John woke up one day and he was almost 80. Suddenly. Where had my life gone? He looked sadly to his feet, as if searching for an answer. It might have been better that none came to him. The question was hard enough. But the answer was harder still. John had spent his life drinking. And there went his life. And here he was. Almost 80, and nothing to show for it. The sorrow was frightful, vengeful. All the more real because there wasn’t anything he could do about it. John was left to suffer, and to suffer until he finally lay dead.
John remembered his youth, his special days. All the more special now, because he didn’t realize how special they were until 50 years past. John smiled sadly, you don’t know what you have until it’s gone, he said out loud. Only know did John realize. And only now was he beginning to see the truth.
Years earlier, nothing could have told him different. Different from the path he walked, booze in one hand, sweat in the other, his mind ablaze, his heart empty. Youth was youth. But even then, life wasn’t pretty.
John had grown up to a poor, immigrant family from Vietnam. Known and respected in the local Vietnamese community in San Francisco, they worked long hours at the family fruit and vegetable stand, with a high regard for honor and family. John’s father having saved every nickel to bring the family here, to America, to escape the poverty and persecution of the mother land: warrior tribes roaming the jungles, holding John’s village hostage, enslaving the men, raping the women.
Nevertheless, the family loved their native Vietnam, just shy of the Cambodian border, though they longed for John to have the opportunity they themselves never had. For John to make them proud, to make a name for himself. Mother and father hoped beyond hope that he would be a wealthy business man. One to climb the ladder of success, to make his fortune in America. And so they went, aboard ship with meager belongings slung over their shoulders. For John. For John to be prominent and strong, to bring great honor to the family name. To mother and father, none could be an honor as high.
As John grew into his adult years, he had other ideas. He felt lost between two worlds, Vietnam and America. His parents speaking lovingly of thousands of miles away, in a village in a jungle, praise to Buddha, a world to John which was a world away. A world he never knew. And as he grew older, it was a world that John felt estranged from, and yet somehow had the idea that he was supposed to know it better despite never having been there.
Meanwhile, John wanted to be an American. Rock and roll music, pretty blond girls. This was his ticket. His fame and fortune. The life he had his eye on. But his family sternly disapproved. Go to college, marry the woman of the furniture store from across the street. The marriage would be a good arrangement. Her family owns the furniture store. You could run it after you finish college. Working and bearing children, this is the good life. John listened, thought, and eventually, developed a resentment. A mighty resentment. One that sputtered and burned.
Why can’t they just let me have my life? Why must they control mine? He thought angrily to himself. Cursing under his breath. But to their face he said nothing. He couldn’t. Such disrespect to his parents would of the highest dishonor. Shameful. Unheard of. It could not be so in his Vietnamese family. Nothing could be worse. John knew this, and yet John still wanted to live for John. To carve out his own life, to . . . be all you can be, he heard in a commercial for the Army. It was as if the commercial was a message straight from Buddha himself. And John was captivated. Entranced by the men sailing away in the helicopter. Find a future, take charge of your life. The calling was loud and prominent. It could not be ignored or thought over.
John fairly dove for the phone, fingers shaking as he dialed the 1-800 number. Two months later he was packing his bags for the army base at Carmel, California. John was proud as he straightened his green button-up overcoat. Snapping to attention as if at role-call in boot camp. Pleased with the clicking his boot-soles made against one another. John was as proud as his family disapproved. His father yelled, pointed his stubby finger. He could kill you with that finger. How could you do such a thing? For this government which invaded your homeland years ago? Have you no honor? And John slammed the door behind him, determined to make it anyway. And on the bus he went. For Carmel, and for his new life. Be all you can be, that’s what the commercial said.
Too bad commercials weren’t as realistic as John had assumed. 2 months after shipping out, John was called into combat. Let’s just say that life in the military had its ugly side. The shellings, bombings, miss-drops where babies and old women died by burning in agony. A mistake, his commander said. And then John’s platoon would march through the ruins like flies over feces. Inspecting, hungry. John remembered his father’s tales of soldiers in his village. The hatred of the villagers. Stone-faced, and yet stoic, with their heads high, their worn faces staring intently, right through the soldiers as if eyes became sniper rifles. John saw these faces upon the native peoples as they stared at him. 4 years in combat felt like 40 years.
And John was grateful to hear his call to discharge. And home he went. Assuming he was returning a hero. To a comfy bed, and a beautiful wife, to a job and children. Smooth sailing from here. ‘Everything is gravy’ once you get out, the black soldiers used to say. John always assumed it would be so. Alas, his hopes and dreams were again thwarted by reality.
As he settled down at home, in his civilian life, John found his sleep stricken by nightmares, his wake stricken by anger and sadness. His wife, who had waited 4 years for him while he was overseas, was deeply troubled by these changes. He was not the man she had married. Not the man she had come to love. Able to bear his rage and preference for aloneness no longer, she left him. And so John was alone.
Drinking became all the more comforting. In the army, in the beginning, it was just once and a while. As a youth, John was pushed hard to study and succeed, never having had time for the party. But with the freedom the army granted him when he was off duty, John discovered, what he thought, was the missing part of his life. Booze and girls, late nights of laughter, and mornings with his head in the toilet bowl. Life was at times crazy, but John loved it. And despite his passion for the party, for a time, John kept it together. He had to, for in the military, there was no room for sloppiness. Not in what it meant to John. John had lost his family, his heritage, and as his father said, his honor. Now all John had was the military. And he was determined to make good of it. To stand tall and proud, to defend his country. To, be all you can be. But the parties sure were something.
Meanwhile, back in civilian life, it went from a thing of celebration and holiday to a thing of escape. An escape from the pain of loneliness, of failure, of dishonor. Of the life that John had come to know. A life where dreams were shattered and promises broken. And John was bitter. And so he drank. Jobs came and went. More drinking. Girls came and went. More drinking still. That’s when John woke up and he was almost 80. Where had the time gone? John asked himself sadly.
But then something finally began to change, after a time that was short and timeless all at once. Not that an answer came, an answer to where time had gone. But that John had begun to ask the right question. What can I do about it now?
And finally, somehow, John reached out for help. At 78 years old. He went to the Veterans Administration Hospital and enrolled in their drug and alcohol treatment program, put together a little time free of drinking, and slowly, the cob webs began to clear. The army, my wife, my life, my youth . . . where did it go? Alas, the question seemed to deaden in mid-air. And the pain was excruciating. But John pressed on. Sobriety comes first, that’s what his counselor said. And John listened, and John did as he was told, as was familiar to his life in the military, where following orders was of the utmost priority.
But so was living and providing for himself. At almost 80 years old, John found that this was hard. Life was hard. His VA benefits kept some money coming in, but his expenses were piling up. He developed bronchitis and other medical problems, and found that much of the services he needed were not covered by his benefits. Cut backs, budget cuts, said the nurses who handed him bills. Pretty soon, it seemed like all of his money was going to medical bills.
So he scrimped by on a meager diet of rice and beans, living in one of the VA barracks for veterans who were in the drug program, met with his counselor, and somehow managed to stay away from the drink. It was hard, but John was grateful, though the loss of his youth continued to keep him awake at night. Where did it go? He wondered out loud in the dark. The chirping of the crickets outside in the woods was his only answer.
Meanwhile, he was beginning to sweat over what would come of the future. Treatment isn’t forever, I make $900 a month, $400 for medical bills, how can I find a place to live and eat on $500 a month? Only 3 months left in the program. . . The uncertainty of it was frightful.
And John kept asking himself questions he couldn’t answer. Was it supposed to be this way? No! It wasn’t! John remembered his youth, when he was hostage in his father’s home. Listening to his father drone on about being a business man and getting married, honor, respect. John resented his father greatly for his heavy hand and dictating how John should live. That’s why I left. That’s where my youth went. The military. Be all you can be. That’s what the commercial said. John stared bitterly at the mass of bills on his counter top. All I can be, he said.
Note: Graham Danzer is a writer who lives in San Francisco. Mr. Danzer also holds a master’s degree in Social Work. He is Ph.D candidate in his field.
Also see There’s no place like home