A Chance Encounter Kept Him Sober

For 30 years he had tried to drink away his memories of Vietnam. But there was only one thing he didn’t want to forget.

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- Posted on Jan 8, 2019

A black and white portrait of a senior veteran in a park.

“We need to pick up toothpaste,” my wife Rhetta said as we drove through north Seattle on my seventieth day of sobriety. We pulled into the parking lot of a PCC market, about two miles from home. We walked in, passed the liquor aisle, plucked a tube of Jason’s Toothpaste from a shelf and stood in line. The scanner beeped as the checker whisked groceries across. Gray northwest light shone through the windows. Someone called my name and I recognized a friend from the Seattle Symphony, where I play violin. We chatted: “How are you? How’s life?” that kind of thing. It all seemed so normal—store, toothpaste, a friend. Far more normal than I felt inside.

You see, 70 days is not very long when you’ve lost one marriage and nearly ruined a second with alcohol. Outwardly, standing under the bright fluorescent lights of that market, I’m sure I looked like any other upbeat customer. I had my flourishing career, my devoted wife. I breezed past those bourbon bottles. I had been following the steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, admitting I was powerless over alcohol, surrendering myself to God. I won’t let you down, sweetheart, I thought, looking at Rhetta. At least that’s what I wanted to believe. But did I, really? Could I trust myself—trust God—to take me to day 71? Seventy days is not very long. And I had been an alcoholic for a very long time.

Thirty-eight years, more or less, just about since the day I stepped off a helicopter at an Army-supply base thousands of feet up the side of a mountain in Vietnam’s Central Highlands. I had been drafted in 1967 at age 25, just two years after signing a contract with the Seattle Symphony, my dream since the sixth grade, when I started playing violin seriously. I was thrown into basic training with kids just out of high school, janitors, gas-station attendants. They called me, inexplicably, the “outhouse lawyer.” I was assigned as a medic. After eight weeks of field-medicine training in Texas, I was suturing soldiers ripped open by mortars in the jungles of southeast Asia. One day, 235 men were killed in a firefight not far from the base. The helicopters, weighed down with bodies, came thumping low over the trees and kicked up dirt on the landing pads. All day they flew through the thin mountain air. Landing, lifting off. Landing, lifting off. All day.

I was terrified and lonely. At night, mortars whistled over our barracks, thudding into a nearby airstrip. Men went crazy. When the power went out, as it often did, we filled beer cans with rubbing alcohol and lit them as lamps. One soldier, named Red, knocked his can over and set himself on fire. He ran through the barracks, burning. He was gone the next day. A few evenings, I got my hands on a violin when a sergeant let me borrow one he had scavenged. But mostly, I prepared for bed by drinking. I’d go to the base movie theater and drink. Then go back to the barracks and drink. Write letters to my parents and down beer until I passed out. All I wanted was to forget.

There was one person, though, I didn’t want to forget. Thin Puih, my interpreter. I was assigned to a special team that flew to far-flung villages. We dispensed food and medicine to local mountain people in exchange for information about Viet Cong troop movements. Most members of that team were officers rotating in and out. But Thin, himself a Montagnard, fluent in several regional dialects, was constant. He was 19, short, with a kind, intense face. Like me, he was bewildered and scared, but eager to please. I came to rely on him, to trust him, even, in a place where trust was in short supply.

We’d sit together in a helicopter as it rose from the base and skimmed over banana trees and bread-fruit trees to villages built on red-clay dirt. Children with distended stomachs ran to greet us. I opened my first-aid kit and handed out vitamins and candy bars while Thin asked parents where the next attack might come. It was a delicate dance, and Thin and I fell into a rhythm. In the evening, when work was done, we sat, talking and joking, in the red jungle sunset.

Once, my unit went through his village and he introduced us to his girlfriend. “Fisk is a very good friend for me,” he told her. She smiled shyly and bowed her head.

One day, Thin injured his ankle. I wrapped it in a bandage and checked it periodically. That night, a mortar attack came. I leaped from my bunk, ran to his bedside and helped him up. As sirens sounded and the air coursed with shouts and distant explosions, I put an arm around him and walked him past sandbags, down the steps and across the yard to a bunker. For a long time, as the sky above lit with tracers, we huddled together in the dark, Thin leaning against the wall, waiting for the all-clear. “Thank you,” he said. “You saved my life.” I nodded. I tried to absorb the meaning of his words. But at that time, in that place, nothing really made sense to me.

I never got to say goodbye to Thin. Days before my year-long tour of duty was up, I fell on patrol and caught my foot in a vine. My knee was wrenched, and I was loaded onto a helicopter and flown to a hospital at Cam Ranh Bay. A few weeks later, I was home.

Most veterans are haunted by their war memories. I drowned mine. The nightly drinking ritual I began in the barracks continued even as I rejoined the symphony and got married. I never missed a concert. Never stopped loving the music. I just got drunk enough each night to slur my voice and numb the nightmares. Yes, the memories faded—even memories of Thin—and my need for alcohol grew. Eventually, my first wife, Shauna, had enough. She left me.

I remarried. I promised Rhetta I’d never hurt her. But of course I did. “Why do you have to drink so much?” she pleaded with me.

“I’m stressed,” I said, and hid it. Like the time we went to the ocean with friends. I slipped a bottle of bourbon under the mattress. I kept another one in the trunk. “I think I left something in the car,” I said in the middle of a bridge game, and slipped out. I took a long, hard pull on the bottle. But even then something told me it would never be enough.

I hit bottom one Christmas morning. Rhetta and I went to a cabin we owned in Wyoming. It was a clear, cold night. Rhetta got out of bed to go to the bathroom. Perfect, I thought. I tiptoed to the sliding-glass door and onto the deck. The cold smacked my skin, but I had a bottle hidden in the wood pile. I took a drink and the bottle froze to my lips. I turned and saw Rhetta watching. I walked inside and she took my hand and said, “We need to talk.”

A few days later, on New Year’s morning, I drove over snowy mountain passes to a treatment center in Yakima, smarting from the shot I’d received at a hospital to stop the shakes. I wasn’t very hopeful. I’d been flirting with Alcoholics Anonymous for years, always tripping over that second step on the path to recovery: “We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” I wasn’t raised religious, and all I thought was: Power? What Power? I don’t have a relationship with any Power.

My first day at the treatment center, a counselor in a flowered shirt marched into our meeting room and announced, “Sometimes God moves us from one place to another so he can work with us.” Okay, I’m desperate, I thought, and grasped at the offer of faith. For awhile, I thought that was the watershed. I stayed at the center for 23 days and returned to Seattle determined to quit. Rhetta and I joined a church. I prayed. I surrendered. Or thought I did. I was back in the treatment center seven months later.

By the time Rhetta and I walked into that PCC market, I had relapsed yet again, just 70 days before. I couldn’t help wondering: Am I simply an incorrigible drunk? Is this chemical addiction too strong for a young faith like mine? Standing in line, I thought, I believe in you, God. I rely on you. Am I going to make it this time?

The cashier rang up the toothpaste. As Rhetta and I turned to leave, I felt a sharp tug on my sleeve. A small voice beside me said, “You Vietnam?”

I turned and saw a short, middle-aged Vietnamese grocery clerk gripping my shirt between his thumb and forefinger. “Er, yes I was in Vietnam,” I said, and turned away.

Another tug. “You Fisk? Vietnam?”

I looked at the man more closely. His eyes were upturned, kind and intense. I looked at his name tag. Thin.

“Holy smoke!” I shouted. The store became still. I looked around wildly. “This guy is my Montagnard interpreter from Vietnam!” And I folded Thin in my arms as if it had just been yesterday that we were huddled in a bunker with mortar rounds screaming overhead. I held him, tightly, then loosened my grip and saw customers and clerks around us smiling and wiping their eyes. “Give me your telephone number,” I said. “I’m not letting you go this time.”

A few days later, Thin and his wife met Rhetta and me for dinner. We stayed up late, telling our stories. Thin had married Blin R’Mah, the girlfriend he’d introduced me to all those years before. When the North Vietnamese gained control of Vietnam in 1975, they captured him and imprisoned him for six long years in a labor camp. After his release, Thin worked as a rice farmer until finally gaining permission to emigrate to America in 1996. He had been living a few miles away from me for nearly 10 years.

As we talked, I saw the green wall of foliage that had ringed our base. I heard the chugging of the chopper and the shouts of excited children. But this time, with Thin beside me, it all seemed different. God, I thought, my relationship with you isn’t fragile at all. It’s been growing for thirty-eight years. You were there in Vietnam. You’re here with me now. Of course you’re strong enough to keep me sober. I looked at Thin. He was finishing his story, and for a moment it felt like we were two young men again, sharing some quiet talk in the jungle sunset. “Thin,” I said when he was done. “You saved my life.”

This story first appeared in the November 2006 issue of Guideposts magazine.

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