The Dark Angry Secrets of Mike and Doc

Mike and I keep in touch. We talk about Vietnam. About nightmares and startle reflex, battles with anxiety, depression, flashbacks.

“Doc, good thing you called,” he said. “I’m having a rough night. The way you talk–you being a medic, settles me down.

“Any time, Michael,” I said.

We agreed I’d visit in August.

Six months later, I flew from New York to Michigan.

Since Mike worked the second shift he sent his stepson Jerry, at seventeen tall and lanky, to meet me at Metro Airport. On the freeway we stopped for a bite at a Big Boy.

Jerry said, “You’ll like the food, here, Doc. It’s real good.”

He ordered a half dozen spicy buffalo wings; I had salad. Beth, Jerry’s sweetheart, skipped the meal and talked about music, work, and Disney World.

“We’re going there on our honeymoon,” said Jerry, putting his arm around Beth.
“There ain’t much here,” she said, elbowing him in the gut.

She meant Monroe, Michigan. A small town near Lake Erie, known by some for the Battle of Frenchtown.

“We could buy a house, and live in Florida,” said Beth, hopefully.

“Damn right,” said Jerry.

Medic and Cathy, Monroe, Michigan, 1997At Mike’s place, a two story A-frame in the heart of Monroe, I met his wife Kathy, a heavyset, cheerful woman, and Cody, their feisty black mutt.

“Good meeting ya, Doc,” said Jerry and Beth, and off they went.

Kathy led me to the living room, where we sat and chatted while waiting for Mike to return from the Ann Arbor VA, where he worked in supply.

“Doc,” she said, as if she’d known me a lifetime, “I don’t know why Michael won’t talk to me like he does to you. When I ask him about Vietnam, he shouts, ‘You wouldn’t understand,’ and walks away. I get frustrated. I’ve read about Vietnam.”

Kathy said that Mike sometimes hollered at her, and she hollered right back, and that they would fight.
“Can you figure that, Doc? ’Cause I sure can’t.”

I settled back into the dark green La-Z-Boy recliner.

“Mike feels safe with me,” I said. “He feels only a combat vet can understand what he’s seen and done. A lot of combat vets are like that.” I leaned forward. “Mike and me, we’re not like regular people. The war has changed us. He needs you—it’s just hard for him to say it.”
Kathy brightened. “Doc, I never seen it that way. You think I can love him without hurting him?”
I had no easy answers. “Let’s do stuff together,” I said. See how that works.”

“OK,” said Kathy. “And you know, Michael is so pleased to see you.”

When Mike got home the three of us sat on white plastic chairs in the big two car garage attached to the house.

“My bunker,” he called it, leading the way inside.

The entire low-ceilinged room, sooted with dust, layered with grime, overflowed with tools, rusty motorcycle frames, scraps of wood, miscellaneous car parts, oil cans, jars of nails, washers, screws, abandoned rags, and ammo. Shelves and shelves of rifle and hand gun boxed ammo. I set my album of war photos on a work bench tattooed by hard work and the passage of time.

Adjusting his glasses, Mike turned the first page. “Damn, that’s Carrot Top,” he said, admiring our lieutenant. “And this guy,” Mike jabbed at the image, “This cocksucker found me smoking weed, told me to “put it out.” I turned my back on him. Ten and a wake up. Next thing I know, I’m back in the bush. Cocksucker! Six made things right.”

I stared at the image: a well groomed black soldier, with a neatly trimmed mustache adorning his In the rear with the gear, Phouc Vinh, 1970handsome face, and wearing a fresh uniform, spit shined boots, sat confidently on the clean cement steps at battalion headquarters in Phuoc Vinh. He looked back at me, the expression on his face said, “I earned this, white boy. Don’t fuck with me.”

Kathy said, “Six” is what you called your captain. “Short” means not much time left in country. “Wake up” means the day you go home.”

Mike said, “Damn, where’d you learn that, girl?”

Before Kathy could answer, Mike turned the page.

“That’s Jim Lamb, and Jim Dumb the Kit Carson Scout.” he said, wiping a tear. “And Injun Joe, the Cherokee. He couldn’t read or write.”

Mike repeatedly tapped the photo beneath it. “ Ernie,” he finally said. “Ernie the FNG. His dad sent him train sound cassettes. Can you believe it? He played them in the jungle. Isn’t that right, Doc?”
I nodded “yes.”

In a fire fight, Ernie–a man who should never have been drafted, inadvertently shot the man in front of him. Blood spurted from the small wound caused by the tumbling bullet. I had seen the X-rays. The shoulder bones shattered in millions pieces.

Kathy said, “FNG means a fucking new guy, right Michael?” Immediately, she covered her mouth with both hands. “Sorry for cussing,” she said.

Mike grinned. “Yep, that’s a new guy, alright.”

I said, “Tell Kathy about the French water tower outside LZ Compton.”

Mike leaned forward, excited to tell the tale. “When no one was looking, we’d take the thumper, a crate of ammo, leave the base, and blast that son-of-bitch. You nailed it a few times, didn’t you, Doc? Then Compton got hit; the LT got pissed, cause we’d shot all the 79 rounds!”

Kathy said, “A firebase was a big camp in the jungle. The thumper…” She closed her eyes, put one hand to her forehead.“The M79 shot grenades. The LT was your platoon leader. You called him Carrot Top ’cause he had red hair.”

“Roger that,” I said.

Mike closed the album, then recalled the awful night on LZ Ranch.

“We was in Cambodia,” he said, lowering his voice as if the attack was happening right now. “Got gooks in the wire. Six turns to me. “Son, let’s get’em.” Christ, if we didn’t hop the berm and go hunting. I seen one crawling away, I greased her! Six got three more. He loved that shit, Doc. He fuckin’ loved it.”

I said, “Ten of them made it inside the base. They blew two gun pits with satchel charges. When it was over, we had twenty-six wounded and five KIA. Snoopy dropped basketball lumes. Arty shot beehive rounds directly into the wood line.”

I explained to Kathy that a bee hive was an artillery shell filled with ten thousand nail-like steel darts. When the shell was fired, the darts swarmed through the air, impaling everything in their path.

“Next morning,” said Mike, “I seen you helping the wounded after we tossed them dead dinks in craters. You and the other medics. Christ, they had our number that time!”

Kathy, too shocked to speak, kept silent.

“Michael, why don’t you keep the flicks for a while?”

“Thank you much, Doc,” he said. “Thank you much.”

I pointed to the Chieu Hoi leaflets before he put the album away.

Kathy said, “I never heard of those.”

Mike put his arm around her. “These here was propaganda, tossed out of choppers for the dinks. They say things like, “You surrender, we’ll give you a shave and haircut, feed you, treat you real good.” Sheeit!’”

Kathy squinted at the delicate Vietnamese calligraphy. “They got a pretty language,” she said.

I wondered if Mike’s friend Mr. Mau, mentioned in one of our phone calls, might translate them.

“I’ll give him a jingle,” he said. Kathy, remind me to call.”

We talked till 1 AM, then turned in. The next afternoon we visited a sleepy flea market, a rag and bones thrift store, a predictable shopping mall. Now I understood why Jerry and Beth preferred Florida to Monroe.

Kathy said, “Michael, they got the Sears in New York City. Let’s show Doc something different.”

“Ain’t she something?” said Mike.

At Holson’s Farm Supply Depot Kathy pointed to the refrigerated veterinarian medical supplies. “Michael, why don’t you tell Doc about Old Bill.”

Mike saddened for a moment, then told the tale.

“Old Bill,” he said, “got sick, but couldn’t afford no doctor. He knew to come here instead. It’s all the same, you know.”

Mike pointed to various bottles filled with vaccines. I recognized several brand names. “Just bigger sizes,” said Mike. “They got syringes, too. Old Bill, he’d take them drugs home, shoot his self up, be better in no time.” Mike pretended to inject himself. “Kathy, how long that boy live ’for he died? Couple months, huh?”

“Sheriff found him,” she said.

“Yeah, but Old Bill, he didn’t need no doctor. Sheeit! Not Old Bill!”

“That’s quite a story, Mike,” I said.

Kathy ushered me to the horse supplies.

“Doc, this here is real good shampoo.”

Selecting one bottle, she held up a large yellow plastic cylinder adorned with the red silhouette of a galloping pony, its tail and forelocks flapping. “Makes your hair real clean and silky. Department stores got it, but you can buy some here if you like.”

I read the ingredients, which were not pleasant, and purchased a small horseshoe instead. Outside, parked in a lot, we browsed new and used John Deere farm equipment, then decided to call it a day, and headed home for chow.

Monroe is a well-kept and friendly town; there are few fences, there is much open land; everyone knows everyone else. Everyone owns guns, too. For Christmas Kathy had bought Mike an AR-15 assault rifle.

“Ain’t she a beauty?” he said, proudly opening the military style black plastic case on the kitchen table.

We had just finished the steaks and fries that Kathy had cooked on the backyard propane grill.

“He’s a real good shot,” she said, rinsing and drying the dishes.

“Is that so?” I said. I hadn’t touched a weapon since the war.

"Just thirty miles from Detroit stands a giant power station. It ticks each night as the city sleeps seconds from annihilation." Gil Scott HeronEarly the next day, Mike and I drove out to the woods. He kept a.25 automatic pistol tucked in the glove compartment. The AR-15 and a .22 caliber rifle were stowed under the front seat.

“Built me a plinking range,” said Mike, as we pulled off the road and walked into the foilage. Mike tossed me a small plastic bottle. “Bug juice,” he said. “Keep the ‘skeeters away.”

With the AR-15 I tried to hit the bottle caps Mike set on a log fifty meters down range. After ten misses, I peeled off a burst on semiautomatic. In the trembling seconds of rattling bullets and smoky cordite, the pulsing sound, the repeated beat coursing through my body, I relived the first Chicom grenade blowing up the machine gun. I watched the second grenade sail through the air, land between Dorio, Larry Roy, Mike, and Bieck, saw them scurry as best they could, throw themselves atop me. The blast lifted us up, threw us down, Mike getting it worst of all. Before head medic Roye Abbott arrived, before the gunships rolled in, before Compton’s merciful 105s opened up, I sprayed the wood line with my M16. What a rush, what a motherfucking rush.

Mike shoved a full clip into the pistol. “Here you go, Doc,” he smiled.

In Monroe, they call a .25 automatic a Belly Buster. In New York, it’s a Saturday Night Special. I emptied the clip into a nearby tree.

“You can do better, Doc. I know you can!”

While he poked around for a target, Mike said the pistol had no serial numbers. Monroe being a small town, the police told Mike to get rid of it. But of course he didn’t, and they knew it, since guns, number or not, shouldn’t be wasted.

We each fired thirty rounds into the sky, then drove to a withered cornfield a few miles west of the Fermi nuclear power plant, two huge pyramidal stacks which filled the horizon. Thirty years ago the plant had nearly melted down. Weapons at the ready, we walked forward as if on patrol.

“Gotta be quick,” said Mike.

We hoped to kill ground hogs. The week before, Mike had shot six in two hours.

As the sun rose and burned off the morning dew, I asked Mike about his PTSD. He told me that twice a month he saw a VA psychiatrist in Detroit who prescribed meds for nightmares and nerves.

“Says I’m making progress. Got me thirty percent for PTSD.” Mike gave me a wink. “Don’t tell Kathy,” he said, “but I take the Belly Buster when I go to see him. Never did like that town.” He licked his finger, held it up in the air. “She’s blowing north,” he said.

Where my anger came from I do not know.

“Fuck the wind, Michael. You have the CIB, three Bronze Stars, two Purple Hearts. You have nightmares, startle reflex, flashbacks, depression. A lot of the time you stay to yourself. VAs giving how much? Thirty fucking percent?”

I kicked my foot into the bone dry earth.

“Request an increase, Michael. Get fifty percent. Seventy. Maybe a hundred, I don’t know. Get a good therapist, too. Not some VA pill pusher. You talk, after a while you see things you forgot or don’t want to see. Maybe you cry, Michael. I know you’re afraid of that. Maybe you let out your rage. That’s how it works. You work on ways to let things out.”

Mike tested the wind again. “I’ll think about it, Doc,” he said.

I knew it was best to say nothing more.

After trekking an hour without seeing fresh dug holes or new tracks, I plucked a small camera from my coat pocket. Kneeling, I drew stick figures in the dry dirt: a man with a rifle in the foreground, two nuclear smoke stacks behind him.

“Here you go,” I said, handing Mike the camera. “The perfect holiday card. The caption will say, ‘Merry Christmas, motherfuckers. Merry fucking Christmas.’”

“You wouldn’t,” said Mike.Mike and Doc 2

“Try me,” I said.

He took the picture.

The next day, Mike, Kathy, and me visited Mr. Mau in Ann Arbor. A balding, chubby, middle-aged man, Mr. Mau had been a doctor in Hanoi. In 1976 Mr. Mau and his wife had paid smugglers and escaped Vietnam in an over crowded and flimsy boat.

“Long time ago,” he said, the Saigon government had tortured his grandfather. “They break arm, leg, teeth. He tell his daughter no worry. Then he jump in lake. He drown.”

Mr. Mau said in the re-education camps for American sympathizers, prisoners were often beaten or starved to death. He said pirates attacked his boat, stole everyone’s money. “Soon no food, no water, some people kill self.”

While recounting his terrors, Mr. Mau occasionally laughed with unnerving glee.

Two hours passed At six o’clock we said goodbye.

“Hungry, Doc?” asked Kathy.

“Starving,” I said.

We hopped in Mike’s car, drove to Red Lobster, found a table, and ordered our food.

Mike said Mr. Mau usually didn’t talk so much.

Kathy said, “But he sure was interesting, wasn’t he, Doc?”

I said, “I guess so. But I thought he cried when he laughed.”

Mike jabbed his fork into a bright dead fish that lay sprawled on his plate. In the noisy restaurant, except for the clatter of our silverware, we ate in silence.

The following day Mike and I drove to a sportsmen’s club to meet Tim and Mickey, Mike’s hunting pals. They’d brought shotguns, black powder rifles, an SKS, two 9mm pistols, a .357 magnum. Mike had the .22 caliber rifle and the AR-15. I saw blood everywhere.

“This here is Doc,” said Mike. “He was my medic in Vietnam.”

“Pleased to meet you,” said Mickey. “Bet you know what this is.”

Mickey handed me the plain looking, wood stocked SKS. I took aim and fired the enemy rifle. When the shooting stopped, Tim signaled a bulls-eye.

“Good shooting, Doc,” he said.

Mickey shot a tight group with the 9mm, covering it with a dime. But that was all the shooting I could take.

An hour later, on the drive with Mike and Kathy back to Metro, I recalled the highlights of my visit: our war talk in the garage, the guns me and Mike carried, Kathy’s cooking, Mr. Mau’s horrific ordeals. I don’t know why, or maybe I do, but at the flight gate, when it came time, me and Mike and Kathy cried. Then hugged, then off I went, back to the land of New York.

Back home, in my mail box, a letter from Betty, the widow of Bill Williams. From the jungle I’d written her after Bill was shot. Every man in third platoon had signed the letter. A month later I received her frenzied reply: “How did it happen?” she wrote. “Did he suffer? What were his last moments? His last words?” Overwhelmed, I buried the letter in my pack, tried to forget it. Twenty-eight years later, just before visiting Mike, I’d found her, and written the truth. Told her what happened. Time stood still as I read her letter, and wept, as she had mine, then put the letter away.

Addendum 17 December 2016

While working on this manuscript, and re-reading a war dream about Mike, an email arrived from Mike’s step son, Gerry. He had found my website, and asked that I call him. In fact, I had meant to call Mike for quite some time. My fears were realized. Mike had died in November. For an hour Gerry and I talked about Mike, the qualities of his character, his hard death. Then Gerry told me he enlisted in 2001, had completed five tours in Iraq and Afghanistan as a grunt with 101st Airborne. He was married. Had four kids. Life was good. It’s hard to accept that my friend Mike Wilson, a brave solider, a good father, and husband, a kind and generous man, is gone.


Gil Scott-Heron’s We Almost Lost Detroit relates the near melt-down of the Fermi 2 nuclear reactor in Monroe, Michigan in 1966.