Cincinnati, July 1981

by: Brandt Wade

© 2000

CINCINNATI, JULY, 1981: A booming summer rain storm had moved through about three thirty in the afternoon. Now as I looked out the open windows, drops of rain sat encased in the tiny frames of the screens. Acting like prisms, they reflected the last of the day�s sun back onto the dark gray walls of the dining room in rainbow glints of red, green and purple.

The three of us, my wife Kathy, her friend Peg Fox, and I had pushed back our dinner plates, folded our napkins, and sipped champagne while continuing our conversation.

“So when do you think you’ll reach Princeton, Peg?”

“I’ve got everything packed, but I know it’s going to take most of tomorrow just to get the car loaded. If I can get to Pennsylvania before I have to stop, I should get to Princeton early on Sunday.”

Peg’s decision to go back to college and move to the East coast was the reason for the dinner party and the champagne. I looked at the cut glass flute in my hand and something clicked. I opened my mouth and out popped a totally unplanned toast, “To the Constitution of the United States. To the President of the United States.”

It was the traditional toast of the army’s chain of command, something done at formal dinners, those rare occasions when we broke out our dress blues, pinned on our medals, not just the rows of ribbons borne on our green uniforms. The toast had to be called out by the junior officer in the hosting unit, each segment succeeded by a collective, “Here, here.” followed by a sip of the drink.

“To the Secretary of Defense. To the Secretary of the Army."

I kept intoning the links, while struggling to remember the next slot down. I glanced around at one point to see Peg and Kath looking at me as if I had suddenly begun chanting the stations of the Cross in Latin. I was just as surprised at what had taken hold of me. I never talked about my secret life in the army, much less my affection for its rituals. Now some unrecognized spirit was carrying me along, pushing me to remember. I somehow figured out a plausible connection from the stateside army to the Far East, “To the Commander In Chief, Pacific. To the commander United States Army, Vietnam....“

I heard myself speaking the titles of ghost commands, postings that had lost their meaning with the fall of Saigon in 1975. “To the commander, Second Field Forces.” Then I swallowed, “To Major General Orwin Talbot, commander, First Infantry Division. To Captain Howard Grey, commander, Headquarters, Headquarters Company. To First Lieutenant Forrest Brandt, commanding officer, 43rd Public Information Detachment.”

I had found myself in the chain, something I’d never bothered to do while on active duty; something I never deemed that important in my personal scheme of things. I took a sip, felt the bubbles tickle my mouth and tongue, tasted as the wine turned sweet and bitter before sliding down my throat. Then I spoke a final toast, “To all those men, living and dead, who served with the Big Red One in Vietnam.”

Finished, I tossed back the glass, swallowed the small amount of wine left. I looked at my amazed wife, saw the questions rising in her face but before she could utter a one I burst into tears and sobs.

I had cried about the war before. Cried when an interview had been erased because the man interviewed had been killed defending his NDP, cried when I realized I had made it home alive, cried while I watched the students and National Guard troops tear Ohio State University apart during an anti war rally.

And then I had just packed it all up and acted as if it had never been a part of my life. Thoughts of Vietnam would come winging into my mind from out of nowhere and I’d put them right back in the box, slamming the lid down tighter. I’d catch myself arguing with Major Zaremski again, or telling Lieutenant Colonel Vicienza what I thought of his war and I’d stop the memory in mid sentence, telling myself, “Put it behind you. It doesn’t matter anymore.”

I’d gotten so good at it that Kath knew little more than that I was a captain in the army reserve and that I had served in Vietnam, somewhere, sometime. We’d been married for seven years and she had never heard as much as a peep about the First Infantry Division.

The tears were just the start. It was as if a tape deck had been turned on inside me. I launched into one tale after another, a non stop torrent of memories finally freed from my mind and allowed to be presented. I was able to stop it momentarily so that we could finish the conversation with Peg. But once she left, it began again.

Kathy was patient and encouraging. We talked until four in the morning before I could give in to the exhaustion and fall asleep. When I awoke I felt a weight off of my soul but I also knew that the box had been opened. I would not be able to put the demons back inside. I would have to talk them out, time after time, until they too could rest with me.

Brandt Wade

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