Saturday, May 26 , 2018, 4:51 pm | Fair 74º


Ken Williams: What If I Was Supposed to Die?

Haunted by memories of a war long past but tortured by the battles still being fought, did he cheat Death? Or did Death cheat him?

The memories — those comforting familiar, yet foreboding thoughts and images come with the stillness of night. In that space — time in between the realities of the day and the dream world with its own rules, its own logic, they come. This night the netherworld comes courtesy of a song: “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” This song was like an anthem to many of us in Vietnam. It spoke to the sense of betrayal we felt of the people back home whom we felt had abandoned us to the hell of war. It was also the way we heard about bad news: Whispers of operations for insane purposes, of new battle plans for fields of death; of wasted lives for the stupidest of reasons.

Ken Williams and his dog, Sampson. (Williams family photo)

Tonight the song suggested yet another purpose; that perhaps Death was sending me a message wrapped around lyrics and hidden in between notes from that long ago time. We tend to think of Death as infallible, an entity that never makes a mistake. But what happens if it isn’t that way? If in the middle of all that death, with so many souls to collect, that he makes mistakes — that he made a mistake. As most, if not all, combat veterans do, we obsess with what might-have-beens. With the bullet with your name on it that misses you by inches. With mortars, artillery and bombs that separate you from death by fractions of seconds and slivers of inches.

This night, The Incident came rushing back as alive as my day’s activity of hours before had been. Again the feeling of being dead tired, of thirst sandblasting my throat and tongue raw, till all moisture had been stolen, enslaved me. The combat sweep had been futile yet colorful. F-4 Phantom fighter-bomber napalm strikes had provided us with a light show that put to shame any to be found at rock concerts back in the world. Once again I saw that blackest of black that seemed to suck in sunlight, and those hypnotizing vibrant reds and oranges. And I had never before seen a mortar wobble then stall in midair before plunging to earth. Of course, this was war so victory could be claimed when we found a severed human foot — fresh blood, new meat for the God of War.

We relaxed, letting our guard down. The mission was over when suddenly the sharp crack of AK-47s split the air as they spit out tiny missiles of death. I dived into a bomb crater as more cracks of automatic rifle fire built upon one another. Then, eerie silence. Not a sound could be heard. I crawled to the top of the crater to try to spot the source of the fire if, when they should open up again. Just as I peeked over the edge, I felt the impact of incoming bullets digging into the dirt on the other side of the crater, knowing only inches of soil separated my body from them. Again I heard the familiar crack of rifle fire but also something else, something new, a buzzing sound. I felt the small displacement of air pressure when the last bullet streaked over the edge of the bomb crater and flew past my head so close — too close. I slid down, knowing the bullet had just missed taking my head off, a wound that I could not have possibly survived.

I remember being mad, shocked, but most of all hurt that someone had tried to kill me. This was personal. This was not indiscriminate rifle fire. The North Vietnamese army soldier had deliberately and carefully taken aim at me and me alone. I wanted to shout to him: What had I ever done to him? How had I hurt him? Of course, these were stupid questions. His job was to murder me as my job was to murder him.

If he had raised his rifle an inch higher, sighted his AK-47 slightly to the right, waited for me to raise my head a little more over the edge, or if I had moved to the left, I would have died then and there. This night, here in Santa Barbara, I began to toy with the idea that perhaps that was the way it had really happened. Or, I think, what if Death had simply been sloppy that day? And what if he has had time since then to recalibrate the dynamics of that day and put everything right? Would my life simply slip away? My children and wife fade into a metaphysical nothingness? Is that the hidden message of the song? Is he here to collect a soul that had inexplicably slipped through his fingers all those years ago?

Or maybe I’m looking at this all wrong. Maybe just before you die, it is not your life that passes before your eyes but what your life might have been if you had lived. Maybe the seconds that it takes one to bleed out, feels like years — or even decades. Maybe Death sits next to me even now, waiting: Waiting for me to see, to sense the waste of war, of throwing one’s life away for foolish words of corrupt men as we have throughout history. Maybe it’s his way of saying enough of this cruel human invention: war. His way of sending me a message through the Grapevine.

Postscript: Memorial Day came and went and I found myself strangely upset — sad. This tragic holiday came and went and outside the “veterans community” hardly a word can be found in the media. It feels like the ultimate sacrifice fits uncomfortably in our community. Perhaps it’s our demographics, compassion fatigue, lack of military service for most or an unpopular war, but it seems that veterans are wheeled out only for the benefit of the newest war or conniving politicians who need a sales pitch. Just maybe it’s the guilt — how we pay in blood for hidden agendas and lies and we, as citizens of a democratic society share in the responsibility.

We need to honor the dead and say “Never Again.” Maybe we don’t honor the dead because we would then need to look within ourselves and how we have allowed blood to be so easily spilled. Then again, maybe it’s just me — alone with bitter memories on this day.

Ken Williams served with the 9th Marines in Vietnam. He has worked as a social worker for the homeless in Santa Barbara for the last 30 years. He is the author of China White and Shattered Dreams: A Story of the Streets.

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