A Book I Couldn’t Finish

I’m usually not one to give up on something, no matter how hard, bad, or boring it may be. There are very few tasks that I have given up on. The same is true for books. I finish what I start. My sentiment has always been that no matter how boring a novel is, once I start, I finish reading it. It might take months to get through it, but I will complete the read. There is one book, however, that I never finished reading. That book is Combat Swimmer: Memoirs of a Navy SEAL by Captain Robert A. Gormly.

My teddy bear bookmark.

My story goes back to when I was thirteen years old. My Aunt had sent me a Christmas package, and along with some Hardy Boys books she included a homemade bookmark. She made it by cross-stitching a teddy bear into a plastic canvas. I used that bookmark with every book I read. Whenever I finished a book, the teddy bear bookmark moved on to my next read. It did that until a few years later, when I found myself a sophomore in high school.

I had two main high school buddies my sophomore year, Ryan and JD. It was customary for us to hang out in the school library during lunch break. We’d look at the magazines, make fun of the sex questions in Seventeen, skim the newspapers for anything interesting, and discuss our thoughts on Star Wars (actually Ryan wasn’t that interested in Star Wars). Well, it just so happened that one day the library was holding a contest. To enter the contest you had to answer two questions: How many books are in the library? And, How many books get checked out each month? The contest would be be won by the two students who guessed closest to the actual answers.

Since we were already in the library, the three of us decided to enter the contest. I wrote out a bunch of mathematical formulas on the back of my entry form. This was to show my friends how I could do complex calculations to count the number of books. In reality all that math stuff was a joke. I wrote down a guess of 6,000 books in the library, and 200 checkouts per month. The three of us gave our entry forms to the librarian, and I thought nothing else of it.

The next day I got called to the office. I was worried. I thought I was a good student. I hadn’t gotten in any fights or anything. I had no idea what it could possibly be about. It turned out that I had won the contest. The other winner was JD. If I had to wager a guess, I would say that Ryan, JD, and I were the only people to enter the contest, so my odds of winning were good to begin with. In any case, I bragged about how my superior mathematical skills had made me a winner.

The prize was a $10.00 gift certificate to Barnes & Noble. I was an avid reader at the time, and as far as I was concerned that was a great prize. Needless to say, I had my mom drive me to the bookstore that evening. It also happened, that at that time, I had become obsessed with war and the military. I suppose many young boys find war fascinating at some point in their life. For me, it was when I was fifteen. I was especially interested in the Vietnam War because it was the most recent military operation that had been labeled a “war”. I was also obsessed with Navy SEALs. I’d heard they were cold blooded killing machines. Highly trained and specialized. Some of the deadliest troops in the military. I wasn’t just interested in them, I wanted to be one.

One of two books I picked out.

When I went to the bookstore I knew exactly what I wanted. I wanted a book about Navy SEALs. The clerk direct me to the military section, and I began my search. I selected two books on Navy SEALs. One was the aforementioned Combat Swimmer the other was The Element of Surprise: Navy SEALs in Vietnam by Darryl Young. The total was $12.00. My mom paid the remaining $2.00, and I went home a happy man.

The book that would forever change my attitude towards reading.

Naturally I wanted to start reading right away. On the ride home I took a look at the glossary at the back of the book, and read about K-Bar knives and how they were the last line of defense for a SEAL. When I got home I got my teddy bear bookmark, read the first chapter, and marked my place. The book begins with Captain Gormly detailing how he decided to get a commissioned in the Navy and join the SEALs. His training began in what is called BUDS, which stands for Basic Underwater Demolition SEALs. To be honest, I was kind of disappointed. I didn’t want to read about a guy going scuba diving and planting a few bombs underwater. I wanted to read about serious action. I wanted to read about gunfire and adrenaline like I’d seen in the movies. Still, he was involved in top secret missions, and that was enough to keep me reading.

I would read the book between classes. Always hoping that people would see me reading it and think I was an expert on the military. I told friends that I was going to get a college degree so I could be commissioned as an officer in the military instead enlisting. My friends didn’t even know what the difference between an enlisted man and an officer was. I took pleasure in explaining the difference. I memorized the different ranks, and the symbols for each. In my mind Combat Swimmer was preparing me to join the military. I was learning that the military wasn’t just a bunch of machine gun fire. I figured knowing that would give me an edge when I got in. Despite convincing myself that that was the case, what really interested me was the action.

I finished reading about Gormly’s training and how he went through “Hell Week”. I was excited that there was such a thing as “Hell Week”, and I tried to convince myself that I could make it through it. I told my friends about the week, and said how only the toughest of the tough could survive it. That was exciting an all, but it still wasn’t what I wanted to be reading about. I was ready for some real action. I wanted to read about combat in Vietnam. Gormly didn’t go to Vietnam right away. In fact his first mission was in the Dominican Republic. Everything there seemed uneventful to me. Finally I got to the second part of the book which was about his first tour in Vietnam. This was what I was waiting for. It turned out that the next two chapters didn’t involve much either. I was beginning to wonder if there was any combat at all in the book. I mean, the title was Combat Swimmer, and I hadn’t read about any action. Things changed when I got to chapter six, “Mekong Ambush: Taking Away the Night”. I was looking forward to this read. Ambush, that meant combat. Finally I would get a taste of what I had longed to read about. It turned out that that would be the last chapter of the book that I’d read.

The chapter began about as uneventful as everything else in the book. Captain Gormly and his platoon went out on one of the canals of the Mekong River to set up an ambush. He described choosing a location, running into fire ants in the dirt, and so forth. Then there was waiting. Lots and lots of waiting. It was night. The SEALs were hiding in the foliage, quiet and motionless. This, I thought, was getting me ready for how boring my life in the military might be.

After waiting for ages, the platoon heard a motor somewhere up the river, it was getting closer. Eventually the motor idled briefly then came to a stop. The time was approximately 2:00AM. Every soldier was ready for action. Gormly described how he heard muffled snicks as each man eased his weapon selector switch off “safe”. After a few minutes a sampan came into view. It was about fifty meters up the river. Gormly scanned it, trying to see, by moonlight, the occupants. One man was at the rear of the sampan, quietly paddling the boat. Another man stood at the bow. He was holding a rifle, which was the sign that it wasn’t fishermen, it was the enemy.

Gormly watched the boat, waiting to decide what to do. He writes, “If they turned back, I’d let them go, figuring they were scouts for a larger force about to cross the river. I wanted them to give the all-clear so we could get the main group.” If not, they’d go for the kill. The sampan didn’t turn around, instead the engine fired up again. Gormly opened fire, and his platoon followed suit. After about six seconds Gormly instructed the SEALs to cease fire. “That was the nature of an ambush,” he describes, “hours of boredom followed by seconds of excitement.” When the excitement was over, there were two dead VC in a sinking sampan. Gormly ends by saying, “We’d taken the night away from two VC, but the psychological gain of our mission far outweighed any material gain. Two dead VC wouldn’t be missed by anyone but their families and friends. But the fact that they’d been killed doing something that had probably been routine for years would affect the morale of all their VC buddies.”

After reading that I put my teddy bear bookmark in between the pages and closed the book. The bookmark is still there to this day. Reading about that platoon ambushing those two men seemed like the most important event in my life. Two men were killed. Two men who, even to this day, have families that miss them. Two real men. Two men that had names. Two men that didn’t know that that was the last time they’d ever see the moon dancing on the river. The moment I read that, I realized how wrong I had been about war. Gormly talked about the deaths of these men so casually. There is even a bit of pride in his narrative. He made their deaths seem routine. These were men that had passions and dreams, which were taken away in a few seconds. I’d seen a thousand deaths in movies and video games, but knowing that this was real, that these were real men, made all the difference to me. I couldn’t finish the book after reading about that ambush, not after seeing how easy it was for the author to discuss death. I was devastated.

I lost most of my interest in joining the military after that, and certainly any interest in combat. In fact, when I registered for the selective service, it was a relief when I turned 26 and was no longer eligible to be drafted. There was no way I could be involved in the death of someone else, no matter how justified anyone claimed it was.

I’ve watched war movies since reading that book. I’ve even enjoyed them. I’ve seen a million deaths in video games and other forms of media, but I always know in my mind that it isn’t real. It’s a story. It’s made up. That makes it okay to me. I’m not going to lie. Death and violence make for exciting stories.

In the decade since I put that book down, I’ve thought about those two men many times. Whenever someone mentions war, I think about how two men were on a quiet patrol of a river. Sure, they knew that they might bump into trouble, but they weren’t expecting it. I’ve wondered what those men were talking about just before they were killed. Telling each other jokes, perhaps. Laughing, maybe. Then again, maybe they were scared. They knew it was war. They knew they were in danger. I have nothing but sympathy for them. I wonder if their families still think of them. I wonder who they left behind. Were they somebody’s husband? Somebody’s father? A brother? Certainly they were someone’s sons, though it’s likely that their parents have passed on by now. I wonder what these two men might be doing today, had they lived. Farming maybe. Who knows? They’d be alive, though. They’d be breathing. They’re not.

I don’t know if I’ll ever finish the book. The bookmark is still there. Holding my place. Reminding me about the devastation of war that I’d learned as a young boy. I don’t know if I can bring myself to finish the book, because I know what to expect. More death. I never read the other book, The Element of Surprise, either. How could I. What does that title portray besides unexpected death? In some ways I want to finish Combat Swimmer, then I could at least have my teddy bear bookmark back. For now that isn’t the case. Instead, it is a causality of war.