A couple of weeks ago, my nephew was airlifted from the mountains west of Denver to a hospital here for emergency open heart surgery. I was happy he made it through the surgery but Kathy, my wife, suddenly got tense. It seems that Tom's near death and surgery gave her flashbacks to the dark moments of my heart attack four years ago. She couldn't understand what was happening and why she "was so weak" as not to be able to deal with this. I told her they were to be expected and talked with her about my flashbacks over a 40 year period from a year of combat in Vietnam.
My flashbacks can be violent or quiet, depending on the trigger. Once as I drove south on the interstate, I saw colored smoke coming from a training area at the Air Force Academy. For some reason the colored smoke reminded me of a time I couldn't get fighter support to drive the enemy off a Special Forces patrol that had been decimated by a command detonated mine (Vietnam's equivalent of today's IED), and I had to use my marking rockets to try to drive them off.
Across the highway red
and yellow smoke drifts
from a green hillside
where trainees play at war.
thirty years . . .
He circles the tiny plane, looks
at the green hillside,
at a hole
blasted in yellow clay,
soaked red with blood,
draped with arms and legs.
Death snaps hungrily at him,
at helpless men below.
No bombs, no shells,
no help to pry open
the savage jaws
Cursing, crying, he watches friends
die . . .
Tires jolt off the road, and time jerks back.
He stops the car and rubs eyes that sting
from red and yellow smoke.
First published in Voicings from the High Country, 2010
One foggy morning, I walked across three lanes of a one-way street, looking into the fog to make sure someone didn't come barreling into me. It triggered a much milder flashback of a time I had to climb through fog off a runway at DaNang to a combat mission supporting Marines at Khe Sahn during the siege.
I peer into morning fog
on my way to the bus.
I can see a quarter mile at best.
Crossing a one-way, normally
busy street, I look into the fog
for headlights bearing down on me.
The blacktop disappearing
into the mist sparks a memory
of the runway at DaNang.
I peer into morning fog,
add power, lift off, turn left,
fly at fifty feet over villages,
the small bridge over the river,
and cross the wide, white beach.
The gray of the sea
merges with the fog.
No telling up from down—
must go on instruments.
I crawl into a glowering sky,
wrapped in gloom that starts
just beyond my propeller,
left and right at my wingtips,
a caterpillar hoping to burst
out of its cocoon. Ten minutes …
twenty minutes … half an hour …
my Cessna struggles upward …
a slow metamorphosis.
the gloom brightens.
A burst of sun,
a sea of white fluff.
I shed the cocoon, spread my wings,
and fly off to the safety of combat.
First published in Encore 2012.
The airplane was poorly equipped to fly on instruments, providing some extra excitement to the mission. Perhaps because this flashback was much less violent, I had fun with the ending, making it somewhat ironic.
I used similar examples in my talk about her flashbacks with Kathy to help her understand what was happening. In her mind, she could see me lying close to death at the hospital, having been met by the hospital chaplain and doctors when she arrived. They didn't give her much hope that I'd make it. Her flashbacks were perfectly understandable and not a sign of weakness but of her humanity.