Lightning Strikes Again

Traveling in time via excerpts from Waiting for WestmorelandVietnam, 1968/Washington, DC, 1979-1982.

Any other night, I might be outside catching the breeze, smoking a joint. Or taking a nap on the balcony that ran round the ATC. Not this night. Sixty feet off the ground, the air traffic control tower at Long Thanh North shook. Rain ran in sheets down plexiglass windows. No sorties tonight. No VC shooting rockets either, so I didn’t need to report an azimuth from their origin.

I wasn’t an air controller. My partner and I were from an artillery unit at nearby Bearcat Base camp. We took turns at night watching for enemy fire and reporting the direction for gunships to hit them with the miniguns. Miniguns that fired the same 7.62 mm rounds that M16 rifles did, but at a few hundred rounds a minute. Enough so that the red tracer rounds looked like a snake waving in the sky.

I was with Headquarters Battery. He was from service battery, the guys who transported artillery rounds and other materiel to the firing batteries out in the field. A NASCAR fan, it seems. He liked to do 90-degree skid turns from Bearcat to the airfield. I told him to stop. He did it every time. We had this duty a couple times a week, while it lasted. He knew about the accident—the one that ended my desperate gig as a liaison radio operator out in the boonies, albeit safe ones. Safe for other than driving.

I was in the backseat of the M-151, a stupidly designed jeep with understeer. A lieutenant sat in front with the driver. A passing truck threw up a cloud of dust. The dust covered the pothole. Cooper hit it at 35 miles an hour. The jeep fishtailed a few times before flipping and rolling. We were all thrown out. The lieutenant got a broken arm. Cooper a skull fracture. I saw white through his black forehead. That ended his tour in Nam; They sent him to Hawaii for essential treatment. I got a concussion but had no broken bones. During my six days in 93rd medevac in Long Binh, I missed seeing Bob Hope and Raquel Welch there and later when back at Bearcat.

Meanwhile, back at the tower, the storm picked up. The wind was bowing the plexiglass windows inward. Loud thunderclaps came closer and closer until the lightning rods atop the tower were routing strikes to the ground below. That’s when a blue flash arced three feet across a console. We all moved to the center of the room, atop tall wooden stools. We stayed put, with feet off the floor and away from all metal objects while waiting out the lightning strikes.

Never been that close to lightning again, except figuratively speaking. Thanksgiving, 1982 at the Harrison house in Northeast DC. Just three weeks after our son’s birth. Let’s back up to a couple of reference points.

Three years before that Thanksgiving dinner, I had called my fiancée’s father to let him know our plans. He wasn’t thrilled with the idea. At age 30, she really didn’t need his consent.

“If the two of them get married or I find the two of them together, I’ll kill the both of them.” It was the week before Thanksgiving, 1979, when a shaky-voiced Juanita called to pass along her father’s plans for us. At least that is what she overheard him telling her brother.

“He’s just saying that, right?”

“Maybe, but we need to take this seriously—he has a gun in a safe at home,” she said, a tremble of fear in her voice.

“But he wouldn’t really do that, would he?” No way, I thought.

“You don’t know my father. He has a very angry nature. There are things he’s done that. . . well, things I can’t tell you about. But believe me, he is perfectly capable of it.”

The words above are from the opening lines of Waiting for Westmoreland, the memoir I wrote in 2007. At that point, my Buddhist practice was less than diligent. It quickly became so. I might have given her up. I might have killed him first. We could have run away to a virtual Timbuktu. None of those options were sensible. You can’t run away from karma—you must expiate it or change it. Although I didn’t understand his attitude in its entirety, I accepted responsibility for his feelings toward me. I prayed for his happiness. Obviously, I am still here, years later, writing stories and posting stuff on blogs.

In 1981, we went on a pilgrimage, during which I made these determinations: the next year we would have a child (there were medical obstacles to that) and Juanita’s father would shake my hand. I didn’t mention this to her.

Three weeks before Thanksgiving, 1982, our son was born. Her father came to the hospital—and shook my hand. He then invited us to Thanksgiving dinner. Back to my lightning strike. We went to dinner with just a slight trepidation. Fear rose when he said, “Come on down to the basement, John.” Ah, here comes the bullet, ran through my mind. No, just the Redskins game against arch rival Dallas Cowboys.

That was when I discarded my transient former self as a common mortal. I would forever after be a buddha. Anyone can be one, they simply must believe it and practice it. I’ve never stopped. If I could turn his hate around like that, I could do anything.

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