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Free Range: Battle scars

I’ve met a North Dakota rider who’s a Vietnam vet with a great sense of humor. The standup comic kept me giggling with his collection of one-liners, when suddenly, with no warning, the levity of the conversation shifts and he starts talking about his experiences in the jungles back when he was a young man. I wasn’t sure how to react at first so I fall silent, listening. He steps close to be sure I can hear him well.

“I’ll tell you a short story,” he offers. “I don’t keep too many stories from back then, but I’ll tell you this one. I was a platoon sergeant in Nam, was with the 82nd Airborne and we was in a lotta shit. Man, we were always in the shit, I’m telling ya. We worked the jungles; worked the DMZ a lot. This one time we were out on a canal, they dropped us about six miles out, and we ambushed that canal all night. The next morning I tell the other five guys with me that if they wanna, they can take a break and have breakfast once I call in to post to pick us up. It’s OK. So while we’re sitting around we hear something slide up into the grass.

“My friend Augie turns around and yells, ‘Gooks!’ Nobody had their real names, we all had nicknames, so Augie gets one right away but the other one dove into the water. So we all walk over to the canal, which is about 25–30 feet wide. We’re standing there and we see bubbles start coming up so E.R. flips his M16 from fully auto to single shot and this gook pops his head out of the water. He reaches out and caps him. He caught him right here (he indicates the bridge of his nose) and blows the top of his head right off so we go in and drag him out. So there we are, the six of us sitting here and we’ve got the top of this guy’s skull. When the Lieutenant comes to pick us up he’s there yelling at us to get on the boat, but we aren’t listening to him because we were playing this game. We had this guy’s skull, and where your brain sits, there are grooves in there and we were going from one ear hole to the other ear hole by following the brain grooves. Well, we had a fight because this one guy jumped the grooves and he’s cheating, so now we got an argument going on. The Lieutenant gets out and says, ‘What the fuck are you guys arguing about?’

“I grabbed it away from the other guy and hold it up to show him, and said, ‘Here, you do it. Get from this ear hole to this ear hole.’ He blew his lunch. He kinda freaked out. When we get back in he puts us all in security and tells us to get drunk or whatever we wanted because he said we were getting out there too far. For us, this was just to keep our sanity, that game. It gets you back to earth. That’s how bad it got. That’s just a short story. The rest of them, the other stories, I threw away. They told me I should go talk to other guys who have been in the war, like a counselor, and I asked them why I would want to bring back stuff I already forgot. My problems are my problems; I don’t need nobody else’s. I turned it down. For some, maybe talking about it and getting that stuff out is what they need, but for me, I don’t need to be bringing up shit I already forgot. It’s how I coped with it; I left it all there. When I left, all that stuff just stayed there where it happened.”

For the first 10 years after his return stateside, he did nothing but ride around on his ’67 Shovelhead, which he still has. These days he rides a 2008 Rocker.

Just as quickly as the subject changed in the first place, it changes again. Jerry talks about his wife who is 10 years younger than he is. He says she’s a wonderful person. They met for the first time when she was just 16 years old and he liked her from the beginning, but she married another.

“A few years later a friend tells me she’s divorcing so I come out here to check her out and that was it. We’ve been together for 20 years, married for eight. Didn’t get married until I was 52.” He talks about his family and there’s a tender side. I ask if he’s always been sensitive. “I don’t know about sensitive, but I’ve always appreciated life and the good things. I always try to find the good, and to fix what’s hurt.”

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