Purple Hearts and Pink Minds
CHAPTER 4: PURPLE HEARTS AND PINK MINDS
“I want what they want, and every other guy who came over here and spilled his guts and gave everything he had wants! For our country to love us as much as we love it!” – John Rambo in “Rambo First Blood: Part 2” starring Sylvester Stallone
LAST DAY OF DEPLOYMENT – DA NANG AIR BASE, SOUTH VIETNAM
“…..his keen decision making, leadership, and courage under the face of enemy fire and insurmountable odds has preserved the lives of six other soldiers of the United States Army with no additional casualties. I hereby award Corporal Otis Cross the Medal of Honor.”
Otis Cross stood as attention and saluted the general as his superior officer pinned the medal to his chest.
“Thank you sir,” Otis responded respectfully, “It’s an honor to serve my country, especially with the team I was blessed enough to be assigned to. They are all my brothers, today and forever.”
The American and South Vietnamese soldiers gathered in the outdoor ceremonial ground at Da Nang stood up and applauded for a long time. For his injuries, JT was also awarded the Purple Heart, but they all knew it was Otis Cross who had served with distinction and risked everything to get them back.
Shortly after, JT climbed up to the rooftop of the headquarters building one last time after already packing up his bags for the flight home. To his surprise, Otis was already there.
“How’s it going, man?” JT asked, joining his friend as they took in the view across the base. A large new group of troops had just arrived and was heading toward the barracks. Little did they know what awaited them here in this godforsaken corner of the world.
“Nervous, to be honest with you,” Otis replied.
This surprised JT. Otis had never expressed something like this before, certainly not before going into battle or when they first got word that their unit was being deployed to Vietnam. But JT correctly predicted what it was going to be about.
“Just…the thought of being a father, seeing my son for the first time. I….I don’t think I’m ready for that. Just raising a kid in this crazy world. And going back to my wife after all that time apart.”
JT gave Otis a pat on the shoulder. “You’re the best leader in this unit. If you can handle us, you can handle Sunday school and Little League and pool parties and all that. You’ll love and respect your family the way you did all of us, and you’re going to look after them the way you looked out for all of us. If that ain’t enough, I don’t know what is.”
Otis nodded as he continued to stare out on the runway where four helicopters were lifting up and heading south in an attempt to offer assistance to South Vietnamese forces bogged down in urban combat in Hue. “Thanks for the vote of confidence, JT. I do appreciate that.”
JT himself was far from confident about his own future back in Charming. All he had was his father and some of the friends he grew up with and played high school football with. He didn’t even though where he would work as of the moment, though he figured he would probably get something as Oswald Lumber through some family friends. From there, he just might think about college. Of course he enjoyed working in his father’s Cliff’s garage and would have liked to inherit the business even though his father had never breached the subject. He did know that his dad probably would not be comfortable handing the family business over to him without any kind of education as to how to run it. And this was just a conversation about being a manager working under Cliff’s supervision. Cliff insisted it was a different world now, not like the one he’s spent most of his life in. Part of JT had to agree, but thinking about what lay ahead just made him more exhausted than he already was.
ALAMEDA NAVAL AIR STATION, OAKLAND
JT thought of the many weeks it took for his father to come back across the Pacific after World War II on an overcrowded ship from Osaka, Japan to Pearl Harbor to San Diego. Thank to modern air transport, there really wasn’t a decompression period anymore, he mused to himself as he and his brothers in picked up their military totes and boarded a Lockheed C-141 military transport aircraft on the Da Nang runway that they marched past every day. He thought of his future in Charming, going back to his father, and what was waiting for him.
While he had a window seat, there really wasn’t much of a view taking off from the Da Nang military airfield. He saw the barracks, aircraft hangars, and control tower disappear behind them before the plane took off over the thick jungle on yet another dreary day with the mist seemingly touching the muddy ground. The plane would quickly be over the ocean anyway, but even before they reached the nearby coast, the aircraft entered the thick cloud cover, causing some turbulence that made JT nervous for a while. A few minutes later, JT saw the sun for the first time in weeks as the plane climbed above the clouds and into the deep blue sky. Somewhere over the South China Sea, JT dozed off and slept for the remainder of the flight except for a couple trips to the lavatory. The same was true for Piney and Otis.
Sixteen hours later, JT stared out the window as they descended through the thick fog enveloping the San Francisco peninsula. The fog ended abruptly, however as the transport jet overflew the eastern half of San Francisco Bay, quickly descending to the runways at Alameda Naval Air Station.
“Tough place to come home to, I hear,” JT and Clay heard as they walked toward the bus that would take them to Oakland Army Base where they would go through final processing before re-entering civilian life. It was a young soldier from Kansas they had served with. “I’m glad I got to meet the couple of cool guys left in California.”
“Thanks for the compliment, brother,” JT said, “But trust me. I got this.” He knew what the soldier meant. Instead of going back to the Kansas heartland where folks still believed strongly in God, family, and country despite the political and social radicalism spreading across the country, JT, Piney and Clay were heading right into the eye of the storm. California was one of the hotbeds, if not the epicenter of the radical left-wing anti-military and anti-capitalist movement. Charming and the Central Valley might be exceptions, but his hometown was still uncomfortably close.
None of that knowledge prepared JT for the sight that awaited him as the US Army bus, one of those that looked and felt just like a school bus, emerged from the Posey Tube tunnel connecting Alameda Island to the mainland and emerged in the vicinity of downtown Oakland’s Jack London Square. The bus slowed down in the tunnel long enough for JT to wonder what the heck was going on, then he saw several Oakland Police cars appear as an escort to take them through the city streets separating the entrance of the tunnel and Oakland Army Base, there they would go for their final processing before re-entering civilian life. Weeks ago, he and his men were in the jungle hunting down and killing well-trained and seasoned enemies, yet here they were being protected by mere cops, most of whom had probably never fired a gun while on duty.
Suddenly, JT heard several popping noises and muted explosions and swirls of thick smoke. His military instincts about to take over, he then realized that a large group of antiwar demonstrators had attempted to block roadway leading out of the tunnel and the police in full riot gear had responded by firing tear gas canisters. JT had wondered whether the newspaper clipping Major Truong had shown him during his torture session was doctored. Coming into central Oakland made it clear to JT and the rest that it wasn’t the work of the North Vietnamese government, that this really was the America they were coming back to. Most of California at least. The Central Valley was an exception, along with Orange County and San Diego. If anything, Charming was out of place in California because of its rural, blue collar nature and the Midwestern and Southern roots of many of its residents. In order to get back to Charming, however, they had to go through the purgatory that was the San Francisco Bay Area.
More protestors began pelting the bus with rocks, bottles, shoes, upended street signs, stolen trash cans, and even a park bench - any makeshift weapon they could find. Then, JT suddenly felt an uncontrollable sense of panic as he saw Jack London Square and the sidewalks of Embarcadero West lined with more protestors, several of them holding North Vietnamese and Soviet flags. Piney felt a wave of panic rushing through him as the image of the enemy flags brought back recent memories of their tormentors in Hoi An.
“This can’t be serious,” Piney said as he stared out the window as the hostile crowd of students and activists.
“Ho Chi Minh is the Paramount Leader! American soldiers are paramount cowards! The global revolution will triumph!” read a sign held by an older hippie who had the looks of a radical college professor. A young Black Panther wearing a Malcolm X t-shirt and a Muslim turban screamed into a bullhorn as the crowd cheered. “Free Vietnam! End American capitalist oppression and imperialism!” There were more signs denouncing the “military-industrial complex” and supporting the Communists, including one held by a young female college student reading “There is no God, but if you must pray, do it for the people of Vietnam, not for GI war criminals.” One of her friends held a joint of marijuana for her as she smoked it.
The Black Panther spotted Otis in the window and began focusing his tirade on him. “Hey look at you boy!” he screamed in a mocking voice as several of his fellow black radicals and other protestors jeered. “What you doing there, brother?” the Black Panther continued shouting in a particularly ghetto manner. “You their house nigger, ain’t you? Fighting the racist rich white man’s war?” For a lot of these protestors, antiwar sentiments were mixed with the leftist narrative of class warfare and racial struggle.
“Fuck you, Uncle Tom!” a female Black Panther screamed at Otis, sticking out her middle finger at him, a look of pure disgust on her face. “You should have died over there!” Learning to keep his cool in the face of racist insults was something Otis had learned early on in his 1950s childhood, so he was able to remain more composed than many others on the bus, but he was nonetheless shocked at the vitriol of these Panthers. This was the kind of violence and hatred that Martin Luther King had avoided but Malcolm X and many left-wing radicals embraced.
Clay nudged JT alarmingly as he saw a young hippie with long dreadlocks and a hammer and sickle hoodie ignite a Molotov cocktail and approach the bus. The cops also saw the threat, however, and quickly moved in with their guns and batons drawn, provoking further violence from the crowd as they moved toward the officers. The activist threw the Molotov cocktail as the bus driver slammed on the gas pedal, the vehicle lurching forward, forcing several demonstrators to jump out of the way. Clay angrily grabbed one of the hippies who had mobbed the bus and slammed his face against the window, smearing it with blood. More protestors surged forward despite the tear gas and rubber bullets sent their way by the police. Clay punched another protestor in the face before JT and Otis pulled him and closed the window, both to prevent the tear gas from entering the bus and to prevent a further confrontation.
“These motherfuckers, they have the freedom to talk trash about us because of what we did over there!” Clay yelled angrily, slamming his fist into the back of the seat in front of him. “But dammit it is I’m going to let them throw things in my face and celebrate the deaths of American soldiers while they wave the enemy’s flags in front of us!”
“I know that, brother, but think about what the news is going to say. You know they’re going to blow this out of proportion and blame the whole thing on us,” Otis said.
JT was silent. He knew that Otis had been desensitized to things like this given the racist hostility he had received much of his life in past two decades before the Civil Rights movements had gotten off the ground. But he himself also found it hard to remain calm as he looked at the people outside, his own fellow Americans whom he was willing to sacrifice his life for, mocking his service, praising the enemy, and even expressing their glee over American casualties.
OAKLAND ARMY BASE
Thankfully, things quieted down significantly as they finished passing through downtown Oakland and entered a industrial area by the waterfront. Here, a few civilians gave the soldiers on the bus some dirty looks but there was none of the violence they had just seen with the hippies and college radicals minutes before. The police escort ended at the entrance to Oakland Army Base, a major processing facility and staging area for American troops shipping off to war and those returning home.
Hours later, they were back in civilian clothes with their Army uniforms in duffel bags as they approached the area where their families and friends were waiting. JT looked up and noticed how eerily similar the security arrangement here were with Da Nang. Snipers and gunners in watchtowers had their sights trained on the area outside the base, since Oakland Army Base wasn’t on a protected island like Alameda was and they were constantly on the lookout for saboteurs trying to infiltrate.
The families from Charming and Lodi were gathered together, as they had all kept in touch locally to support one another as their fathers, sons, and brothers went to the other side of the world to answer freedom’s call. JT immediately glanced his father Cliff and his cousin Nathan talking with Otis’s wife Tameesha, a young slim black woman in her early 20s carrying a small baby. JT was still shaken as he walked toward his family, the sights of the Vietnamese torture chamber and the violent street protest still fresh. He definitely wished had had the 3 week journey across the Pacific that his father had following his service in World War II to prepare for this moment.
“JT!” his father exclaimed, coming forward to embrace him. JT forced as much confidence into himself as he could, as he had heard the stories of how his father and the other members of his unit returned in a homecoming parade after their victory against Japan. In contrast, these troops returning from Vietnam were even told to change into civilian clothes before leaving base for their own safety, at the hands of certain segments of the American population.
JT hugged Cliff Teller for several long seconds, and it seemed like his father was able to read his mind. Cliff unzipped his son’s duffel bag and removed the Purple Heart from his uniform.
“I heard about this, son,” Cliff said, “I know what you did to earn it. I’m damn proud of you. This ain’t right,” he said, motioning toward the perimeter of the base even though no demonstrators were visible from here. He probably did know about the police escort through the Oakland streets though. “I feel like I’m on a different friggin planet right now. You should be able to wear this proudly.”
“It’s a different world these days, dad. I guess we all just have to live with that,” JT said with a shrug. When he first enlisted, the country wasn’t so crazy. Well, Charming was probably still good ol’ Charming even now, but even during their training in San Diego, civilians would thank them for their service to America and wish them the best of luck in their battle against the communists. What a difference a few years makes. He only prayed that time really has continued to stand still in Charming. Otis, on the other hand, was just overjoyed to see his newborn son and had a tearful reunion with his wife. Minutes later, they went on their separate ways, promising to keep in touch.
“I’m allowed to sit at the lunch counter at Harvey’s now, right?” he said, hinting at a future visit to Charming as well as the recent desegregation that had happened across the nation.
JT nodded. “Yes, and if anyone says otherwise, they’ll have to answer to me.”
SAN FRANCISCO-OAKLAND BAY BRIDGE
Instead of heading east on Interstate 80 toward the Central Valley and Charming, however, Cliff drove his 1955 Chevrolet Bel Air onto the westbound on-ramp, quickly merging onto the highway viaduct that eventually took them to the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. JT wanted to head back to Charming as soon as possible and spend a couple days at home finally unwinding from the war and thinking about his job prospects, but his father insisted on this detour to visit his cousin Larry whom he was not on good terms with. One major reason happened to be Larry’s opposition to the war and a string of insulting anti-military letters he had mailed to JT in Vietnam.
Larry wasn’t always like this, but he became caught up in political activism a brainwashed after heading off to college. He had since graduated and settled in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco, a mecca for counterculture people like himself where the drug culture was rampant, marijuana smoke permeated the air, and people regularly burned their draft cards in public. JT had no interest in them having lunch with Larry, but both Cliff and his uncle had insisted that family was still family, and they were not going to let the war change that.
FISHERMAN’S WHARF, SAN FRANCISCO
By the time they crossed the bay, the fog over San Francisco had dissipated and it was warm enough for this outdoor café with a nice view of Alcatraz Island and the Golden Gate Bridge to be packed with patrons. The dirty looks continued, right here by smug liberal yuppies in business suits and designer skirts. JT hated these people even more than the raggedly hippies and anarchists they had seen on the other side of the bay. He knew deep down they were miserable people, wracked by the kind of middle class American guilt instilled in them by liberal college professors or by the national media which covered the war with a pronounced sympathy toward the communists.
Larry did not greet JT and Cliff as he entered the waterfront café with his father, JT’s Uncle Chuck. JT immediately saw that Larry was still the same arrogant, self-righteous prick that fit in so well with this crowd.
“Hey!” a female voice suddenly yelled harshly from the sidewalk outside the dining area. JT looked up to see a rather attractive woman in her 20s with her blond hair covered by a bandana and wearing a sun dress with dozens of colors. “Yeah, I’m talking to you!” the woman said louder this time, “How many children did you kill over there, soldier?”
“Excuse me?” JT said in shock, getting us just as three college-aged young men pushed through the crowd to join her. One of them wore a preppy polo shirt while the two others wore clothes identifying themselves as students from UC Berkeley, one a sports jersey and the other a sweatshirt.
“Forget it, son!” Cliff said to him. “All their uppity clothes and attitude, they’re still trash. They don’t know a thing about this country. They ain’t raised right. They ain’t worth it, son!”
By this time, though. JT had had enough. “I watched dozens of men die in that fucking jungle fighting for this country. My friend was tortured to death with snake venom for over an hour because he loved this country, just so these bastards can celebrate his death.”
“Are you deaf, boy?” the sun dress girl said, “Some grenades explode to close to your ear or something?” She laughed.
“You have no idea what we did over there or the shit we went through!” JT said, gritting his teeth.
“What, you’re going to attack me the way you raped those Vietnamese women you racist imperialist fuck? Trust me I a lot more well-read than those hicks out in the boonies who still glory war and aggression.” With that, she spat violently at him at least point blank range, her saliva striking him right between the eyes.
She followed up with an obscene gesture, mocking him. “I guess here you can’t do a thing, can you soldier boy? That’s what I thought. And you wouldn’t dare, you ignorant hick. My dad’s a doctor in Marin County! What does your old man here do, plow fields for a living? You people are only so tough when you’re killing Vietnamese freedom fighters with those guns from the military-industrial complex.”
Before she could continue, the male student in the Berkeley jersey went up to JT from behind, lifting a mid-sized bucket over his head and quickly pouring out its contents. JT immediately realized that it was nothing but an entire gallon of urine that the radical student had dumped on him.
“Stop the war now! Justice in Vietnam!” the student yelled loudly, shaking his fists in the air. The girl and the two other students quickly joined in. As JT recovered from the sudden shock he saw that many of the other patrons in the café and passerby on the waterfront plaza were clapping, cheering on the students, and jeering and laughing at both JT and his father.
“We don’t want your kind here in our city!” shouted a man running a food stand. “Go home, baby killer!”
Larry just stood there in shock as if caught between his cousin and his ideological allies, while the student in the polo shirt flashed JT an arrogant, taunting grin then also spit on the ground in front of him. That was when JT lost it and charged forward at the student, angrily overturning his chair with his hands.
“Calm down, yo!” the polo shirt guy said, mockingly putting his hands in the air. “I know you’re probably all unhinged from the war and all but….”
Before he could finish the sentence, JT’s right fist slammed into his nose, sending blood flying in all directions. JT followed through with a side kick that sent him flying over a railing and into the street, causing several cars to screech to a halt, narrowing missing him. One of the drivers got out of his car and looked at the student in shock. By now, half of his fancy shirt was red with blood.
“You goddamn motherfucker….” JT heard as the young man in the Berkeley jersey came at him as well followed by the one in the sweatshirt. At this point the radical female student was screaming hysterically and crying for someone to call the police.
JT’s training immediately came front and center into his mind as he realized these men truly wished him physical harm. Hours after landing on American soil, he was at war again. The sweatshirt guy attacked him with a front kick, but he stepped aside and kicked him behind the knee, shattering his leg. The student collapsed in a heap on the ground but JT wasn’t done with him yet. He angrily grabbed him by the neck and threw him over a table, knocking it over and sending food and drinks flying through the air, dousing the nearby patrons and waitstaff with beverages, lettuce and sauce.
JT saw the polo shirt guy struggle to get up and spit some blood onto the pavement and was upon him in a rage. The student came at JT, swinging wildly. JT responded with a back kick that struck him in the chest, then a roundhouse kick the impacted the young man’s skull, sending him flying backward into the front bumper of a taxi. JT grabbed the man by his collar and headbutted him in the nose again, then spit in his face in return.
“It’s you who’s the fucking coward!” JT screamed in his face. The jeers of the crowd around them had been replaced with silence by this point. “And you’re an idiot. You want to pick a fight with a soldier in the US Army. Well I’m proud of this country, and I’ll always be proud of this country, and of this uniform. That’s something I don’t think you’ll ever get through that useless brain of yours!”
JT kneed the student in the chest then punched him again, slamming his head back against the bumper. He then repeated that with another punch.
“John! Stop!” his father was screaming now. “You’re killing him! Remember, these people are not worth….”
JT left the polo shirt man in a broken, bloody heap but now saw the third student in the Berkeley jersey trying to slip away in the crowd. JT jumped back over the fence into the plaza and gave chase. The jersey student saw JT coming after him and began shoving through the crowd, picking up speed but JT quickly closed the distance between them. The crowd, for all their earlier toughness, parted as JT pursued his prey.
JT tackled the student and the two of them went flying through the windows of a microbrewery, landing in a shower of broken glass as the customers and bartenders fled the scene in shock. The student kicked JT in the chest, momentarily stunning him then grabbed a broken beer bottle in an attempt to stab JT.
“Goddamn baby killing GI redneck,” the student growled in hatred as he tightened his grip on the makeshift weapon. He would bring it down on this soldier’s neck. He would do it for his beaten and bloodied friends on the street outside, and he would do it for the revolutionary heroes of Vietnam who were dying as a result of American neo-colonialism.
JT blocked the Berkeley student’s arm before his attacker could draw blood with the broken bottle. He then easily grabbed the student’s wrist and slammed his hand into the bar, shattering his knuckles and forcing him to drop the beer bottle. The student refused to give up despite the pain and grabbed a bar stool in an attempt to strike JT in the head. JT dodged the attack and kicked the student in the groin, causing him to squeal in pain. JT then picked him up and threw him like a ragdoll across the bar, the student’s body shattering a dozen wine bottles before falling down behind the bar unconscious.
“John! JT!!!!” Cliff was screaming now but JT was not hearing anything. He was back in the jungle, remembering Lawson, Tucker and everyone else he had lost in that battle and during his captivity. He now set his sights on the food vendor who had insulted him, even as the sound of approaching sirens filled the air.
“Shit,” the vendor said to him as JT came. I“Look, man, I’m not with those guys. What the fuck, man?”
“You want me to get out of this fucking city? You care to say that again to my face?” JT demanded.
The vendor simply blabbered some nonsense.
“Let me tell you something, cause if you don’t have the guts to go over there and fight for your own freedom like we’re doing for you, you can at least respect the American flag. Because if you don’t, you can get the fuck out of this country and find your own paradise somewhere else.”
With that, JT violently shoved the vendor backwards into the waters of the harbor with a splash. JT then pushed the food cart toward the water’s edge as well.
“What the fuck is wrong with you man? You fucking crazy!” the vendor stammered in shock as he began. “Calm down man, Jesus Christ!” JT sent the cart into the water with a splash right next to its horrified owner.
“Freeze! Now! Hands up!” several voices shouted. JT turned around and saw at least seven police officers making their way across the plaza toward him with their service weapons drawn. “Hands up where we can see them!” More police cars were pulling up to Fisherman’s Wharf, along with several ambulances. JT glanced to the side and saw a group of paramedics at the street corner where the polo shirt guy was and more officers going into the shattered bar.
JT breathed out slowly, finally forcing himself to calm down despite the continued anger he felt as the stench of urine that covered him. These bastards had it coming. Right now, he hated them even more than the North Vietnamese guards who had tortured them back in Hoi An village.
Land of the free, home of the brave. What a sick joke, JT thought to himself.