“You think it’s going to be a bed of roses, that being out of the army will cure all your problems.” – A recently discharged friend who came back to post for a visit.
“So you finished your education recently then?” Asked Agnes.
“Yes, relatively, four years ago.”
“What did you do in the meantime? I would assume from what I knew of you in Saigon and what you told me about Ft. Monmouth that you’d have gone right to university when you got out. That isn’t how it happened?”
“That’s the way it started out but as I said, the moral and cultural rift made it much more difficult than I’d anticipated. And then of course there was money.”
“And yet you managed to get into radio production without a college degree. That’s the Thomas I knew in Saigon. The Thomas who managed to get a position at the Signal School and a responsible assignment in Saigon with no formal education. What happened? I’d have expected more.”
“I got out of the Army in January 1971, three months early so I could attend college. The stress of 1970 in New Jersey was just awful, much worse than Saigon. I didn’t have a reason to go to New York on weekends anymore and we were frequently confined to post for riot control. So I just hung out on the Jersey shore without much to do. I did find a good bookstore and spent a lot of time reading. We were completely ostracized by the locals and the tourists but the bookstore proprietor put up with me. It was a coffee shop too so I sat out front with my nose in a book. Picking up a girl on the beach was completely out of the question but one of my buddies managed to take up with a local girl. He was vivacious and supremely self-confident.
I was sure I would come completely undone if I didn’t get out of the Army immediately. I’d read about a phenomenon called Culture Shock. I talked about it to some other Viet Nam returnees and they were experiencing the same things I was. It was a shock coming back to the ‘Land of the Great PX’ as we called it. I mean, the Vietnamese in DBs neighborhood had almost nothing. A rusty five-gallon bucket was an asset if it held water and even if it didn’t it became a planter. They wasted nothing. The Vietnamese peasants had each other and not much else but mostly they seemed happy. In New Jersey there was this obsession with getting ‘stuff.’ The people mostly seemed unhappy. There was always a tension, an unfilled need, a restlessness. There was a big mall a few exits up the parkway. I went there with some friends before Christmas. It was overwhelming, makes me think of Las Vegas casinos. I bought some shoes and a few clothes but I couldn’t stay. We went back to the post. It was calmer. Less stress.”
“I had a similar reaction when I first went to Paris in 1964,” said Agnes. “But consumer culture there was nothing then compared to when I arrived in The Bay Area in ’73. Even when I was in Paris in the early seventies consumerism had only just begun to accelerate. That was where much of the anti-American feeling came from. But looking back on it I think it was public policy. They were building new roads like mad. They had pretty much forgotten about us Vietnamese refugees. It was the Algerians turn to be hated but you had to deal with anti-veteran attitudes even then?”
“Yes, and I heard I could get out three months early to go to college. So in summer of ’70 I applied to Washington State College in Pullman, Washington. I figured I could make it financially on the GI bill or what there was of it. A hundred and thirty five dollars a month didn’t go far even then. But I had saved quite a bit of money and as long as I could draw unemployment insurance from the Army I thought things would be OK. Once that ran out the college game would be up. I figured I’d cross that bridge when I came to it. I had chosen WSC for two reasons; one was because I believed I stood a good chance of being accepted and the other was that they were on the semester system rather than 10-week quarters. That meant there were classes starting in early January, which would get me out of the army as soon as possible.