Tuesday 13 October 2015
I intended to write about the shit-storm occurring here in the good ol’ USofA this past week about gods, guns and bullets, but upon further thought realized enough words have been dedicated to that purpose. Instead, I decided to write about a friend and victim of another shit-storm we call The Vietnam War.
Gabitis, everybody’s Sea-Daddy, a first class petty officer who really did not give a tinker’s damn about making Chief, worked as an ordnance man in one of the attack squadrons aboard USS Enterprise and earned his living loading and arming bombs, missiles, and other touchy-feely pyrotechnic stuff. A zesty job, to be sure. I shared much beer and many cigarettes with him in some of the snazzier gin joints that amble their way along the muddy edges of Magsaysay Boulevard in beautiful downtown Olongapo. I do not know why my thoughts drifted back to rest upon him. It all seems so long ago. They ambushed me this morning from the dark, dank corner of a closet I rarely explore.
Subic Naval Station is the place I last saw him, lying in a narrow hospital bed with his melted face. He melted it while I and my crew were swilling ice-cold beer in the Staff NCO Club at Danang while waiting for the ragged holes in our aircraft to be patched up. Word of the incident came down through the Bamboo Telegraph, as did most things of importance during those times. It seems a Zuni rocket torched off as he checked it for stray voltage, then pulled the safety pin. It lit off, traveled over the bow and scored a direct hit on the water. No harm done, it seemed, except for Gabitis. Yeah, except for Gabitis.
Upon returning to the Philippines, our aircraft fueled and made ready for the next day’s event, I flagged down a Blaylock Taxi and rode to hospital. Inside, Gabitis lay in bed listening to small portable radio tuned to Far East Network. At first, I did not recognize him. His face had been turned into a waxen mask of piebald scars, shiny skin stretched tight over facial bones like blood-smeared cellophane. Eyes, ears, nose wiped out, erased from his face in that Zuni’s furious blaze of glory, with only a lipless slit left to approximate a mouth. Scraggly tufts populated his skull. Only his voice remained the same. “I’m doing fine,” he said. “Just fine. Hope you haven’t worried. Just one of those things, you know. Nobody’s fault. Nobody to blame. Just one of those things. Don’t waste time here. Go on. Get out. Don’t need you hanging around this. It’ll bring you down. Get drunk. Get laid. Don’t waste time. Do it now. Things have to be done now. Tomorrow’s an illusion. It doesn’t exist anywhere but in our minds.”
I left, head reeling. Nothing of what he said made sense. Nor did it for a decade or so. Here I sit today, the vast majority of life behind writing this as a sharp pain attacks the pit of my stomach. I wonder if Gabitis lives today, and if so, what has he made of life. Did he find the sweetness of it, or did he sink into bottomless despair? Something I will never know. But were I to hazard a guess, it would be that he chose sweetness. That he chose the harder path that led him away from the impelling darkness. That life is a series of choices that must be made when they must be made. Time is precious. In the end, it is all we have. Wasted time is wasted life. And most important: There is no tomorrow. No, there is not.
To read more letters, click on The Path!