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Doctor Ink, my shrink

By Art Elser

I returned from Vietnam in August, 1968, after a year as a forward air controller in the Cessna O-1 Birddog. I saw my share of combat, flying support for secret Special Forces operations in Laos, Khe Sanh during the siege, and Special Forces camps in Vietnam. While I was there, the war became so unpopular that LBJ decided not to run for re-election.

When I got back, I dared not mention in public that I had fought there nor wear my uniform off base. I retired in 1979 and Vietnam was still a topic no one discussed in polite company. Meanwhile, I had horrific nightmares and flashbacks about my experiences. And I couldn’t discuss them with anyone.

In 1988 I visited the Vietnam Memorial and found the names of classmates, friends, brothers in arms on The Wall and was overcome with emotion. When I got home, I started to journal about my feelings. My journal entries were full of anger, frustration, and self pity.

A trip to DC in 1995 took me back to The Wall. A few months later I wrote my first poem about that visit. It is one of my favorites because it sums my feelings about that war. The nightmares and flashbacks continued, and some incidents triggered strong emotional reactions I was able to capture in poetry.
Washington, D.C., May 1995

Careless gusts chase clouds and tear
too soon the cherry blossoms
from their boughs.
Petals, whirled in the maelstrom,
are spilled free to sink and form
a pale pink pool
along the black wall.

The granite, scarred with names,
mirrors the pink in its ebony shine,
a reminder of blossoming lives—
vulnerable, fragile, young —
blown by the careless maelstrom
of their spring.

A few years later, at a restaurant, a man behind me was choking and I did the Heimlich on him, probably saving his life. I didn’t catch his name. That night I had a nightmare.

Remove this cup from me

Oh lord, if thou be willing,
remove this cup from me.

Luke 22: 42

At the next table a man chokes,
cries out, seeing his own death. Friends stand
fearful, helpless, not knowing how
to save.

Five or six steps,
a brotherly hug,
a quick thrust
under the ribs,
a rush of breath.

I give him back his life.

I give this man, whose name I do not know,
more years, a wife her husband.
His thanks—eyes telling a new reverence
for life—fill my cup with joy.

But there are other men, thirty years ago,
whose names I also do not know,
whose lives I took.
One, before he reached the safety of a wood,
six, in a bunker,
thirty-seven, on a rock-strewn ridge,
forty-five, in a line of trees.

How many more? How many more?

Last night they gathered at my bed.
I could not see their eyes,
nor see a face,
but each held out a cup of pain to me.
When I awoke, I could not taste
the cup of joy.

One August afternoon about the same time as I drove south on I-25, I saw red and yellow smoke rising from a training area for cadets. That caused a flashback to an ambush of one of my Special Forces patrols.


Across the highway, red
and yellow smoke drifts,
from a green hillside
where trainees play at war.

Memory jumps
thirty years …

He circles the tiny plane, looks
at the green hillside,
at a hole
blasted in yellow clay,
soaked red with blood,
draped with arms and legs.

Death snaps hungrily at him,
at helpless men below.
No bombs, no shells,
no help to pry open
the savage jaws
of ambush.

Cursing, crying, he watches friends
die …

Tires jolt off the road, and time jerks back.
He stops the car and rubs eyes that sting
from red and yellow smoke.

After work one day in downtown Denver I heard a helicopter. That sound transported me instantly back to Vietnam (helicopters still have that effect on me).

Breaking news

I step into a cacophony of city sounds
as people rush to catch the evening news.
Then, they fade below some threshold
as my ear selects the swoosh
of rotor blades, the whine of a turbine jet.
Glinting steel and glass play with the sounds.
I search the sky, not knowing where to look.

Memory plays with them too,
taking me back some thirty years.
I hear the first of two Jolly Greens,
rescue choppers, lifting off from DaNang.
I wait to hear the second and the roar
of fighter escorts as they race to find
some luckless pilot just shot down.

Two nights ago I scanned a list, forward air controllers
killed in Vietnam—two hundred eighteen of them.
We flew the same planes and missions.
Dave Brenner—I woke him at six thirty
so he could fly to his death.
Hal Halbower, my classmate,
shot down by his own artillery.
Lankford, Sellers, Budka, killed
during the sixty-seven Christmas truce
Sam Deichelmann, the flamboyant one,
who went to fly the secret war in Laos
and died over the even-more-secret jungle.
John Egger, the aging major, who wanted to know
what it was like to be shot at.
He died up north finding out.

The Jolly Greens head out to rescue them.
I almost shout, Too late!  Too Late!

Then I see a TV-news chopper flying out
to report a fire, a holdup, or traffic.

I struggle back those years.

My feet walk a Denver street,
my memories, the flight line at DaNang.

I continued to journal my experiences and emotions. Then, Christmas 2001 my son Al asked me to tell him about Vietnam. We talked about a few things and then I promised to write a memoir for him. I spent a year writing and revising and self-published it as What’s It All About, Alfie.

That year of writing, revising, remembering, reliving the pain and destruction I had caused turned out to be one long therapy session. I’d write each night for an hour or two in my office. Those nights were retreats from daily life and a return to that year of combat, adrenaline, fear, and death. I wrestled with my demons and the emotional wounds started to heal. The nightmares and flashbacks continued, but lessened, as did my anger and frustration.

I still have odd moments triggered by a foggy morning, loud sounds, songs, dreams, news from Iraq and Afghanistan, a lightning strike on a tree near my house. I capture those feelings in my journal and my poetry, and that helps deal with the demons. Recent poems seem to have a lighter tone, better resolution. My writing has obviously given me better perspective.

In a recent poem about taking off into a dense fog, I describe the stress of climbing for 30 minutes in thick clouds over the ocean in an ill-equipped Cessna. I use the image of being in a cocoon. There’s an ironic humor here not present in earlier poems. This is the ending to that poem.

Finally, imperceptibly,
the gloom brightens.
A burst of sun,
brilliant blue,
a sea of white fluff.
I shed the cocoon, spread my wings,
and fly off to the safety of combat.

I volunteer these days as a naturalist, and much of my poetry is about the beauty and joy of nature. This excerpt from a recent poem shows the positive effect nature had on me after a rough mission in 1968. Here’s an excerpt from

Peace in a violent place

I guzzle from my canteen to replace
the sweat that soaks my flight suit.
Violent scenes from the last hour
flood my mind: a patrol ambushed …
heavy casualties …
murderous enemy fire …
a burning tree line …
thunderous explosions …

*  *  *  *

I fly close to the waterfall, watch it arc
gracefully hundreds of feet to rocks below.
It disappears into the valley’s green.
I turn off radios, fly lazy circles—heart slows—
peace quiets the chaos in my head.
This is my cathedral. I come here often.
I could stay forever in the beauty of mist
and green and mountain waterfall.

Writing poetry is particularly good for wrestling with demons because I have to focus so much on writing, rewriting, hunting for the right word the right structure, condensing, and revising again. The demons are not gone. They’ll never be gone, nor would I want them to be. They remind me of a life changing year. But I need to learn from them, so I continue my daily visits to Doctor Ink, my shrink.

© 2011 Art Elser


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