“I was in Vietnam,” was what he said
“I was a vitamin,” is what I heard.
You need to speak loudly to be heard on a small sailboat reaching downwind in a heavy sea. And Pete, who was generally a man of very few words and hadn’t uttered a single one in over an hour, had spoken loudly. His words shattered the blustery cadence our predawn watch with the suddenness and intensity of six shots being fired at very close range.
“I WAS A VIT-A-MIN”
I nearly leapt off my post at the leeward winch of our 39’ sailboat and into the churning Pacific.
I wiped off some of the salt water that was channeling steadily down my face on the way into the soaked clothes inside my overly weathered foul weather gear. I stared back at Pete who stood behind the oversized wheel, his face framed by the hood of his jacket, oddly illuminated by the eerie red light of the binnacle.
“WHAT?” I said.
He stared back at me with an expression that suggested I was the one that had said something incomprehensible. I looked back at him and waited, wondering over the loud and rhythmic surge of the wind and waves why my watch partner was claiming to have been a dietary supplement.
“I WAS A VIT-A-MIN FOR TWO YEARS.”
“OK!?” I shouted back, still clueless. I gave him a thumb’s up.
Pete was strictly a tactical speaker. In the half dozen offshore races we had sailed together over course of a year and a half, he rarely addressed anything beyond the immediate task at hand. “Trim. Hold This. Boom’s coming across. Toss me a beer. It’s gonna blow.” Disciplined by an acute fear that his sentences might get weighted down and lodged in the back of his throat, he took great care in stripping them of all extraneous baggage, such as adjectives and adverbs. He restricted his embellishments to cursing, getting amazing mileage out of “shit,” “no shit,” “fuck,” and “fuck no,” based on the subtleties of the inflections and tone with which they were unleashed.
On a race around the Farallon Islands the previous summer, I had been working the foredeck when the bow buried into a swell and a wall of water pitched me overboard, leaving me dragging against the hull at the end of my safety harness. Pete single handedly grabbed the line, then my harness, and hauled me back on board all in the time it took the helmsman to head us dead into the wind. As I landed back on the deck, Pete managed to express his anger at my carelessness, concern for my safety, and relief I was back on board all with the masterfully articulated sentence, “FUCKING A.”
I on the other hand, had lots to say.
On June 15, 1980, the starting cannon fired, and 40 boats began their crossing from San Francisco to Kauai. I reveled in the excitement of the start and cheered with the rest of our 8 man crew as the fleet charged under the Golden Gate Bridge. It was my 22nd birthday. It was the day of my college graduation. I was literally setting sail on the unchartered waters of my post college life, with my long term plans limited to my short term goals of staying on the boat. I was simultaneously amped up, pumped up, acutely anxious, and as Pete would attest, infuriatingly chatty.
My testosterone based euphoria receded as the first heavy and frigid rush of ocean water careened over the deck and into the seams of my aforementioned weathered gear. The seas and winds built quickly outside The Gate, and our chatter faded as fast, replaced by the sounds of the surging sea and the creaks, rattles, and moans of the boat and its rigging. By sunset that first day, the traffic of the start dissipated from cluttered to barely a handful of sails fading into the twilight at several points along the horizon. By dawn of the first morning, after a rough night, we were alone. Eight men, soaked to the bone on a 39 foot sloop, living in a space about the size of a minivan. Pete and I were paired in one of the watches that would rotate through the night.
I took Pete’s silences as an invitation to talk. Hoping to cajole him into the same type of expansive and engaging conversations endemic to college life, I traced the rigors of trying to tackle a double major. I shared my “nightmares” of term papers and the sleepless nights preparing for final exams. I mused about the cruel twist of fate that had left a close friend in a coma after he had been hit in the head with a full strawberry milkshake heaved from a passing car. I talked (and talked) politics, family, religion, sex, sports, and wildebeest migration habits. I marveled periodically at how the vastness of the ocean could make you feel small and completely insignificant. I hung on my every word.
Pete concentrated on making the boat go fast. As he told me before we parted ways in Kauai, he spent the first four days of our passage torn between tossing me overboard or committing suicide.
On the fourth night, propelled by a percolating kinship he felt toward me for sharing birthdays, and with an impassioned hope that I might shut up, he started talking.
“I was in Viet-nam.”
And then, for three nights he sketched his multiple tours in Vietnam, the first starting when he was just 19. At the same ages I had been choosing a major, renting refrigerators, waxing philosophical in the dorms, playing Ultimate Frisbee, dating, and pondering BF Skinner, Plato and Shakespeare, Pete was a “grunt,” as he called it, a radio operator in a platoon running patrols in Vietnam.
He spoke in an unhurried monotone, clearer each night as the weather calmed. His nightmares were harrowingly different than mine. With coffee in one hand, and the other working the wheel, he would sip and preface his words with the disclaimer of “I don’t talk about it much.” Then without a trace of emotion – outside of the long pauses – he sifted through a collage of his horrors. He spoke of the brutal suddenness of friends shot dead. Of hiding under corpses. Of the “LURPS” as he called them, the Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols that freaked him out, who drove into camp with Vietcong bodies dragging behind jeeps. Of firefights. Of oppressive heat and rain and sickness. Of screams. Of body bags. Of lifeless limbless men, women and kids. Of pain and fear and scars you could see and the scars you could hear in his voice.
I listened. I heard the words. I felt the tension and pain in them, especially in the long silences that followed various chapters of his deployments. I awkwardly filled in a few gaps with brilliant insights such as “you must have been scared.” Intellectually, I registered the horrors, but we were at sea, bonding, sipping coffee, the trade winds settling in, the air warming by the day. In another week, we would be in Kauai. For all the intensity of his narrative, the horror was many nautical miles and many years removed. I felt the tremors, but the experience was still akin to reading about the brutal cold of Everest from the confines of a large chair in front of a roaring fire.
After three nights of ambushes, land mines, choppers, jungle rot, close combat, tourniquets and triage, we, along with the majority of the fleet, sailed into the doldrums and floated almost motionless on a glassy sea. It was windless and humid. At night, the sea was so still that the stars reflected on the water making it impossible to tell where the ocean ended and the night sky began.
And in that stillness and heat, and just as the evening watch made their way topside, a mayday was broadcast to the fleet. It crackled over the radio, drawing all eight of us, shirtless and sweaty around the amber night lights of the navigation table. We huddled around each other, glued to the radio and the drama that was unfolding a little over 20 miles from where we drifted. The boat’s skipper had run out of critical medication and was having a psychotic break. We listened to the drama unfold as a frightened voice faded in and out over the static and reported in fits and spurts how the skipper had attacked members of the crew, was tossing gear overboard, had retreated to the deck and eventually leapt overboard. Paradoxically, the boat was named “Friendship.”
“That’s fucked up,” was how Pete summarized both the event and its likely resolution.
We listened to the drama unfold as their skipper was eventually recovered, hauled on board and restrained. The troubled ship, which would lose its rudder post several days later and be shipped to Kauai, ended up communicating with a coast guard plane with clicks form its handset. One click for “yes.” Two clicks for “no.” And then, in the early morning hours everything fell silent, and those of us not on watch drifted back into the heat, humidity, and sleep.
Pete liked to sleep in the forward V-berth. It was as far away as you could get from the galley and cockpit, and therefore as quiet as it ever got on board. I stepped in, called his name, and gently shook his shoulder to wake him for a 4:00 AM watch.
Pete screamed. Not a short “holy shit, you scared me,” scream. He screamed loud and long, panicked and terrified. He screamed in extended, blood curdling blasts. He kicked me backwards, and with eyes wide open and darting, he pushed himself as far into the nose of the boat as a 6’ plus man could go. He bellowed so horrifically that I sat on the floor where I had fallen with my hands pressed against my ears. He covered his head with his forearms, and then began slamming his fists against the inside of the hull.
It took two other crewmembers and me, who eventually got off the floor, one of the longest minutes of my life to get Pete to stop the pounding and the screaming. He glared at us, visibly shaking, eyes wide, tensely coiled, and sweating profusely. His screams clashed with the repeated shouts from the skipper to wake up that he was “ON A FUCKING BOAT.” And then Pete began crying, which came in fits and spurts as someone handed him a towel and then some water. And then with his knuckles bleeding, he turned away from us, toward the hull, and curled up in a fetal position, where he would stay until late the next morning.
Shaken and trembling uncontrollably, I hurried my way through the cabin and up into the cockpit. Three of us sat there quietly for several moments, the boat drifting imperceptibly on the current, with not a breath of wind and with no one at the wheel.
“He was in Vietnam,” someone said. “He still wakes up there sometimes.” Someone else added that his wife said he slept with a loaded pistol under his pillow.
I sat shivering in the heat with nothing to add. I had mercifully run out of words.
It took us 15 days, 20 hours and 26 minutes to complete the crossing. We anchored in the bay at Nawiliwili Harbor and slowly and happily transitioned to life onshore.
A few days later, in the twilight of the 4th of July, Pete and I headed along a dimly lit path that wound through the thick tropical foliage to the highly acclaimed pig roast on the beach. The path was lit only from the torches and the bonfire that flickered up from the beach. Firecrackers and bottle rockets exploded in loud bursts from every direction. Revelers shouted. Halfway down the path, Pete stopped in front of me. He crouched down and took a long look at the path in front of him.
“Hey,” he said. After a long pause, he added, “This isn’t for me.”
With a quick apology, he stood up, patted my back and headed back up the path. When he turned, he inadvertently upended another partygoer who was headed to the beach. He was in the middle of shouting something about the “U-S-of A” when Pete collided with him. He had a huge paunch and was dressed in an American flag T-shirt, red, white and blue shorts, and a cap that read TEAM U.S.A. He fell flat on his beamy ass spilling his beer over his chest as he went down.
Holding the remnants of his beer upright, the guy shouted after Pete, “Hey asshole, what the fuck is your problem.”
Pete never looked back.
It occurred to me ever so briefly to apologize for Pete and to explain the unspeakable horror I had glimpsed. How for a few very terrifying intense seconds, I had come as close to Vietnam as anyone should ever have to get. How after over a decade, part of him was still fighting to finish the passage home.
But as I watched the guy struggle to his feet, trying desperately to save the last few drops of his drink, the beer-soaked transparent stars and stripes sticking to his hairy chest, I couldn’t find the words.
“He was a vitamin,” I explained and walked toward the clearing.