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Category: John Ketwig

On the national seal

“Vietnam harbored a variety of exotic animals, and they were often attracted by our perimeter lights. I once watched an anteater collect dinner for nearly an hour. Bats swooped at us; their sonar seemed to be attracted by the telephones. And there were the reptiles, especially the ‘fuck-you’ lizard. Science calls him the gecko, after his distinctive call. Pale turquoise with orange spots, this ten-inch relative of the dinosaur has sung his mournful song for tens of thousands of years without being understood. Now he crept up to a guard tower in the night, eased up to the silent American guard, and hollered, ‘FUCK YOU!’ The guard jumped out of his skin and, often, out of the tower. The ‘fuck-you’ lizard is as much a symbol of Vietnam as the eagle is a symbol of America.” – John Ketwig, …and a hard rain fell

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Uncivil war

“One of our men was killed when he approached a forlorn dog that had a satchel charge cleverly sewn into its belly. (A stupid mistake. Dogs were eaten in Vietnam. Cats were a delicacy. Pets did not exist, and the unusual in The Nam was usually deadly.) More common, and perhaps the most heartbreaking memory of all, were booby-trapped kids. A tiny child dressed in rags, unaware of the lethal package strapped to his back, approached. Too young to understand his lot in life, his eyes still sparkled. A GI offered candy or a cigarette. The child radiated joy, and innocently came closer to explode in a crowd.” – John Ketwig, …and a hard rain fell

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Careful where you put that

“Like everything in The Nam, even lovemaking could be deadly. One member of our company, affectionately referred to as ‘Champ,’ contracted gonorrhea seventeen times in twelve months. A legendary superstrain, the ‘black syph,’ was supposedly incurable. Fearful of introducing this horror to Hometown, U.S.A., the army supposedly sent ‘black syph’ victims to Okinawa (Camp Crotch-rot) and listed them as missing in action. Rumors of razor blades in a girl’s sex organs abounded, though I doubted that would be medically possible. Short-timers warned the new arrivals against falling asleep after sex, for fear of castration. The pleasure palaces in Saigon were legendary; but up-country sex was a demeaning, mechanical act, a reminder of how desperate and vulnerable the fatigue and loneliness and terror had made us.” – John Ketwig, …and a hard rain fell

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You put your money down and you take your chances

“The barber was too young for military service, but he was a fine barber. He shaved you with little tin razors that looked like toys, and carefully shaped your eyebrows and shaved the insides of your ears. After each shave or haircut, he urged you to lean forward and ‘popped’ your vertebrae into place one at a time. All good things must come to an end, and one day he announced he was being drafted. He needed three hundred dollars to bribe his way out. A lot of us could relate to that, and a collection was raised. One night we shot him dead, when he was trying to crawl through the wire with satchel charges on his belt.” – John Ketwig, …and a hard rain fell

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You’re next

“It was a world of exhaustion, heat, mud, mildew, rot, and few pleasures. You peed into a large tube fashioned from the metal shipping canisters that had brought artillery rounds from The World. You ate powdered eggs and powdered potatoes and drank powdered milk. The water tasted like medicine, and the Kool-Aid tasted like fruit-flavored medicine. Artillery Hill roared, and helicopter blades constantly chopped at the humid air. You couldn’t get clean. You couldn’t get rested. You grew accustomed to all that; but you never grew accustomed to working on trucks with bloodied seats and giant holes torn in their floorboards. You never grew accustomed to the chatter of a nearby machine gun, or long hours on a guard post, peering into the rain and fog, wondering if a tiny form had crawled through the wire and was behind you preparing to slit your throat. You couldn’t grow accustomed to the fear. There was a war all around, and you knew one of these days it was going to ride into town like a gunfighter dressed in black. How would you react? Would you survive? In one piece? Every second brought you nearer to it. How would you die? Loved ones were far, far away.” – John Ketwig, …and a hard rain fell

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They run and hide their heads

“It rained every day, starting about nine in the morning and pouring in translucent gray sheets until about midnight. The rain in The Nam was as different from the rain in the United States as anything we would encounter in this strange land. The drops were as large as marbles and driven with enough force to sting when they hit you. We were in a wide valley, and there was no runoff. There were areas of shallow mud and areas of deep mud, but there were no areas without mud. Most of our world was under water, and you had to know where to step.” – John Ketwig, …and a hard rain fell

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The hour of the rough beast is come

“It was a strange time in American history, a time when many seemingly unrelated events were combining to shake the very foundations of our most cherished institutions. It was a time of the Beatles and sub-orbital flights, of civil rights marches in the deep South, and black-and-white TV. After the simple satisfaction of the fifties and the patriotic frenzy of the New Frontier, and after the Bay of Pigs, and the Cuban missile crisis, and that day in Dallas, we all felt some kind of ominous tension. Even our high school teachers had seemed somewhat bewildered. You couldn’t watch police dogs attacking blacks on the evening news and believe the United States was the land of the free and the home of the brave. You used to think the Commies were far away, but then they showed up ninety miles from Florida. You used to think boys had short hair, but then the British invaded, and you looked at history books, and there really wasn’t anything wrong with long hair. The grown-ups objected, then suggested you go to church, and Christ’s hair was on his shoulders, and everything seemed suspect. They spoke of obligations to your country and whispered about tax breaks. They told you to defend freedom and then used cattle prods on the Freedom Riders in Alabama.” – John Ketwig, …and a hard rain fell

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