The writer, of Omaha, is a Vietnam War veteran and the former Douglas County assessor.
The plane lifted off the tarmac at Bien Hoa Air Base in Vietnam headed for Sydney, Australia. The passengers quickly filled the air with cigarette smoke and clamors for cold beer. We were leaving behind the blood, sweat and tears of war and heading to seven days of R&R (rest and recuperation). I promised myself I wouldn't think about the war.
We were two hours into the 10-hour flight and the revelry was settling down. Many were enjoying a long uninterrupted sleep — the kind they hadn't had for a long time. The young Marine lieutenant sitting next to me had hardly said anything other than an initial acknowledgment.
"Come on, cheer up," I said.
"K" was his only answer.
"Aren't you looking forward to the girls, the sunshine, the beach, real food, booze and just a glass of good old ice cubes?"
"If only I hadn't sent Jones that far out on that patrol. He would never have been hit by the mortar round."
He looked out the window, and as if talking to the clouds continued. "He'll make it, but because of the extent of his wounds he'll never have kids. And he was married just two weeks before leaving for the Nam."
I had no response and slept most of the remaining flight.
* * *
"First day in Sydney, sir? Where can I direct you today? The beach, a good meal, cold beer, pretty girls, dancing?" the hotel doorman asked.
"Yes," was my response.
He directed me to the Bourbon and Beefsteak Bar. Wow! What a place. Happy hour between 12 and 3 o'clock and the drinks were free. I started with a real hamburger. Utopia. Heaven. Working girls stopped in over their lunch hour and some never made it back to work. I learned that the miniskirt started in Australia. I'd never seen so many long legs.
On that first day I met a young Army grunt. He rebuffed any conversations with the young ladies and he downed beer after beer. He wouldn't have been old enough to drink in the States as I guessed the ink was probably still wet on his high school diploma. He told me his girlfriend hadn't sent him any letters since he wrote her that he had killed three. He wanted to impress her that he was now a man and that he was where the action was.
My time in Sydney was wonderful. I smiled and laughed at lot, something that I hadn't done much of in the preceding months. The Aussies treated us GIs as family. My time in Sydney was short but it was long on good memories.
* * *
I often dreamed of returning to Australia to see if the weather was really that perfect, the girls that beautiful and the people that friendly. In 1984, 15 years later, I fulfilled the dream.
As I walked off the plane in Sydney, I was greeted by 78-degree weather and almost no humidity. One of my first stops was Bondi Beach — and the girls were even more beautiful than I remembered. That night in the hotel bar, when I had ordered a drink, a loud male voice bellowed, "Hey, Yank! Put your money back in your pocket, Mate, your money ain't no good here." Yes, the people were still friendly. During my stay I ate often at great restaurants, watched "The Mikado" at the Sydney Opera House and attended the musical "Cats" at the Theatre Royal.
And yes, I had to go back to the Bourbon and Beefsteak Bar. However, I was informed it wasn't a popular place any more. I got there about 11 o'clock figuring I'd have a hamburger and a glass of ice cubes. The place had just opened and I was the first customer. The Rolling Stones 1969 hit "You Can't Always Get What You Want" was playing on the overhead speakers. It was eerie. I was sucked back in time. Was that the Marine lieutenant sitting in the middle booth staring blankly out the window? And was that the young Army grunt sitting at the bar with his head down, continuously running his fingers over the top of his GI haircut? I wanted to scream, "No war is worth the loss of life and the loss of innocence."
I remembered the lines from the classic Cervantes novel, where Don Quixote says, "I have been a soldier and seen my comrades fall in battle ... I have held them in my arms at the final moment. These were men who saw life as it is, but died despairing. No glory, no gallant last words ... only their eyes filled with confusion, whimpering the question, 'Why?' I do not think they asked why they were dying, but why they had lived."
Now I knew I had returned to Sydney to not only relive the good times but to also exorcise a specter hidden deep inside me. I wanted to stop time and stop the war. It was then that I realized that I had dreamed an impossible dream.