Wood Fighting with Steel

Steven Neichin – Ex Pat

Art by Moaz Elemam

Deep in the woods of Norway, a man from a strange, foreign land chops wood and reminisces over the love of his life from a bygone time.

Produced by Sindre Leganger, originally for NRK. Listen to the original, Norwegian-language version, here.

Playlist
(in order of appearance)
Artist – Title – Album
Loretta Lynn – Love Is The Foundation – Love Is The Foundation
Barry Sadler – The Ballad of the Green Berets – Ballads of the Green Berets

Fragments Of Memory by Michel Banabila & Mehmet Polat from the album Float
Loretta Lynn – Love Is The Foundation – Love Is The Foundation
Unstet-Schleifen (Jan Jelinek remix) by Kammerflimmer Kollektief from Remixed Part 1

Transcript

I once jumped out of a helicopter with a parachute, and I was approaching the ground and I came under fire from the Vietcong. You know you’re under fire – you can’t see a bullet, but you can see a tracer, and every ten bullets there’s a tracer. It’s [unintelligible 00:02:50.25] white. I saw these tracers coming at me, between my legs, the left of me to the right of me.

I started bargaining with God, I said “Okay, take my left foot, but don’t take my balls or my penis, and don’t take my right hand, and don’t take my eyes. Don’t let anything happen to my face, but you can have my left foot.”

Then I hit the ground, and it was over. I survived. I have to tell you the truth… I went through such fear and horror during that experience, that I don’t feel fear anymore. Since that couple of minutes that it took, I have not felt fear in the same way again.

*   *   *

It’s wood fighting with steel, right? When I first moved here, I used to spend seven months chopping woods, because the place wasn’t insulated and I had to burn wood constantly in order to keep it warm… So that’s what I’m doing.

When you’re out here, do you ever stop to wonder how you ended up here?

To be honest, my life has a miraculous quality. I began to feel that in Vietnam.

[helicopter noise]

My codename was 32 November – the N of November after my name Neichin. One of the glories of war is the love and trust that develops between the men in your platoon. There’s no love like that.

This wood has been drying all year. It takes a beautiful flame, see? The winter is very lovely here. I sit and relax by the fire, and I have no thoughts in my head. It’s so peaceful, you know?

It was in 1991. It was at Tai’s Bar in Brooklyn. It was a gay bar and everyone was dressed in black, except one man. He’s wearing a white shirt. We started talking. I looked at him and I said, “You are Norwegian.” He laughs and he said, “I don’t know how you know that, but I was adopted by a Norwegian family. Yes, I am Norwegian, and live in Norway.” [laughs] Imagine…

So we walked home together and he stayed with me for three days while I sang to him. We fell in love.

[singing]

“I see him,

As he wakens in the morning.

He reaches out his hands and without a word,

Has his fingers softly fall upon my face.

He lights the flames of desire and makes me want him.”

He was absolutely the best, and it’s a thousand pities we couldn’t manage to build a relationship together. We were married for eight years.

*   *   *

This is the thing about Vietnam veterans – we like to be alone. We need to be alone. We need our own space. But the reason that we don’t like to talk about Vietnam is because ordinary people do not understand this, and you don’t wanna see ordinary people’s reactions, because the reactions are on such a low level that it’s horrifying to talk about Vietnam.

They wanna know how many people you killed, like it’s table talk… Like I wanna tell a stranger how many people I killed. That’s the only thing that they have on their minds. Did you kill someone? How many? That’s one of the reasons we don’t talk about it. We pretend that it’s all so horrible and awful. We just don’t wanna talk about it to ordinary people, because it was an extraordinary experience to be in combat, to help people, to be close to people, to be in a trench in a three-day bombardment. Imagine how close you become to the person next to you.

Vietnam was like an extension of my childhood, because it had the same quality of terror and horror, with violence and the possibility of death every day. My mother was schizophrenic and my father was an alcoholic, very violent. He himself had been in World War II. He was a doctor in the South Pacific, and I think it was hard for him to come back and find a one-year-old baby boy that was the center of attention.

One summer my father locked me in the house for the summer. I wasn’t allowed to go out. Other times I had to sit in a chair all day, and he would fly into a rage and kick me in the shins with his shoes. Unbelievable pain… It was obvious to me, even as a little child, that he was insane, that something was terribly wrong.

I remember once I did buy a hamster, and I put it in a box. My father took it and stamped it to death against the curbstone. What do you make of that? I’m not a psychiatrist, I was just a kid. I needed my mother, I needed my father, and that’s what I had.

I once had a friend named Arlene, who used to have these horrifying conversations. What we would have to do to be loved – we talked about that. She would have to get braces on her teeth, and I thought that I would have to give my life on the battlefield to be loved, to be respected, to be worthy of something.

Vietnam was perfect for me, because I had a death wish, so I was psychologically prepared for Vietnam.

*   *   *

Barry Sadler had been a Green Beret, and he wrote the Ballad Of The Green Berets.

[singing]

“Fighting soldiers from the skies,

Fearless men who jump and dive.

A hundred men will test today,

But only three wear the Green Beret.”

I thought, “Okay, I’m gonna be one of the three.”

I was in sort of a subculture which was anti-war. People I knew would claim to be gay whether they were or not, and they wouldn’t take you if you were a homosexual. And they were really shocked, horrified that I volunteered.

*   *   *

People are coming to the well.

Have you made this?

Huh?

Have you made the well?

No, that well has been here for a hundred years or more. It’s a very famous spring. I let my bucket down like this, see? And then I push it under with a stick, and it fills up. In the old days, the only thing I ever wanted to drink was booze. Now I drink well water.

*   *   *

I was not sexual in any way. No wet dreams, no masturbation, no sex until I was 15. Then I read a book called The Chapman Report. It was a book about sexuality, and I started thinking about sex.

There was this boy in my Sunday school that I thought was sexy and handsome. Thinking about sex, I thought to myself “I wonder what it would be like to masturbate”, because I had never… So I did. My, my, my… What an extraordinary experience that was.

My first thought was, “Here in your wretched life there is this magnificence”, because the pleasure was almost unbearable. So I became a great fan of masturbation, and always thinking of men, and not women. I never thought, “One day I’m gonna grow up to be a homosexual.” Gay people were like the cartoon characters, at best, that people laughed at. Or they were perverts and degenerates that people felt free to hurt and kill. I certainly didn’t wanna be like that. I certainly did not.

To be honest, I really didn’t wanna go on living, but somehow I wanted my life to have a meaning, like “Get it over with in a meaningful way.” So I wanted to be a medic in the special forces.

You get on a plane, and it’s a little strange, because there’s no one on the plane but soldiers. I forget exactly how long we were in the air… I think it was 15 hours. Basically, it was all about wanting to just get off the plane and get started with it. The strange thing was when we reached Vietnam, the plane came under fire. I didn’t have to wait for my Vietnam experience to begin after a while; it began immediately, while I was still in the air.

So there I was, in Vietnam, 1968, during the Tet Offensive. The Americans were in retreat, the Vietcong were winning, bombing our bases, so eventually I did get out into the field into a top secret mission in Southern Vietnam on the Cambodian border, in a place called [unintelligible 00:16:55.00]. It was a camp that overlooked the sea, and there were the Seven Mountains standing up there. Mountains were named Núi Dài, Núi Cô Tô, Núi Cấm, Núi Tượng, [unintelligible 00:17:12.00]. I learned that there were 20,000 villages all around us, and 23 Americans on the A-team. I was their doctor, I was the only medic down there, so you can imagine the impact of that situation on a 22-year-old man.

Can you talk a little bit more about that brotherhood between the soldiers and the relationship you developed with your new commander?

He was 26 years old, he was tall, dark and handsome, a very brave soldier, captain. I got an intense feeling of attraction to him, a sensation I did not know what it was. I had never had it before.

I used to see 200 people a day on the average. I delivered their babies, pulled their teeth, inoculated them for diseases… It was extremely fulfilling for me. Of course, it burns you out though. I couldn’t find time to go to sleep, I was working all the time, so I used morphine, I used Demerol, I used amphetamines to stay awake, I used Seconal to go to sleep… I became a polydrug junkie. Towards the end of it, I confess that I lost my mind.

I remember the American forces took a mountain top, it was called Núi Cô Tô. 950 casualties, Americans and Vietnamese, and I was the one who received these bodies from helicopters. It took me almost four days to get them off the landing strip. They were beginning to stink.

One of them was a good friend of mine, and he looked like a little angel sleeping. I remember thinking, “You should feel something. This should bother you.” But I felt nothing.

Can you try to describe how your relationship with your commander developed from just meeting each other into becoming lovers?

It’s not that it developed, it was just there. Suddenly, it was there. Every night when we were in the team house, he’d come up to me and say, “Doc, come on and take a ride.” I’d say, “Sure.” We’d go out, get on his motorcycle and take a ride, with my arms around his waist. Like a girl. Like a woman.

My commander and I were very close, and anytime he went on these operations, he would take me with him. One day we were on an operation to remove a nest of snipers from the top of the mountain. The way we did this was to walk down the valley in their range, and to try to draw fire so we could locate them, call in the gunships and blast them out, and kill them.

We marched across the rice paddies, we came under fire, we took cover behind this mud dyke that was about six inches high. You hear the rounds going off, you see the fire from the rifles up on the hill, the spark, and you see the rounds hitting at your feet. You hear them through the vegetation. My commander had the radio. He said to me, “Okay doc, I want you to run across the paddy and draw rounds while I call in the gunships.”

I didn’t think. You see, that’s the thing about combat – you don’t think. You don’t reflect, you don’t wonder. You just do, you move. I gave him a dirty look, I got up and I ran.

I started running across the padding, sort of weaving from side to side, and I thought “This is the end.” I ran so hard that my belt flew open and my pants fell down. I dive behind a bush, and there was a red ant hill. I’m talking about Cambodian red ants. I thought, “Oh my god… What on earth have I gotten myself into now?” I stood up and brushed them off, pulled up my pants, tightened the belt and started running again. They were so close to me they were hitting my boots, if you could imagine.

The gunships came and blasted them out. There were five of them. So he and I killed five people. I mean, if you can call that killing. I took part in killing five people.

We never talked about it. We never discussed it. You don’t talk about these things, you just do them. Say a few words, that’s all.

We loved each other. We did not know – neither he nor I – that we had a homophile tendency. What you see is normal for all men, and comes out in all-male company when you’re together and you have to rely on one another. It’s a very normal and a very beautiful form of love, I have to say that. It’s not a perversion, there’s nothing dark about it, nothing evil about it, nothing wrong… It comes out and it’s there. Some of us are more courageous about admitting it than others.

A couple of months later I got evacuated and that’s the end of it. I was sent home.

Did you ever see any of them again?

No, I never did.

*   *   *

[wood chopping noise]

This wood is wet, so it’s not so easy to chop. But you know, after a while it gives in.

Looking back on your life, can you reflect a little bit about what love has meant and what love has been in your life?

You know, it’s like a line from one of Loretta Lynn’s songs. She sings, “His love is all he’s got to give, but he gives it all to me.” It’s been my salvation to love. I couldn’t have managed without.

That’s what got me through Vietnam, to tell you the truth.

Love is what kept me going, keeps me going.

[singing]

“And love is the foundation we lean on,

All you need is love to ease your mind,

And does it have to be right,

To be called love,

When he gives me more lovin’

Than a lifetime of lookin’

Could ever find.”

It’s one of my favorite songs.

Published on: November 17, 2016

From: Episodes, Season 5

Producers:

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