I wasn’t born on the Fourth of July. It all started in January 1968, in a place called Vietnam. I was but 18 years old, and I was in the hellhole of the world at that time. My time went by pretty slowly, as time goes. I was going to spend 18 months there and there was not much I could do about it at the time. I should have remembered why my dad told me: “Never volunteer for anything in the service.” I wished I had listened to him. I was a teenager and I thought I knew more than any adult at the time. Didn’t we all? This still applies with kids today; not much has changed in three decades, unfortunately.
I had always liked the Fourth of July as a kid-the orgasmic colors of the aerial bursts, the smell of the burnt powder, and the oohs and aahs of the people watching displays of breathtaking fireworks as they exploded in a rhythmic tune.
I was to depart from Vietnam in June of 1969-just in time to get home to my girlfriend and the famous Fourth of July celebrations. I was really looking forward to the occasion, after not being home for 18 months. The big day was approaching faster than I thought possible. My girl had made plans for us to go to a drive-in movie. She had her mom pop us some popcorn, and my mom got us six bottles of soda in a cooler with an opener on the side. I had a red ‘58 Chevy pickup with six cylinders, with three on a tree, and a bench seat. Talk about uptown! I was walking in high cotton.
As I picked my girl up, we decided to take her eight-track with all the best songs. We were on our way; I was still a little excited about going to the drive-in and sitting in the back of the truck and watching the movie (yeah sure, watching the movie, come on). The movie couldn’t start until dark, so we sat around and listened to tunes, ate popcorn, drank sodas and kissed a little… and then a lot.
About 15 minutes before the movie was to start, they announced that the fireworks would begin in a few minutes. We were all snuggled up in the back of the truck when the first volley went off. Something snapped inside me. I guess it was instinct to stay alive, survival mode, and I was on the ground yelling out commands to my troops to get under cover and return fire. The sound of the thumping reminded me of the mortars and the explosions that went along with the experiences I had in Vietnam. When I finally regained my sense of where I was, I got to my feet. I had scratches and cuts on my hand and knees.
Four young punks in a broken-down, hunk-of-junk car were laughing hysterically. I got so mad that I grabbed two of them and my fist made contact with the first one’s nose. My girl kept yelling, “Norm, Norm, Babe stop it, stop it!” But I just couldn’t stop. The second one got a kick in the groin, which put him on the ground. The first one came back toward me and I hit him square on the nose again, along with a kick in the stomach. The other two stood back and watched me kick and take names; and I didn’t know how to write. After I was finished, they decided to leave the drive-in in a big hurry with their tires throwing gravel and dust all over the place.
My hand hurt a little from the contact with the punk’s nose, but it was well worth it to see the two guys hurting: one with a busted nose and the other with his privates up in his chest. The other two were too scared to do anything to help their friends.
My girl finally came up to me and asked if I was okay. I told her that I was and asked if she would like to go home or stay. She asked me to take her home, and we left that drive-in, never to return. What I didn’t tell you is that my girl broke up with me after being together three years. The night after the incident at the drive-in, she told me that I was an animal and that she didn’t want to see my again. I guess the Army trained me well as a survivalist. That is when I realized that the Fourth of July would never be the same again. You know, I was right. It hasn’t been the same, even now. I still get cold sweats, the shakes and startled jumps whenever a firecracker goes off. I haven’t taken any kids or grand kids to a fireworks display since.
Many people say it’s silly after all these years, to let something that’s fun be a hindrance to your life. But I say to them: “If you haven’t experienced the real thing, you have no idea what you are talking about.”
I live with this fear every day of my life, and it heightens on a special occasions such as the Fourth of July, New Year’s and other times when people decide to let off fireworks. I have been under a doctor’s care for a lot of years now due to this condition. I know there are many other veterans out there with this same feeling.