L.D. served seven years in the Navy, which included a combat tour in Vietnam on river boats, and five years aboard nuclear-powered, Fast Attack submarines. At 65, his life is quieter now, and is a member of The Bold Writers.
L.D.’s short stories have been published in: Red Fez, Indiana Voice Journal, Remarkable Doorways Online Literary Magazine, The Writing Disorder, The Furious Gazelle, Slippery Elm, and The Rain, Party, & Disaster Society. His website is: ldzaneauthor.com
“This ain’t no schoolyard fight, son. Revenge clouds your judgment—makes you lose sight of your mission. Let go of this revenge bullshit. All revenge gets you and the rest of us out here on the rivers…is dead.”
Chief McCrea, the captain of my river boat, spoke those words to me almost forty-five years ago shortly after I came aboard. They still haunt me—molest me like a bad dream after I’m awake.
Revenge. That’s all I could think about when I volunteered for combat duty in Vietnam. I wanted to avenge the death of my best friend Mikey, who enlisted in the Marines and was killed halfway through his tour.
Mikey and I lived across the street from each other growing up. He was exactly one month older than me and would always say he was my older brother. I already had an older brother, but I would have gladly traded him for Mikey.
We were running numbers for my bookie grandfather by the time we were ten. Then, at sixteen, Mikey and I became my grandfather’s collection agency. Accomplished street fighters, we always watched out for one another. No one gave us shit and we didn’t take any from anyone. Except for one judge.
I turned eighteen. And I’d stolen a car. It wasn’t the first car I had stolen, but it was the first as an adult rather than a juvenile. “Now you’ll find out what it’s like to be treated as an adult, Mr. Heller,” the judge said sternly. There was a hint of satisfaction in his voice—the kind that comes with payback. He gave me a choice, albeit an unconventional one: four years in the county prison, or four years in the military. If I served honorably in the military, my sealed record would be expunged. If I went to prison, I would have a record forever. “Choose wisely,” the judge said. I chose the military and enlisted in the Navy. It wasn’t that difficult a choice. I no longer felt I belonged in my small town. Most people, including my parents and especially the judge, agreed.
Courtesy of my Russian-born, bookie grandfather, I understood and could speak Russian. This was a valuable commodity during the Cold War. The Navy convinced me the Submarine Service was where I could best apply my gift, and serve my country.
After submarine school, I was well on my way to completing the Navy’s advanced language and communications courses. That is, until I learned of Mikey’s death. He always had my back. But I felt like I had abandoned him when he needed me the most.
For the second time in my life I didn’t feel, or believe, that I belonged. I managed to convince the Navy—with some veiled threats of going to the press—to reassign me to combat duty in Vietnam aboard river boats. “Navy Denies Red-Blooded American Boy the Right to Fight for His Country” was not a headline they wanted—not at that time, not in that war. I supposed they figured that if I was hell-bent on dying, they weren’t going to stand in my way. They reluctantly agreed.
Eight months into my tour, my boat joined two other boats on a classified mission. Our crew was aware the VC had a bounty on us—dead or alive—for successfully interrupting their supply lines on the Mekong Delta. Just fifteen minutes from our destination my boat was ambushed. We were on point and the sole target. I was the only survivor.
After four months of painful recovery learning how to walk again, I reentered the Submarine Service. But I never fully recovered from the feeling that, in addition to Mikey, I had also abandoned my crew who now lay buried in the mud of some God-forsaken, nameless river. I felt guilty for being alive. I didn’t feel I deserved to be among the living.
I’ve come to terms that there was nothing I could have done to save Mikey. But after forty-five years those feelings, that perhaps my lust for revenge caused my crew’s death, still lie just below the surface of my consciousness. They’re like a snake hiding under a rock just waiting for the right moment to strike.
I’m not suicidal. But there are times when I’m still not sure where I belong; I’m caught somewhere between the living and the dead.
I’ve traded one prison for another.