I sat there with an 8 ounce beer glass in the semi-dark in a long room cluttered with those often set apart from the herd, either because of their alcoholism—which is a symptom (not a disease)—or their antagonisms, worn down but not altogether defeated—a moot point. In an old man bar there are no expectations. There’s a lot of civility. Nobody bothers you—that’s an unspoken rule. Everyone is there for the same self-contradictory reason: to be left alone with other people. And they are there to feel good—and that’s where the alcohol comes in.
It was a bright sunny California afternoon in Burlingame—a rich town but this bar is surprisingly seedy. Inside was dark and smelled of beer and cardboard. A few barstools down a grizzled man sat hunched over a tumbler. He had long stringy black hair and a beard, wore a loose fitting shirt. Pushing under his shirt, above his belt, his kidney was swollen like a thick steak.
I’d been at the Menlo Park VA, volunteering as a recreational therapist assistant, which meant I dealt blackjack to the Vets on Friday after lunch. I loved the vets, and the VA was a great hospital if you could get in, which a lot of people can’t or don’t want to.
“You serve?” I ask.
“Vietnam,” he says.
Cú Chi meant tunnels, and there was a well-known book about the tunnel rats, as they were called, a book that captured how horrible it was to crawl into a dark hole and face unimaginable booby traps or an inhuman enemy (they’re always inhuman)—you led with your head, no possibility of protecting your eyes, your mouth, or your throat—or sometimes, even worse, you were lowered down, your balls leading the way. Not every war story is true, and people claim a lot that can’t be supported by facts. A lot of people say they were tunnel rats because everyone can understand how terrifying that was—it meant you faced fear, that you were probably and (more importantly) legitimately fucked up, which also meant your troubles were understandable—and everyone wants that, a clear cause to their incredibly screwed effect—an explanation for their lives, an explanation, if tacit, as to why on earth they were alcoholizing themselves to death in an old man bar when sunny California lay just outside the swinging door. I didn’t necessarily believe him about being a tunnel rat, but I didn’t disbelieve him either. Cú Chi was shorthand, like so many things were short hand—a way to tell a story he couldn’t necessarily tell.
And maybe he was a tunnel rat. Who knows? At Menlo a lot of guy had done outrageous things. One of the guys was the first to escape from a Nazi prison camp. He was a little guy, and he dressed up as a Hitler youth and rode away on a bicycle. When he came back to the States and gave talks about it. He liked to be wheeled out into the garden to look at the rhododendrons. Another guy flew helicopters in Vietnam. He had a purple heart with two clusters on it—all received for the same action—flying into fire to get guys out, being wounded and flying in again. He kept flying in. Wheeling him to the bank in the main building one day, he turned and, apropos of nothing, said, “I could tell you things.” Looking at his eyes that moment, I believed it. And there were other guys, wounded in trainings, stateside, or doing something without any heroism attached, operating a forklift. One guy had lost both his legs that way and had a thyroid problem to boot—he never left his wheelchair and weighed about 300 lbs. This guy they called the commander, even though he’d never seen any action. There was another guy who had been raped by other U.S. soldiers and then beaten—that was in Japan in peacetime. He was in the PTSD wing. He managed to pass the VA’s very stringent PTSD criteria. He’d tried to commit suicide.
Most people don’t pass their tests or even want to. The VA is a nightmare of red tape and a lot of worse off guys live on the outside—protecting their autonomy and paranoia, banking on their own toughness as they collect checks or panhandle, sit on corners or in old man bars. I don’t blame them—smart in its way.
And I don’t question a guy’s veracity by asking specific questions. His swollen kidney tells me enough. I buy him what he’s drinking, pro quo, for this story: I was up in the hill country. I was working then with the CIA. I was teaching the farmers how to grow potatoes. We’d used Agent Orange there and they had nothing left. They were starving. So I went village to village and we flew in potatoes and we had to fly in buckets of dirt too. All their dirt was poisoned. Nothing could grow there. I showed them how to do it—cutting up the potato with a knife and putting the pieces into the buckets of dirt. They had no idea what I was doing. They’d never seen a fucking potato before.
The irony wasn’t lost on him, and that’s a hard thing to be left with.
painting by Drake Deknatel, 1943-2005