On Accents, Vernacular and Muscle Cramps

I woke up this morning with one of those cramps in my right calf. It was four-thirty in the morning. Like a stab from a long knife. I grabbed it and massaged it and finally the pain went away. I haven’t had one of those since I went backpacking through a snowy Rock Bound Pass back in 1997.

After I massaged the pain out and the knot that caused the cramp, I failed to go back to sleep. I lay there and thoughts shot through my mind, what I needed to do: pack, pick squash and broccoli, deal with movie-making decisions.

My thoughts kept returning to our just-completed trip to Minnesota. I could hear Minnesota voices in my ears. The way they speak back there, the accent I guess you could call it. The vowels stretched out like bolts of linen at the fabric shop.

I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about the way people speak, the way they say words, the sounds. I guess that’s because I like to write poems. Poems are as much about sound as they are about the meaning of words and images.

When I say a word, for instance, “you,” I say it in the vernacular in which my ear was most recently trained, and I don’t imagine that my way of saying the word is “accented.” “Accents” are spoken by people from other places. In Rochester, Minnesota, the “oo” sound in “you” gets elongated into an “ooo” and farther north, around Hurley, Wisconsin, or Ontonagon, Michigan, that “oo” sound becomes more like “ooooo,” and in Texas you might hear the word “you” as “y’all.” Even though that intimates plurality it still gets used in the singular. In Pennsylvania the way they say “you” will be different than the way it is enunciated in Ohio or New York City or Boston or Farmington, Maine. People in Rochester, New York say words a little differently than they do in Newark, New Jersey and in the tidewater country of Virginia and the Carolinas, words sing a different song from what you will hear in the Appalachian terrain of northern Alabama. Then of course there is the Cajun patois of Louisiana and the Chicano banter of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and southern California. I grew up listening to that particular vernacular and to this day love the rapid-fire skate of the words as they come into my ear.

I suppose with movies and YouTube and television, the prospects for these regional lingos to keep their power is not favorable. I imagine the various regional accents that have been influenced by our German, French, Scandinavian, Italian, Polish, African, Spanish, Vietnamese, Japanese, and Native American forefathers (to name just a few) will slowly become a common vernacular. Along with our all-American malls that from coast to coast have an Applebees and McDonalds, a Burger King, a Starbucks, we will have a lingo that sounds the same coast to coast. American spoken in Virginia will have no sound difference than what gets spoken in Oregon, or Marquette, Michigan from Brownsville, Texas. We may well drown in the boredom and muck of our lingual sameness.

Not that Starbucks or McDonalds are bad. I eat and drink their fare when I want or when I need. And I have nothing against mass media that speaks to us all. But yes, I am concerned about the death of diversity. And not just in our accents.

After I got those kinks worked out of my calf, I thought about all this stuff and a lot more. Then finally, I drifted off, again, into slumber.

The Bridge

Guest blogger Elaine Ambrose muses on an event that occured at the Perrine Memorial Bridge

As kids, we would hold our breath as our mother drove across the Perrine Memorial Bridge north of Twin Falls. I remember looking down at the Snake River, almost 500 feet below, and wondering what it would feel like to fly through the canyon. The bridge was 1,500 feet across, and it linked our simple farming village of Wendell to the “big city” of Twin Falls with its shopping center, museum, restaurants, and motels. Going rim to rim to Twin was an adventure.

The arching image of the Perrine Bridge has graced postcards from the local Chamber of Commerce for more than 80 years. Originally built in 1927, the structure was once the highest bridge in the world. Massive steel beams brace against rugged basalt walls of lava rock pocked with scraggly sagebrush, bitterbrush, and scrub oak. Majestic eagles and falcons, hungry hawks, and ugly buzzards soar on the thermal winds around the bridge searching for rodents and rabbits that scurry over the steep terrain.

Down by the river on the north side, the Blue Lakes Country Club offers some of the most spectacular scenery in the arid canyon. Lush green fairways, natural waterfalls, and dramatic, raw edges make it a popular and private course. One day in the fall of 1970, a group of golfers looked up to see an object fall from the bridge. It could have been a large vulture or a bag of garbage from a passing recreational vehicle. Not worth another thought.

My aunt was 41 when she parked her car on the south side of the bridge and walked to the edge. She stood a moment and allowed the endless wind to tousle her long auburn hair. She had driven away from a husband and four young children at home, but she couldn’t escape the demons. She straddled the railing, clutched the edge one last time, and then let go. Even in death, she was a failure as her body missed the water and slammed into the rocks below, a broken and useless heap that the recovery workers cursed as they maneuvered to salvage the body.

I was a teenager then, and my family members never spoke of the incident. The only words I remember were from my grandmother as she muttered something about “that crazy woman” and she reminded us that we wouldn’t go to heaven if we committed suicide. I often wondered how my aunt felt as she briefly flew through the air. Did she scream? Did she laugh? Did she hold her breath and imagine that heaven would let her in, even though she was a sinner? I hope she felt a bit of euphoric freedom in that breathless space between reality and darkness.

The golfers returned to their game, eventually my uncle remarried and moved away, and the bridge was rebuilt in 1976 with higher railings. Now people come from all over the world to BASE jump over the side. I imagine my aunt strapping on a parachute and jumping over the side with a crowd of people cheering her courage. Perhaps climbing over the railing was the bravest thing she had ever done. It was her leap of faith to reach something on the other side that was better than what she had.

I no longer hold my breath when I drive over the bridge. Instead, I whisper a prayer for my aunt’s soul. The words are lost in the wind as the river continues to flow to the distant ocean and the canyon walls turn toward home.

Elaine Ambrose left the family potato farm near Wendell to travel the world, write and publish books, raise marvelous children, and fall in love. Her life is abundant, and she is grateful. Find more details at her web site: www.millparkpublishing.com.

On Siobhan Fallon and “Thank You for Your Service.”

On April 8th, 1968, I flew into the Tucson, Arizona airport returning from my thirteen-month tour of duty in Vietnam. When I got off the Boeing 707, two of my best friends, who lived in Tucson, and my parents, who lived seventy miles to the northwest, were waiting for me as I debarked. The shock on their faces at my appearance gave me a clue to the gulf of experience between us and what was soon to become apparent.

After picking up my seabag, we went to a Mexican food restaurant and ordered some comida. I was anxious to start telling them about incoming eight-inch artillery shells, sniper fire, leeches, cobras, bayonet fights. It was crammed down inside of me as if someone had stuffed me like the seabag out in the trunk of my parents’ blue, 1967 Buick. As I talked to them, they wouldn’t look me in the eye and by the time I figured out they didn’t want to talk about my experience at Khe Sanh, my beef tacos had arrived and I was looking at the light from the ceiling bounce off my father’s balding head. Right then I told myself, they don’t care. And if they didn’t care, then nobody cared.

It took me longer than forty years before I got it in my head that it wasn’t because they didn’t care what happened to me…about the siege, the death, the maiming…it was because they were not able to understand. They wanted to care, but didn’t know how. Lack of experience created lack of empathy. So, I think they were embarrassed that I had undergone that experience and they were unable to fathom it on any level that would allow them to talk to me about it. They were embarrassed, so they didn’t want to talk.

Move forward in time to today, tomorrow, yesterday and think about the men and women who are going off to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, again and again. Think about the gulf between their experiences and the experiences of those who have not fought.

In his book, Making the Corps (Simon & Schuster, 1995), Thomas Ricks talks about this gulf in terms that are, to be frank, somewhat frightening to me in that the Marine Corps feels that the public they protect does not live up to, nor appreciate, the values that the Marines are fighting and dying for. And I would add, given that most of our military is now very professional, this gulf probably exists between the American public and all of the military services.

And I believe this is a precarious thing. The ninety-five percent of us who let the other five percent carry the fight forward have no idea what combat is like. We say, “Thank you for your service.” But do we really care? Given what we don’t know about war, can we understand what service really means? (For forty years almost no one ever said, “Thank you for your service” to me, and now I hear it all the time and frankly I am tired of hearing it from anyone who has not had the pleasure of putting their butts on the line or serving their country in some way. Not to say there aren’t folks who are grateful. But I think I know the difference between those who say “Thank you” because it’s now socially requisite and those who really care what I did.) While we sit on our decks and drink sauvignon blanc and eat grilled prawns, men and women have answered the call and are dying or are losing limbs or are living with fear so powerful, every moment, that we don’t have the slightest idea what that is like, what the cost is.

Not that there aren’t citizens out there generally opposed to war on a philosophical basis. There are, and though I may agree that in a perfect world we would have no war, we don’t exist in a perfect world. If they have a philosophical abhorrence of war, I respect that. The people I am talking about this morning are those who accept war as a legitimate means of advancing our country’s foreign policy, but are very happy to let someone else do the fighting.

In her recently published book of linked short stories titled You Know When the Men Are Gone (Amy Einhorn Books, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, Penguin Group, USA, NT, NY, 2011) author Siobhan Fallon shows the reader the multifarious, insidious and heinous ways the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan and their wives and children are haunted by the wounds, both apparent and hidden, received in combat. As a combat veteran of another nasty war, I can attest that Fallon knows of what she speaks. The wife of an officer in the United States Army who has served several tours in the Middle East, she knows firsthand the damage done and not just short term damage, but long term damage, often the kind not readily seen.

In her short stories, Fallon shows us with imagery, action and dialogue; PTSD, missing limbs, wrecked marriages, “Dear John” moments, agony, betrayal, redemption and love. All centered on the alienation the modern day warrior feels when he comes home to a society that pays what I believe is often lip service to his sacrifices, but then who, right after saying, “Thank you for your service,” needs to go sell something or attend a cocktail party or go on holiday.

But that may not be much different than any war, although in earlier wars, the participants were drawn from a broader and more representative group of U S citizens. I look at some of my liberal friends and remember back to all the draft resistors and Vietnam War protesters when I came back from Vietnam. Now some of them are flag waving patriots who want to go out and destroy all of Islam. I may be cynical but I always wonder why, when they were eligible to fight in Vietnam, they managed to stay in college, or join the National Guard to avoid putting their lives on the line. And not just my liberal friends, but some of my more conservative friends, too. I’ll never forget watching a news show a few years back where a group of young college Republicans were being interviewed. When asked their opinions about our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, they all voiced their ardent support of our efforts over there, and yet when asked if they had gone and served, none of them had and what was more interesting was the backtracking and excuse making that spewed from their mouths indicating they had no intention of serving in the future.

No wonder those who fight our battles look at the general population they defend with a jaundiced eye. Warriors go off and lose legs, innocence, job opportunities, spouses, and come back with PTSD to a society that they could view, if they were as cynical as I am, as being hypocritical.

I think it is dodgy that while we are out on the putting green drinking cold bottles of Hefeweizen, we have absolutely no clue as to what simmers in the souls of these men and women we have asked to do our killing for us.

Forty years ago, I , for one, was an ardent opponent of the military draft, but today, I believe everybody who lives in this country should have to serve in either the military or some other regard if they cannot serve in combat. No excuses, no deferments, nothing. Of course some politicians are not going to like that idea because they will have to justify to the moms and pops of our young why we need to go to war in the first place, and the professional military people will not like it because the draftee may not be as willing a soldier, sailor, Marine or airman.

I think everybody in this country should carry his or her share of the load when the bullets start flying. If moms and pops think their sons and daughters are going to be dying, then they will first want to know beyond a doubt that the war is a damned urgent affair and if it is not, they will make sure everybody knows about it.

Besides, the draft-era military was one of the great democratizing experiences in the history of the United States of America, and if we had that experience back again, we all might try to understand and better appreciate those neighbors of ours with whom we don’t normally interact. And, it might give us a better understanding of the costs, the true and brutal costs the men and women who fight our wars pay. And the costs their families pay, too.

On Bangkok, Top Sergeants and Hookers

Last Friday my wife Betty and I enjoyed lunch with the Idaho Writer’s Guild while we listened to guest speaker and author, David Schmahmann, read from his book, The Double Life of Alfred Buber, (The Permanent Press, 2011).

I have not yet read the book, but from what I learned at the luncheon, it’s about a married and successful American lawyer who has an illicit relationship with a Bangkok, Thailand bar-girl.

As Mr. Schmahmann read from his book, my mind drifted into my own memories of Bangkok. In the early fall of 1967, I left Khe Sanh, Vietnam and flew to Danang and from there journeyed on to Bangkok for R & R.

We flew into Bangkok via Continental Air and after debarking were whisked to a room in the city loaded with service personnel from Vietnam: Navy, Army, Air force, Marines. An E-8 United States Army Top Sergeant marched into the room and delivered the skinny on hookers. Yes, I said it, hookers. It was strictly business. “Don’t deal with hookers who refuse to provide a look-see at the health card that proves they are in the government hooker provision program (or something official-sounding like that).” A program financed, I assumed, by the good old American taxpayer. At first it didn’t seem fair that the United States government should participate in disintegrating the social fabric of an alien society, and on top of that, a society that was assisting us in our fight to defeat Communism. But then I thought about it as the top sergeant talked the dos and don’ts of visiting another country, another culture, the need to respect conventions and customs. But it was hard to pay attention to instructions on how to shake hands or look someone in the eye when your main intent was to carnally know their daughters.

But his Top-Sergeant barks kept me listening. It makes sense, I thought, because us young dudes are coming here with a single thought in the back of the brain: It may be my last chance to get laid. Yes, I said that too, Get Laid. To party, to smooch, to dance, yes and we will look at some pagodas and the beach and buy some cameras and some sapphire rings, but really the trip here is to…get laid. And since we are going to be testosteroned, drunk, dreamily dazzled by the beautiful Thai women (and they are beautiful) in their miniskirts and low cut blouses, then why not get a handle on it, keep the VD and the STD and the pregnancies, the pimp-generated violence, to a manageable level. Made sense to me, in the often-twisted, practical way the military approaches attempts at proactivity.

At the club where we hooked up with the women, I wondered about how the Thai people saw this…this…what, this invasion? Cultural exchange? Did they like the fact that we were there, breeding with their twenty-year-old and younger women? Or was the cash we carried more important than the ramifications of what we left behind: half-caste children, a Thai-American patois punctuated with every vulgar, four letter word you can imagine, flavored with slang from Minnesota, NYC, Texas, Louisiana, Georgia, Wyoming, California? And who knows what else.

The girls acted like they loved us and told us so, as long as we coughed up the daily rate, which was cheap, five bucks a day for a rent-a-wife, a rent-a-wife and a whole lot more. As long as you fed them and bought them jewelry and clothes, they loved you, nuzzled you and did most anything you asked. We could have left it at that, sex, but I was interested in other things, too…the golden pagodas, the happy people, the strange culture. We went with the hookers to where they lived. Back behind the western-world façade of buildings that lined the thoroughfares, to entire communities on stilts, with bamboo walkways, teeming with people, shops with dried fish and crackly dried squid, rice, dried spices; families with 10 or 12 people dwelling in little rickety 800-square-foot domiciles perched on legs that made them look like giant water insects. Other than a toilet that drained below into the swamp, there was a kitchen, sleeping space and of course a place for the TV. We went in and met the people who lived there, their stoic faces appraising us as what, monsters? Saviors? I could not tell and have for years wondered about what seemed to me a backward world that demanded that young daughter shook Yank servicemen to keep families fed, clothed and sheltered. How did those people feel as we came in and threw our money around, insulted (even if it was unintentional) their customs, violated their daughters? I wonder now what kind of long-term ramifications that created. And I also wonder, given similar circumstances, if we could do any better than allow our children to prostitute themselves. But then a lot of Americans think we already do that, allow our children to prostitute themselves for a few bucks and a mortgage.

Don’t get me wrong, I whooped it up with the best of them in Thailand, and on my second R & R in Kuala Lumpur, too; but I wondered then, and I still wonder what kind of effect my ephemeral passing had there. Did it dry up like spent sperm or did it dig itself in and create something more, something better, or something worse?

My liberal friends often decry our involvement in the affairs of the countries we try to help with our military intervention, occupation, industrialization, globalization. They say we aren’t helping at all, altering the culture, leaving unwanted children, our customs, our violent ways, forcing our religious beliefs on the locals, our system of government, our military extravaganzas. Not to mention raping their natural resources and misusing their cheap labor pool. But I don’t think it is that simple.

And my conservative friends would say that we are doing all these places a favor, showing up, helping them conquer illiteracy, disease, converting them to the true religion, showing them the benefits of democracy and capitalism, helping overcome their internecine civil wars and revolutions, or in some cases, like Libya, helping foment revolution . But, again, I don’t think it’s that simple.

I don’t think our excursions into the affairs of our neighbors near and far are necessarily bad. Nor do I think they are all for the good. What I do believe is that when we show up to do good or maybe not do so much good, we bring the whole potato with us…our customs, our business, our culture, our music and TV, our movies, our religion. You can’t get the missionary or the military man to come help you without the business man following. If you want our help, we are going to sell you something, we are going to buy whatever you have that we want, and we are going to try and buy it cheap, and we are going to sell you something else in return, and we are going to try and sell it high. And when we bring the well rigs to help you drill for water, we will bring the Constitution and the Bible and the Book of Mormon, too. We will bring Britney Spears along with Abraham Lincoln. And yes, we will spend our tax dollars to help you fight AIDS, or poverty or a rancorous enemy. Hell, we might even arrange to have a particularly sorry leader assassinated. But whatever you get from us will be more than you bargained for.

And I have often wondered what I personally left behind there in Thailand. I left a considerable amount of cash, relatively speaking, and my innate curiosity led me to try and understand people, and not exploit them, but even though I didn’t want to exploit them, I believe I probably did. Not intentionally, but does that matter? In the long run? I wonder if I left children. For all I know, there may be Ken (or Kenneeneth) Rodgerses running around in Thailand and Malaysia, caught between the bone crunching drive of the old Buddhist culture of Siam versus the fast dance attack of the Beatles and the Beach Boys, Otis Redding, B. J. Thomas.

And if I did, what are those children now, or did they come here, refugees from the world I, at the time, helped defend, the surviving world I helped create? Maybe they are trapped between two cultures that don’t really want them and what they represent: our attempts to help, and sell, and buy and proselytize…to help.

On Agent Orange, sugar, bikers and the VA

Today I went into the local VA Medical Center to have a precancerous growth hacked off my face. Waiting for the scalpel-wielding physician’s assistant to call me in, I sat and watched a parade of veterans move back and forth down the aisles. The VA here in Boise serves a population of over ninety-four thousand veterans. The location is set in beautiful juniper and ash tree-studded meadows and ridges that rise above the main part of Boise town. Some of the buildings look like ante-bellum architecture one might see back east. Big, imposing, red brick buildings that soar up and over the city. The setting belies the facility’s purpose.

As Betty and I walked into the center to check in, I noticed the variety of men and women waiting to be cared for…is that the right word, cared for? It seems such a weak concept, cared for, for dealing with medical problems of folks involved in the business of defending and killing. Yet I am going to use that word, because I think it fits the milieu of Clara Barton and Florence Nightingale and Walt Whitman that has arisen in the wake of two hundred years of military mayhem that has become a populations-wide, Clausewitzian assault on humanity.

The people who staff the VA Medical Center do seem to genuinely care for and about the men and women who shuffle down the tile-floored halls. There are still a lot of World War War II vets around here, their skin like parchment, their walks slowed, canes and wheelchairs, and the Korean War Veterans are hard to distinguish from the WWII people, and then there is my group, the Vietnam era guys and then the younger women and men. I noticed a lot of young veterans there today, a big man in manure-stained cowboy boots and large straw hat, a red and white checked shirt that stretched around his hard muscles, and a young man with a high and tight Marine Corps-style haircut, his hair the color of a carrot. It looked dyed. His arms covered with tinted hieroglyphics, tattoos, that I didn’t really try to cipher. What I read are the eyes. The eyes are the tunnel to the heart. Enter through the eyes and you can crawl right into the guts of a man. This man’s gut sang the song of IEDs and napalm.

One man I noticed as I sat waiting for the knife looked like a Vietnam veteran. Dressed like a biker, lots of leather, lots of hair, he could barely shamble, as if the messages that went from his brain to his legs were being interdicted, like columns of men moving in the night , getting chewed up by artillery fire, mortar fire, ambushes. His difficulty getting around didn’t seem to bother him, though, as he struggled down the corridor chatting on his cell phone.

I wondered what had caused his troubles. A piece of shrapnel from a North Vietnamese 152 mm shell landing too close, an AK-47 round snapped off from a sniper’s spider trap, just nicking the bones in his spine. Maybe he wrecked his Harley and damaged his back, maybe it was work related and had nothing to do with the military and the only reason he was getting treatment at the VA was because, like me, he has a Purple Heart from some other wound. Maybe he had prostate cancer and it was eating up his bones, Agent Orange and all that.

I wonder about Agent Orange. It is suspected that Agent Orange is at the root of a dozen or so cancers, but there is no hard proof, as I understand it, that Agent Orange causes any of the maladies that we go to the VA to have treated. So, when I looked at these men, I wondered what role Agent Orange had in their difficulties.

I remembered the one time I know I got sprayed with that stuff. It was in 1968. Early morning, I was up and on watch. A plane streaked over the base and the surrounding landscape, spraying some kind of liquid. I wondered what it was. Now I know, or I think I know. And from the VA’s point of view, all of that is a moot point. By definition, I have been sprayed.

One of the subject ailments related to Agent Orange is diabetes. I am in the stages of pre-diabetes, but diabetes is part of my genetic makeup, and I love to eat sugar and I am a non-consuming alcoholic who consumed heavily for over twenty years. So is my pre-diabetes a result of Agent Orange or my ancestry and my behavior? I don’t know the answer to that and I don’t think anyone else does.

So, with those thoughts in mind, I wondered about all these men who come here from my era with all these problems. A lot of us were crazy after we came back from the war; drank, smoked, over-ate and ate the wrong things. Some of us consumed a lot of drugs, didn’t do physical exercise. So what causes all these problems, us or Agent Orange, or a combination?

Nevertheless, it is very interesting to me that we, as a society, have decided to pony up and fund the care these folks, including me, receive at the Veteran’s Admin hospital. As if we, our nation, see that the cost to be paid for the service they gave is ongoing. That we owe it to them.

The sheer number of men and women in the facility this morning is amazing to me. All these people, all these problems, and this is just a spot, a dot, a miniscule hint of all the people out there, all the people now fighting who will come home with problems, mental and physical, who will then trust that we take care of them.

This Veteran’s Medical Center is a symbol of the cost of the lifestyle we choose to keep. Sushi tonight, a movie at the art house, this weekend a rock and roll concert, a poetry reading, “Restrepo” from the video-on-demand queue, next week a camping trip in a state funded park, the private schools for the kids, the wide streets, the nights we live without worrying about mortar rounds crashing through the roofs of our houses, no IED detonating, spraying thousands of nails and screws and bolts around, decapitating our children on the way to school.

Sometimes, I wonder when I am sitting around the house, laughing at something one of my friends said, sometimes, I get a pang of guilt. What part of the cost am I paying for these men, these women who go off four and five times during their enlistments to these hot and freezing landscapes? Me, sitting around writing blogs, making movies, living off my retirement account, my social security, my motor home, my trips to California. What part of the cost am I bearing to keep the violence off the streets in my town? No invasions, no terrorists, no enemy slinking between the buildings down on Main Street.

What is the cost of all this? Sitting in the VA waiting to get a pre-cancer that may have been caused by Agent Orange hacked off my face, waiting to get cared for, I get a glimpse.