Willimantic, 10.11.2000

First published on Slow Trains in 2001.

The bus ride from New York’s frenetic Port Authority to sleepy Willimantic, CT took four sleepless hours and cost twenty-nine dollars. The following day a small college would host a conference on Vietnam, known elsewhere as the war against the Americans.

Arriving early, I attended a small gathering at Curbstone Press, the name a perfect eponym, the squat building’s wood plank facade smooth as bone. Outside, beneath an autumn moon, two American combat writers swayed and chatted. I waved hello, walked forward to Kodiak hugs and breathy greetings. “Let’s go inside,” one man said. We stagger-stepped into the grungy, low ceilinged, ramshackle house, musty with love and grim.

Under the cold glare of fluorescent lights, a dozen greying men cheerfully conversed, while scooping large portions of glutinous moussaka or starchy quiche onto paper plates. Two cannon ball shaped chocolate fudge pies sat curiously untouched.

“Another beer?” a corpulent ex-Marine heavy-combat vet asked. “More wine? Hi, and how are ya?”

The boisterous American’s spoke diligently of baseball, real estate, current events. “Can you believe that son of a bitch almost tossed a no hitter? Son of a fuckin’ bitch.”

Two ARVN officers, when asked, hinted at harrowing escapes from their country, then deftly changed the subject.

For no apparent reason, one man, then the next, dragged heavy steel chairs across a threadbare rug; spreading out evenly, they formed a loose knit circle. Three wives joined in; two others stood back.

How it began I do not recall: round and round, taking turns, each man brought forth the most hilarious, obscene, tasteless jokes I had ever heard. And with each foul, accelerant punch line, the men wildly slapped their thighs, punched violent air, pounded their chests, butchered the room with riotous laughter. Even the women shrieked and cackled.

Best was the “ta ta” joke. Two men in on the gag reeled off the wondrous lines in perfect measure, the phrase spoken in soft, innocent tones, almost child-like, with eyebrows arched slightly, the voice inclined outward at the second syllable.

Q. How do you say idiot in Vietnamese?
A. Ta ta.
Q. How do you say two idiots in Vietnamese?
A. Ta ta ta ta.
Q. How do you say two hundred million idiots in Vietnamese?
A. (Sung to the “The Star Spangled Banner”) Ta  ta-ta  ta  ta  taa...

With each new guest, the obscene beck and call was duly repeated. The Americans, hands smacked red, cheeks gone crimson, roared with ominous pleasure.

A distinguished Vietnamese writer laughed loudest that night. His jollity recalled Mr. Mau, met years past in Michigan when visiting my RTO pal Mike. Surviving escape by sea, Mr. Mau poured forth horrid tales of women raped, men bayoneted, children thrown headlong to chill, watery graves. All the while an inflexible grin commanded his shrieking face.

The next day, in a nearby parking lot, two vets introduced me to a tall, imposing, quite well dressed, and once glamorous woman, named Gloria Emerson.

“How do you do,” she said. “Now take my arm, and kindly assist me to the auditorium.” She braced herself against me. “Walk slowly,” she advised. “There, that’s better.” And we walked, liked tethered soldiers, toward the immense concrete building where the conference was held. Who was this person the vets so admired? I knew nothing about her.

In the pleasant auditorium, after opening remarks, each speaker read from his work. Finally, Gloria was introduced. She was a war correspondent. A novelist. She’d won awards. Immpeccably well-spoken,  she presented anecdotes from her war experience; some not pleasant. Upon completion, shifting in her seat like a four star general, she boldly pronounced, “I’m done, now. Are there questions?”

A portly, cantankerous vet, wearing blue denim overalls, his head freighted with a Vietnam baseball, cap dotted with cloisonné pins, stood and shuffled forward.

“I was in the Sea Bee’s in ’66,” he said proudly. “Up near the DMZ. We fought the Communists cause we was sent there. The way you was talking, you sounded just like Hanoi Jane. She was anti-American. And that bitch talked to us GIs every night on the radio. Talking that communist propaganda.”

He paused, hands pressed to portly hips. “You…you sound just like her, just like that Hanoi Jane.”

Folding his arms across his chest, he sniveled, “Ain’t you got no regard for disabled vetrens? Ain’t you proud for what America stands for?”

His shrill words made for knee-deep tension in sleepy Willimantic, once, they say, thread capitol of the world, until thread went South and the town went quiet. Several American combat writers seated in the audience turned around and glared at him.

“I recognize you,” said Gloria. “We’ve spoken before. Every solider has stories. And there are thousands. Aren’t there, sir? Hundreds of thousands.” She paused, majestic in equanimity. “I never carried a weapon. I hated war. Apparently, sir, you didn’t.”

A month or two later I met Gloria in New York. In an empty classroom, having propped her long bum leg on a student chair (“I’ve had seven operations, she said. “It can’t be fixed,”) we reviewed a performance video that spotlighted my writing and photographs, which she had partly watched some weeks earlier. Within five minutes, Gloria waved her arms excitedly, protesting, “Turn it off! Turn it off!” The film was no good, she declared. The material was better suited to the stage. I was hurt, but did not show it. Was I hungry? she asked. I was. We gathered our things, and walked, slowly, down Lexington Ave, to her favorite restaurant.

A waiter, immaculate in white, seated us at a linen covered table, set with crystal ware and fine silver. He provided water, menus, recited the daily special. I looked about. The large airy room, tastefully appointed with brass trim, twinkling chandeliers, antique wainscoting, was chic yet elegant. Gloria lit a cigarette, perched her elbow on the table, and proceeded to talk and smoke, occasionally resting her chin in the heel of her palm. She was still attractive, exceedingly sharp, witty, opinionated, and cleverly ironic, and danced circles around my attempts at small talk.

Our orders arrived. As Gloria neatly sliced into her baked salmon, I asked, “But did you love him?”

She looked up. Benign daggers flew at me.

“Of course I did,” she said, in a low chuckle. “Why do you think I titled the book Loving Graham Green?

I wanted to crawl away. I wanted to run and hide. Chiding over, we continued our small talk. When the waiter presented the bill, I offered to pay, but Gloria insisted on paying it.

The last image I have of her, she has hailed a cab, which obediently pulls up beside us. Gloria instructs me to open the door, to wait until she has seated herself inside, which requires some effort. Then I close the door, and wave through the window, but she is telling the driver, a New York city cab driver, where to go, and how to get there, and he is listening.

Not long ago, I told the “ta ta” joke to Dr. Allan Foster. His left arm torn off one day, gut shot the next, the chaplain had pronounced last rites over his limp body at the battle of Dak To. More than once, Dr. Foster has blithely stated, “I have no issues with Vietnam. I have no anger toward the Vietnamese.” Dr. Foster counsels ex-combatants who remain deeply troubled.

“You think that’s funny?” he asked. “Am supposed to laugh? I find it highly offensive and disrespectful. You should be ashamed of yourself. You and your funny friends.”

“I didn’t laugh,” I said. “It hurt too much. But look how they mock us: their language, our music…”

“Oh, bullshit,” he said, cutting me off before I could finish.

We argued. I walked out. Dr. Foster didn’t get it. Civilians, combatants, everyone caught up in war’s chaos and caterwaul, comprise one great harmonic slaughter. Over time, its winners and losers, gunned and ground down, scatter to dust or windblown leaves, become a suckling infants cry, a peaceable sleep; until it starts all over again.

__________________________

Gloria Writes to Medic

PBS: Reporting America at War

Washington Post Book Review: Winner’s and Loser’s