OUTSTANDING, a column by William F. Buckley Jr.
The author, back from a tour of South Vietnam, meets a soldier who says it all.
By William F. Buckley Jr, from The Governor Listeth
San Antonio, October 9, 1969
It helps, ma’am,” he said spiritedly, “if you tell me who you are.” The nurse identified herself so that he was then able to refer to her by name. Would he care to join us for some coffee? “I never turned down free coffee in my life,” and he climbed down off his bed and struggled with his bathrobe. Unsuccessfully.
The visitor sorted it out and helped him on with it. He chatted on, wanting to know the latest word on New York City politics. He extended his left hand, fastening it on the visitor’s right arm, and told him to go ahead. “If we pass any pretty girls, tell me and I’ll whistle. I don’t know whether there are any around here, but I wouldn’t be surprised.” (But there were only doctors and nurses as they strolled down the corridor, and the maimed bodies of servicemen.)
He talked on in high spirits, touching on Louisiana politics, concerning which he was expert. He majored in history at LSU and knew and obviously cherished the brawling politics of his home state. “Real upheaval now. The old Huey Long base — the white red-neck and the Negroes — is breaking up, since the integration business. The governor is in deep trouble. And you know that Louisiana never votes for the winning President. Not since 1956. Earl Long was my man. I worked for his election when I was nine years old. Outstanding. He knew politics. The trick is to play politics and not to get enmeshed in them. He had a way with the voters. ‘The South may not always be right,’ he said, ‘ but it’s never wrong.’ One governor said he hadn’t run for public office in order to take a vow of poverty. Next I saw of him was a picture, alongside the president of LSU, cutting sugarcane in a chain gang.”
Getting into the car confused him, because it was one of those new models. The rear doors opening up to leeward, so that he began to step in facing the rear. At that, you would not know that his experience with blindness is so short. It happened on June 9. William Fullerton was squad leader, instructed to reconnoiter on a hilltop south of Danang.
“We got up there all right, but the area was booby-trapped. Half the platoon was hit. My squad — twenty men — had twenty-five casualties during the preceding period, so we were understrength. I thought, God we’re going to be ambushed, and I worried because I couldn’t see my gun. But the choppers were there in no time. What a sound when you hear those blades. Outstanding. Thirty minutes later I was in a hospital. Three days later in Japan. I got here the fifth of July, how’s that?”
American logistics, the visitor admitted, are better than American foreign policy. “They ought to fight that war to win, or pull every man out of there tomorrow. If I could see, I’d go back tomorrow, if we’d agree to fight to win. I didn’t have to go last time. I was 1-Y. I just figured I’d go and do my Hemingway thing.”
What now? “My own doctor says an operation could bring sight back to my right eye. But the people here disagree; they say the eye is too far gone. So I’m headed for Chicago. They’ll discharge me there, and I’ll go to the Veterans’ Hospital where they specialize in blind people. If they agree to operate there, fine. if not, I’d have to go and get it done privately, and that costs two thousand dollars. But I suppose it’s worth it. I’d like to go back to LSU and take law. The constitution is the longest in the world. I started to read it once. Didn’t get past the preamble.”
It was time to go back. A corporal greeted him in the street outside the hospital door. “Hey, George,” he returned the greeting, “what about the kidneys?” George said the doctors hadn’t succeeded. “Oh, well, George, just think, you could be ugly, too.” George walked off, and Fullerton leaned over, his face deeply grieved. “Awful. He has three children. But with his kidney condition, he can’t live more than fifteen or twenty years.”
Back at the ward, he stood erect by his bed, smiling, and on finding the visitor’s hand, shook it. “Outstanding,” he said, “I’ve had an outstanding time.”*
*William Fullerton, Jr., was operated on by the famous New York surgeon Ramon Castroviejo in February, 1970. Seven weeks after the operation he was able to distinguish colors.