Chapter 14 Hotel Universe

The film was “Hearts and Minds,” a documentary about the Viet Nam War. It had won Best Feature Documentary at Cannes the year before. I’d heard Lyndon Johnson’s phrase, of course, but hadn’t heard of the film. The title was excerpted from Johnson’s quote: “the ultimate victory will depend on the hearts and minds of the people who actually live out there.” That had certainly been my observation.

The film is a collection of heart-stopping violence from news footage and interviews with every politician and high officer who had anything to do with the war. Everybody from Presidents and various secretaries of defense and state to Daniel Elsburg, General Westmorland and Corporal Somebody-or-other, critiqued or rationalized US participation in the war. There were the now familiar scenes of firefights and grieving villagers. I wondered if this was where the “secret photos” and newsreel footage shot by my air force roommates in Saigon had ended up. It was absolutely gut wrenching. There were also some very steamy scenes of GIs in a brothel that to me were as far from erotic as could possibly be. I’d seen hundreds of them in person selling their wares on the streets of Saigon.

Several of the people at the Hotel Universe knew who I was and knew I was a Viet Nam vet. But apparently they hadn’t clued in Susan, who was a relatively new addition to the household. At the end of the film someone asked if my views of the war had changed now I’d seen it, I suppose expecting some sort of mea culpa. It certainly wasn’t new to me; I’d seen too much first hand. I remember being upset at seemingly being handed a hair shirt and expected to put it on. All I could think of to say was, “You don’t know the half of it. That’s what I’ve been trying hard to forget for the past four years.”

I felt ill. Susan went into the kitchen and made tea with lemon and a magic herb. “Drink this, she offered. It’ll make you feel better.”

Following Susan, I carried my tea upstairs. She rubbed my shoulders and face. After a time she said,

“So, you knew Halftrack Mike in Viet Nam. You’ve never said anything about that but I wondered. There’s a certain sadness and a reserve about you I haven’t seen in other young men I know; more like what I see in old tow-boat masters with too many years at sea. It’s like you’re 47 not 27.”

“And you’re put off by that.”

“No, not really. It’s refreshing in a way not to have to deal with the bravado and posturing and being someone’s conquest.”

Susan was one of few woman I’d met who seemed to take a personal interest in me. Women tended to keep some distance, especially those into the feminism reborn a decade or so earlier on the heels of the civil rights movement. Though it wasn’t yet named as PTSD, Viet Nam veterans had a well earned reputation for being eccentric, a bit unpredictable.

Susan was a bit eccentric too; smart and innovative. She seemed unaware that there was a box to think outside of. She clearly wasn’t a social climber. With luck she’d have a stable, well paying union job when she finished her courses. She grew up on an island with no regular ferry service, electricity or any city services, among families who had to fend for themselves. There was a multi-grade school with one teacher who occasionally boarded writers on retreat. One had been Anne Dillard who wrote “Pilgram at Tinker Creek.” The island and it’s larger neighboring island were the first white settlements in the Pacific Northwest.

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