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Old G.I.s and Sleeping Dragons

By Doug Francescon

Author Biography



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Copyright Doug Francescon 2004


In Honor of:

Waylen Powell

Joe McCurry

Arnold Palmer

And all the guys who left a piece of themselves in Vietnam


Chapter 10
Life After the War



We are all blessed with the ability to block out painful memories. It’s like administering an anaesthetic. Without it most of us would go insane because it takes a long time for deep wounds to heal, and we need a way to carry on while the healing process takes place. The toughest part of the process is during the times when the anaesthetic wears off, and we’re forced to face the memories unprotected.


On a quiet evening in 1999 I was alone in our home in Vancouver, Washington. Except for small, everyday problems, things were generally going well. The kids were fine, there was money in the bank, and my wife, Pati, and I were looking forward to our vacation. Suddenly, I felt that something was terribly wrong. My heart began to race and I started to sweat. I looked at my hands, and they were shaking. I had an overwhelming sense that I was dying. The only time I’d ever felt such deep desperation was in Vietnam. But I wasn’t in Vietnam, or was I?


I remember standing in the hallway, telling myself to cut the crap and get a grip. I also told myself that this was the kind of thing that happened to neurotic fools, and I wasn’t going to become one of them. Finally I decided that if I was dying then let’s get on with it. That seamed to help. Maybe accepting the situation countered the anxiety, or maybe things just ran their course.


This was the worst of several such incidents. They always happened when I was alone and never lasted long. They started thirty-two years after Vietnam. I can’t explain why.


There were times during the war when I had little chance for survival and the fear was indescribably intense. Then, suddenly, the fear would disappear, and the dragon would take over. During these times it was like I was separated from the situation, and detached from it. I was able to think clearly because fear didn’t cloud my judgement. In fact, I thought more clearly, and reacted faster and more decisively than at any other time in my life.


But the fear and desperation didn’t go away. They were just set aside until later. The dragon was extending me a line of credit, kind of “survive now, and pay later”. AND, THE DRAGON ALWAYS COLLECTS.


The most important element in sorting things out was time. It wasn’t possible for me to understand the things that I’ve written about in this book when I was in my twenties, thirties, or even forties. The parts that I couldn’t deal with, I simply locked away. I told myself that I’d put the war behind me, built a new life, and that was that. WRONG!


Until a few years ago I was busy with family, work, politics, coaching, and a thousand day to day things that consumed my life. It wasn’t until the kids moved out, and the pace slowed that the past began to catch up with me, and I had no choice but to finally deal with it.


The first step was admitting to myself that I had something to deal with. I, like all “baby boomers” who were raised with John Wayne movies and Green Bay Packer football, believed that the answer was simply to “suck it up”. After all, that was what “The Duke” would do. It is embarrassing to admit that it took me thirty years to realize that “The Duke” was dealing with a movie script, and I was dealing with death, suffering, and destruction.


While in my thirties and forties I continued to play football, basketball, and baseball. During a Monday night pick up basketball game I came down on the side of a guy’s foot and turned my ankle. I treated myself the way I always had by simply re-taping it, and finishing the game. By the next morning the pain caused me to see a doctor who put me in a cast for eight weeks while my hyperextend ankle healed. He also told me that my basketball days were over. According to him, the ankle had been damaged so many times that one more injury could mean that I’d give up walking as well as basketball.


So much for “suck it up”. It was my first significant reality check. And, although a small one, it made me begin to understand that there were limits to what I could overcome by force of will. The time was right for that first step. The others would come later, when their time was right.


I’ve made many mistakes over the years because I wasn’t ready to handle a particular situation. Most often it was due to a lack of experience. In a world where decisions were based on money and politics, the dragon was no help. Planning, finesse, patience, and the ability to analyze were the most important factors, and the dragon had none of these.


The anaesthetic made it possible for me to build a wonderful life with my wife, Pati. We’ve cruised the Caribbean, navigated the San Juan Islands on our own boat, played softball and basketball together, and built a relationship that made it possible for me to accomplish things like writing this book. There are no words to explain how much she means to me.


I’ve been blessed by being a part of the lives of our four children, and four grandchildren. I’ve watched Krissy and Kim grow into fine young women, and become great mothers. They both manage medical offices, and they’re only in their mid twenties. I couldn’t be more proud of them. Kim can light up my day with just a “hi dad”. Her laughter is the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard. Krissy is my protector. When Pati is gone she watches over me, buys me dinner and drinks during happy hour, and smiles across the table in a way that says how much she cares. She holds a very special place in my heart. I played “strap on the gear, full contact, smash mouth football” along side our oldest son, Greg, he at guard and me at tackle. The game couldn’t have meant more to me if it had been the Super Bowl. He’s not only a great son, but also my very good friend. I wrestled with, fished along side and have had the privilege of being allowed into the life of our youngest son, Ron. He is very selective about who he lets in. I’m honored that he’s allowed me to be there. I helped my grand daughters, Malika and Kaylee learn to swim, made them pancakes, and told them stories at bed time. Just hearing them call me “Papa” makes my day. My grandson’s Grant and Dominic are old enough the wrestle with, and they do wonders by making me feel young again.


All of these things were possible because I was able to put the dragon aside, and postpone dealing with the past. I was also able to learn to navigate through the money and politics world where civilized dragons take a different form. They’re more like snakes, not violent or physical, but very dangerous in their own way. The dragon that I found in Vietnam is no match for them in a civilized jungle. So, for life back home to be possible, the Vietnam dragon must be put to sleep. But, he’ll always be there.


One evening a few years ago Kim, Greg, and I were getting out of my car a short way from our house. As we did, I saw two boys and a girl, all three high school age, arguing on the corner about fifty feet away. Suddenly one of the boys pushed the girl, and knocked her down. She got up, and walked toward me while the boys stayed on the corner. As she passed I could see that she was crying.


I asked ,“Are you OK”?


She said, “ Ya, I’m fine”.


I said, “I’ll stay here and watch them while you leave”.


As I watched them one said, “You got a problem”?


I said, “Ya, and you’re it”.


The one doing the talking turned to his buddy and said, “let’s take him”.


They walked up the street toward me, one slightly behind the other. I focussed on the one in the lead, the same mouthy guy who was doing the talking. The dragon had already picked him out as the one to go after first. That’s right, the dragon was awake, and in control. Vietnam isn’t the only uncivilized jungle in the world.


Mouthy stopped just out of arms reach. The other guy was at his right about a half step back.


The one closest said, “This is none of your business”.


I pointed out that, “I just made it my business”.


The guy in the rear said, “She scratched me”.


I allowed myself a quick look at his face. And, sure enough, there were scratches there.


I told the guy with the scratches that his damaged face didn't justify what I had seen on the street corner. There were two of them and one of her. As I talked to him I continued to watch the guy in front of me. His hands were at his sides, he stayed just out of reach, and his eyes and posture said that he wasn't ready for more than talk.


Long before they reached me I chose the best places to deliver the first punch. It had to be in a spot that would cause enough damage to put him out of action immediately. I couldn't handle both of them at once. So, one of them had to go down, and stay down.


This incident caused the biggest reality check of my life. While it was happening the dragon was awake and in control, but it was me doing the thinking. Or, was it the dragon doing the thinking. Suddenly it hit me. The dragon wasn't some demon sent to posses me. He wasn't some dark part of me left over from the Stone Age. THE DRAGON WAS ME, AND I WAS HIM.


It forced me to admit that I'm a killer. It was me who killed Vietnamese soldiers, not some beast from hell. I was the one that was ready to cripple the guy on the street corner, not some cave man. All of this capacity for violence was part of me, just as much a part as the guy who makes pancakes for his grandchildren. This honest look at myself made it possible for me to understand the events of my past.


I killed the N.V.A. soldiers that night because I wasn't willing to give them another chance to kill me. I asked myself if I should have taken more time before taking a human life. I asked myself if I was obligated to put their well being above my own. I asked myself if I had the right to be a dragon.


The answers came in a flash:

            Hesitating would have given them an excellent chance to kill me. They’d already tried once. I had no reason to believe that they’d changed their mind about wanting me dead. So, was it reasonable for me to take a chance? NO, not at a time in my life when I had neither the experience nor judgement to justify that kind of risk.

            Placing their well being above my own would have meant that I believed that saving them was worth loosing my own life. Did I believe that I should be willing to die for them? NO, I was at the beginning of my life with the entire adult portion ahead of me.


Once I had answered these questions honestly I was able to come to grips with my actions. I could look at what caused them, and decide if I believed that they were justified. Being able to do this has brought me closer to the kind of peace that I haven't known in over thirty years.


I have also come to understand my attitude toward the world around me, and the people in it. I have little respect for authority. I call no man sir. I do not depend on others to determine what is right for me. I'm fiercely independent. I take full responsibility for my actions, and apologize for nothing.


Authority over others is something more often acquired than earned. It is handed out as a reward for cooperation, an incentive for more effort, or as a learning devise for those who will some day shoulder significant responsibility. I only give my respect to those who have truly earned a position of authority. But, I do not regard them as one with greater worth than me. I respect them for their contribution and effort alone.


I haven’t called anyone sir since I left the service over thirty years ago. Then I did it because it was part of the drill. I saluted the uniforms and insignias that the officers wore, not the men that wore them. I, like Powel, respected only those who earned my respect through their courage or effort.


Continued next week


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