A Memoir by Robert Fay
The U.S. Marines have a fool-proof method of preparing Americans for combat. They start with three months at boot camp and two months on the infantry course, followed by advanced weapons training and then life in the Fleet where the culture is a combination of Sparta and the Ultimate Fighting Championship, but what works--what ultimately wins firefights in Iraq and Afghanistan--is to convince the grunts they’re already dead. And while it’s not easy for an American teenager to give his life away, if he can do it, he’ll roll into the big fight with nothing to lose. “What’s the worst thing that can happen to me,” the thinking goes, “if I’m already dead?” So in the nastiest places on earth, Fallujah and Helmand Province come to mind, Marines are as prepared as any troops can ever be. But it’s impossible not to wonder: what does a dead man do when he returns home to America?
I don’t know if the Marines told Ray Wozniak to picture his death when he landed in Da Nang in 1965. The Vietnam outlook in in the early days was upbeat and gung ho. The Marines weren’t anticipating a long campaign. After all, they were only there to defend the airbase. This wasn’t Korea in 1950 or the volcanic sands of Iwo Jima. The politicians called Vietnam a “police action,” but to anybody who suffered there, it was a war as viciously contested as any before it.
“Ray served three tours in Vietnam,” my mother used to say whenever his name came up. That was the first time I’d heard the word tour associated with war. It sounded recreational, even high-minded, like The Grand Tour aristocrats enjoyed on the continent.
When I first met the Wozniaks Ray held one of the highest enlisted ranks in the Marines, Master Gunnery Sergeant. In his illustrious career he had survived 39 months as a combat engineer in Vietnam. He’d been a “tunnel rat” who had fought the Viet Cong underground. He had his jump wings, and later, served as both a drill instructor and a recruiter, positions reserved for the most squared-away Marines in the Corps. Yet on Easter Day 1988, Ray’s military career, like the bonds within my own family, had flamed out forever, leaving nothing but reflection and a chance to measure out regrets.
Ray expected us. He was loitering on his front lawn with a rake as we cruised down the street. I was with my mother and sister. I was 16 and the only man left in the family. My father had moved into a grungy apartment near Boston and my 11-year-old brother Aaron was in a foster home--such were the fruits of divorce in those days. And though it was Easter, a cherished holiday when I was a boy, it had stopped meaning anything to us without morning Mass and family visits.
Ray’s lawn was hay-colored and beaten-down after five months of snow, but it was free of the branches, pine needles and stripped bark that marred his neighbors’ yards. Linda, Ray’s wife, was still in the house finishing her preparations for dinner. All morning she’d been stomping back and forth between the kitchen and the dining room fretting about place mats and gravy consistency. Linda was an ICU charge nurse and her nervous system had been programmed in an environment where carelessness made trouble. It was a professional conviction she shared with her husband, who’d seen mistakes take men’s lives on battlefields and training grounds. This grave outlook put them at odds with the civilian world, which is to say the world of their 9-year-old daughter Courtney. Naturally little Courtney didn’t imagine sucking chest wounds around every corner and she didn’t comprehend that she was so beautiful that one day the world would storm her like a castle. Even at the age of nine, you could discern the schematics of a leggy high-fashion model. Courtney had white-blonde hair and slate-colored eyes and Ray and Linda knew she’d fire the passions of men one day, so they were hell-bent on penning her in as long as they could.
Ray waved to us as he sauntered into the center of the road. He was one of those men who gained something more than wrinkles and girth with age, something like ripeness, or more accurately, a fine patina. Ray’s hair had grown out since his retirement and he wore pressed chinos and a flannel shirt, and though it was still March, his face was fiercely tanned, as if three years in Vietnam had seared darkness onto him.
A crimson Buick was coming from the opposite direction and he slowed the car to a halt and directed us into the driveway. “Is he a card or what?” My mother said as I craned my neck and watched him wave the Buick on with such authority that no one would have questioned his right to direct traffic.
Ray strode up to our driver’s side window. “What are you clowns laughing at?” he barked, his arms akimbo, as he reprised his role as Parris Island drill instructor.
“Well I can see Linda’s got you on holiday duty there, Ray,” my mother said.
“It’s not even one ‘o clock and I’ve written five tickets and impounded two vehicles. The whole town is going to pot.”
Ray peered into the car and winked at me. This world, he seemed to be saying--the one of feminine overreach and trivial occupations--was something of a joke to men like him.
On the drive down my mother told me Ray had just begun working as a mail sorter for the U.S. Postal Service. The Marines had recently forced him into retirement and a postal job meant robust health benefits and continued stability. It was distressing to picture Ray in front of a mail sorter. It was the job that had given birth to the “going postal” phenomenon.
I was 13-years-old when I first met Ray. My sister Maureen had befriended Courtney in a tap class when they were both six. The two mothers became friends too, and the Wozniaks eventually came to our house for a cookout. It was in 1985 before the great dismantling, before my parent’s divorce and Ray’s expulsion from the Service, when everyone in my family was under one roof and Ray was still chief of a Marine recruitment office in Brockton.
Long before I met Ray I had developed a fascination with the military and stories of war. I played with plastic Army men and my friends and I waged war with toy rifles in the woods and cornfields. My grandfather’s Time-Life books had introduced me to World War II, and then a set of children’s books with colorful sketches on the U.S. Civil War had stirred my interest in war even more. One sketch I’ll never forget was of the Battle of Shiloh. I hadn’t known the word Shiloh was from the Old Testament, but even then, the word sounded holy to me. The blue-coated Union soldiers were in the prone position, firing at unseen Confederates off the page. There were dozens of dead soldiers on the firing line and everyone was covered with pink blossoms from the surrounding peach trees. This contrast between the brilliant fallen petals and the bloodied, navy-blue tunics was almost beautiful to me.
My father had no particular interest in war. He had served in the peacetime Navy and he had a Quaker-like aversion to firearms. But he did like war movies and we’d watch them together comparing notes on their strengths. The film that galvanized my interest in Vietnam, above all other wars, was John Wayne’s The Green Berets. The film was an inaccurate and mostly silly affair. It tried to simplify the complexities of the war for a public still thinking along World War II-lines, but it was my first exposure to the war’s quirky nomenclature: Punji sticks, Huey helicopters, Charlie, sappers, firebases, AK-47s and claymore mines. Later I saw more sober-minded Vietnam movies like The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now. In The Deer Hunter I recognized the adult men I knew. The parochial Pennsylvania steel workers reminded me of my father’s boilermaker friends and my neighbors' fathers, men who watched football in dark taverns and then went to Vietnam to hunt men at close range. It wasn’t a distant war to me. It was a war still being turned over in the minds of men I was growing up around.
Before my father fired-up the grill the adults settled in at the kitchen table, drinking beer and chatting. Ray and my father were both fishermen and they exchanged observations about the area’s lakes and useful lures. I studied Ray carefully. He was the first active-duty Marine I’d ever seen and I waited for conversation to swing toward his military experiences. My father talked about everything from his sub-pump problems to the town’s water ban. Ray seemed happy to let my father do the talking. He enjoyed great authority in his professional environment and could easily afford to be deferential when socializing.
I soon got impatient with my father’s home improvement stories and non-sequiturs. I glared black at my mother as if to say, “He’s your husband. Do something!” But she and Linda were engaged in one of those face-to-face female conversations with a lot of nodding and signs of mutual understanding. I was on my own. How could I move the conversation along? My father loved to drone on about his Navy days. I considered his stories tedious and bereft of the kind of action--shooting and bombing--that made military stories worthwhile to begin with. But if I encouraged him to talk about the Navy, Ray would clearly have to chime in about the Marines.
“Hey Dad, hey Dad,” I said pulling on his sleeve and banging on the table by his beer mug. “When you enlisted in the Navy were you scared?”