I was stationed in Rota, Spain, when I rented Apocalypse Now for the first time. I felt a grand stupidity when I was in the Navy. My roommate had a gear locker filled with hardcore pornography that he travelled with wherever he was stationed. I didn’t want to end up like that, so I started to frequent the base library, pick up books at random and read. I’d also check out films, looking for anything that was award-winning, as I figured that meant it was art. I was particularly interested if the title or the cover looked like it was about the military—All Quiet on the Western Front, A Farewell to Arms, This is the Army, The Bridge on the River Kwai. On my off days, I watched them all, but I found that the older movies didn’t affect me, any movie that came out before I was born. I just felt distanced from them. The way everyone talked felt fake and ancient. I just didn’t believe them. And World War I and World War II were worlds away from the little mini-wars we were having at that time, tiny feuds with Libya (the Gulf of Sidra incident), or what seemed like tiny as it was affecting us so minimally on the base. I’d joined the Navy, honestly, to serve, to see combat. I had Platoon and Full Metal Jacketfantasies, the last war films I’d seen before joining the military. I went to Platoon with my cousin Kev and to Full Metal Jacket with my friend Bri. Kev would join the Army, Bri the Marines, and I went into the Navy. None of us were dissuaded by the films. In fact, they made us want to join even more. We wanted drama. To do something. Anything. To get away.
The reality of the Navy was mundane. I buffed floors on midnight watches. I was a Cryptologist, which sounded sexy when I enlisted, very James Bond, but the reality was that what was coming in was encrypted, so I had no idea what it was saying. If some terrorist found out I had a Top Secret security clearance and kidnapped me, torturing me for information, they would be sad to find out the great big nothing that I know; I would be forced to make up things to excite them.
I wondered if that would change with a war, with a real war, if my job would suddenly have a grand importance.
This was 1989. The shift from Reagan to Bush. Which was like no change.
And my life was making coffee for my beer-gutted Chief Petty Officer who used the F-word so frequently that I started to think like that. So I tried to fall into film, to get away, experience something Oscar-worthy, something poetic, something beautiful, something greatly different from ugly cursing boredom. But the black and white footage made me feel separate, distant, where I knew I was watching a movie and not having that wonderful feeling of losing yourself in the story. It seemed like an illusion of war, nothing to do with the real thing, so painfully obviously illusion.
Apocalypse Now, though, grabbed me at that opening imagery of smoke, that frightening, mysterious sound of helicopters. It was filled with visuals and sounds that felt contemporary, fittingly of the “now,” and strangely real. Martin Sheen’s punching the mirror and bleeding, I would later find out by watching the documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, was real, triggered by his own apocalyptic mental collapse during the filming. That’s where I was—agitated, overworked, underappreciated, not fitting in, failing my most recent personnel inspection, getting poor marks from my ACWO, hating the food, having the first ever real digging thoughts of the possibilities of suicide. God, I connected with Captain Willard.
Another of my bunkmates (there were always three to four of us in one small room) had recently bought an expensive sound system, so the helicopter main rotors moving at the speed of sound whooshing from right to left thrilled me. The movie had everything, including top-of-their-game movie stars, actors I respected—and I was always picky with actors—but Harrison Ford, Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper—wow.
Those old films, I didn’t know who the hell William Holden or Alec Guinness were. Their names didn’t bring weight. And what the hell is a River Kwai?
But I knew Vietnam, hard heard about Vietnam, grew up with Vietnam. I was born in the very heart of its largest death tolls, its Hamburger Hill days. The place, I got. The chaos of the politics of that “military conflict” somehow made sense. And even Dennis Hopper, I understood. He pops when he appears onscreen.
I had this amazing emotional reaction and connection to the rebelliousness the movie represents, that Willard represents, that Hopper’s photojournalist represents. I had a very faint memory of my lame attempt at a high school reading of the tattered motley clown figure from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
Watching the film, I was stunned in the darkness of my third floor barracks room in Spain.
And both of my roommates were on shift, so I was left alone, spellbound, having this gushing wish that I was experiencing that. Not this, an empty Rota barracks room where I felt like I was rotting.
It wasn’t that I wanted war to break out, although I felt some of my coworkers actually did.
But if it did break out, I wanted to be a part of it. Not the boredom I was experiencing. I connected on a deep level with any character in the movie who didn’t want to be where they were. The shot in the helicopter where the soldier yells, “I’m not going! I’m not going! I’m not going!” and then he gets pulled out, that gave me chills, one of the most effective moments I’ve ever seen on screen.
Later, after I’d gotten out of the Navy, became a civilian again, I bought Apocalypse Now on DVD and when it came to that scene, I stopped it and replayed it, over and over, maybe five times, because those ten seconds captured exactly how I felt about the military. I wanted out so badly. To be back home. To grab onto the helicopter skids and get pulled up into the sky with my pants down like the guy at the end of the Playmate “Susie Q” sequence, one of the best parts of the movie, maybe because it was this mix of sexuality and alienation that I was going through in those what-the-hell-am-I-doing-with-my-life days.
I loved the film.
After Rota, I got sent to C-school in Florida to study Telecommunications (to learn skills on outdated systems, that, coincidentally, I would never use, and they made me extend my contract for the “training”) and then after that to Diego Garcia, British Indian Ocean Territory, a secluded island on the southern side of the equator, just about exactly opposite from where I grew up in Michigan, the precise other side of the Earth. A base that had no library, and a joke of a bookstore that had tons of military subject matter (photo books of submarines and machine guns), a massive wall dedicated solely to varieties of porn, and a very, very small shelf for literature. You couldn’t rent movies on the base, so I would religiously go to the outdoor movie theater where they would show weekly films and occasionally I would take a bus to a far side of the base where Filipino civilians would show movies on the wall of a shack in the midst of the jungle. I watched Gremlins 2: The New Batch while swatting flies and taking glimpses at the ground to watch out for snakes and spiders.
Then Operation Desert Shield started. Working seventy to eighty hours a week (or more) there was no off time, no time for movies. Off time was for sleeping or eating, maybe playing basketball, which occasionally broke out into fights, guys letting off steam in unhealthy ways, but better than having cases of beer delivered to your room. Yes, they would do that. They had beer vending machines as well. The hope that we would drink ourselves into complacency.
I was on Security Desk Watch viewing cameras surrounding where I worked, looking at jungle all day, all night, seeing only the most minimal of motion from wind or rain or the rare wild animal, when a Lieutenant came in and yelled, “THREATCON ALPHA!” That meant we were going to war. To go from fighting to stay awake to this thrust of energy that we were going to suddenly be useful was seductive. Until I heard my CWO, a guy named Pete who was outspoken about getting young prostitutes from Thailand when he would go on leave, talking about how excited he was that he could win some more medals and suddenly it felt like we were ambulance chasing. I saw the corruption in it. And Peter was only here, in Diego Garcia, where we would get the mid-level award later of Meritorious Unit Commendation, but I wanted to be closer, much closer, where the medals were truly deserved. I put in a chit to go to the front lines, something that has to be forwarded up the chain of command to the Commanding Officer, except I didn’t realize that all of my supervisors put on their responses to my chit that I was only volunteering to get off of security desk. As if anyone would be stupid enough to volunteer to go to the front lines just because they didn’t want to do security. I was so angry that I almost tore up the chit, except I wanted proof that I had requested to go. Something I could show my grandchildren, because I was going to miss this war—except from the cryptologic side, which I can’t talk about, can just barely mention. I felt a disappointment that was staggering. A plane from our base crashed and I remembered looking out at the water, at the Search and Rescue boats and wishing I could be a part of it. I really didn’t care if I died. I felt this powerful patriotic urge and was angry at my country for not letting me go. One day, at the chow hall, I bumped into an LT fresh off of a boat from Kuwait. He said that he was in during Vietnam, stationed in Adak, Alaska, had requested that they send him to Vietnam and they turned him down. He told me, “If you want to go, they won’t send you. If you don’t want to, they will. Reverse their psychology.”
I kept my mouth shut, finished out my tour on Diego and got sent to remote Skaggs Island, California, as my last duty station. The base was being shut down, so they needed people at the end of their enlistment. When I got there, the base was thriving, busy. But each month, people would be shipped out and new people weren’t being shipped in. Walls were being torn down, offices emptied. This remote base in the middle of cornfields and a river that acted as a kind of moat was dying, along with my military career. Purgatory. My roommate hated me, didn’t hide it. People were showing up late to work, not caring if they got written up. It was the last days. The work we did on shift was meaningless, busy work. We didn’t even buff the floors there. Why bother? The building would be knocked over soon. Barracks rooms were becoming empty, a ghostly feel to the base. The last of us were all misfits, short-timers with short fuses, ready to argue and wanting desperately to get back to the states where we were born. Who the hell would be anxious to get back to Nebraska, to Kentucky? But we were. There wasn’t a need to make friends anymore. We all kept to ourselves. Counted days. Scratched them off our calendars with angry deep black Xs. Wondered what would be next. Disappointed at how many years had been taken from us.
It was on one of my days off, late evening, nearing Halloween, dark out, when the blackout occurred.
Typically this meant a Seabee had mistakenly cut a power line. I felt my way to the large, long curtains near my bunk, opened them. My roommate was at work. Thankfully we were on opposite schedules. The incoming moonlight didn’t help me see. I crept to the wall on the other side, feeling for the door handle and opened it to find the E-4 in the room across from mine with a lit candle. He didn’t know what was going on. In the dark hall, we saw others emerge with cigarette lighters when up the stairs came a bright flashlight. It was a Marine. “Come here!” he yelled to everyone in the hall, “You gotta see this!”
We followed, grateful to be near the people who had lights. We bounded down the steps, echoing of our feet; getting outside, the Marine beckoned us to the back of the barracks, a place I’d never been, as it was thick thorny meadow, didn’t lead you anywhere. The Marine had binoculars and looked through them, pointing at what he was gazing at—a strange brightness hovering above the ground, like a will-o’-the-wisp.
We passed around the binoculars. It was a helicopter, caught up in electrical wiring, the people inside burning to death. I looked through the binoculars and here is where I lose where reality is. Sometimes I remember it as too far away to really see anything in detail. But sometimes I remember it as seeing clearly the people inside on fire, their bodies melting. When this has happened, that memory, like a footprint, I’ve lost control of my own body, started shaking from the vision. It happened once at a poetry reading at Western Michigan University, a panic attack. It happened again when I was reading at the Sewanee Writers Conference. Embarrassing, really. Humiliating. I remember one girl, a loud lesbian anti-military writer, who wouldn’t even give me eye contact after that moment. I think I got a glimpse of what it was like for Vietnam vets who returned to face looks of detest from civilians.
This is my first time writing about this as non-fiction, something I’ve always avoided, disguising the events as fiction or fragmented experimental poetry. But I’ve gone through the PTSD counseling now through the Battle Creek Vet Hospital. Only one day of counseling there, but it helped a lot. That paired with the weeks with the counselor at WMU. At Battle Creek, I had light bulb moments with that two-hour talk with an Iraqi. I was shocked that the counselor wasn’t American. But it was cathartic to hear things from his side. And I got to go into detail about other things I can’t mention. I know what I can say and what I can’t. But I was affected by survivor’s guilt from Desert Storm. Intrusions of that helicopter burning up. Not flashbacks, but intrusions—the difference being that with flashbacks you think you are back to, say, Ia Drang Valley or Fallujah. You actually physically think you are there. But with intrusions, it’s a vision you have in your mind that you can’t get out, a horrible scene that replays without your control. That is leaving now, hasn’t happened in months, several.
I’m starting to feel I’ve missed out on life, because of what I wished for, to delve into violence, but have never been able to get fully to where I was intending to go. Cyclically. I joined the Air Force after the Navy, volunteered for Bosnia (my name the second on the volunteer list), but wasn’t sent. And, after that, worked briefly as an EMT for an ambulance company near Compton, California, only a month. I think I have deep wishes to be heroic, but reality doesn’t have much heroism. It tends to be so much paperwork and the little flashes you have, where, oh, say we enter a room to find a patient on the ground with an epidural hematoma, his face so covered in blood he looks like Carrie at the end of the Stephen King film, well, all we really do is transport him to the hospital. The doctor saves his life. There isn’t really that feeling of elation of saving someone. Not that I’ve felt. And to get to that point, I’ve realized from talking to so many EMTs and paramedics, that a lot of times you have to lose a patient first. And what does that do to you?
The strangest thing of all of this is when I heard the news after that event happened, the helicopter. I was curious to follow up and find out who had died, who those people were inside, the only deaths I’d actually seen happen up close in my military career. And the truth shocked me, at how skillful and strange God crafts real-life human narrative. How I could never have seen the obvious, of where things were heading. The sunken heavy death of it all—hell, I don’t have the words for it. Because who was on that plane was Bill Graham.
If you know who that is, you just had a light bulb moment yourself.
If you don’t know who that is, let me explain.
Graham was returning from a Huey Lewis and the News concert in Concord, California. And if someone, a reporter, doesn’t believe me, do a search for the details of Bill Graham’s death and then go to the spot where the enlisted barracks were on Skaggs Island and look at my DD-214, my military records, and you’ll see I was there. Because Bill Graham, for those who don’t know, was the legendary rock promoter who had escaped Nazi Germany and went on to play the Playboy Playmate agent in Apocalypse Now. In the film, at the supply depot USO show, he steps off the helicopter, grabs the microphone to boos, and introduces the Bunnies before chaos ensues, before the stage gets ransacked, before it all goes to hell, if it wasn’t hell already, the scene I was so riveted by.
The scene I yearned to be a part of, I became a part of.
The fake helicopter scene of the film became the real helicopter scene of my life. The same people—the actor and the viewer—enmeshed together. Ron Riekki and Bill Graham.
I wanted apocalypse in my own life, to be in that film, and at the final hour, before I got out, it came to me.
Ron Riekki’s books include U.P. and The Way North: Collected Upper Peninsula New Works (Wayne State University Press, a 2014 Michigan Notable Book and Foreword Book of the Year finalist) His plays include All Saints’ Day (Ruckus Theater, Chicago Theater Beat Award nomination for Best Actress for Elizabeth Bagby), Dandelion Cottage (Lake Superior Theater, published by the Center for U.P. Studies), and Carol (Stageworks/Hudson equity production, published by Smith & Kraus).