I got up the courage to tell Ray I was thinking of joining the service after high school. I felt ashamed as soon as I’d confessed it. I was skinny and bookish and nobody’s idea of a soldier. I said I was leaning toward the Army, because the Air Force–according to my father–was too cushy, while life in the Marines was punishing. I figured Ray would snuff out my enthusiasm, but he didn’t. He took me seriously. He told me to forget the Air Force, but when it came to the Army, he was diplomatic: “It depends on what unit you’re with,” he said. “They have some good outfits like the 82nd and 101st Airborne–they’re real pros.” Ray’s assessments of the service branches were frank and full of insider knowledge. But what Ray couldn’t do with me, despite his years as a recruiter, was pretend it all had nothing to do with war. He didn’t explain how I could earn money for college; the military was about fighting, and fighting is what won wars.
“How come you went to Vietnam three times?” I said. “Guys only had to go once.”
Ray pressed the cigarette lighter into the dash. The spring sod out the window was still wet and moss-like. I could smell it in the breeze.
“I asked to go back.”
Apparently everybody had got it wrong about Vietnam vets. They wanted to talk.
“Were you scared?” I said instinctively.
“The Marine Corp is small. It’s not like the Army,” he said. “When people get hurt you feel it . . . I couldn’t stay home while my friends were catching hell over there.”
He glanced over at me for a second as if to say: “You follow me?” I nodded, but I didn’t understand sacrifice. With my father gone, my brother sent away, all my grandparents dead and my own creeping depression, I believed courage wasn’t something you gave away to others. It was something you barred up tightly inside yourself.
Linda and my mother were still washing dishes when we got back from our drive. Ray said there was a Celtics game on. I flopped into a recliner just off the kitchen. “Wait here. I want to show you a few things,” he said, before tossing his keys onto the hutch and striding toward the bedrooms.
Ray returned and laid out several worn photo albums and a dented shoebox on the carpet in front of us. The albums contained sixties-era Kodak color snapshots, the kind with white borders and the date stamped at the top, like “Jul • 64”. I immediately identified a much younger Ray wearing his tan Service Bravo Uniform and standing alongside two women with beehives, short skirts and clunky handbags. He smiled and nodded. There were two pages dedicated exclusively to olive-green Chinook helicopters at various stages of ascent over swerving field of Vietnamese elephant grass. Ray identified the occasional friend or place as I flipped the pages, but he was mostly content to marvel right along with me. The Marines were usually naked at the waist and clutching cans of Budweiser. They had their arms slung over each other’s shoulders and they enjoyed the free-and-easy manner that comes from shared hardship. It was hard not to envy how they loved.
I pointed to a yellowing newspaper clipping from 1965. “My fifteen minutes of fame,” he joked. It was a photo of Ray with an extended caption from his hometown newspaper in Maine. It mentioned that “local boy” Raymond Wozniak was serving in Vietnam with the 9th Marines. It showed him crouching next to the tread of an Armored Personnel Carrier and clutching the old M-14 rifle with its wooden stock. The old rifle and black and white photo gave the scene a timeless look, like Ray might have been fighting at Guadalcanal in 1942. The chinstrap on Ray’s helmet, curiously enough, was fastened and secured tightly to his face. It was odd. You can look at a thousand photos of Marines and Soldiers in Vietnam, and you’ll never see a guy with his chinstrap fastened. You just won’t see it. It conjured up a forgotten time in the war when we had expected to win by flooding the country with hardware and money, compiling body counts and wearing our chinstraps into battle.
Ray went on to show me his service ribbons, rank patches and awards from his retirement ceremony. When he was opening the box I glanced up and saw Linda elbowing my mother and mouthing the words never before. My mother was giving me an admiring look too, as if I’d surprised her by making the honor roll or holding the door for an old woman, but I knew I hadn’t done anything praiseworthy. It was simple communication. I knew how to speak the language of war, and war was the idiom of Ray’s youth.
Driving home that night my mother said, “Linda nearly had a stroke today–what did you say to him?–Ray’s never showed anyone his Marine stuff before–not even her.”
“I just asked him about it.”
“Well, she’s grateful . . . She really is . . . She said Ray needed that–to open up about everything. She hopes it’s a beginning. She just wants everything with Ray to be normal again.”
A year later an Army recruiter visited my home. It was too late for him though. My childhood romance with the military had waned. I’d discovered the bass guitar and punk rock, and college looked more and more attractive as I contemplated lonely basic training at Fort Dix. I wanted to swagger around in a uniform, but I didn’t want to deal with life in the Army.
In next few years I got sporadic reports on the Wozniaks. With each passing year Courtney had grown more and more beautiful, and more rebellious, and her adolescence played out exactly as her parents had feared. Ray soldiered on at the Post Office, but occasionally the tedium became too much and he’d disappear for several days. The episodes weren’t suspicious disappearances per say–Ray was always fishing in Maine, not cheating–but he never gave Linda the courtesy of a head’s up. He just got in this truck and took off.
In January of 1991 I returned to Framingham State College for the second half of my freshman year. I came back with a hamper full of fresh laundry and a 12-inch black and white TV with rabbit ears. The U.S. was about to launch the ground phase of the Persian Gulf War and each night in my dorm room I watched The CBS Evening News with Dan Rather, wondering what it all meant. The Pentagon had called up Army Reserve units and was ordering them to Saudi Arabia for the buildup. If I had enlisted a year earlier I might have been deployed. In the romance of youth it was hard not to regret my generation’s war popping off without me, but I was 19 and geo-politics played very little part in my thinking. This new war stirred up memories of Vietnam for the Baby Boomers, and small numbers reenacted their college years by arranging sixties’ style war protests. My girlfriend took me to a “Peace Night” at a Buddhist center in Cambridge. Nearly a hundred people gathered in a sandalwood-scented basement where we chanted and meditated, sending our “energy” to Washington and Baghdad. I was skeptical of the old hippy guard in Cambridge, who preened and glowed as if it was 1968 again, and they were off to disrupt the Democratic National Convention.
Ray was less sanguine about another American war. Linda said he’d followed the buildup of U.S. forces in the fall of 1990 with increasing dread. His drinking got worse and he even phoned a Marine big-wig requesting a dispensation to return to active duty. He was a combat engineer and a Vietnam tunnel rat, he reminded them. He could help the Marines in Kuwait when they encountered Iraqi bunkers and tank traps. The authorities denied his reenlistment request.
Fighting in the tunnels had been last the thing we talked about during our Easter day drive. Ray didn’t go into many details. I knew the Viet Cong had used underground tunnels and bunkers to hide troops and supplies and launch surprise attacks. In the early years the Americans didn’t even know about their existence until they stumbled upon them in Cu Chi. Exploring the tunnels was one of the few jobs in Vietnam that was volunteer-only. Officers could tell men to walk point or jump into a hot LZ, but nobody ordered men into tunnels. The job was simply too dangerous. A man was lowered headfirst into a dark hole with .45 at the ready, a flashlight and a rope tied around his ankle so he could be retrieved if shot. Exploring tunnels had an almost esoteric aura to it and most of the grunts–already a superstitious lot–were too spooked too even contemplate such duty. Only a few select men had the courage to plummet into the black echo of the tunnels. Success required cultivating a white-knuckled détente with panic. You had to accept that you were alone, the passageways were as narrow as coffins, and there were men around dark corners who wanted you dead. When you felt the tug of panic, you had to return to your breathing, wipe the sweat from your brow and without reservations, calmly give your life away. Ray had plugged into that drama so many times it was second nature to him.
Ray got in his truck before the ground war began and drove south along the Atlantic seaboard. He didn’t tell Linda he was leaving, and this time, with the war on television every night, she decided it was time to notify the State Police he was missing. He wasn’t on the lamb long. Two days later South Carolina state troopers called in his plates; they’d picked him up on one of their beaches. He’d driven onto the sand and rammed his truck straight into the surf just miles from his old billet at Parris Island. The troopers found him passed out behind the wheel. There were beer cans in the cab and waves crashing over the running boards.
My mother believed it was an attempt to complete the circle, and return home where it had all begun for him. I thought of the film Coming Home where a troubled Marine officer and Vietnam veteran strips off his uniform at the shore and wades into the ocean to commit suicide. But this wasn’t how it worked in real life. Marines weren’t life-intimates-art kind of guys. Ray was part of a warrior elite, and when you hear gunfire, your job is to move toward the sound of the bullets.
Ray didn’t earn any commendations for ramming his truck into the Carolina surf that morning. The whole episode was sad and embarrassing for Linda and Courtney, but the stunt proved Ray hadn’t given up yet. Despite his failures at the post office and inability to communicate with Linda, he was still someone with the will of a warrior. Underground in the tunnels it had been black and preternaturally still–like being in the belly of a fish–but he’d given it away like he’d been told, and instead of loss, he’d felt something akin to expansion. The Padre in his Marine battalion would have called it grace.
After two sleepless nights and too many beers, I can imagine even a piddly South Carolina wave might have resembled a mighty Pacific specimen: one with a barrel so large you could drive a truck into it. So like Jonah, Ray begged to be tossed overboard, to placate the sea and save the men. For all along he believed the fish would be sent for him–the great one they’d spoke of since the beginning–the one they send for the men who are already dead.