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 Reminders of Viet Nam– 6

By Pat Lisi/Southern Utah Vets Aid

            Many years, decades as a matter of fact, have passed since I spent my time in South Vietnam as a Marine Infantryman.  I’ve mellowed to a lot of things that remind me of the horrific scars that I carry for the rest of my life; life goes on, they say.  What choice do we have?  But, I wasn’t always this ‘laid back’ about certain things that reminded me of Viet Nam.

It was 1972 and I was livingin Madison,Wisconsin with my first wife and our son.  She and I owned and operated a small retail store on the famed ‘State Street’ in downtown Madison.  It was famous because of the loud and crazy parties that went on there and because it’s the heaviest shopped street running due east from the University of Wisconsin Campus Where thousands upon thousands of folks walk every day.  It’s a busy place, to say the least, and we enjoyed a steady stream of customers who spent their hard earned cash at our store as well as others along the quaint walk.

The memory of Vietnam and its inhabitants was still very fresh on my mind at that time.  So were the faces of the many young men who fought alongside me in the jungles and the rice paddies who had given their lives for the South Vietnamese.  When I leftViet Nam in August of 1969 I had hoped it would be many years, if ever, that I had to even look at the face of a Vietnamese person.  I certainly never thought it would happen in my home town of Madison,Wisconsin.

Around that time there was an exodus from Viet Nam to just about anywhere a Vietnamese could escape to.  As some of them found their way to the North American coastline a nickname was granted:  “Boat People.”  Do you remember that?  I do.  And, it didn’t take long for some of these folks to make infiltrate into the northern reaches of the United States, including Wisconsin.  And to be honest with you I didn’t like it.  It was too soon.  Shit, my aunt from the Green Bay area of Wisconsin still hasn’t forgiven the Vietnamese, and it’s the year 2012 as I write this!  They killed her son, a soldier of the 11th Cavalry, in October, 1968.

One of the most desirable jobs a person could ever dream of back then was to work for the city.  When I got back from Nam and out of the Corps I quickly put in my application with the City of Madison like most of us did.  I’d do anything for them.  Of course, I was told there were no jobs available at the moment but keep checking back with them and updating my resume’.  In the meantime, in order to make a living and bring home some bread, my wife and I bought the gift shop that I mentioned and we were reasonably happy.  I waited to hear from the City and was prepared to hire someone to take my place at the store should a career open up with the City of Madison.

One day not too far after the time I turned in my application, I was helping a customer at the store when I happened to glance out the big display window and I noticed 2 Vietnamese-looking men picking up litter from the sidewalk and gutter on State Street.  I have to tell you that my blood almost literally started to boil.  But, I didn’t immediately jump a conclusion.

Instead, I excused myself from the client and stepped out the door and found who I perceived to be the supervisor of this little ‘gook’ work crew.  I know what you’re thinking:  “How did I know they were Vietnamese and why did I have to call them names?”  Like I said, the wounds were still fresh and I needed answers right now!

The supervisor confirmed the fact that the two City of Madison employees with him were indeed hired under a special Affirmative Action Program designed to promote a welcoming atmosphere for the thousands of “Boat People” who had arrived in the wonderful melting pot of North America.  Oh, what nice folks we Americans are when we accept people into the soothing clutch of our open arms.

“What kind of fucked up bullshit is this?” I screamed at the supervisor.  “I’m a Nam Vet born and raised in the City of Madison, and my application has been downtown at City Hall for months.  And now I have to stand here and watch two pathetic Boat Gooks steal my job with the city?”

It didn’t take long to attract a small crowd so I went back into my shop and stewed for awhile.  Then, I picked up the phone and basically hollered, screamed, cussed and threatened the person from Human Resources at the City until they got the word in edgewise that they were going to sic the cops on me if I didn’t cool down.  I was pissed, and it stuck with me for a long time.  I mean a long, long time.  Needless to say, the City never did call me for a job interview, as my application was forthwith black-balled into Never-Never Land.

I’m no longer mad about the incident and, in fact, I don’t even care now when I see a Vietnamese person.  But when I do, I am reminded of the miserable year I spent in their country, how many of my friends and relatives were killed or wounded there, and of how I paid dearly during the era of the ‘Boat People’ and Affirmative Action.  It really wasn’t fair.  But, I guess no one ever said life was.


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