But I wouldn’t want them to live next door

Memorial Day always bring some sort of reaction from me and most other veterans, especially combat vets. This year I reflected on the variety of soldiers I met after the Selective Service (draft) gave me the opportunity to get killed on foreign soil. I call Vietnam the blue-collar war.

That’s because those with connections — that is money — managed to avoid the draft, even if they did inhale. Those that got caught up were mostly apprentices: carpenters, electricians, plumbers and others. Others included a lot of guys who hadn’t decided what to do after high school. After all the Army might give them a trade.

And it did. They learned how to shine boots, peel potatoes, shoot a rifle, clean a grease trap and which part of the hand grenade to throw at the bad guy without killing self or others. None of these were skills that were in high demand outside the army, but the army didn’t really care.

Not all soldiers were from the lower economic social strata. The Reserve Officer Training Corps (R.O.T.C.) program produced a number of college grads that were commissioned as second lieutenants. Some ended up as infantry platoon leaders.

This class of officer had a life expectancy in combat that was better than nanoseconds, but not by much. We just happened to have one who moved through hostile territory, i.e., the entire Mekong Delta, in a manner that reduced surprise. Surprise killed.

For this habit alone, I loved the guy. He also had some compassion for the enemy, many who were still adolescents. Some of the other troops thought he was a woos, but a few months of dealing with snipers, booby traps and the eternal wet of the place didn’t generate a lot of love for the local bad guys.

One beautiful afternoon we were kicking it in an open field. We were dry and had managed to catch up on some sleep, a rare commodity in our particular field of endeavor. Folks from the village were out trying to sell us pineapples on a stick and green coconut milk. This was as good as it gets for an infantry guy.

Soon we would saddle up and move out to set up an overnight ambush spot where at dawn we would hopefully catch some V.C. coming home and kill them. Otis came by to chew the fat and we began to talk about things back in the world.

Otis was from a small town in the rural wilds of Georgia and I didn’t much care for him. He tended to whine a lot and really enjoyed killing people. Most guys looked on the killing as part of the job, but every once in a while ya run into a guy whose eyes light up at the prospect.

Eventually conversation got around to the race issue. It was 1967 and the whole black and white thing was hot. Otis told me that he didn’t have anything against black people, he just didn’t want them living next door.

“What about Steve, then?” I asked. Otis got this “deer in the headlights” look and after a long pause said, “I never thought of him that way. Well I gotta go scare up some C4 ta heat up a can of weenies and beans.”

As it turned out Otis didn’t have to worry about Steve moving next door after he went home. Steve made his return trip in a pine box. But Otis knew that Steve would have given his life for him.