I board the plane, dressed in my uniform, on travel orders for Vietnam. I am to fly from my hometown of Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, in order to catch a flight to the West Coast and then onward to Vietnam. The plane seems to be entirely filled, except for the empty seat right next to me. Just as I dare hope for some peace and quiet to go over my thoughts, I see, entering through the doorway at the front of the plane, a uniformed young man being assisted onto the plane. He is wearing a black patch over his eye and he is struggling with forearm crutches; both legs are gone. And now he’s coming down the aisle, so very slowly, on two prostheses, and I find myself mesmerized, trying not to stare. And then I realize that he is moving inexorably toward the seat right next to me!
I am caught up in my own roiling thoughts and emotions, the wounded man having triggered my own worst catastrophic fantasies about Vietnam. After take off, I find myself extremely awkward in my silence. Suddenly, he starts talking to me. And he tells me how rough it was for him the first time he went home on convalescent leave from the hospital, especially when one of his highschool buddies had told him, “It’s such a shame that you lost your legs and eye — for nothing.”
I am struck silent, not knowing how to — or if — I can respond. And then, after a further pause, he turns to me and says, “But you know, sir, I’m the lucky one — no one else in the foxhole survived.”