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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sweat dripped into my eyes and sizzled. It slipped off the end of my nose, onto my lip, and down my neck.
My back felt like dagger slashes marred the flesh at the base of my spine and I wondered how all those folks working close to me in the other rows moved so quickly, steadily, while I had to stop and stand tall and stretch my back and drink water.
It was June, hot, and I was 17.
As I gazed across the field, the people, all bent over, reminded me of beetles. Their potato sacks fastened to a wooden stick with hooks that attached to the torso with a thick leather belt.
Besides my compadres, the brothers Tim and Brian, and the ragamuffin punk, Jacky, there were kids working among us with whom I’d attended school—elementary, junior high, high school. But as I spoke to Pete and Enrique, two guys I’d known since I was six, they turned away like they were more interested in the jagged incisors of Picacho Peak.
When I called to them again, like I would have when jiving into English class or out on the playground, they ignored me.
That happened the first morning, and this all comes back to me now because I have been thinking about agriculture. It’s the season of crops maturing here in Idaho and the fields are all around. Besides, the COVID-19 episode seems to have brought into sharper focus where we get our food.
Back in 1964, morning number one of my spud-picking adventure commenced with high hopes that I’d make some money to buy and do the things that my parents told me I didn’t need. New shirts, some albums—Beach Boys, Beatles, Rolling Stones—and maybe even my own car like my neighbor had, a 1950 Ford with the bullet point emblem on the grill.
We assembled at the Greyhound Bus station at two in the morning and jumped into the back of a bobtail truck with sideboards. A lot of folks I didn’t know joined us. Mostly Hispanic -Americans, a few Native Americans and African-Americans.
Out at the spud fields the permanent crew handed out gear and we were ordered, “Get to work.” The drone of the machine that turned up the potatoes growled across the fields, people lined up abreast over individual rows of spuds, and the picking began. We stuck our hands in the dirt and threw the potatoes in the sack, which hung between our legs, and when the sack was full, we put it next to where we worked and moved on, picking, picking, picking, and the jefe came along and marked our sacks so we could get credit for them.
Being in some ways damned competitive, I looked left and right, not at my mates, but at the folks I deemed knew what they were doing. They worked fast, their hands and arms like tools on a robot that picked and sacked the potatoes at a quick and steady rate.
I had to keep up, but soon understood I could not keep up while they chugged along briskly, chatting in multiple languages. When they laughed it amazed me because I could barely keep breath in my lungs.
As the day progressed, my compadres and I fell further behind and when we got to the end of the day, noontime, I received a total of five dollars and some cents. That wouldn’t buy new, cool surfer shirts, or a bunch of Beatles albums, but at least some Cokes and a burger at the drive-in joint we festered around at night.
When we loaded onto the truck for home, I looked around for Paul and Enrique and the others I thought I knew well, but there was no sign of them. On the ride back to town, I dozed in the heat, sitting in the truck against the sideboards, sweat dripping down my back
. At home, I showered and ate and soon hit the bed.
Day two was much the same. Not much cash in my hands.
On day three I rose early again, the swamp cooler outside our house blowing damp air into my room. When I arrived at Tim and Brian’s, I followed them down the ladder into the basement where we found a cabinet full of liquor. We poured Johnny Walker Black Label and Smirnoff Vodka and some red table wine into each thermos.
Upstairs, we added sweet tea and topped off the mix with ice and water.
At the bus station, we boarded the bobtail and watched the stars wane as desert heat began to nag. I unscrewed the top of my thermos and took a long swallow. I shivered all the way to the bottom of my spine, as if it were freezing outside instead of a surly Sonoran Desert morning.
At first, I burst out of the chute like all the other workers and I thought, I’m getting as good as the old guys. I saw Paul three rows over and I vowed that since he ignored me, I’d keep up with him.
As I threw spud after spud into the bag that hung between my legs, my mouth grew dry and tasted like the worst thing I’d ever swallowed.
As I constantly sipped at the concoction in my thermos and wiped the sweat out of my eyes and stood up to ease the knife-stab jolts in my lower back, I noticed that I’d fallen way behind and so had Tim and Brian and snotty Jacky, too.
Even before the jefe called for an end to the day, we’d stopped and received our meager earnings.
In the company store on the farm, we bought Twinkies and Cokes and peanuts to put in our Cokes and walked out on the porch and then around the corner where we noticed a long line of cottonwoods that drew us down to the banks of what remained of the Santa Cruz River.
One of us, probably Tim, because he was kind of a leader, said, “Hey, my thermos is dry.”
We pooled what little cash was left and Jacky wandered up to the store and found an adult to buy us some beer.
We sat along the creek and drank Coors and got stupider waiting for the truck for home. Insulated from the others, we acted our ages, giggling and throwing rocks into the slim trickle of water that once was the pride of Southern Arizona.
We hunted frogs, making sharp sticks for gigging but all we found were big, warty toads that, according to Tim, were loaded with poison.
Finally the truck came and the horn honked, and before climbing in we managed to finagle another quart of beer each, which we harbored in brown paper sacks choked around the cold, sweating bottles.
As I loaded up, I again looked for Enrique and my other pals from school. But they were nowhere around.
On the road home, we took big sips and clowned around and folks back there, sitting with us on the hard deck, laughed and rolled their eyes and shook their heads.
Once, we hit a bump just as I took a big swallow. The beer didn’t go anywhere but out my mouth in an explosion that flew into the middle of the truck bed and down my shirt. I choked and coughed and the others really laughed. I felt kind of stupid, my head like a spinning merry-go-round.
Later that year, when I went back to school, all those kids I knew who chose not to recognize me in the potato fields acted like always, laughing and talking with me, clowning around.
For over five decades I have pondered what happened out there. Beyond getting stupid drunk and making an ass out of myself, and finding out that I was soft, and even though I would learn to do things that now amaze me—walk up steep hills with forty or fifty pounds of gear while smoking a Camel, unfiltered, of course, and the things that followed, the death and the fear—is the memory of those fellows not acknowledging me as…as what? An equal?
Back in 1964 I don’t think we were viewed, in my town, in my time, as being equal. There was a lot of talk about rights and equality, but no, we weren’t equal. And those kids who shunned me out in the spuds knew it, and when we showed up at the spud field, maybe they thought we were trying to take what was theirs, their world, their privacy. They weren’t going to get to go to college, and they were going to spend their lives probably working menial jobs, and we—us Anglos—weren’t keen to share what we thought was ours, either. Or maybe they were just tired of us after a year of all of us acting out “She Loves You” and “Alley Oop” while wearing our expensive surfer shirts. They showed up to school, in many cases, because the law said they had to. Or maybe it was something else altogether, like they secretly hated us, or something that I don’t know even now, and never will.
But they could work my butt into the ground, and they knew it.
I spit, gagged, kicked, twisted, torqued, snarled and finally squealed, “I won’t.”
But that wasn’t enough. Grammy jammed the bar of Ivory soap beyond my teeth. I clamped my jaws like a vise and then Mom’s fingertips dug into my mouth and she pried and I bit and she screamed, “Damnit,” then dug harder and my jaws weakened, gave and the bar of soap lodged against my tongue.
My mouth drowned in the bitter bubbles and to this day the taste of soap turns my stomach and I have to fight to keep from vomiting.
But giving in wasn’t enough. They dangled me over the kitchen sink and “washed my mouth out” several times as Grammy scolded, “I’m going to cure those vulgarities and teach you your medicine.”
I promised, I promised and I promised to never, ever, say that word again.
Recently, while washing my hands for the n’teenth time in a single day, the sudden scent of hand soap yanked that memory into my brain. I think I was five, and we lived south of the railroad tracks on Beech Street, a potholed dirt road lined with older adobes, some newer homes and here and there, a puny cottonwood tree.
Down on the corner where Beech met Burgess sat a vacant lot with scrawny mesquites and holes and pits us children dug for forts and other things, like finding China.
A gang of local kids had gathered with their dogs—black and white Australian shepherds and brindle faced pit bulls, a German shepherd, some mongrels.
Some of the older boys began to stir the dogs with sticks and rocks and a cur fight ensued: growling, ferocious barks, the pit bull dragging the German shepherd around by a back leg.
A lot of swear words got tossed around. Some I’d heard Dad speak out in the backyard, like when he yelled, “Goddamn it,” when the mean red ants climbed up his legs and stung him, or the time he told Mom, “This is a bunch of shit,” when they decided to kill and pluck the coops full of fryers that Mom wanted to raise. He was a great one for “Jesus H. Christ,” and “Damn it all to hell,” around the house but if he ventured any further into vulgarity, Mom stomped her foot and shouted, “Dale!”
Most of the words those boys down on the corner tossed around like baseballs were well worn, but there was a new one and for some reason it sang to me. Nothing, at that moment, particularly remarkable about it—except I liked it–a word that years later I would come to understand was about as basic, and useful, an example of Anglo-Saxon-influenced modern English as one could get.
It was the “f” word and I elbowed right into the middle of the older boys and we were ”f-ing” this and “f-ing” them and “f-ing” that.
My sister, almost five years my senior, sauntered down the street to get me because lunch was on the table and the first words out of my mug were “fuck you,” and thus I ended with my offensive mug in the kitchen sink and my mouth full of Ivory soap and my butt busted, too. I remember Mother announcing, for the first of many times throughout my life, “Only ignorant people talk like that.”
And you’d think I’d have learned and maybe I did for a short time but later that year, the first of September, my Uncle Les came down from the Valley with his side-hammered twelve-gauge shotgun that was longer than he was tall, and he and my father collected shotgun shells, bird vests, water and Coors.
They asked me if I wanted to “bird dog.”
That had never happened before so I, raring to go dog those birds, jumped between them in the 1950 red pickup with the green and red and black and white Texaco logo on both doors. We rode south of town and pulled into a mesquite thicket next to an irrigation sump and a field of maize. They ordered me to settle beneath a tree about twenty yards away from where they hid so the doves wouldn’t see them.
The sun boiled and my sweat ran and they sipped on cold beers and father smoked a Lucky Strike and Uncle Les puffed on his pipe and I leaned to listen and a lot of the words that came across the empty space to me were words not to be said in our household, most prominently that “f” word.
When their utterances hit my ears it shocked me and then it dismayed me and I worried about Uncle Les and Father’s souls because Grammy told me about hell and the rewards I’d get there if I didn’t change. I feared Uncle Les and Father were too old to change.
Then the doves started flying and Uncle Les and Dad started banging and I started running, hustling the dead birds, yanking their heads off to make sure they didn’t come to and run or fly. The “f” words flew more often than the blasts from the guns. As the words battered my eardrums I let the rhythm of the music—and there was a curious tune in that word, smooth “u” and hard “k”—add a visceral lyricism to my vocabulary that might come in handy when I needed to accomplish something special, a warning, a dose of derision, a moment of shared inside humor.
I also learned something else, or at least had it emphasized: the rules were only for certain folks and places and situations. No matter what somebody said about “don’t do this and don’t do that,” there was a time and place for almost anything, either good or bad, including the “f” word.
Over the years it’s been more acceptable for folks to employ the word and not just men out hunting doves on the first day of September. But women and politicians, too. And the expletive’s frequency litters millions of conversations and sometimes it seems, too liberally.
But as I learned from the Marine Corps drill instructors in Boot Camp, the word can be used in almost any situation, whether the goal is to amuse, frighten, motivate, marvel at or intimidate.
I have a notion that the word, eight or nine hundred years ago in England, wasn’t relegated to the class of folks who my mother called “ignorant.” It was, I suspect, just another Anglo-Saxon word that described something people, cattle, dogs and toads performed to meet their obligations.
But in the 11th Century, folks who spoke Anglo-Saxon went from a sovereign nation to a downtrodden, defeated class. The Norman French invaded in 1066, defeating Harold Godwinson’s English army, and made their French dialect the official language. Subsequently, a lot of those old Anglo-Saxon words were thrown in the metaphorical trash bin labeled “vulgar,” spoken only by the defeated.
I recall some twenty or so years ago attending a lecture for writers where our guest speaker, the author Gerald Haslam, answered a question about language and how it was changing, with the notion that languages are alive and as such, they grow and add words.
He reminded us that a large portion of the world speaks Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian—all languages that grew out of Latin. He said, “If languages didn’t grow and change, all those people would still be speaking like Julius Caesar.”
So, maybe what’s happening with the “f” word is that as time goes on and our language continues to morph, the word will worm its way into a lingo much more acceptable among all classes of English speakers even the folks for whom rules don’t matter.
As for me, I’ve used it widely for more than those moments where I kneel beneath mesquite trees waiting for the dove
One of the things that amazes me about writing is how often something one writes generates a round of thought and dialogue.
Yesterday I put up a blog about a friend of Betty’s and mine, Gail Larrick, and how she asked us to speak her name when we went to visit one of her old domiciles.
The response I received to that blog was impressive and wide ranging and contained a lot of thought provoking messages.
One of those messages, which I found profoundly moving, came from one of my Marine Corps comrades who served with Bravo Company, 1/26, at the Siege of Khe Sanh. I didn’t know Bill then, or maybe I did by sight, but he endured the same horrors I did, and maybe more. As the saying goes, “He rode the elephant and looked the tiger in the eye.”
After his service in the USMC, Bill went on to a distinguished career with the Department of Veterans Affairs where he spent many years honoring veterans. When I first read Bill’s note to me, it moved me to tears and that is something that I don’t often do and when I do, I hate to admit it.
Semper Fidelis, Bill Jayne.
Here is what Bill wrote:
I didn’t comment on your Facebook post because it didn’t seem germane, but I want to share a story about the power of names.
Somewhere around 1979 when the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund was just getting off the ground, I was at something like a board meeting (I don’t think we had an actual board at that time except for the three guys who had incorporated the VVMF). We were talking about the design elements the memorial should contain, basically within the context of putting together a communications and fundraising strategy.
One of our leaders was a brilliant (and troubled) West Pointer who had spearheaded the drive to build a Vietnam memorial at the academy and he was adamant that the memorial needed to include the names of all those who died. No one in the room immediately agreed with him. We said things like, “There are too many of them! It will look like a phone book.”
He insisted and talked us into an exercise to illustrate his conviction that the names were essential. He asked us to go around the room and one by one, say the name of someone we knew who died in Vietnam. There were only about 15 of us, or less, but by half way around the tide had shifted. The power of the names to invoke the enormity of the loss was floating in the air like green smoke from a grenade. I spoke the name of Joe Battle, a Marine from my fire team killed on 25 February and was immediately committed to a memorial that offered up the name of each who had died.
Any of us who have been to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC, can attest to the power of 58000 plus names etched in black stone to generate grief and remembrance and redemption. Names. Not grandiose statuary or columns in the classical mode. Just names.
Bill Jayne enlisted in the Marine Corps for two years in September 1966. Originally from the Hudson Valley of New York state he went to boot camp at Parris Island and joined 1/26 on Hill 55 in early 1967. He was a rifleman, 0311, but found himself in H&S Company and then Bravo Company as a clerk. An insubordinate streak landed him in 1st Platoon of Bravo Company in October 1967. Patrol, patrol, patrol; Hill 950, Hill 881S, etc. After college he ended up in Washington, DC, working for a small magazine and then a big lobbying organization involved with heavy construction. A chance phone call in 1979 led to the opportunity to serve as an early volunteer on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund and then a career in the US Department of Veterans Affairs. He ran the National Cemetery Administration’s (NCA) State Cemetery Grants Program and later the Federal cemetery construction program. In his 20+ years with the NCA he had a role in the establishment of about 50 new cemeteries for veterans and their families, every one of them a “national shrine” to the memory of those who served in the military. He is now retired in Wilmington, NC.
We stood in the middle of the street in Teasdale, Utah and said, “Gail Larrick, Gail Larrick,” and Betty filmed it and later Gail wrote me in an email, “That corner is where I used to live,” even though there was nothing on that corner.
Betty and I were in the early days of a long journey back east that went through Utah and Colorado and Texas and Arkansas and Memphis and Chattanooga and Washington DC. From there we went to Boston and since Betty had never been to Nova Scotia, we went via Maine to Halifax and north to Cape Breton.
From there we drove to Quebec City. Then on to Thunder Bay over one of the northern-most paved roads in Ontario, and then to Jasper in the Canadian Rockies before hitting the front door of our digs in Boise.
As we traveled south on the first leg of our trek, we posted copious photos on Instagram and Facebook and we shared our travel via texts and e-mails and many of our friends traveled with us, vicariously, of course, and one of them was our good pal, Gail.
We told everyone we would begin our journey by stopping in Torrey, Utah, and spending a few days at Capitol Reef National Park. When Gail saw where we were headed, she sent an e-mail telling me to go to Teasdale and to please speak her name in that town.
On our third day, we’d had enough of the park, so we headed to Teasdale, a small, insular place peopled mostly by Mormon folk, or that’s what Gail had told us. And there we spoke her name. When I said “Gail Larrick, Gail Larrick,” Betty took a video of me and the surrounding location.
It was quiet and no cars or trucks buzzed and pushed and passed; no middle fingers flipped at us even though we weren’t from there.
When we stood in the street and spoke her name, I felt exposed and kind of stupid and it was one of those moments when you think everybody’s looking at you and smirking and giggling with their hands over their mouths.
But when I stopped speaking her name and turned in a three hundred sixty-degree circle, I didn’t see anyone except Betty.
But I still felt dumb, like what I had done was…was…fake? Or false? Or….
The Apaches have, or had, a tradition of “speaking with names” that, as far as I know, relied on the use of a place in the landscape to explain things they wanted their people to understand. By saying the name of a place where something significant had happened, issues of a social nature or some other kind of quandary could be recognized, acknowledged, and possibly understood. In that context, I think saying the name carried a spiritual power.
So maybe the fact that we spoke Gail Larrick’s name standing in the middle of the Street in Teasdale, Utah, toted some kind of spiritual weight.
Speaking names might also help us recognize our place in a family, a community, a connection, and maybe Gail watching a video of me saying her name somehow tied her into her past, her friends in Teasdale.
Some spiritual folks believe that there are things that own power that don’t necessarily jibe with science, and that the speaking of a name, whether a place or a given name like Gail Larrick, or maybe a flower like a Sego Lily, or a mountain like Mt. Shasta, may have power or may convey power.
Me not being particularly spiritual, I might scoff at the notion that a word or two has power. But then again, I write, which is a verbal form of art, of communication that carries a lot of gravitas: speaking and understanding language being perhaps the most powerful and unusual quality we humans possess.
Gail passed away a few years ago and I am glad we spoke her name in Teasdale, Utah. I think she got a big kick out of us standing out there, saying “Gail Larrick” again and again and again.
Gail was an extremely intelligent woman who had a background in editing, photography and writing. She’d lived in the wilds of Utah and in the wilds of San Francisco and when we knew her, as a writer, she lived in Sonoma County, California.
Once she shared a powerful essay with me. It was about her time in Teasdale and how she and her fellow female roommates lived there among the Mormon folk. Evidently Gail and her roommates got along famously with the local women.
I don’t know about the men, she didn’t say too much about them, but she suspected, with all the truth that swelled in her heart, that it was men who burned her and her friends out.
I met Gail sometime around 2006. I was teaching online writing classes and she signed up for several sessions. Later, but not much later, Betty and I traveled to Sonoma County, and one night we had a get-together where I grilled carne asada for friends and acquaintances. Early in the evening, one of my compadres came into the house where we were meeting and said, “There’s a lady outside who’s looking for you. She said you saved her life.”
I remember feeling mildly shocked by that notion. When I think back on my life, I can’t really identify any specific moment where I saved anyone’s life except for an event at the siege of Khe Sanh where I dashed after a squad of Marines who were mistakenly veering into a barrage of friendly incoming that would soon make those men friendly WIAs and KIAs.
I am not sure what I did to save Gail’s life—she never told me and I never asked, but as the years moved on, we grew close in a friendship unlike any other I’ve had.
When she passed, it shocked me, and it felt like there was too much about life that we still needed to investigate together.
Maybe now, almost eight years gone, the name we spoke there at the intersection, “Gail Larrick, Gail Larrick,” remains floating in the ether, draped over the tops of the trees and along the eaves of the old homes in Teasdale. Haunting, like a spirit, or a ghost, and not a nasty one because Gail was a woman of sublime attitude. And when the wind gets up, or a zephyr sneaks around the corner of a house, they also speak the name we left there.
And what would be even better is if she—wherever and if she still exists as a persona—hears that name on the wind still speaking to Teasdale and maybe to me, here and now. I think she’d like that and maybe that’s why, at the oddest times of day or night, when I am kvetching or griping or just hanging out, I think of her and smile.
The room’s warmth doped me like I’d burned a strong reefer—Panama Red or Acapulco Gold—and the drone of his words floated over me, damned near put me in a trance. Sentences strung out like a long trail of smoke: John Stuart Mill and the never-ending battle between the liberal and the conservative. I wondered if I studied Plato and Zeno and all those old guys, would they wrangle over the same concepts, traditional versus something more avant-garde?
The professor was a CPA and an attorney and he’d written tax policy for Congress. The big congress back in DC, and now he was teaching Philosophy of Law at the university. What a come-down, or hell, maybe it was a come-up from working beneath the heel of politicians. I wouldn’t know, and as I drowsed, I’m sure I’d thought, and who cares?
I needed a class like Philosophy of Law to graduate with my BS in Accounting. Or some course like ethics or one of those esoteric subjects that, once you got on the job, may or may not mean anything since the real business of business is to make money.
Our texts for the class were little pamphlets printed on cheap paper with the pages stapled at the spine and the authors—besides John Stuart Mill, who is the only name I can recall—were mostly a bunch of sirs and lords of the conservative bent in England during the mid-19th Century. Boring prose that bored into no place in my brain. I tried to stay awake and compiled copious notes in my chicken-scratch cursive in my lined paper notebooks. I doodled on the pages where I tried to sketch—like stick women and men—the people in my class, a bunch of pre-law, philosophy, or business majors.
At test time, I’d go to the bookstore and buy the little “blue books”, cheap paper with flimsy white pages between pale blue covers where I’d regurgitate all the notes I’d written down in the class—if I could remember them—if I could recall my scribbled notes.
I’d learned that about the learning process. A lot of my profs—the ones who taught stuff like philosophy, political science, and basic economics—preened themselves in their imaginations, or so I imagined, when you regurgitated onto the flimsy blue books required for exams the exact words they’d pontificated.
But the CPA lawyer’s drones were hard to capture. The paragraphs crooned and you swooned and you dozed, your eyelids like doors slipping shut and your attention like a hazy dream.
And then one morning in the late days of the semester he jumped up and smacked his big flat hand on the top of his desk and screamed, “And what the fuck I mean is!” The heads of my classmates jerked and a chorus of “Huh?” rose from their mouths. Suddenly alert, I figured he’d changed character to ensure we understood what Mill meant and what Mill’s adversaries meant, and how it all played out in law and the constitution of the United States.
Standing with a contorted face, his shoulders thrown back, the prof reminded me of a mean drill instructor I might have had at Marine Corps Recruit Depot in 1966. He was, for that moment, monstrous.
Something about his eruption, and about him, the professor, resonated with me.
I mean, how often did one hear that word “fuck” blast out of the mouth of a stuff-shirted CPA lawyer college professor in the 1970s, and one so dull he could cause you to dream while sitting at a desk?
Later that day, I laughed. And I laughed that afternoon as I headed back home, the forty-five miles to my house. And I still laugh.
Except for John Stuart Mill, I have forgotten the names of all those other lawyers and philosophers that came up in that class, but I haven’t forgotten that “And what the fuck I mean is!”
Theo stuck his big head inside the office door and said, “Hey, Ken, turn on your radio.”
Theo rarely talked and at that moment, as I watched him shut the door to the shop, I wondered if he’d ever said a word to me.
I walked into one of the bosses’ offices and turned on his fancy new Bose radio and the voice of Peter Jennings came through the speakers. Talking about chaos in New York and chaos in the vicinity and chaos, chaos, chaos.
As I listened, it became obvious that someone had flown a plane into one of the Twin Towers in New York, and as I worked at my desk, the radio blaring loud out of the boss’ office, I flittered in and out of attention.
Then the second plane struck the tower and we all figured out that it was an attack on us–our culture, our country—and the patina of pleasure I’d been experiencing for the past few months suddenly caved in and I felt as if my guts had zoomed to the bottom of my boots, and I thought about Vietnam and dead bodies and the stink of old death and the roar and the fear and my heart pounded and I plunged into a funk that I thought had been contained, killed, dead on arrival.
I don’t know why I blamed Theo for it all. He was only the initial messenger. He’d been on the shop crew for several months, a supposedly super woodworker who had been educated in one of those big New York City schools that taught the trades.
I hadn’t thought of this earlier, but being from New York, he must have felt something more devastating, more immediate about the murders that occurred that morning of 9/11 and, hell, he may have known someone up in that tower . . . a sister, a cousin, an old friend.
But as the day progressed, the attack on the Pentagon, the plane crashing in Pennsylvania, the only thing in my mind was the turmoil that roiled my innards and my desire for revenge against whoever in the hell had attacked the towers, New York, America, me. Yes, who had attacked me.
And as the following days heaped fear upon us, and chaos, and the flow of information about the attack and its impact on our world, my rage and my uncertainty festered like an ugly boil about to pop.
And every time I went out into the shop, the sound of radio people talking about the attack—the reasons for the attack, who was at fault—galled me. Most of the time it was Theo’s radio blaring a Bay Area station.
As time went on and I went out, the radio voices fingered someone to blame: the government, the corporate structure that kept us all under the yoke, Republicans, Democrats. The litany of blames became more obscure as the days went by, and in my paranoid mind, anyway, it seemed the announcers, the opinionators, the talking heads on that station were looking for anyone to blame except for the people who flew those planes—Mohammed Atta and his fellow murderers and their handlers who hid in the background controlling everything.
But to those radio heads it was the government’s fault, it was George W. Bush’s fault, this organization’s fault, that bunch’s.
After some of the sorriest days I ever lived, I walked out one morning while the planers planed and the straight-line saws whined and the sanders buzzed, and over the racket of the shop, those now familiar voices on Theo’s radio announced that the one who was really at fault for the death and the misery of 9/11 was the architect who designed the Towers, because he had them made of this and that and he didn’t foresee the attack and blah and blah and bullshit that swelled in my craw and began to jerk and pinch and kick and burn, and with a voice that any Marine Corps drill instructor would have loved, I boomed, “If that “f**king radio isn’t’ shut off in ten seconds, I’m going to yank it off the shelf, smash it on the floor and kick the shit out of whoever turned it on.”
I glared at Theo, and the shop foreman ran over and turned the radio off, but I had more to say, “And If I come out in this shop and hear that f**ing station ever again, I’m going to take a hammer to the radio and its owner.”
After that, in my estimation, Theo couldn’t do anything right, and as the autumn turned to winter, he made mistakes and I bullied and berated him as well as the management about the costs of his “inefficiency.”
Finally, in part probably to shut me up, the bosses found Theo a new position with another woodshop, and by all reports he did his new employer one hell of a job.
This has all come to mind right now, I suspect, because of our current Coronavirus crisis and my memories of times when my universe morphed into something that scoped in on the uncertainties of the world: JFK’s assassination, the Siege of Khe Sanh, 9/11.
For months after that morning on 9/11, while driving down the road, I would burst into tears, I would sob and have to wipe my eyes. I hated that, the breaking down.
I was weak and not what I thought was the kind of man I wanted to be, and I understood as the weeks went on that I suffered from the return of all my guilt and grief and rage, my PTSD, from Vietnam that I thought I’d whipped into shape.