He was an older man, with receding white hair and wrinkles. His eyes were blue and squinted when he spoke. He wrote his name in red marker at the very top of the white board, his handwriting large and clear. His name was Mr. Clayton.
He asked us why our teacher had a West Point banner behind her desk. We told him it was because she went to West Point, and she told us interesting stories about her experience there and in the army all the time. He wanted to know more about what she did in the military, was very insistent that we tell him more about it. It was kind of strange at first, but then he started telling us his stories and it all became clearer.
He told stories as if he couldn’t help himself. He would finish, tell us to work, pause a second, and tell another story. When one story reminded him of another story, he would tell that one too. Mr. Clayton told stories like a kelptomaniac stole jewlery; it was almost involuntary.
He said he was in the military. He said one time, the officer was navigating, but Mr. Clayton was sure they were going the wrong way. He kept telling the officer “You’re going the wrong way! We’re going to the wrong place!” but the officer was sure of himself and didn’t listen to Mr. Clayton. Then he told us “they started dropping shells” and explosions began to go off barely more than twenty feet from where his group stood. He pointed to the opposite wall of the room and said “no more than that far away.”
Mr. Clayton captivated our young imaginations with his stories. We wanted to ask him where he had fought, what he had been part of. We had recently read a book, The Things They Carried, about the Vietnam War. Had Mr. Clayton lived through that war?
Yes, yes he had.
“They eat stuff you and I wouldn’t eat,” Mr. Clayton said, talking about the Vietnamese and the Viet Cong. “…people do things to other people…it just….its terrible.”
He told us he was the medic. He said he had read The Things They Carried, and that it was mostly right, except it left out the part about the drugs. He said lots of the guys carried drugs, everybody carried drugs, and when they went through the villages the soldiers had figured out that the Vietnamese men kept their opium and other drugs above the doorframe, and so made a habit of when they walked through doors reaching up and grabbing the drugs.
He said they carried 6 hand grenades, and everyone carried at least one smoke hand grenade.
He said the m-16 machine guns were heavy, and they always carried at least 420 rounds with them. I don’t remember the exact weight he said, but he did say it was important for them to know the weight of the guns, loaded and unloaded, and it was important for them to know the weight of everything they carried. He said he didn’t remember why it was important for them to know this information, but they all had to.
He told us he was older than most guys that went, 23 years old. Most, Mr. Clayton said, were 18 or 19, barely out of high school.
He told us that one of the biggest mistakes he made was trying to be a professional baseball player directly out of high school. He said he should have gone to college.
He was on a dust-off chopper. He thought that it would be safer, picking up the wounded, but actually he got shot at more when he was in the helicopter than when he was on the ground. And when he began to talk about the things he had seen while in the dust-off chopper, Mr. clayton just stopped and shuddered.
When talking about the Viet Cong, Mr. Clayton said, “…most of them didn’t have any experience at all…they got under attack they’d throw their weapons down and run.”
He told us about a time when he went to northwest Vietnam and there was so much bamboo and you couldn’t see, you couldn’t see anything, and if you shot the bullets would come right back at you so you couldn’t shoot straight, you had to shoot at an angle.
Please excuse my shorthand, I was writing this as he spoke:
the vc wre 50-60 yds from us. you could hear em, but we couldn’t see em. (he also mentioned they had some tree coverage) we used hand signals and didn’t talk all night. The next morning we burst through and tore em down. we didnt see em but we could hear em. So we shot.
At one point Mr. Clayton asked, “In The Things They Carried, did he ever mentioned anything about the guys carrying last letters?”
Someone mumbled some sort of non answer, and none of us really remembered, so Mr. Clayton went ahead and told us. He told us that everyone wrote letters in case they died, letters to their family and friends and loved ones. Mr. Clayton explained this, which I had already assumed, and starts his next sentence with “And then–”
He stopped and turned away from us.
His hand went to his mouth, then to the corners of his eyes. Mr. Clayton walked out of the room. We glanced around at one another, looking for someone to blame for reminding Mr. Clayton of something he clearly didn’t want to be reminded of. But no one had asked him to share. He had just started telling us.
After a moment Mr. Clayton came back inside and apologized, then finished explaining that if your buddy died you would take his last letter and deliver it for him.
“You never knew who you were fighting,” Mr. Clayton said when talking about the enemies. He said there were three groups: The VC, the North Vietnamese, and the Chinese.
“The chinese trained the north vietnamese. They were ruthless.”
He told us about a time when he was in a helicopter being shot at. There were no doors so the bullets went right through. He said a bullet whizzed right past his face, and then another got his buddy straight in the head aand the guy slumped over, gone.
“Originally we were sent as advisors,” Mr. Clayton told us. “But that didnt work because the south were fighting against their friends and relatives from the north.”
Mr. Clayton told us that many Vietnamese people would walk around their compound, and they would interact with the people and children by day, with no idea who was really Viet Cong.
“…little eleven year old shined his shoes that day and shot him that night,” Mr. Clayton said, talking about one specific instance with the Viet Cong.
And then another instance:
“…you could talk to them that day and they’d be Viet Cong at night.”
It was one thing to read the book The Things They Carried, to feel a remote remorse for the soldeirs that fought in that war and the people that died for a murky cause. It was a whole other thing to see the lines and the pain in this man’s face, to see him nearly brought to tears while telling us a story. And to think: he got off easy. Other men suffer from PTSD or other physical injuries or died in the war, but all Mr.Clayton has to do is live with the stories of a time long past.