Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Goodwill Mission

The salt falls on the watermelon in Kevin’s hand, and he takes a bite. “That’s it?” I ask. He chews and shrugs. He’s just finished describing his time in Vietnam, and while I didn't expect him to be on the embassy roof, I didn't expect to hear about desk duty in Long Beach either. “How do you fucking grow a watermelon without seeds?” he asks. We’ve done this routine before; I cut the fruit and Kevin steals slices. After seven years of working together he knows exactly when to show up. Kevin is relieved to change the topic away from himself. I start looking at his lanky forearms for anchors and eagles, some trace of the scar that brought him back home to Southie in 1969. There is nothing but a pink dribble of melon juice. 

Vietnam, I know what that was like: shirtless grunts at Khe Sanh in front of empty ammo crates, pastel fantastic prostitutes on motor scooters, door gunners, water buffalo, black pajamas, Jimi Hendrix and John Kerry. Kevin fell off a ladder. He was up there fishing a wire. The wire went round his forearm when he fell; he was suspended above the clinic floor with copper wire cutting his muscle. “The Sisters put a cot under my ass and cut me down, they all frickin’ loved me.” I wanted to ask if he prayed with them but he continues to make light of what must have been a very painful injury. “Then this corpsman put me in a jeep and then it was off to la-la land with a busted arm.”

Nobody died. Nobody Kevin knew anyway. He was a Navy Seabee, the men famous for scraping out airstrips on coral atolls in the big war. Kevin specialized in electrical work, what the military calls “Combat Service Support.” These days Kevin labors as a building engineer for a large hotel in his native Boston. We’re working the overnight together, and I’m trying to pull some war stories out of him. The war is a topic he rarely mentions, it’s not that it haunts him -- it just wasn’t that important. “Lotta guys went into the service because they figured they would get drafted,” he says. “Guys’ fathers were in the war and you always went to the cookouts and parades they had.”

He recalls Jacksonville, where he did his basic training, as hot and boring. Subic Bay, in the Philippines, was another story: he loved it there. Subic was the jumping off point for deployment to Vietnam, where his unit practiced their skills and chased local girls. “All of em’ wanted to marry me, think of that,” he says. He starts telling me about climbing palm trees with spiked lineman’s boots when his Nextel interrupts “Hey Kev, room 439 says it’s too hot. I told them five minutes.” Kevin picks up with an unmistakable sigh “Copy that, front desk.” He holsters the phone, snatches some pineapple and mutters “Jesus.”

Kevin wanted to become a Seabee because he had briefly worked for a former Seabee back in Southie. “He had three trucks and a big crew, everybody knew him. He was alright.” Kevin smiles and continues, “So, if I had to go, I figured why not do that?” Kevin’s homecoming proved anticlimactic. Jobs were hard to come by, and he felt out of place in the neighborhood. He tried to find fellowship and job leads at the local VFW, but instead came away feeling disrespected. “It was all older guys who sat around drinking --in the middle of the goddamn day -- telling me I was a bum!” It wasn’t enough that Kevin had served. The war was still happening and he was home.

Eventually, Kevin’s status as a vet worked in his favor and he landed a job. “They made us like the blacks, bumped to the front of the line, and then they watch you like you’re gonna go crazy.” Kevin built on what he had learned in the Navy, becoming skillful in HVAC and general maintenance. He worked for nearly twenty years at New England Medical until a round of layoffs caused him to come to the hotel. During those years, Kevin prospered, married, and started a new life away from Southie. “I still go fishing at the pier once in a while, but everybody I knew in Southie is dead or moved. It’s not the same place.”  

I ask Kevin what he thought about the war, if he believed in the cause. “They didn't know what those people needed,” Kevin says of the men running the war. “Give me a stack of money and enough cigarettes and I coulda won the war handing shit out. That’s all they do over there is ask you for stuff from the time you get there. They aren’t communists.” Most of Kevin’s time in Vietnam was spent on bases, setting up generators and lights. Periodically, parts of his group would go into villages to do goodwill projects. On one of these missions, Kevin received the injury that ended his military career. “There was a clinic run by French nuns and we were setting them up with power to keep the medicine cold.” I point out that at least he was injured helping people and Kevin shakes his head. “Nobody gets a medal for being stupid.”

When I’m finished chopping the fruit, we move to the employee break room. This is where we spend much of our time, and the reason Kevin takes the overnight shifts. He needs to keep off his feet because of his diabetic condition. He also needs to support his wife, so he works the graveyard when the calls are few and major repairs are deferred until the morning. He has to wear special shoes and socks now; a catheter is strapped to his thigh. The VA pays for most of his medical care; Kevin claims he could get more if he could prove he was exposed to Agent Orange. Kevin has never had a good relationship with the Veteran’s Administration, going back to the first years after the war. “You tell em’ you’ve got pain and they accuse you of being a junkie; it’s an insult!”

I want to know if he would do it again. This question puzzles Kevin. The idea of the Vietnam War as a historical debate is alien to him. “Well, yeah, I mean if they’re drafting guys, that’s how it is.” He takes out a cigarette and begins tapping it on the table. I can tell he wants to go so I throw out a pointed question. I want to know if it was it worth it. He tells me one last story about a week in a hospital in Guam after his injury. The bed zombies, the crying mama’s boys and the sailor they pulled out of a stall with his underwear around his neck. He drops his shoulders and shakes his head “How would I know?”

1 comment:

  1. Really great work, Chris! Superb writing. I love the short story feel of this true (?) interview. The line about everyone he knows in Southie being dead or moved invites an in-the-know reader to wonder all about his story after the war, living in the junk-ridden neighborhood, and if it (the war or the junk) affected him at all. Great character development. Bravo!