FACES OF AGENT ORANGE TOWN HALL MEETING SCHEDULE
Saturday, December 10, 2011
Leaving For Viet Nam
(C) James J. Alonzo
It was a gloomy, gray, rainy morning, which may have accounted for my morbid thoughts. As I recalled that day many years ago, the trip to the City of Buffalo’s airport. We travelled by cab, my wife Nanci, and my step-dad. Which was odd, but my stepfather Ralph insisted on paying for it. He was paying for the cab, a person known as a cheap person, some would call it thrifty. I realize now that he was a poor man, but back then, I was not aware of it as I am now.
My thirty day pre-Viet Nam leave had come to an end, June 1967. During this leave, I had to worked for my brother Ralph‘s roofing and siding business, to raise money for Nanci, and the baby she was carrying. I didn’t know much about roofing and siding, but I was strong, and being in the Army's 101rst Airborne Division, and a paratrooper, i had no fear of heights.
And now It was time to fly to San Francisco, and Viet Nam. We left my mother at home, crying; too upset that morning to even scramble eggs, never less coming to the airport. I felt for her, for she had lost love ones in WW2 and Korean Wars.
Step dad was quiet during the trip, and it was only years later that I thought about what he must have been thinking. I wondered how it would of been if he had ever been sent to war? (he wasn’t) What would his father have thought, or how he would of seen him off to war.
We had arrived at the airport, and entered the terminal. There were many other service men in uniforms, with duffel bags and overnight bags, a lot of mothers and fathers, wives or maybe girl friends, and even kids, probably siblings. There were even sharply dressed Military Police who patrolled through the terminal. I found this to be an unusual sight, for just the year before, you'd never see Military Police there.
The home front during the Viet Nam war is a study of convoluted extreme contrasts: sorrow and joy, partings and reunions, patriotism and cynicism, parades, demonstrations, anti-war protesters, and funerals.
I was flying American Airlines to San Francisco, and I got into the appropriate line, which comprised of mostly soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen, and even some civilians, who looked like hippies, and who strangely looked uncomfortable being in the same line.
My step dad wanted to wait but it was important that Nanci and I spend some private time, so I talked him out of staying.
"Go a head Pop," I suggested, "Nanci will see me off, and then she will get a cab."
He strongly shook my hand, looking down, and in a whispered voice, he said, “Come home son.”
For a fleeting moment, I thought he was ordering me to leave with him, become a deserter like many others had, and forget this idiocy of war. Then I realized he meant " come home alive". I looked him in the eye and said,
“I will. You take care of Mom.”
“Sure. Good luck Jim.” He said, turned and walked away. A few minutes later, as I was talking to Nanci, I caught a glimpse of him some distance away, watching me. We made eye contact; he then turned and walked away, this time for good. I was apprehensive that my step-dad might reappear, and not give Nanci and I time alone.
After I checked in at the ticket counter, Nanci and I holding hands walked down to the gate, where I would discovered that this is where the other military families had disappeared too. In those days, anyone could go to the departing gates. ( before post 911 security)
Despite the large number of military members my own age from the Buffalo area. I did not see anyone I knew. This is going to be the beginning of a period in my life of looking for familiar faces and imaging them on other people. So I stood there holding Nanci’s hand, alone in our own thoughts, nothing being said but the occasional ‘I love you”. Meanwhile people moved around us stood quietly, talked in low murmurs, or cried softly. I have never seen so much sadness, so many people make so little noise, except at a funeral.
There were City of Buffalo Police officers and Two Military Police officers patrolled at the edge of the crowd looking for signs of problems among the young men who were about to leave for points of embarkation and war, and the anti-war protesters.
In retrospect, this whole scene had made me uncomfortable: the MP’s, the mostly unhappy soldiers, the quiet families; the sum total of which was this very un-American feeling of government control and coercion. But it was wartime, though not my father’s generation war, which was as popular as any war could get. And in wartime, even the most benevolent governments get a little pushy.
This was 1967, and the anti-war movement was in full swing in Buffalo, so therefore there were protesters and demonstrations at Buffalo’s airport. There were a more of them when we landed in San Francisco, and even more of them at the Oakland Army Base, urging the soldiers not to go, carrying signs stating, "Killers! Baby killers", "Make Love Not War!"
I looked into Nanci’s eyes, as always, I saw love that day, but at that moment, but I also saw fear in her eyes, and maybe it was reflecting in my eyes too. I remember I felt a sadness, a sadness that if I should die, what would happen to Nanci, who would love and protect her and the baby she was carrying inside her, as I do now?
This feeling never left me, even after all these years, when I had a heart attack in 1991, or when I get angina, I still ask myself today, aware of my mortality and poor health, who would love and protect her.
The announcer’s voice came on and announced my flight was boarding. So I told her, as I placed my hand on her stomach,
“I love you, take care of both my babies.“ (Meaning her and the baby that will be born in December 1967 while I was on patrol in Viet Nam)
“Don’t cry baby, I will be back, " I promised, "So write me every day.”
She looked at me with her tear filled blue eyes, and said.
“I love you too .“
We kissed and held each other tightly, her being brave, not wanting me to leave, and me, sad and scared, but not wanting to show it.
I walked down the ramp afraid to look back, because I knew if I did I would cry, and I had too much pride to make this mistake.