Tan Son Nhut Airbase, South Vietnam, 1968: 10° 46’ 5.99” N
Sweat stained the underarms of his short-sleeved khakis and dripped from his upper lip. But after six months in Nam, surviving its hot-and-wet and hot-and-dry seasons, Jeremy didn’t notice. His mind still wandered the jungles of the Central Highlands, in the teak forests, hunting the enemy and sometimes finding them.
Two days before, he’d stood point for his platoon on a search and destroy mission, using his M-16 to push through the tangled undergrowth. Now he sat in the shade outside the airport terminal along with more than a hundred soldiers, waiting for their commercial flight south to a different continent.
“So why did you choose Sydney for R&R?” Jeremy asked a black three-striper next to him.
The Sergeant stared with blood-shot eyes. “Had enough of these damn tropics. How ’bout you, Corporal?”
Jeremy thought for a moment. “I’ve never been there. But its sounds a little like…a lot like home.”
The Sergeant grinned. “So you’re one of them hippie motha fuckas?”
“Yeah, that’s me, right outta Haight-Ashbury.”
“If Sydney’s like your home, won’t it be hard when ya gotta come back to Nam?”
“Maybe. I’ll see. I hear the Aussies don’t like blacks. Why are you going there?”
“No different than back in the World, back in Detroit. I can handle it.”
Jeremy slumped in his seat, pulled his garrison cap over his eyes and tried to snooze. But every few minutes the airport’s PA announced some arriving or departing flight and his heart raced.
The crowd roar increased. Jeremy sat up and stared at a man wearing new jungle fatigues being escorted through the multitude by a Major and First Lieutenant. The LT shouted “AT EASE.” The noise died. The man looked dazed, probably from a long flight. He stumbled along, untied bootlaces flapping, hatless, with no rank or unit patches on his uniform. Stopping to wipe his eyes with a handkerchief, he seemed ready to faint, stared directly at Jeremy before moving off.
“Who the fuck was that?” Jeremy muttered.
The Sergeant laughed. “You’re too young. That’s Joey Bishop, one of the ‘Rat Pack.’ Ask your folks after you take the freedom bird outta here.”
Jeremy closed his eyes and thought about good ole Joey. The guy looked like he had felt the first days in Vietnam: trying to take it all in, wondering how he’d survive the heat, the stench, the press of people speaking a strange tongue.
“I’ll tell ya, Sammie Davis Jr. has more talent than all them cats,” the Sergeant said. “I saw him in New York. Man that guy can move his feet.”
Jeremy sighed and sat up but stayed silent. He detested just about everything his parents enjoyed. The cocktail-swilling Rat Packers with their Sinatra sounds and wisecracking Dean Martin were part of the generation that drafted his ass, sent him across the Pacific to fight a stupid and probably immoral war. And he had six more months of jungle fighting to go, and for what? It felt pointless. And no amount of beer, grass, or smack would clarify anything, although some of his fellow grunts tried that route.
He bolted to his feet and reached for his carryon before the announcement of their flight’s departure stopped echoing. The group of Sydney-bound GIs quickly formed a line, had their boarding passes checked, crossed the tarmac, climbed the stairs and entered a gleaming 707 jetliner.
Jeremy looked for the Sergeant. They’d gotten separated in their scramble to depart for a respite from war, to the land of good beer and round-eyed women.
Darwin, Australia, 1968: 12° 27’ 56” S
From high above Vietnam, the country looked peaceful, blue-green in the late afternoon haze. The jetliner quickly left land behind and flew over the South China Sea that blazed in the sunlight. Darkness enveloped them soon enough and the excited conversations that had filled the cabin died.
Jeremy opened his book of Hemingway’s stories and settled in. But his mind outpaced the plane, had landed in Sydney and wandered suburban streets fronted by neat gardens and houses under a late spring sky. He stowed his book and finally fell asleep.
The bump of the plane’s landing gear being lowered woke him. He sat up and checked his watch. They’d been flying for almost six hours. Lights twinkled below. A duel string rose up to meet them, tires struck the runway and engines reversed thrust.
A stewardess came on the PA, told the groggy soldiers they had a three-hour layover in Darwin while the plane was refueled and serviced. Outside, the night felt warm and humid, the November sky shot with lightning with the threat of rain in the air. The GIs hustled down the portable stairs and across the tarmac to the low terminal building near the control tower. The place seemed deserted but lights still blazed in the pub. The soldiers exchanged US dollars for Australian and quickly filled the place.
Jeremy found an empty barstool and ordered a schooner of Victoria Bitter. The black Sergeant joined him and they talked about their histories while guzzling cold brews that actually had a kick. They skittered around the trickier subject of their futures.
“Gonna go to school when you get out?” the Sergeant asked.
“Don’ know. Maybe I’d do better second time around. I sure fucked up the first.”
“Yeah, me too…with ma wife and kid. I’m thinkin’ ’bout gettin’ out.”
“Really? I thought you’re a lifer.”
The Sergeant frowned. “Yeah, but things are changin’. Can’t do another six of this shit ta get my twenty.”
“Hell, I’m already dreading goin’ back. Six more months humpin’ the bush is an eternity. Don’ know if I can…”
The Sergeant stared at him and nodded. “You’re one a them sensitive white boys…all messed up.” He tapped his forehead.
Jeremy chuckled. “Yeah, man, that’s me.”
The Sergeant seemed too old for a three-striper, as if he might have been busted back to E-5 at some past moment of indiscretion. “Where you stayin’ in Sydney?” he asked.
Jeremy let out a long belch. “Probably at the Australia. It’s supposed ta be downtown, close to the clubs and the Opera House.”
The Sergeant grinned. “Opera? You like all that squabblin’ by fat white chicks?”
“God no. But I used ta study architecture and the Aussies are building a new opera house. Supposed ta be really somethin’.”
“Man, for a grunt, you’re fulla surprises. You don’ mind if we stay at the same place? I figure it’ll be easier if I walk in there with you. It’s such a lily-white town.”
Jeremy laughed. “No problem. But get your own room. I’m gonna sleep late, live off room service, and maybe have ladies up for a nightcap.”
“No sweat, man. I won’t bug ya. It’ll just take me a day or two to get the lay of things.”
Jeremy stared into his beer glass, knowing his shyness probably wouldn’t yield to any attention by Australian women. All the GIs talked big when they returned from R&R, about how they’d met hot babes in Sydney, women that looked just like their sweethearts back in the World, whether real or imagined. He had neither.
The three-hour layover ended with a harsh announcement that their flight would continue southward. The soldiers struggled from their seats and staggered outside into the warm night, weaving their way toward the plane, some needing help up the stairs. Everyone seemed talked out and most fell asleep before the jetliner turned down the runway.
Sydney, Australia, 1968: 33° 51’ 4.26” S
Jeremy forgot to pull the shade down over the window. The morning sun struck him in the face. He struggled to shed the violent dreams of burning villages and bloodied bodies and to remember where he sat. In the quiet cabin, only the engines made noise. He stared downward twenty thousand feet at an unreal expanse of red and tan desert, the Australian Outback.
Growing up in California, he hated the inland deserts, far from the Pacific and its cooling winds. After half a year in Vietnam’s dripping jungle, the flat and dry looked beautiful with every raised detail casting a shadow, even tiny ranch houses, water towers and windmills. The country looked clean under a painfully blue sky. A person could walk for hours with no undergrowth to push through, no trip wires, dung-covered Punji stakes, drawn crossbows hung in trees, Bouncing Betties, three-step snakes, tiger traps, or the coolie-hatted Viet Cong and their AK-47s.
Jeremy got up and hit the latrine as the other GIs woke, groaning, asking for water and aspirin. The flight dragged on, the stews served breakfast then instructed everyone to buckle up. The pilot began their final approach, coming in over water. They rolled to a stop outside the Sydney terminal. A row of Army buses just off the apron waited to take them to the R&R Center for processing.
Within an hour the Sergeant and Jeremy had exchanged the rest of their greenbacks, made reservations at the Australia Hotel and got the downtown address of an outfitter to score some civilian clothes.
Another bus dropped them off at a staging area within sight of the bay. A three-block walk brought them to the Australia, a Victorian-looking white building with a proper doorman and carpeted lobby. The desk clerk gave the Sergeant a cold stare but with little fanfare checked them in. They paid for their rooms in advance.
Jeremy agreed to meet the Sergeant in the lobby at suppertime and they’d go out for chow. His sixth-floor room smelled clean, everything painted shades of white. Three Peace roses graced the dresser where he stowed the few items from his satchel. He lay across the bed and thought about the Outback, the red expanse with its tiny outposts of humanity. At the window, the faint sound of traffic reached him. He tried opening it but it wouldn’t budge.
In the bathroom he washed his face and hands in hot water, grinning. The soap smelled sweet, the towels felt soft. Hurrying downstairs, he walked out onto Castlereagh Street. He searched for the official outfitter, eager to buy some cool civvies, as if changing that artificial skin would make him more human, could let him blend with the throng of people crowding the sidewalks. But his military haircut and low-quarter shoes always gave him away.
He bought two sport shirts, a pair of slacks and a necktie, rented a sports coat, all light colors for spring. America’s Thanksgiving was just a week away. Christmas shopping had begun. The seasons felt backwards south of the equator. He tried to adjust to the change in latitude, the change in everything, his thoughts more chaotic than a firefight.
After putting on his new clothes back at the hotel, he toured the bustling downtown, visited the Opera House under construction. Sydney’s bayside parks reminded Jeremy of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, the bay itself different yet with the same water that filled his home port 7,500 miles away.
That night he and the Sergeant dined at a fancy restaurant, the beef tough, the vegetables bland, the rum excellent. The soldiers drew stares from the other patrons and snooty responses from the waiters. None of it seemed to faze the Sergeant.
Afterward, they toured the bars. At the Cheetah Club with its distorted checkerboard décor, a rock band blasted a crowded dance floor pummeled by strobe lights. They groped their way to a corner table and ordered drinks. The band took a break.
“Go ask ’em ta dance.” The Sergeant motioned to the unaccompanied women sitting at tables against the far wall.
“Why don’t you?”
The Sergeant laughed. “They’re lookin’ at me like I’m an aborigine. The band’s gonna start up. Go on, ask.”
Fortified with liquid courage, Jeremy walked to a table where three women sat. “Would you like to dance?” he asked a tall brunette.
She gazed up at him and shook her head.
“How ’bout you?”
Her friends looked away, said nothing.
He rejoined the Sergeant. “Jesus, they’re beautiful to look at but never ta touch.”
“Relax. Some babes just don’ like GIs.”
A pretty redhead staggered toward them and leaned on their table, threatening to spill their drinks. “Why don’ you wankers just…just sod off…go home.”
Jeremy smiled. “Sorry, miss. It’s too far away to go home. Wish we could.”
The woman seemed to consider his answer. “You damn yanks drug us into your bloody war…took my brother…should be ashamed.”
She spun, almost lost her balance, and staggered away. Others seated at nearby tables glared at Jeremy or wouldn’t meet his gaze.
“That’s what I’ve been tellin’ ya,” the Sergeant said. “Things are changin’. We used to be the good guys. Now they think we’re all baby killers.”
The band began to play and the dance floor filled. But every rim shot the drummer took sounded like small arms fire to Jeremy. With the Sarge trailing, he escaped into the cool wet streets of downtown Sydney. They walked back to the hotel without speaking.
After the night of bar hopping, he slept in late, ordered room service and enjoyed tea and scones as a warm-up to bangers with scrambled eggs. On day three of his five-day stay, he and the Sergeant ate dinner in Manly, a coastal suburb reached by ferry.
“So ya wanna hit the clubs tonight?” the Sarge asked.
“You go ahead. I’m going back to the hotel.”
“You seem…seem spaced out, man. Like you’re not really here.”
“Sorry. Been thinking a lot. My head’s messed up. Just when I start to enjoy this place, the war snaps me back, like some fucking rubber band. Like I’m some puppet being jerked around.”
The Sergeant stared at him. “Ya know you’re not free when you’re in the Army.”
Jeremy smiled. “Yeah, man. How does that feel to you?”
The Sergeant relaxed in his chair and sipped his cocktail. Outside the sunset lit the sea, the long strand of beach, and the rows of pines that grew close to the water. Finally, he leaned forward. “You’re not goin’ back, are ya?”
Jeremy didn’t answer.
“Well, do you have a fuckin’ plan? The MPs will catch you if you stay in Sydney…get life in Leavenworth or worse for desertion.”
Jeremy sighed. “The less you know the better. I’ve tried to keep…keep away from people…not make friends. When…when I disappear they won’t know who to ask.”
“I get that. I’ll give ya space.”
“Sorry, it’s gotta be this way.”
They ordered another cocktail and watched the sunset. Back at the hotel the Sergeant stopped him before going inside. “Here, take this.” He handed him a wad of Australian dollars. “Find a quiet place. Find some folks to take you in.”
“Thanks, man. Thanks, Eddie.”
The next morning just before dawn, Jeremy put the “Do Not Disturb” sign on the outside of his hotel room door. He dressed in work clothes and a tough bush jacket, things he bought at a second-hand store, donned a knapsack full of supplies and left the Australia. He ditched his uniform and shoes in a garbage can and walked away from the sea, through the quiet city, moving quickly but not too fast to draw attention. He had three days before being classified AWOL and thirty more before joining the ranks of reviled deserters.
At the outskirts of Sydney he passed single-story homes fronting tree-lined streets: garage doors open, cars parked in driveways, toys scattered across front lawns, the occasional portable swimming pool. It looked like the California suburbs. He stopped and sat on a low wall, stared at the quiet neighborhood. Am I ready to never go home? Never see another ballgame in Candlestick Park? Never ride the trolleys? Never smoke a joint with friends? Never go back to school? Never…never stop looking over my shoulder?
A police car cruised past. Jeremy smiled and waved. He watched it disappear down the boulevard, still moving slowly. I’d better be gone before they circle back. He stood and adjusted his knapsack. Sucking in a deep breath, he shuddered and again pushed inland, fleeing from nightmare memories of Vietnam’s jungles.
Somewhere in Queensland, Australia 2018: 26° 24’ 0” S
The dust-covered SUV bounced along the dirt road, returning to the sheep station from town. Its radio played rock-and-roll oldies from the sixties, the San Francisco sound. Janet adjusted the rearview mirror to check on the kids then glanced sideways at her Grandfather.
Jeremy smiled and massaged his arms, tanned by decades of outdoor work alongside the Indigenous Australians. “Those old tunes…I heard the Dead play in Golden Gate in ’67…you know, the ‘Summer of Love’.”
Janet rolled her eyes. “Yes, Grandpa, you’ve told us a hundred times.”
“Sorry…didn’t mean to bore you.”
“How could anybody like that psychedelic crap?”
“It was a different time…and the drugs helped.”
Janet smiled. “You and Nanna should be happy. That was your last treatment. No more IVs, no more chemo.”
“Good for us, kiddo.”
Jeremy sat back and watched the Subaru gobble up the road. The car cast a shadow on the red clay, distinct, important, one more raised detail visible from twenty thousand feet.