A story of love and a young soldier 47 years later

Bruce and I on our wedding day in 1968
Bruce and I on our wedding day in 1968
I was thinking today about anniversaries and about Veteran’s Day. They are forever linked in my mind.

Bruce and I had 36 anniversaries together before he died of a brain tumor in a 2005. This November 9th would have been our 47th wedding anniversary and 47 years since Bruce was in Nam.

This year it is easier than the last and easier than the year before that. Yet still I find myself slightly out of sync with the world.

It is as if my heart is in a time capsule and the dates are shifting and swirling. Fragments of the past drift around me, blurry but still able to cause a gentle ache of loss and poignancy.

We opened our wedding presents not knowing in less than four months Bruce would be gone to Nam.
We opened our wedding presents not knowing in less than four months Bruce would be gone to Nam.
We married less than a year after we met. I was 18 and Bruce was 21. I look back at the pictures from that year and I see how young we were.

Of course we thought we were mature and wise!

I am deeply glad we married that young as it gave us so many more years together. It gave us time to be together too before Bruce went overseas.

“Overseas” – that sounds like such an innocuous term as if he were going to study in Europe or travel abroad.

The constant news  from Nam made the war ever present in my thoughts.
The constant news from Nam made the war ever present in my thoughts.
Overseas meant Nam for our generation. Nam- a far off place where boys aged and where others traveled home in body bags.

We looked so young in the  spring of 1968 when we were dating.
We looked so young in the spring of 1968 when we were dating.
Bruce and I thought little of the war in Nam in November of 1967 when we met. At least I didn’t.

I thought about cruising the strip, high school football and meeting this cute college guy named Bruce. I saw the photos from Nam and heard the news stories but it seemed unreal, maybe too scary to really grasp.

Bruce was drafted and his long hair and mustache were taken  too.
Bruce was drafted and his long hair and mustache were taken too.
Three months after we met, Bruce was drafted into the Army and the Vietnam War became a fear ever present in our lives.

I watched the news with more intensity. I saw the pictures of young soldiers and worried. It was real for me in a way that it had not been up until then.

We escaped on the weekends to walk  but the worry was close by.
We escaped on the weekends to walk but the worry was close by.
After Bruce and I were married in Nov 1968 we settled at the Fort Rucker military base in Alabama. We denied what could happen, thinking and hoping that we would ride out his duty there.

We spent our first New Years Eve walking the streets of New Orleans. On weekends we hiked the bayous of Alabama or the beaches on the Gulf.

It sounds fun but it was done with a touch of desperation.

The army “promised” Bruce that he would never go to Nam, but we weren’t convinced.

The war and politics descended on us.
The war and politics descended on us.
1968 became 1969. Promises were like leaves on a tree that year. One good storm and you were blown away. In our case the storm was the election of President Nixon.

Nixon, the bombing of Cambodia, 543,000 troops in Nam, more than 33,000 American soldiers already dead, dark military cars pulling up to the homes of widows-to-be… and Bruce, my Bruce going to Nam.

I drew this years later  thinking of the day Bruce got orders to go to Nam.
I drew this years later thinking of the day Bruce got orders to go to Nam.
The day Bruce got his orders to go to Nam is a day that stands clear and sharp and painful in my memory. It was Valentine’s Day 1969. We were living in this cute little converted garage in Enterprise Alabama, a few miles from the base.

I had wanted to make a special dinner for Bruce, but the best I could do on military pay was macaroni. I was about to add tuna fish to the pot when Bruce walked in the door. He was wearing his army uniform and carrying a bag of freshly caught shrimp.

He had bought the shrimp for $6.00 from a road side vendor. We couldn’t afford it with two weeks to the next pay day. I was angry at first but said nothing. I thought Bruce was bringing it as a Valentine’s Day gift and that was sweet.

Bruce kissed me on the cheek and hugged me. Then he kissed me on the lips with an emotion and intensity I didn’t quite understand. He still said nothing about what they had told him that day at the base.

We cooked the shrimp and sat down across from each other at the little table in the kitchen. I can see him now, playing with the shrimp and macaroni, pushing the food around the plate. He looked down and then up and then away again, avoiding my eyes.

The war became real and close in our minds.
The war became real and close in our minds.
He started to pick up his knife and fork and then laid them down beside his plate. He looked up at me and said “I’m being sent to Vietnam.”

I wrote this letter to my parents when we heard Bruce was going to Nam.
I wrote this letter to my parents when we heard Bruce was going to Nam.
There are no words to explain the feelings that gripped me as I looked at his face. He looked sad, fearful, worried and yet was trying to be brave for me. He also looked like he didn’t quite comprehend what was going to happen next. Neither did I.

We never did eat the shrimp. Instead we stood up and clung to each other, me sobbing, Bruce crying. We went to bed and lay in each other’s arms saying little, holding tight.

This photo  from our few weeks before Nam was burned in our house fire in 2004. I kept it to remind me of that time between time.
This photo from our few weeks before Nam was burned in our house fire in 2004. I kept it to remind me of that time between time.
The Army gave us a few weeks off before Bruce was to be deployed. We went back to Los Angeles and rented an apartment for a month and played house as if all was normal. A friend took this picture of us in that little pretend place and time. We looked happy for the camera, but inside we felt the calendar turning day by day.

At the end of our brief leave I took Bruce to the airport for his flight to Vietnam. I cried all the way home, running two stop lights through the tears.

We had been married for a little over four months. We had aged years.

Bruce  wrote me letters while sitting in the hooch in Nam
Bruce wrote me letters while sitting in the hooch in Nam
Bruce wrote me many letters from Nam and sent me pictures like this one of him in a barracks. We talked a couple of times when he had managed to get down to Saigon but the letters were our link.

I kept all of his letters and read them over and over. He doused them with his cologne so I would smell them and remember him. Even now, 40 years later I can close my eyes and smell that scent. Part cologne, part Vietnam

The letters burned in the house fire
The letters burned in the house fire
The letters burned up in our house fire in 2004. A few scraps remain and I treasure these. The words are not always full sentences, the edges blackened by fire and smoke, but they impact me still.

Bruce world in Nam was vastly different than mine in L.A.
Bruce world in Nam was vastly different than mine in L.A.
Most of the photos he sent were also burned. Three or four remain including the one of his boots and hat, of his dog in Nam and of a cart and ox on the road by the base.

The photos touch an inexplicable emotion in me; something to do with realizing Bruce had a profound experience as a soldier in Nam that I will never fully understand.

The poverty we saw in Hong Kong was new for me, but to Bruce it reminded him of Nam
The poverty we saw in Hong Kong was new for me, but to Bruce it reminded him of Nam
I had glimpses of his life in Nam when we met for R and R in Hawaii and then a second time in Hong Kong where we spent our first anniversary.

That first anniversary was one that we never anticipated. It was not the story book anniversary in some stateside hotel. Instead I had flown from LA and Bruce had flown from Vietnam to a place miles and cultures away from home.

Bruce looked in the mirror, shaving off the feel of war.
Bruce looked in the mirror, shaving off the feel of war.
Instead of a joyous celebration, the young boy I had married walked into the hotel room a different person. All the gentle and loving and good things that Bruce was were still there, but there was something changed. The look in his eyes and his silences were from a world I could not comprehend.

The difference was more than the smell of Nam . . . jungle rot they called. It was more than the little bits of war stories cut short because he did not want me to know.

I have learned from the old and  new legions of soldiers . . . men and women who have served.
I have learned from the old and new legions of soldiers . . . men and women who have served.
47 years later I think understand more about what Vietnam was like for Bruce and the millions of other men/boys that had been there. I have learned from the newest group of soldiers who went to Iraq and Afghanistan and from Ray, my dear “second chapter” love.

That anniversary in 1969, though, I didn’t understand and Bruce didn’t want to share.

I felt it in him as he lay on the bed, looked in the mirror or walked around the streets of Hong Kong with me.

We stood on the deck of the floating restaurant looking at a surreal sight.
We stood on the deck of the floating restaurant looking at a surreal sight.
We tried to put aside our fears and just be there with each other. We shopped and had dinner on the floating restaurant boat where I took this picture. The food was flat out awful but I did not care. We were together.

We bought a stereo and had it shipped back home. hmmm “home” How alien that must have felt to Bruce who would in a few days go back to Nam. He liked to plan, though, for our future. The stereo was part of that.

Bruce smiled for the camera but often I would see a far away look in his eyes.
Bruce smiled for the camera but often I would see a far away look in his eyes.
We had an anniversary dinner on a rotating restaurant. I still remember the bottle of wine… Matuss. I remember, too, the man with no legs propped against the wall as we exited the restaurant. Bruce gave him some money but then we turned away trying to recapture our make-believe vacation.

We did all kinds of things that week that were not a part of my world back in America or Bruce’s world in Vietnam. We spent days surrounding ourselves with an allusion of timelessness as if we could keep the rest of the world away from us.

But in the end I would go back to America and he would go back to Vietnam for another few months.

letters from Bruce to Shaun Bruce continued to write me and I wrote him. It all seemed surreal. I drove to work on the freeways of Los Angeles. Bruce walked perimiter guard on the Phu Loi base in Nam.

Bruce continued to sent letters and pictures of a place and a world far away.
Bruce continued to sent letters and pictures of a place and a world far away.
The photos of Nam were few but powerful reminders of Bruce’s world.

I cherished the letters and the photos. They connected us.

I gathered the soggy, burned scraps trying to dry them
I gathered the soggy, burned scraps trying to dry them
When the letters burned in 2004 I gathered the scraps and put them in boxes. They were charred and damp from the fire hoses. I dried them and tried to separate the lumps of paper.

Most were fragments of sentences and memories, but I treasured them.

They reminded me of that first year when are souls, our love and our view of the world were tested and aged.

After Bruce died in 2005 I looked at the charred scraps often. The letters again connected us across time and space.

Even now, 11 years after Bruce died I treasure those small reminders of our first year being married in the shadow of the war in Vietnam.

letter from Bruce to Shaun Every anniversary, just days before Veterans Day, I pull out one letter in particular as sorrow drifts around me. I read it and hear Bruce and I smile.

Bruce wrote 40 years ago to me
“I love you honey. Sleep well tonight. Keep thinking of the good night kiss and when you fall asleep I will be right there beside you in bed. Think of me close to you, holding you in my arms and in your dreams I will pull you close and kiss away your tears.”

We are far apart still, this time from death but Bruce is close in my dreams.

Happy anniversary Bruce. Welcome home from Vietnam.

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One thought on “A story of love and a young soldier 47 years later

  1. what a wonderful tribute to Bruce and and that part of your life. I try to imagine what it must have been like to hear that Bruce was going to Vietnam and it is impossible to do so unless one has experienced that. Your were both so young at the time. And still today young men and women are being sent off to some war in a country they have no connection to. I pray for the day when that will end. Your writing made me think of mom and dad and how it must have been for them and how it impacted their lives. We as a family will gather on Salt Spring on Remembrance Day as we have done since 1988. Our collective silent thoughts are always that our children and all children will never have to experience the horrors of war. Thank you so much for your beautiful and poignant
    writing. Love Valerie

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