The Escape Artist

by Gabriel Urbina


Benjamin is an aimless young man. He is a recent high school graduate, who has few interests, and no marketable skills. When he is drafted, and sent to Vietnam as a rifleman, he discovers an interest that will help him cope with the reality of war.

My name is Ben, short for Benjamin. I was appropriately named, that's for sure. I'm "the Benjamin of the family." My brothers Ray and Patrick are 12 and 10 years older than me, respectively. I was fortunate my brothers were much older than me. These two guys practically raise me, because our parents got divorced, and eventually disappeared from our lives. I don't know whether our parents were having problems, and I was meant to help patching things up,or I was the reason they split up. My brothers never told me and I never asked. I don't need to know; it's not necessary for me to know. I do know that I have two brothers who love me, and I adore them.

Like my brothers, I was born and raised in Indianapolis. I barely finished high school, because I seemed to have a chronic lack of interest in most of the high school stuff. I read a lot of comic books, some science fiction, and I went to the movies very frequently. My limited range of interests did not hurt my social life. I knew better than to ask the prettiest or the most popular girls, or those totally involved in school activities. I asked only those who would be happy to be asked to go to the movies with me; those girls who didn't get too many invitations. And considering my limited budget, girls who would be happy with a taco and a Pepsi, or something like that.

After graduation from high school, I was a young man who had not found his purpose in life; someone without skills and without career goals. I worked about six months bagging groceries, and stocking shelves, at a local supermarket. Then I was drafted into the Army. After basic training and advanced infantry training, I was assigned to a unit in Kansas. I was a rifleman. I had served almost a year, when my unit received orders for Vietnam. We went there by ship; we departed from Oakland, California, and we didn't arrive in Vietnam until twenty days later.

It was during my tour of duty in Vietnam that I became interested in something. Before shipping out, I went to the PX at the Oakland Army Terminal.with the intention of buying a Vietnamese phrase book, but I didn't find one. For some unexplained reason, I bought a basic French grammar book. Before I was drafted, I didn't even know Vietnam existed; and when I bought this book I had no idea Vietnam had been a French colony.

My French book was a little jewel. It was very concise, with grammar, vocabulary, conversation, and short passages to read, which matched perfectly what was covered by each chapter. I don't remember the name of the author, but he was a former British foreign service officer.

I was interested in the country and its people, but, at the same time, I felt a deep desire to escape from my military reality. My self-study of French became my secret hobby, my escapist activity. I took only once to be told to "put that damn book away" to realize I had to do this on the sly. I admit there was something incongruous about a rifleman reading a book, let alone a French one.

The French I was learning on my own helped me carry on basic conversations with the older generation of South Vietnamese. These interactions allowed me to enjoy a few precious moments of friendship. I particularly remember a female bartender in Saigon, who was delighted to talk to me in French. She was a talker, so I learned a lot just by listening to her. I had learned how to ask questions, and to make brief comments, in order to keep the conversation going.

Another opportunity to practice French presented itself when, during an operation,I met an elderly Vietnamese couple. Their house was in the middle of nowhere. There was some farm land around, but mostly jungle. Their house had the most beautiful garden I had ever seen. There were tiny little channels conducting water to the diverse plants and flowers in the garden. There were large round containers made of clay, filled with the clearest water I had seen in a long time, and plenty of it.

I managed to have a conversation with the elderly couple. I was able to express my admiration for their garden. I don't remember what else we talked about, but besides our conversation, meeting them was very important to me. They were so friendly, so free of hate, so peaceful; and this was quite a contrast with the piercing hateful stares we saw when we entered small villages, inhabited only by women and children; where men were nowhere to be seen.

There was something I had never seen before in my life. This man and this woman, in their old age, were still totally in love with each other.

This image of perfect harmony, of love, friendship, and beauty, along with my interest in the French language, pull me through the ugliness and the hate that war brings. I made it through my one-year tour in Vietnam.

When I returned to the States, I knew what I was going to do. I was going to use my G.I. Bill educational benefits, and attend college. I thought this would be a good way to readjust to civilian life, and, let's face it, to escape from the negative memories from the war. My major? French, of course. What was I going to do with this impractical, almost useless major? I felt time would tell. What would happen before, during and after college? Well, that's another story.

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