by Doug Bradley
On November 11, 1971, I nestled in my “Freedom Bird” headed to San Francisco and “the World” as we called the USA, the country that had sent me to the war in Vietnam 365 days earlier. For the first time in nearly two years, nobody was giving me an order, nobody was telling me to get a haircut or trim my mustache or… suddenly, the plane was lifting off the hot, shimmering Tan Son Nhut tarmac, and we departing GIs burst into a chorus of the Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out of This Place!” Everyone smiled as if the weight of the world had been lifted from their shoulders. Little did we know that we’d be carrying the weight of Vietnam for the rest of our lives.
I sang along, not as lustily as I thought, because when I looked out the plane’s window, I could see big chunks of my past year at the U. S. Army’s command Information Office being discarded, tossed into the air like so much excess baggage. Out with Miss Mai, our friendly Vietnamese receptionist; adios Col. Mock, my former, and best, commanding officer; farewell IO hooch mates and Vietnamese mamasans; good-bye one-week leave in Australia where I dropped acid and partied with hippies; sayonara bogus South Vietnamese elections and Long Binh post’s frightening Red Alerts because the VC reminded us they were still around and in charge; ciao sanitized stories I wrote about South Vietnamese Army recruits; later all the kickers I added to the Morning News Roundup; bye-bye to the names and faces and ranks and serial numbers…not one damn thing about Vietnam remained on that plane except me, my discharge papers, my journal, my letters, and my cassette player and headphones.
I popped the Joni Mitchell tape my best friend and fellow GI George had given me before he’d left Vietnam in the player and put on my headphones. And I listened to that album all the way back home…
“It’s comin’ on Christmas
They’re cutting down trees…
Was it that close to Christmas? To winter? Foreign concepts to my tropical ears, but every line, every lyric, every element of every song on that Joni Mitchell Blue album spun a mesmerizing web of character sketches, travelogues, and vivid vignettes. From the opening song “All I Want” through to “The Last Time I Saw Richard,” I was mesmerized by Joni’s insights and feelings. And that haunting voice. Her honest pain, as if I was eavesdropping on her private life, which maybe could help me to figure out mine? I’d listened to a lot of music during my 365 days in Vietnam, but I’d never listened this closely, concentrated so hard on what someone was singing and saying. Just to me.
There I sat on that long plane ride home, Koss headphones clamped to my head, Joni Mitchell and Blue filling my ears, and my soul. Yes, it was “comin’ on Christmas,” and I couldn’t stop listening to “River,” wondering what awaited me and my post-Vietnam life in Richard Nixon’s America…
And then a feeling grabbed me, seized me hard, one I didn’t expect to have — that my relief at being out of Vietnam and Uncle Sam’s Army was already fading…and that maybe, just maybe, I would miss my year at war, miss working at the IO office, miss living in the hooch with George and our fellow Information Office brothers, talking, laughing, complaining …getting high and listening to music. Joni Mitchell even. Was that really possible? Wasn’t life back home in America the reward for enduing 365 days in Vietnam? The pot of gold at the end of the monsoon rainbow?
Or, as Joni sang, was that just a dream some of us had?
Vietnam veteran Doug Bradley is the author of DEROS Vietnam: Dispatches from the Air-Conditioned Jungle and co-author, with Craig Werner, of We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War which was named best music book of 2015 by Rolling Stone magazine. According to David Martin, Emmy-award winning correspondent for CBS News, Doug’s latest book, Who’ll Stop the Rain: Respect, Remembrance, and Reconciliation in Post-Vietnam America, “uses music to bring us together after a war that so bitterly divided us.”
[photo credit: San Mateo Daily Journal]