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.

More on the Power of Names, With Mr. Bill Jayne

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.”

Bill Jayne, photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers

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.

Bill Jayne in boot camp at Parris Island, SC.

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’s bio:

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.

Theo

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.

Twin Towers on 9/11/2001. Photo courtesy of Reuters

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.”

Blogger Ken Rodgers. Photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers

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.

And I blamed Theo.

Maybe It Still Is

In the beginning, I only craved birds I could shoot and eat. But over the years, I’ve morphed into a watcher.

This last month, Betty and I have been driving around the West and observing a trove of avian critters.

Red-tailed hawks perched on every high point around the marshy fens near Klamath Falls, Oregon.

On the Sonoma coast, we spotted marbled godwits and willets nudging sand as the ebbing tide left prey for them.

In New Mexico, we sought cranes, the sandhill variety, thousands of them to delight all the photographers with the long, long lenses. And then the frantic eruptions of huge flocks of snow geese.

In Arizona where the Sonoran and the Chihuahuan Desert meet, we sought the elegant trogon, which to me is a holy grail of birds. Why? Maybe it’s the word. Elegant. That’s nomenclature not often common in the milieu in which I’ve existed.

In my early years it was mourning dove, Gambel’s quail, chukar, ring-necked pheasant and wild turkey.

My father loved to go fowling and I think it was something that his brothers and he did all the time during the depression. They lived in a house with fourteen or fifteen relatives and siblings. There was never enough to eat.

I’ve chased quail of multiple species across sorghum fields and desert flats, the undulations of sagebrush country. I’ve hidden in the woods as my hunting partner tried to gobble up a big tom, and I’ve scaled frozen hillsides chasing chukar through ten-degree dawns.

When I was young, I loved the chase and the thrill when what you shot plopped in a miniature cloud of dust.

I always considered myself someone who respected nature and especially the things I hunted. There were rules and requirements and there was proper behavior, a respect for the quarry, the law, and your fellow hunter, and for the landowner, too.

But I think the best of us often fall off the wagon as we wend our way through life. I recall northwest Kansas, the early 80s. Blue-knuckle cold and raspy wind and a gaggle of hunting partners with Springer Spaniels.

Back then I was sulled up like an old black bull that’s wandered off into a quicksand bog, and no matter how hard he struggles, can’t get out.

A man from Colorado Springs and I broke off from the hunting group and hiked around a big marsh, cracking sick and dirty jokes, laughing about stuff that the rest of the world wouldn’t see as particularly funny. At that moment, I felt the two of us were kindred and cynical, somehow bonded.

I noticed a flock of small birds fly into a bush growing next to the rough trail where we stalked. As we drew close, the sounds of their chirps and singing reached out and circled me like hymns you’d hear in the Christmas season and the red and blacks, mixed with the varying shades of russet in the surrounding soil and vegetation created a color palette that thrummed.

I stopped. Something boiled my guts like big heartburn. I lifted my twelve-gauge and hulled away, one, two, three times.

Gunpowder stench drilled into my nose as a slow smoke coiled from the end of my weapon’s barrel. I stomped to the bush but the only thing I found were tattered leaves on the ground.

I spewed a string of vulgarisms and something about not being able to hit a bull in the ass with a fiddle when I noticed my companion looking at me askance.

Our camaraderie hightailed like a flock of starlings that just figured out that a northern goshawk is swooping in for the kill.

For decades, the memory of all those pretty, scattering black and red birds has fluttered into my mind, me feeling like a creep who keeps bugging the head cheerleader at the high school prom.

I am not sure why but I perpetually ponder the need for killing. When I was a kid with a BB gun, we shot at doves and sparrows and anything else that moved, including each other.

One day I rode my bike past the J home and the three J brothers were out in the vacant lot next door. I lifted my BB gun and shot F, the oldest brother, in the ass. The report of that BB hitting its target rushes at me across the dusty decades.

Later, I learned to kill doves and quail with a shotgun and mule deer and pronghorns with a rifle, and then I joined the Marines Corps and the tenor of the killing changed. In Vietnam I tried like hell to kill communists, but I’m not sure I was successful.

One evening during the Siege of Khe Sanh, I snuck down the trench as incoming roared, exploded and shook the red ground beneath my feet. On top of the platoon’s command bunker lay one of my Marine buddies. He gripped an M-14 rifle with a starlight scope. I asked him what he was up to.

“Killing gooks.”

Right then I wanted to “kill gooks,” too. They’d surrounded us, pounded us, killed our mates. They had scared us into realms where fear was so powerful, multilayered and pervasive that, if we lived, we would never escape its ability to reduce us to skittering, paranoid animals for the rest of our lives.

I climbed up there and demanded to be part of the action, and he complied. He wasn’t excited about it, but in the spirit, I suppose, of brotherhood and Semper Fi, he handed me the rifle. Its cold stock felt like manna in my hands. As I placed my eye to the scope, I witnessed blurry images of heads and shoulders popping up and down across a long distance and those are what I shot. I don’t know if I hit anyone, but damn it, at the moment, I needed to. And maybe I did kill someone and maybe there’s a picture of him, or her, on a shelf somewhere in Hanoi, a remnant of a person.

And at the time, shooting at those North Vietnamese soldiers didn’t feel any more momentous than shooting at white-winged dove the first day of hunting season.

And now, as I recall the sneer of the man out there in the cold Kansas wind, I suspect that something was wrong with me when I shot at those innocent little birds in Kansas, and my need to go around shooting them was the tip of an iceberg of another order.

Maybe it still is.

But I Won’t

The cock’s crow rattled me and sent my mind marching through memory’s journeys: into an old barnyard where I once stepped on a rotten egg while watching a big black-and-red rooster send out his call, the sickly pop of the decayed shell followed by the stink of the gas that hung in my nose for hours after Mother came and hauled me home; or down the muddy chuckholes of Beech Street where roosters sparred in a chicken coop beneath an ancient mesquite tree that the neighborhood kids said housed a spirit who could speak to rattlesnakes.

Betty and I have been on the road for a little over two weeks and are now snug in a three-hundred-year-old adobe in New Mexico near where the crowing cock lives. We’ve been here several days, admiring the ancient pine vigas holding up the roof and the micaceous clay plaster shimmering on the walls and the ancient floors that once felt the thump and thunder of dancers hundreds of years past when this adobe was part of a larger rancho.

One of the details about this area, called Talpa, is that it is a place of “brujas” and memories keep ghosting into my recall—not just rooster and cock crows, but other things that I suspect have barged into my mind because of all the things we’ve seen on this trip while motoring through rain and snow and peaks and deserts, canyons, ponderosa forests, redwoods sweeping the fog off the tops of ridges; days so clear they sting because of the singular lines between the blue of the sky and the snow-capped peaks beyond; and the cattailed marshes in the foreground are as pure as a spirit who tells no lies. Who knows, maybe the recollections are haunted by the spell of a local bruja living down Archuleta Road.

My memories usually turn to something more visceral, where I am captured in a concrete space where actual time has taken leave and left me mired—but not always, sometimes I’m in a sweet space that candies up the moment—in the details of a particular incident ten, twenty, thirty years gone, or maybe more.

This time it could be all the fog on the trip. As we drove, the clouds hung like shifty gray shrouds on the black macadam winding through the wild country between the Sierra Nevada and the White Mountains. And then we encountered the fog that rises from a warmer, damp ground when smothered beneath cold air hovering overhead.

As I lay on the bed and looked at the log vigas in the old adobe, those recent fog images hurled me back fifty-plus years to a bleak and lonely night on the Laotian border when me and a Sioux Marine we called “Chief” were on a listening post in a curtain of mist so thick I damned near drowned in a pool of it as I crept down a trail I could only sense beneath my muddy jungle boots.

Chief and I tried to sneak about our grim business, like quiet death after a long coma, but we scraped and jingled where our dungarees met our web gear and our steps in the mud sounded like the sucking noise you make when rocking your boots out of wet, red clay.

We set up our listening post on the lip of a huge bomb crater and tried like hell to make out what ghosted within the haze that hurried past our chilled faces as it traversed west to east like a thief leaving Las Vegas heading to Salt Lake.

It’s funny how the imagination dredges up specters full of danger when you can’t see, and we listened for anything other than the sound of the fog, its cold voice like a low sonorous chant from an all-male chorus in an ancient Capuchin monastery.

And, in my memory at least, the fog was gone before we could contemplate it leaving, and we were stunned with a night so bright that the wet mud from the bomb crater reflected light at us that rendered me naked, a frightened waif, waiting to die.

The moon was full and as big as the snout on a five-hundred-pound bomb, and off in the distance, the flicker of stars went on and off like interstellar messages sent via semaphore.

And then, as if the night was meant to be a parade of differing tempers, a thunderstorm roared in from the same direction the fog had come, and we were lit up not by moonlight, but by lightning that crashed and boomed so close, the ground we sat on shook, and the rain came at us like cat’s claws followed by hail as hard as machinegun rounds and then the rain beat upon us again. Sheets and sheets of it shrieked out of the black.

We rolled up in poncho liners and donned ponchos, but soaked to the marrow of my backbone, I began to shiver, and then I began to shake and my teeth chattered so hard, I feared the enemy could hear them.

Chief, a man of few words, grabbed my poncho and pulled it over my head and I began to scrabble, all arms and legs, to make him stop, and then he yanked my poncho liner from around my body and exposed me to the horrible blare of the rain and thunder. Then he rolled up against me and put his arms around me and we were suddenly beneath poncho liners and ponchos and then he whispered, “Blue-eyed boy, you got hypothermia”—something I’d never heard of and something I felt Chief knew nothing about. “Settle down, Blue-eyed boy, hypothermia can kill your dumb ass.”

Those words frightened me and as the rain settled into a steady drizzle, I gradually stopped shaking.

What bothered me as much as fog and thunder and mud and lightning and rain was the fact that we—two warriors exposed to the elements and whomever might be crawling through the soggy night to slice our throats—were trapped in a momentary intimacy that felt taboo in a way that United States Marines back in 1967 would never understand. And I felt that lack of understanding and I envisioned myself as weak, unfit, and violated, although I had not been violated. I feared that my fellow Marines up on the hill would find out what Chief had done to…to…save me, and I would be stamped, forever marked.

But neither of us ever said a word and several months later Chief rotated home and I sometimes, at night, see his thin face smirking from my cold, damp dreams. I am haunted by my inability to contact him out there in South Dakota and thank him for saving me; and I have thought about driving back there on one of Betty’s and my adventures and talking to him, but I never have and probably never will.

He may be dead, he may not want to relive the memories of that war, he may not want to see me and talk to me about that night where he wrapped his arms around me and chased the killing cold from my body. He may, he may, he may…I know, they are excuses and I should analyze them, take them apart like a Marine disassembling an M-16 in the pitch black of night.

But I won’t.