From Chicken Soup for the Veteran's Soul

Kids from Mars

A warrior I have been.

Now it is all over.

A hard time I have.

Chief Sitting Bull

Vietnam was two months and sixty nightmares behind me. I had frightened or angered all of my friends and family, so I got in my car and just drove away.

From Connecticut, I had zigzagged south till I found myself on some mid-Florida, two-lane byway with an empty gas tank and an empty wallet. It was time for my first experience with a pawnshop.

In Bartow, at about midstate, I found such a place. I had decided to sacrifice the almost new Akia reel-to-reel tape recorder I’d purchased while overseas. It had cost me $200 at a time when I was only making $215 per month. That amount included an extra $55 per month called “hostile fire pay,” which works out to a little less than eight cents per hour to duck bullets. Not much, but I was grateful for the extra money all the same.

The pawnshop guy was willing to give me $15. He told me I’d be better off to drive to Florida Southern College in Lakeland and try to sell the Akia to some student. I took his advice and moved on.

The Mustang was breathing what gasoline vapor remained in the empty tank as I stopped alongside one of the large brick buildings on the FSC campus. I was expecting the worst. My experience with college kids since returning home had been entirely negative. I hated to put myself at the mercy of a collection of what I expected to be longhaired, sloppily dressed, self-important, spoiled brats.

Two young men approached me as I stood next to the car wondering what to do. They wore shirts with button-down collars, loafers, short hair and smiles. “We really like your car.”

“Uh, thanks.”

“Are you a student?” they asked politely.

To the casual observer, the three of us probably looked much the same: twenty-year-olds standing next to a high-powered convertible on a college campus. In fact, the differences were monumental. They were studying for exams and daydreaming of a bright future. I was wandering aimlessly and trying not to think about how hard it is to pry a weapon from a dead man’s hand.

I explained that I wasn’t a student and about my desire to sell the recorder. They asked to see it.

“Where did you get it?” The question was asked in an informational, not accusatory, tone.

“Vietnam.” I waited for the clouds to form in their eyes.

The attitude of polite sincerity with which they had treated me never wavered. One of the students said he and his brother might want to buy the Akia and asked if I could wait while he located his sibling. I agreed.

The brothers and I agreed on a price of $100. They apologized profusely when they were only able to scrape together $90. Meanwhile, they and their friends had begun to ask me about my experiences in the war. To my surprise, their questions were not hostile. They were obviously founded in a genuine desire to obtain some firsthand impressions to compare with the torrent of government-filtered information provided by the newspapers and TV.

Our conversation went on for hours. I fielded questions from ten or so male students while we ate dinner together. Then they asked me if I would like to shower and spend the night in their dorm. Compared to bathing in a pond and sleeping in the Mustang, it sounded like a great idea.

Twenty minutes of hot water took away all the road dust and some of my anxiety. But more than the food and the shower, it was absolutely wonderful to talk to people who actually seemed to respect me for what I had done. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the return of a familiar reproach: “Killer. Fool. You should have known better.” It never came.

The brothers’ dorm room was crowded with shiny, inquisitive faces. The questions flew, several at a time, always polite and always well informed. I didn’t realize America still had kids like this. I decided they were kids from Mars.

We talked till after midnight. I did my absolute best to be objective and impartial. They were amazed to learn that we were almost never allowed to shoot first. And that to do so could actually result in a court-martial. They were incredulous when I described going house to house trying to separate the good guys from the bad guys. I told them we did not—as had been reported—kill them all and let God sort them out. In America, in 1968, that was news.

They would have grilled me till the sun came up. I finally apologized and begged for some time to sleep. Everyone shook my hand and courteously retreated.

In the morning, they asked me to stay on. I was tempted. Perhaps here, surrounded by these kids from Mars, I would be able to leave my troubled memories behind. But, in the end, I decided to go. Richer—by a lot more than $90—I packed up my ghosts and said good-bye.

Joe Kirkup

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