At Home–1968

January is a month when Khe Sanh veterans sleep less, wrestle monsters in their dreams, and battle with recollections of death, maiming, and savage fright that slashes like a wolf’s bite. Combat’s aftermath.

One of today’s memories: Arizona in 1968, me home from Vietnam, stunned and weak, yet elated to be out of Khe Sanh.

At night on my 21-day respite from the USMC, I hung with my old hometown buddies and struggled to understand what had come between us. During those thirteen months of being gone, I’d wanted as much as anything to be with my friends, but now they weren’t like they were before and it wasn’t their fault.

And besides raising hell with my old mates, I wanted to do something wild. I’d learned some things over in Nam—wild and inane things that warriors trapped in a world between being boys and men discover.

I recall one of the nights on leave, with a friend’s girlfriend.

She wanted to be tough and to let her prove it, I lit an unfiltered Camel and we put our arms together, her hand at my elbow and my hand at hers so that the lower biceps were in tandem, and then I placed the Camel where our flesh met, and we let it burn. First one to say “ouch” lost.

For years the burn scars crawled across my skin like centipede tracks. I’d done it more than once, although not with her.

I’d done it in Nam with Marines I do not remember and I’d done it on Okinawa waiting to go home, with Marines I do not remember and here I was, doing it at home. And why did I do it? Why did other Marines do it with me?

Betty told me it was like “cutting,” self mutilation. Was it a cry for help? Was I trying to feel something real, sensual beyond the numbing fear that had, over a two-and-one-half month period of time at Khe Sanh, rendered me incapable of feeling? I think I still exhibit some elements of that—not feeling—and I don’t mean in my fingers and toes, but in the den of the soul where the important things we learn and know hide.

And that wasn’t the only wild behavior I exhibited.

After those riotous nights on my 21-day leave I’d surrender and crawl beneath sheets after my parents were abed. I didn’t want them to witness me drunk on my butt. Then, long before they got up, I arose and drank bad black coffee and took my mother’s blue Buick and drove, seeking beer and morning-long sojourns across the country looking for…I don’t know what I was looking for.

Blogger Ken Rodgers at Khe Sanh, January 1968. Photo courtesy of Michael E. O’Hara.

When I left the house the liquor stores were closed so I worked out a solution: buy a case of Coors the night before and leave it with one of my buddies, RA, who lived in a cinder-block-walled apartment behind the old mortuary.

I’d show up there at 5:30 or 6 AM, wake him, and if he refused to ride along, I’d corral a six-pack or maybe two out of the fridge and start driving the back roads between the alfalfa and cotton fields.

Hitting seventy or eighty miles an hour, I’d crash through the muddy puddles where the irrigation ditch banks had busted and water surged across the road. I’d whiz past farm worker hovels, scaring the hell out of the jackrabbits and the cottontails. And woe be to any errant hound that sauntered into the road to contest my passing.

If RA rode with me, he leaned back in the seat like that might help if I rolled the car or smashed into one of the gigantic cottonwood trees that grew along the sides of the roads.

Once he said, “What’s the matter with you; are you crazy?”

I remember that really well, but not my answer. Maybe I didn’t have one. And why did I do it? Was I trying to emulate that endorphin high I’d become addicted to in the death and chaos of Khe Sanh?

One morning I came upon a band of sheep crossing from one alfalfa field to another. One of my old herding buddies with whom I’d worked back in ‘64-‘65-‘66 stood in the middle of the road waving a red jacket to make me halt until the sheep finished their short journey.

Music blared from the Buick’s radio—Jim Morrison and Van Morrison and Jimi Hendrix and Linda Ronstadt and the Spencer Davis Group. I sipped a cold Coors and praised its saintly buzz.

I watched the hooves of the sheep leave imprints in the dust, blue and black and white Australian shepherds circling them, circling.

After the sheep crossed the road, bleating and skipping, I pulled up to my old mate, JR, and rolled down the window. The smell of sheep, lanolin, and their droppings invaded my nose.

I said, “Hey, man, how you doing?”

He stared at me for a long time. Then he mumbled, “Shit, man, I thought you were dead.”

Blogger Ken Rodgers. Photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers.

He turned and walked behind the sheep, his jacket slung over his right shoulder.

As I watched him, I wanted to jump out of the car and shout, “I’m alive, I’m alive, I’m alive. I ain’t the same kid you knew back then, but I’m alive.”

But I didn’t. I drove on, caroming from mudpuddle to mudpuddle, watching the trees fly by, the tractors cultivating the cotton fields.

I spent nearly every morning putting miles and miles on my mother’s car, and at night I drank more, often finding someone to put a forearm next to mine so I could light a Camel and lay it on the juncture of skin on skin and watch the red glow of the end as it sizzled—the scent of burnt flesh.

Waiting to go back to the Marines, back to war and the unknown, to my fright.

Alles Gut

Not all who wander are lost.

~J. R. R. Tolkien

I am an intellectual vagrant, used to finding something new every few hours to occupy the way my mind likes to flit and skip and discover, similar, in my mind, to the way a Northern Harrier hunts; pause in flight, hover, flap wings and move on, hover, dip a wing, left or right, climb, dive, hover.

The notion of vagrant, which means someone who doesn’t have a settled home, which isn’t technically correct in my case, leads one to think of moving, moving, maybe a bum of sorts, on the road, and as many of our friends know, we—Betty and I—like to go, go, go, and being stuck in our house with the Coronavirus blues, for the most part, has crimped our action and I find myself thinking of travel, thinking about it a lot, and some of those thoughts bend back in time to trips we made in the past.

One journey that returns to my thoughts again and again is the time Betty and I flew to Frankfurt am Main in Germany for a wedding.
Our friends Tanja Alexandra Hoch and Rainer Soelkner were getting hitched.

Bacharach, Germany

When we hit Frankfurt, heat sizzled the pavement and there was no place to hide—not the art museum, or Goethe’s house, or our hotel.

Nevertheless, we hiked about the city and saw the sights—all of the art museums, the mall, the riverbanks, the old city, the Roman ruins that only showed up after Allied planes bombed Frankfurt into the ground—and ate kraut and schnitzel, really good stuff unlike what they served us in the cafeteria at Casa Grande’s North School back in the 50s.

The day before the wedding we rented a car and bombed along on the Autobahn to the Rhine River community of Sankt Goar where the wedding was to take place.

The morning of the wedding, Betty and I took the train upriver to Bacharach and looked at the medieval architecture, and we rode the ferry back downriver past the fabled Lorelei, a massive rock on one side of the river that is supposedly inhabited by dwarves who live in caves and a beautiful young siren who sits on top of the rock and sings while combing her hair, causing boatmen to lose their way and crash.

We were two of four Americans on hand, the rest of the folks at the wedding being Germans, some with whom we became acquainted including Rainer’s father, who when we first walked and talked on the streets of the Sachsenhausen district of Frankfurt, announced that when a man visits another man’s country, he should speak the language. So he spoke to me in German, which I didn’t understand, and I spoke to him in English which I think he understood, although he never spoke one word of my language. I tried to speak some of his, stumbling over words that if not pronounced in just the right way, were apparently unintelligible.

I didn’t resent this predicament; it made sense to me, and as the days went by, we—Mr. Soelkner and I—seemed to get across what we intended.

After the wedding in a cathedral in Sankt Goar, the subsequent celebration took place in a castle on a high bluff overlooking the Rhine River in a hotel facility that had been built into what was once a mighty fortress.

At the hotel, we sat outside on a deck looming over the steep banks and looked down on the river, watching the commerce, barges hauling coal and cars and equipment and grain and vegetables. Across the Rhine the rows of vines that ran from top to bottom of the steep banks like minute landslide chutes kept coming under my inspection as I pondered the terrain, the terroir and the wines of the region: Riesling, Grauburgunder, Weissburgunder, Spatburgunder.

The nuptials night, we didn’t sleep much and were up until way after 1:00 am, and even after we retired, the late summer light never died. The slanted rays of June bounced off the dark slate tiles of the roof and kept me sleeping light, and about two hours later, the swallows came alive as the hint of early morning sneaked over the northeastern horizon. The scent of the linden trees floated through our open windows, acting as a sweet reveille.

Vineyards on the Rhine River

That next morning we all met out on the patio that looked down on the river. There were fresh berries of different kinds—raspberries and strawberries—and there was strong coffee that you cut with thick cream, and there were sausages and Bratkartoffen (cottage fries). The pastries on display made your mouth water.

The confabulations of the weary guests bubbled up, and as I stood against the railing of the patio, Herr Soelkner approached and began to speak to me in his lingo. I stood there wishing I were fluent, or hell, if not fluent, knew enough to get the gist of what he was saying to me because at that moment his words hit my face and bounced off like something plopping on the deck.

The maid of honor, a young woman named Anja, came over and began to translate. She spoke English better that I did.

High above the Rhine, he spoke softly and as she translated, the words marched at me like Napoleon’s troops back in the day when they destroyed much of the castle where our hotel now sat. The drum and thrum of his words matched the motors of the barges hauling commodities up and down the river.

He spoke of that moment, right then, and what it would mean to me in the future as I remembered it.

Across the river, the rows of wine grapes running north and south added to the mesmerizing chant of the words in German and then English.
He said, “These are the things that give meaning to our lives.” And he pointed at the bride and groom who’d joined us in these final moments of the memorable celebration of their marriage, and then he pointed to the other guests. He looked at me and smiled.

Swallows darted past our eyrie, their soft sighs like unknown memories caught in the wind.

He said, “And for the rest of your life, you will think of us, here, in Germany, and you will hold images of the people and how we all, you and us, met and mingled and became friends.”

And the damnedest thing happened and maybe it was because I was tired from travel—San Francisco to Frankfurt to Sankt Goar on the Rhine—lack of sleep, lots of big, emotional discoveries, the history, me recognizing that though we were all different, in more ways than not, we were all the same.

Rhine River

And suddenly a trickle of tears began to seep out of my eyes and if you knew how I hate to cry you’d understand my chagrin.

But I couldn’t fight it, so I just let it come and that seemed to alleviate some of the power of the moment, or that probably isn’t the right word—alleviate—but more like making it easier to admit that I was tired and yes, he spoke truth and yes, these people, this place, this moment had marked me in a way I’d never before experienced. And maybe never would again.

And he smiled at me and put his hands on my shoulders and squeezed and said, “Alles gut”—all is good.

Down below along the bank of the river, in the town, cars ran along the highway that paralleled the Rhine. They looked like troops of ants lined up in single file. A ferry boat tooted a whistle. As I turned to leave, I noticed a big, fat strawberry near where I stood on the deck.

And now, confined to the Covid prison, the berry sits in my mind, a metaphor for that memorable time and place.

A Call for Assistance

There are women across the country, like I MARRIED THE WAR’s Carman Hinson, fighting for their loved ones who live with the trauma of war. Carman’s life changed forever when her husband Courtney was attached to a Green Beret team whose sole mission was to hunt down terrorists and liberate the people of Afghanistan and Iraq.

After four deployments, Courtney came home suffering from undiagnosed severe PTSD and TBI in addition to injuries suffered in a parachute accident.

“I have come to realize as his wife and caregiver,” Carman says, “that I’m not able to fix him at all. His constant survivor guilt, the effects of war, his nightmares, are always haunting him. In my experience, I’ve recognized that when a combat vet starts to withdraw and isolate themselves, bad things can start to happen. They can go into a downward spiral really fast and I knew that I had to prevent that.”

Our nation has barely begun to recognize the vital role that these spouses play. In I MARRIED THE WAR, a documentary film which investigates the lives of eleven women like Carman, we learn how these spouses fight for their marriages, their families, and their husbands, veterans of WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The eleven wives of I MARRIED THE WAR

I am writing about this to ask you to join us by supporting the final stages of this film’s production. IMTW has the potential to help thousands—if not millions—of spouse and family members who have experienced the aftereffects of war. We learn that war doesn’t end when the fighting stops.

Your donation will help us to complete post production, the place where the editor, music composer, audio engineer and other experts do their finishing magic to bring the story to the screen. The ITMW team will make the final trailer, produce DVDs, and prepare for film festivals. Your support is crucial to our effort to bring this film down the last mile and into the public arena.

You can learn more and make your contribution on our Indiegogo page at https://igg.me/at/IMTW If you can’t give but want to help tell this story, please share our Indiegogo page with friends, family and colleagues. With more people aware of this cause, we’ll be one step closer to reaching our goal of educating military spouses that they are not alone and help is available. You will be a part of educating the world about the hidden costs of war.

Thank you.

Why I Write

Why I write

“My soul, you wanted me to utter and write down all these words. I did not know that you guarded such secrets. I am astonished. You are an unbelievable riddle. But what to make of my astonishment? “
~ C.G. Jung

Lumbering redwood trees thrived along the wet-winter creek and at night the barred owls serenaded us with hoots and every morning a red-shouldered hawk landed on the tin roof above our bedroom and hopped and called for the countryside to waken.

In the mornings and the evenings the tips of the redwoods speared through the carpet of fog that settled in the valley below. We looked out the window to the east, over the tops of the trees towards the towns and the hills beyond.

We lived in a flat above a barn full of tractors and mowers and garden gear and outside the owners ripped out fifty-one acres of apple trees and set vines so the winery in the valley could crush the grapes for sparkling wine.

They planted irrigation and stanchions with wire strung from one end to the other so the vines could reach toward the heavens.

They fenced the vineyard to prohibit critters but at night the alleys between the rows filled with deer. In the glow from the outdoor lights on the corners of the barn, I often watched the deer leap the fences, tangle their antlers in the irrigation tubing or the wires employed to train the vines. And I cheered, silently, for the deer.

We moved to that place from the mountains of southern New Mexico. We’d deserted a laid back mountain community in the southwest for a dynamic and roaring left coast community on the cutting edge of culture and economics.

And that was tough for me. My kind were ranchers and loggers and other mountain folk who were fairly conservative and now we were immersed in a community of progressives.

It took a while.

Blogger Ken Rodgers, photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers

And living in a vineyard wasn’t the bucolic paradise you’d think. It was tractors and laborers outside your windows and in the early hours of morning, 1 AM or thereabouts, the putt-putt of a tractor pulling a spray rig clouding the air with sulfur and other possibly noxious chemicals the truth of which the owners or workers were not ready to concede.

It was a different world for me. After Betty and I had been there about a year, we started to think about looking elsewhere but when Betty’s mom heard our dismay she said, “Well, Bettykay, you’ll just have to come back up to speed.”

Right then images of me running down the road like a skuzzy cur with his tail between his legs spurred me on getting “up to speed.”
And we did.

And one of the first changes in my life and my attitude? I wanted to write.

Betty and I went on a vacation in late 1992 and traveled eastern California and into Utah and then Arizona where I shot Gambel’s quail with my son and along the way Betty and I yarned about places we’d been: Yosemite and Bishop and Death Valley and Lost Wages and St. George and Nam and Maine and the Navajo reservation and Flagstaff and down south of Phoenix.

Sometimes we scoffed at events that spurred our memories and sometimes we laughed and often we stopped talking as we watched the big, high and dry passage of red sand, Ponderosa forest and humongous mountains and all those moments reinforced my need to write.

Because there was a need. Still is.

I wanted to make short stories, so we bought a computer and I began to scratch out tales based on memory and then I signed up to take a writing course with my first mentor, the novelist Jean Hegland, who thought as writers we needed to study all kinds of writing and even though I thought poems were for…well, what—Wimps? Liberals? What?—I followed directions.

I wrote a few poems and something about the process began to grind like the gravel that dove cram in their craws, and out of my mouth—my memory—came, alas, poems. At first it embarrassed me or maybe that’s not the right word, but I felt…gee, I think I felt exposed.

Early on my work focused on the Vietnam War and then it was the war and then trying to branch out, it was the war. It still is.

And I didn’t want to write about the war again and again and again. I didn’t want to bore people or disgust them with my images of death and destruction, my anger.

And now I ask myself, why not the war? I don’t think we are going to stop warring anytime soon and combat often exposes the very best and worst of humanity.

When warriors write their tales a lot of the gasoline to run the compositional engine comes from rage. When people try to kill you, it enrages you although I don’t think you notice it until years later when you try to deal with the leftovers of people shooting at you.

Ken’s journal

And to kill others, I think you need to be instilled with rage, something to make you go against everything you learned as a kid.

And rage like that sticks around, like bad kindergarten memories and the notions of the first girl you thought you loved.

And there’s guilt: survivor’s guilt, and guilt because you weren’t the warrior you wanted to be and maybe your actions resulted in someone else’s death or guilt because you were lucky enough to board a Continental Airlines 707 for home, leaving your mates behind to fight and die.

And shame, too, is another ghost that sneaks in like a night thief and all your on-guard-PTSD paranoia cannot keep it from elbowing into your work, your thoughts.

When I vow to kill someone… and this happens more often than one would think…the moments drag along a sense of shame and outside of war there are other things to be ashamed of: how I treated that girl or that woman or someone who was supposed to be my friend and those times I took something on the sly that wasn’t mine.

My normal thought patterns are zigzags and lightning that carom around my mind and like a bumble bee they land here and then there and then back to the other place they were before. Incomplete, often, and though vivid, sometimes not quite shoveled out enough for me to get at what it is I actually think. (Notice the mixed metaphors.)

But writing allows me to parse it and often I am surprised and that may be the best: where the hell did that come from or I didn’t know I thought that way or I didn’t remember that. Discovery is critical in creative writing.

It’s revelatory for me to go through the process and since I write mostly to see what I can find out about myself and my space on planet Earth, if I thrash about from time to time, that’s okay.

And often, I’m like a rabbit shivering beneath a bush with a golden eagle looking down on me. Then I wonder if that unease isn’t a moment that needs to be investigated, too. An opportunity to get at a slim truth, not necessarily facts, but something more subtle and alarming. An opportunity to uncover an emotional truth, maybe something about the thrill and agony of lust, the thrill and horror of savagery.

Not that I don’t write about other things besides killing and fear and all the emotional detritus associated with war. I compose other stuff, too, including redwood trees poking through the fog reminding me of fishing boat masts, and barred owls and red-shouldered hawks.

Election of 1967

An election is coming on November 3rd and it’s one laden with lots of angst and fear and hate and hints of the unknown and how bad the future will be if my guy isn’t the one and all of the roiled waters of political and cultural insanity. And that has me pondering elections in the past.

My first election participation wasn’t one I actually voted in: September 3, 1967. The South Vietnamese government held an election to choose a new leader and to embark on a system of government supposedly more representative than the four years of political chaos that followed the assassination of President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963.

At the time of the election, my Marine Corps unit, Bravo Company, 1/26, was stationed at Khe Sanh.

The monsoon blared in full ugly, soaking, running rampant, flooding trenches, everything sopping: clothing, gear, socks, your socks, your bedding. Your socks.

The local election was to be conducted in Khe Sanh Ville, a few miles away from the lines we manned at the combat base, and the Marine Corps chose our platoon, 2nd Platoon, to provide security for the polling site.

Blogger Ken Rodgers in Vietnam. Photo courtesy of Michael E. O’Hara

I haven’t, in the past, thought of the need for security at one of our elections until this year when images come to mind of camo-clothed, armed and angry people milling around the polls as if only they could save our republic. And then I think about them impeding voters from exercising their basic right, and hot fingers of rage scrape at my guts and I imagine if they try to stop me from voting what I’ll do to them: hand-to-hand, foot-to-groin, poke out an eye, crush an Adam’s apple . . . and then I say, “Calm down.”

Then I think, I didn’t lie in the damp grass and protect a polling place in Vietnam without the deeper need to protect my own rights to vote. I didn’t survive the Siege of Khe Sanh to then live to see the destruction of our republic. I think, don’t mess with my right to vote.

On September 3, 1967, after morning chow, the Marines of 2nd Platoon loaded into two six-by trucks and departed for Khe Sanh Ville.

Every time we loaded in the back of those trucks, the creeps sneaked up my spine and buzzed around the inside of my head. We’d been ambushed a couple of times barreling down the roads around Khe Sanh, a few rounds of small arms fire snapping, zipping overhead, some whapping the sideboards of the truck, sending splinters of wood slashing.

I don’t remember taking any incoming fire on that short journey on September 3, 1967, although there was a lot of concern on both the national and local levels of government that the NVA and the Viet Cong would try to disrupt the election process, and those concerns were born out when Viet Cong warriors attacked a number of polling places in the Central Highlands and set up ambushes to discourage voters from travelling to the polls.

Fear, I suspect, roamed through the psyches of the South Vietnamese voters. Danger lurked at every juncture. Phantom threats haunted everybody’s minds, or so I imagine, fed by gossip, rumor, news intended to frighten. Sound familiar to some of the election hubbub bubbling around in the news and on social media right now?

The election in Khe Sanh Ville was held in a school, or maybe it was some kind of other community building. The location was brick with whitewashed walls as I recall, and it sat away from other buildings and the back was bordered by a grassy lot edged by a tree line that would be a great place for the enemy to hide before attacking the polling place.

Being Marines, one would think that we’d have sent a recon patrol out there to sweep through that tree line and into the country beyond, but that didn’t happen.

Instead, we set up a perimeter around the building.

I lay in tall grass out back and sighted my M16 towards those trees and tried to figure out a field of fire from right to left and back to right, imagining what those bad guys would look like coming at us with grenades and RPGs and AK-47 fire. The smell of wet crammed in my nose like damp and rotting leaves, and the taste too, like the garden dirt I used to eat as a kid.

1968 was the first presidential election in which I could vote, and then there was Nixon’s second term and Ford getting whipped and Reagan crushing Carter and Mondale, too, and then the first George Bush and on and on, the list a map for me to view the more recent history of our country and my life.

Even before I voted, elections were big in our house. First one I recall is Eisenhower against Stevenson when my mother was for Stevenson and my father for Eisenhower. My parents supported different people for president and were vocal about it. Unlike so much of our present bitter electioneering, there was a mutual respect between them and for others, too, something about people having a right to vote for whomever they wanted without being harangued, harassed, cussed, and looked down upon.

My mom and dad were from the generation that whipped Fascism and voting was a sacred right to them.

When Kennedy and Nixon ran against each other, our house stood with the Democrats and with LBJ over Goldwater later, and then I don’t know who my parents voted for because voting became something I did and who I voted for was my business and who anybody else voted for was their business.

Ken Rodgers Photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers

As I lay in the grass, trying not to be defeated by the leeches sucking my blood and boredom and the knowledge—the incessant insistence—that at any time I could be dead, I wondered about my role in the election going on behind me in the polling site. According to what I observed, which I have to admit was only from my lonely perspective in a far corner of Vietnam, was that a large portion of the South Vietnamese were for the communists, although who the locals around Khe Sanh—the Bru Montagnards—were interested in supporting was not known to me. Nevertheless, I saw myself as an agent of a government that in some ways was not all that popular and down deep in my innards that notion gnawed and gnawed and gnawed. It still does.

I don’t know if anyone actually voted in Khe Sanh Ville on September 3, 1967. The men who won that election, Nguyen Van Thieu and Nguyen Cao Ky, inherited a mess and ultimately their side lost the war, and even though a lot of my comrades don’t agree, I think we lost, too.

I know, even though I gained a lot of experience in the ways of war and humanity, I lost a lot of personal things, too: innocence, good friends, and my time.

Hopefully, on November 3, 2020, we won’t need guns and war to settle who wins our election.

Varmints

I spotted the sleek coyote trotting across a piece of fallow ground on the Gila River Indian Reservation where we ran several bands of sheep. I slowed down and the coyote stopped and sat on its haunches and looked at me.

Besides building fence, moving and watering sheep, my bosses expected me to kill coyotes and dogs, too, if I found them harassing the ewes and lambs. But more than that, I was supposed to kill coyotes anywhere I saw them because…well, because at some place and time they would kill sheep.

I remember when I first got to Nam, on a patrol along a river we spotted some kids on the opposite side of the lazy-moving flow washing water buffalo and our squad leader ordered us to shoot to kill. The kids.

I complained and he explained that those kids would grow up to kill Marines like me, so…I don’t remember if I pulled the trigger or maybe I don’t want to remember.

As the coyote sat there, his tongue out the side of his mouth, I reached down on the floorboard and fingered the stock of my Mauser Karabiner 98k.

The coyote stood and loped off, his bushy tail straight out like a flag caught in a gale. Behind him, San Tan Mountain reared up and he only showed me his ass end. I stepped on the gas and he swerved back toward the road, stopped and sat on his haunches.

Coyote

I slowed, hit the brakes and he leapt and bolted and I drove and he halted and I stopped and then he left again and it went on and on and I never killed him. I don’t remember how long that coyote and I performed the strange go and stop regimen but I do know the memory is in my head like a badger digging at a gopher hole.

I suspect now that I never intended to kill him.

This was in 1971 and I still had the stink and stain of combat and fear painted on my soul. Not that it’s gone now, but then it was heavy and dominant and as such, maybe I thought myself done with killing.

I didn’t tell anyone I never shot that coyote, or any of the others I encountered while working the sheep, and I feared that if I told my boss and co-workers I didn’t shoot those “varmints” as we called them, they’d have laughed at me or chewed my ass.

I don’t like ass chewings, even when I’ve got them coming and when people laugh at me, my insides fester like bloody puss in a boil.

Some of the people I worked for knew where I’d been in Nam and they had an inkling about what I’d endured, so they had expectations—maybe true, maybe not. That I was bad. If you messed with me too much, I might kill you. I never tried to belay that impression. So I imagine now that they thought I’d have little trouble blowing coyotes away. But that coyote, that day seemed to be minding its own business although I also know its business is to kill.

And yet I wasn’t done with killing. For years after I hunted quail and chukar and pheasant and turkey and larger game.

Once, when hunting a black-tailed buck on a bright November morning when the snow crunched beneath my boots and the wind swooshed the tops of the Doug firs, I spied a critter slinking along a five strand barbwire fence. Tan with a long, thick, bushy tail. A coyote.

I didn’t even lift the 7MM Magnum to my shoulder. I allowed the coyote to escape and I didn’t say a word about that to my hunting mates who would have scolded me about letting the “varmint” go.

And I imagine that would have led to me having to divulge things about what I really thought about killing and death, and I suspect I didn’t want to do that. And I’m not sure I really want to investigate too much how I feel about killing even now.

Standing here typing into the computer, I’m trying to remember what I really thought back then but most of the particulars have escaped, like the varmint. But one thing I know for sure, I’ve never regretted not blowing a hole the size of a silver dollar in its side.

Once I went out south of my old home town in Arizona in search of a pickup load of mesquite wood with a couple of my Valley of the Sun banker buddies who fancied themselves woodsmen. One of them had a line on a bunch of mesquite that would be good for burning.

I tagged along to go along while they cut limbs off the bottoms of trees that carpeted a section of ground next to some fallow cotton fields.

Not far away I heard the calls of a coyote pack and while the bankers worked, I grabbed my Browning 12 gauge and walked into the mesquite forest to kill one or more of the yapping coyotes.

I’d rather not remember too much of my mindset. Back then, my moods simmered like sour mash and I had lots of reasons to feel like that, some of them legitimate, some not. Inside I seethed.

The morning was chill and the sky the color of lead, drab and dank. The coyotes yapped and yipped and occasionally howled and they cavorted just beyond the limbs of the next trees that stood in front of me, yet when I barged through the thorns that tore at my trousers and shirt, they seemed suddenly behind me, and then to my left, to my right, their calls and comments blaring in my ears. I remember that for sure.


The yapping and the yammer and the nips and low growls felt like they were laughing at me.

I cussed out loud and the coyotes yammered in their coyote palaver and the skin on my forearms seeped red from where mesquite thorns had plowed furrows and anger choked my throat and I swore I’d shoot every goddamned one of them when I caught them out in a clearing.

But there was no clearing and as quickly as they had begun their torment the morning grew silent except for the distant whine of my buddies’ chain saw.

Blogger Ken Rodgers, photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers

I’ve killed mule deer and pronghorn and when in Nam I tried like hell to kill the enemy. So, it’s not like I haven’t been a killer. All my life.

Later in life, Betty and I visited a friend in the vineyards of Western Sonoma County, north of San Francisco. As we readied for bed one evening, right outside the window a pack of coyotes began to palaver just like that morning when in my own personal funk, I had set out to murder some.

They yakked back and forth. Our friend appeared in the door to our room and smiled and we smiled and for just a moment, I imagine now, I thought it was that bunch of coyotes who’d joshed me that morning years before, come a thousand miles to tell me something that I had failed to understand.

What it was they wanted to say was beyond me and the notion of them carrying a message—maybe something about death and life and how fragile our existence can be—probably stuck with me for a moment or two, and then it was just our friend and Betty and me, standing in the light shining from the hall, listening to the music, the talk, the community of coyotes carrying on.

Highway 1

At Uncle Frank’s I said goodbye to my parents as I headed back to Camp Pendleton.

Highway 1 wove south through Huntington Beach and Newport Beach and Laguna Beach towards the bus station in Dana Point. Uncle Frank sat behind the steering wheel of his Buick, his frame as thick as a big brick, trying, at first, to talk to me about anything but my leaving later that week on the big Continental Airlines 707 for my tour in Nam.

The towns whizzed by like nothing and the long beaches with the long waves where I enjoyed spending hours on liberty rolled in and the scent of surf and the sound of it, too, but nothing impacted my eyes and ears and nose, nothing but my battle to stuff my emotions back into my guts.

Tears would roll, if I gave in, and my words would buffet the roof of my mouth. I would shudder each time I tried to stop all of that emotion from showing up, from showing, from showing.

Ken Rodgers’ boot camp photo. USMC.

Uncle Frank must have known. Of course he knew; he’d been a Marine in World War II and was shot in the head, and his kids in the back seat? They kept their mouths shut.

By then my mom and dad relaxed on a Pacific Southwest Airlines flight back to Phoenix.

In Dana Point we bought burgers and sat on a bench outside and I stuffed my face so no one would expect me to say anything.

I didn’t want to cry.

Once, when I was eleven, I’d stepped across the street to carve Katsina (Kachina) figures with my friends. They handed me a block of cheap pine and a knife with which to carve and I immediately jammed a long, thin and wide sliver of wood between the fingernail and quick of my middle finger. I gnawed my nails back then so the wood buried deep.

After I stumbled home, my father grabbed me in front of his visiting friends, pulled his Case knife out of his Levis pocket, snapped out the shiny blade with the sharp point and squeezing my finger, dug out the wood as I kicked and howled and yanked. My head spun when blood squirted out from beneath my fingernail. I blubbered and whined and when my mother dosed the end of my finger with Iodine, he grabbed my face between his two muscled hands and said, “Son, you cry too much. Life is hard. Hard. Get used to it. You are a Rodgers and we don’t cry.”

So, I didn’t cry.

Until I got on that bus back to base after I looked at Uncle Frank and his kids, my mind with no words small enough to fit through my throat.

Blogger Ken Rodgers, photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers

I plopped in the back and I bawled. Ashamed, I hid my face and thought about never coming home from Vietnam, never seeing my family, arriving back in the State in a black bag. I mashed my face against the window and sobbed. I sobbed for all I’d lost and for what I never had with my mother and dad, with my sister, the moments gone that could not be recovered, the finality of it all, how it could be the end, the end, the end.

For those few miles between Dana Point and Oceanside I mourned the lack of rapport between my father and me. How we’d never had much of a relationship. How he’d said, “My job is to protect you and make you hard, boy. It’s a hard world. My duty is to teach you how to survive.” Never anything more.

And for those last few miles, at least, before returning to Camp Pendleton, I wanted so much more.

Years later, my mother said, after my father had died, “When we flew home from California that time after seeing you, your father did something I’d never seen, not when his mother died, or his father, either, but on that plane sitting there, he burst into tears.”

Stuck In Graton With the Jingo Blues

It’s funny how the mind pushes and pulls and wrestles with memory. One morning last week I awoke and my memory flared into 1990-91.

In early August of 1990, Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army assaulted Kuwait—one of the USA’s strong allies—and that recollection kicked around in my thoughts.

When Iraq invaded, it surprised me because not too long before, Saddam Hussein had been our ally. His country fought a brutal, grinding, eight-year war against Iran in which the United States provided important support for Iraq.

And now, late 1990, they became our enemy because they’d overrun another of our allies. What could Saddam Hussein be thinking? Didn’t he believe that we’d react? Did he believe that the US would sit on its hands, and if so, how did he reach that conclusion?

Saddam Hussein, photo courtesy of the National Archives

Nevertheless, the event shocked me and as the days soldiered on, my spirit felt like ghosting around in camo khaki dungarees and a martial aura swelled my innards and the air I breathed churned; alive, alive, alive.

I tuned into the news every morning before heading to work and every evening after returning home. CNN blared out of my TV and all the retired generals who made a living as color commentators talked power, war, and our democratic principles.

Subsequent to our debacle in Vietnam, and then hightailing it out of Beirut in 1983 after terrorists blew up the embassy and killed hundreds of Marines, I suffered from wounded pride, so the saber rattling sung to me.

Betty and I lived out among the vineyards west of Graton, California, and I had a friend in the same vicinity who had been a Marine during the Vietnam War. He and I began to banter about strategy and combat and global politics. It was heady, and the urge to go to war filled my brain with Ideas that had not entered my head since I’d escaped into existential hiding after my service in Vietnam. Mud and blood and mangled bodies, the dead in graves registration—it all barged back

I know war, and that knowledge should have been sufficient to give me second thoughts about combat. Instead, a dose of jingo infested my soul and jangled the marrow of my bones, slithered around like a worm that grew and grew until it became an anaconda swallowing my feet, knees, midsection; my mind.

The word jingo can be defined as the strident support of policies skewed towards war.

In the Corps, my buddy was a pogue (person other than grunt) but he fancied himself an armchair combat quarterback and we bounced ideas off of each other about war and Hussein, how long it would take before we crushed him and his vaunted Republican Guard.

At that time Betty’s and my life in California felt unsettled, as if we didn’t belong in Graton. We’d only been there a few months. So maybe that’s why, one morning I called the Marine Corps recruiter in Sonoma County (Betty didn’t know about this and doesn’t know, now, until she proofreads this blog), and said, “I want to join up.”

He started asking me questions like my recruiter in 1966, and impatient to find out if I could go kill people, I interrupted and championed my experience: Vietnam, Siege of Khe Sanh, 0311 (MOS—rifleman) with a lot of combat. Hell, I’d ridden the elephant and looked the tiger in the eye. As I rattled off my bona fides he interrupted me and asked, “Sir, how old are you?”

I paused and mumbled, “Forty-three.”

He chuckled. I imagined his staff sergeant mug nodding, grinning, condescending.

He said, “You’re too old, sir.”

I scolded him with a tale about fixed bayonets and savage combat, eyeball to eyeball. It was probably out of politeness that he then bragged on me and said, “Yeah, I know all about Khe Sanh,” which is something a lot of the young Marines I talk to say. ”Yeah, I know all about Khe Sanh.”

They may know Faluja or Ramadi or some nasty place on a frozen ridge in Afghanistan, but they have no clue about Khe Sanh.

A pause ensued, like the moment you are sitting in a fighting hole with a comrade when a live Chicom grenade plops in the red mud between you and each of you waits for the other one to do something about it.

But that passed and I said, “Well, thank you,” and he said, “No problem.” That was in the days before anyone said “Thank you for your service.”

As the months wound into 1991, I often wondered what, in reality, I could have done to really help out our warriors who drove into Iraq in the early months of that year.

Blogger Ken Rodgers, photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers

I mused about me being an advisor to young Marines as they landed in Iraq. Lecturing them about dealing with fear. I know fear. But then, learning to manage fear is something you gather when you are really…scared, not listening to somebody else tell you about it.

After the war was over, I felt proud of the young folks who fought in that event, and I felt like I was one with them. We’d all been tested in one conflict or another, or some of us anyway, and being in a way related to them and their efforts proved a comfort to me.

And then I began to think about how my Vietnam experiences, which I had felt were inconsequential, suddenly became relevant. Instead of hiding them from people, seedlings of my own pride appeared. For twenty-two years I’d been mostly silent, but now I could begin to speak about my war.

In early 1990, before Saddam Hussein perpetrated the invasion of Iraq, Betty and I attended an event where a gentleman who taught at the Navy’s language school in Monterey, California, talked about how so many countries in the Middle East were “tribes with flags,” and that a large number of those sovereign states were created to suit the post-World War I desires of European countries after the destruction of the Ottoman Empire.

In 1991, when the US and its coalition allies decided not to–after defeating Iraq—go in and conquer the country, I wonder if we didn’t because our government believed that the only way to control the tribes over there was to keep Saddam in power, as brutal as his reign was.


But in 2003 we went back in and tore the country apart, and then tried to stay, and without much forethought about what the end game might look like. We dealt with disgruntled Iraqi warriors, and Al Qaeda in Iraq, and ISIS, and the turmoil in Syria, Lebanon, and all the subsequent chaos. And I believe we will be dealing with those countries, those “tribes,” again, somewhere down the road.

And pondering that notion, my elation about our initial invasion, my desire to go in and fight for what was right—or what I thought at the time was right—was, at best, an emotional and foolish reaction.

The jingo bells don’t jangle so sweetly for me now like they did in 1990.

Now, after writing this piece, I must ready myself—to deal with Betty.

A Zip Code of Their Own

During the day they floated everywhere, or maybe my imagination sees it like that. Into the Kellogg’s Special K and the all purpose flour and my cooling cup of coffee. They lit on the counter, the couch with the bed hidden inside, the fireplace hearth, and the green bedspread.

After the sun set beyond White Sands, they mobbed every source of light in town. It looked like the bowels of a blizzard.

In the house they’d batter their wings on the inside of the lightshades and when one approached my head, the wing flutter reminded me of choppers in Nam which was something I did not want to remember. I swatted them and smothered them and crushed them, caught them and threw them out the door.

Miller Moth

But it was after the lights went out that things turned weird. At first they attacked the lampshade, beating it with their wings and I’d wonder, without the lights, why they still made that racket. They harassed me like they knew I was guilty of turning out the lights. As if they wanted to get even, they were at my noggin. Maybe my skin, my bone radiated warmth, too, like the lamp, and they bored inside the lobes of my ears and the flutter magnified like a drill bit grinding into my brain.

Reinforcements showed up if I managed to swat the offenders. Next it was my nose, and then my eyelids as if they needed to pry them open and if I wasn’t careful, they invaded my mouth, bitter and powdery and wild with wing beats against my tongue.

It was annual. They came out in early summer about the time the yellow jackets started to flit around my face as if I was something to eat. Some years proved worse than others.

I once met a woman who’d been raised out on the Bell Ranch—which was so big it had its own zip code, 88441—outside of Tucumcari and the miller bugs must have been horrendous when she was a kid because she possessed a mortal fear of them. She wore a battered black John B. Stetson and her big, callused hands clenched and unclenched like she wanted to box. I bet myself she could waddy up with the best of buckaroos but when the miller bugs buzzed her she cringed and shrieked like a frightened three-year-old.

It may have been 1986 when they seemed the worst, the year after the state sprayed the woods to kill the spruce budworms. Although 1985, 1987, 1988 were also nasty.

The old-timers wondered—even they thought the damned miller bugs were bad—if spraying the woods for spruce budworms made the miller bugs worse.

These pests have come to mind because an acquaintance of mine is doing some research on miller bug larvae. She’s a scientist who works with ranch folks to solve problems on the ranges of the West.

According to the available information the miller bug larvae, called Army cutworms, like to eat cheat grass which is a noxious exotic plant that causes difficulties for range management folks. And from that point of view, maybe they are good for something—the miller bugs—consuming cheat grass.

Army Cutworm

Reading some of her posts on Facebook lead me to ponder my memories of miller bugs, actually called miller moths, but in the high Sacramento Mountains of southern New Mexico we called them miller bugs.

They came at you anytime and anywhere and a fine powder painted their wings that powder sluffed off when touched and that’s how they got their name, miller moths, after the flour dust that coated the clothing of grain millers.

The moths go to the mountains of the West in the summer, not unlike a lot of folks used to do when they came from the flats of Texas to enjoy the cool breezes and daily downpours of the southern Sacramento Mountains where Betty and I lived.

Evidently bears like to eat the moths because a lot of fat sits—maybe half a calorie per critter—in those little flitting bodies. According to some researchers, a grizzly bear can eat up to 40,000 of the moths per day…40,000…per day.

We didn’t have grizzlies in our New Mexico environs. They’d probably lived there before they were all killed. The last grizzly in New Mexico was slain in 1931, not in the Sacramentos, but in the Gila, over in the western part of the state.

When I think about a bear that can eat 40,000 moths in a day I think of people who run a thousand miles in ten straight days or someone who swims the English Channel.

Black bears—which come in many colors besides black: cinnamon, brown, I even heard tell of a white one—aren’t as big as grizzlies, but they are big enough and like their bigger cousins, they are omnivorous so I reckon they can put away a passel of moths in a day, too.

But no matter how many miller bugs the bears found hiding beneath limestone rocks and piles of dead pine needles in our New Mexico mountains, they never munched enough to suit me.

Now, standing here at my computer, I think of that young woman raised on the Bell Ranch in her big black sombrero and fancy ostrich skin boots, whose hands were rough like big grit sandpaper. I wonder if she wouldn’t have rather run on a grizzly than mess with those miller bugs.

Blogger Ken Rodgers, photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers

I didn’t know the moths were here in Idaho, too, but evidently they’ve been gnawing on cheat grass in our locale. And that must be a good thing for the land.

Sometimes outside, on the walls of our house, I spy a moth that reminds me of a miller bug—maybe it is a miller bug—and then I think they aren’t because they fail to assault me. Or if they are, they must be some kind of weak-kneed cousin of those nasty attackers we battled in the Sacramentos.

Yep, down yonder in New Mexico they owned a reputation. And they backed it up with action. They were notorious and were expected every summer with a mountain’s worth of apprehension. They existed wide and tall and grotesquely handsome in the way folks imagined them. They were broad and historic like that old Bell Ranch out there with its very own zip code.

Maybe those miller bugs warrant a zip code of their own, too.

Sweet Science

My neighbor bobbed, then faked a punch. I flinched and he popped me on the nose and blood shot out and I yelled, “Stop, stop.”

He slugged me in the stomach and I folded at the waist and then he threw a right hook that hammered on my temple and I fell to my knees and bawled.

He sighed, “I thought you wanted to box.”

He yanked off the brand new boxing gloves and dropped them on the lawn and stomped off. Through my tears I watched him stride across the street, up the sidewalk and through the front door of his home.

It was the summer after my fifth grade and I had been ordered by Father, “Learn how to defend yourself, boy.”

In late spring of the year I’d gotten a black eye—a real shiner—when a kid socked me in the right eye. I’d called him a name—a racial slur—when our gang took on their gang.

The experience hurt on a number of levels because not only did he knock the hell out of me, but a bunch of us—not him—were hauled up to answer to Mr. Hartman. The rule on the playground was no fighting and we all had to bend over and grab our ankles while he busted our butts with his nasty paddle. The whacks echoed off the walls of his office.

By the time I walked home, my eye had swelled into a dark, puffy shiner and when Father came home he demanded, “What happened?”

My father was a serious man and when I look back now I think he was angry, too, so I didn’t always tell him the truth because the retribution could be painful. Often I would make up something or not say anything at all. It usually didn’t matter; he’d take off his wide leather belt and whip me.

But that particular moment, I didn’t fib. I told the truth because I didn’t see how telling the truth could make things any worse. But maybe it did.

He said, “If the principal busts your ass, boy, then I’m going to bust it, too, and since you like to shoot off your mouth and call people names, I’m going to bust it twice.” And he did, as he quietly ordered, “Don’t be mouthing off and calling people names, especially when you can’t defend yourself.”

The next evening when he came home, I sat at my desk in my room and faked solving arithmetic problems. He opened the door and when I turned around, he threw a box at me and barked, “Learn how to defend yourself.”

He closed the door and walked down the hall. I heard him laughing and my mother laughing, too.

In the box, two sets of new boxing gloves.

I’ve been thinking about the “sweet science,” as boxing was called when I was a kid, because I’ve been reading Louise Erdrich’s wild and magnetic novel, “The Night Watchman,” and there are scenes in there from the boxing milieu.

When I was a kid, boxing was a big deal in our lives. My father and his six brothers all boxed for fun and money, sometimes bare knuckles, and some of them were pretty good. My father knew the game well and I suspect he could throw hands with some acuity although he never talked about that, just his brothers Chuck and Ed and McKenzie.

I grew up in front of the television watching fights on Wednesday nights, and Friday nights, and Saturdays, too.

Carmen Basilio, Gaspar Ortega, Sugar Ray Robinson, Archie Moore, Gene Fullmer, Floyd Patterson and Dick Tiger filled our television screens.

When Floyd Patterson fought Ingemar Johannson in an attempt to regain the world heavyweight championship, Father and I tuned in. Johannson had knocked Patterson out the year before, 1959, and the 1960 rematch was a much ballyhooed bout, at least around our house.

Instead of watching on TV, we had to listen to the radio, and that evening is one of my strongest positive memories about my father and I sharing something.

We had a great big RCA radio—one of those that stood several feet tall—one that my grandmother had back in the days when radio was the way people received a lot of important information.

It had a fine oak cabinet and big speakers below the dials and the top was rounded off like the end of a .45 caliber bullet. Both of us, Father and I, knelt on the floor and listened to Patterson knock Johansson out in the fifth round.

I don’t recall how I felt about the match’s outcome although I suspect I was proud of Patterson, proud that he and I shared American roots and he brought the championship back home where it belonged.

I think Father was a little upset because the fight didn’t go the full length.

But that evening is cemented into my recollections because we did something we rarely did . . . we bonded.

Later, not much later, Muhammad Ali, who at the time was known as Cassius Clay, came on the scene and sundered the bond that Father and I, and I suspect a lot of fathers and sons, shared over the “sweet science.”

I was a rabid Ali fan. Hell, he was close to my age. My mouth ran constantly back in those days. I knew it all, and I pissed off a lot of adults because they knew I didn’t know it all. And deep down in my guts, I knew that Ali would become champion of the world and do it with a lightning punch packed with power and a big, yakking mouth.

He was one of my heroes. At school, the physical education teachers all hated him. And their hate and my big mouth created a lot of friction when I went to PE. I boldly predicted that Ali would beat Sonny Liston and become the new champ.

When Clay won bout one in February of 1964, I couldn’t keep my trap shut and crowed like a virile rooster when I got to PE. The coach had other issues with me because, as a reporter for the Cougar Growl, our school paper, I had written an editorial criticizing his coaching strategies.

Blogger Ken Rodgers

If I hadn’t been such a jackass about Ali, it might have been less inflammatory. I knew how Coach felt about me, and there was an element of fright. Looking back now, I suspect that the thrill from my fear is what egged me on. It was heady, it was provocative. I figured he couldn’t whip me around physically just because I liked Cassius Clay who sported an element of revolution, shattered long accepted taboos, and that sang to me. I was seventeen and itching to become my idea of a man and shatter a few taboos of my own.

I revered Clay, and when he became Muhammed Ali, I didn’t—like so many of my friends—denounce him, nor did I denounce him for dodging the draft. I respected his logic.

When he was older and still fighting, I felt sad about the beatings he took, although he generally still won his bouts.

He was electric and unusual and bold.

I quit watching boxing when, in November of 1980, Roberto Duran of Manos De Peidra (Hands of Stone) fame quit fighting Sugar Ray Leonard in the 8th round of what has become known as the No Mas bout.

No Mas? No Mas?

Anger roiled my guts like a boiling volcano and after that, I didn’t watch fights.

What remains of pugilism fails to gestate the calm and satisfying bonding my father and I managed to get from those fights in the 50s and early 60s. And after Ali gave up boxing, there just wasn’t much drama that meant anything. The game became, like so much of sport, ALL about money and maybe it always was but the glitz and shimmer of the promotional pranks disgusted me.

The “sweet science” became, for me, sour.

After my neighbor knocked me around that time, I vowed to learn to punch and jab and feint and dance.

Maybe it was plain stubbornness, but I didn’t ever become proficient at boxing.

I developed my own style. I’d wade inside and somehow flip my opponents onto the ground and then punch them about the head as many times as I could. I stuck my fingers in their eyes and if necessary, I’d bite, and if I got them down and sat on their chests, I’d grab their ears and pound their heads into the ground. Sometimes it worked, others it didn’t.

Sweet Science? Not for me.