The bus ride from New York’s frenetic Port Authority to sleepy Willimantic took four sleepless hours and cost twenty-nine dollars. The next day a small college would host a conference on Vietnam, known elsewhere as the war against the Americans.
Arriving early, I attended a small gathering at Curbstone Press, the name a perfect eponym, the squat building’s wood plank facade smooth as bone.
Outside, beneath a pale autumn moon, two American combat writers, tipsy with drink, swayed and chatted. I waved hello, walked forward to welcoming hugs and breathy greetings.
“Let’s go inside,” said one man.
We walked into the grungy, low ceilinged, ramshackle house, cramped and musty with time and love.
Under the cold glare of fluorescent lights, a dozen greying men cheerfully conversed while scooping large portions of glutinous moussaka or starchy quiche onto thick paper plates. Two cannon ball shaped chocolate fudge pies sat curiously untouched.
“Another beer?” A corpulent Marine combat vet asked. “More wine? Hi, and how are ya?”
The boisterous Americans spoke diligently of baseball, real estate, current events.
“Can you believe that son-of-a-bitch almost tossed a no hitter? Son-of-a-bitch!”
Two South Vietnamese infantry officers, when asked, hinted at harrowing escapes, then changed the subject.
For no apparent reason that I could see, one man, then the next, dragged heavy steel chairs across a threadbare rug; spreading out evenly, they formed a loose knit circle. Three wives joined in; two others stood back.
How it began I do not recall: round and round, taking turns, each man brought forth the most obscene, tasteless jokes I had ever heard. And with each foul, accelerant punch line, the men wildly slapped their thighs, punched violent air, pounded their chests, butchered the room with riotous laughter. Even the women shrieked and cackled.
Best was the “ta ta” joke. Two men in on the gag reeled off the wondrous lines in perfect measure, the phrase spoken in soft, innocent tones, almost child like, with eyebrows arched slightly, the voice inclined outward at the second syllable.
Q. How do you say idiot in Vietnamese?
A. Ta ta.
Q. How do you say two idiots in Vietnamese?
A. Ta ta, ta ta.
Q. How do you say two hundred million idiots in Vietnamese?
A. (Sung to the “The Star Spangled Banner”) Ta ta ta ta ta ta…
With each new guest, the obscene beck and call was duly repeated. The Americans, hands smacked red, cheeks gone crimson, roared with ominous pleasure.
A distinguished Vietnamese writer laughed loudest that night. His jollity recalled Mr. Mau, met years past in Michigan. Surviving escape by sea, he poured forth awful tales of women raped, men bayoneted, children thrown headlong to chill, watery graves. All the while an inflexible grin commanded his shrieking face.
The next day, in a cozy auditorium, the conference went well. Each guest read from his work; there were several informative panels. An elder female journalist, Gloria Emerson, tall and handsome and impeccably well-spoken, presented anecdotes from her war experience; some were not pleasant.
Upon completion, shifting in her seat as might a four star general, she boldly pronounced, “I’m done, now. Are there questions?”
A portly, cantankerous vet, wearing blue denim overalls, his head freighted with a Vietnam baseball cap dotted with cloisonné pins, stood up and shuffled forward.
“I was in the Sea Bee’s in ‘66,” he said. “Up near the DMZ. We fought the Communists cause we was sent there. The way you was talking, you sounded just like Hanoi Jane. She was anti-American, she was. And that bitch talked to us GI’s every night on the radio. Talking that communist propaganda shit.” He paused, hands pressed to hips. “You…you sound just like her, just like that Hanoi Jane.” Folding his arms across his chest, he sniveled, “Ain’t you got no regard for disabled vets? Ain’t you proud for what America stands for?”
His shrill words made for knee-deep tension in sleepy Willimantic, once, they say, thread capitol of the world, until thread went South and the town went quiet. Several American combat writers seated in the audience turned around and glared.
The war correspondent said, “I recognize you. We’ve spoken before. Every soldier has stories. And there are thousands. Aren’t there, sir? Hundreds of thousands.” She paused, majestic in equanimity. “I never carried a weapon. I hated war. Apparently, Sir, you didn’t.”
The following week I told the “ta ta” joke to Dr. Allan Foster. His left arm torn off one day, gut shot the next, the chaplain had pronounced last rites over his limp body at the battle of Dak To. More than once Dr. Foster has blithely stated, “I have no issues with Vietnam. I have no anger toward the Vietnamese.” Dr. Foster counsels ex-combatants who remain deeply troubled.
“You think that’s funny?” he said. “Am supposed to laugh? I find it highly offensive and disrespectful. You should be ashamed of yourself. You and your funny friends.”
“I didn’t laugh,” I told him. “It hurt too much. But look how they mock us: their language, our music…”
“Oh, bullshit,” he said, cutting me off before I could finish.
We argued. I walked out. Dr. Foster didn’t get it. Civilians, combatants, everyone caught up in war’s chaos and caterwaul comprise one great harmonic slaughter. Over time, it’s winners and losers, gunned and ground down, scatter to dust or windblown leaves, become a suckling infants cry, a peaceable sleep; until it starts all over again.
*Author, journalist and NY Times war correspondent Gloria Emerson won the George Polk Award for her Vietnam war correspondence. Her book Winners and Losers (Random House) won the National Book Award in 1978. She befriended and helped many Vietnam vets. Diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, unable to face a life without writing, she committed suicide in 2004.
MARC LEVY was an infantry medic with D 1/7 First Cavalry in Vietnam/Cambodia in 1970. His prose and poetry have appeared in various online and print magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.