The publication date for Red Flags arrives: September 20th. So does an email from Charli, Jeff Barber’s wife. Jeff is dead.
He’s in the dedication, along with the other guys who had made it home. Most of him, anyway. Jeff, a Marine, had left a leg in Vietnam – stepped on a land mine at the age of 18. He spent the next two years in hospitals. Besides losing his leg, he had suffered 47 other wounds that required surgery after surgery to remove foreign objects and repair his circulatory system. The nurses kept a Mason jar by his bed, filled with the growing collection of jagged metal excavated from his body. Had he not been so young and athletic, so fit, he never would have survived.
At first he tried to ignore the obvious disability. He skied on one leg, bicycled, swam. But amputated above the knee, the remnant wouldn’t heal properly, no matter what medicines or therapies were applied. He was forever on some new medication or being put into hyperbaric oxygen chambers. They kept operating: procedures aptly called reductions, mini-amputations.
The primitive artificial leg issued by the VA proved too painful to walk on. Jeff would wear it only as a cosmetic and maneuvered on forearm crutches. Long-haired and bearded, he was soft-spoken and calm on the outside, anguished on the inside. He took up meditating and driving at high speeds through the southwestern deserts. Once, after being pulled over, he got into it with the officer, who handcuffed Jeff’s hands behind his back and made him “walk” to the cruiser for the drive to jail. Quite an image: Jeff silhouetted, hopping on his one leg down the highway. Welcome home, son.
Though he married a wonderful woman, had two boys he loved, he couldn’t alight, couldn’t settle. He tried living in the west, in California; he tried living in New York, where I met him in the late 70s. He’d gotten a job in human resources in the company I worked for. Everyone was very decorous with Jeff, proper to a fault, treating him as if he were no different from the rest of us.
He wore the pretend limb to the office but it was uncomfortable and he’d take it off for much of the day. I swiped the phony leg and hid it behind an open door. “What leg?” I said. People were aghast. Who would make off with a prosthesis? Jeff found it hilarious. My wife announced him as my “little vet friend” whenever he called or showed up, and totally charmed him.
Jeff hated the Veterans Administration, which wasn’t making much of an effort to get him a better artificial limb and regularly tried to reduce his benefits. I’d accompany him when he went there on some errand like picking up crutches, after which he liked to stroll back and forth in front of the local recruiting office. He also liked invitations to speak to high school kids, especially when recruiters were in attendance, pitching esprit and the rewards for military service. The recruiting officer, dazzling in his dress uniform, didn’t have a chance with Jeff standing there in his beard and long hair, pant leg empty, smiling.
One night Jeff talked calmly about suicide, said he couldn’t figure out where all his anger and turmoil was coming from. I rattled off the list of the self-evident, amazed he didn’t see it. I found him the shrink he wanted – ex-military. “Well?” I said afterward. Jeff said the doc was nuts but likable. He had talked about bathroom tiles and handguns, and totally distracted Jeff. Sounded eccentric but somehow it worked.
We went shopping for a birthday present in Soho at a store owned by an exotic Bedouin woman. He was fascinated by her. Little wonder, I thought: two nomads. He took the family to California. I visited them in San Diego. The disquiet was back. The marriage went south, Jeff went north, toward San Francisco. A little while later he met Charli and they had a child.
My daughter and I stopped by on a trip west. They’d moved again, to Hawaii this time. Along the way he’d gotten into collecting minerals and rocks, and Asian artifacts. Then opened a shop, which he eventually transferred to their new home in Novato. The house was amazing, as was Jeff. Over the years he’d gone from naïve high school graduate to a man of genuine understanding and gentility that showed in his youngest son Jack and in his relationship with his devoted wife. I told him he looked like the Buddha, sitting in his wheel chair surrounded by sacred objects – upper body massive with muscle, scarred stump showing, overweight from diabetes and poor circulation – and all the while exuding tranquility and anxiety in equal measure while masking the ever-present pain.
Vietnam, like every war, keeps on giving. Every month new names go up on the Memorial in D.C., joining the others who’ve finally succumbed to their wounds. And soon my friend’s name will join the ranks of silenced lives. Holy ground and top tourist attraction though it’s become, I want to blow up that Wailing Wall. I wouldn’t have traded you a single bead of his sweat for all of Indochina.