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.

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 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.