Monday, April 20, 2009
Photo: Jerry Cummings
The Dunes 'Til Dawn
Dunes ‘til Dawn – By Lynda Van Devanter (Chapter 4 of Home Before Morning The Story of an Army Nurse in Vietnam (University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, 1983, p. 51 to 61).
….Everyone who met J.J. – Jonathan James Smith – agreed that he was exceptionally handsome. My mother called him a "pretty boy," and at the beach, I would notice my friends stealing glances at him when they thought I wasn’t looking. With his short dirty blond hair and a face that looked boyish and yet rugged at the same time, J.J. bore a certain resemblance to Troy Donahue if you looked at him from a distance. Up close, he was even more attractive. He had these cute little laugh lines around the edges of his mouth and a cleft in his chin.
The thing that made J.J. most exceptional, however, was that he wanted to marry me, a girl who wore Clearasil to be every night and who still could live up to the nickname my sisters had given me when I was ten. They called me Crisco. It was sort for "fat in the can."
He said he loved me that night in August when he gave me the ring, a third-of-a-carat oval-shaped diamond. We had been lying on the beach, looking up at the stars, and holding hands. It had been the first time a boy spoke to me of love. I thought I was dreaming. But it wasn’t a dream. He wanted to marry me. And I said yes. Now, I was wearing that diamond.
J.J. and I had met two weeks after my graduation from nursing school, when he came up to me at Bayshores, a nightclub in Somers Point, New Jersey, and asked me to dance. He was one of the two best dancers I knew. The other was Barbara. Maybe it was fortunate for me that she wasn’t there that night.
I had gone to Ocean City with five other girls who also graduated from Mercy. Together, we got a house near the beach and jobs at a local hospital in Somers Point, where I worked the seven-to-three shift in the emergency room. Our plan was to spend all our free time during June helping each other to study for the Maryland state boards, which would be given at the end of the month. When the exams were finished, we would spend the remainder of our summer celebrating and waiting for the exam results. It was a good plan.
Each day, as soon as we were through at the hospital, we would grab our bathing suits and books and head down to the beach where we worked on our tans and our nursing fundamentals, quizzing each other on everything that had been covered in the previous three years.
Although Barbara came up to visit on weekends, she spent the summer with her father, who had orders transferring him from the Pentagon to the Presidio of San Francisco in September.
Gina was in Philadelphia, where she and her fiancé were making final plans for their wedding, which was to take place in July. "I’ll give him about one year of fun," she said. "Then we’re gonna start making a whole bunch of babies. None of this birth control crap. I’m going back to being a good Catholic girl."
That first night with J.J., we danced until we were both ready to drop. Then we danced some more. When the band played the slow songs and he gently eased my head onto his shoulder, I had new and unfamiliar stirrings inside. I could small a musky scent from his sweat and I felt both protected and afraid when his strong arms encircled me.
His parents had a house nearby in Tuckahoe, but he was only visiting. J.J. was a soldier, a buck sergeant, who had returned that week from a year as an infantryman in Vietnam.
"What was it like?" I asked.
During the next few weeks, I saw him every day. He would join us for our study sessions at the beach and he sometimes served as our quizmaster, firing questions at us as quickly as his machine gun must have fired rounds at the Vietcong.
"What did you do in Vietnam?"
"I sweated all the time, took a lot of crap from people, and dreamed about the kind of car I would buy when I got back to the world."
"No, really. What was your job like?"
"I humped the boonies and got shot at too many times."
"But what was it like?"
"I told you; it sucked."
We went out to dinner together, walked the beach in our bare feet, and laughed at all the silliest things. On weekends, we would party with my friends and their newly acquired boyfriends. We’d start out at the Anchorage, a neighborhood bar that offered seven beers for a dollar, and leave there about ten o’clock to go dancing at Bayshores. When Bayshores closed around two, we’d head for a place called the Dunes, on the peninsula in Somers Point. It was open until six and the theme was "Dunes ‘til Dawn." Those words were on the black T-shirts J.J. and I were given the night we won the dance contest.
"Isn’t your father proud that his son fought in the war?" I asked.
"I don’t know."
"As soon as I finish my training, I’m going to ask them to send me to Vietnam."
"Don’t do it."
"Because it sucks."
He had a way of dancing that was wild and flamboyant, yet somehow controlled. He seemed to be not just moving to the music, but a part of it, his body another instrument being played by the band. He would laugh in the middle of a song, get a faraway look in his eyes and then release an energy that would automatically draw everyone’s attention. Curiously, I found myself keeping up with him. It was fun. And exciting.
"What are you laughing at, J.J.?"
"Myself. I never knew I could feel this way about a girl."
"You ask too many questions."
We made out on the dining room floor while my girlfriends slept in their beds. We used to kiss until it felt like my lips might fall off. I wanted to crawl up into his arms and spend my whole life there. My heart would beat so fast that I thought it was going to pound its way right out of my chest.
"I can’t breathe."
"I don’t care."
"But I’m afraid."
When Barbara came up two weeks after I’d met J.J., I couldn’t wait to let her in on the good news. She listened with amusement and then grabbed my wrist. "Three hundred and twenty-eight," she said. "Fastest pulse I’ve ever seen. Let’s see if I have all the symptoms right: heart palpitations, rapid pulse, chills and sweats, clammy palms, loss of appetite, and an overwhelming desire to jump someone’s bones."
"I didn’t say anything about wanting to jump someone’s bones,"
"But you do. Don’t you?"
"Ah, ha,’ she said, "what is it?"
"Well, nurse," I said, "what is it?"
She furrowed her brow and paced the floor with her hands behind her back. "In my professional opinion, after three years at the best medical facility in the world, studying under the sharpest minds God ever created, I would unequivocably diagnose this rare affliction as a case of love."
"Oh, no," I said in mock horror. "Do you think it’s curable?"
"Curable? No," she said. "In your case it’s probably chronic. However, there is one possible way to keep it under control."
"Please, nurse, please tell me."
"You must jump his bones."
I was genuinely horrified. "What?"
"I can see that the patient doesn’t quite accept my professional recommendation."
I was too shocked to respond.
"There is also another possible way to help this case," she offered. "Perhaps a method that would be more acceptable."
"What is it?"
"Having him jump your bones," she said, "and make him think it’s all his idea. Of course, this is the more effective method, because it will call you to have a strong resolve while he spends some time whining, wheedling, and cajoling. Those elements are absolutely required so that he’s convinced it’s his idea and you’re only going along with it to please him."
"But I’m a virgin," I said.
"Ah, yea, that rare species: American Catholic Virginus. Probably of the type that believes in saving oneself for marriage."
"That’s right," I answered firmly.
Although I may have been sexually naïve that summer, I had the misforture to become known as "the penis expert" at the hospital. The unofficial title didn’t have anything to do with my virtue, or lack of it. I just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It seemed that whenever I worked the ER, I always ended up with the males who had problems with their genitalia. One day I got his guy whose wife had put a wedding ring on his penis. He became hard and the ring wouldn’t come off. With the blood supply blocked, the penis wouldn’t go down, either. Although it may sound funny, any man who has been through anything like it probably doesn’t think of it as a laughing matter.
We tried a couple of different methods to remove the ring, including soap and grease. None of them worked. There was only one solution. I called the hospital’s engineering department. When we walked into the guy’s cubicle a few minutes later with a long-handled tool that looked like oversized cutting pliers, he looked like he would have a heart attack. "What are you going to do with that?" he asked.
"We’re going to cut it off," the doctor answered.
The guy put his hands in front of his private area. "No!"
"Not the penis, dummy. The ring."
Another time, I took care of a kid who had been surfing when he got hit in the groin area after falling off his board. The injury had stimulated his artery to shoot blood into his penis, which had become engorged. The bruise from hematoma had blocked the blood from returning through the vein, so he was in a state of pripism. "Jesus, Van Devanter," the doctor said. "If that’s the way you affect all men, spare me."
….The people who were making the jokes may have thought they were funny, but I began to feel that the real joke was on me. Here I was, a twenty-one-year-old girl who had probably seen hundreds of penises in nursing school and the emergency room, and I hadn’t yet seen a single one being used for its intended purpose. I began to feel like my virginity was an albatross. I had to get rid of it.
However, there was the problem of finding the right situation. When it happened the first time, I didn’t want it to be on the dining room floor while my girlfriends were asleep. On the other hand, I was afraid that if I waited for the perfect circumstances, I would end up being a fifty-year-old virgin, still anticipating "the night." Even at that, I still had to convince myself that the person I was going to make love with for the first time was the person I would marry.
J.J. came to Ocean City every weekend and some weeknights after he started working at Indiantown Gap. I began to notice how different he was from the boyfriends the other girls had. Once, when he fell asleep on the dining room floor, he woke up in the middle of the night screaming. When I mentioned it in the morning, he shrugged it off. Another time, he yelled something about "slopes" and "gooks" in his sleep. When I touched him to wake him out of the nightmare, he was covered in sweat. As soon as he felt my hand, he jumped on top of me, put one hand on my throat and drew back the other hand to smash my face. Then he woke up.
I was terrified. "Is something wrong?" I asked.
"Don’t touch me right now."
"Okay, but what’s the matter?"
"Just a bad dream," he said. "Go back to sleep." He rolled to his side away from me and I thought I heard him crying softly.
He had periods when he was moody and they could come at any time. He’d go into depressions for a few hours and wouldn’t talk to anyone. Maybe I should have questioned these things more than I did, but I figured him for the strong silent type. In a sense, his dark moods made him more intriguing.
Once, when a gas station attendant didn’t have any hi-test for J. J.’s Barracuda, J. J. to this wild look in his eyes and acted like he was going to kill the guy. He screamed obscenities, smacked his hand against the dashboard, and then floored the accelerator, leaving a patch of burning rubber and a perplexed pump jockey. He would sometimes come out of his depressions with a bang and immediately begin partying like there was no tomorrow. He could be a wild bronco – unruly, loud and full of fire.
But he was always gentle with me. I was sure I loved him, which was why, a few weeks after I got the engagement ring, I told him that I was ready to make love with him.
It was Labor Day weekend.
As soon as J.J. got over the shock, we began to search for a nice place. Unfortunately, trying to find an open room at the Jersey shore on Labor Day weekend is about as difficult as locating the Holy Grail. We started in Ocean City at seven o’clock. Next was Somers Point. Then Longport., then Margate, then Ventnor City and all the way past Atlantic City to Brigantine. It was all the same – NO VACANCY. We drove out to the parkway and headed south. By midnight, we had tried motels all the way down to North Wildwood and the only thing we had to show for it was frustration.
"Lynda," please, let’s go back to your house."
"I want more privacy."
"All right, then I know a great spot where we can park and …."
"No! Not in the car."
"Well, I guess we’re out of luck."
"I guess so."
We headed back to the Anchorage to drown our frustrations at seven beers for a dollar. J.J. had such a sad expression on his face that he looked like a little boy who had just seen his puppy run over by a train. We sat in silence, both of us staring into our beers until around two in the morning. Suddenly, J.J. snapped out of his mood. He grabbed my arm, swung me around on the stool, kissed me, and laughed., "How could I have been so stupid!" he asked. "We’ve got a place we can use right under our noses, or should I say right under our heads."
"What are you talking about?"
"This place," he said. "There’s an old room upstairs. They used to rent it out. What do you say?"
He took that for a yea, because he was off the stool in a flash. A few seconds later I saw him standing in a corner, talking to the owner and nodding his head. He came back to his seat with a key in his hand and a broad grin on his face. "Shall we?"
"Are you positive it’s all right?" I asked.
"Come on, Lynda."
We walked up the back steps to what must have been one of the all-time sleaziest rooms in the world. It had boxes piled all around, a dirty mattress without any sheets, and a single exposed bulb hanging directly over the bed. Outside the window was a neon sign that kept blinking on and off. "It’s not much," J.J. said.
"You can say that again."
"At least it’s private, Lynda."
"Does it have bugs?"
"Bugs?" J.J. repeated. "Don’t be ridiculous. Let’s get comfortable."
I’ve waited twenty-one years for this, I thought only moments before I felt the quick sharp pain that marked the end of my virginity. I think it happened when the neon sign was off. Or maybe it was on. It was hard to tell because the damned thing flashed so quickly. I guess I must have been in love…..
BK Note: Andrew Carnaglia, the owner of the Anchorage at the time, doesn't recall the incident, but said it rings true, and that Lynda sent him a copy of the book when it was published. I was at the Reagan Airport cafe waiting for a plane to Dallas when I was saddened to read the following:
OBITUARIES Thursday, November 21, 2002
Nurse Lynda Van Devanter Buckley Dies
By Graeme Zielinski
Washington Post Staff Writer
Lynda Van Devanter Buckley, 55, an advocate for women veterans whose influential 1983 memoir of her time as a surgical nurse near the Cambodian border, "Home Before Morning," painted a stark picture of the horrors of the Vietnam War and its psychological aftermath, died Nov. 15 at her home in Herndon.
Mrs. Buckley had systemic collagen vascular disease, which she attributed to her exposure in Vietnam to a combination of chemical agents and pesticides.
She was an Arlington native and a 1965 graduate of Yorktown High School. She served in Vietnam in 1969 and 1970 in a surgical hospital in Pleiku.
She described herself as an idealistic Catholic girl before she went over who thought, "IF our boys were being blown apart, then somebody better be over there putting them back together again. I started to think that maybe that somebody should be me."
Her illusions were shattered by the ugly realities of war, which she described graphically not just in her memoir, but in several other venues.
One of her letters home was included in a 1988 HBO documentary. In it, she described a Christmas Eve of amputations and death for wounded GI’s.
"This is now the seventh month of death, destruction and misery. I’m tired of going to sleep listening to outgoing and incoming rockets, mortars and artillery. I’m sick of facing, every day, a new bunch of children ripped to pieces," she wrote.
She wrote that she and other nurses and doctors turned to drink and drugs and sexual liaisons to find distraction.
Her book, written with Christopher Morgan, was the first widely published account of the war by a women veteran and among the first to deal with the incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder, from which she suffered.
By her account, she developed a drinking problem and failed at marriage and nursing jobs n California as she struggled with flashbacks and anxiety. One recurring image was the nightmare of a teenage soldier whose face had been blown off. Returning to the Washington area in the late 1970s, she finally found a counselor who diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder and she began to heal, in part by writing the memoir.
It was a commercial success and still is used as a teaching tool about Vietnam, but it initially attracted fierce criticism from some veterans, including nurses she served with, who claimed Mrs. Buckley was embroidering the experience for profit and to burnish her antiwar stance.
"Lynda’s exaggeration and the negativism of her book distress me terribly," retired Army Col. Edith Knox said in a 1983 interview with the Washington Post. "This book makes us look like a bunch of bed-hopping, foul mouthed tramps."
But still others supported the account. One, a former Army nurse, Lynn Calmes Kohl, told The Post that, "actually, what Lynda wrote was mild."
The book was inspiration for the television drama series, China Beach," which ran from 1988 to 1991.
Mrs. Buckley became the first executive director of the Vietnam Veterans of America Women’s Project in 1979 and retired in 1984. She continued to write articles, edit volumes of poetry, conduct seminars and give speeches after she retired.
Survivors include her husband, Tom Buckley, and their daughter Molly, both of Herndon; a stepdaughter, Brigid Buckley of Raleigh, N.C.; her mother, Helen Van Devanter of Sterling; and four sisters.