23 years ago, “Buddha” Ed Thomas died alone in an isolated cabin in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. We had lost contact 31 years earlier when I was medevac’d out of an ambush during our Vietnam adventure. Through a series of events, we had reconnected a few years before he died. I came to realize that if I didn’t tell our stories they would die with me. Thirteen years after Buddha’s death, MUDDY JUNGLE RIVERS was published. I am humbled by the positive comments from old riverboat sailors who patrolled the rivers of our youth.
As the years passed, I thought of my fellow crewmen often. In 1991, when I discovered Buddha’s telephone number through a Mobile Riverine Force Association (MRFA) reunion bulletin, I decided to contact him. I hoped to finally lay to rest my yearning to know what had happened to my old crewmates.
During the time we served together, the rest of the guys and I had thought of Buddha as a tyrannical alcoholic who made unreasonable demands upon us. We would gather on the boat’s stern as he snored in his bunk in the well-deck, and complain about his dictatorial ways, shaking our heads. My hand trembled as I dialed Buddha’s number. When I finally said his name into the phone, I wasn’t prepared for his reaction.
“Hello?” A gravelly voice answered.
“This is Ed Thomas,” he answered. Silence for a moment. Then he said softly, “Some people called me Buddha long ago.”
“Buddha. This is Afe. From Tango 11.”
“Afe?” he said very quietly. “Afe?” he said again, this time his voice gruff, the same as I remembered. “I’ve been looking for you for twenty-four years.” The phone went silent. I thought I had lost the connection. Then he coughed and continued. “They told me your medevac chopper got shot up but nobody knew what happened to you.” Another pause. I heard Buddha’s sharp intake of breath. “When we got back to the Benewah two days after the ambush, nobody knew what had happened to you.”
He pulled his breath in again and let it out in a sob. “I tried to find you. You were gone.”
I was shocked by his emotion. This was not the same person I had known on the boat. After he regained his composure, after we had caught up on our lives, he told me it was the anniversary of Tango 7—the day she had hit the mine. “It should have been us,” he whispered.
Buddha lived ten hours from me, in the Upper Peninsula. That autumn, as I drove north on Forest Highway 13 through afternoon drizzle, my mind drifted back to Vietnam. Saturated maple branches hung low in the overhead canopy like nipa palms on jungled riverbanks. Ferns and tag alders provided perfect camouflage for ambushers along the shoulders. I caught myself watching for trails in wet grass, unnatural branch configurations, braced for that first rocket. I stopped behind a jackknifed logging truck. Exhaust permeated the haze, and again I tasted our boat’s diesel fumes as we idled on fog-shrouded rivers.
Buddha’s cabin was rough, unpainted chipboard inside and out. A hand pump supplied water to the sink which drained onto the sand just beyond the wall. No hot water. An outhouse. We spoke long into the night, Buddha drinking Johnny Walker, ice, and Coke, while I nursed a warm beer. He told me what he knew of the men, the rumors he had heard over the years.
Buddha said he heard a rumor that Crow had committed suicide after he got out of the Navy and the black sergeant had recovered from his wounds—receiving the Silver Star. He didn’t say anything about Snipe, just shook his head when I asked a second time. Buddha said he saw Stonewall in Norfolk about a year after they returned from Vietnam. They had a few drinks, agreed to get together, but Buddha never saw him again. He had no idea what happened to Dennis or Professor.
Buddha seemed to go for days without eating. On the woodstove that heated the cabin, there was an open pot of bean soup simmering. I ate some the first day and found it laced with dog hair. Three days later, after the soup had gone cold at night when the stove burned out and warmed again in the morning when rekindled, the soup had fermented. Buddha swore it was okay.
During one of my visits, Buddha and I attended the MRFA reunion in Chattanooga and renewed acquaintance with crewmen from other boats. I listened as a radioman who was on a boat behind us related how he remembered August 18th.
Steve told the story to a group of guys, each holding a can of Budweiser, perched on chairs in a circle around him. Steve had watched our boat, in the heart of the kill zone, receive countless rounds of enemy machine gun fire and seven rocket hits. His arms exploded into the air with each description of another rocket blast, his beer foaming over the top and down his knuckles. He slurped the bubbling head, licked the foam from his drooping mustache and described the wildly careening boat. His voice lowered, his tone changing as he described the radio commands, the three times other boats were ordered along side, believing us dead.
That weekend, among the old crewmen, we were young again, back on the river. Laughing at good memories, going silent when bad times reared their head. Buddha seemed nervous—tremors in his hands at times. And I recalled those mornings in the well-deck of our boat when his hands shook as he poured sugar into his C-ration coffee. On our drive back to Michigan at the end of the reunion, Buddha talked animatedly about the addition he planned for his cabin. He seemed to have a new spark after visiting old friends. But it didn’t last.
I’d get over to the U.P. at least once a year, hoping for a meaningful visit. Each time I turned onto Old Plank Road near Wetmore, I knew I was entering a quagmire. Visits blurred together, always the same. Buddha would drift back to our arrival in the Mekong Delta at the height of the Tet Offensive in early February 1968, our time up north on Task Force Clearwater, keeping the Cua Viet River open. And always he would amplify memories of countless combat operations and patrols, slurring sentences, trailing into silence. About 4:00 a.m., he’d drop his tobacco wad on the counter, shuffle off to bed, and begin snoring. He would sleep until late in the morning, stretching and coughing as he crawled from beneath the single wool blanket. He’d pack yesterday’s chew under his lip, walk Izzie and Yooper—two chocolate Labradors—then return to the cabin and mix a drink.
It was disconcerting how our roles had reversed. As boat captain he had attempted to micro-manage every facet of our lives. Now, from his isolated cabin in the U.P., he was seeking reassurance, a validation for our time in Vietnam. During one visit I suggested he make an appointment at a VA hospital and talk to somebody about his Vietnam memories. I mentioned an article I had read, about a new diagnosis for vets experiencing flashbacks—post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “Only pussies go crying to a shrink,” had been his response. I didn’t bring it up again.
Over the years, between my visits to the U.P., he’d call me in the early morning hours, incoherent, lost in the past. A past so distorted I no longer recognized it. A past he drank himself into, alone. He wanted closure. He needed to see the old boat crew. He gave me a list—their full names and service numbers. Asked me to help find them. In his midnight ramblings he became obsessed with our time in Vietnam. Early winter 1999 I received a package. A large, hand-painted plaque with the Mobile Riverine Force symbol, my name, and T-112-11, our boat number. On the back, it said, To Afe—A River Rat. A Long Awaited Thanks. Edward W. Thomas.
During our last visit, Buddha was tormented by the smells of Vietnam. “Do you remember that stink?” he said. “Christ. I’ll never forget it.” He looked down at his whiskey, his eyes wide and staring. “Sometimes I wake up at night and smell it—the smoke, the charred flesh, the rotting vegetation. Then he started to laugh as if he were telling a good joke. “Do you remember that old papason who tried to sell us dope from his sampan? I think he shit himself when I pulled my .38 and yelled didi mau. Fuck he stunk of nuoc mam. Crow was pissed. He wanted to sell the pot in Dong Tam,” Buddha said, his eyes almost closed, his drink sloshing over the glass as he tried to steady himself against the chipboard wall. “But I fixed that chickenshit bastard good after we got back from the August 18th ambush. Stuck the .38 barrel in his mouth and made him clean the well-deck, cox’n flat, and the 50 cal where that sergeant got splattered. Made him scrub out every speck of blood and meat.” He laughed again, as if the image of Crow scrubbing blood off the deck was funny. Then he dropped into his chair. Just when I thought he might have fallen asleep, he lifted his head again, squinting, slurring his words. “Blow-flies, fat blue bastards—had to get rid of them.”
When I left the next day, Buddha walked me to my truck. He reached through the pickup window to shake my hand, hanging on a little too long. “Thanks for coming, Afe. I mean it.”
A few months later I opened the summer edition of River Currents, our MRFA newsletter. There, staring at me was a picture of Boat Captain “Buddha” Edward Thomas III clutching the M60 machine gun I had retrieved from a helicopter knocked down during a North Vietnamese artillery bombardment on Cua Viet Naval Base in March 1968. The caption below the picture read, “The association mourns the loss of one of its founding members.” Buddha had died alone in his cabin, a victim of diabetes and a brain aneurysm.
Once again, I felt like that twenty-year-old cox’n. Cut off. Not privy to details, my world limited to the view through one inch slits in the armor surrounding the cox’n flat, asking questions without answers. Why, since the dawn of civilization, are leaders so eager to send young men and women off to war? Why were some veterans able to shake the trauma off and go on with their lives? Why had Buddha wasted his last years on whiskey and memories?
I came to realize how much I cared about Buddha. He changed from that tyrannical boat captain he had once been. He was a touchstone to my past—our past. I felt guilt. If I had made an effort—found some of the old crew—maybe Buddha might have taken a different tack. Perhaps he would have chosen a better life. Perhaps he would have moved beyond the memories of Vietnam.
The seasons pass. Each time I see my children and grandchildren, guilt rises, like bile in the throat. Guilt that I’m alive, have lived a full life when so many others didn’t have a chance. Spring, my grandchildren and I search for purple May flowers and pink trilliums. Summer, the little girls have cow-calling contests and we’re quickly surrounded by the herd. Autumn, we feed the ponies acorns and cob corn and carve jack-o-lanterns. Winter we make snow angels, let the pony pull us on sled rides, and come in to steaming mugs of hot chocolate.
Over the years, in my mind, I speak to those silent ones, those ghosts, always asking why I have been allowed this time. Why I am here to hold my wife and grandchildren close, to cherish each day.