When Johnny Comes Marching Home

viet-nam-war-67486_640He didn’t talk about Nam.   He should have, I guess.    But no one was listening, anyway, so it wouldn’t of done much good.    I figure the thinking was–back then–that WWII vets didn’t go on about what they saw and especially about their dreams.   So there weren’t no reason for this new crop of Vets to carry on about their war.  After all,  it had been only twenty years since our fathers had come home from overseas–and they were doing alright.

Good Lord,  I didn’t even know there was a war going on when my would-be-husband was over there getting shot at and shooting up the place.   The first I heard of the war was when someone in my ninth-grade homeroom suggested we pay tribute to the “boys over there”  instead of decorating the classroom for Christmas.   Back then you were allowed to say “Christmas” in school and put up whatever you liked–nativity scenes even.   Now-a-days, my grandchildren have something called “Winter Holiday”, or some such foolishness.  Their mother ain’t even allowed to make a cupcake and send it to school.  It’s gotta be store-bought and sealed up and full of preservatives.   Anyway,  back then, when we were decorating for Christmas–that’s the first I’d heard of the war in Vietnam.    I was the one that drew the charcoal picture of the soldier in his helmet, which we taped up on the classroom door.   I can still see that soldier, dirt on his face, wearing that helmet and them sad, sad eyes.   (I drew it from a Life magazine cover that someone gave me on loan–to go by.)

Back to Johnny–he came home from the war and he had no idea that it weren’t over when he stepped off that plane.  His family, a big one. was there to greet him.   I wasn’t there ‘cause I didn’t know Johnny or his family even though they lived just down the road, a bit, from my family.   We kept to ourselves, you see.  My mother didn’t like anyone to know our business.   Not that anything untoward ever went on at our house–unless you count the fighting Mama and Daddy did–or the loud praying.   Maybe that was it.  Who knows?   We were just busy going to church–whenever the doors were open (which was a lot)–and the weekly trip to the grocery store on Friday nights. That’s about it.  I kept a diary back then, so that’s how I know.   I found it in a box of “your things” that my mother sent me, years later–pretty boring stuff for a fifteen year old, especially compared to today.   But I won’t go into that.

Anyway,  after Johnny got home from the war, he hung around his Mama and Daddy’s house for a while ‘til they made him get a job   Which he did–at the Safeway.   He was a bag boy–bagged up the groceries and rolled them to your car.   They did that back then–put the stuff in a bag and hauled it out  for you–none of this you’re on your own stuff you have to deal with nowadays.   First thing he did after he got the job was go out and get a loan and buy himself a car–a hot, red Mustang–used.  The next thing that he did was get a speeding ticket–which he talked himself out of ‘cause he told them he’d just got out of the VA hospital from his war wounds–which was partially true.  He did have war-wounds but they’d healed up, or so they said down at the VA.   His left eye, where the shrapnel hit, weren’t ever right again and he didn’t get no kind of compensation for that–ever.   And he was pretty busted up on the insides–you know–mentally.   And the VA never got him any help for that either.

I met Johnny that summer right after he got that new car.   My girlfriend,  knew his sister and she introduced us.   We went out for a ride in his car,  which I can tell you was pretty scary.   He drove mighty fast–whipping through the gears and he didn’t mind taking up the other guy’s part of the road either, especially on the road down by the river with all the curves.

Once Johnny was in your life, he was there to stay.   I had no idea.  It weren’t a month before he was asking me to marry him.   I sure as heck wasn’t ready to get married and have kids.   Me and my sister had been busy raising our brothers and sisters for Mama–getting up in the middle of the night and giving them their bottle, changing their diapers (cloth diapers, not those easy disposable ones) and all that goes with a bunch of babies and kids.  No sir, me and my sister wanted no part of having any babies.     But Johnny kept at it.   I’d say no and then he’d set a date.   I’d say that’s too soon–which he took as me saying yes.  Then I told him I had a whole world to love first.   He took that all wrong–thought I wanted to sow some wild oats or something.   Course in them days, girls didn’t sow wild oats–only guys—everybody knew that–except Johnny mistook what I meant.   Then his car broke down and he got in a fight with his father and I felt really bad for him.   Didn’t seem like anybody was on his side.   So I got myself some birth control pills and I married him.

Johnny took care of everything.   He picked out the wedding bands, got my Daddy to go with us to the courthouse and sign for me to get married,  rented the apartment,  got the furniture–on time–and opened a checking account in both our names.    We pooled our money and did okay–for awhile–anyways.

He was pretty, what you’d call, nervous. Couldn’t sit in one place very long before he’d have to leave and go do something else.  And since we were married, that meant I had to go too.   And he’d get into arguments with people for the tiniest things.   Like once we were just riding in the car and we were stopped, waiting for the traffic light to change.  Some kid in the car behind us revved up his engine.   It weren’t nothin to it,  but Johnny jumped out of our car and ran back to the kid and punched him in the face.    Then he got back in the car and we drove off.   A couple of days later, Johnny gets a summons to juvenile court.   We had to pay for some dental work for the kid–he was only sixteen,  three years younger than me and here I am paying for his dental work, while I couldn’t even afford to go to the dentist myself.

Stuff like that kept happening.  I give him this much, though.  He was smart enough to get rid of the guns he had in the house.  Now you might think, guns?  You had guns in your house?   My answer is yep, sure did, cause it won’t nothin for people to have a gun or two, back then.   After all hunting, and turkey shoots and the shooting range–all is recreation and a sport.   But Johnny gave his guns to his Dad after the time someone was messing with Johnny’s car one night and Johnny got the gun and went out to check on what was going on.   Turned out to be another juvenile and we was back in juvenile court again.   We had to get a lawyer this time who got Johnny off on probation.

Johnny just couldn’t find no peace at all.  And he didn’t give me or his family–who by the way was a real nice group of people–any peace either.   We’d go over there for Sunday dinner and before the meal was even started there’d be some argument with his Dad or brothers or sisters and Johnny be storming out of the house, me following along behind, like some kind of little mouse.  Then later in the day, he’d call up and say he was sorry and we’d start all over again…until the next time.    And as far as my family went, well they didn’t put up with it–at all.   There weren’t no going back and saying “sorry” and then carrying on like nothin ever happened.  My family knows how to hold a grudge.   So there was a couple of years I didn’t get to see nobody on my side of the family.

Every year we’d move,  a new start, new neighbors–same town though.   And Johnny’d quit a job at the drop of a hat–if things didn’t go his way.   As for me, I had a good job and stuck with it.   Worked my way up to supervisor.   But what with the trading in of cars and the moving every year, we couldn’t save no money.  Then Johnny’s mother kept on about us having a baby and how that might help things.  Then Johnny got that in his head–so we did–have a baby.   But things didn’t get better–if anything, they got worse ‘cause now there was a little baby in the midst of all that uproar.   I got an ulcer.   Johnny got high-blood pressure.   And we was fighting just like my Mama and Daddy did–all my life.

I got my courage up one night and told Johnny that this weren’t working–everybody being miserable–we needed to call it quits.   He didn’t blow up or anything–just got real quiet like–and sat there in his chair.   He didn’t look at me or anything, just stared down in his lap.   Every now and then he’d look up at the TV.   So after about an hour I went on to bed thinking I’d figure out what to do next, in the morning.   A couple of  hours later I heard car doors opening and closing, so I got up and looked out the side door, where our cars were parked.  There stood Johnny, in the moonlight, carrying a shotgun.   Now all this time, I thought his Dad had the guns.    Maybe Johnny went over to his Dad’s and got the shotgun.

I said, “What you doing, Johnny?”

He said, “If you leave I ain’t got nothin.”

God, it was the saddest thing I ever heard.   I just felt so bad for him–being so lost and all.  My ulcer started hurting just then, and I felt like this was a warning signal–like “don’t give in, stick to your guns, it ain’t no good, you and him being together.”   But my heart just broke looking at him–so sad.   I could cry–even to this day–just thinking about it.   So I said, “Come on in the house.   I ain’t going to leave.”

Well I did stay.   And nothin changed.   And then I got to thinking about that shotgun.   At the time–that night–I didn’t think he was going to hurt me or the baby.   It just never occurred to me.  Actually, I thought he was going to shoot himself.   But the more I thought about it, the more I knew that I had no idea of what he might be capable of.   And some things (like if you was to kill somebody) you can’t fix with a:  “I’m sorry”.

I had saved a little money, from the profit sharing at work, that Johnny didn’t know about.   If he knew about it, he’d have spent it.  That money was for a rainy day.   So I went to my boss and told him what had been going on and what I had in mind to do.   Well,  I wasn’t telling my boss anything he didn’t already know, or at least suspect–what with the phone calls I’d get at work from Johnny and sometimes Johnny had showed up at the store and caused a ruckus.   My boss was a good guy and he fixed it for me to get a transfer to another store–in another town.  It’s a big chain,  you know.   I wrote a letter to my Daddy and left it with my boss and told him to send it a week or so after I’d left.   That way if Johnny was to ask my family about where I’d gone, they could honestly say that didn’t know nothin ‘bout nothin.  Johnny was good at weaseling information out of people.   My boss was the only one who knew where I was going but he was a big man and I knew Johnny won’t going to be able to intimidate him or anything.

So I left.   And we did alright–me and the baby.   It was scary, being on my own but not as scary as worrying about…well you know.    My ulcer got better.   The only fussing that went on was the baby who cried when she was hungry or the usual stuff babies fret about.

You know another good thing about me leaving (besides getting to stay alive) was that Johnny got himself some help.   He wouldn’t have never gone to a psychiatrist about his problem (they call it PTSD now).    He went for marriage counseling.  Can you believe that?   I reckon he figured that I might come back if I heard that he was trying to turn over a new leaf.   But as it happened,  the psychiatrist must have got him to talking about Vietnam ‘cause he didn’t kill anybody or ever go to jail–that I ever heard about.  That’s where he was headed, though, sure as shootin.

As for me, I never went back home.   There just wasn’t much of anything there for me, what with my family being so evangelical and judgemental.   Plus Johnny’s family didn’t take kindly to me leaving their boy.  So I just,  pretty much,  let sleeping dogs lie by keeping my distance.

You know, one thing about wars–well, two things:  some wars need to be fought–for sure (that’s one thing),  and the other thing is:  the soldiers don’t leave the war behind when it’s over.   They bring it on back home with them and everybody suffers.   I’m not saying I should have been spared the suffering or anything.  I’m just saying that’s how it is–that’s all.

© Glenda Kotchish

March 20, 2016


A note about this story:

Just in case you’re wondering where the story came from, one night I was thinking about guns–not how you might think–if you are anti-second-amendment or anti-NRA.   I was just thinking about how guns were commonplace back when I was growing up.   So the story just took off from there.