BY BILL PURDIN
The thump-thump of the helicopter blades, for once, took me away from, not toward the war. It was July 19, 1969 and I was leaving. I was going home.
After nearly two years of service in River Squadron Five, America’s most heavily decorated military unit in all of history to that point, countless hours on the muddy, bloody Bassac and Perfume Rivers, and too many dead in my wake, it was all coming to an end.
I waved to my friends who were staying as the Huey UH-1B lifted off from Mobile Base One. They were fellow Navy men and the Vietnamese soldiers whom we had trained to crew the river patrol boats as America began its withdrawal. There were mixed feelings swirling with the rising rotor wash.
Almost 22 years old, still smelling of cordite, my stint in combat was over. All that remained was a short flight to Da Nang, then a PanAm flight to Travis Air Force Base. A cab ride at over a hundred miles an hour, then another plane to Washington D.C. (I hardly noticed California), and before I knew it, there was my mom. I was home. It was so easy. She didn’t recognize me at first.
Still in my combat uniform, I was in a 1963 Chevy turning into my folks’ driveway before I knew it. There were flowers and grass; waxed floors and a kitchen table. A color television was on. Something was happening on it; I was the only one watching.
I couldn’t figure it out really. My dad said that Neil Armstrong was about to step out of the Lunar Module. I kept watching. I put my hand to my face. The smell of the guns was still there. The smell of the war. “That’s one small step for man, a giant leap for mankind.” I hadn’t even sat down yet, and we were on the Moon. I watched, transfixed, as though from another world.
My parents and family were moving my gear into the house, a coffee pot was brewing. I looked at my watch and knew exactly where I should have been: twenty clicks downriver at thirty knots, steaming on station.
I watched Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin post the flag and saluted along with them. They started to move around on the Moon, I went downstairs to my old room. Moving slowly, uncertainly, as though the gravity was strange. I sat at my old desk. It seemed small. I opened the drawer. There was a letter I had written to a girl friend before leaving for Vietnam two years ago. The handwriting did not look familiar, the sentiments seemed silly now. I read the letter through, refolded it and put it back in the drawer. My mom was watching me. I looked at her. In some ways I had forgotten that I had a mother. It would take time to readjust.
Neil, Buzz and I were exploring a strange new world together. They were on the Moon, but I was much farther away than that.
This world of peaceful exploration and that world of smoke and death were light years from each other, and yet, in the years that have passed, those two made a much smoother reentry transition than I did. To this day I still expect rooms to explode. I still expect sudden violence. I learned to get along and to prosper, but I still can’t ride on a boat without distant thoughts and still can’t look around at night without a sense of worry, still concerned with ambush.
On every meaningful milestone of the Moon Landing there are always those TV specials that show the first footfall. The lander coming in, the dust blowing up, and the famous, simple quote from the First Man on the Moon.
But, every year on July 20th, I remember another landing and all the others who waved good-bye to a soldier going home.
I wonder where they are in the dust of history. I’ll never know who came home after me and who did not. I’ve been to the Wall six times and will go again, looking for names, feeling the letters cut in there; finding some, not finding others. And then there are those names I can’t remember. Every time I meet someone, or hear the stories of other veterans, I’m still looking for them. My tendril thoughts, like fingers on the Wall, are feeling for some reminder, something to jog my memory.
Those faces, like those footprints in the Moon’s dust, are imprinted on my mind.
Like Neil and Buzz, I remember where I’ve been, and footprints aren’t all I’ve left behind.