Barbara Burt, Boothbay Harbor
My Vietnam story
In the late 1970s, I worked in the college division of a major publisher. I was 23; my boss was a man I now realize was only a five or so years older. Back then, he seemed eons ahead of me. And, in many ways, he was. A courteous, thoughtful man—a gentle man in the best sense of the label—Phil had a dark side. Sometimes when we were talking, I’d notice a shadow cross his face, and he wouldn’t meet my eyes. Underneath his sweet disposition, there was a hard unreachable place.
Although I was an adult only toward the end of the war, I had an uncomplicated relationship with it. I knew what a folly it was. I had been sent to the principal’s office as a high school sophomore for wearing a a black armband and refusing to salute the flag. My boyfriend endured the last year of the draft—luckily with a high number. I had no doubt that I knew the whole damn story of the war debacle.
Every year the college division held a national sales conference. All the reps like me, our regional sales bosses, the marketing staff, and the editors would arrive at some resort to spend time learning about the new list for that year, and to share stories about our work. My first year, the sales meeting was in La Jolla, California, at a swanky hotel on the beach; when we opened the windows in our hotel rooms, the sound of the ocean sighed outside.
There was a certain amount of partying in the evening when presentations were done. A group of us decided to walk on the sand and stick our feet in the waves. I went looking for Phil, imagining that he’d like to join us. He wasn’t in his room or in the hotel lounge or bar. Finally someone directed me to a room down a different hall. “But he probably won’t be interested,” this person warned me.
I knocked on the door. It was cracked open by an editor I knew slightly. Inside, the room was thick with cigarette smoke and crowded with seven or eight guys sitting on the floor around a large liquor bottle. Phil looked at me and simply shook his head, a cigarette dangling from his tight lips. I quickly fled to my friends on the beach. The moon’s trail on the water and the salty air were a world away from the atmosphere in that hotel room.
“It’s the Vietnam group,” a colleague told me. “Those guys all served in Vietnam. They do this every time we all get together. They end up holed up in a room, swapping stories.” I was dumbfounded. Those guys—successful, sophisticated editors and managers—were the same guys who had come home bedraggled and defeated? Clearly I didn’t know the whole story.
Later, I tried to talk to Phil about it but he wasn’t interested. “What was it like?” I asked. “It was another time and place,” he said. “I don’t want to go into it and besides, you wouldn’t understand.”
I knew he was right.