The Dark Angry Secrets of Mike and Doc

Mike and I keep in touch about the war: nightmares and startle reflex, battles with anxiety,depression and flashbacks.

“Doc,good thing you called.I’m having a rough night.The way you talk gets me back on track.You’ll always be my medic.”

“Any time,Michael.”

We agreed I’d visit in August.

Mike works second shift;his stepson,Jerry,tall and lanky at seventeen,met me at Metro airport.On the freeway we stopped at a Big Boys. Jerry ordered spicy buffalo wings.I had salad; Beth,Jerry’s sweetheart declined to eat but spoke of music,work and Disneyland.

“We’re going there on our honeymoon,”said Jerry.

“There ain’t much here,”said Beth.

She meant Monroe,Michigan.

“We could buy a house and live in Florida.”

“Damn right,”said Jerry.

At Mikes’ place,a two storey barn red A frame,I met his wife Kathy,a cheerful woman, and Cody,their feisty black mut.Jerry and Beth said,“Good meeting ya,Doc”and off they went. Kath and I chatted in the living room Kathy until Mike returned from An Arbor.

“Doc,I just don’t know why Michael won’t speak to me like he does you. It makes me angry and he knows it,when I ask about that war.‘You wouldn’t understand, woman,’he says,then walks away.” Kathy nodded her head as she spoke.“Sometimes,Doc,when Michael hollers like that,I’ll holler back at him. Next thing you know we’re fighting.Can you figure that out? Cause I sure can’t. And I read all kinds of books on that Vietnam.”

I settled back in the blue Lay-Z-Boy recliner.“Mike feels safe with me but he doesn’t want you to see him cry,or see his real his anger.A lot of combat vets are like that–they hide rage and push down sorrow.Think of it this way,Kathy:Mike’s not regular people.Vietnam changed him.He needs you,it’s just hard for him to show it.”

Kathy brightened up.“You know, I never seen it that way,Doc. That’s so helpful to hear. But how can I love Michael and not hurt him?”

“Let’s do stuff together,see how that works.”

“Sounds great,”said Kathy.“And you know,Michael’s so pleased you come to visit.”

After Mike got home the three of us sat in his one car garage.”My bunker,”he calls it.I set my war photo album on a work bench.

“Damn,that’s Carrot Top,”said Mike,admiring our lieutenant.“And this guy,” he said,jabbing the image,“Cocksucker found me smoking weed, said put it out,I turned my back on him.Ten and a wake up.Next thing you know I’m back in the bush.Cocksucker!But Six turned things right.”

I stared at the image of the handsome black soldier sitting on cement steps at Head Quarters in Phuc Vinh.He wore polished boots,a clean uniform.His hair and mustache were neatly groomed.The look on his face said,‘I earned this.Don’t fuck with me,soldier.’

“Michael,that’s First Sergeant James. Maybe he thought thought,‘This white boy is messing with me.’ ”

Kathy said,“Six is what you called your captain. Short means you ain’t got much time left in country,wake up means the day you go home.”

“You got that right,girl.Damn,where’d you learn that?”asked Mike,chagrined.Before Kathy replied,Mike said,“You could be right,Doc. Turning the pages. from time to time,even with Kathy present,Mike choked up.

“That’s Jim Lamb,and Jim Dumb the Kit Carson Scout!”he said,wiping away a tear.“And Injun Joe.Cherokee.Couldn’t read or write.”He turned the page, furrowed his brow.“That’s Ernie the FNG.His dad sent him train sound cassettes he played in the jungle. You remember that, Doc?”

In a fire fight Ernie shot the man in front of him.Blood spurted from the small wound caused by the tumbling bullet. The X rays were not pleasant.

Kathy said,“FNG means a fucking new guy,right Michael?”She pursed her lips.“Sorry for cussing.”

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

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

Mike leaned forward,exited to tell the tale.“We used to leave this firebase and take the thumper,a crate of ammo,and blast that son-of-bitch.You nailed it a few times,Doc.Then Compton got hit and 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,patted her forehead, “Was the M79 grenade launcher.The LT was you’re platoon leader. You called him Carrot Top‘cause he had red hair.”

“Roger that,”we said.

Mike recalled LZ Ranch.

“We was in Cambodia.Got fuckin’ gooks inside the wire.Six says,‘Son,let’s go.” Damn if we didn’t go outside the berm. I seen one crawling thru the concertina and greased her good!Six got three of the bastards.He loved that shit.”

I said,“Ten of them got inside the base.They blew two gun pits with satchel charges. When it was over twenty-five guys were wounded,five were KIA. Snoopy dropped basketball lumes. Arty shot illegal bee hive rounds directly into the wood line.”

“Next morning,”said Mike,“I seen you helping the wounded after we tossed the 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 hold on to the flicks for a while?”

“Thanks,Doc.Thank you much.”

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

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

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

I wondered if Mikes’ friend Mr. Ling would translate it.

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

We talked ’till 3am then called it a night.The next afternoon, after we drove to a flea market, a thrift store,a shopping mall,I understood why Jerry and Beth liked Florida.

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

“Ain’t she something?”said Mike.

At Holson’s Farm Supply Depot Kathy pointed to the refrigerated veterinarian antibiotics. “Tell Doc about Old Bill.”

Mike saddened for a moment,then told the tale. “Old Bill was sick awhile but he couldn’t afford no doctor. Came here instead.It’s all the same,you know,just bigger sizes,syringes,too.Old Bill,he’d take them drugs home,shoot his self up, 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 muttered.

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

We browsed the horse supplies.

“Doc,this here is real good shampoo,”said Kathy.She held up a yellow plastic bottle adorned with the red silhouette of a galloping horse,the wind flapping its tail and forelock.“Makes your hair clean and silky.Department stores got it but you can buy some here if you like.”

I read the ingredients and bought a horse shoe instead.Outside,parked in a lot we browsed new and used farm equipment,then called it a day.

Monroe is a well-kept friendly town;there are few fences,much open land; everyone knows everyone else,and everyone has guns.For Christmas Kathy bought Mike an AR15 assault rifle.

“Ain’t she a beauty?”he said,proudly opening the black plastic case on the kitchen table after a dinner of steaks and fries Kathy cooked on the backyard propane grill.

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

“Really?”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,a.25 automatic pistol tucked in the glove compartment,the AR15 and a.22 caliber rifle stowed under the front seat.

“Built me a plinking range,” said Mike as we pulled off the road and walked into the woods.Mike tossed me a small plastic bottle.“Bug juice.Keep the skeeter’s away.”

With the AR15 I tried to hit hit bottle caps but after ten misses from fifty yards I peeled off a burst on semi.In the trembling seconds of rattling bullets and smokey cordite I relived the first Chicom grenade blowing up the machine gun.The second landed between Dorio,Timmy Day,Mike and Shake‘n Bake.They scurried, threw themselves on me;the blast lifted us up,threw us down,Mike getting it worst. Before the head medic arrived,before the gun ships rolled in,before155s opened up,someone sprayed the wood line with his M16. What a rush,what a motherfuckin rush.

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

In Monroe they call a.25 automatic a Belly Buster.In New York they’re Saturday Night Specials.I emptied the clip into a nearby dead tree.

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

Poking 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 he wouldn’t,since guns are guns,numbered or not.

We fired thirty rounds into the sky,then drove to a marshy field a few miles west of the Fermi nuclear power plant.Thirty years ago it had nearly melted down.

“Gotta be quick,”said Mike. We hoped to kill ground hogs;the week before he’d shot six in two hours.As the sun rose and burned off the morning dew,I asked Mike about his PTSD.

“Twice a month I see a doctor at the Detroit VA.He got me on meds for the nightmares and jitters.Says I’m making progress.Got me a thirty per cent disability rating,too.” He paused,gave me a wink.”Don’t tell Kathy but I take the Belly Buster when I see him.Never did like that town.” He licked his finger,held it up.“She’s blowing north,”he said.

Where the anger came from I do not know.“Fuck the wind,Mike.Three Bronze Stars,two Purple Hearts,you got nightmares,startle reflex,flashbacks, depression,stay to yourself and VA’s giving you thirty fucking percent for PTSD?”

Mike had done his time,seen his share.

“Request an increase,Michael.Get fifty percent.Maybe a hundred,I don’t know. But you need a therapist,too,not just a pill pusher.You talk,you go deep,you see things you forgot,you cry,man;you get angry,you let it out. That’s how it works,Michael. You handle it by letting it out.”

Mike tested the air again.“I’ll think about it,Doc. I surely will.”

After trekking two miles not seeing fresh dug holes or new tracks,I plucked a small camera from my coat pocket.Kneeling,I drew stick figures in the dirt:a man with a rifle in the foreground, two nuclear smoke stacks on the horizon.
“Here you go,”I said,handing Mike the camera.“It’s the perfect holiday card.The caption will say,Merry Christmas, Motherfuckers. Merry Fucking Christmas ‘Merry Christmas, Motherfuckers. Merry Fucking Christmas.’ ”

“You wouldn’t.”

“Try me.”

He took the picture.

The next day me,Mike and Kathy visited Mr. Ling in An Arbor. A balding chubby man, formerly a doctor in Hanoi,he’d escaped by boat in‘76.

“Long time ago,”he said,recalling how the Saigon government tortured his grandfather. “They broke his arms,legs,teeth. He tell his daughters not to worry. Then he jump in lake,drown.”

Mr. Ling said in the re-education camps for American sympathizers some prisoners starved to death.He said pirates attacked his boat,stealing everyone’s money.“Soon no food,no water,some people kill self.”While recounting the terrors,he occasionally laughed with unnerving glee.

About six o’clock we said good bye.“Hungry, Doc?”asked Kathy.

“Starving.”

We drove to a Red Lobster.

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

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

“I guess so,Kathy, but I thought he cried when he laughed.”

Mike jabbed his fork into a bright dead fish.In the noisy restaurant we ate in silence.

The following day Mike and I went to a sportsman’s club and met 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.”

Mickey handed me the SKS.I aimed the enemy rifle and fired.Measuring a bull’s eye,Tim said,“Good shooting, Doc.” Mickey shot a tight group with the 9mm,covering it with a dime.

An hour later, on the drive with Mike and Kathy back to Metro I wondered: was it the war flicks,or watching Platoon twice,or the guns we carried,or Kathy’s cooking,or Mr. Lings’ ordeals? I don’t know,but I do know this:At the flight gate we cried,hugged,then off I went back to New York.

In my mail box was a letter from the widow of Bill Williams. I’d written her a note after Bill was shot. Every man in third platoon had signed it. A month later I received her frenzied reply:‘How did it happen?Did he suffer? What were his last moments? His last words?’Overwhelmed,I buried the letter in my pack and tried to forget it. Just before visiting Mike I’d found her and written the truth.Time stood still as I read her letter,and wept,as she had,then put it away.
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Gil Scott-Heron’s We Almost Lost Detroit relates the near melt-down of the Fermi 2 nuclear reactor in Monroe, Michigan in 1966.

Addendum 17 December 2016
Several days ago, while putting the finishing touches on a forthcoming manuscript, including a war dream about Mike Wilson which I re-read, an email arrived from Gerry, Mike’s step son. In fact, I had been meaning to call Mike for quite some time. Gerry had found my website, and asked that I call him. I did, and my fears were true. Mike had died in November. Gerry and I talked for an hour. About Mike’s life; the qualities of his character; his hard death; about Gerry himself, who’d enlisted in 2001, done five tours in Iraq and Afghanistan as a 101st Airborne grunt; about Gerry’s marriage; his four kids. 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.