Sunday, September 15, 2013


            I am a member of the Vietnam generation, a survivor of the draft, Johnson, Nixon, Bundy, and MacNamara’s band. I didn’t go to Vietnam. My service consisted of only one and a half days in the military, expelled from uniform because of a knee ailment common to growing young men, but I tried, enlisting when I was 18 because my grandfather served in World War One, my father in World War two, and it was my turn. A rather simplistic view, but it was a simpler time. While I was spared any personal horror of that useless war, many of my friends were not, and one of them was John Giese.

            A year my senior, he and I were members of a small group of cohorts in my high school who preferred laughing to fighting, thinking to grunting, and conversation over perspiration. Fledgling philosophers we were, flexing our green intellects at every opportunity, arguing just for fun, assuming opposing positions for laughs, and seldom taking ourselves, or anyone else for that matter, seriously. John was the unofficial leader of the group, the son of two college professors and a brother to Maryanne, a lovely young woman prone to breaking hearts and promises with a delightful smile that dissipated anger like fog in the wind. John was a brilliant student who sailed through high school with straight A’s and little effort, who could easily have gone on scholarship to nearly any college he chose. He was well liked by many of us but, because of his mind, his grades, and his honesty, not overly popular among the herd. Admired by teachers and many parents for his mind, appreciated by many young lovelies for his looks and personality, John remained his own man and went his own way, two reasons we were surprised when joined the military. He announced one day that he was leaving. The next day he was gone. I didn’t see him again for over two years.

            One autumn evening, while attempting to study in my college dorm room (a skill I never did master) a call from the desk informed me that a visitor awaited. It was a rare occurrence, and I hustled downstairs to find a grinning John Giese waiting for me, dressed in full uniform wearing a green beret. After a disgusting display of male bonding, we went out for a beer. Sitting in a small campus tavern some time later, John attracted the attention of a table of sailors who had drifted in the joint, the largest of whom had little good to relate about any branch of the military except the Navy. As time went on and he drank more beer, he began to aim his insults at John and, more specifically, John’s green beret. John smiled and ignored him. He had always been a rather mild mannered person, anything but confrontational, a thinker, not a fighter. As the insults became more personal, he suggested that we leave before things got out of hand. I agreed and, as we stood to go, the sailor, forty pounds heavier and six inches taller than John, moved to block our path and offered my friend serious insult directly in his face. John’s only reply was, “outside, Swabbie.”

            As the sailor turned to lead the way out of the tavern, John picked up a nearby barstool and slammed it across the man’s upper back, knocking the sailor face down on the dirty barroom floor. He flipped the dazed man over on his back, lifted him up a foot or so by the front of his uniform, and struck him a hammer blow across the bridge of his nose that sent blood spatters flying in all directions. Then John walked through the stunned crowd and out the door with me on his heels. At the time, it was the single most graphic display of controlled violence I had ever witnessed, and it shook me deeply. John grunted, “Gotta go. Call ya in a couple days,” and walked off down the street to his car.

            I went home for the weekend and told my grandfather of the incident, and how easily John had done what he did. “War changes a man, boy,” he said. “Can’t help it. Fellers that been through it ain’t never really the same no more.” That’s all he would say on the subject and I let it drop, but it worried me. Later that day I received a call from John who suggested we go pheasant hunting the next morning. I agreed. I called one of my grandfather’s cronies, a man named Arberry Yont for permission to hunt his land and to request that he chain up his massive, ill-tempered yard monster, a canine composed of equal parts of Newfoundland, chainsaw, and T-Rex. Arberry agreed, and the next morning John and I arrived at his empty home to hear the dog in question raging at us from his position of restraint in the back yard. We were preparing our various hunting accoutrement when the dog, now dragging a length of heavy chain, erupted from behind the house and headed straight for me. A hundred and thirty pounds of mottled brown attitude, complete with yellow ivories and excessive saliva, bore down on me like a freight train with fur. My gun was unloaded, and I simply could not move. John came over the hood of the car as the calamity was about to close with me, hit the dog with a body block, struggled briefly on the ground with the animal, and broke the dog’s neck. It took only seconds and the canine lay quivering on the cold earth. John, after calmly watching the dog die, turned to me. He had tears running down his face and was beginning to tremble. “Take me home,” he said. I did. That was the last time I ever saw my friend. A few days later I encountered his father who told me John had gone to Paris Island. That’s all I ever heard about him. His name is not on the wall, and now, nearly fifty years later I have no idea what ever became of him except the world lost John Geise, as it lost thousands upon thousands of other young men and their futures, some in the grave, some ruined in one way or another, and some still in-country, no matter where they are. Once in a while I still feel a twinge of guilt because I did not go to Vietnam. More often, I feel regret and anger because any of us did.