As a journalist, the relationships I develop with the people I report on are often deeply intimate, but fleeting. I talk with people about some of their most vulnerable moments, write a story, and then usually never see them again.
But that’s not how it went with Ron Fleming.
I met Ron at the San Francisco VA Hospital. I was working on a story about Vietnam vets and how their PTSD can flare up as they approach the end of life. I interviewed Ron for about two hours. A week later, he called me, and asked me out to lunch. He’s careful to say that he noticed my wedding ring. He says, “I don’t mean any funny business.” He’s 74.
I stall for a couple weeks, then eventually say yes. Maybe out of some sense of obligation. Maybe because he has the same name as my dad, who died when I was young. But really, I just like Ron. He says things like “We didn’t lose that war. Everywhere I went, we literally kicked the crap out of ‘em.”
We meet at a Chinese restaurant in a shopping center in Oakland. He’s wearing a wool VFW beret and suspenders. Bits of Mongolian beef fall into his beard as he tells me the same war stories he told me a few weeks before. Some word for word.
For example, this reflection on the insult “baby killer”:
We did kill women and kids. We had to. Because one of the things I learned soon, was a woman or a kid will kill you just as dead as an old man will, and just as fast. One of the tactics that the VC would use was they would take this cute little girl, about five or six years old, right? Strap a bomb on her back. And tell her, 'You see them Americans there? They like little girls. And they got chewing gum and candy. Go on over and say hi to ‘em.'
As I’m trying to think of what to say, a woman one table over interrupts.
“Excuse me! No one wants to hear about killing children. We’re trying to have lunch over here.”
Ron lowers his head but keeps his eyes up, like a wolf growling. But he says nothing.
I want to crawl into the pot of green tea and disappear. But I force myself to turn around, and I say to the woman, something like, “We’re having lunch, too. And this is what we… wanna… talk about?”
Then I turn back to Ron. He says, “let’s get out of here.” We say an awkward goodbye in the parking lot. And I drive home thinking of all the other things I wish I’d said or done.
When the story about PTSD and aging Vietnam vets airs on the radio, I get emails from some vets saying they’re still haunted by flashbacks later in life, and thanks for the story. And I get emails from other vets calling me naïve and sentimental. They say vets need to man up and get over it.
I got a hand-written card from Ron. He didn’t say anything about the story. I don’t know if he liked it or hated it. He just said, “Thanks for sticking up for me in the restaurant.”
He said to call him sometime. He has a lot more stories he can tell.