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.

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.

On the Snake and Other Rivers

On Christmas Day, Betty and I ventured south of Boise down to the Snake River Canyon for photography and a look at the wigeons and goldeneyes, the sheep grazing in the snow covered sage, and the river.

The Snake is a long river that starts in Idaho with major contributions to its flow rising in Wyoming, Nevada and Oregon. By taming the Snake, engineers in the early 20th Century set the table for an agricultural explosion on the Snake River Plain, a region of harsh winters and summers and little precipitation.

Snake River Plain Copyright Ken Rodgers 2013

Where I live, the Snake offers, among other things, recreation, wildlife habitat, electrical power, irrigation water and photographic opportunities. Idaho’s famous spuds rely on the waters of the Snake.

I think we often take rivers for granted. I know I do, assuming that they are there to offer up the varieties of satisfaction I require at any particular moment. Need a cold drink of water further chilled by chunks of ice? Check. Need to turn on the lights in the backyard so I can cipher what is making all that racket? Check. Need a photo op? A sturgeon? A view of some flashy male wood ducks? Check. Check. Check. Need a fresh spud?

Here in Boise we have the Boise River running right through downtown, and the Snake, the Jarbidge, the Bruneau, the Owyhee, the Malheur and the Payette aren’t far away. Most of the time I don’t even think about them unless there is something I want to do along a riverbank or I start fearing that they may flood.

When I was a kid on southern Arizona we lived in the middle of what had been at one time the Santa Cruz River which flowed from the mountains on the US-Mexican border and then hung a left turn at Tucson and headed west-northwest for the Gila River. My grandmother told me that when she was young, around 1900, the Santa Cruz carried steamboats from the Phoenix area to Tucson, that there were critters in the river, fish and otters and such. By the time I was born, there was nothing left of the Santa Cruz but sandy places in the dirt roads that ran out through the country. Here and there a bridge went over a low spot which had at some point been part of a river conduit. There was a Santa Cruz County and a Santa Cruz high school and names of old Santa Cruz River channels on maps, but until the wild rains occasionally showed, the Santa Cruz River was only a rumor.

Boise River Copyright Ken Rodgers 2013

In the summer of 1964 it got up with a fury that was startling. Three of my friends and I went out driving to look at all the WATER in that desert and alas got stuck in the mighty flow of the Santa Cruz. We could see Francisco Grande, where the major league San Francisco Giants practiced some spring training. One friend and I decided to walk over there and call some friends to come pull us out. What, under normal circumstances, would have been a short evening walk turned out to be an ordeal: bobbing over our heads down surprising channels, dirty water in our mouths, our eyes, our noses, having to use greasewood to pull ourselves across places that wanted to pummel us downstream. Besides the threat of shattered bones or drowning, we didn’t even think about all the critters displaced by the flood: raccoons, skunks, coyotes, badgers, all with the capability of clawing and gnawing had we been unfortunate enough to encounter them. And I don’t even want to think, these some forty-nine years later, about the snakes; side winders and diamond backs and tiger rattlers and Mojave rattlers and coral snakes abused by the assault of muddy waters in their dens and that had to climb up into the foliage that we used to help us navigate the entire maelstrom. Ouch!

Not far from my hometown were the San Pedro, the Salt, the Verde, the Hassayampa, the Agua Fria and the Gila which are all dammed and don’t allow much flow. But in the ferocious times, like the storms of September 1984, they can roar ten miles wide and destroy everything in their paths. Back then, the rivers cut the state of Arizona into blocks where it often took a plane or helicopter ride to get from one place to another. Roads were pretty useless.

When I domiciled in Vietnam, there were big rivers everywhere. Right after I arrived, a Seabee drowned on the Song Vu Ghia in Quang Nam Province, and they helicoptered Second Platoon of Bravo Company, 1/26, out to a sand bar in that river. We landed in a hail of sand and rifle fire, the snap of AK-47 rounds pinging our ears and white sand dancing at our feet. We got on line and assaulted a paltry row of trees, but alas, the enemy had evaporated right before our eyes. We saw nothing of the drowned Seabee.

Later, at Khe Sanh, we crossed the Song Rao Quan in the summer of 1967. I was the first to cross to the south bank on a patrol Second Platoon ran in support of First Platoon which were ambushed on Route Nine which runs parallel to the river. We spent a soggy night on a hill further south of the river. I remember that my fingers looked like the wrinkled digits of fishermen as we set in, waiting for an attack that never came. The only thing that came was the incessant rain. The next day we headed back to Route Nine. But instead of a shin-deep, quiet flow, the river was hissing in anger. But we were Marines with a mission, so we crossed the river. A Jarhead swam across with the end of a thick rope. He secured the rope to a big tree and we began to hazard the battering of the water.

One of our radiomen lost his footing and his hold on the rope and went floating towards Quang Tri, twenty-five or thirty miles downstream. His feet were in the air, and he pedaled, as if on a bike, as if that might save him. He reminded me of a beetle when you turn it over on its back. The furious kicking of the legs. As if that would save it from death. Someone went downstream and waded into the river and brought him across. That happened three or four times to different Marines. Some of us could not swim at all. Some of us swam well. We all made it and climbed up onto the road and then up a hill. I walked point, sure that the enemy had set in on the high ground we’d occupied before we went south across the river. But they had not. No booby traps, no sign.

Snake River Copyright Ken Rodgers 2013

When Betty and I lived in New Mexico, we homesteaded near the Rio Peñasco which in many places you could step across. But why not, New Mexico is a dry land with scant rivers. I heard tell that the Mescalero Apaches spoke of a time when the only place to get a drink of water was the Rio Grande or the Rio Pecos. The space in between is a mighty distance. You would die of thirst if you had to traverse the desert and the mountains and the plains between without a taste of water.

When Betty and I lived in Sonoma County, it was the Russian which was a docile rio until the winter rains lifted it over its banks, ruining houses and farms and vineyards. And it was the same with the nearby Eel and Gualala and Napa and Petaluma Rivers as they belched their muddy waters into the Pacific Ocean or San Pablo Bay.

And here we are now in southwestern Idaho, a parched land with lots of rivers. We often take them for granted.

On Sheep, Blogging and Hog Leg .44s

The beginning of this October, I am to participate in a writers’ retreat about blogging with some fine fellow bloggers, and I suspect there will be a bevy of useful tips and advice for writers of all levels.

My experience as a blogger is: I know how to get my blog up on my site and add pictures and videos and other graphics. I know how to write, or it seems I should, since I have been blogging fairly steadily since 2010. I manage two blogs and have written as a guest at a number of other folks’ sites. I read other people’s work, too, so I have a notion of how my creations stack up.

As of late, I have not been blogging. I don’t want to spend a whole lot of time analyzing why I am not blogging with any regularity, but let it suffice that if I am going to present at the retreat, I best get my rear end in gear and compose.

When I am on a roll, I generally blog on a weekly schedule, and the subject matter veers from book reviews to memoir to philosophizing to film reviews to travel blogs. The array cuts a fairly wide swath through types of blogs and thought processes and I suspect that occurs because after four years I’ve begun to frantically ask myself, “What am I going to blog about?” I think about this, I think about that, I grab a book off the shelf that I recently read, I think about a film I watched. Lately the only emotion that has been evoked by any of those actions is a big “HO HUM.” So, what’s the solution?

I am a thrill freak in some regards. I suppose it comes about as a result of my time in Vietnam when adrenaline rushes were what helped keep me alive. Nothing boring about getting shot at. After forty-five years, I still crave that thrill.

I have learned that you can capture, or re-capture, that thrill in writing. Danger is not the only stimulus that can give the writer a thrill. Any kind of thrill might be the impetus to get you banging away at the keyboard. For our purposes today, danger will be the fuse that lights the dynamite. The excitement comes at you as you begin to remember something that was dangerous, or had the capability of becoming dangerous. Once you let your imagination meet your memory, events can be relived, so to speak, and you are there, running from the snap-whine of a sniper’s rifle fire or digging your fingers and toes into the bottom of a trench even as incoming artillery rattles everything around you. You can be vicariously thrilled writing about memories. You can turn memory into action-charged prose (or poetry if you choose).

My mind is searching over my history to find some moments when I was scared and thrilled at the same moment. Sitting here writing this, I’m back at Thanksgiving of 1971. I was employed as a sheep herder/fence builder/truck driver in southern Arizona. The day before, we had moved a band of sheep into an alfalfa field lying leeward of the Sierra Estrella. We pounded metal posts into hard white calíche and fenced-off eighty acres, then moved the sheep in. I dropped two big water troughs inside the wire enclosure and filled them up out of the water truck I was driving. The foreman who supervised me leaned against his pickup and smoked a Marlboro.

Across the field was the farmer’s headquarters: a house, a shop, several Quonset huts, a set of corrals, an old chute that hadn’t been used in a long time. Looking over there I noticed what looked like a bunch of dogs. Now, most town folk, animal lovers and non-sheepherding folk don’t understand how a sheep man feels about dogs. As my old friend Bob Moser used to say, “One dog’s a pretty good dog, two dogs is half a dog, and three dogs is no dog at all.” Packed up, dogs can and often do kill sheep, or worse, they maim them. Don’t get me wrong, I love dogs and most dogs seem to like me. But there is something about ancient predator/predatee relationships that often make a bad mix with sheep and dogs, especially sheep that are not protected by a herder or paradoxically, guard dogs. And of course, the dangerous dogs are the ones that are not managed by their owners and that gang up in packs. So, seeing four or five dogs darting around between those Quonset huts made both the foreman and me more than a little nervous.

As if on cue, the farmer got in a flatbed truck and drove out of his headquarters, down the dirt road that ran along our new fence, and pulled up. Dust boiled all around. Immediately upon stopping, the sound of barking and yapping dogs filled the air. As the dust calmed down, I could see five Blue Queensland Heelers prancing around the back of that flatbed. Their ears were up and so were their snouts. It was a primal moment, watching those dogs strut their business—the business of herding animals. Heelers are herders by trade. The sheep all balled up and ran into one of the opposite corners of that large field. They obviously had notions of their own about what those dogs’ intentions might be. I heard bleating complaints out of the ewes as they scampered around and moved their lambs as far from those Queensland Heelers as possible.

The farmer got out of his truck and walked over. He wore a smile on his red face and sported a scraggly mustache. He stuck out his big wrinkled hand and introduced himself real friendly like. He and the foreman talked for a while about alfalfa and sheep and the weather and water and then he said, “Do not put any poison out.” I did not blame him for saying this since he had five fancy dogs in the primes of their lives and also because sheepherders, us included, had a reputation for trapping, shooting and poisoning dogs and other predators. And our reputation was well earned because we did all those things. Remember what I told you. Dogs kill sheep.

I left after that and returned the next morning to check on the sheep. The sky wore a flat gray mantle and a cold wind whipped off the Sierra Estrella as I pulled off the highway onto the dirt road that ran along our page wire fence. I stopped and climbed over the fence. I heard a vehicle start up. I checked the water troughs and they had plenty of water. I pulled my old Levi jacket closed to keep out the chill. I heard a vehicle coming. I looked up and saw that flatbed truck turn onto the dirt road. I watched the truck for a moment, noticed the rooster’s tail of dust that reared up behind. I thought, seems like he’s coming a little too fast. It was kind of like radar going off inside my mind. I shook my head and told myself I was not at Khe Sanh and looked around to see if there was any sign of dead sheep since we did not put out any poison. I heard the truck behind me as the driver laid on the brakes. The tires bit into the gravel on the road. I heard the door slam and the farmer (whose voice I recognized) yell something at me.

I turned and immediately noticed he was toting a hog leg; looked like a .44. It had a chrome barrel and a black grip. I had an old World War I Mauser bolt action rifle in the truck that I had never shot, and besides I didn’t think I had time to get to it so we could have a standoff. I looked around for some place to disappear as his boots scuffed the ground and he mumbled stuff I couldn’t understand. The only place to hide was behind one of the water troughs but that would be ridiculous since he’d seen me and would just come shoot me if that’s what he wanted.

I felt as if I was lost out there with those troughs and those sheep and that farmer climbing over the fence. He did so awkwardly because he had that damned pistol and because he wanted to make sure, I’m sure, that he didn’t take his eyes off of me. I noticed there were no dogs on the back of the truck. The sheep bleated and moved around as if there was nothing wrong. But something was wrong. No dogs strutted on the back of the flatbed.

He stomped up to me and his face was three times redder than yesterday and his eyes were worn out. I’d of said he’d been crying but he was carrying that hog leg. He yelled, “Out, out.” I said, “What do you mean?” He blurted, “Get them sheep out of here, now.” I know I looked incredulous. He yelled, “Now!” I shrugged and turned the palms of my hands up. “Where? It’s Thanksgiving and I don’t…” He stuck the end of that hog leg in my face. It was close enough that it reminded me of the round eye of a dead ewe. I threw my arms up. “Whoa,” I shouted, “whoa. You need to settle down.” All this while figuring out how I would disarm him, or escape him or…or…or… He got his face close to mine and stuck that hog leg in my gut. I could smell coffee and garlic and the faint whiff of whiskey. He hissed, “I told you no poison.” I replied, “I didn’t put any poison out.” The gun jabbed further into my too-soft stomach flesh. “Get ’em out.” He didn’t seem to be in any mood to discuss the matter, so I lifted up the fence and after much chasing, haranguing, running and sweating as I cussed my foreman for putting out strychnine, I got that band of sheep out on the road pointed in a totally different direction than the business end of that hog leg .44. Getting them somewhere safe, somewhere they were wanted, and with water and feed was a totally separate adventure. Subject matter for another blog.

My wife pointed out how the voice and energy in this piece changed as soon as my memory dropped back to Thanksgiving, 1971. That anecdotal evidence jives with my notion of how memory and thrill might be a way to drive writing one’s blogs.

On Tippah County, Mississippi and Boston’s North End

I am sitting here in central Maine thinking about radiant hardwoods that glow like neon in the waning light of evening. Brilliant, possessive reds and oranges and yellows crowd my inner vision, but we are in Maine too early, so the only colors here are summer green and the hinted ends of the maples barely kissed by the cool lips of autumn.

When I last blogged, I promised to be prompt with reflections of our travels, but the travel itself has battered us a bit and our schedule of BRAVO!’s film screenings, although heady and satisfying, have drained us of energy.

My last blog was created in Memphis, Tennessee on August 20, 2012, and since then we have motored east and north approximately 2700 miles over 23 days including a trip to one of my paternal ancestral homes in northern Mississippi where we bought fat red bell peppers from a retired school teacher at the farm market in the parking lot of the old Tippah County courthouse in Ripley and visited with the historical museum director about families with the last names of Adams and Banta and Rodgers.

We spent a day with a Van Dyke-bearded National Park Service Ranger at the Chickamauga Civil War battlefield in northwestern Georgia, just a few miles south of Chattanooga, Tennessee. The ranger was a man caught in a love grip with history, and he dramatically sashayed and bent and swayed and delivered other gesticulations about history, life and death on the battlefield.

The heat stayed away as we journeyed east and we were refreshed as we drove through the fog on the Blue Ridge Parkway of North Carolina, recalling books like Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, a story of the Civil War and that dire tale certainly slipped and bobbed in my brain as we cast our eyes on the gorgeous layers of ridges that ran off east and west, the greenery seething with the mists. I recalled, too, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ novel The Yearling about a young boy and his pet deer named Flag. The deer population in the Blue Ridge country is prodigious (as we saw it) and the harsh nature of the epiphany of Rawlings’ story seemed to fit right in with the Civil War milieu that is still so important in the American south of 2012.

In Washington, DC, we stayed with Betty’s cousins Chuck and Donna Dennis and journeyed to Richmond to visit our old friends Lee and Betty Plevney. We attended a Khe Sanh Veterans reunion where we again screened BRAVO! to over 130 enthusiastic viewers. We journeyed to Colonial Williamsburg—a most wonderful place—and toured the Revolutionary War site at Yorktown and the archaeological dig at Jamestown where Virginia’s first settlers managed to survive. Old tales from high school literature about John Rolfe and Captain John Smith and Pocahontas erupted into a time capsule reality as we trod across storied ground by the waters of the wide James River where they lived their lives with osprey and belted kingfishers and fiddler crabs.

Then on to Boston through rural Pennsylvania and New York. We again screened the film and enjoyed a tour of Boston from our wonderful host, Marie Mottola Chalmers, who snaked us through the delightful warrens of the red- bricked North End, redolent with the history of Paul Revere and the Old North Church, Samuel Adams and Faneuil Hall, the Boston Tea Party, the Boston Massacre, Peter Agoos’ modern sculpture titled “Art Imbalance.”

Boston Tea Party, Chickamauga, Civil War, Yorktown, Khe Sanh, Boston Massacre; it seems I am encapsulated by war. Is it only me, filled up with a memory of death and mayhem, who lives in the cocoon of war?

We are now in Calais, Maine, pining for the colors of fall. But we are early and the weather is quite balmy and so, it seems, we need to head north. On to Nova Scotia and Cape Breton.

On the Battlefield at Shiloh, Tennessee

Yesterday the blue in the sky acted like a magnet, dragging me into the puffed-wheat world of clouds. The road bored into a thick hardwood forest. The humidity and temperature pitied my dry-skinned Idaho-ness and remained in the realm of comfort.

Shiloh

Betty and I showed at Shiloh battlefield early, before the midday Sunday visitor rush descended like long lost Civil War angels. The official name is Shiloh National Military Park and the name “park” fits the location well. It looks like a park, with the requisite monuments and peaceful fields bordered by luscious stands of pine and hardwoods.

The fight at Shiloh on April 6 and 7, 1862, was the first great Civil War battle in the west with one-hundred-eleven-thousand combatants and resulted in 24,000 dead, wounded and missing in action. What happened there belies the peaceful place Betty and I encountered. Wild turkeys clucked and putted. Spotted white tail fawns loped across the East Corinth Road, the Corinth-Pittsburg Landing Road and the Bark Road. Woodpeckers drummed and cicadas sang.

Old Shiloh Meeting House

Only the monuments and the field markers told of the havoc and death that occurred there one-hundred-fifty years ago. Musket balls, grape shot, bayonet charges were apparent only in the history. All over this magnificent park, signs and testaments delineated every regiment, every artillery battery, the field hospitals, the troop movements, the savage engagements with names like the “Hornet’s Nest” and “Bloody Pond” and the “Peach Orchard.” A serious student of what happened at Shiloh in April 1862 could spend days walking from sign and monument to sign and testimonial and receive a detailed lecture in both historical and spatial facets of the battle.

Interior of the Old Shiloh Meeting House

But Betty and I were here for the country and the mood and the photography, and yes, the history, too. But what never fails to astound me is how these manmade cataclysms, these Antietams, Gettysburgs, Pea Ridges, Spottsylvania Courthouses all tendered their slaughter on terrain of breathtaking beauty. And not just in the Civil War: The beaches at Normandy are magnificent; the battle site of Little Bighorn—or Greasy Grass as the native Americans have named it—commands a kingly view of the surrounding plains, mountains and rivers of the Wyoming/Montana landscape.

When I arrived in Khe Sanh, Vietnam, in the spring of 1967, the triple canopy jungles, the mountains and marshes were gorgeous. When I left in the spring of 1968, the land was shattered tree trunks, rust red bomb craters and death death death.

Cannon at Shiloh

I could wax on about why we do this, but answers that make sense evade me as do so many other pat solutions when man goes about besetting himself against man. We love, we crave the beauty of our surroundings, and then we sometimes crush it.

On this day, in the rolling verdant landscape of southern Tennessee and Shiloh, we pondered man and history for a while, then went to dine on catfish filets at the Catfish Hotel, hard by the Tennessee River at Pittsburg Landing.

On Man, Nature and Beauty

The weekend before last, Betty and I ate a sumptuous Sunday supper with our daughter and son-in-law, Sarah and Baruch Ellsworth, at The Corson Building in the Georgetown area of Seattle, Washington. After dining we headed back north to our lodging and noticed Mount Rainier, whose bottom was obscured by clouds that made the mountain look like it was suspended in a pink space, the pink coming from the setting sun illuminating the snow covered sides. The majesty of the instant reminded me of all those moments when nature sneaks up and surprises us with the magic of an unforeseen display.

Driving north we looked to the west and the peaks of the Olympic Peninsula jutted up like busted-off teeth, the recent snow only slightly more radiant than the mountain range’s rocky parts, all of it defined by the splayed light of the dying sun. A rose tint cast on the western sides of glassy skyscrapers. The thin clouds overhead captured their own pink tints, so that the night hung with a pregnant beauty created by a mix of season, sunset, snow, rock, and the steel and glass of tall buildings.

Since returning to our home in Boise, the mental image of all those pinks captured in both natural and manmade surfaces has set me to thinking on the nature of beauty in landscape.

I am a creature of the American West, having lived in desert, city, coastal and mountain environs, and have learned to appreciate what the land has to offer. Coastal rips of white and blue waves engulfing craggy rocks populated by black cormorants; fierce-toothed dust storms looming over spiny Sonoran desert mountain ranges; Rocky Mountain meadows and creek banks pocked with purples and reds and yellows of lupine and Indian paintbrush and cinquefoil; acres of high-basin barbwire and sagebrush dusted with an early morning snow; the lacy fingers of ice on the edge of a winter river. And not just nature, but also sunlight jigging in the windows of tall buildings, or the reflection of the spring-green hills in the glass of skyscrapers, the exquisite arc of a bridge over a foamy river…mixtures of man and nature’s creations that generate moments compelling one to mumble, “Aha.”

I suppose that those human/natural creations can be either serendipitous moments of sun and glass and cloud, or something envisioned by an architect or urban planner designing a building, a park, a bridge. Either way, there seems to be beauty in the meeting of land and man.

Granted, sometimes the meeting doesn’t result in something particularly grand, but in something heinous and ugly. I often recall moments of driving down boulevards of towns in the American West when the view of mountains, meadow or canyons has been blocked by cheap buildings, too many catty billboards, street lights, telephone lines, street signs all jumbled, with no thought given to how they may meet the human eye.

When we decide, as humans, to do it ugly, we do it well. Yet it’s not so simple as saying man only creates—through his bad behavior, his greed, his lack of foresight—things that are monstrosities to the eye and our sense of aesthetics. That would be too easy. Sometimes, I think, through his most catastrophic acts, man, in conjunction with nature, does create beauty.

Before I continue, don’t get me wrong, because I despise warfare on the most elemental levels. But as I sat trapped in the Siege of Khe Sanh, 1968, one of the things that rattled me the most was the stark and searing beauty created by war.
Bombarded trees shattered, their stripped limbs backlit by the early morning sun, or caught in stark white-barked contrast to the bomb and artillery shell-hole-pocked red mud landscape and the long spine of rugged jungle-tiered mountains in the distance. Those same tree limbs observed in juxtaposition to the hulls of blasted coffee-plantation houses, the roofs bashed in, the walls half gone, their surviving bricks delicately fingered out into the space left behind when incoming artillery killed all the life inside. Or the jumble of sea bags and ammo boxes with their weird geometrical scatter against the dull green of a shredded Marine Corps tent and the red dirt of the surrounding terrain. The abstract expression existing in the jumble of spent artillery casings and scraps of torn jungle dungarees, a collage it seemed; and a Guernica-like Picasso-esque helmet without a head, a boot close by, no foot inside. Beauty…our horrible beauty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Bangkok, Top Sergeants and Hookers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Grasshoppers, Mormon crickets, C-Rations and Cannibals

I just read an essay about Africa in which the author mused about sitting in an airport waiting for a ride out of Nigeria. As he dealt with delays and uncertainty, he killed time watching the insects fly around as evening arrived and he noticed how the locals trapped them and cooked them in a can. I’m not sure I’ve ever eaten insects on purpose, although sometime in my life I might have dined on some kind of six-legged critter. I suppose if you are ravenous enough, a cricket, an ant, a cockroach might hit the spot. The thought of munching on one of these hard-backed, black beetles I’ve seen on the trails around Boise isn’t too palatable and I’m sure their armored parts would not be as tasty as braised asparagus spears or a rare t-bone steak. I have no intention of finding out if cockroach legs taste as sharp as they look.

I have eaten some pretty sorry grub in my life. Once, in Vietnam, we went out into the bush for a two or three hour patrol and ended up staying over a week. We took no chow (on the orders of the Platoon Sergeant) and for a number of days received none either. Those of us who, disobeying orders, thought to take a can of chicken noodle soup or pound cake found ourselves quite popular. Once, while we were out there looking around for someone to shoot, or something to eat, a six-by Marine Corps-green truck loaded with soda pop come down the road and sped around a curve just below our position. The lieutenant sent a few of us to check out the chaos and we found a whole palette of orange Fanta spilled out into the road. The NVA were out there too, so we set up a perimeter and helped load up the wayward soda. When we got down to the last few cases of pop, we got into an argument about our share. The sergeant in charge of the truck full of soda said his orders were to deliver all of it to Khe Sanh, so he was thankful we’d helped round up the errant cans, but he could not share. Since we were hungry enough to eat the skin off the rock apes that lived up on the ridge, we took offense and brandishing our locked and loaded M-16s, acted just like old-time highwaymen and held up the shipment. We stuffed our pockets full and then ordered the sergeant, at gunpoint, to vamoose and we formed a detail to haul the rest of our take of Fanta up the hill.

We were hungry, actually on the verge of starving, and after three or four cans of hot fizzy orange Fanta, we began to vomit. After that, we reserved our food procurement activities to sweeps alongside Route 9 to see if we could find some discarded cans of ham and lima beans or beefsteak and potatoes. We did not, but we did find thrown-away crackers, Hershey’s candy bars, Big Hunks, and Almond Joys, all which were mostly rotten, so we picked the bad parts off and were glad to get what we could get.

We might have eaten insects, or other such critters, but luckily for us a chopper full of fresh water and cases of C rations showed up. Yes, we might have eaten the insects—they were all around us—and some of their cousins like big black arachnids with red and yellow stripes and blazes. Spiders as big as my hand which could provide a substantial repast and less inviting, the ever-present leeches. They loved to climb onto us for a ride, or try and slither into our mouths while we slept, or into our noses. I think I was lucky and found the ones that were on my lips, looking for a way into my mouth and further down. I think I got them all, of course in the rain and wind and the humidity, who knows, I could have gained protein from a leech.

Pondering bugs, this came to mind. Years later, in southern Arizona, returning home from viewing a high school baseball game in early May I stopped in Chandler, Arizona, to buy a Coke or a Coors or maybe some pickled jalapeños. It was one of those hot spring-times of the year when the Sonoran Desert is castigated by Biblical hordes of grasshoppers. I got out of my pickup to go into the 7-11 and as I walked across the parking lot I could hear them crunching beneath the soles and heels of my lizard skin Justins. Crunch, crunch, crunch. I am not a stranger to death and mayhem, but I remember feeling just the slightest bit squeamish as I massacred all those grasshoppers, cutting short their oh-so-brief flings and I won’t even venture into what I was probably musing on…if grasshoppers feel pain, know they are dying, consider death as we do in a self-conscious way, or if they just live and die, driven only by the need to survive long enough to fertilize their eggs.

After I came out of the 7-11 with my bag of Lays or sixpack of Coors, I remember stopping to gawk at the gangs and gangs of grasshoppers flying around the street lights. It reminded me of rainfall in Khe Sanh, the way the big drops seemed to thunder down between me and the lights, but instead of thundering down they flew around and around, so many of them the light was clouded, but eerier, as the shapes and hordes moved and shifted, they caused the light to reflect, then refract, then reflect. I crunched on to my truck. I had the window down and could hear the decimation of the grasshoppers beneath my tires as I drove south.

Herds of grasshoppers like that can scour the crops and I suppose that was their goal. Similar to my grasshopper experience was when I drove my Toyota Tacoma north from Sebastopol, California, to Boise when Betty and I moved. As I approached McDermitt, Nevada, I was suddenly surrounded by hosts of critters that splatted on my windshield to the point I could not see. I turned on the windshield wipers and they got mucked up so badly I did not think the wipers would work.

I stopped at the Texaco gas station in McDermitt and the bugs were all over the asphalt and gravel parking lot. They crunched beneath my feet. Bigger than grasshoppers, almost succulent, I’d say, and as I tried to avoid that squishy sound of death beneath my boot heels I recalled I’d seen these critters before. Once my friend Wayne Wolski and I trudged up the flanks of high Mt. Jefferson in Central Nevada on a backpacking trip. After scaling to the top, our breaths wheezing, our heads like overripe muskmelons, we struggled back down and on the way, found similar critters lying in the trail. We looked them over and headed on to camp for a meal of freeze-dried spaghetti mixed with Top Ramen noodles.

Inside the McDermit Texaco, I got the skinny on “Mormon crickets,” as the lady called the succulent joint-legged denizens out there crawling, zooming, looming about. Talk about biblical or more than that, “Book of Mormonical.” I’d read about the hordes of these critters, which are actually katydids of sorts, but unlike the image of katydids of bucolic wonder that you might read about in stories like “Little House on the Prairie.” These katydids, these Mormon crickets , toted a sinister reputation that made my neck feel like a Rotweiler’s might when his hackles get up. I had read about them migrating, for one supposed reason, to keep from being eaten by other Mormon crickets.

Cannibalism. These critters eat each other. In our civilized time, cannibalism makes our skin crawl, or mine anyway. I think about Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and the constant need to eat, and the constant fear of being eaten. By other humans. Our civilized neighbors. Primitive, like it must have been in the old days, when food didn’t exist at Winco, or Safeway, or Whole Foods, but had to be foraged and scoured from whatever source was available and whenever available.

I think back to those days on that little hill alongside Route Nine in Vietnam and if we’d have had to go much longer, we would have begun eating insects, snakes, lizards, and when those were gone, what? Imagine, eating one of your comrades, one who had died in battle, or worse, one who had died saving you, protecting you, and then becoming a source of a different type of salvation. And from there it’s not hard for me to imagine how starvation might drive you to kill and eat a person more as quarry, as game. And maybe enjoy eating them. Achh, and maybe developing ritual to make one feel better about dining on one’s own species.

Ah, but we aren’t like that…..we are civilized.

Yes, we are civilized and don’t do things like that. Wolves do that, and fish, and lions, and bear, and Mormon crickets. I wonder.