by Johanne Seymour
Libre Expression, 2014
I was sixteen years old, and the world was in revolution.
In Vietnam, the Americans were sacrificing an entire generation of young men to a war that was lost before it started. In France, the month of May would go down in history. In Quebec, Catholicism was losing its grip and new idols—drugs, separatism, and Charlebois songs —were taking its place in people’s hearts.
I was sixteen years old and had only one desire: to break free of the adolescence that was eating away at my very being.
I wasn’t like other girls. I didn’t know how to be carefree. For me, everything was important. Critical. A matter of life or death. Nevertheless, beneath my apparent coldness smouldered a fire of longing.
Since I hit puberty, I had nurtured the fantasy of finding love in the arms of a lifeguard. As if salt water, warm sand, and those boys with their muscular bodies and sparkling teeth could cure me of myself and this difficult phase.
I was wrong, of course. There is no remedy for adolescence. It is what it is. A boiling vat of confusion.
And that summer of 1968, it was not my adolescence that I would leave behind.
It was my innocence.
I looked at Denise. She was pale, her lips trembling slightly, as if she were holding back tears.
She took a few deep breaths before whispering she’d heard some terrible things.
“We went to a beach party last night with friends of Ben’s, employees at the hardware store where he works. It was one of the girls’ birthdays. At one point, Ben was chatting with his boss and I found myself in a small group away from the others. Two guys and a girl were talking to an older man. A Vietnam veteran. I stayed for a minute, but since they were talking about the war, I tried to move away from them. That’s when one of the young guys grabbed my arm and told me I should listen to what the soldier had to say, especially since they’d probably make Ben go over there too. I asked him how he could be so sure. He replied that since the Tet Offensive, they’ve been recruiting them by the handful to send to Vietnam.”
Denise stopped, fighting her tears. I took her hands in mine and tried to give her some words of consolation, but she didn’t give me the chance.
“Apparently lots of soldiers are coming home half-crazy. And the army isn’t looking after them, just acting like they’re the exceptions, but the truth is there are more guys coming home mad than there are who die over there! The veteran spent six months in Vietnam. He said nobody can begin to imagine the horror. That when they’re on a mission, they’re under orders to shoot anything that moves! Michelle, that means women and children too! How can they not go crazy after that?”
Denise started to cry. I sat down on the bench next to her and gave her a hug. I held her in my arms for a long while. Then she said, “Those men, it’s like they’re dying over there without knowing it. They come back prisoners in their own private hell.”
I thought about all those guys, barely older than me, who would end up in Vietnam forever, either because they’d left their bodies there, or their minds.
I thought about Tom and wondered whether he was one of the walking dead.