War causes so much waste. In this poignant story set in Florida, John J. McCullagh reflects on how the Vietnam War affected some lives.
I first met him on a steamy hot humid day in his small apartment in Ocala City. A priest friend had asked me to call with him, advising that he was facing death in deep anger. The afternoon had darkened for the predictable thunderstorm with the accompanying downpour as I made my uncertain tour around the streets searching for NW 57th Avenue. Just as I found the steps to the apartment block, the heavens opened and a sudden crack of thunder rolled, echoing towards the north. I introduced myself as he pointed to a rocking chair from his bed without a word. As he swallowed a few pills and worked impatiently with an inhaler, I could read years of family pride in the framed photographs on the walls. The television quietly flickered through CNN headline news as the overhead fan purred gently in the air-conditioned room.
“From Ireland then?”, he drawled, as he struggled to a recliner chair near the window where he made himself comfortable after many shifts and turns. “You’re looking at a dying man with the end of life’s road coming before my thirty-fifth birthday… it needn’t have been like this,” he went on, “I am a victim of the greatest scourge on earth, not famine, not plague, not any disease … but war. While I use the bathroom you look through the family art gallery. Look at all the great promise which has faded. See if you can find this emaciated, cancer-engraved face among those college pictures.”
There were all the photographs of his High School days where he looked a powerful athletic young man in the football and basketball teams. He stood proudly with a girlfriend at the graduation ball. Then came camera shots of his years at Military Academy ending with a passing-out ceremony. A silver-framed portrait showed him resplendent in his cadet officer uniform beside a frail, but proud, mother. Above the television set I saw a soldier from another age, another war, and I could detect the hint of a family resemblance.
“My father,” he said, pointing to the picture, “was killed in the early days of the Korean war somewhere south of Seoul city near the river Han. July 1950 is the army’s nearest guess. He worked as a young man fishing for sponges at Tarpon Springs on the Gulf of Mexico. Then some bacterial blight struck the sponge beds and almost wiped out his way of living. He came here to Ocala and joined the army in the late forties. A short time later he left for Korea when I was just a year old. I had scarcely uttered my first word when my mother was told of his brave death. She never really recovered but lived until I had finished at Military Academy.”
The storm intensified and the thunder sporadically drowned out our conversation. “I was so proud of my father. He was a dead hero, a military man with his name engraved outside the museum. While the other boys in the neighbourhood collected cigarette cards of baseball greats, my heroes were General George Patton and General Omar Bradley, so you can guess how happy I was when the posting to Vietnam came through. I wasn’t long there before the atrocity of war deeply shocked me. I lost two close friends from college days in a steamy jungle where the Vietcong were masters and I saw hate take revenge on simple farm folk at the whim of suspicion. I saw medical orderlies trying to stitch together what were once vibrant young men and then there was the blood dyeing jungle paths and the ruined bunkers. The war robbed us of human dignity and stole away our humanity so we reached for drugs to help us deny all that”.
Eventually I was caught in a shower of Agent Orange which our aircraft rained down on the forests to strip away their foliage. I came home knowing that it would eventually strip me of my youth, my vigour and my life … and that’s exactly what it has done. I grew up a Baptist and had an easy relationship with God, but war put an end to that too. There were too many questions about suffering, the futility of life and the rampant hate, so the easiest thing to do was to put God aside as I had done with Father Christmas when I was ten. When I moved into this block, I left God outside.”
The storm was passing as the doorbell rang and the screen door opened. He introduced me to his area nurse, Ying Sui. Satisfied that he was in no pain, she left. “Now I want to tell you something. When I locked the Lord out of this apartment, He sneaked back in the guise of that petite little Vietnamese nurse. I went screaming mad the day the nursing agency sent her here. I wanted no reminders of Asia and the Far East with its horrific nightmares. For God’s sake, at that time, I woke screaming at night when I thought that the whirring roof fan were the blades of a helicopter over Duc Ninh. No insult I offered her, no mockery about her people, seemed ever to upset her great calm. Then, one day, when the rage had died in me a little, she gently told me her story. She was Chinese, born in North Vietnam. She paid local people for her passage to Hong Kong. With almost two hundred others she was crowded into a decrepid vessel and ran under sail before the Monsoon for thirty days. Many died and were gently lowered into the sea. Her mother and sister were among them. They were what the press here called “the boat people”. She stayed months in a dockyard transit until she was finally sent to a family in Tampa. She took up her nursing career as soon as she had mastered enough English and she has been the greatest source of calm, strength and hope I have ever known.”
After a few minutes of silent thought he told me that the same war had scourged both of them but she had some deeper source of peace which he envied. “I met your priest friend during one of my stays in hospital, l liked him because he offered no easy answer to suffering. He took a crucifix from his pocket one night and told me that he could find Christ in suffering easier than anywhere else. He sat with me and gave me scope to blaspheme and complain about the injustice of living and he still calls with me. I now have that crucifix and I do find an understanding saviour there as he too knew the dark bitterness of lonely hours. I know too that he is alive because of Ying Sui’s gentle presence.”
When I got back to Ireland I sent him a framed scroll of Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy’s war poem:
Waste of Muscle, waste of Brain,
Waste of Patience, waste of Pain,
Waste of manhood, waste of Health,
Waste of Beauty, waste of Wealth
Waste of Blood and waste of Tears
Waste of Youth’s most precious years
Waste of ways the saints have trod,
Waste of Glory, waste of God –
He died a few months later in the wake of Christmas. The poem now hangs in Ying Sui’s nurses’ quarters at a hospital in Tampa, Florida.
This article first appeared in The Word (June 2002), a Divine Word Missionary Publication.