Don't Mean Nothin' (Script)

sound recording, text copyright, 1995 and 1990, respectively, James Surkamp

Go To Script, Length:

"Don't Mean Nothin'" was written and produced for radio over a six-year period, beginning in 1990. James Surkamp of Shepherdstown, WV. met counselors Art James and Jerry Beightol at the Veterans' Outreach Center in Martinsburg at a pretty dicey time. The Center was often filled with men in extreme states of stress and malfunction. One vet left a live hand grenade in one counselor's office. Conversations with Art and Jerry, reading books like Caputo's "A Rumor of War," "Unwinding the Vietnam War," and seeing documentaries helped Surkamp to write the script.

Part of the story was adapted to actual experiences of Art James and John Baca, who later was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. All experiences in the broadcast really happened to someone.

Film director and Vietnam vet Oliver Stone generously made the final production as good as it is by letting us use soundscapes from his films: "Platoon," and "Born on the Fourth of July."

(Credits: Actor Bill Caldwell reads Vergil's part. Actress Ardyth Gilbertson is the woman. Kevin Williams, professor of Communications at Shepherd College, engineered sound and, with Surkamp, did the sound design. Dave Hellyer provided a key harmonica piece).

"Don't Mean Nothin'" has been broadcast in virtually all major cities over public radio stations served by Public Radio International. No fees have been accepted. No tapes will be sold. No sponsors sought.

The broadcast wants to help people of a later generation to understand why an uncle or guy up the street seems to act "differently" because of a strange malady or event called Vietnam. It seeks to help all parts of our society, that was so ripped apart and anguished back then, to begin to hear one another's pain, without prejudice, and to recognize any attempt to do something brave and selfless.

John Fussell, the author of "Wartime" about World War II and the untold horror of war, said in an interview that the history of war was so far written down by "the bloodthirsty, the sentimental, the ignorant, and the looney patriotic." Any description of war should reflect how any combat veteran remembers it.


I respected his tone. That man sounded sincere. So when the local draft board called, I went. It was the law.

My Dad said it was my decision.


Beth and I sat for hours in deep, loving silence. . .in an eternal embrace. . .When I asked her, she too said it was my decision.


I flew out to Fort Lewis for 'Nam that July in '69. My parents and Beth had said their goodbyes. They didn't need to come and see me off.

Lots of guys on the flight over the Pacific talked tough and crude and cut jokes. It helped to cut the fear we felt. . . I was frozen in time. . .I wondered about killing and dying. I wanted to know. I was curious.

I wanted to go to Vietnam to serve my country. I didn't hear anyone say I should do otherwise.


When we finally landed, my life as a young man in the U.S.A. seemed - suddenly - to be lost.


A blast of hot air and dust hit my face.

I smelled diesel and the black tar of Cam Ran Bay airstrip.


Hot weather - always. In Vietnam, there are two seasons - hot, or hot, sticky and wet, enough to make leather rot, and too hot for underwear.

In our full pack gear, we looked, beside the Vietnamese - like huge gods. They were small, harmless, gentle.

They called us: "The beautiful people."

We were warned in basic training that little children sometimes carried live grenades in baskets. . .'Numbah-one GI' meant you were the best.

Vietnam, in those very first days, filled me with haunting wonder.

John B., a guy from California, and I were lifted out by chopper taking us two cherries to the First Cavalry Division, near Tay Ninh, Three Corps. . .Lucky us - infantry. Front lines.

John B. was quiet. He seemed to still be thinking a lot about what an old guy in California said: "Don't fight for your country. God is your personal saviour."

The country below was fairytale green. The jungle canopy sheltered all things ancient, menacing: lizards, cobras, red ants, sickness, jungle rot.

We saw rice fields. But no one was hoeing them. There was a sorrow in the land. We were now over a free-fire zone, where any Vietnamese still around were considered the enemy. All the villagers in that area had already taken what belongings they could carry and were marched to safer, strategic hamlets.


The B-52's then came in and bombed their ancestral homes into black, smoky ruins. . .We saw the form of an old peasant man, reaching down and putting things in his basket, stooped in the center of a water-filled bomb crater, where his centuries-old village had been. His face, from a distance, seemed weary, but determined. He had decided to stay behind and soon join the spirits of his ancestors.


The chopper descended into the sunlit clearing surrounded by dense vegetation. The tiny figures below were GI's waiting for the mail, holding out letters for the door gunner to take back to "The World." These were the men we would come to know - better than anyone in our lives, before or since.

The men looked at us, hard. They were quiet. Someone told me they had just walked into an ambush before we came. There was emptiness at this place. Someone was not there and missed.


We traded cigarettes for pork slices, pear slices, fruit cocktail, or just tried to deal with the ham and mothers. Their stares were hard and looked deeply into my soul. "Who are you?" one said.

They wanted to know if I could carry their ammo, cover their back, keep them alive or get me and them killed, like some stupid suck. The two- tour guys listened to my responses in silence. They knew only time would tell.


We humped through jungle so thick the sun didn't penetrate. Red ants bit my sweaty neck. In the humid heat, leeches hooked onto my skin and crotch when I scrubbed in a stream or got used to sleeping half-submerged in swamp water.

My body just adjusted to the mosquitos and the bites stopped raising welts on my skin. We cleaned our fatigues in monsoon rain, oiled our weapons against too much dampness. Under a poncho I wrote my parents and Beth letters. I never knew I could miss home so much. I was counting down days to being there again.


Chowtime was when we joked. I remember Benson, so serious about his green cans, with his P-38. . . pork slices, opened, mixing in hot sauce and onion, hunched over, eating like a starving man just given a prime rib and baked potatoes. He didn't mind smoking the Pall Malls that everybody traded him. His index finger was yellow.

A big country boy with strong back, kinky hair and pocked marked skin. He was always messin' and jivin.' We found some flyers dropped in the bush from a plane, telling American black men to stop fighting the yellow man. He kept to himself for a while after that.

Our "RTO," or radio man, was the "Duke," 'cause his real name was "Earl," had a bad family, and seemed sort of broken up when he got here. He made that radio pack his pride and joy, packing it to sixty pounds, and humping that mother for us for days on end through the bush. So we called him "pack rat."

The "Shake'n Bake" was Pickney from Massachusetts, who came from some big deal family and wanted to launch his big career in politics or law with a glorious tour of duty. He saw the politicians' cheap promises on the war come and go in his "Time" magazines. After the Tet offensive, he said it was hard for him to believe our leaders in Washington.

"Beach Boy" from California always seemed to be catching a peek in his hand-held mirror of that silky sheet of blond hair that lay across his greasy forehead.

"Sandy" was older and just got back from Hawaii, where he and his hometown girl got married. We teased him, saying even this woman couldn't make him smile. He'd bark at us new guys to stay flat on our bellies in firefights.

John B. had something godly in his ordinary way. The older guys said he wasn't going to make it, because he didn't seem to care if he lived or died. He never killed, just ordered encountered enemy to "choo-hoi," surrender. Unbelievable.


My spirits were lifted, listening to John B. talking with a new guy - Preacher's Kid - who'd been in country just two weeks. Fresh as Kansas corn, clear as a bell in his heart


The news went through us like a shot: Preacher's Kid had been hit, down by the stream.

Huddling together, standing elbow-to-elbow, we pleaded with the new Doc to save him. PK's eyes were closed, his legs twitching,


a small entry wound, right in the center of his forehead. The bullet exited, taking off the back of his head. Doc, who had so far only dealt with pimples, bug juice and leeches, grimaced as he tried to make sense of the mass of blood, brain tissue and splintered, white bone fragments that glistened in the low, setting sun.

It was enough for me. I had too many days to go. So I just forgot time. I let myself become numb. I stepped outside myself. I had no wristwatch. Just heat, suspense, exhaustion spread over uncounted time. How can I tell it? Is there language?

As the weeks passed, each one of us held on to one special thing for meaning and sanity.

Duke's was his huge radio pack; Beach Boy, his pretty face in the mirror; Pickney, his "Time" magazines; me, my letters; John B., his God; Benson, his traded cans of fruit; Sandy, his wife and home in two months.

The two and three tour guys toyed with their rage like scorpions they kept in jars.


That evening, Friday, I remember because I was resting, imagining what Beth and I would have been doing on Friday evenings - the drive-in, movies, the beach, the feeling of having her body close to mine - all came back.

It was awful. We were hit by incoming B-40 rockets. The VC got the quadrants on our position. The next day, I don't think anyone cared if anyone lived.


There was an NVA regiment somewhere in this jungle with us. And I was ordered to guard a trail alone. I felt cut off. As I lay prone on my belly, my senses tuned up, listening for a snapping twig, a scent of food seeping from some concealed, underground bunker. My throat was dry.

My mind began playing tricks after a while.

Then, my eyes saw some bushes slide slowly sideways.

Carefully, silently, three armed NVA moved out from their hiding place in the bush and entered onto the trail.

They were walking toward me. A November evening.

My eyes opened wide. My stomach sank. I shook. I kept thinking "They're Americans. They're Americans. . . No. . .No."

As they approached me, one looked directly at me. His eyes opened wide.


"Oh God. Oh God!"

John B. held me by the forearms.

Chowtime. The guys kept telling me how I had alternated careful aim, one single burst to the first man's heart, how the other slouched and tried to grab his buddy.

They said I was shaking and fired another six rounds into him as he tried to crawl away. But the third man got away. I fired twenty rounds all told.

Guys in my squad searched the two bodies for papers and brought me a bloody hammock and photo from the first man, of his family. Wife and kids, photo small, but family large and happy.

I didn't want any of these things.

That night, never was I so alone, while the others slept, as my night world filled with their faces, their fear, his cries as I kept firing, my wickedness, my fear and his smiling family.

Filled to the breaking point, I reached out repeatedly to a silent, starry night, my patient comforter. . . I saw, before morning broke, that God had gathered these men to me. And in each survivor, there is a grave. They will always be with me, and I with them, sharing my laughter, my tears. They are my ancestors now.


"Dear Mom and Dad:
It's pretty rough here, but I'm doing OK. I finally saw a little action. I handled it pretty well. It's still hot here. I think of you all and read your letters over many times. I hope we will all be together for a good old time Thanksgiving this time next year.
Your son, Vergil"

Humping a click or two a few days later a human skull bobbed on top of Beach Boy's backpack for hours in front of me, looking back, my crow, my conscience.

John B. was walking point and took VC prisoners. He took them by surprise on the trail and offered them the chance to "choo-hoi" - surrender their arms peacefully - which they did!


Christmas, Christmas, Oh Jeeminy Christmas. Beach Boy got on Santa's Christmas card chopper and we watched him fly back to the World, but not before he asked me to take a photo of his pretty face. I swear, if a bullet in 'Nam didn't kill Beach Boy, his first gray hair will.

We had a real great time at LZ Grant. Hot shower, the first in sixty days. The Duke didn't take a shower. Phew. Didn't even change out of his filthy greens. He was losing his poise. I think we teased Duke too much at chow.
We were always patting his back to keep him happy, carrying the radio pack so it wouldn't make a turn to any of us. We all knew, as the Duke was finding out, that VC snipers always go for the radioman first.

As I watched him wise-ing up to us, I felt some guilt. He was withdrawing from us - bigtime.

Just a hundred twenty more days


We were conducting operations near the fishhook. We'd found a few criss-crossing paths that had heavy sandal traffic. Maybe seventy of us - company strength, reduced size - were walking slowly on a trail.

We were tense, keenly tuned to every snapping twig, to the sour smell of human presence. I could feel my blood pulsating. My muscles tightened more. I took a deep breath. I looked at some of the other guys' faces and could see them thinking: "This is the day."

This was nonsense - absurd - to sweep this area. We were ordered to organize a small recon. The squad was to break off to the left.


All hell broke loose! This was contact. We had run into the bunker complex of part of the 7th Batallion, 209th Regiment, 7th NVA Division, at 17:15 hours.

Chinese Claymores. B-40'S, automatic weapons, Chicoms. We tried to return small arms fire, but didn't even know where the enemy was! We scattered in utter confusion. I kept laying prone, pressing my body into the ground. Shutdown. Unable to see or hear any support: no aerial support strikes, no Cobra gunships, no artillery. Bamboo shreds were snowing on Rosie and me from all the incoming rockets and gunfire. Rosie returned sixty machine gun fire, when we spotted a sniper's nest and ground fortifications. They were mostly underground and dug in good.

You could hear screams for Medevac. But no one was rallying!


Once we started getting heavy volume artillery support, we were forced to retreat about thirty yards. The LT couldn't find the Duke. I volunteered to go out and find our communication. I heard the voice and squelch of his radio and found him.


Duke was huddled, curled up in a wad. He had let go of his radio pack. That was lying on the ground. I searched him. There was no blood.

I lifted the little Duke up in my arms and carried that little manchild back. He couldn't reply. He had been scared and withdrawn too long. He'd lost it, his dignity. It don't mean nothin' Earl.


The next day, we saw him loaded on a chopper with several bodybags. I had lost the ability to cry.

Back at the firebase, I saw the colonel who had kept on asking us for an enemy body count. I looked at him hard. Yesterday's shame was in his eyes.


"Dear Dad,
I realize now for myself what you already knew, that war brings out the brokeness in men and breaks them more. I'm so tired. I don't care anymore. Don't mean nothin'. We are so worn down by the death of our men, I don't even remember when I was a boy.
Folks back home, just don't know.
Your son,

I didn't have to tell Dad about what we both knew, about the 1,000-yard stare you get from having to watch seconds, hours, and days for mines underfoot and snipers overhead, hyper-alert, seeing everything at a glance, your mind racing at high speed. I couldn't count on my fingers and toes all the dead I'd seen and smelled. Folks back home, just don't know.

I fell asleep where I was writing.

Sunday, February 10th, 1970. I got up early. We were somewhere along the disputed border. (YAWN).


I pulled a piece of white, C-4 tab, lit it to boil water for my chili beans. The canned scrambled eggs were not fit for consumption. The beans were always crunchy, no matter how long you boiled them.


There was a report of major enemy infiltration in the area. Our squad set up a nine-volt trip wire, automatic ambush - Claymore mines, concealed along a well-worn trail we found. I settled into a foxhole with John B. and six others. We waited.

Feeling kinda loose for the first time in months. My "RnR" was just two days away. I was Australia-bound. . .

BLUES SINGER: "I'm happy now, nothing like good women, whiskey, wine, and song. . ."

Civilization, a girl, hot shower, beer, ice. Relax. . .


A vain attempt at comfort. I knew I was bleeding bad, when my body felt this tremendous slap.

I tried to stand up. I felt this gnawing pain, not knowing my legs were mangled by a grenade that landed and exploded with all its force in the middle of our squad. And it landed right next to me. John B. put his helmet on it and lay on top of it. I pushed some others away.


I remember yelling out when someone brushed my legs, as they loaded me and John B. onto the chopper. The grenade took out most of his abdomen wall and big chunks of his legs. I saw the medic stuffing John B.'s guts back in as best he could when John B. was laying on his back.


John B. - you saved my life. Thank you.


John B. was flown to Japan and they flew his mother in from the States, because they thought he would die.


My treatment consisted of lots of surgery, metal sutures, pain, and a nurse who really cared. Thank God for the nurses! She made my numbness thaw a little, when she gently changed my bandages. I couldn't help but blush. Her presence made me feel vulnerable, momentarily happy, like I was home again and at peace. To feel that love was once again possible in this world opened up all my inner wounds while she lovingly closed my outer wounds. And I cried.

It all came out for Preacher's Kid, Duke, the Vietnamese peasants, my buddies who I felt I had abandoned, for anyone scarred by war.

Since my wounds had been packed in brown gauze, I was cleared to go home. I felt guilty about leaving my buddies, but real glad to be heading home, real excited.

I served my country when asked. I held my head high for that.

In flight, the crew began serving box lunches to us - a hero's welcome - a sandwich. But, I was too nauseous to eat it.

Somewhere over the Pacific, while most were sleeping, I sensed something. Somebody in the plane had just died. I was sure of it.

I asked the corpsman if they guy in the back died. He lied to me and said "No."


When I got a bed in a stateside army hospital, it was too soft, compared to the hard jungle floor. I sat back days on end, waiting for love to flow back in my veins, instead of memories of 'Nam.

When I got tired of staring at the walls one day, I called my cousin in Texas.

His voice on the phone was cool. One day, I got a get well card from Beth. She said, when I was better, to come to see her to talk.

Dad came every day. He didn't say much. Didn't need to.


Mom was real glad to see me when I got home at last. A convalescent leave from the hospital was a boost for my spirits. She had planned a small homecoming party for that evening and had invited a few of my old high school friends.

First, I had to settle business with Beth. I knew what the visit was for. A buddy wrote me early on in my tour that she had become pregnant and married this guy who'd been chasing her for years, a lawyer.

It was brief. Vietnam had taught me not to judge people. I took a long, deep breath.


The little baby in her arms looked too much like me. I vaguely remember looking at Beth's face as she was looking at the wall and the floor, saying she couldn't wait for me. I really had to get out of there. I said a quick goodbye, "have a nice life," and headed for the car. Don't mean nothin'

Mom's homecoming party for me fizzled. We waited for guests, everything decorated and food ready. Nobody showed. I called them. Each one had an excuse. About eleven o'clock, I said to my self: "This is a fine welcome home party." So I went out to find a party of my own at the disco.


My hair was short. Everyone had sideburns and flower shirts. Everything had changed while I was away. I recognized Herb from high school. He glanced at my crutches and we joked some. He briefed me on what others were doing.

He said he was going to community college, majoring in sociology. I told him I'd just come back from a tour in Vietnam. I suddenly felt a wide chasm appear between us. No interest, no questions. Herb just nodded like I said I just came from a baseball game. Maybe he couldn't handle 'Nam either. He said a few little things about sports. And I vanished in the crowd.

I recognized Ellen, even though her hair was a lot longer. I felt unsure of myself in this flakey disco dating scene. I mean she was a nice girl. And we got to talking and I guess I might have opened up too much about my tour because she seemed interested.

I got going on it, speaking from my gut. At one point she looked at me like a brown-eyed fawn and asked me: "Did you ever kill anyone?"

I couldn't even think what to say. I excused myself, took my beer over to an empty table along the wall in the back. I thought over and over: "If I tell you I did kill someone, what will you do with that information?" I hated my part in the killing.

She must have thought that me and all my buddies were a bunch of happy-go-wicked baby killers.

No one in this Disco Disneyland knew or cared who I was or, God forbid, what I thought about the war in Vietnam. They saw the war for themselves on the seven o'clock evening news and already had an opinion of me, regardless of who I was.

What would have Herb have done with someone pointing an AK-47 at him?


I started to leave the dark, smoke-filled room. Then I saw an older guy with a crew cut and a tough looking face with a chip on his shoulder. We got to talking. He listened when I said I just come back from 'Nam. I figured he'd understand.

"The Vietnam War? That ain't no war. It's just a police action," he said back at me.

A World War II vet. Rage surged within me when he said under his teeth: "Maybe some of us older guys should go over there and win it for you." Frightened by my own ability to destroy, I had nothing to say back.


I remember Preacher's Kid, his words, his sacrifice. I think I fought the war for him, for his good name. I hold my head high for that. Maybe it would have been easier if I died like Preachers Kid.

I stayed up late at nights. I had to have a beer before I could sleep. I was a warrior on the outside, but torn up and shriveled on the inside. I made up my mind to keep my mouth shut.

And for all intents and purposes, to any stranger who asked, I'd say: "Yeh, those Vets are having a hard time. Forget that war. Go on with your life. That's history." I decided to turn my hurt into a bad joke on me. I stayed up lots of nights. We used to always say the nights belong to the Viet Cong. My nights belong to Vietnam. Nightmares; the faces that never leave; The smell of decomposed flesh hangs heavy. I'd go downstairs and watch tv.

One night around two am, the phone rang. It was long distance from Jerry, the guy who loaded me on the chopper.

He sounded tight. He asked if we could get together. I lied to him and said I was doing fine. Somehow I couldn't bring myself to see him, even though we both needed old buddies.

"Wake up, look in the mirror. Look at the beard. Lie down. Get up. Walk to the window. Open the blinds. Try to read a magazine. Throw away a broken shoelace. Fry an egg. Fry an brain. Throw away a broken shoelace."

My mom started becoming annoyed at my habits. I went lookng for a job at her suggestion. There was an opening for a night watchman at the plant in town, which suited me just fine, 'cause I couldn't sleep anyway.

I wanted a job that didn't involve people, or big decisions affecting other people. I had to live too long with decisions that gave men life or death.

In the interview I was calm. The older guy who interviewed me said afterwards that I was passive and lacked leadership traits. Oh well.

When I said I was in Vietnam, all he asked was whether I'd been on drugs. I zipped my lip: "No Sir."


Some nights were real peaceful. Other nights, I felt I was going nowhere. My life had gotten stuck in the twilight zone. Whenever Vietnam popped up, I stuffed it down, pretended it never happened. "Forget it, it's history!" Yeh, dig that.


I built a little place of my own, up in the woods, dirt cheap, simple. I had my dog, Scooter Pie. Nature gave me some peace of mind in this little place at last.


After a year, I was working on the assembly line, night shift, with several folks who also stayed to themselves.


I noticed Leah and she noticed me. One day, when I asked, she drove me to the garage to get my clunkard truck. She told me then that her boy friend in high school was killed in the Tet offensive. We began going out. She listened to me sort through Vietnam, even some things I wasn't too proud of. Once when we got to know one another better, she said she really understood. But I doubt that, I didn't know who I was myself.

I was afraid of losing her after going out with her a few months. It got to a serious point. So I asked her if she wanted to marry me. She smiled. She said it would suit her just fine.

After a year of marriage, I was pretty sure I had married the right woman.


Then one evening, over one of her great home-cooked dinners, she just came out and said how unhappy she was.

She had sad eyes, saying I never talked about what was bothering me. She said I talked and moaned in my sleep.

Then I got hot. I told her it wasn't up to me to tell her what I was thinking. She should know what I was thinking. I got scared of going off. I went out to my truck and drove to work without her.


After thinking things over at work, I decided to call her. She hung up in my face. That gave me even more to think about. I mean I didn't want to lose this woman.

Later we talked. I confessed to her that war was always on my mind. After a lot of talking and making up, we both agreed our marriage needed a little more. In two months, we were expecting our first child. When the day finally came and Leah's contractions began, I got really scared. Leah gave one final hard push, and my son came into the world, all bloody, wet, and crying.


I held him tenderly with the moist sheet around him, my hands shaking. Leah and I exchanged him back and forth. We were overcome with joy.


Then I got Vietnam all over again. My son must never see these thoughts. I handed him back to Leah. As Leah so naturally loved my son with her breast milk, I stood there, an unfeeling gnarled, twisted old man. I had died in Vietnam. What stood there was my homeless wandering spirit. I tried to believe a man doesn't cry. But feeling so alone at Leah's bedside made me burst into tears.


In the first few months of David's life, Leah and I both worked night shift at home. David liked to snack and sip his mother's milk at odd hours. Like his Dad, he stayed up nights. But I often felt I didn't deserve my son. And his birth brought back memories. I was also discovering how angry I felt at being so betrayed by my country


As Thanksgiving approached, I was stressed to the limit. November is always hard for me. November evenings. One Saturday evening I just left the house without saying where I was going. I drove my truck down to the Stone Jug for a beer to take the edge off. I was feeling the beers, when I saw this real big guy, nearly twice my size over at the bar rail, laughing. I went right over to him and started getting into his face as bad as I could. He eventually had no choice. He hauled off and gave hme his best punch, the very best, I mean to tell ya.

I was finally afraid of what I was becoming. Everybody was. My life was like a dream.

My first night home, after being released, I went up in the attic and found my grandfather's Iver

Johnson shotgun.


I ran outside with it. Like I was killing a demon, I swung and smashed the stock against a tree. I flung the pitted barrel as far as i could cast it into the woods. I threw the trigger mechanism in the opposite direction. Last of all, I hid the shells in a place where I could never find them.

Early the next morning, I went out in the mist to find the stock, find the barrel, find the trigger mechanism. I even found the shells. And I put it all back together. The gun is me. I have to take myself apart and find out why.


When I came back in the house, there was Leah at the kitchen table waiting for me. I was surprised to see two guys there who I trusted from the plant.

As always, Leah started it off with crying, about how it wasn't working. I sensed this was my last chance.

Phil was saying something about the Vet Outreach Center in a nearby town. They all encouraged me to go down there, maybe volunteer some time, talk with guys who might need some help.


I did talk with other vets there. It felt comfortable. They'd been where I'd been. Their story was much like mine.

In group I was able to express in a safe way my rage and fear of going off. I never had really looked and seen how much anger and hurt I had allowed to build up inside me. I looked and there it was. I had become a battlefield.

Vietnam, was the defining event of my life, like it or not, good or bad. I made of it what I chose. And the guys at the Vet Center knew the pain I knew. We all want to be better husbands and fathers and friends. In this world, you need other people to master real suffering


Like I said, November was always stirred up a lot for me. One evening before I went to the plant, I wanted to talk to Leah. I sat her down. She was glad about the change. I thanked her for putting up with all this. We both saw how a few months of dirty diaper detail had made me a changed man. Then I told her my decision. I said I wanted to go down to the wall by myself. She just nodded. I love that woman.

The wall: where I bring my innermost being. Where I leave my heart.


I remember the town graveyard where I grew up. I compare the solid black granite of the wall to reading the faded, chiseled names on those town gravestones of Revolutionary War soldiers. Mute testimony each.

My rusted old truck made it to the mall. I parked. I wore my fatigues and marched straight ahead. In the distance, I could see the big black angle in the earth. When I got to it, I stood back and looked at all of it.

My adrenaline was flowing. I was on a mission. It was dusk. The tourists, who came to pay respects to the dead, were scurrying home, while I stayed here in the mud with my buddies. I walked up to it and began a slow walk down the names.

Some magnet pulled me to each name. I wanted to touch - but not touch - each name. The names weren't alphabetical. I realized the men were listed in real time, according to date of their ultimate sacrifice.

November 24th 1969

Panel 16W, Line 118.

I walked, as if in an open coffin. It seemed I know them all. War's over. Coming home. This is my family.

November, 1969. . . I kneel down, touch the name. I hold pebbles and dig some earth. . .Sandy.


"The man wrestled all night with the angel. He prevailed over the angel and demanded that he be blessed. The angel, who was really God, said: 'Thy name is Israel.' And he wounded the man on the thigh and blessed him, for he had seen God face-to-face. And in the morning the sun also rose. And his life was preserved."


copyright, 1995, James Surkamp (text and sound recording)

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