As part of my research for my current story, “Green Bay Outsiders”, I looked at some of the challenges facing Vietnam veterans once they returned to the United States following hostilities in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The protagonist of “Green Bay Outsiders”, Carl Daniels (who becomes a major character in the novel, Billy Maddox Takes His Shot), lives a somewhat comfortable if routine, middle-class existence in Green Bay, Wisconsin. He is fascinated, however, by the history of his uncle Jack Briggs, a former Army Special Forces soldier who fought at Khe Sanh in 1968. Jack’s experiences continue to haunt him, and his influence over the younger man (Carl is a recent college graduate) only grows when Jack moves to Green Bay from Missoula, Montana to help take care of a former war buddy, Bob Brown, whose exposure to the Agent Orange herbicide has led to serious health problems including the onset of Hodgkins disease.
To start researching Vietnam veterans, I turned to the First Blood films from the 1980s.
Anyone old enough to remember those films will remember how the First Blood franchise turned into something of a joke after First Blood 2 came out in 1985. In that film, the Vietnam vet John Rambo, who was imprisoned following the incidents from the first First Blood movie, is released with orders to return to Vietnam and photograph a prisoner of war camp where several American prisoners of war remain in captivity following the promise of their release as part of the truce that ended the war in the 1970s.
First Blood 2 ends up an improbable bloodbath, however, with the veteran, played by Sylvester Stallone, singlehandedly wiping out a large number of Vietnam soldiers responsible for keeping the Americans captive.
Sadly, the excessiveness of that film overshadows the merits of the original First Blood , which was released three years previously, and is a worthy examination of the uncomfortable plight of Vietnam veterans who returned stateside following overseas hostilities, only to find disillusionment, accusations of being “baby killers”, social ostracization and enough uncertainty following their wartime experiences to make readjustment to society a painful, dubious process.
The final scene of First Blood, shown below, is the sorrowful scene of John Rambo regressing from the social veneer he has had to slip on like a suit of ill-fitting clothes following his return to the United States. He ends up exposing all the angst he has accumulated (and bottled up) since his return home in one hysterical fit of weeping. He clutches the uniform of his former colonel, hoping for some kind of solace that the viewer knows is unlikely to come.
To provide context for the clip, John Rambo has come to the Pacific Northwest to visit a wartime buddy, only to find his friend has died from cancer. Adrift, he wanders into a nearby town only to get pushed around by a local-yokel cop who considers Rambo an unwelcome drifter. At a certain point, the cop’s pushiness triggers Rambo’s war training, and he begins to wage a guerilla-style war against local law enforcement. In the clip, he has holed himself up in the local police station with his injured nemesis on the floor. Colonel Trautman, under whom Rambo served in Vietnam and who serves as a father figure in this scene, attempts to convince “Johnny” that the fighting is over. But for Rambo, as he barks back, “nothing is over”.
My story, Green Bay Outsiders, doesn’t take place in 1982, the year of First Blood. It takes place 13 years later in 1995. The story opens in June of that year, a month after Carl Daniels has graduated from the University of Wisconsin–Green Bay with a degree in business, and two months after real-life Gulf War veteran, Timothy McVeigh, committed an act of domestic terrorism by bombing the Alfred P. Murrah government building in Oklahoma City that resulted in the deaths of more than 168 people including several young children.
What does the story of Vietnam veterans have to do with the life of Carl Daniels who successfully graduated from university into a job as a loan officer at the Marine Credit Union on Main Street, who is pursuing licensure as a mortgage loan originator and who has a girlfriend clearly interested in getting serious with him?
“Green Bay Outsiders” is the story of a schism between comfortable, middle-class living, demonstrated by the security and promise of Carl’s future, and the cost of living as an “outsider” beyond social norms–as demonstrated by Vietnam vets such as John Rambo who really had no choice being where they are.
The problem with middle-class living in “Green Bay Outsiders” is that Carl’s parents, Sharon and Mike, who raised their only son according to acceptable social norms in the Green Bay suburb of Allouez, have somehow found unhappiness rather than fulfillment at the end of that socially desirable road.
Will that unhappiness happen to me, too, Carl wonders, if he were to settle into a career as a mortgage broker and marry his college girlfriend?
In his insulated, middle-class world, Carl may never have an opportunity to experience something as extreme as the Vietnam War. But the two veterans, Jack Billings and Bob Brown, recognize in the young man someone as disillusioned by the trappings of midde-class living as are they who–like John Rambo–cannot quite return to the comforts of American heartland due to deep scars.
Carl’s restlessness stems from multiple sources: exposure to stories of his uncle’s wartime experience, which define the man more than 20 years later, recognition of his parents’ disillusionment with the comforts of middle-class living, and an intuitive awareness that life exists beyond the insulated town in which he was born and raised.
At the end of the day, who can say what drives an individual to recognize and want to pursue a life in a greater world beyond that which he already knows?
But that is the story of “Green Bay Outsiders”. It is the story of a young man blessed with the prospect of a comfortable life and who possesses a strong social support system. Instead of choosing that easy route, however, Carl finds greater appeal in a lifestyle where risks exist but the experience of living is greater.
Carl Daniels goes on, as readers of Billy Maddox Takes His Shot know, to become part of a brotherhood with the agents of the U.S. Border Patrol in Arizona. Belonging takes many forms and for those like Carl who choose to leave home in search of something else, a painful goodbye to all that is familiar (including family and friends) must come before a new home is found elsewhere.
“Green Bay Outsiders” will be one of three stories to appear in Three Billy Maddox Stories, scheduled for publication in Spring 2017.
Comment: Have you ever had to make a choice between an easy, comfortable option and one that carried greater personal risks but which also held the promise of a great experience? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.