If you are familiar with the song Ruby, by Kenny Rodgers, you know that this story can't have a happy ending. However, I have been asked by several readers to do this story so I bow to their desires.
NVA – the regular North Vietnamese Army
VC – the irregular Viet Cong army in South Viet Nam.
S2 – Intelligence
LZ – Landing zone
ARVN – South Vietnamese Army
DMZ – Demilitarized zone
IN THE AGE OF INNOCENCE
I hated my best friend, Chaz! Yeah, I know that sounds crazy, but I sure felt that way. We grew up best buds and fiercest competitors. We were more friends than competitors until we discovered girls. Through some twisted sense of humor of the Gods, it seemed that we always fell for the same girls.
I guess it started when we were juniors in high school. Chaz went to East High and I went to North. My name was Deal Edwards and Chaz was Charles Theron. Deal sounds like a funny name, but my dad won money for his honeymoon with mom by playing poker. My real name was John Thomas Edwards, but because of dad everyone called me Deal.
Chaz's dad was from Bordeaux and his mom was from main line Philadelphia. Sure, they had all that money and a big house on College Hill in Wichita. Me, I grew up on a small farm in Pleasant Valley just north of the Big Ditch, off 37th. We didn't have money and we had a small house. My mom stayed at home for my three younger sisters and me. Dad was a draftsman for Beech. Chaz's dad was the senior partner for one of the big eight accounting firm's office in Sedgwick County.
The families got to know each other because our moms were on the board of one of the big charities and they became fast friends. Mom was on the board because her grandfather left all his money to the charity with the stipulation she would be a permanent board member. That led to having barbeques, picnics and dinners together more frequently than I would like.
We were both athletic. I was spot on six foot with a stocky toughness and great coordination. Chaz was tall and rangy – about six inches taller than me but only twenty pounds heavier.
He was a quarterback on the football team. I was a linebacker. I was point guard on the basketball team – Chaz was a forward but had the ball handling and shooting skills of a guard. We were both all state as sophomores and juniors. I had been dating this girl, Patty, who went to Southeast. She was every high school boy's wet dream. She was sultry before either Chaz or I had any idea what the word meant.
We had dated four or five times and we had arrived at the light petting stage. I was deeply in love! That year, both East and North had the junior prom on the same weekend. I was going to ask Patty to the prom at North, but waited 'til the last minute ... I don't know why. When I finally got around to it, she let me know that Chaz had already asked her. Damn – I didn't even know Chaz knew her. I was pissed but there wasn't much I could do.
A couple of weeks after the prom, we were at Chaz's folks house for dinner. Chaz and I walked over to College Hill Park, a couple blocks away. This was East High's cross-country training place and we were throwing the football around. I won't go into a lot of detail but he told me he popped Patty's cherry. I took a wild swing at him, which he ducked and caught me with a fierce short left jab on the point of my chin that dropped me like a stone. He left me lying there and went back to his house. I showed up twenty minutes later in a fearsome pout.
We danced around each other for the next year, sometimes friends, sometimes hating each other. During the football homecoming game at North the next fall we quit being friends. Chaz was being recruited by a number of division one schools and he was leaning towards Oklahoma. I'd already been accepted at Annapolis – surprisingly more on my grades than my athletic skills.
North was ahead with thirty seconds left and East had fourth and long around mid-field. I was supposed to cover the wide receiver but I dropped off and edged towards the line of scrimmage. When their center snapped the ball I rushed around the defensive end, remembering Patty. I was going all out for Chaz when I saw him throw the ball I was still three strides away. I threw myself at him anyway, knowing I was late, but I didn't give a shit. He fell on his throwing arm and broke both bones in his forearm.
I got called for a late hit but it didn't matter. The pass was complete and the game was over. It took Chaz two years to completely heal and he hated me after that. He lost his scholarship offers and wound up at the University of Wichita studying accounting and doing the ROTC thing. I went off to Annapolis and our families didn't get together anymore.
After I graduated I chose the marines and went home for a month's leave before shipping off to 'Nam. I called one the girls I had dated on and off and we went to a dance at the Moose Lodge on East Kellogg. I was outside having a cigarette when I saw Chaz. I nodded at him, but didn't go over. He was in uniform with the gold bars of a second lieutenant with a paratroop badge and an 82nd airborne patch. I was in my dress blues and looked pretty sharp.
Chaz was there with a girl I hadn't seen before, a tall red head with a white blouse and a black mini/micro skirt. She was really hot and I heard several people call her Ruby. It never would have gone anywhere, but I heard Chaz say something about 'candy ass marines!' I guess he was remembering how quickly he put me down at the park years ago. Well, I had learned a few things. I humiliated him in front of his date and while he was on the ground I asked Ruby to dance with me.
I didn't see Chaz again for several years. I saw a lot of Ruby before I had to ship out. I mean I didn't see her that many times but I saw all there was to see. By the time I left we were engaged. I thought I was going straight overseas, but they changed my orders and I wound up at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey studying Vietnamese.
Ruby flew out and we drove to Reno and got married. She lived off post in Carmel (her dad was a Senior VP at Boeing and gave her anything she wanted) and it was great having a regular squeeze whenever I had time off. Ruby was very sexual – it was a natural thing with her and it seemed she couldn't get enough no matter how frequently we made love. If I was older I guess I would have been worried about her being alone while I was gone, but hell, I was young and I gave her all she could handle. When I finished my training she went back to stay with her folks and I went to the war.
"Khe Sanh ... is still a fearsome place of exploding shells and death."
- Douglas Robinson, New York Times
The strange thing about Viet Nam was the sheer difference, the absolute change in everything. In two days I went from living in a near paradise on Monterey Bay and sleeping (sometimes) with a woman that exuded sexuality to this ... foreign place! Everything was different: the very air had an alien smell and the heat and humidity was oppressing.
It was in February of '68 and I was being sent to the Khe Sanh Combat Base a few miles south of the DMZ, in the Quang Tri province. The area was remote, sparsely populated ... and the main focal point for the war at that time. A series of Marine and Vietnamese bases had been constructed south of the demilitarized zone to protect communications and population centers along the coast.
I heard from my mom that Chaz was with the 503rd Airborne operating around the Central Highlands. Mom didn't know anything about the animosity that had developed between Chaz and I. Meeting with him was the last thing I wanted to do but I told my mom I'd try to meet up with him. I just didn't want to get into it with her.
The Khe Sanh base had been closed the previous fall for restoration and expansion and had reopened several months before I got there. Engineers from the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) built a dirt runway in 1962, which had been doubled in length, and some taxi strips added a couple of years later by the Seabees and covered with interlocking aluminum matting. By the time I arrived it was a heavily fortified base. As the chopper bringing in replacements landed I got a sense of things to come as we passed over the still smoking remains of a KC130 at the end of the runway.
The base was about two square miles averaging about 2500 yards long and 400 wide. The runway actually extended about 150 yards beyond the perimeter. This narrow opening was heavily covered by machine guns, claymores and several Ontos anti-tank vehicles. The only source of water for the base was a stream outside the north perimeter. Water was pumped up the hill and stored in rubber reservoirs.
I was assigned to the battalion S2, the Major in charge of intelligence. My job was to translate documents found on captured or dead enemy combatants as quickly as possible. This meant that instead of waiting for the documents to come to me I had to frequently go to them. It was a hard job because the documents were usually in poor condition and we were getting more and more stuff from the NVA. What we trained on at Monterrey was mostly documents from the VC.
About two weeks into my stay I was at a forward position and one of the guys asked if I wanted a picture of me with the "snake." I asked what they were talking about and they took out a snake they had killed the day before. It took four of the men to carry it. Later, after I was back in the real world I would look at that picture and remember what a fucked up war that was. It was a small comfort to the hell my life had turned into.
I did pay attention to the guys with experience and I learned to survive. About six months into my time at Khe Sanh I was being sent to Tan Son Nhot airbase outside of Saigon for a meeting with some of the other translators to try to get more consistency in the translations and suggestions to look for trends in the data we gathered so we could be more productive in the questions we asked. On the trip back the helicopter I was on sat down on the LZ just as a mortar attack took place. I started running as fast as I could for cover and just short I felt a sharp pain in my back followed by the shocking sound and intense air pressure from the explosion of a mortar round.
At the hospital I got the bad news. The doctor called it a transsection of the spinal cord in the epidural space. What he meant was that I was dead from about the navel down. More specifically, I was impotent and incontinent, or as the doctor said, urinary and fecal incontinence.
I would be better off totally dead. This was my first thought after the doctor left. It was a theme I became obsessed with. As I started therapy and started talking to my fellow victims of having their lives ruined because of a war no one really supported, I was learning to keep my thoughts to myself. It seemed that those with recurring suicidal thoughts were sent to some VA Hospital and forgotten.
I learned to smile and sound optimistic all the while making plan after plan on how I would put myself out of the constant pain and humiliation I was going through. One of the plans started working almost immediately. I was drowsing one afternoon – actually I slept most of the time because of the narcotics I was taking for the pain – when Chaz came waltzing in. He had an eye patch on; he had lost an eye during a VC ambush. The dumb shit actually looked even more handsome with the eye patch than without it.
We shot the shit for a while then I begged him to get me a bottle.
"Come on, Chaz, for old time sakes."
He did come back and as he gave me the bottle he said, "Hey, did Ruby tell you that we went dancing a couple of times when I was on leave before shipping out? Damn, she was lonely. Hey! Are you going to be able to keep her satisfied?"
With a smirk, he added, "You know you can always call on me, buddy. She's really hot, ain't she?"
I was torn between drinking the bottle of Canadian Club or throwing it at him and trying to put his other eye out. I settled in for drinking the booze and tried my best to kill myself with it. I was about halfway finished with the whisky when I dropped the bottle. That both kept me from finishing the remaining whiskey and brought in the night nurse at a run from the crashing noise.
With the level of narcotics I was taking I almost died but they did their damnedest and saved my sorry ass. I cried for two days after that before I could fake a stiff upper lip again.
I wound up in a hospital in Hawaii and Ruby came out for a couple of weeks. She just came by the hospital for about a half hour each day. I asked her why she didn't come by more often.
"Deal, this place is just too depressing. And I hate the smell. It makes me want to throw up."
I worried about what she was doing the rest of the time but there was nothing I could do about it.
I finally made it home. We rented a house just a few blocks from the Pleasant Valley Middle School, north of Wichita. It backed up against the big ditch. We had a guy put in a wheel chair ramp so I could get in and out.
Ruby didn't have much patience with all the work involved in keeping me clean. I could see a disgusted look on her face once in a while that really hurt me. Worse though, by far, was she started going out two or three nights a week with her 'girlfriends'.
It wasn't me that started that old crazy Asian war.
But I was proud to go and do my patriotic chore
And yes, it's true that I'm not the man I used to be ...
Oh, Ruby, I still need some company.
Each morning I had one prayer that I repeated over and over, "Oh, God, kill me today." The doctors said I probably would die within two or three years. There was just too much damage. I had to go to the VA hospital every other month or so and they would fix something or other and my death would be delayed for a while longer.
Ruby kept going out – staying until some late hour in the sleepless nights. I tried to talk with her but got jackshit in answer.
"Oh, Deal. I'm sorry but it's just so boring here. I'm too young to be stuck at home all the time."
I'd watch her get ready and I knew she wasn't going to no damn girls' night out. She spent too much time on her clothes and makeup and putting on some expensive whore water that cost more than we could afford. She dressed in tight clothes that exhibited her body.
I was thinking more and more of trying to end it. I came up with zilch until a buddy of mine from 'Nam stopped by on his way to Tulsa. We lied to each other for a while until I finally got serious.
"Hey, Ty ... man, I need a gun. Anything you can get is okay."
He looked at me hard. He knew what I wanted it for. "Sure, Deal. I got one in the car."
He came back with an S&W .38 Police Special and a box of ammo. I didn't really need a box – loading it once would be more than enough for me. One bullet was all I needed to end my pathetic life.
This went on for a couple of months. I hid the gun in my duffle bag in the closet – Ruby had never shown any interest in it. Then the night came when I got pissed off enough ... I mean I was livid with anger.
Ruby was getting ready and mentioned in passing, "I'm not driving tonight. An old friend of yours is picking me up for dinner and dancing at the Moose Lodge then we're coming back here."
"Who do you mean? Who is picking you up?"
"Oh, you'll see in a minute."
It's hard to love a man whose legs are bent and paralyzed.
And the wants and needs the needs of a woman your age, Ruby I realize.
But it won't be long I've heard them say until I'm not around.
Oh, Ruby, don't take your love to town.
I put my hand on her arm and asked, "Ruby, stay home tonight. Don't go out on the town, please?"
"Deal, I don't have much time. Just leave me alone.
About ten minutes later there was a knock on the door. Ruby went over and opened the door. Chaz came in dressed in a new sport coat and looking darkly handsome with his eye patch.
"Chaz! What the hell are you doing here?"
"Hey, Deal. You're looking great." This with a smirk.
"I'm taking Ruby out dancing because you can't even stand up and you know how much she likes to dance. I'm also going to give her something else you can't give her."
He and Ruby both laughed at this. She took his arm and they started walking through the door. Ruby paused and turned back to me, "Deal, we are coming back here after our date." She had a heavy emphasis on the word date. "Please stay out of the bedroom. I don't want it all smelly with those awful cigars you use. Oh, if you want you can watch us."
Chaz added, laughing, "Yeah, Deal, that's the closest you will ever come to sex again."
I threw the ashtray at him but he just ducked and they went on out the door, laughing, slamming the door behind them.
She's leavin' now 'cause I heard the slammin' of the door.
The way I know I've heard it slam one hundred times before.
Don't take your love to town.
Oh, Ruby. God sakes, turn around.
Doing a slow burn, I went to the closet and got my gun out. I always kept it loaded. I wheeled over to the bed and took the bullets out, cleaning each one with the edge of the sheet. I made the hard brass shine. I did this for ten minutes until a tear fell on the .38. I realized I was crying. I knew at that instant that I was ready to end it. I had nothing to live for. I wanted nothing I could ever expect to get except death.
I put the shiny death dealers back in the pistol, one at a time. I looked down the bore to make sure it was clean – not that it made any difference. I tried putting the barrel in my mouth but chipped a tooth putting it in. The pain distracted me and I took it back out and carefully wiped the saliva from the end of the barrel.
I stopped to think what the surest way would be and decided on my temple. I put the hard metal to my head and my finger to the trigger. I gently pulled ... waiting for the roar. My hand started shaking and I backed off. I lit a smelly black cheroot and picked up her pillow, exhaling the smoke into the opening at the end of the pillowcase. I knew she would wash the sheets but I hoped some foul aroma would stay.
I wheeled into the kitchen. I needed some Dutch courage ... or in this case some Kentucky, Dutch courage. My hands were still shaking as I poured a water glass half full. I spilled more on the table than went into the glass. I took a large gulp and choked on it but it felt good.
I put the pistol to my head again but I knew it was a no go. I just couldn't pull the trigger ... I couldn't do it that way. I added a couple of inches of Kentucky's finest to my glass and sipped it slowly, thinking. An idea came to me in a flash of understanding and I knew, really knew what I wanted out of life – and death.
I put the .38 on my lap and covered it with a newspaper and sat back and sipped slowly, enjoying the bite of the sour mash. I got a clean ashtray from the drawer and chain-smoked the smelly cheroots. For the first time in a long time I had a smile on my face. An observer would probably call it a sickly grimace but I wasn't into nuances of facial expressions at that moment in time.
Several hours slowly passed and I could see my piss bag getting full. I had a pleasant buzz on – feeling good at my plan. Occasionally I would smile as I worked out each careful step. I rounded up a couple of extension cords and cut each in half. Yeah, this would work fine.