Walking Point and Reflecting on Veteran’s Day
Categories: Excerpt Literature & the Arts
It’s not every day that we remember to honor our troops—especially our veterans. Whether they’re neighbors, family members, or local coffee sellers, veterans are all around us. When past wars aren’t in our present thoughts, we can forget how much they’ve sacrificed in the name of our country.
Today, we should take some time to thank them and honor their myriad experiences. In honor of Veteran’s Day, here’s an excerpt from Perry Ulander’s Vietnam War memoir, Walking Point.
Tags: Biography & Memoir Perry Ulander
Once again, I felt the straps of a fully loaded pack dig into my shoulders as we slipped into the jungle, and for yet another time, each of us entered his own deeply personal inner realm. During the seemingly endless hours of silent stalking, we each stood before a mirror that uncompromisingly reflected our innermost thoughts and attitudes. In the field, on the trail, the self-created suffering resulting from anger, worry, and self-pity was never slow in coming. One slip, one minor indulgence in any form of negativity, and one was cast headlong into the region of hell specific to the offense.
At times, I’d feel myself transformed into a wild-eyed demon raging against the army, the ignorance, and my fate, ranting to no avail. The jungle’s heat would become unbearable, my stomach would knot, and my mind would feel like it was stewing inside my steel pot. Then, sweating, sick, and with passion spent, I’d catch myself and thank God that my tantrum hadn’t caused me to miss a booby trap or sniper. At other times, I’d load sandbags of self-pity into my pack till my legs would burn, then chill, making me feel cold and weak from nausea. These were admittedly useless endeavors—but hey, ya never know until you try. Once I knew the consequences, I learned not to try them too often. Over the months, I’d learned to assign an internal monitor that would warn me of these dangers, and from time to time, he’d break my train of thought, like Barney Fife: “Here it comes—Andy—here it comes. Ya gotta nip it, nip it in the bud!”
I realized why the old-timers had so often repeated their repertoire of stock phrases in response to newbies’ grousing and complaints, real or imaginary. The dialogue would go like this:
NEWBIE: Gee, this pack is really heavy, and my boots don’t fit very good.
OLD-TIMER: Sounds like a personal problem, man. Tell it to the chaplain.
Or, to a newbie who was pining over a letter from his sweetheart at mail call:
OLD-TIMER: If the army would have wanted you to have a girlfriend, they would have issued you one.
I’d been stung by the old-timers’ rebuffs countless times during my early weeks in the field and was only now fully able to appreciate their intent. They seemed brutal at the time, but rather than offer some half-hearted sympathy, they’d made it clear that I was the one responsible for my own attitudes and their emotional consequences. For the first time in my life, it was clear to me that my well-being was a matter of choice. I was free to rage, fret, or go on a bummer—that was entirely my own business—but if it was painful, they didn’t want to hear about it. I’d be left to bear the full weight of my choices, and they theirs. At that time, the nature of their choices was a mystery to me, but the results were clear. They were calm, generally of good humor, and had an infuriatingly consistent sense of gratitude.
As we moved along the trail, I realized that the jungle was not at all the frightening place it once had been. I slipped deftly past some tangled vines of thought and, in doing so, missed getting snagged by some thorny emotions. The jungle required constant vigilance, but I gave it its due, knowing the trail led to a sunlit clearing with a spring of cool, clean water. We climbed a small hill, and while going down the slope that followed, I could see the front half of the platoon: Tennessee, Bruce, Doc, and Speed. Their movements—our movements—harmonized like a school of fish or the branches of a tree in a breeze. We were no longer separate selves, but one being, gliding through the jungle, looking for a clearing in the sun.