me the owner likes him because he’s a good customer and rarely steals anything, unlike many of the other addicts in the area: “you can’t shit where you sleep man, and I sleep right behind the goddamn market.” After walking several blocks away from the highway and deeper into the neighborhood, he tells me I should make sure to put my tape recorder away. I begin to get increasingly uncomfortable as the area gets progressively seedier. Eventually we stop at a corner where a few young men are standing around. They scowl at us, but readily approach. James brokers a deal after some bickering for a 10-dollar bag of heroin, reminding the dealer how he gave him an extra five to “hold” this morning. Later he tells me that if he ever finds a dealer he trusts, he will frequently do this so as not to risk losing money or having it stolen by another addict.

 

It begins to rain. I worry that James will lead us back to the camp, which will be awash with mud and garbage. Instead, he approaches a house. It is a dilapidated mess in the pouring rain, one of several abandoned properties within a mile of this particular stretch of highway. James pulls aside a corner of the plywood sheet nailed over a basement window and scoots through, almost on his back. Once inside, he stands in the window and makes a grotesque face. He laughs, and tells me that he used to be afraid of monsters in the basement when he was a kid. He beckons me to follow him, and tells me not to worry: he cleared away the glass himself when he pulled off the aluminum frame to bring to the scrap yard. This is another in a series of references that James has made to exchanging “found” metals for small amounts of cash, which seems to be his ideal method to accumulate money to fix with. I’m not entirely reassured, but I get down and awkwardly scoot through the window. We are meeting another homeless addict named Peter, who James has known for several years and squats in this basement. We were introduced recently at the camp, during my third visit with James.

 

As my eyes adjust to the light, I quickly see that this basement is in far worse shape than the camp James occupies. Despite being sheltered from the rain, an enormous amount of standing water has accumulated on the floor, and there is a sour odor of rot. Empty syringe caps and other trash floats by. James takes my arm and leads me through a relatively shallow stretch of water into a back room. Peter—an unbelievably skeletal man—sits on a bare mattress brown with water damage. He waves cheerfully at us, and asks James if he brought the “rent.” James, who has appeared noticeably peaky since I met him this morning, nods and brings out the corner of a plastic grocery bag, which has been crumpled into a ball and holds two tiny lumps of heroin.

 

Peter takes the bag from him, and begins to prepare the cook [melt the heroin and mix it with water so that it may be injected]. When it is raining, he allows James to come and spend the day in the basement in exchange for heroin. He places the heroin on a flattened beer can, and casts around for his water bottle, which he finds empty. Upon finding that neither James nor I has one, he shrugs and scoops up a capful of the stagnant rainwater from the floor. He pours the water over the heroin, and melts the mixture using the flame from his lighter. James, who has been bouncing on the balls of his feet watching Peter prepare the drug, thrusts a cigarette filter into the liquid. Peter cries out as the can shakes, and informs James that if any spills it’s coming out of his needle.

 

The cotton [either a cigarette filter, cotton ball, or something similarly absorbent. They are a valuable commodity, as they hold residual heroin that can be shot up later] soaks up the water and heroin, and the two men each fill a syringe from it. I’m glad to see that they are not sharing a single needle, although having individual needles is a relative rarity. There is little subtlety past this point; Peter jabs at one frail arm a couple of times, drawing spots of blood, until he finds a vein. James simply pulls down one side of his pants and sticks the needle into his thigh. I watch Peter pull back on the stopper and draw a small amount of blood into the chamber before slowly pressing down, as if he is savoring it. Each of the two give sighs of satisfaction.

 

James: That’s just what I needed, that shit right there. When we came in through the window, Petey, I thought that I was about to shit and puke all at once.

Peter: Being dopesick is no joke. If you’re going to put one thing in writing, college man, it should be that.

James: Never used to be like this. Never thought it would be either, waking up and needing to fix first thing. Throwing up, sweating, shaking, diarrhea like you wouldn’t believe. And that’s not even counting everything when you’re not sick. You know what’s weird, Petey?

Peter: Yeah, what’s that?

James: That firs time when you’ve really hit bottom, you feel like it’s the most horrible thing in the world. It sticks in your head. But all of a sudden—bam. The feeling fades, and, well, hitting bottom just becomes a part of life.

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Still at it...

 

August 17, 1967

Binh Duong

 

Rain pattered the top of the canvas tent, and a hot breeze blew it through the mosquito netting. It sluiced over all of us in a warm sweat, turning our crew cuts to sponges and sticking our t-shirts to our chests like a layer of dead skin. It would be obvious to say that by now I hated it here. Everyone did. Well, except maybe Wozniak, the new radio operator for the platoon. Our other one had gotten gangrene in a cut on his foot and was sent back to Saigon. Schell had complained bitterly about that guy’s luck, but most of us just took it stoically. Wozniak seemed to think that the whole mess was some kind of great tropical vacation. He was green as they came, some Polish kid from Iowa or Nebraska, one of those huge, flat slabs of land in the middle of the country. Most of us muttered he would eventually learn the hard way.

 

I watched him pull on his fatigues and lace up his boots. He was still exacting in the way he did it. Most of us—and by now there were guys well into their second tours—did it with casual ease that Wozniak probably mistook for carelessness. I caught Howell’s eye on the bunk across from me. He rolled his eyes and said something under his breath about fresh meat. I yanked on a boot and didn’t bother to lace it. We wouldn’t actually leave for a while yet. The rain and humidity were making my dog tags slide around on my neck uncomfortably. I took them off and read them for what must have been the thousandth time since I touched down in Saigon. That seemed like a thousand years ago. Flint, Randy A. 247-36-3650. O Pos. R. Catholic.

 

I let the dog tags fall from my fingers, and tucked them into my shirt. The rest of the preparation blurred into routine. We’d done it so many times that it was nothing new, just like the sweltering heat and oppressive humidity. Doyle had warned us that the rainy season would be bad, but no amount of talk could prepare any of us for the first night spent squatting in an inch of water in a hole three feet deep. We had been spending almost every other night in the jungle, apparently to send a message to the VC that our area of control was expanding. If it was, none of us seemed to have noticed.

 

We formed up in a ragged line, ready to go without eating. I had a can of peaches that I would pop open with my knife before we hit the tree line. They were usually mushy and the heat turned their syrup into a sugary mess. If there was one thing I missed from home, besides the all the obvious things, it was fresh fruit. Most guys would have probably laughed at that; thrust their hips and said they missed their girlfriends, and that maybe I was the fruit. So I kept it to myself. We all gave each other a hard time to keep the mood light, but some things had to stay private. Anything that didn’t was fair game. When I got back to Seattle—if I got back—I knew I was going to head straight for the grocery store and buy some real peaches. Clean and fresh ones. Sure there were fruit vendors in Saigon that you could go to if you were on leave, but who wanted to eat anything fertilized with ox shit?

 

Howell prodded me and chuckled, pointing. Wozniak was still tying his boots, lacing them tight. I shook my head. Everyone in line was shifting from foot to foot and adjusting their packs and rifles, eager to get underway and palpably more eager to get back whole. You could feel it mingle with the humidity, a simultaneous atmosphere of excitement and dread. No amount of routine would change that. Some smoked, which they wouldn’t be able to do once we left the camp’s perimeter. I wasn’t exactly sure where we would patrol that day, but chances were that it would be the same godforsaken stretch of jungle that we had been combing over for the past month, looking for VC tunnels and hidden rucksacks full of bullets and rice balls.

 

Our procedure within the jungle had become almost comical, except for times when things went bad. Sometimes we’d even laugh about that. We marched, we cleared brush, and generally waited for some poor guy to get his leg blown off by a grenade and a wire or have his forehead tapped by a sniper in a tree. The last time that happened, Howell made a joke about Hindu women and spent the night in a foxhole with Wozniak, angrily explaining the difference between Indians and Native Americans in a stage whisper. We all had a good laugh from how clueless the new kid was (I had no idea about Hindus myself) but shut up real quick after we heard the skeletal rattle of a machine gun nearby. Every night away from base in the jungle was like that. Dug in, immobile, and just waiting.

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Merry Christmas Eve half drunk

 

November 3, 1995

Seattle

 

Today is the start of the sixth month that I’ve been in touch with James and documenting life in and around the camp, and honestly not the first time that I’ve thought I might have bit off more than I can chew with this case study. The camp behind the grocery is no more, having been broken up by the police. James has set up a new camp, which has lasted for several months. The makeshift tents are just off the freeway, behind a Jersey barrier and down a low hill. The traffic to and from Seattle is a constant roar, maybe 15 feet away at the most, and the scrubby trees that conceal the encampment don’t do much for the sound. When they broke up the grocery store camp, the police also destroyed most of the shelters. James has been sleeping in an empty refrigerator box with a blue painter’s tarp covering it. The chill in the air and constant rain has made sleeping in the camp, which I’ve taken to doing a few times a week, particularly unpleasant.

 

Everyone is up early as usual, to complete the mandatory activity of copping or shooting up from fresh bag if they have money or a cotton if they don’t. In addition to James, the camp is also home to two other men. Mike is new, a transplant from Ohio. His parents still send him money. He has confided in me several times that this is just an in-between stage for him. He considers his heroin habit under control, and often expresses a plan to start working again soon. He claims to be saving for a room in a halfway house, but most of the cash I see him with goes to heroin or fast food, another sign that he is a newcomer. The others, with nearly 50 years of heroin use between them, rarely eat.

 

The other man, Alan, is different in that he keeps to himself most of the time. James has previously explained that they’ve known each other for years, but he thinks Alan might be mentally handicapped. This is entirely possible; Alan refuses to tell me his last name, and will occasionally explode at with pejoratives if I don’t give him money, but when he’s in the mood to talk and not chasing [in search of heroin, usually while suffering physical withdrawal symptoms], he’s surprisingly well spoken and generally considerate. Even so, we almost never speak.

 

I watch the three of them prepare their morning fix, which noticeably illustrates their length time spent as homeless addicts. Mike cooks a tiny ball of the narcotic left over from yesterday, and gives the cotton to Alan and James, who have no money or heroin of their own this morning. The effects won’t last long, and they will need to start hustling for money immediately after they shoot up. Mike, on the other hand, will be “right” for a couple of hours. He carefully injects into a fat vein in his bare foot with notable precision and falls into a deep nod. The whole process takes him several minutes. James laughs and says something about careful children. He and Alan, after drawing the cotton’s residue into their respective syringes, just stab the needles into muscle. They usually favor the thigh or buttocks. This cavalier method is less potent in its effects and more likely to cause abscess and infection, but almost foolproof in that they don’t have to search for a useable vein.

Not surprisingly, both of the older men write me off when I suggest they eat. Alan ignores me entirely, and James just laughs it off. I offer him a couple dollar bills to at least get some fruit. He turns suddenly somber and refuses the money, not wanting to appear a charity case. Ironically, he will spend the day panhandling, which he hates, on an exit ramp with a cardboard sign hung around his neck. While most of the homeless have strong notions of individual responsibility and masculinity, they only project them to those that they know. Strangers don’t matter nearly as much and they tend not to think much of the homeless community to begin with. When I insist that he needs to eat, James considers the money for a moment and takes one of the dollars. It will probably go towards a can of beer rather than a banana, but the next time he tries to wheedle money I’ll make a point to remind him about this.

 

For about as long as the camp has been set up, the two men have been occupying the same area with their panhandling. James tells me it has been thirteen weeks, and that he looks at the convenience store calendars to keep the days straight. Alan has a sign that he made from part of a refrigerator box, the rest of which he uses as a mat to place his sleeping bag on. The sign reads “homeless vet, anything helps, God bless.” James has one just like it. As far as I know, Alan has never served in the armed forces, but not knowing much about him makes it difficult to find out. [inquiring with local clinics for full information might shed light.]

 

James tries to panhandle as little as possible because he finds it too passive. Last night, however, he explained to me that regardless of what he’s doing, it’s all a routine:

 

James: It’s all a routine, man. It’s one big routine. It doesn’t even matter what I’m doing or what anyone’s doing. Alan’s gonna stand off the freeway with that sign around his neck, and I’m gonna either do the same damn thing or wash some windshields or unpack some boxes of beer. Maybe hustle something, but it’s getting too damn cold to steal pipes and window frames. Either way, we’re gonna do whatever it is that we do, day in and day out, just to keep the heroin routine going. It’s all one big agenda, like we’re following orders. Do work, cop, fix, repeat.

Chris: Why do you say that? The part about orders?

James: Because that’s exactly what it is. Heroin—you get addicted and it turns into a cycle right away. It’s what drives you to do what you do. If you disobey what it’s telling your body, then you’re screwed. You’ll be sick for days. If you follow the rules then you’ll feel fine. That’s what this new kid, Mike, that’s what Mike is gonna figure out later. He still nods harder than I’ve ever seen. He fucking soars when he gets high. Me? I just feel like myself.

 

Sometimes the stores around where James buys heroin will pay him for a few hours work painting over graffiti or unpacking boxes. Once in a while he’ll get a free beer to help him along. Today, though, he does what I’ve seen him do almost every day since the camp has moved. There is a gas station immediately to the right of the Alan’s panhandling post at the exit ramp, and as cars fill their tanks James wipes down their windshields and offers an empty cup to the driver. Several times an hour a handful of change jangles into the cup. Most just drive away without any acknowledgment, leaving him to the next windshield or to squat between the pumps, waiting for the rumble of an approaching engine.

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All the way now fuckyou

 

November 1, 1967

Binh Duong/Saigon

 

The mortars started falling just after breakfast. The first one whistled down almost lazily and crashed into the earth just outside the mess tent. I was standing about twenty feet away with Howell, eating a stack of toast slathered in margarine. We had stayed put for the better part of the last week, and I was getting used to leisurely days, even sleeping in a bit. I had just turned to say something to Howell when the high-pitched shriek started and he shoved me, probably as hard as he could, under the scrubby canopy of a couple trees that hadn’t been cleared. I somehow kept my balance and was about to push him back when the round landed, causing an explosion in both ears and showering us with dirt and rocks.

 

I felt a sharp pain in my tongue and realized that my teeth had snapped down, drawing blood. I had the wild thought of finding the toast I had dropped, but the idea soon passed as more shells burst all around us. The sound was deafening and it seemed to go on forever, even though it couldn’t have been more than a few minutes. I lay prone with my arms over my head and prayed that they would avoid me. All I thought about as mortars kept falling was being directly hit and getting sent back to Seattle in an olive green matchbox, just a scrap of meat and a few tufts of hair. I tried to make myself as small as possible.

 

When they finally stopped falling, I raised my eyes slowly, as if looking towards the sky might spur more to rain down on us. I stood slowly, my knees shaking a bit. Howell squatted warily and then stood to his full height. There were dark brown craters all around the tents that still stood. The ones that didn’t had been caved in completely, their metal frames sticking out at odd angles like broken bones. My ears were ringing with an odd rushing effect, sort of like when you put your ear to a seashell. I turned my head slowly, looking for bodies. There had to be at least a few. I put my hands on my hips and felt something wet, which is when Howell shook me, gesticulating with his other hand, and mouthed words I couldn’t hear. His face almost white as he stared at my side.

 

The hospital in Saigon wasn’t bad at all. Not all of the windows had glass, and there were some cracks running up almost the ceiling that occasionally released a few cockroaches, but there were at least real beds with clean sheets and the food wasn’t any worse than in Binh Duong. The doctors pulled a dozen pieces of shrapnel out of my side and lower back, and told me that I’d still be able to walk. Apparently that was lucky, but I wouldn’t have cared if they took both my legs at the waist if it kept me out of the jungle for another few days.

 

As it was, I stayed in bed for almost two weeks, and then began to walk again slowly, with one hand on the wall while a Vietnamese nurse kept both hands on the small of my back. I shuffled my feet along a few inches at a time over the scuffed linoleum, up one side of the hallway and down the other. The pain wasn’t unmanageable, but they were liberal with the morphine, so most of the time when I was done walking I just collapsed into a fog. It was in one of these fogs that Howell came to visit me on leave, looking awkward in an enormous set of khakis that were slightly too small. I didn’t realize who it was until he set a ladder-back chair next to my bed and sat in it heavily.

 

“Hey Flint.” He leaned in and grinned. I shook his hand weakly. “How you holding up here?”

I shrugged with the strength I could muster. I wasn’t exactly weak anymore, but the morphine kicked like a mule. “Not bad,” I finally managed.

 

“Shit, I’m glad to hear that. Thought we were going to lose you. Shrapnel can move around when it’s already inside of you, you know. I figured since you caught it in the back it might screw with your spine—that and it was a mess. You were dripping blood out of your boots.”

“Was I?” The rest of the day they took me out was foggy. I had looked at the scars in the mirror here, though. They were like a debriefing map; a bunch of spidery red and black lines.

Howell laughed, and tapped the morphine drip. “Sure thing. They’re loading you up here, huh? I guess I can’t blame you for taking it.” He paused, and for a few moments the only sounds were the ticking clock and some of the machinery hooked up to the guy next to me.

 

“You’re going to get a Purple Heart,” he said finally. “Doyle was saying so. You and a few of the other guys who got wounded and lived. It’s probably a good thing if you don’t remember much from that morning. It was a mess.” He paused again and repeated himself more quietly, almost in a whisper. “A fucking mess. Schell’s dead. They got eight of us with those mortars, and pushed in on foot the next night. We threw them back, but Binh Tent Province is no more.” He sighed bitterly. “And I for one couldn’t be happier. ”

 

I chewed at my lower lip. I had wondered about Schell a few times, his thick Boston accent and incessant complaining and worrying that always managed to tread the line between endearing and obnoxious. None of it mattered anymore, I supposed. They’d stick him in a United States Army issued coffin and ship him home in the belly of a refrigerated airplane, and his parents would bury him with a flag. I thought for one macabre instant what would happen if I had died too and they accidentally sent me to Medford and Schell to Seattle. Who the hell would know the difference? It wasn’t like they were going to open the coffins and take a look.

 

One of the nurses came with a tray of food. She smiled shyly at Howell, who was practically as tall as she was, even though he was sitting down. She had passable English, and suggested that my friend might want to wheel me outside so I could eat in the sun. I didn’t care much one way or the other, but Howell jumped at the opportunity. He seemed uncomfortable among all the bedridden men. The nurse unhooked the morphine drip and brought in a rickety wheelchair, which Howell helped me into. He pushed me down the long hallway with the tray on my lap. After all the hours I had spent creeping up and down its length, I felt like I was flying.

 

The first thing I noticed as Howell slowly bounced me down the steps outside was that the humidity hadn’t gone anywhere. It was a beautiful day, but the heat hung like a blanket. Inside the hospital there were enormous metal fans that at least pushed the air around. All I could think of, as Howell wheeled me to a partially shaded area of the yellowed grass lawn, was going back inside.

 

“Ah, Christ, look at that poor guy,” Howell said as I began to spoon mashed potatoes into my mouth.

 

I looked in the direction that he nodded. There was a man in a wheelchair being pushed around by a nurse, much like Howell had done for me. She was pushing him in slow circles, looking rather bored and disinterested. For a moment, he looked like the spitting image of how I imagined I did, in the flimsy white hospital jumper, hair sticking up in all directions from only getting a shower every other day. But when she turned him towards us, I saw quite differently. His right arm was gone at the shoulder, and almost his entire face was covered in scar tissue.

 

“Probably a grenade,” Howell muttered. “That, or it could be napalm if he’s ARVN. Can’t tell from here. Goddamn shame.”

 

I stared at the man, fixated. I wondered under what circumstances he had been wounded, if he had seen it coming. That might be worse than not knowing, I thought. At least then you were just surprised, like when I had felt the blood on my hip in Binh Duong. On the other hand, even if you did see it coming, after long enough you didn’t give a damn. Since I had seen Collins die, I knew that death was a possibility. We all did. Maybe in the entire time between seeing him bleed out on the jungle floor and the mortars falling on October 1st, I had just been waiting for the other shoe to drop. I watched the nurse who was pushing him. Her look never changed, and she never moved her eyes from straight ahead. She had seen this all before.

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January 15, 1996

Seattle

 

I’m home for the weekend, soaking under a hot shower before going out again on Monday. I’ve spent the last two weeks or so with family, and haven’t been down to the encampment since Christmas time. When the phone rings I let it go so I can wash my hair for a second time, and when I go and listen to the message it’s a nurse from the downtown hospital. She tells me in a monotone voice that they have a patient, James, who has me listed as his contact in case of medical emergency. I try and pry some information from her, but she tells me it is against policy to convey health issues over the phone, and that I’ll have to come down myself. I dress in a hurry and drive to the hospital. Although James was especially drunk the last time I saw him, he seemed otherwise in decent health.

 

When I arrive at the hospital, Peter meets me in the hallway. The nurses are giving him a wide berth; you can smell him from several feet away. He shakes my hand and thanks me for coming, and expresses the hope that maybe now “the fascists in charge here” will let him see his friend. He is a bit glassy eyed, and probably shot up not too long before. I hope that James isn’t undergoing physical withdrawal, which would be a particularly nasty process in the hospital.

 

After speaking to a nurse and confirming my identity, I am led into the room they’ve given James. I’m surprised to see that it is a private room, but less surprised when the nurse pointedly asks me when I think I’ll be taking my cousin home. I’m amused, although not particularly surprised, that James told them I was his cousin. The possibility of having family who was willing to pay for the hospital stay would likely grant him an extra day or two off the streets, until they figured out they needed to discharge him and free up the bed for someone else. She gives Peter a distasteful look, and closes the door behind her. James is propped up in bed with several pillows, and his face lights up when he sees us. He reaches out to Peter, clasping one hand in both of his.

 

James: Well son of a bitch. You guys didn’t forget about me after all. Thanks for coming, Chris. Figured you wouldn’t mind if I happened to tell them I had a cousin with a big bank account over at the college. Little white lie and all that.

Chris: How are you, James? What happened?

James: Oh, it’s nothing really. Just a bit of an abscess. I was having some trouble walking, so—

Peter: Bullshit! He couldn’t get out of bed in the morning is more like it. Then when he did stand up to go take a leak he fell right down again. I called the ambulance myself.

James: Oh, listen to this guy talking about bullshit. [LAUGHS] More like you ran into the gas station asking to use the phone and they called the police on you, saying some dope fiend was speaking in tongues trying to rob the place.

Chris: How long have you had the abscess, James?

James: Dunno. A couple weeks. They drained it and all, but I wish they would just drain it without cutting the fucking thing out. You think it was hard to walk before? Well guess what, it’s about to get a whole lot worse and they’re saying they might not even give me a fucking cane this time because they have me flagged in some database as a leech on the system.

Peter: Goddamn capitalism. That’s what’s really killing us, Chris. It’s all about money. They don’t give a damn about us since we can’t afford to pay.

James: You got that right. Hey, Petey, did you bring anything for me?

Peter: Of course I did. I hawked it from Mike when he wasn’t looking.

James: Forget about him. He won’t miss it. He ain’t even here, and we took him into the camp and all, took him under our wings. No respect in this new generation. All the young kids are just out for themselves. Where’s Alan?

Peter: He’s keeping an eye on things. Posted by the freeway probably. I think he might have the flu though.

James: Damn shame. Well, hopefully once they kick me out they’ll have to stick Alan right in this same goddamn bed. That’ll show them about turning away folks who’ve fallen on hard times. Help me up here, Petey.

 

Peter helps James out of the hospital bed, and together they limp over into the bathroom in the corner of the room to share a ball of heroin. I watch the door, thinking of the trouble I could get into if the nurse were to come back in. Luckily, she doesn’t, and the two men emerge a few minutes later, visibly stoned.

 

James: Thank fuck that you brought that with you. They’re giving me a little bit of morphine to help with the shakes and such, but I still feel like hell every morning. They won’t up my dosage. Don’t believe me when I tell them how much I actually need.

Peter: Like I said, capitalism. They’re more concerned with giving it away to some lawyer who stubbed his toe than someone like me or James that can’t afford to pay and actually need it. We’re withdrawing and all that shit on top of being in pain. Look at the ‘cess James has. You think that doesn’t hurt?

 

I turn towards a James, who pulls aside the hospital gown to show me his upper thigh. The abscess, which is an infection that results from injecting with a non-sterile needle, has been cut out, leaving a mass of dark scar tissue and raw flesh. It looks incredibly painful, and I can see that they cut deeply to remove it. Addicts tend to pop and drain their abscesses of blood and pus on their own, and think that even though that is much more risky than having it dealt with in a sanitized environment, I’ve never seen one look so bad on the street. Hospitals rarely acknowledge the needs of addicted patients due to their inability to pay, and cutting out an abscess is a more straightforward process than draining it. This lack of individualized care is a major issue in hospitals that serve a large homeless and addicted patient base.

 

Chris: How long will that take to heal?

James: This? Nasty, huh? I dunno, probably a few weeks. Sure it sucks that they’re gonna kick me out and they ain’t really treating me right in here, but this ain’t even the worst I’ve seen. Some guys have ones that make this look like a walk in the park. You can die from them. That’s what’s crazy about all this to me. You get someone who doesn’t see something like this every day, a civilian or what have you, a new nurse at the hospital—and they just can’t stop looking. They can’t keep their eyes away from it. Me, though, I’ve seen it all before. And I know that it can get a lot fucking worse.

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I know you guys were probably horrified that I had forgotten to post for a few days

 

January 10, 1968

Outside of Saigon

 

They kept me in the Saigon hospital for two months, until January first. By then I was hobbling around pretty quickly without any help, and they had weaned me off the morphine. On New Year’s Eve, I stood around with a few of the more mobile guys, one hand on a bed frame so as not to lose my balance, with a plastic cup of champagne in my hand. Earlier that day I had received reassignment papers, with the information that I would return to Lieutenant Doyle’s platoon. They were now stationed just outside of Saigon maintaining the perimeter. That would mean active duty, the officer who gave me the papers explained, although I wouldn’t have to be going into the jungle anymore, and I could catch up with all my buddies. Then he wished me a Happy New Year and strode off with a briefcase full of papers for other patients, whistling tunelessly.

 

I had sipped my champagne that night and realized that going back was out of the question. There was no great revelation or moment of clarity, just a dull realization as I stood with the other wounded soldiers, faking a celebration, that I had to go back to Seattle. Even if I wouldn’t be going out in the jungle right away, I figured it was only a matter of time. I didn’t want to go back to the mind-numbing routine that still managed to be fraught with anxiety, and I didn’t want to go back with the knowledge that it could all be over for me in an instant. The idea of dying out there in some identical square of jungle or anonymous little valley filled me with more dread than I had ever felt. The mortar attack had made all of it too real. No, I would not be staying in Vietnam.

 

The morning I did it was the 10th of January. I remember because it was exactly one week after they had sent me back. In the days leading up to it, I hadn’t done much except think. I thought about it while I stacked sandbags and counted rations, and any number of other meaningless things. I thought about it while wishing I was back at the hospital with a morphine drip. I thought about it while smoking cigarettes with Howell, who I wanted to tell, but didn’t want to know that I’d be leaving him in the lurch. And it was all I really heard when Doyle awkwardly approached me, expressed condolences for Schell, and then ordered me back to work. The consistent and buzzing thought of needing to get out.

 

It rained the night before, a downpour that lasted into the early morning. As the sun rose, I glanced through a gap in the tent’s canvas folds. The rain was letting up and steam was rising from the rice paddies on the outskirts of the camp. It turned the emerald hills into a blur of green. I remembered, not for the first time, how I had been underwhelmed when I first got here. That wasn’t this case this morning. For a moment, I just stared at all the green around me, and saw Vietnam through the eyes of someone who was here not because of the war, but because they wanted to be. It was beautiful. I was thinking: maybe in twenty years there would be busloads of tourists shuttling around. Maybe they would even be zipping around on roads that had been paved over the jungle trails we stamped out. Who knows? I sure as hell didn’t, and still don’t.

 

That morning I made my bed, and neatly folded all my clothing and placed it into my rucksack before I walked outside. The ground was muddy on the first inch or so, but solid underneath. I figured that if I fell in a strange way, the mud would break the impact a little bit. I had laced my boots tight, just like Wozniak was doing the morning that Howell and I laughed at him. I wore my fatigues, freshly washed and pressed. They weren’t stiff and sweaty from weeks in the jungle, and they’d stay that way. My shirt was unbuttoned, just so you could see my dog tags, and the Purple Heart I’d been given in the hospital was pinned on my right side. I hoped this wouldn’t hurt that much, and hoped that no one would come out from the tent where they might be able to grab me from behind and stop me. I cocked my service pistol and shot two bullets into my right foot and one into my left.

 

I sat down hard in the mud, just as the camp came alive around me. Footsteps churned up the mud all around me as the tents emptied out, some guys still in brief and undershirts. I heard a bunch of voices asking what happened. Someone, maybe Howell, yelled for a medic, and Doyle was practically screaming that I was nuts, I was crazy, and I was getting shipped back to wherever the fuck it was I came from, and I’d be lucky if I didn’t get drawn up on charges. I closed my eyes, really closed them for the first time since I had landed in this country, and allowed the image of home to play itself against the back of my eyelids.

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This is the last part

 

February 1, 1996

Seattle

 

My time with the homeless community ends exactly nine months after it began. I receive another phone call from James about two weeks following his discharge. He tells me he is calling from a payphone near the camp, and asks me to come down immediately as he is unsure of what to do. Hoping that he hasn’t placed himself in a dangerous situation, I get in the car and drive to meet him. He is standing where he said he would meet me, by the payphone in the gas station parking lot where he sometimes washes windshields. As I park, I notice he looks slumped, and when I get out of the car he appears shaky and pale. He approaches me slowly, leaning on a cane that he was able to coax from the hospital. It is clear that he is in withdrawal, and I find myself irritated that he might have called me just to beg for money in person, knowing that I will be more likely to give it after driving all the way over here.

 

He continues approaching me at the same deliberate pace. I let him get to me on his own. When he reaches me, however, he doesn’t say anything, and I’m surprised to see that tears are leaking out of his eyes. He looks terrible, and as soon as he is close enough he reaches for my shoulder and pulls me towards him in an awkward embrace. When he lets go, he gives a single sob, and tells me that when he woke up this morning, Alan was dead. James had been taking care of him as best he could since he got out of the hospital, but Peter’s prediction of the flu was apparently accurate, and heroin addiction wreaks havoc on the immune system. I ask if he died in the night, but James tells me that he apparently woke up this morning and overdosed, shooting both of their heroin stashes at once. His body is still in the camp, and James does not know how to proceed, afraid that the police will give him a hard time for having needles in his things.

 

I tell James that I will deal with the police, and make the phone call while he hobbles back to the camp. I realize I should tell him he shouldn’t touch anything, but I end up too preoccupied with the phone call to remember. When I hang up, he has left the camp again, and stands by the exit ramp in Alan’s usual panhandling spot. I go to join him, and we await the arrival of the police.

 

Alan’s cause of death was deemed a self-inflicted heroin overdose. After explaining the nature of my project and begging for some information from a police officer, I am finally told it was a routine case. Except, he adds, for the fact that Alan did it in the cleanest area in the camp, and it seemed to be deliberate. He injected two syringes at the same time, although I am not told where he injected them or how much the fatal dose was. The strangest thing, the officer tells me, was that he had put on new clothes this morning. There was a bag from goodwill among his things, with a label stapled to it bearing his name and yesterday’s date. Alan was wearing a new pair of jeans and a clean sweater. Sort of like he dressed for the occasion, the officer told me. He walked away shrugging and saying maybe I could put it in my article.

 

James is routinely questioned, and when the officers let him go I offer to bring him to get a cup of coffee. It is over a cup of burnt coffee, at the diner where we first spoke in May, that we have our last conversation. He is visibly uncomfortable, not having used this morning, but when I suggest driving him to cop he waves me off. He begins to talk about getting clean with surprising candor; James generally seemed to treat his addiction with an attitude that was a mixture of apathy and casual pride.

 

James: I’m done, Chris. This time I really mean it. You always hear dope fiends talking about getting clean and doing this and doing that, but I need to try. It’s no type of life to live as long as I’ve been doing it. I’ll check into detox, I’ll do something, maybe get Petey to do it with me. I think that’s why he did it.

Chris: Who?

James: Alan. He just couldn’t handle it any more. Waking up, copping, fixing, doing it over and over. The fucking routine. Wondering if maybe today you’re gonna OD, get a ‘cess, get arrested for some petty shit and spend the weekend withdrawing in bookings. It could all be over in a second for you, and who the hell is gonna know or care? You’re just gonna die in some parking lot that no one knows about. Maybe that’s why he did it, just to get it over with. One of those cops told me it was on purpose. That’s when I knew. Alan just couldn’t take it anymore, and he wanted to go out on his terms. Maybe I’ll relapse in a week, sure as shit’s happened before, but I’m gonna try and start rehab and get out of this life on my terms too. And sorry to break up on you like that, Chris. Crying like a kid this morning and whatnot. It’s just a damn shame is all.

Chris: It’s okay, James. Alan was your friend.

James: That’s the thing. It ain’t like Alan was the first friend I’ve lost to this shit. It’s just that—Alan had a real hard life. I know you didn’t know him too good and he definitely didn’t talk much or try and get to know anyone himself, but he had his reasons. He was in ‘Nam, you know. The real deal, not like me just holding that sign that said I was. A lotta guys hold signs like that when they’re working for change, but Alan was legit. You wanna know something funny, though?

Chris: What’s that?

James: Alan was his middle name. He kept his dog tags even after he got back. I went and got them while you were calling the cops. He had an old ID in his stuff, so I figured they wouldn’t need it to identify him or nothing. Here, take a look at them.

 

James hands me the dog tags. They are slightly yellowed from age and constant wear. I read the name on them: Flint, Randy A. 247-36-3650 O Pos. R Catholic. Looking at the dog tags made me think. Although I had spent nine months with the homeless addict community, I knew next to nothing about most of them, having simply observed their daily rituals and habits. Staring at the name in my hands, I think about the man who owned it, and who he might have been.

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About halfway through, gonna take a break as not a huge fan of reading loads of text on computer, but I like your style of writing. I almost feel part of the story! (only Realism and maybe 1 or 2 others might get that)

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Ha thanks man.

 

I'll bump this a couple more times in the off chance anyone wants to run through all this text. If anything it'll keep something different at the top for a day or two.

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