“The San Luis Valley resembled in magnitude nothing so much as the ocean.”
“I hated being over there,” Ron Sitts said. He looked at his hands. Freckles and blond hair circled his knuckles. On his index finger a scarred-over, decades-old gash. Over six feet tall, he had a thin nose, large ears, deeply tanned skin, and a shock of silver-white hair. A man who was once a Kansas boy plowing his father’s fields; planting, cultivating, and harvesting barley, wheat, corn, and sorghum; mowing and baling alfalfa. He rocked gently, his slippers on the tiled floor. We were sitting in the house he had built in a small town in South-Central Colorado. “The massive destruction and human suffering caused a depression in me. I felt guilt that I was unharmed.” From the time I was eight years old until I left home at eighteen, I lived with Ron and my mother in New Jersey. At twelve, I was the best man at their wedding. They separated shortly after I left home but I have kept in close touch with Ron. His stories of flying a rescue helicopter over the Gulf of Tonkin in the late 1960s had kept me rapt at the dinner table when I lived with him, but this was the first time in years that he had spoken to me about the war.
“I felt guilt,” he went on, “that my job was to rescue, not to kill. I was prepared to do whatever I was ordered to do. Even if it was against my principles. Later I began to feel glad it wasn’t my job to kill.”
“I try to imagine,” I said, but I had other impressions of the war drumming in my brain—the Rolling Stones’ percussion in “Paint It Black” as fires burned in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, his film about Marine recruits who endure basic training and later face the Vietcong during the 1968 Tet Offensive. Sergeant Hartman tells his recruits the “free world will conquer Communism.” And here comes Nancy Sinatra singing “These Boots Are Made for Walkin.” Private Joker, played by a bespectacled Matthew Modine, wears a helmet bearing the words BORN TO KILL and a peace-symbol button on his uniform. He attempts to explain the contradictory emblems by saying he’s “trying to suggest something about the duality of man, the Jungian thing.” I try to forget Hollywood.
Outside Ron’s living-room window, the San Luis Valley sloped gradually south to San Antonio Mountain a hundred miles away in New Mexico. The dry earth received a little over a foot of rainfall a year. In my twenties I’d planted yucca and cottonwoods in the Highlands near the Sandia Mountains in Albuquerque. Here in South-Central Colorado the high desert spanned a horizontal sweep of sand and rock eight thousand feet above sea level.
“I admired those who had the courage to stand behind their principles in the face of ridicule from many of their fellow citizens.”
“You mean people who fled to Canada?”
“Them, and the ones who burned their draft cards.”
“I don’t know what I would’ve done.”
“And I admired the courage of those who went to war because they believed they were doing the right thing.”
As a rescue-helicopter pilot in the United States Navy, Ron knew a world of water and fire and air. He flew helicopters called UH-2s that were commonly referred to as Angels. In 1965, he had joined the Navy and entered flight training at Pensacola, Florida. Two years later, he boarded the USS Intrepid, a ship commissioned in 1942, the year he was born. Aboard the aircraft carrier in the Gulf of Tonkin, Ron spent long hours not in the air but on the ship. Sometimes he sat on a catwalk near the bow and watched flying fish soaring out of the water and diving into the spray. In the distance hovered the port of Haiphong and the serpentine islands offshore from the city of Hong Gai. Navy cooks dumped garbage into the water and Ron saw hammerhead sharks trailing the ship. Hazardous as his rescue missions were at times, nothing compared to the landings he executed when swells made the USS Intrepid rise and fall and the sun glimmered off the glass on the tower of the superstructure and blinded him as he maneuvered his UH-2 down to the deck.
Thirty years after the war, his second marriage—to my mother—ended and he drove home to the American West. For Ron, the small Colorado town where he lives in a house pushed against the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains is home. The San Luis Valley held the sharp and agreeable smell of piñon and sage, the white sand, the cold winters, the elk, the snowdrifts, and the house Ron had built in the Baca Grande. The valley reminded me of standing on the shore and gazing out over the Pacific Ocean, which I had done at nineteen after driving across country from New York. I’d found a job washing dishes in a diner in Arcata, California, and in the afternoons I’d step onto the back patio, a dishrag over my shoulder, rubber gloves dripping soap, and look out over the sea.
In southern Colorado, I found the San Luis Valley resembled in magnitude nothing so much as the ocean. Ron mentioned the solidity of his house. He had “used fifty pounds of mortar for every sixteen tiles,” since he was building it “to last for three hundred years.” He had told me he would leave the house to me when he died, and so I joked that my daughter’s great-great-great-grandchildren would have the place by then. “That’s right,” Ron said, a smile loosening the corners of his mouth. “The tiles should still be here, under their little feet.”
The summer Ron’s marriage with my mother ended, we spoke on the phone about the breakup. He was still in New Jersey and I had gone to live in Ann Arbor for the summer after receiving a grant to teach a writing workshop at a prison in Detroit. “If I had to do it all over again,” Ron said about his marriage, “if I could go back a dozen years and know what I know now, I’d do it the same.”
I said something hackneyed, an effort to console him, and knew my words were empty things. I held the phone to my ear and there passed between us a silence, the sort of silence that does not set things right but gives each person a chance to be alone.
“When I think about dying,” he said, “about when it comes my time to die, I don’t want it to be in New Jersey.”
“You said so.”
“I told you that?”
“You did but I don’t mind hearing it again. I don’t want to die in New Jersey either.” On the other end, Ron laughed. It was good to hear him laugh, as if something inside him had been fixed for the moment. Not many months later, he drove from New Jersey and the densely habited cities of the East to the open spaces of the West. Behind him was not only the war but also the two-story wood-and-brick house at the corner of Patton Avenue and Markham Road in Princeton. He had gutted the old floor and replaced it with new hardwood, staged his woodshop in the garage, and I remember coming home from school and hearing his table saw go quiet.
We sat together on the screened-in porch, the air fragrant with honeysuckle, rotting crab apples, butterfly bush blooms. On the scrub grass just beyond the porch, shadows of clouds moved swiftly and lightly. The light thinned as dusk drew near and in the cooler evening air, lighting bugs’ luminous wings flared and vanished, specks of incandescence in the new dark. One afternoon I got in Ron’s truck and we drove to the Delaware River. We sat in folding chairs on the shore and watched the flowing water and talked about the universe, exploding planets, galaxies near and far, the time-space continuum, the similarities between insects and airplanes, the durability of different woods, and the farm where he was raised outside McPherson, Kansas. In those years, he rarely spoke of the war, and when he did, I listened until he had run out of stories.
When I visited him in Colorado, I traveled more than a thousand miles to see him. He spoke about the war. How in the Gulf of Tonkin he had loved the salty air, the ever-changing skies. How he had always respected and feared the sea. How in the Philippines, the morning before arriving at Subic Bay, then-Ensign Ron Sitts flew copilot alongside a senior pilot and lieutenant commander named Charlie. They flew in the Angel pattern on the starboard side of the ship, a hundred and eighty feet off the water. Ron heard the rotor winding down. The engine had just failed and soon they would plummet into the sea. Charlie grabbed the flight controls, disconnected the rotor from the engine and flattened the pitch of the blades while simultaneously pushing the nose forward and pointing the UH-2 down. They gained airspeed. About ten feet off the water, Charlie pulled the nose up and slowed airspeed and descent, and the helicopter sat down almost gently on the sea.
As soon as it touched the water, the chopper rolled. Ron unhooked his harness, tumbled over Charlie, scrambled and clambered but could not swim down through Charlie’s open door. The life pack raft around his waist had caught on something. He wriggled out of the belt and swam free and when he reached the top of the water he gasped and wheezed and took oxygen into his lungs.
He could see the helicopter was upside down and sinking and he watched as Charlie and one crewman surfaced, inflated their rafts and crawled aboard. For a moment, Ron thought the fourth crewman was trapped inside the sinking Angel, but then he appeared paddling in a raft on the other side of the disappearing helicopter. The wheels receded from view under a swell. Ten minutes later, a UH-2 lifted the other two crewmen into the air. While Charlie and Ron waited for another chopper to come for them, Charlie paddled in his raft, and Ron treaded water in the South China Sea.
A shadow came up from below.
“Shark,” Charlie whispered, and then shouted.
Ron saw his raft pack floating nearby, grabbed it, pulled its cord, and when the raft ballooned with air, he got in and scanned the foamy breakers.
“Where is it?”
“I don’t know.”
The shadow shrank and disappeared. An Angel arrived and lifted them into the sky.
Angels had no armored plating. They flew over water, never land. One of Ron’s jobs was to transport people and mail to cruisers, destroyers, escorts, and tankers. Late one afternoon, just before twilight, Ron and another of his copilots, a fellow named Billy, finished making their deliveries and had turned their UH-2 back toward the ship.
They flew low over the water and began to climb. When homeward bound, the usual procedure was to grab the Intrepid’s TACAN signal—an electronic high-frequency navigational-aid system that measured bearing and distance from the ship—and it would lead them back to her. This time, however, there was only silence and darkness. There was no signal.
An electrical failure. No instruments, no radio contact, no ships in sight, and less than thirty minutes of fuel. They could see no lights. Nothing. Just a field of air and water. He and Billy gained altitude in order to see farther and flew in the general direction of where they thought their ship had been when they left her. At last she came into view: steel and fire and power, a dot the size of a dime on the gulf. They flew by the tower and signaled the need for an emergency landing, and with about five minutes of fuel remaining they touched down.
When I think of the war apart from what I know of Ron’s days in the Gulf of Tonkin, I think of the door gunner in Full Metal Jacket firing at Vietnamese in the rice paddies below the chopper. The door gunner, played by Tim Colceri, laughs and fires his machine gun. “Get some,” he shouts, “yeah, yeah, yeah. Ha, ha. Anyone who runs is a VC. Anyone who stands still is a well-disciplined VC.” He laughs some more. The camera shifts to human figures running in a rice paddy. One falls, and another falls. Blue water curves through brown and green land. “You guys ought to do a story about me sometime,” the door gunner says to the two stringers for Stars and Stripes, Private Joker and Rafterman.
“Why should we do a story about you?” shouts Private Joker.
“’Cause I’m so fucking good! That ain’t no shit, neither. I done got me 157 dead,” he says.
“Any women or children?”
“How could you shoot women, children?”
“Easy.” The door gunner coughs. “Just don’t lead ’em so much.” He laughs wickedly. “Ain’t war hell?”
After two periods of Chinese occupation—111 B.C. to A.D. 938, and then, later, from 1406 to 1428—and a long French colonial campaign, the Vietnamese watched American troops snap open their parachutes and float to the ground. John Kennedy started the Vietnam War. Villages were bombed and covered in napalm, which burns everything and clings to human flesh. Our military dropped bombs on civilian targets in Hanoi and Nam Dinh. Women and children died from napalm, bombs, small-weapons fire. Lyndon Johnson escalated the war. Richard Nixon carried on the war, and Gerald Ford was president when the last American soldiers, ten Marines from the embassy, departed Saigon on April 30, 1975. Having spanned four American presidencies, the war in Vietnam came to an end.
In the next president’s—Jimmy Carter’s—first year of office, I was born. That was two-and-a-half years after the final withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam. Home from the war, Ron went back to Kansas, married, earned his living as a carpenter, and on weekends he snapped photographs of the farmhouse where he lived with a dog he called Cheyenne and the woman who was his first wife. Now Ron says he’ll never leave Colorado. When I think of him rocking in his chair, gazing out over the high alpine desert dotted with piñons and prairie dogs burrowing in the sand, I often wonder what he’s thinking. At dusk, when the light is fading and the shadows are just so, the sand appears to be rippling like water. It can feel like you’re stranded in the middle of an ocean, treading water in the colossal rollers of the South China Sea.
Zachary Watterson’s stepfather, Ronald Sitts, served as an ensign in the United States Navy, was attached to the USS Intrepid in 1967, and piloted helicopters on rescue missions over the Gulf of Tonkin. Watterson’s short stories and essays appear in The Massachusetts Review, the Stranger, Post Road, River Styx, and Commentary. His work has received several awards, including a Pushcart Prize nomination.
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