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Old G.I.s and Sleeping Dragons

By Doug Francescon

Author Biography



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Copyright Doug Francescon 2004


In Honor of:

Waylen Powell

Joe McCurry

Arnold Palmer

And all the guys who left a piece of themselves in Vietnam


Chapter 9

America loves winners, but gives little consideration to those who fail. Very few pay attention to the winner of the American League pennant if the National League wins the World Series. The NFL team that loses the Super Bowl is just another football team. The fact that we sacrificed as much in Vietnam as soldiers in any other war, bled the same, were just as lonely, and fought just as hard didn’t count. We didn’t win, and were treated accordingly.

When the general public saw us getting off the planes as we arrived back home, we reminded them that the war was still going on; and their sons, daughters, friends, lovers, or they, themselves might have to go. We were treated like an embarrassment, someone to be avoided and ignored. I couldn’t wait to get my uniform off, and try to blend in. But, that was foolish because blending in wasn’t possible after living like an animal for nearly a year.

Very few wanted to hear about the war from someone who had seen it through a soldier’s eyes. Walter Cronkite had filled them in on the evening news. They could detach themselves from the combat footage, but I was the real thing. I brought the war too close to home.

I was amazed at how many college guys wanted to explain the war to me. It was simple for them as they analyzed it over a pitcher of beer. The dragon and I stayed away from the college crowd, and drank our beer with guys who had less education, but lots more class.

One evening as I sat at a bar nursing a brew, a Marine in uniform came in and ordered a scotch and water. The bar tender informed him that they didn’t serve service men in uniform. As the Marine started to leave, I stopped him, and asked him to join me. He said that he’d rather just leave, but I insisted. When the bar tender came by I ordered a scotch and water. When he brought it to me I sat it down in front of the Marine. As the bar tender reached for the drink to take it back, I reached for him.

He said “I told you guys we don’t serve service men”.

I told him “you didn’t serve him, I did”.

I made it even clearer by saying that “it was my fucking drink; I paid for it, and would decide who drank it”.

The bar tender didn’t say another word. He simply walked away. About five minutes later the cops came and arrested the Marine and me. WELCOME HOME GUYS.

There were many people who objected to the war for very basic, very honest reason. They saw it as a terrible waste, and sincerely wanted it to end. They weren’t judgmental, and didn’t try to convince me that their opinion was the only one that made sense. They were following what their heart told them, and I respected them for their honest view. My cousin, Nancy Oliphant was one of those with honest objections. She exercised her right to object, but still welcomed her brother-in-law, Jack, and me home with open arms. Her opposition was completely sincere, but didn’t get in the way of her love for those of us who fought. That love was unconditional. She is a class act.

The rest of my family tried very hard to understand. They wanted so badly to help put the war behind me, and get back to life “as it was”. They couldn’t understand that that wasn’t possible because “as it was” was gone forever. It was a terrible heart breaker for my folks, and they never got over it. They divorced a few months after I got back after over twenty-five years of marriage.

I wish that I could have been more sensitive to the feelings of my family and friends when I returned, but I was empty inside. My mom asked me at one point if I still loved the people around me, and her question hit me very hard because it made me realize how much I’d changed.

I said to her “Mom, I don’t even know what love is anymore”.

I wish I hadn’t been so honest because now I know how much my answer hurt her.

My dad, who in his younger days was an excellent baseball player, put a team together so that we could spend some time doing what we both enjoyed. The team never played a single game because I left town before the season started. I wish with all my heart that I’d been able to spend that summer playing ball with my dad.

I had to leave because I was hurting the people that I loved. I couldn’t stop because by the time I realized what I’d done or said, the damage was already done. Each incident was another installment payment to the dragon. And, like I said before, he always collects.

My family members weren’t the only ones who cared. I had two very close friends, Bob and Judy Blomgren, who tried as hard as two people could to help me sort things out. They didn’t try to analyze or even understand. They simply listened. They were always easy to talk to, even before the war. I knew that they couldn’t relate to the things that I said because war wasn’t like anything else. They simply took the time to let me get things off my chest. I was blessed to have friends like Bob and Judy, two more examples of a class act.

I left Illinois and headed west. I stopped in Portland, Oregon, and stayed with my Aunt Rose while I looked for work. She was another great listener, the best of them all. The best way to describe her is to say that whether I was having the greatest day of my life of the worst, I always felt better after talking to Aunt Rose.

My cousin Joan and her husband Jack were there to fill the void
left because my friends and family were now two thousand miles away. Joan is the kind of person that can make a party out of a root canal. She, like Waylen Powel, made me laugh when there was nothing to laugh about. Jack had just returned from Vietnam after being wounded in the chest and arm. He and I didn’t talk much about the war. We didn’t have to, and I can’t explain why. Maybe it was just that we realized how lucky we were to be alive, and to have a chance to live a life that so many others will never know.

I spent my first year in the northwest working for the federal government on a survey crew. Much of my time was spent in the mountains and high deserts of coastal and central Washington. The work suited me because it was very physical. At that time I could have never coped with an office environment.

Not only did it give me time to begin sorting things out; but, also allowed me to see some of the most beautiful country in the world. The more I saw of Oregon, Washington, and Canada the more I loved it. Somehow it provided an escape.

I promised myself when I left Illinois that my life would change. It had to. The drinking, fighting, and “kiss my ass” attitude was turning me into someone I didn’t know and didn’t want to be.

I forced myself to quit drinking, at least during the week. Before I left Illinois I drank every day. I forced myself to walk away from fights even though the dragon loved them. I’m still amazed at how much satisfaction came from burying my fist under some guys ribs, or from seeing the cuts on my knuckles and knowing how much damage they’d done.

Whenever I walked away the dragon tore at me for days. But, it was the only way to gain control of my life. It was the only way to become the man I wanted to be rather than the animal I’d become.


Continued next week


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