by Victor H. Bausch

We ride buses from Stockton to Oakland
and to Ft. Ord together,
reminisce about our high school days,
laugh because we never fit in.
He's from Stockton;
I'm from Lodi.
Swear on a pint of slow gin
we'd dated
some of the same women.

We're unsure what this war is all about,
can't figure out why we're fighting
people halfway around the world.
We're draftees.
I've got flat feet
that aren't quite flat enough
to disqualify me.

At Ft. Ord we talk one more time
before I'm shipped to Fort Riley, Kansas.
Eight months later we meet again
in Tay Ninh. I'm outa here
in four months and a wake up,
I say. He confesses
this is his first day
in Vietnam, that he went AWOL.

Reveals to me he missed his family,
his girl too much.
Informs me the Military Police
hunted him,
interrogated his parents,
dogged his girlfriend,
cross-examined his former employer.
Finally, after living underground
for six months he turned himself in.
The army, he says, gave him a choice:
Vietnam or Leavenworth.

Now, nearly three decades later
I recall the day
we met in Tay Ninh
for the last time,
puffs of smoke appearing
and disappearing
on the Black Virgin Mountain
behind us
like phantoms in tule fog.
Hear him confess to me,
venom in his voice,
this war
is a curse that'll follow us
to our graves.

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