Seagoing Soldier

By George A. Hill

It didn't happen.

I wanted to fit in, but I wasn't the person I had been before Vietnam. I clearly remember sitting with three friends in a '57 Chevy drinking Lone Star in Milby Park. One talked of his car, one of his girlfriend, the other of which refinery was going to hire him. I can remember sitting there, yet feeling so distant. I did not understand my feelings, nor how or if I wanted to express them. I did know that these subjects were so secondary to what I had experienced—life, death, true camaraderie; things that make everything else pale in comparison. This world was a different place. I could barely remember my life before Vietnam. I felt as though I had always been in Vietnam, and always would be there. Existence there was so intense that I felt no one at home could understand me, let alone me understanding myself—such a confusing time.

One Friday my father called from Stella's, and asked me to meet him there. Everybody at Stella's was always very respectful of me. My father and his coworkers were solid, hardworking people. Most were World War II veterans, and although they were strong union members, they would not vote Democrat because of that party's overall antiwar stance at that time.

I parked at the oyster-shelled parking lot and went in. My father and several men, almost all of whom I knew, had two tables pushed together. All were longshoremen who had worked with my father, except one. My father introduced him to me. "This is Rick," he said. "He's been shipping out for years." Rick had become a merchant seaman after World War II and had been all over the world. He took my hand, and when he greeted me, I noticed the worst stuttering I'd ever heard.

A Lone Star was ordered for me. Stella put a beer wrapper around the ice-cold bottle and handed it to me, saying, "How's it going, Bubba? Glad you're back." My nickname was Bubba. After Vietnam, as now, "Bubba" was just a vague memory—had that really been my name? No one in Vietnam called me Bubba.

By the time I was on my third or fourth Lone Star I felt a mellow buzz beginning. The men at the table began talking of "The War," World War II. My father, a combat veteran who had spearheaded with the Army's 2d and 6th Armored Divisions, looked at Rick, then me. "Bubba, Rick was a Marine, too." Then to Rick he said, "They deserved that bomb, didn't they?"

Rick didn't answer; he just looked at me. My father continued, "The Japanese caught Rick on one of those islands and gave him hell." Rick nodded in agreement.

Soon afterward, the subject changed from the war, but I needed to know more about Rick. I asked, "Rick, have you always been a seaman, other than when you were in the Marines?" His reply, "I-I-I w-was e-e-even ah-ah-ah s-s-s-s-seaman then-w-w-we M-Marines a-a-a-a-are s-s-sea go-going s-s-s-soldiers; y-y-you know t-t-t-t-that."

It was clear to me that Rick was Semper Fi . I felt a closeness and brotherhood with this man across the table—a feeling that occasionally overwhelms me. I felt it when the caskets came home from Lebanon, Granada, Panama, Kuwait City, and Somalia, and when I talk to my friend Jim Sanders, who was shot up at Chosin Reservoir. I feel it when I see men such as James Webb, Lewis Puller, Jr., and many others who put principles and honor above prestige and half-stepping.

That day at Stella's, when I felt so confused and not understood, there sat this Marine, this man Rick. The price I knew that he and so many others had paid—a dear price that is nearly impossible to comprehend—it overtook me. I understood him and he me.

Rick explained that his squad had been killed, and that he had been captured. His captors beat him in the head with their rifle butts until he passed out. After he came to, his speech was never the same. But what I most noticed in his voice was the innocence and, amazingly, the absence of any hatred for that long-ago enemy.

Rick also told me that he had gotten his seaman papers after the war, and that he had always shipped out. He had never had a relationship and did best when at sea, where he didn't have to talk much.

All at once those Lone Stars hit me. His words "seagoing soldier," the sacrifices this man had made and lived with, his pride in being a Marine—it all hit me. I got up and went to the bathroom. I broke down and cried.

I don't remember ever crying like that before. It wasn't done in Vietnam; there was no time to break down.

My father came into the bathroom a few minutes later. He looked at me and said, "Everything will be all right," and put his arm around me. I needed and still appreciate that comforting gesture.

I got myself together and went back to the table. I drank one more Lone Star, shook hands with all, and as I got up to leave, I looked at Rick and said, "I, as a Marine, appreciate sitting in the presence of a true seagoing soldier." I saw a tear in his eyes. He replied, "I-I-I appr-pre-appreciate y-y-you." Our brotherhood bound our war-branded souls on that breezy day at Stella's long ago.

I did two additional partial tours before my enlistment was up. The last was on board the USS New Orleans (LPH- 11), a ship with an infantry battalion and helicopter squadron of seagoing soldiers off the coast of Vietnam.

My father retired years ago and doesn't go into Houston anymore. When I saw him last summer, I asked about Rick. He remembered him being a seaman, but didn't remember his last name. I may never meet Rick again, but I'll never forget him, the seagoing soldier who sacrificed.

Mr. Hill , a disabled veteran, served with the Marine Corps and Coast Guard. He served 23 months in Vietnam; writing is part of his therapy.

 

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