A television plays quietly in the background as 68-year-old Jim Lamont prepares soup at his kitchen table. He opens a can of spam and cuts its contents into precise cubes, drains a can of corn and slices an onion.
Along with the soup, he boils a porcupine. Jim likes the taste of the meat but doesn’t like burning the quills off to clean it because it smells like burned hair and that, as well as the scent of the nearby swamps and boggy tundra in Alaska’s southern interior, reminds him of Vietnam.
“Vietnam was a living hell,” he says. “That’s all I will say about that.”
Jim has lived in the remote Alaskan village of Newhalen for 40 years. Here, he has worked in law enforcement and, later, as a van driver for a mining company. Here, he has built a house for himself and his wife. And here, he drives his tan and brown Ford Club Wagon to the village store, ferrying older residents who don’t have cars of their own.
But before Newhalen, the chronology of his memories shift a little with each telling, the dates and times sometimes colliding.
I was happy to come home, but everyone turned their backs on us
What is clear, however, is that he grew up in Emmonak, a remote Yup’ik village along the Yukon River Delta hundreds of kilometres northwest of Newhalen; one of a family of 22.
He says he was 16 when he signed up for the army – two years younger than the minimum age – and recalls his sister helping him lie about how old he was.
He was, he says, “young, dumb and wild”.
“I wanted to go into the army and get it over with when I was young,” he later explains by telephone.
The kitchen walls are painted sky blue and a small Russian Orthodox icon sits above the kitchen table beside a photo of Jim’s granddaughter. Beyond the window, the grassy banks of Newhalen River are just metres away.
The lines around Jim’s mouth deepen when he talks and laughs. He’s known in the village for his stories and the booming voice in which he tells them. But when the topic of the war comes up, his eyes narrow; the bad times in Vietnam, when he saw men with missing jaws and limbs, he prefers not to talk about.
“I don’t think anyone wants to,” he says. “Because it was a war we should have never been in.”
Jim says he was deployed in the demilitarised zone, a stretch of land between North and South Vietnam that became a battleground during the war.
The fighting was chaotic. Air Force pilots would be ordered to bomb an area, with ground troops supposedly coming in afterwards to sweep it. But the planes would show up hours late and start bombing their own army. Jim is convinced that 90 percent of the combat he saw was under friendly fire.
As he talks, his best friend, Bob, walks in. The two men are physically opposite – Jim is stocky with grey hair that darkens to black on the crown of his head, while Bob has white hair, a narrow face and lean frame – but they arrived in Newhalen at around the same time; Bob working as a teacher and basketball coach at the local school.
It took a while to get over my flashbacks
The two men exchange jokes and swear at one another. When Bob hears the topic of conversation, he jokingly refers to Jim by a derogatory term used for the Vietnamese during the war, before settling down at the table for a game of Solitaire.
Returning home from the war brought new battles for Jim.
“I was happy to come home, but everyone turned their backs on us,” he says. “They had nothing to do with us.”
In Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, he felt that people looked down at him. But, back at home with his family, he felt loved, he says.
Still, he remembers, “It took a while to get over my flashbacks.”
They eventually faded but one thing has stuck with him, he says. “I get mad easy … I hold stuff in.”
Bob nods knowingly – this isn’t news to him.
Jim stayed in the military for several years after Vietnam, working as a drill instructor before he grew tired of the regimented life and decided to leave.
He recalls a time after the war when he drank heavily and how, upon seeing some state troopers one day, he decided to give up the drink and pursue a career in law enforcement.
“[I] drunk myself until I was sober,” he laughs.
So, he started working for the Alaska Department of Public Safety and was posted to Newhalen. Later, when he was asked to move to another community, he resigned. He knew he wanted to stay.
Jim will be moving out of this house soon. He has built another next door with funding from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a federal government body looking after Native American interests. His old house, he will give to Bob.
“He’s my buddy,” says Jim. “Maybe I would have been lonesome if Bob wasn’t around here.”