For a while, none of them spoke, each seeming lost in a scattering of memories from that ancient time – the war, the craziness that had bled the country white because of it. Sam was telling the truth, but gently. Returning soldiers were spat on, taunted, their wartime traumas and injuries ignored by almost everyone, and that included the military that had put them on the firing line. It was as if the whole damned country was trying its best to forget the war had ever happened. The nebulous cloud of collective guilt born from that Asian adventure seemed to color everything about life in the U.S. back then, probably as deeply debilitating as the guilt burdening German and Japanese citizens in the years following World War II.
At home once again, but locked into their separate hells, ex-soldiers drank, smoked, and injected themselves into altered states in order to maintain the isolation they desperately needed to come to grips with a life of peace. Still, they held their heads high when they could manage it – as if the war’s outcome hadn’t mattered to them, anyway, as if the ones with draft deferments and their consequent good jobs and contented families didn’t count for much, as if the nightmares, the night sweats, the moods, were a part of everyone’s life, as if daily survival were the only right thing to these ex-soldiers’ lives.
Ironically, some of those returning wanted another war – a chance to do it right, as they came to explain it. And some wanted even more: the next war, and the next, and the next – because sometimes fighting your way out of a corner is all you feel you have left.
Sam, though he’d tried not to think about the war, and could hardly have put words to it anyway, hadn’t managed to evade such self-imposed estrangement. On his return home, he needed those long months of sleepless nights, the solitude, the simpleminded back-and-forth of that broom in his uncle’s pool hall. The only friends he could rationalize in that quietly deranged state were the ones who had left Nam in body bags, and the ones who had gone to the four winds following their return to The World. No, those months in the bush were the miraculous birth of Sam’s adult soul, but they were also the baggage of that birth.
Thus, isolation within a world that seemed deaf, dumb and blind where basic human compassion was concerned appeared to be the only way that promised him and his fellow soldiers escape from those war-born birth pains. And so, even after all these years, coming home – a real homecoming – remained for Sam a dream just over the horizon.
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