Airman in Vietnam survives pain of human unkindness

I arrived in Vietnam on a steamy day in April 1969. It was, to say the least, a frightening day fraught with expectation, anticipation, fear and anxiety. Two hundred boys had boarded that plane in California, and now, 200 men were about to begin an odyssey that would change their lives forever.

I remember to this day the heat and the humidity, the smell of defoliant, and the sound of "Huey" choppers hovering overhead as they took off and landed at the Bien Hoa Air Base. They were all to become familiar and oppressive sights, sounds, smells and feelings. To this day I cannot hear a helicopter overhead or walk down the insecticide aisle of the hardware store without having sharp recollection of that interminably long year I spent in Southeast Asia.Still, the real anguish of that first day was ahead of me, lurking not in the form of insecticide, rocket attacks or the miles-long processing lines I was about to face. It was not the dreaded Viet Cong enemy or the oppressive heat or humidity. It was not the crowded "hootch" we would learn to call home (using the term loosely and poorly). No, the enemy I would face that day was one which, unfortunately, was more emotionally painful than all those. And because it strikes so quickly, usually catching us completely off guard and rendering us so helpless, it is probably one of the worst forms of hurt to which we can be subjected – human unkindness.

I finished my processing and, the Air Force being the way it is, found that I was the only one on that whole flight going to the communications squadron. I found my quarters with the help of Andy, a new friend. He advised me that I was in luck, because there was a party going on that night and I could meet some of the guys. Within a few minutes, still suffering jet lag and wondering what on earth I had gotten myself in for, I had showered, shaved and brushed my teeth in water I had been warned never to swallow, and was on my way to the party.

Andy and I walked 15 minutes to the area where there was already a lot of partying going on, and he introduced me to several of the men with whom I'd be working and with whom I would later become friends, including the captain who headed our division. I remember thinking how young he was and how much he looked like one of "the guys." Steaks were barbecuing and people were eating and singing and generally having a good time. I still felt horribly out of place, new and alone, but within about 10 minutes had begun to feel that perhaps it wouldn't be so bad after all. And then it happened. I was standing in a small circle of new-found friends, and our "host" – better described as the thrower of the party – came up and introduced himself as Gilmore.

He pointed to each of us in the circle and said, "You're welcome, you're welcome, and you're welcome. But," he said, pointing to me, "you're not." There was a long, uncomfortable pause, and some nervous laughter. And then the confirming truth that he was serious. "Go on, get out of here," he said.

With a silly kind of never-let-them-see-you-sweat false bravado, I said, "Oh, no problem," and turned on my heels and began walking away. "Hey, Gilmore!" Andy yelled at the guy. "It's his first day here. Give him a break!" I felt the color come up in my face and strong emotion welling up inside me. I walked slowly but didn't look back, and then was conscious of Andy by my side. He walked with me back to my area and tried to explain. But I was tough. "Hey, I'm really tired, anyway, and I need to get some rest before I report in tomorrow." Inside, I was hurt, hungry, and about to explode. But I convinced Andy, who later would become a close and understanding friend, that I was fine and he should go back to the party. He said he wouldn't, but not knowing what to say next, he finally left me alone.

I fell on my bed in an exhausted heap, and certain now that I was alone, allowed the valve of my emotions to let off a sobbing, choking, gasping burst of pent-up anxiety and loneliness that had beset me since early that morning. I'm not sure I have ever felt so bad or wept so freely. I lay there in emotional pain and fear and anguish so deep I thought I might never recover.

Within a few minutes, however, without hearing anything above my sobs, I became aware that someone was sitting at the foot of my bed. At once alarmed and embarrassed, I got control of myself but stayed face down, too humiliated by what whoever had come in was seeing in me. I felt a hand on my shoulder. "Airman." No response. "Airman Hurst." No response. And then, "Mark."

I turned to see the captain, who stood again and sat on the chair next to my bed. "I saw what happened," he said. "I'm sorry some people have no manners. It'll be OK. I'll see you in the morning." And then he left, as quickly as he had arrived.

I lay there for a long time and thought about what it meant to be new and afraid, about what it took to make someone feel welcome, and made all kinds of resolves about what kind of friend I'd be to others. I have not always lived up to those resolutions, but they have always been a short leash on which I have run through my life. Occasionally, that leash pulls hard and sharp and reminds me of my first day in Vietnam. It is, perhaps, my most stirring memory of the place.

The next day I was assigned to the switchboard to await my security clearance, and finally to a communications center. Within two months, the captain's clerk was sent home, and I received the assignment to fill in. It was not a "cushy" assignment. It was long and arduous, and was coupled with the task of relieving the switchboard operators on Sunday. But I didn't care, because working for this gentle soul, the captain, was one of the great learning experiences of my life. He taught me some of life's great lessons. On his last day there, he shook my hand and asked, "Do you know why you got this job?"

"No, sir, I don't," I said.

"It was because I knew you could cry, Hurst. I could never trust anybody who couldn't cry." I have never forgotten that lesson.

The epilogue to the story came on a Sunday, eight months after I arrived. It was just before Christmas, and I was alone at the switchboard. One of the section chiefs called and said one of his men needed to call home to Alabama. The Red Cross had notified him that his mother was dying, and the sergeant was asking me to help the guy call home. Calls home were one of the few great perks of switchboard operators. "Sure," I said. "Send him over."

Minutes later, the buzzer sounded and I opened the security gate and looked through the plexiglass window to see Gilmore standing there seeking access to the secure area of the telephone switching center. For a moment, he was the high school bully and I was the new kid on the block again, with thick glasses and no basketball skills. I had never understood why, but a cold war had grown up around us stemming from that first day at his "party." We had little contact, but when we did, it was always uncomfortable. I don't think words were ever spoken between us.

"The sarge said he'd fixed up a call for me," he drawled. I looked at him with mixed feelings of anger and pity. Suddenly, I had power over him. I alone could place his call. I also had the power to tell him "No, sorry." This was my moment. Revenge. That first day raced through my head, and my mind flashed with things I could say to him: "You're not welcome here"; "Tough luck, Gilmore"; "No way, tough-guy."

And then those memories of my lying on the cot, sobbing, and thinking about how I would act in the future flashed through my mind. I looked at him again, and he looked pitiful and mournful. After all, his mother was dying.

"Sure," I said, simply. "What's the number – it's Dothan, isn't it?"

I made the connections: Saigon, San Francisco, Mobile. "Yes, operator. Can you ring a number in Dothan, please."

"It's ringing, Gilmore. Pick up that phone and I'll patch you into your call."

I switched the key closed and told him to go ahead, his party was on the line.

"Mama," he said. "Mama, can you hear me?"

In that moment, this big, coarse man became a little boy again. Connected 10,000 miles away by a crude telephone line with the dying woman who had bandaged his knees and wiped away his tears, he knew exactly what to say. I tried desperately not to listen, but the switchboard, which was usually too busy for one operator to manage, fell still. No lights flashed and no calls came for several minutes. I heard him say, "I love you, Mama. Good-bye, Mama."

He put down the receiver and rested his head in his big, tough hands and sobbed.

I pulled off my headset and walked across the room, put my hand on his shoulder and said, "It'll be OK, Gilmore."

The switchboard was lighting up like a Christmas tree, and I had to get back to it. I wanted desperately for the captain to have been there. I wanted to tell him, finally, that he could have trusted Gilmore.