A Three-Part Account of My Experience
PART I: Dreams, Schemes and the End of Innocence
1969 was a year of contrasts and contradictions. We had the Moon landing and the Manson family murders. We had Woodstock and Altamont. We had “The Brady Bunch” and “The Wild Bunch.”
And on June 7, 1969, I was wounded in Vietnam. Why did I go there? I’ve had people ask me. I have pondered the question. I have felt guilt, shame and pride. I respect the Conscientious Objector and the patriotic fighter. I respect those who fled to Canada and those fighting for a cause. What I don’t respect are hypocrites who dodged the draft and were then all too eager to send our troops into harm’s way.
(photo, below: Private Medlin's Basic Training Platoon)
And now — on June 7, 2019 — I am pleased that I feel anything. I shut down my feelings on the flight to Southeast Asia. The feelings didn’t just all come back the moment I left. Maybe some of them never will. And believe me, I know I am one of the lucky ones. My million-dollar wound sent me stateside well before my tour of duty would have expired.
(photo, below: Homer E. Medlin, Jr., on his 90th birthday)
I can’t imagine what those veterans went through in earlier wars where they were in combat situations for five or six years. I don’t think my father ever completely found his emotional compass after WWII. He did sleep with a pistol under his pillow for the rest of his 92 years.
Losing one’s way probably happens more than we realize. Maybe it’s a bit different for professional soldiers, but we amateurs learned that war makes prisoners of our hearts. And not every prisoner makes it all the way back. I wish I could apologize to anyone I may have offended or neglected while my emotional numbness was wearing off. I partied hard when I got back. Large parts of those days have vanished from my memory, mostly due to the combination of booze and party favors I was ingesting, combined with the pain pills the Army kept giving me in abundance.
Three years ago I wrote about Nam for the first time. Today I am revising and expanding that recollection. The experience of thinking about Nam, and recording my thoughts, seems to have opened up something in my brain, psyche, soul or whatever acts as the gatekeeper for our inner dialogue — the memories, images, actions, fantasies and intentions that appear in our most private movie. That movie can be illogical, inexplicable and unavoidable. Particularly when the movie is running in your sleep.
(photo, below: James with his father Homer E. Medlin, Jr., upon his return from WW II)
Unlike many combat vets, I have not been severely plagued by
nightmares. The fear in my dreams has not been so much about what happened, but about what might happen. In one of my most frequently recurring dreams, I have returned to the jungle. I tell anyone who will listen that I am not supposed to be back there. My pleas fall on deaf ears. I seem to be invisible, ghost-like. Thinking that I can find a phone booth and call Washington to straighten out this error, I begin hacking a trail through the brush. Lo and behold, a telephone appears before me. Then the dream becomes one of frustration, trying to get the phone to work. Trying to break through the bureaucracy in Washington. Trying to find someone who gives a damn.
For the first time in decades, a new Vietnam dream recently emerged. Once again I was back in the boonies with my old Company. But this time, Lynn, my wife, was with me. While she tried to plead my case with the officers, I heard the sounds of a dog. Following the barking, I wandered into the heart of darkness. Nothing was familiar. No return path to Lynn and my comrades presented itself. I pushed on. Suddenly my dog CowBoy, a 95-pound one-eyed American Bull Dog, was with me. He was as glad to see me as I was to see him.
We followed a half-hidden trail toward a strangely glowing
light in the distance. Eventually it led to a clearing and the source of the light — a magnificent temple glistening in the majestic rays of the sun. We gazed in awe. Then CowBoy, failing to heed my calls, charged toward the temple. As he ran, ears back, tongue dangling, a laser-like focus coming from his one eye, a mortar attack was launched upon the temple. Having no choice, I followed him through the explosions all around us. Who was launching the mortars, I did not know, and it did not really matter. An American-generated explosion can kill you just as dead as one from the Viet Cong or North Vietnamese Army.
(photo, below, by Lynn Ann: CowBoy invades Nam dream)
Still following CowBoy, I hurried through the temple, not bothering to pause and marvel at its beauty. Suddenly a mortar round exploded in front of us. The floor caved in, and before I could grab him, CowBoy went falling into the mortar’s crater.
Somehow I was able to climb down to him and bring him back up. Once we were back on level footing, I discovered that CowBoy had injured his leg and could not walk.
The mortar attack had ceased by the time I got CowBoy outside. Miraculously, the jungle had vanished and the terrain was as green and wide open as a golf course. On the ground rising above us, a force of hundreds of soldiers moved past the temple. Who were they? The entire unit wore white uniforms and white turbans.
Starting to hail them, I caught myself. Even if they were friendly, no army was going to medevac a wounded dog from a remote location. They might feel badly about it, but they would most certainly shoot CowBoy. So I carried the drooling beast to a place of hiding.
What happened next I may never know. A garbage truck noisily went about its business on the street outside my window in Sarasota, Florida. As I gazed upon a slumbering Lynn and the eager CowBoy anticipating his morning walk, I wondered if this was what Dorothy felt like at the end of “The Wizard of Oz.”
I may have been daydreaming in 1965 while strolling through the Montmartre section of Paris, on the Boulevard de Clichy. That’s when I heard the word “Vietnam” for the first time. It was being shouted by a young man hawking the International Herald Tribune to Americans. Apparently President Johnson was planning to draft an increasing number of Americans to fight in Southeast Asia. Okay, it probably wasn’t the first time I had heard of Vietnam, but it was the first time I had given it any thought.
I immediately returned to Schwenningen am Neckar, Germany, and quit my job in the hotel. (My job description had been "bellhop," but it would have been more accurate to say "peeler of potatoes and chopper of onions.") I booked a flight back to Odessa, Texas with the intention of heading to Austin to enroll at The University of Texas, continue my higher education and secure a draft deferment. At this time, I was as rah-rah patriotic and conservative as anyone in West Texas. But the Army did not seem like the best way to serve my country.
On the way back home, I ran into a bit of difficulty. While in Paris, I had purchased a very ornate switchblade for my brother’s knife collection. It was carried in a stapled paper bag in the pocket of my jacket. I had completely forgotten about it when customs officers at JFK International Airport suddenly accosted me. Customs had the local police take me to the 113th precinct in Jamaica, Queens, book me and lock me in a cell. At this point, Vietnam was looking much more desirable.
The middle-aged white guy in the cell next to me spent the entire night pleading for me, or the fellow on the opposite side, to stick our penises through the bars. It frightened the hell out of this West Texas boy and seemed highly unromantic.
The next day I was shackled to a man whose mood was as dark as his skin. We were taken to a courtroom. In the paddy wagon on the way, I asked him why he'd been arrested. He quietly replied, “Dey say me murder my wife. I no remember.” My fellow prisoners in the paddy wagon showed me great respect when they learned I was busted for smuggling arms, and I offered them French cigarettes.
When I went before the judge, my court-appointed attorney attempted to explain that in Texas it was common practice to cross back and forth over the Mexican border with souvenir knives. The Judge replied, “In Texas somebody could walk down Main Street firing a machine gun and nobody would take notice. But we aren’t having that behavior here!” My attorney successfully moved for a change of venue. I wound up being sent home on the condition that I immediately enroll at the University and write a letter once a month to an Assistant District Attorney in New York.
My time at the University was delightful. Shakespeare, Beer Gardens, Russian History, Beer Gardens, Faulkner, Beer Gardens, Delightful Co-eds and Beer Gardens. There was that one horrific day — August 1, 1966 — when a former Marine sharpshooter climbed to the top of the University of Texas tower and began shooting people.
Shortly after I graduated in 1968, I received a note of “Greetings from President Lyndon Baines Johnson.” No one had expected the Vietnam conflict to go on this long. By this time, I had begun to question our government’s actions. Why were we still over there? What was our goal?
I hoped that joining the Peace Corps would allow me to serve my country in a more positive way. Ironically, my Peace Corps assignment was Afghanistan. I never made it there. When I reminded the members of my draft board in Odessa, Texas that President Kennedy had suggested Peace Corps volunteers be draft exempt, they replied, “The Peace Corps is a Communist front organization.”
It may be hard to understand now, but I felt an obligation to serve. There was a sense of duty. And I could not think of bringing disgrace to my family by avoiding the draft in any “dishonorable” manner.
I was twenty-three years old when I got on the bus in Odessa and headed to Fort Bliss outside El Paso, Texas. My fellow draftees were mostly 18 or 19. They were mostly from poor families. They mostly resented an old, long-haired college boy.
When I finished playing basketball at Odessa College, I weighed 150 pounds. When I arrived at Ft. Bliss I weighed 200. When I shipped out to Nam I weighed 175. When I left Nam I weighed 135.
(photo, below: James E. Medlin shortly before leaving for Vietnam)
At Bliss they shaved my head and sat me at the Fat Boys' table in the Mess Hall. On my first day, a smiling Drill Sergeant approached us and asked if anyone was from Odessa? I raised my hand proudly. “I hate Odessa!” he roared. “Get down and give me ten (pushups). And report to KP for the next two weekends.” Then he went to the next table and asked a terrified 18-year-old Mexican/American if he had any “nekkid pictures of your wife?” The kid shook his head. The grinning Sarge asked, “Want to buy some?” S.M.H., Standard Military Humor.
The experience taught me the Army’s two most valuable lessons: (1) Never volunteer. (2) Never trust a superior with a smile on his face.
Basic training was your basic nightmare. The Drill Sergeants and the officers picked on me because I couldn’t make a proper bunk. I was twice late for 5 AM Kitchen Patrol duty. I had a smart mouth. I was a college punk.
My fellow trainees weren’t particularly fond of me either. That is, until we finally got a weekend pass into El Paso. Some of my most outstanding moments have been in bars. And I was a star that weekend.
For better or worse, tequila is the only booze or drug that completely alters my personality. The trainees were impressed by the loud, aggressive, boorish qualities that emerged when I knocked back shots of tequila. Thompson and Boone somehow managed to get me on the bus back to the base.
Rip-roaring drunk is what I was when we returned to Ft. Bliss. I immediately spotted a shave-tail Lieutenant who had been giving me a particularly hard time. I took off after him shouting like a mad man, calling him every name in the dirtiest book you never read and making outlandish threats to his life, limbs and family members.
He turned and ran. I chased him around the outside of the barrack. Fleeing into the officer’s quarters, he locked the door. I tried to kick it in, but fortunately Boone dragged me away from the scene.
The next morning I awoke still in my uniform, on the floor next to my bunk, face down in a gallon of puke. Although I expected a court martial, the Lieutenant never mentioned the incident. Apparently he was too embarrassed by his strategic retreat. He also never again singled me out for derision. Suddenly I had become one of the most popular dogfaces on the entire base.
Upon my completion of Basic Training, the Army bestowed a great honor upon me. They sent me to Military Police School in Fort Gordon, Georgia. At least they thought it was a great honor. I was less certain.
Upon our arrival, we stood at ease while being addressed by our new Commanding Officer. He was a Captain straight out of Central Casting. Not a Burt Lancaster type, more Fredric March or Dana Andrews. For the younger crowd, a Jeremy Renner, or a Sam Rockwell, perhaps.
The Captain gave a very fine speech. He emphasized the eliteness of the MP Corps. He said we were the chosen ones — for our size, marksmanship, grades on written exams and temperament. How he knew anything about our temperament, I do not know.
My mind wandered for the rest of his speech, but then he said, “You are the chosen ones. And we do not want anyone here who does not want to be here! So if you do not wish to join The Military Police Corps of the United States Army, please step forward.”
I looked around. No one was moving an inch. Hesitation. Then, putting one foot in front of the other, I moved forward. One small step for man, one mad leap for Medlin. Oh, how many times I have wondered how my life would have played out differently, if I had just stood still for one more moment. But I was dead certain that I did not want to be an Army Cop. Pretty sure. Kind of sure. WTF?!!!
The next three weeks were among my happiest times in the Army. I was moved to a barrack called “THE ZOO.” This was where all the washouts and malcontents were housed. Even though I was the only one who voluntarily left the MPs, I fit right in.
Most of the fellows there had enlisted to be MPs so they could avoid being drafted and assigned to the infantry. Their recruiting officers had failed to mention the minimum height and aptitude requirements. Or, that high school dropouts and convicted felons were not eligible.
When sent to the mess hall or a work detail, we mocked the marching songs of the MPs and the Airborne Rangers.
We are the Zoo,
The goofy, goofy Zoo.
We may be f**k-ups,
At least we’re not YOU!
Every Friday new assignment orders would come in. Ninety-percent of the fellows were sent to clerical school, or some other soft position. Since I was better educated than anyone in the Zoo, I was a lock for being kept stateside as a clerk. But I had forgotten one thing — the Army’s lack of logical thinking. My assignment: Advanced Infantry Training at Fort Polk, Louisiana. THE most direct route to the war zone.
Life at Advanced Infantry Training (A.I.T.) was a lot like Basic, just more so. The terrain was different. Fort Bliss was all dry heat and dusty desert. Fort Polk was humidity and swamps. Our population was less diverse than the crew of Pequod, but still diverse. Young African/Americans from New Orleans and other urban centers replaced Mexican/American kids from farms and barrios, with whom I was somewhat accustomed. Farm boys, crackers and fishermen replaced the cowboys, rednecks and desert rats. Most of the soldiers were cool, some were stone-cold gang-bangers and some lads probably thought they looked good in white sheets. Constant racial tension took our minds off the hell that awaited.
It didn’t matter to me when our Platoon Sergeant appointed a psycho named Durell to be our barrack Sergeant. Durell was a handsome Black dude with neon green eyes. I wasn’t sure what section of New Orleans he was from, but growing up there had taught him to hate Whitey. Durell solidified his power over our barrack by making a hulking brute named Smith his second in command. Smith was a complete contrast to the wiry, articulate Durell. He was from a family of sharecroppers, and the only background experience he shared with Durell was abuse by white men.
When Durell and Smith made certain that all the whites were last in the chow line, got the hardest duty assignments and were last on the list for passes — it bothered me not at all. But one can imagine the effect it had on some others of my race.
Early on, I decided to emulate the Spanish Conquistador, who, when captured by Native Americans, played the fool in order to stay alive. My first chance to create this image came when we were on a simulated patrol through the woods. I absent-mindedly began picking up pine cones and throwing them at a large pine tree. Somehow our Platoon Sergeant had circled around behind us and was observing me.
“Medlin. You got no respect for that fine old tree? Get your ass over there and apologize.”
I noted Durell’s grin as the Sergeant attempted to humiliate me. Why not make the most of it? I ran to the tree and dropped to my knees as if in prayer. I shouted skyward like a hungry tent evangelist.
OH MIGHTY MOTHER OF THE FOREST. OH HOW I HAVE WANTONLY VIOLATED YOUR SACRED MISSION AND DISRESPECTED YOUR DOMAIN. OH MOTHER OF PINES, PLEASE FORGIVE THIS HUMBLE SERVANT, WHO WISHES ONLY THAT YOU, YOUR FAMILY OF BEAUTIFUL TREES, AND ALL YOUR LITTLE CONES SHALL LIVE AND PROSPER WITHOUT THE DESECRATION OF EVIL MEN SUCH AS I!
The entire company, including the Drill Sergeant and Durell, found my performance amusing.
Tensions grew. You could smell the sweat of aggrieved rednecks, rancid from their discharge of emotional bile, clinging to the oppressive humidity in the barrack as the fans once again failed.
And then Durell disappeared. Had he been ambushed in a dark alley? Lando, a particularly annoying cracker from Mississippi, bragged that he might have disposed of his tormentor. Even Smith didn’t know Durell’s whereabouts.
After he’d been gone for three days, the MPs brought Durell back. I learned he had gone AWOL, but I never learned any details. He and Smith were stripped of their leadership positions. An East coast Italian, who everyone called “Rocky” (really), replaced Durell. Jackson, an African-American from Baton Rouge, got Smith’s old title.
For a while, tensions eased. But that ended the night Durell managed to smuggle in a bottle of wine. While the rest of us were trying to sleep, he and Smith sat on his bunk swigging wine and complaining about Whitey. The more they drank the louder they complained. What at first sounded like legitimate grievances, became more and more exaggerated.
“A redneck stole my bike when I was twelve.”
“Yeah, a white bitch had me arrested for stealing a piece of cheese. Crazy whore, a PIECE AH F**KIN’ CHEESE!”
“That’s cold, brother. But dig it, a motherf**kin’ cracker run over my dawg ! Run her over in his damn pickup with one headlight out. Done run over little Lady. In a f**kin’ Ford.”
“A white-assed landlord put my whole family out in the street — nekkid!”
“Yeah? Well a white man killed my sister.”
Maybe he had just been holding it in, but for some reason, when Smith made the remark about his sister, Jackson, who was in the bunk beneath mine, laughed. Smith heard it and flew into a rage. He opened the trunk at the foot of his bunk and pulled out his entrenching tool.
“Entrenching tool” is an army term for a collapsible spade
or shovel. When opened halfway, it can be used as a
pick or an axe. Smith opened his to pick position and started walking menacingly up and down the middle aisle between the bunks.
“Which one of you white motherf**kers laughed at my sister?”
Smith was insane with rage, screaming, cursing, crying — and swinging the tool like a baseball bat.
He stopped at the end of my bunk. Neither Jackson nor I made a sound. The barrack was silent as a crypt. Except for Smith pledging death to all whites.
Out of nowhere, Rocky appeared directly in front of Smith, who raised his weapon, ready to strike. I held my breath … but Smith did not swing.
Rocky tried to talk him down.
(photo, above: a potentially deadly entrenching tool)
He expressed sympathy and understanding. He condemned whoever had laughed at Smith, but tried to assure him that nobody really thought it was a laughing matter.
All the time Rocky was speaking and Smith was threatening, Durell was by Smith’s side encouraging him to “Smash the white motherf**kin’ devil. Chop his f**kin’ head off!!”
Rocky told the story of how his grandparents had come to America from Italy. How they were mistreated and almost starved. How they were mocked and persecuted. He assured Smith he could relate to where he was coming from. “Sure, you can kill me. You’re big enough, strong enough —”
“Do it, Smith!" Durell shouted. "Put the f**kin’ wop down! You can do it!”
“He’s right. You can do it. And you got a lifetime of reasons. But kill me and you are killing yourself. Yourself and your children and any family you might have had. You’ll end your story right here, right now, by killing a wop whose family has been screwed over for generations just like yours. Maybe not as bad. But bad.”
The pause probably lasted seconds, but seemed like hours. I don’t think I’d ever witnessed an act of bravery, or foolishness, equal to Rocky’s.
Jackson got out of his bunk and pushed Durell aside. “It was me, Smith. I laughed. I’m so sorry, brother — don’t know what made me do it.”
Smith dropped the weapon. He grabbed Rocky and hugged him. Then he turned and ran toward the latrine. I could hear the sounds of puking.
(photo, below: four GIs on KP duty)
Rocky stared at Durell, who shrugged and sauntered off to his bunk. Lando went AWOL the next day. We never saw him again.
A year or so later, I heard through the Army grapevine that Smith had performed acts of bravery at Hamburger Hill. One report said he was killed. Another said he was not. Nobody seems to know what happened to Durell or Rocky. If I had learned their full names I could probably find out.
Every time we got a pass to go into town (which was only once for me), our Platoon Sergeant warned us not to go alone. He said there were hoodlums in Leesville, or “Sleezeville” as he called it, who would do us harm. That was proven one Monday morning when Sarge came back to the base with two black eyes and a broken nose. He didn’t take his own advice.
The one time I was promised a full weekend pass for an exceptional score on the rifle range, a group of good friends said they would drive over from Austin and take me out for some fun. In typical Army fashion, when the weekend came, my pass was not granted and I was assigned KP.
When I presented my case to Sarge, he just repeated his standard mantra. “It don’t mean nuthin’, it don’t mean a Goddamned thing!”
But it did mean a lot to me. A fellow named Randolph had a pass and no money. I paid him fifty bucks to sleep in my bunk and take my KP duty.
I had a great time with my friends. But when I got back, all hell broke loose. Randolph had been found out. I suspected a rat, but never discovered his identity. I caught an avalanche of shit from my Platoon Sergeant, a tsunami of threats from the Top Sergeant, and a bewildering lesson in morals from our Commanding Officer. Plus! the honor of washing pots and pans in the mess hall kitchen every weekend for the rest of my stay.
FTA! It was worth it. And I was perfecting the art of cleaning pots and pans.
End of Part I.
Coming up next week – Part II: Hello Vietnam, I Really Must Be Going
James BigBoy Medlin © 2019
James BigBoy Medlin was the sports writer for the original Austin Sun. His column was called "Why Not?"