Vet recalls having skin in the game

Written by Michael Collins, with an introduction by Uprooted Editor Megan Collins

Your father’s circumcision (and all that that implies about a parent’s anatomy and youthful activity) is generally not something a daughter wants to know about in detail. This is a story I’ve heard before in bits and pieces, mostly communicated by my mother, a story that often elicits nervous laughter and uncomfortable looks between me and my brother. I’d wondered about the details but never thought it appropriate to ask. Last week I finally worked up the nerve to ask my father to write a piece about his time in the Vietnam War, and a few days later he emailed me this essay.

Megan and her father

Megan and her father

Not only did I learn more about the medical encounter, I also learned about his war experience, about his writing, and about him as a youthful twenty-four-year-old—the age I am now.

The Uprooted project is about bringing unheard, unarticulated experiences relating to illness, gender and sexuality to a public forum. By working with authors and reading and rereading drafts for our anthology, I’ve learned a lot about the stories people keep bottled up inside, stories that ought to be shared for the insight and support they offer others, and for the relief they offer their owners. My father doesn’t speak often about his youth. He lost a father to M.S. when he was fifteen, and we never talk about it. He went to war at age twenty-three, and we never talk about it. Writing this post, he gave me an opportunity to learn more about him—not just about this specific event in 1968, but about who he was when it happened. It brought to life the grainy, sepia-infused images that accompany this piece, images that many of us have of our parents and grandparents and which we struggle to see as more than a vacant snapshot of a person who no longer exists.

These Uprooted stories are about so many things, and though gender and illness are the lenses we’ve focused on, we found that they shed light onto so many aspects of what it is to be alive, or to have lived, or to have shared a life.

I’m glad I asked.

 

Me in jeep

The author seen in repose on a Jeep.

They had taken me in the back of a “Deuce and a Half” (US Army parlance for a large truck) for the forty-five minute trip from Dong Ha and I was stretched out on the operating table in an emergency field hospital tent in Quang Tri. Because the anesthesia was locally administered I was alert and could hear the snipping of surgical tools and gaze up at the faces of their handlers as they went about their bloody business. Then we heard it…the dreaded, but all too familiar, swish-swish-swish sound of incoming artillery passing just a few feet overhead. The lights went out. That’s when I told Dr. Pedutom and his assistant to go to the bunker without me.

Michael Collins Pointing

The author pointing towards the DMZ in 1968 and again in 2015.

But I’m getting ahead of my story. No, this is not the tale of a Purple Heart. Wrong organ. It all started a year and a half earlier, before I was even drafted. To put it discreetly, my local doctor advised that my discomfort would be relieved with this simple operation. When I became one of Uncle Sam’s finest, at least in name, I resolved to seek maximum compensation for my inconvenience by having the taxpayers foot the bill for said operation. It seemed only fair. One year, eight months, sixteen days and ten hours of servitude in exchange for $100 worth of repair (in 1968 dollars) to this very personal bit of newly certified US Government property, as GI’s become once they are sworn in. One way or another, I was going to get circumcised.

But how to go about getting this special requisition approved, given the other priorities folks had at the 108th Artillery Group, about five miles south of the DMZ in I Corp Vietnam? Good fortune landed me a part-time gig plying my civilian skills as a bartender in the shack we called an Officers’ Club, which resulted in a fine friendship with Maj. Nestor U. Pedutom, a Philippine MD who, like myself and my conscripted colleagues, would rather have been somewhere else. His excuse for being there was a shortcut to full US citizenship. More than a few drinks and several weeks later he agreed to help me out. (Though the night before our ride to Quang Tri, last call came very early.)

DSCF2306

Dong Ha (Collins’s base camp) and Quang Tri (the operation locale) on a road sign in 2015.

So there we were in the dark. Following my refusal to drag my butchered body part through the dirt to the subterranean sand bag shelter, Dr. Pedutom insisted on staying with me to complete the task at hand. But there was a hitch. Because of the power outage the only way to finish the job was for me to hold a large flashlight so he could see what he was doing. The problem with this plan, of course, was that it meant I could see what he was doing as well. There was also the possibility that a shell would make a direct hit on the hospital, rendering the whole matter moot. Apparently, when all is said and done, the old adage is true. You really do get what you pay for.

As it turned out the incoming ceased, along with my flashlight duty when power was eventually restored, and fifteen minutes later the deed was done. For good measure, upon my return to the base the next day, it happened a USO show was underway (the only one during my tour). Our Executive Officer, seeing my bowlegged attempt to gingerly circumnavigate the festivities so I could begin some much needed bed rest, decided it would be a shame for me to miss all the fun. After a whisper in the ear of the scantily clad lead singer-dancer (I think the term was “go-go girl” in those days), shared among her bandmates to much laughter, his scouts found me and placed me on stage as the new, impromptu star attraction.

The "Go-Go Girl" at the USO show in 1968.

The go-go girl at the USO show in 1968.

Musically accompanied titillations and provocations followed to the great amusement of the entire unit. I don’t think the phrase “pole dancer” had been invented yet, but if so, I would have been the pole. But alas, it was like offering candy to a seasick sailor. You can lead a soldier to water, but you can’t make him drink. Choose your cliché. The images of skin stuck in my mind were not those of lovely Miss Manila straddling my ears as she rode on my shoulders like a cheerleader.

Enough said. That’s my war story and I’m stickin’ to it.

*************

Michael L. Collins

Michael L. Collins

Recently retired and living in Berkeley, CA, the author succumbed to his wife's pleas to return to Vietnam as a tourist after forty-six years, a rich experience that triggered old memories for which he is most grateful.
Michael L. Collins

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3 thoughts on “Vet recalls having skin in the game

  1. Megan & Mike…

    A titillating story, indeed.

    Mike, your daughter has your gift of musing in rich, written text. Funny story, Mike. I remember well those Filipino gals eagerly dancing on the makeshift stage while each of us just knew that we had caught their eye. I also had “incoming” on the first day of my arrival in Long Binh, Vietnam.

    Quite a new meaning for “skin in the game,” Megan.

    Merry Christmas!

    Bernie Byrne

  2. Megan, have heard this story but his war medal story was better. Be sure to thank your dad ‘for his service’ for me.

  3. I’ve finally got around to reading the Christmas letters and so, of course, I had to follow up and find Megan and friends’ Anthology. I’m eager to share the link with my poet son & daughter-in-law, Charlie & Sasha. But first things first. Michael, thank you for my biggest laugh all day. Megan, thank you for prodding your dad to share his story. You both have the gift of wit and writing. Our best to all your family.

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