BIG BERTHA AND MY OWN PRIVATE WAR

| October 15, 2011 | Comments (1)

 

Forty-three years ago, I peered out the door of a United States  Army helicopter as it flew low over the smoking ruins of a Vietnamese village. Acrid fumes of still-burning thatch – hours earlier the rooftops of orderly houses – assaulted my eyes and nose as I stepped out onto a bed of ashes in a smoldering rice field.

It was 1960 and the war in Vietnam had escalated to a ferocious crest of destruction. As a Foreign Service Officer embedded with the American military, I was part of a “nation-building” team that had been dispatched to survey the damage we had wrought and recommend ways to “win back the hearts and minds” of the farmers whose village we had just oblierated.

My translator and I walked up to an old man standing in front of what had been a house, now a heap of scorched bamboo. When we asked him how we might provide help, he stared at us in dazed silence before pointing to the carcass of a dead buffalo.

“My buffalo is dead and I need a new one,” he said.  “I can’t survive wthout this animal. She plows our fields, pulls our cart to market and provides us with fuel.” My translator and I looked at each other and stammered an apology.

Later that evening, after I had flown back to base camp and was unwinding at the Army officers’ club during happy hour, I told my G.I. buddies about my afternoon visit to the village. When I mentioned the dead buffalo and the old farmer, they fell silent. As I was speaking,  somebody started passing a hat along the bar, and before I knew it, I was handed a fistful of cash, nearly $500.

The next morning,  I helicoptered back to the village and presented the old farmer with the collection. Weeks later, I heard that he had acquired another animal and was rebuilding his house.

An Army buddy of mine, a fellow American I had nicknamed “Flaps” because of his protruding ears, accompanied me to the village and took a photo of the farmer and his new buffalo. Later, Flaps thumb-tacked the picture  to the bulletin board of the officers’ club. The G.I.’s nicknamed the buffalo Big Bertha and she became the club mascot.

Sometime later, I heard that the village was hit again. I didn’t want to know what happened to Big Bertha or her owner. As time passed, both the war and my own personal life nose-dived into crisis. Communist forces launched the Tet Offensive, crippling South Vietnamese bases;  I broker off my engagement to a beautiful French-Vietnamese woman and told my buddy Flaps that I thought I was gay. Flaps told me my sexuality had been an open secret for months. He drove me to the airport for my flight back to the States, and we promised to stay in touch.

I reached the nation’s capital the day after the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination and found myself in another war zone, with buildings aflame and helicopters hovering in the sky. Still jet-lagged and traumatized by the war I found in my hometown, I proceeded to headquarters for “debriefing” and what I assumed would be re-assignment.

Acording to my performance reports and commendations, I had served with valor and diligence, ” beyond the call of duty.” I had worked for nearly a year in a rubber plantation area sprayed with the toxic defoliant Agent Orange. As I headed down the polished corridor to the State Department’s personnel office, I assumed I would be congratulated on my outstanding service, promoted and offered another challenging assignment.

The interview lasted less than a minute, during which time I was sacked, not lauded. The woman behind the desk informed me that my service had been terminated. Just like that !  Shocked, I asked why I had been fired. Without establishing eye contact, she mumbled, ” I don’t know the reason” and motioned me to the door. The career I had worked so hard for was over in a flash. What had I done ?

The months that followd were rough. I had a nervous breakdown and aimlessly wandered the streets, spending a lot of time in dank, dark bars where down-and-outs drank boiler-makers at 10 o’clock in the morning. But over time, I moved on. In fact, I found another job, excelled professionally as a senior United Nations officer and built a loving relationship with a life partner. Vietnam and my unexplained discharge disappeared down the memory hole – until one evening 42 years later, when I learned the reason I had been fired.

That night, I was celebrating my 71st birthday in a bar in quaint Georgetown, an old neighborhood of Washington, D. C.  Mr. Smith’s was the place. I was surrounded by friends and overcome with the feeling that life was good.

As I lifted my glass to join in a celebratory toast,  I felt a hand on my shoulder and turned to see the smiling face of my old buddy, Flaps. We had seen each other on and off over the years. He gave me a rib-crushing hug and in a few words that indicated the extent of Washington’s Beltway grapevine, whispered, “That was a real bummer, your getting fired because you were gay.”

It turned out that a fellow Foreign Service officer , whom I knew from Vietnam,  had seen my confidential file and spilled the beans; later it was confirmed to me. My firing was based not on performance, but discrimination. With an incredible sense of relief, I realized that I had done nothing wrong. Better late than never, I thought, as I raised my flute of bubbly.  At long last, I felt myself a winner. the best birthday present possible !

 

 

 

Category: Uncategorized

Comments (1)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Tuesday Rose says:

    You are right. Sometimes bad happenings can be blessings in disguise. When my parents and I had been living in North Africa in the 60s, we were enchanted with postcard perfect beaches of the Mediterranean Sea so much that we planned to settle down there. By a tragic twist of fate, in 1968, my father’s untimely death forced my mother and I to return to our home country. Dreams shattered and broken-hearted, I carried on with my life. Eventually, after obtaining my first university degree, I looked for a job everywhere without success. But, luck changed for the better when I was asked to work as a substitute in a multinational corporation. I went for an interview for the temporary position, but was recruited for a full-time job the very day. I couldn’t believe the miraculous twist of fate. Then again, in 1978, when I arrived at work one day, I saw a man’s jacket hung on my office chair. The jacket led me to the owner who turned out to be the most handsome, loving, caring and wonderful man in the world. Then a quote came into my mind, “…escaping wreck, defying death, their eyes met and became one. What God has joined together, let no man put asunder”.

    Tuesday Rose

Leave a Reply




If you want a picture to show with your comment, go get a Gravatar.