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Al Martinez

'I lost my sense of judgment yesterday,' a soldier whispers. 'I killed someone.' : Shadows on the Ceiling

December 19, 1985|AL MARTINEZ

I have managed over the past 35 years to overcome the nightmares of Korea. I no longer study every inch of ground for mines when I am walking on a mountain trail at twilight time. I do not flinch and move to fall prone when a backfiring car startles the stillness. Far-off explosions have ceased to remind me of incoming mortars.

The sounds of war are a distant thunder, muted by time to an acceptable level of memory, lodged in proper context with events that can never be completely forgotten but no longer dominate my life.

The last memories to go were the smells of Korea: the fetid odors of Pusan Harbor, the gunpowder aromas of combat along the 38th Parallel, the terrible stench of napalm and the multiple traces of death itself, sometimes musty, oddly sweet, always sickening.

Then last week, at a play called "Tracers," everything came back in unsettling proportions.

I didn't think that anything could ever again re-create in vivid imagery those elements of war that savage a man in ways that are rarely visible.

I didn't think that any staged portrayal of war's more treacherous enemies, the enemies of the mind, could ever again keep me awake at night searching the shadows on the ceiling for the nightmares they conceal.

"Tracers" did.

Al Martinez

I saw it at the Coronet Theater in Beverly Hills on a night that was appropriately wet and thundery. Lightning flashed far out over the ocean, like strobe-blinks gone so quickly you weren't sure they ever existed. Rain fell in short bursts.

When I left the theater, I felt as though I were leaving the front lines.

Friends had urged me to see "Tracers" because it emerged from a series of actual rap sessions and psychodramas intended to exorcise the demons from a group of Vietnam veterans who could not, without help, make themselves whole again.

The demons were loosed on the stage of the Coronet.

Eight actors, all of whom had been to Vietnam, lured me with bravado and humor into the shadow lands of their torment, and what I saw and heard and felt was every beat of the madness and calamity that war embraces.

"Tracers" begins with a song and dance, threatening to evolve into one of those macho productions that project the manliness of war through pounding choreography and through music delivered basso profundo.

But very quickly, the fun ends.

"You're all going to Vietnam," a drill instructor bellows, "and if you don't pay attention, you're all going to die!"

"I lost my sense of judgment yesterday," a soldier whispers. "I killed someone."

"We've got to bury these people," a sergeant orders. "Everybody grab an arm or a leg."

Then the music comes again, suddenly hard and mean, vibrating with electronics that pierce the brain and confuse the senses.

Drumbeats are cannon fire, smoke clouds the stage and dim amber tones cast the scene in a light I never thought could be artificially created, the strange, flat, half-light of battle.

I realized slowly and with reluctance that what was happening on stage was only half as important as what was happening inside me, but the latter could not have existed without the former.

All of the horror and uncertainty and paralyzing fear that had been my companions during 15 months of combat were flooding my consciousness again.

Scenes of war in Korea snapped back into focus, faces emerged from the places where the mind hides them, artillery roared in the distance and even memories of the terrible smells returned, full-bodied and overpowering.

The names of men I had not thought about in 25 years popped into my head without effort or intention, glowing in the darkness like neon at midnight.

Bert Jenkins, Robert Nunn, Don Weiland, Adolph Brunn, Roger Lehman . . .

I could hear Joe Citera, a kid from Greenpoint, Brooklyn, with a voice like Jimmy Durante, calling a familiar query from an embattled foxhole, "Anybody here from Brooklyn?" and then screaming his life away not 30 minutes later, his body full of machine-gun holes.

I could see little Pete Mammaril die in the odd, thick scarlet of his own blood and Tom Evans in a flash of fire and smoke that was white phosphorous and Tom O'Connor in mid-sentence, a single bullet hole appearing almost miraculously in the center of his forehead.

I could hear Charlie Wertman's terrible sobbing carried across the battlefield and a frightened Help me! from a Marine trying to hold his guts in and my own voice saying, full of awe and sadness, "I killed somebody. . . . "

"Tracers" left me brutalized and shattered, and it is only now that I even want to write about that experience.

But it served the purpose of reminding me with impact beyond theatrics exactly what war is all about and of never again allowing myself the luxury of forgetting its pain.

A generation damaged by Korea will keep marching in my memories.

Bert Jenkins, Joe Citera, Robert Nunn, Pete Mammaril, Charlie Wertman, Roger Lehman .

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