To Desert After Thanksgiving Dessert
I grew up back in the Vietnam War days, and I remember seeing the anti-war protests on TV, with hairy-headed hippies and other young folks shouting slogans against the war. The most popular slogan was, “Hell no, we won’t go!” But there were others just as good, such as:
“Dow shall not kill!”
“Stop the war, feed the poor!”
“Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, the Viet Cong are gonna win!”
“Hey, hey, LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?!”
“Girls say yes to men who say no!”
And the ever compelling, “One, two, three, four, we don’t want your fucking war!”
My siblings and I were all against the Vietnam War, but my mother was for it. She didn’t like commies, and she’s always been rather conservative.
Besides, her brother had been a Green Beret. He was among the original 400 Green Berets sent to Vietnam by President Kennedy in May, 1961, supposedly as “military advisors.” There he was wounded and awarded a purple heart, along with several other medals. One of his few comments on his experience was that we did things there that nobody would ever believe.
We lived in Oceanside, California in 1969, which is a town right next to the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base. This was where many new conscripts were haplessly shipped off to Southeast Asia, to face the terror that was taking the lives of hundreds of fine, young American men per week.
My mother wanted to support our troops in the war effort. She was also 35, single, and looking for a man. So she signed up for a program to host two Marines from Camp Pendleton, for Thanksgiving dinner.
But the men in uniform who showed up were barely 20. Too young for my mom, but not too young for my two teenage sisters. They were enamored with these government issue specimens fresh out of boot camp.
And I, at the innocent age of ten, was also very impressed with them. They got my attention when they told us they were soon going to be shipped off to that war I’d been hearing about in the news. Wow!
My uncle had been a Green Beret, and this was the same war that I’d seen John Wayne fight in as Colonel Mike Kirby, in the movie, The Green Berets. In that flick was a horrifying scene where a soldier steps in a mantrap. His feet are caught in a snare that slings him through the air and impales him on a rack of spikes. It also impaled his bloody, punctured body onto my memory, and left me feeling shaken and anxious. I vowed that if I was ever in a war, I’d watch my step for sure.
So this shit was exciting, to me. As we sat at the Thanksgiving table, gnawing on drumsticks and slurping down cranberry sauce, I wanted to talk about things like war, and killing people, and being shot at and pursued by the enemy, and of course, mantraps, with these frightened young men. But they kind of squirmed in their seats, and tried to change the subject. My sisters shushed me, and warned me I was being rude.
After dessert, my sisters managed to sneak these handsome young warriors up to the loft in our garage for the purpose of candid conversation. Or maybe they had some other purpose on their horny young minds. And that’s when something unexpected happened. The one named George broke some unsettling news. “We don’t want to go to Vietnam,” he announced.
“Yeah, we don’t like war. We think it’s immoral. We want peace,” his friend, Dave, added.
Both sisters felt sorry for them, but most especially my younger sister, Blue Wilder Gnu. Blue had run away from home over the summer, at age 14. She had hitchhiked across Canada, staying in communes, and cavorting like a flower child with draft-dodging refugees. She had returned home in September, after being hospitalized for an ectopic pregnancy. And now, at age 15, she was passionately sympathetic to the anti-Vietnam War cause.
“You don’t have to go to Vietnam,” Blue insisted. “You can stay in our loft. We won’t tell our mother. We’ll bring you food, and you can hide out here for as long as you want.”
It was just the break they’d been hoping for. They accepted the invitation. The two girls and two Marines then brought my brother and me into this conspiracy. I was sworn into secrecy by Dave. I liked Dave. He was a kind young man, and had a fun personality. But I wasn’t so sure about George. He was sharp-edged and impatient with kids like me. But because Dave had sworn me into secrecy, I kept my vow of silence like a secret agent with a cyanide capsule.
One day I was standing near the washing machine in the garage, shooting the bull with Dave, who was sitting at the edge of the loft with his legs dangling over. My mother suddenly walked in through the side door, carrying a basket of dirty clothes. We both fell into instant silence. My mother walked directly beneath Dave’s dangling legs and loaded the washing machine. “Whatcha doin’, son?” she inquired.
“Oh, just hanging out. Nuthin’,” I stared at the floor while my heart pounded like a kettledrum inside my ribcage.
“Well go out and play. It’s not good for you to stand around alone in a dark garage.” She then headed out the door, passing beneath Dave’s legs again. I followed after her. It was a close call.
The food and hospitality we supplied Dave and George was not enough. They were desperate to leave Oceanside and get as far away from the U.S. Marine Corps as they could. One evening they broke into a store and stole some goods for the purpose of pawning, so they could raise enough cash to travel. But stealing wasn’t enough for George. In his anger and pain, he also vandalized the store. Dave and George had a falling out after this.
A few days later, George was picked up by the police after breaking into a car and stealing an 8-track stereo system. That same day, Dave disappeared. He apparently had not been arrested. He just disappeared. To this day, we don’t know what happened to Dave.
I like to imagine that he made his way to Canada and found refuge in that nation that had wisely chosen to stay out of Vietnam. And hopefully he found some way to take advantage of President Ford’s or President Carter’s amnesty programs, so that he could eventually return home.
Or maybe he established Canadian citizenship and still lives in this great nation to our north. Whatever happened, I hope Dave found the peace he had longed for on that Thanksgiving Day in 1969.
When after dessert, he decided to desert.