Memoir obliges the writer to fling words like a footbridge across the past. Having trod that footbridge, the writer hopes to come out on the other side with better understanding. In any event, the deed is done, and the memoir writer can move on. Fiction obliges no such thing. Fiction condemns the writer to returning—time and again—to leave and revisit—with or without understanding—the themes, characters, places that haunt that writer.
The fucked-up Vietnam vet is a recurring character in my fiction. Each iteration of this character is set in different circumstances, but they are rooted in the experience of my brother, Douglas Johnson (1950—2021). Doug was a casualty of the Vietnam War, though he lived through it. He came home a hollowed-out human being. He was talented and could be charming; he was charismatic and without scruple, a drug addict. I personally did not suffer at his hands. But I know plenty of people who did. For decades.
First Prize in the Stand International Short Fiction Competition
I first created a character echoing Doug’s experience in “Veteran’s Day,” the lead story in Fair Augusto and Other Stories. The first person narrator is a hairdresser, Betty Sutton Lusky, sister of the demented Vietnam vet, Walter Sutton. I will not recount the story here; it can speak for itself. Suffice it to say I poured time and tears and years of care and pain into many drafts of “Veteran’s Day.”
“Veteran’s Day,” won first prize in the first Stand International Short Fiction Competition in 1983. (Stand is a venerable Leftist literary mag based in Leeds, UK.) My British agents had submitted it for the prize, though they thought it unlikely to win; it was a long story, grim, and very American.
“I’m telling the truth! That’s what it says!”
In 1983 I had other things to worry about. Amid a lot of domestic upheaval I had left Florida and was finally renting an apartment in Redlands, California where I lived with my two little boys, Bear and Brendan. Since my address had been in flux for some time, I used my parents’ address for all things professional.
One afternoon my father called me and said a letter had come from my agents in England. I told him to open it. Inside, in addition to the agency note, there was a letter from Stand. “Veteran’s Day” had won the International Short Fiction Prize.
I said, “Don’t joke. This is not funny.” (My dad was sometimes known to have a weird sense of humor.)
“I’m telling the truth! Honest! That’s what it says.”
I still didn’t believe him. I told him to bring the letter over immediately. And he did. He stopped on the way to buy a bottle of champagne.
I felt so vindicated! In December I went to England to collect the award. I thanked Stand, the judges and my British agents. I did not speak of my brother. I almost never speak of my brother.
The army spat him out like gristle.
Douglas Johnson spent two years in Vietnam, 1968 to 1970 fighting their dirty little war. At the end the army spat him out like gristle from an underdone chicken wing at an All-States Picnic. They gave him an Undesirable Discharge [“in lieu of a court martial”] that denied him any veteran’s benefits, including medical, dental, psychiatric, and rehab, that denied him the GI Bill, and denied entrance to many jobs. When the army released him, and my father picked my brother up at Fort Lewis, he was clutching the sandal of a Vietcong he had killed. Doug’s enormous medical and psychiatric expenses fell upon his middle class family. (My father was a pharmaceutical sales rep; my mother was a secretary at County Hospital.) The emotional burdens implicit in those medical and psychiatric tribulations fell on them as well. They had two younger children still at home.
In the midst of that daily turmoil, my parents fought for years to get that Undesirable Discharge reversed. And what a fight it was. They took on the army, the government, even the inner sanctum of the Nixon White House which in 1973 had begun to crumble under the weight of Watergate. My father would often skip work, go to the public library, research, chase down leads, write letters in his almost-unreadable scrawl. My mother would decipher and type them at night, make careful carbon copies, file them. When they got replies, they took up those denials and challenges, and fought on. In the end, they won. The Undesirable Discharge was reversed, and Doug could use VA benefits, and the GI Bill. This was my parents’ finest hour, a heroic achievement.
Am I equal to building a footbridge over that pain?
The raw materials of that struggle—that is to say the carefully kept carbon copies—are here in this house. In the basement. I have always vowed I would outlive Doug and then I would use these documents to write the history of what the army did to him, and my parents’ epic struggle to free him from the ignominious Undesirable Discharge. I have outlived Doug. But am I equal to exhuming those documents from the basement? Am I equal to revisiting that rage? Am I equal to building a memoir-footbridge over that pain? Do I dare?
I thought: He’s going to kill her after all.
Doug Johnson first contracted hepatitis (along with malaria and malnutrition and skin afflictions as well as a vicious drug habit) in Vietnam when he was between eighteen and twenty years old. All his life he suffered from liver problems. In about 2018 his innards were so ravaged that he had to have an ostomy and he was hospitalized for three months. In late October of 2020 he telephoned to say that he had been diagnosed with liver cancer, that he had six months to live. He had a lot less time than that. On the morning of January 5th 2021, he died in the California home he shared with his third wife.
My mother sat in stunned silence when I told her this news. Five days later, on the night of January 10th 2021 she had a heart attack, found face down on the bedroom floor the following morning. As I drove behind the ambulance taking her to the ER, I thought: After everything he’s put her through, he’s going to kill her after all. But he didn’t. She lived. Lives still.
Where is the wall not simply for dead humans, but for dead humanity?
Perhaps the fitting epitaph for my brother can be found in a chapter in a still-unpublished novel where I wrote of a troubled, drug-addled Vietnam vet named Ace. In the spring of 1969, a few months after he got out of the army, Ace bought a blond wig to cover his stubbled hair. He bought a VW van, forsook his Baltimore family, and went on the road, taking with him the harmonicas he had learned to play in Nam and a duffel bag that held the sandal of a dead Vietcong and a chain of human ears. He picked up a couple of hitch-hiking musicians with whom he shared warmth, camaraderie and adventures with a broader circle of friends. However, drug-lust triumphed and Ace betrayed their trust. As the years rolled on, he lost his way, time and again, along with his harmonicas, and any chance he had at love. In the book Ace vanishes into the maw of homeless oblivion.
Here are the closing lines of Ace’s chapter:
“Maybe when Ace dies they’ll inscribe his name on that wall in Washington. Maybe someone will scrawl it, graffiti among the graven names, there among the fifty-five thousand known dead. Cleon Waters’ name is there. The grunt who killed the whore with the heart of tin, his name is there. Where is Ace? Where’s the wall for Ace’s name? Where is the wall not simply for dead humans, but for dead humanity? Where is the monument for them? What can it possibly look like?”
Paint Creek Press will republish Fair Augusto and Other Stories on Tuesday, June 20th 2023. It is dedicated to the British literary agents, Verity Mason and Juliet Burton.