How I Died in Viet Nam

How I Died in Viet Nam

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April 30, 2010 marked the thirty fifth anniversary of the day the U.S. war in Viet Nam officially ended. It was not a clean break. It’s a day famous for, among other things, a photograph of the last U.S. helicopter ready to lift from the roof of the U.S. embassy in Saigon, dozens of people crowding a ladder like stairway up to the landing pad. We can tell they won’t make it up the stairs let alone fit in that tiny aircraft. It’s a poignant, lasting symbol for U.S. meddling in the affairs of other countries.

By then, North Vietnamese troops had already invaded the city and were storming the presidential palace. Gerald Ford’s administration went to work conjuring lingo to convert defeat to victory for public consumption. A habit of deceit had applied to everything related to Viet Nam since John F. Kennedy, and is a major reason politicians have been forced to trick Americans into agreeing with U.S. military interventions ever since. The U.S. Viet Nam War was the mother of all deceptions—George Orwell would have had a field day with its euphemisms. Current warspeak phrases like “collateral damage” and “asymmetric warfare,” describing war crimes in Iraq or Afghanistan, are right out of the U.S. Viet Nam War playbook.

The war ended five years earlier than that day for me, but “ended” is yet another nuanced word where that war is concerned, just like the name of the war itself. “Vietnam” Americans call it, a synecdoche for everything related to the war, but which doesn’t distinguish between the war and the country, the name of which is two words, “Viet” and “Nam.” We invented the word Vietnam, and it has always bugged me, compelling me to mention and correct it at every turn.

Actually, I died in Viet Nam. I’ve lived a rich and varied life the past forty years, but back in early 1970, I never made it home like I was supposed to. At least the me that was did not; that is, the one who died in Vietnam, Viet Nam.

He was a young man, just this side of still being a kid, with life details similar to his military peers: lower working class Pittsburgh high school drop out runaway wise guy gangbanging doo wop singer who also wanted to be a boxer and a painter (of canvases not houses). If he made it back from the war, he would have few prospects beyond, maybe (if lucky), a minor steel mill job. Or he might even get on as a driver somewhere if his Teamster father forgave him whatever transgressions he committed during a wild, lunatic youth (not the least of which was running away and not coming back). If his father used his connections, he might even land a long haul rig, or delivery route (beer or UPS, the steadiest). Things like that took connections, but his father knew, however casually, somebody truly powerful, the not yet disappeared Jimmy Riddle Hoffa of Brazil, Indiana—mystery of mysteries—because he, my father, drove trucks from the time he was a kid, and was a button wielding, card carrying Teamster who stood out on the skull cracking strike lines with a fish bat or blackjack right alongside Jimmy R. and other fellow Teamsters—long before his own long war, where he also died, in the islands, before coming back to die over and over in Pittsburgh behind the wheel of his ice and coal truck.

Don’t get me wrong. Confessing I died in Vietnam is not meant to demean the memory of thousands of Americans (some of them dear friends) who never actually came back from Viet Nam except in coffins or on lists of the disappeared and missing, or millions of Vietnamese (some of them dear friends) who did not survive our twenty years plus presence in their country (though if we count the first American soldier who died there, in 1945, we lasted thirty miserable years).

When my walking, talking living corpse returned from Vietnam (the war), Pittsburgh was hardly the city I left four years earlier. Plenty of flags were flying back then, but a lot of native sons had died in the interim, and the war’s dark face was exposed. To the city’s credit, I discovered an army of hippies and antiwar activists, though I was dead and not much interested until my corpse reanimated almost automatically by plugging into the hippie subculture. It was suddenly (the world) all about weed, women, and rock & roll, and I didn’t care if I never heard the word (or words) Viet Nam again, not ever. Period.

Unfortunately, that was impossible.

Every April 30th I think about the beauty of spring and the end of that war. It was a painful day. The boy who died nearly came back to life, something I did not want. It was a day I never thought would come, and when it did I tried to ignore it because I could not believe it. I’d been tricked by so much deception (the whole country had) that it simply could not be true. I was in Baltimore at Johns Hopkins University attending graduate school, having managed to somehow turn a GED test into an education. It wasn’t supposed to happen that way. I was supposed to stay dead, but there I was. It was Wednesday, a glorious spring day. I walked one end of the city to the other, to Lexington Market. As if there was not enough plenitude inside, the streets outside were lined with arabbers—colorful horse drawn fruit and vegetable wagons that used to roam the streets. The drivers, each with a unique song to hawk their goods, were all singing, competing for business, and the sun was shining. I was certain it would shine forever, and though that is all I remember of that day, it is still as real to me as the boy who died in Viet Nam, not to save his country but his life.


George Evans, an award winning poet, writer and translator, has contributed political, cultural, and literary commentary and essays to numerous magazines and web sites internationally. His books include The New World and Sudden Dreams. He’s a Vietnam veteran. This essay is an excerpt from his memoir, “How I Died in Viet Nam.”