DOC VOSS’S FOLKS were farmers of German descent, Mennonite pacifists who ran a few head of Brahman outside of Deaf Smith, Texas, and raised beans and melons and tomatoes and paid their taxes and generally went their own way. When Doc got his draft notice his senior year in high school, a lot of us thought he might apply for exemption as a conscientious objector. Instead, Doc enlisted in the Navy and became a hospital corpsman attached to the Marines.
Then he got hooked up with Force Reconnaissance and ended up a SEAL and both a helicopter and fixed-wing pilot who did extractions on the Cambodian border. In fact, Doc became one of the most decorated participants in the Vietnam War.
The night Doc returned home he burned his uniform in the backyard of his house, methodically hanging each piece from a stick over a fire that swirled out of a rusted oil drum, dissolving his Marine-issue tropicals into glowing threadworms. He joined a fundamentalist church, one even more radical in its views than his family’s traditional faith. When asked to give witness, he rose in the midst of the congregation and calmly recited a story of a village incursion that made his fellow parishioners in the slat-board church house weep and tremble.
At the end of harvest season he disappeared into Mexico. We heard rumors that Doc was an addict, living in a hut on the Bay of Campeche, his mind gone, his hair and beard like a lion’s mane, his body pocked with sores.
I received a grimed, pencil-written postcard from him that read: “Dear Billy Bob, Don’t let the politicians or the generals get you. I swim with dolphins in the morning. The ocean is full of light and the dolphins speak to me as one of their own. At least I think they do.
“Your bud, the guy who used to be Tobin Voss.”
But two years later Doc came back to us, gaunt, his face shaved, his hair cropped like a convict’s, a notebook full of poems stuffed down in his duffel bag.
He worked through the summer with his father and mother, selling melons and cantaloupes and strawberries off a tailgate outside of San Antonio, then enrolled at the university in San Marcos. Before we knew it, Doc graduated and went on to Baylor and received a medical degree.
We stopped worrying about Doc, in an almost self-congratulatory way, as you do when an errant relative finally becomes what you thought he should have always been. Doc never talked about the war, except in a collection of poems he published, then in a collection of stories based on the poems, one that perhaps a famous film director stole from in producing an award-winning movie about the Vietnam War.
Doc ran a clinic in Deaf Smith and married a girl from Montana. When he lost her in a plane crash five years ago, he handled tragedy in his own life as he had handled the war. He didn’t talk about it.
Nor of the fires that had never died inside him or the latent potential for violence that the gentleness in his eyes denied.