Photograph: Tony Latham
IT WAS the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way- in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only. Charles Dickens wrote these opening lines in his novel, Tale of Two Cities.
It could very well have been written for the Vietnam War. Certainly for my 14-month Vietnam War tour of duty.
The war in Vietnam was looming bigger each year. The Tet Offensive, one of the largest military campaigns of the Vietnam War, launched on January 30, 1968 by forces of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese People’s Army of Vietnam against the forces against the forces of South Vietnam, the United States, and their allies. This was a campaign of surprise attacks against military and civilian commands and control centers throughout South Vietnam. The name of the offensive comes from the Tết holiday, the Vietnamese New Year, when the first major attacks took place.
I was drafted in May 1968. I went through the rigors of basic training at Fort Ord, a United States Army post on Monterey Bay of the Pacific Ocean coast in California and trained on firing ranges with hand grenades, M18 Claymore anti-personnel mines and rifles. The beach was the military firing range and closed to the public for nearly 77 years. I recall that at the rifle range it was so cold and windy and the Army field jacket so inadequate that I envied the drivers in passing vehicles with their heaters blasting.
Completing basic training I was sent to Ft. Sam Houston, San Antonio, Texas for combat medic and medical laboratory training. After the training in 1969 I was ordered back to Ft. Ord to Silas B. Hayes Army Community Hospital, as my first duty station. I became the non-commissioned officer in charge of one of the primary hospital medical laboratories.
I lived off the post just above Cannery Row. I had read the novel, Cannery Row (1945) written by John Steinbeck and my curious writer’s mind was invigorated as I visited the areas depicted so well in his book and began my own novels and short stories when off duty.
I had wanted to be a novelist since I was a child. My older sister said I was writing short stories at least by age four. Nonetheless, I knew that it was inevitable that I would be sent to Vietnam in the medical field. And whatever the future held for me, I trusted writing would be of significance.
I was kept very busy as we were short staffed since many personnel had been shipped to Vietnam. In a small room in the hospital laboratory there were approximately fifty whole human brains sitting silently, preserved in large specimen jars of formaldehyde. I remembered spending what time I could spare gazing into each of the jars and wondering about the person whose brain now floated in formaldehyde. Continue reading