"It was very sad, he thought. The things men carried inside. The things men did or felt they had to do."
-- Tim O'Brien
The young man was just 18 years old. He grew up in a small town in north Florida but now found himself on patrol in the Quảng Tín Province in Vietnam. He remembers it was July 1970. He remembers the heat. He remembers the fear he felt when the enemy mortar attacks came closer. The last thing he remembers that day was a brilliant flash of light. He doesn't remember the pain. He doesn't remember the blood. He doesn't remember the screams.
It was the first week of my senior year at Florida State University, and my new roommate and I were settling into the apartment we had agreed to share just a block from campus. His name was Sam. We met my junior year and became friends almost instantly. He had a curious nature, a ready smile and a confidence that I admired. He was, he told me proudly, the first person in his family to go to college. It was after being study partners for our junior year that we decided to combine our finances and rent an apartment.
It was his scream that woke me from a deep sleep. Sitting up in bed, completely disoriented, I could see in the dim early light Sam twisting and turning in the twin bed beside mine. "No! No! No!" he moaned. Snapping the bedside table lamp on, I shook him by the shoulders. Suddenly he opened his eyes, and all was quiet -- but his eyes were wet and his T-shirt soaked with perspiration. Haltingly at first, the story came pouring out of him.
He told me about joining the Army right out of high school. He told me about the patrol. He told me about that July morning. And then, angling his bare left leg toward the table light, he showed me the scars. The shrapnel tore into his thigh, fortunately without hitting anything vital, but the white scars, vivid against the blackness of his skin, crisscrossed up and down the side and back of his leg like some demented Jackson Pollock painting. "Some of the metal is still in there," he said softly, "They said it was better to leave one piece near an artery alone."
Today they would call it post-traumatic stress syndrome or PSTD for short, but Sam didn't call it that. He didn't tell his parents about that day either. It was just something he had to carry with him now. He carried the shrapnel in his leg. He carried the death of three platoon members who died that day. He carried the confusion of what it was all for. He carried all that and then some, a young man soaked in a sea of death.
There are things we all carry in life. We tell ourselves stories about them to join the past to the present. "Stories are for eternity," says the writer Tim O'Brien. "When memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story."
As Sam finished his story, it seemed incomplete to me. He didn't talk about his bravery that day. He didn't talk about heroic sacrifice. But it wasn't my story; it was his. By talking to me that early dawn, he was realizing the importance of reconsidering the past -- and the necessity of sometimes discarding it.
Soon the nightmares stopped altogether. We never spoke again of that night. There was no need, I would come to later understand. All was forgotten.
NAN Our Town on 08/08/2019
Print Headline: Memory can be a burden we must carry