The following is dedicated to my father James Craig Fitzgerald (09/29/1948-06/12/2015) and to the men who served on the USS Loyalty (MSO-457)
I remember sitting in my father’s office. In our house, the office was the garage, but he had converted it to be his office where he ran his home based mortgage business. Half of the office was carpet, a dark green carpet with gold dust stops at the parameter. The rest of the office was a smooth concrete. My father had taken the time to paint the concrete green as well; it was a smooth slick green that gave a slight shine when the lights were on. The walls were white, as was the ceiling.
There was a collection of desks my father used that created the office itself. His desk was really two plywood desks that sort of matched sitting side by side. He sat in the corner; on the other side of the desk was the garage door that he never opened. Along his left side was a glass ashtray, the burn marks of old cigarettes never really came off when he would rinse the ashtray.
My father would smoke his cigarettes throughout the day out of necessity, but it was at night that his smokes came out of leisure. It was on these nights that he would sit there, maybe one or two beers deep, playing his music through his computer. Jesus, the amount of times I heard Dire Straights or Paul Butterfield playing. It wasn’t uncommon for my father to have his guitar there with him on these nights either, sitting on its stand waiting for my father to pick up the guitar and pick out rifts of whatever song he happen to be listening to at the moment.
It was one of these nights I was sitting there. I recall it being summer, a warm night in the Nevada desert. I sat on the carpet, shirtless in shorts. My pale skin shivered. Even in Nevada where 100 degree temperatures weren’t uncommon, that office had a chill that was always there. Perhaps that’s only in my mind, but that’s how I remember it. The carpet rough underneath my bare skin, and my fingers pushing into the fibers out of boredom. In the air an acidic smoke lingered listless around my father.
The most recent song ended and my father turned to me in his office chair. Low sandpaper like roughness had formed along his face since his shave some 15 hours earlier. The smoke still lingered as the cigarette wasn’t even burnt half way. My father’s jaded green eyes looked at me. It was time, I knew what was coming, one of his many memories in a story. I relished this, a learning experience, a bonding moment between father and son. It was stories like this that created epics, formed books, filmed motion pictures, and created men out of boys! And he started his story.
“You know, I remember this time in Vietnam…” And he was no longer talking, and I was no longer listening because I was there, with him in the moment.
It was an early humid morning somewhere in the South China Sea. The humidity sickening, everything sticky, your mouth always full and slightly numb. The crisp flat ocean reflecting the unforgiving sun creating two demons to hide from.
“Junks! Two o’clock!” Off in the horizon to James’s right was the silhouette of a low floating vessel. Junks was a term given to a variety of boats that floated around the waters around Vietnam like the bodies of nats trapped in a stagnant body of water. Most of them were fishermen, many of them powered only by the paddles they carried, some by whatever motors could be rigged to the side, and many of them were smugglers. Smugglers bringing in weapons to the communists, and their guinea pig insurgents. The smugglers were the reason and bane to the existence of the USS Loyalty in the South China Sea.
James, a blonde haired, green eyed kid weighing about 135 pounds and only standing 5 foot 5 inches got into his position wearing only dungarees, a flat jack and his helmet.
Most junks stop when hailed, others would stop after a warning shot across the bow, few had to be destroyed. Searching the junks was the worst part. A vast majority of them were extremely filthy, human waste on the boat, fecal matter smeared on the edges, fish guts strung out across the deck, rusty nails protruding out of every surface. The locals wouldn’t be too pleased having their craft searched, and so shotguns and Thompson submachineguns were brought along to protect against the lone smuggler trying to save his merchandise. Of course, the sailors didn’t care about the fish, they were looking for weapons, rifles, machineguns, grenades, and especially the rocket propelled grenade launcher (RPG).
The junks in the distance slowed. James racked his 50 caliber machinegun but stood idle. The junks couldn’t out run the Americans. Slowing, was usually their only signal they had.
James looked down at the deck, and as he looked back up a green glowing dot was growing. In a flash the dot streaked by. The green and hot tracer round smashed into the ship with a whizz. The pops of gun fire came late following the rounds impacting around him.
James pressed in on the butterfly trigger and the rails shook. The roar of the 50 caliber machinegun deafening. The recoil so powerful the only method to aiming is to shoot into the water in front of the target and let the weapon lead itself on target. The whipping sound slamming in around James. His thumbs pressed in hard turning white from pressure.
A hatch nearby slid open. James was aware only from the corner of his eye. As James readjusted, and he could see. Another young sailor rose, a white shirt painting him bright in the sun. And out of the white a sudden blossoming of rose red stroked across the white shirt like a brush from a painter.
James let go of his gun. The young sailor dropped. James sank to his knees as he pressed his hands to the sailor’s chest. Amongst the heavy spurts of blood a sucking tugged at James hand from the wound, a sucking coming from inside of the sailor. James pressed in harder as his own hands became slick.
The speaker within his helmet screamed.
“Fitzgerald, get back on that fuckin’ gun!”
James looked back at his gun and back down at the sailor. His eyes wide, wide in fear. He gasped, and strained to breath, sucking air in short hard gasps.
James wasn’t even conscience of his actions. He just saw as the sailor grew farther away from him. Farther and farther, then disappearing as James turned and he repositioned himself behind the gun once more. His thumbs slipped, slick with the sailor, and pressed in on the butterfly trigger. His thumbs ached, but this time they did not turned white, he pressed harder, not relenting, the gun roaring, and no matter how hard he pressed his thumbs would not turn white. The gun fell silent, and like a machine he tore the empty ammunition bucket away and in a blink of his eye a new 100 box was in. Slamming the cover assembly down, pulling the charging handle and releasing, he pressed in again. Desperate to get the white to return but it wouldn’t, it would never return.
“Cease fire, I said cease fire goddam’ it!”
James released the trigger. He didn’t know how long he was being yelled at over in his helmet. He just knew the voice was there.
Out in the horizon the junks were shredded, barely afloat or sinking. James spun around to the sailor. The sailor was as James had left him, but the sucking had stopped, the gasping had stopped, the movement had stopped. The wide look of fear and sadness still stuck in his glassy eyes.
Back in the office my father took another drag of his cigarette finishing it off. He put it out in his ashtray. His eyes rose above and off of me, his eyes dark with burn marks that would never wash away. There on the wall his eyes rested in no particular area, not on the picture of former President Reagan, or of me his son, or of the quote from Ayn Rand, but especially not of the picture he had of himself during Vietnam. His eyes just lingered, on a single position. His stare going through the paint, through the drywall and the wood, through the room, and to the yard, and for miles and miles and miles.
Finally my father turned, blinking, his green jaded eyes back. He would grind his teeth, and clicked skip song on his computer causing the next song to play.
I sat dumbfounded, this story had not been like the others. It had not been adventurous or have some experience he wanted me to learn from; at least not directly. We had discussed most of his stories, but not this one. But this story was also different in another way, as it would be the last story he ever told me about Vietnam.
About a year later I noticed he had not shared a story about Vietnam, and in the spirit of tradition I pried him one night about it. He just shrugged, waved it off, and said he didn’t want to talk about it. At the time, I just thought I caught him at a bad moment.
It was years later and I was in college. I had to write a story I remember someone telling me, and I wrote it very similar to the story as written here, because it stood out to me, from the numerous stories of life, love, and the war, this one was just different because of how he told it. I was proud of the story, I thought I had written it well, and did honor to my father by being able to pull up such a story of sacrifice and the reality of war. I packed the story into an email and sent it to him after I turned it in and received an ‘A’ on it, pumping my ego even more.
His only response “I wish you never sent this to me.”
I destroyed the story, I was heartbroken and I didn’t know why. I was foolish, I didn’t realize the depth of that story, I didn’t understand what was going through my father’s mind at the time. I didn’t understand my father was suffering, and had been suffering for a long time.
It’s been years since this incident, and I too went on to serve my nation. I often reflect on the stories my father told me, and about the men he served with, and the lessons he hoped I absorbed. There was a lot he shared in his stories, but this one in particular. I never realized it at the time, but as two men, this was the closest I ever was to my father and the man he really was.