Opinion » Bill Cope

Caught in the Wake

The everlasting spoils of war


It's been over a decade since my friend told me this story, so I can't swear to the accuracy of every detail. Besides, he was drinking at the time, so even if I remember the story right, who knows if he told it to me right? And even had he not been drinking, which was unlikely because drinking and working were the only things he had left by then, it happened to him over 30 years before the night he told me about it.

With that said, I'm confident the basic outline is pretty close to what he told me. It's the sort of story you don't forget when it comes from a pal. And I doubt he got it wrong, either, because it's the sort of memory no amount of drinking can cleanse away.

He was in the Navy, on one of those powerboats our boys used to patrol the Mekong River with. The year had to be either 1959, 1960 or '61, early on in the stinking mess of our Vietnam involvement. He'd graduated from Boise High in 1958 as one of the most promising musicians to ever come out of Idaho. As a musician, myself, I assure you I'm not exaggerating. He was a remarkable young trombone virtuoso and went on to excel at several other instruments. In later times, people who marveled at his proficiency on bass fiddle or tuba would never have guessed he started out as a symphonic slush-pumper. He had an ear as finely tuned as the Hubble telescope, amazing technique and a range of expression you find only in a handful of humans. I tell you, music was in his veins.

But first, he went to Vietnam. I'm not sure why. His father was ex-military and I'm only guessing when I say he was raised to join up, just as he was born to make music. Whatever the reason, by 1959 he was playing horn in a Navy band, boxing in Navy Golden Gloves matches, and serving in Vietnam. His first duty was on one of those big warships we sent over there as though we expected to find a Viet Cong Bismarck waiting for us. Turned out, the only use we had for a conventional WWII navy in Vietnam was to give Lyndon Johnson something to lie about in the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. (If you don't know what I'm talking about, look it up for yourself. This column isn't about Vietnam. It's about my friend and how, whatever else happened to him, Vietnam was always there, too. In his veins.)

Since they had no other navy to shoot at, they put some swabbies out on river boats patrolling the Mekong. That's where my friend was, on one of those boats, when the shell hit. He'd already seen plenty of horrible things. He'd told me how sometimes, he and his mates had to get chin-deep into the water and grope through the undercut of the river for the enemy. He'd told me he killed a Viet Cong teenager with a knife. I suspect there were other things he couldn't tell me.

But God bless 'im, he did what he was told to do because he trusted the men telling him to do it, and because he was barely 20 years old. I want to make it clear: He wasn't bragging about any of this. It only came out when we were together, drinking. It was like he was bleeding somewhere and to talk about it, he had to get drunk first.

When the shell hit them, he was in the top part of the boat, whatever they call it. The way he described it, there were three levels-up on top where he was, an in-between level where a bunch of his buddies were, and then the bottom of the boat. The explosion came from below, up through the deck he was standing on. He dropped like a grand piano, entirely through the second level where his buddies were, and came down ker-thud in the bowels of the boat. He was stunned, but not seriously hurt. His first thought-and this is the part I could never get wrong or never forget-was that he had been drenched with strawberry jam.

The shell had hit on the second level, you see. Where his buddies were. He had passed through them on his way down.

He came home and as expected, had a stellar career in music. Wherever he performed, which was essentially all over the Northwest, his fellow musicians came to regard him as the best of the best. I played music with him over a period of years, but never got over feeling damn lucky just to be on the bandstand with a talent of his proportions.

His personal life, though, didn't turn out so well. Two marriages, both failed. No sons. No daughters. At his funeral last week, a few of us discussed what a fine father he would have made, judging from the care and concern he showed for his friends' children and his students.

But it didn't work out that way for him. He was simply too angry and unsettled for the compromises and accommodations one must make to carry on a conventional life. He could muster no patience with false people and he could not tolerate those who didn't know what they were talking about. I consider myself an angry man, but I was a mere simmering stew next to him-a seething volcano, ever ready to erupt.

He erupted on me once, at a music job, when he learned that I'd been a conscientious objector to the stinking mess of a war that had defined his life so sharply. He could have taken my head off with one Golden Gloves jab, and I have no doubt he was tempted.

Instead, he walked away. I'm pretty sure that had I not followed him outside and refused to let him go, we would have never spoken again. It must have been quite a spectacle for the folks who'd hired our band: two horn players standing in the street screaming at one another.

But it passed and I feel we became better friends because of it. He offered to teach me, and the music lessons became a weekly excuse to talk long hours and drink. It was during one of those sessions he told me about the Mekong, the boat ... the strawberry jam. We came to understand one another. I began to see the only thing separating my conventional life from his lonely one was that I was burdened by no such horror as he.

I frankly didn't want to write this. It's disturbing to recall how disturbed his time here was, and furthermore, I expect someone will accuse me of exploiting a lost friend's pain to make a point. But I haven't, nor will I, tell you his name. Those who knew him will recognize who I'm talking about, and for the rest, let his story serve as an illustration of how there are wounds that never close and casualties that are never counted. If this causes someone think a little longer and a little harder before sending our fragile young hearts into the hell of war, I can live with the accusations. My friend lived with a lot worse.