HE HAD BEEN BACK FROM VIETNAM NINE YEARS. One year in a VA Hospital. He didn’t talk the first six months. Five years after that, he began coming into the bar. The Captain always had a model airplane. Generally, it was a fighter plane of some form. He’d sit the small plastic replica in front of him and order a beer. He’d play with the airplane a little bit, but generally not in a manner that was obtrusive to anyone really. Although occasionally he would fly an F-4 Phantom II around over his beer.
“More F-4s were shot down, than any other American aircraft in Vietnam!” he’d tell you.
“F-4s saved our asses!” Captain Blood would say.
“F-4s were the last American aircraft to achieve Ace status.” The Captain would make sure you knew this.
Sometimes he had other aircraft with similar facts. I remember getting a tour of a B-29 with folding landing gear. The Captain’s airship had moving gun turrets and tiny, working bomb bay doors.
Years later, for a time I worked in a VA Hospital, and saw how VA counselors slowly with loving kindness got Vets to respond who were suffering from a deep Post Traumatic Syndrome Disorder, with model airplanes. In the recreation rooms in brand new boxes with good smelling glue and paint, unlimited time, decent chow, long walks on the pleasant VA hospital grounds, and with months, and sometimes years of care, one-on-one care, and group session care. A process of unobtrusively dragging the whole thing out of them would bring some around. Some leaving. Some coming back in three months, with DTs, or strung out on heroin, and given another session. Some like the Captain going home—sort of.
The Captain spent two years in Vietnam, and was a sergeant, had a silver star and a Purple Heart with oak leaf cluster, meaning he’d been wounded more than once. Occasionally, he’d wear these medals and others on his field jacket. With his long hair billowing over his back he’d zoom into the bar in good spirits. He’d leave that way. He never came in without his air support. The Captain never stayed long and never caused trouble.
One afternoon, a fellow bar-fly quipped, and derisively asked, why he, the Captain, grown man that he was, “Still played with model airplanes?”
“We’ll be clear,” said the Captain with a flourish. He usually never talked about the war.
“The morning after the Tet Offensive, I saw hundreds of NVA lifeless in the wire around our compound that we killed during their attack. After that, I saw friends killed, women killed, and children killed. It was not over when I left. What I did not tell the shrinks at the VA, I will now tell you.” he had turned around with his full chest of medals on his field jacket, and with further flourish looked his accuser in the eye.
“I concluded,” the Captain said, “that with all the things I had done over there, it would not make any difference what I did here. But now I simply build model airplanes. Would you have it any different?”
Then the Captain buzzed his F-4 over our beer.
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And the Fires We Talked About–Copyright © 2020 by James Ross Kelly
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