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.”

Rage

I’ve been thinking about my anger.

A big storm balloons inside my gut and burns like sulfuric acid. My legs stretch taut as twined metal cable and my brain morphs to a cauldron of ugly red boil that affects sight and sound so that all I can hear and see and smell is the guy who flew up in his Mercedes on my right, darted into the small space between me and the car in front of me, scaring the hell out of me.

And I want to…well, I’m not going to say that here.

Sometimes my rage is a symptom of combat-induced Post Traumatic Stress, but if my memory hasn’t hightailed completely, I believe I had a healthy dose of anger when I was a kid.

I’ve met with shrinks and discussed my childhood and war experiences and I’ve been told I was cured…or a better phrase might be: I’m somewhat tolerable.

My father seethed and until his golden years failed to keep a lid on his wrath.

I’ve stumbled upon photos of my dad with his father, brothers, and sisters, all lined up like a gang of somber hit men.

Dad once told me he shot a neighbor kid in the eye with a BB gun back in the mid 1930s, and my grandfather took the weapon and broke it over my father’s head.

So a portion of the rage I own today probably came from my father who used to bust my butt with his thick leather belt. The one with the silver tip.

In those days I fought and fought and fought: the neighbors, strangers, family members.

In 1958, we moved about seventy miles away. For days after we arrived, I walked the streets that circled the center of the development and battled every kid who dared. In my memory I see picket fences and kids in black tennis shoes—Keds, probably—and blood dripping from noses. Torn shirts.

Once, in my teens, my mother stormed into the backyard and nagged me while I mowed the lawn. I shut down the mower, walked to our redwood picnic table, dropped to my knees, crawled beneath, stood up as I balanced the table on my neck and shoulders and then ran, raising my arms, shot-putting the table at her.

I missed her by a mile.

 

Ken Rodgers at Khe Sanh, courtesy of the Estate of Dan Horton

 

Back in my Jarhead days, rage permeated everything inside me and surrounding me, too, including my comrades.

When I was stationed at the brig at 32nd Street Naval Station in San Diego, we took our rage out on any number of things. All but one of the junior enlisted men and junior NCOs I served with there were Vietnam veterans, so a lot of my mates had issues with PTSD, moral injury and TBI although at the time, those conditions officially didn’t exist.

Our rage followed us around the brig, dealing with the cons, as we called them, and partied with us on liberty in movie houses, restaurants, living rooms and in bars, bars, bars.

One time, four of us attacked a water heater at the back of a honkytonk. The management had asked us to depart, due to our surliness and brawling, and as we loaded into my Dodge, we halted, ran at a wooden structure on the back of the building, and began kicking the plywood walls.

Once the walls were beaten into submission, we began to kick the water heater inside. I don’t know how we weren’t scalded with steam or blown to smithereens by a spark hitting natural gas, but we mangled the metal and moved on to the next saloon.

Inside the brig, we were all on the prod, mad, pissed off, all the time, at the cons incarcerated there.

Once, a team of us—two buck sergeants and another corporal—were on duty in the Base Parolee Barracks. After the cons went out on work patrols, we decided to conduct a detailed inspection.

We found packs of Marlboros and Salems and Chesterfields stuffed beneath mattresses, and dirty dungaree blouses and trousers, too, the blue Navy kind with bellbottoms. Back in the corner of one of the dorms, we found an ashtray full of cigarette butts, hidden away like the remnants were worth handfuls of money.

I don’t know which one of us went berserk first. Maybe it was me.

In the dorm I supervised, we found foot lockers that weren’t locked and we dumped them on the floor in one big pile, and then we poured water on the pile and then two of us urinated, too, and if a wall locker wasn’t locked up, we opened the doors and turned them on their faces and then, as we moved from dorm to dorm, we began to hurl foot lockers out on the concrete grinder surrounding the barracks. When we threw them from the upstairs quarters, their wooden frames shattered.

When I saw one of those lockers smash and split, skivvy drawers and Mennen shaving cream and regulation-issue United States Navy socks scattering on the ground, my innards fluttered like a Marine Corps flag in a stiff breeze.

We screamed and laughed and danced around and hooted Marine warrior Ooorahs.

When the cons returned, they knew better than to bitch.

As the years moved on, my rage still seethed.

When I first started writing, people would say, “Your work is so angry.” I think it bugged a lot of people to read and/or hear what I had to report about myself, as a person, as a warrior, and in a bigger sense, the news about humanity.

And it wasn’t just my creative expression that gurgled with images of rage, but my behavior was suspect, too, some of which I will be ashamed of for as long as I live.

Once, my son, when he was about seven or eight, pulled a fairly dangerous prank along with one of his buddies, and when confronted, fibbed about his participation.

Instantly, the ugly that lives down inside me erupted and I reached down and grabbed his bare side with my right hand and picked him up, squeezing his skin as hard as I could.

For quite a while he wore a bruise over his ribs in the shape of my hand, and still, all these decades later, that bruise looks as dark and hideous as it was in the beginning.

On Casa Grande, Terlingua and Journeys Through the West

Betty and I are getting ready to head south to the old home country to help screen our documentary film in Casa Grande, Arizona at the historic Paramount Theatre on February 13. I was born and went to school and lived in Casa Grande for a while after my return from the USMC. I have family there and we always look forward to the special time and the warm weather.

It’s been cold and foggy in Idaho with the inversion perched below the Boise Front like a wayfarer too weary to journey on. The hoarfrost has been a photographer’s delight, but I’m a desert rat and demand to see the sun every once in a while. To paraphrase the philosopher Francis Bacon, “If the sunshine will not come to Ken, Ken must go to the sunshine.”

Ken Rodgers, photo courtesy of Kevin Martini-Fuller

And it is not just the sunshine; the journey from here to there is filled with visual delights: craggy peaks that needle up into scudding clouds flying off towards the Midwest and shadows of snow-covered sagebrush tattoo the land. Long vistas unfold from one mountain range to the next with the valleys in between often populated by a single line-shack shaded by the naked branches of a cottonwood tree, a corral sitting close with some bays and sorrels and a wayward Hereford cow that can’t find her crossbreed calf. And further south, like an outdoorsman’s rapture, lays the rugged red land of the great Colorado Basin, with Zion Canyon and Bryce Canyon and the Vermilion Cliffs and Sedona. The majesty of it all dares your camera to cram all the import of each moment onto the computer chip inside that captures memory. Even if that isn’t possible, just having the privilege to see it and store it in your reminiscence will provide many luscious moments when you are trapped behind your desk, or lying there awake hours before the sun shows up to announce another day.

After Arizona, we are motoring down to Alpine, TX, for some cowboy poetry and Big Bend, Marfa, Terlingua. Betty and I lived half a day away from Big Bend in the eighties and always thought that the journey down there was too far, but now we travel all over this country, and what seemed too difficult then is now something we can get done with little sweat.

We are looking forward to those long vistas across high desert that snake between the lofty ranges. We want to gaze down into the gorges cut through the limestone of the Chisos Mountains. We want that hot Terlingua chile, the kind those Terlinguista chile gourmands mention with the following caveat, “Sorry, no beans in this spectacle.” Just chile and carne and homemade tortillas steaming off the comal.

We are meeting our friends Mary and Roger Engle when we arrive in Texas and will tour the land and its treasures, and not just the Marfa Lights and the observatory at Fort Davis, but also those little things that appear in a moment that, if you are not willing to stop and see right then, are gone. Kind of like the lives we choose to live.

If you, dear reader are on your way south, we hope to see you and spend some time over javvy and fresh toast, or chile verde, or just a handshake, or a hug and some shared recall of what made us friends to begin with.

As they say along the border, “Hasta pronto.”