I watched my three sons playing together in the yard. Ashley Cooper and Cosmo Topper were out there with them. There was an awful lot of fun going on. My oldest son, David, had joined his brothers who were already out there playing. The younger boys, Nathan and Mason, seemed happy with that. David is a teenager now, so he’s not at home as often these days. No doubt, he is involved with more adventures than a whole library of Robert Louis Stevenson books.
Three young men and two dawgs were playing in my backyard. Memories of other children playing in a far away place rushed into my mind. Sometimes they played by throwing sticks and a battered old basketball, and sometimes they had to dodge meaner stuff than children should never have to deal with.
In the peacefulness and apparent safety, I watched my boys and their puppies as they played games of throw the ball; catch the ball, miss the ball, run after the ball, take the ball away, drop the ball, hide the ball, and dodge the ball. Dodge ball, that’s it! That was the game that was so important at two entirely different times of my life, and for entirely different reasons.
I remembered playing the game at Park Hills Elementary School. There was an adrenalin rush associated with it, and for some reason, I was good at it. I was not always in the lead with most games, but I was good at dodge ball.
My mind slipped off to a darker place, where monsoons made playing any kind of game in the yard unlikely, not that we were there for playing games. Before the rain settled in, there had been a long hot and dry spell. At first, the showers were refreshing, but that would change. Air that had been so desert dry was now saturated with a humidity you could touch with your fingers. Everything was damp, and all the time. Not a single thread of clothing worn in a month had seemed water free. You almost get used to it, but never quite get there. But just as quickly as the monsoons started, they eventually tapered off, and stopped. Everything was green and lush, but soon the air was as hot and dry as it was before.
It was some time after the Post Tet offensive of 1969 before things settled down enough to take a day off. Unless you were a short-timer counting the days, then counting the hours to getting out of that place, the days of the week ran together. You would work, stand guard duty, eat, sleep, and go back to work. Sometimes that sleep part had to be abandoned. The day of the week didn’t matter. After a while, extra guard duty came less and less, but the tension that it might come back never went away. The first time I got 24 hours off, I thought it was summer vacation.
Without relinquishing any of my regular military duties, an assignment with Civic Action to work with refugee children and an orphanage took up most of my spare time. I was a SeaBee, but made fairly close friendships with two Marines and a Navy Seal. The Seal was gone a lot, so we rarely saw him. Those Marines taught me a few things about hand-to-hand that had not been a part of my training. That lead to me asking the Seal some questions. He had little to say. One day, he asked me if I could take a day off and visit another camp. He said if I could I might get answers to some of my questions. Because of my work, and the Civic Action pass, I had more mobility than most, so I said I could. We agreed on a date, and I asked him where I should go. He smiled, and said:
“Just be ready.”
Two weeks later on a Sunday morning, he was in my barracks, and woke me up at 0300. All he said was:
We left Camp Tien Sha on foot, and I was nervous. You’ve heard about the cat in a room full of rocking chairs? That was me. We were soon picked up by our two Marine friends who had a truck. Once on the other side of Da Nang, I was in unfamiliar territory. The sun was up long before we reached Quang Tri. I didn’t see a camp. We were stopped out in the middle of nowhere on a path that was barely a path. I was not exactly sure of the location, but I knew somehow we had to be very close to North Vietnam.
Another truck pulled up, and we were joined by four more people. I was introduced to an Army helicopter pilot, two Green Berets, and a man dressed in civilian clothes who said I could call him “Joe”. Joe didn’t say much.
The Seal spoke up in an almost jovial way:
“Boys, we’re gonna teach SeaBee how to play dodge ball,” and all the others laughed.
The helicopter pilot talked about survival after a crash. Soon we were on the ground and it felt a little like being back in a gym class doing tumbling exercises. He asked me if I could swim in the ocean. I told him I could, and had. With no pause at all, he said:
“You got to know how to swim in dirt; know how to swim in briers. You got to know how to swim in fire.”
I was prepared to take his word for it, as I sincerely hoped we would have no time for such classes. Pretty soon the conversation was about training, and the beginnings of what became specialties. They talked about, and demonstrated some basic body positioning and moves. One thing in particular that interested me was how they described what they could see in an adversary. They talked about postures and positions of strength, and positions of weakness and vulnerability. The Seal talked about an importance of not letting the other guy know what you don’t know, but also not to let him know what you do know until you use it.
One of the army guys said:
“You might bluff someone who is afraid, but never waste time trying to stare down a mad dog. You have to either keep away from him, or kill him.”
Talk became quieter, and specifics of materials, skills, and methods, which I will not go into here, came up. But more than how to kill or mame someone, they were showing me ways to divert the energy of thrusts and blows away from my face and body. All of them had things to show and talk about except Joe, who up to now had been silent. He said something about it getting late, and all agreed it was time to go. I asked the Seal why they had been so generous to bring me here. He smiled, and looked at Joe.
Joe stood up from the trunk of a tree he’d been sitting on, and lit a cigarette. Then he walked over to me and said:
“Some guys just get smart enough to be stupid. A lot of guys take the wrong stuff home with them when they leave here. Maybe there is a time to hit somebody, maybe not. But in the long run, it will be far more useful to know how to make sure they don’t hit you.”
As we moved toward the trucks, the Seal looked over at me saying:
“Dodge ball Seabee, dodge ball. Sometimes the energy is being used to take you out of the game. Just move in a way that transfers that energy away from you where it can do no harm. Don’t stop a fist with your face. Let it hit the wall behind you. If the assailant hurts his hand, he did it to himself.”
The army truck left first. The two Marines and I went to our vehicle, but the Seal had disappeared. I was surprised, and asked about him. One of them said:
“Oh, I think he lives around here sometimes. He has business to do.”
I looked around for some sign of which way he went, but there wasn’t any. My next question was:
“Who is Joe, and why was he here?”
Cranking the truck, and not even looking at me, the driver said:
“His name is not Joe. You never met him. Sometimes he does some training, but most of the time he’s in the information business. I think he had something to do with all of us being here. He met your uncle at the Pentagon.”
I didn’t say anything, but my mind was racing: “What? My uncle? Holy cow!” I was getting ready to ask a bunch of questions, but the Marine said we were through talking about it, and asked that I confirm that I understood. I didn’t understand, but said I did.
It was dark when we again got back to Camp Tien Sha. Not a word was spoken on the ride back. They dropped me off right in front of my barracks. I turned to say goodbye, and said I’d see ’em next week at the orphanage. The other Marine smiled at me and said:
“I don’t think so SeaBee. Looks like we’ll be out of I Corps until long after you’re back in the world.”
I never saw any of them again except the helicopter pilot. He came to talk to me a few weeks later about crossing over to the Army and warrant officer school, but I declined. I wished him luck as a chopper jockey, but told him I didn’t want to be one.
I’ve never talked about this with anybody except my uncle who had very little to say about it. He just changed the subject. It was too much like trying to tell someone you’d seen a ghost or a flying saucer. All this was twenty years ago. Now that I’ve written it down, I’ll probably just stick this in a drawer somewhere. Maybe I’ll pull it out later sometime and show it to you. Maybe I won’t.
The samurai is the knight who stands in the face of adversity. Sometimes he overcomes it; sometimes he is just a target. The ninja is somewhere between the assassin and the cat burglar. The children and the dawgs are coming into the house right now. I’ll have to be watchful that they not knock me over. Sometimes I’ll have to move with lightening speed, and sometimes without letting them know it is my intention, I’ll need to stand…perfectly still.