Election of 1967

An election is coming on November 3rd and it’s one laden with lots of angst and fear and hate and hints of the unknown and how bad the future will be if my guy isn’t the one and all of the roiled waters of political and cultural insanity. And that has me pondering elections in the past.

My first election participation wasn’t one I actually voted in: September 3, 1967. The South Vietnamese government held an election to choose a new leader and to embark on a system of government supposedly more representative than the four years of political chaos that followed the assassination of President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963.

At the time of the election, my Marine Corps unit, Bravo Company, 1/26, was stationed at Khe Sanh.

The monsoon blared in full ugly, soaking, running rampant, flooding trenches, everything sopping: clothing, gear, socks, your socks, your bedding. Your socks.

The local election was to be conducted in Khe Sanh Ville, a few miles away from the lines we manned at the combat base, and the Marine Corps chose our platoon, 2nd Platoon, to provide security for the polling site.

Blogger Ken Rodgers in Vietnam. Photo courtesy of Michael E. O’Hara

I haven’t, in the past, thought of the need for security at one of our elections until this year when images come to mind of camo-clothed, armed and angry people milling around the polls as if only they could save our republic. And then I think about them impeding voters from exercising their basic right, and hot fingers of rage scrape at my guts and I imagine if they try to stop me from voting what I’ll do to them: hand-to-hand, foot-to-groin, poke out an eye, crush an Adam’s apple . . . and then I say, “Calm down.”

Then I think, I didn’t lie in the damp grass and protect a polling place in Vietnam without the deeper need to protect my own rights to vote. I didn’t survive the Siege of Khe Sanh to then live to see the destruction of our republic. I think, don’t mess with my right to vote.

On September 3, 1967, after morning chow, the Marines of 2nd Platoon loaded into two six-by trucks and departed for Khe Sanh Ville.

Every time we loaded in the back of those trucks, the creeps sneaked up my spine and buzzed around the inside of my head. We’d been ambushed a couple of times barreling down the roads around Khe Sanh, a few rounds of small arms fire snapping, zipping overhead, some whapping the sideboards of the truck, sending splinters of wood slashing.

I don’t remember taking any incoming fire on that short journey on September 3, 1967, although there was a lot of concern on both the national and local levels of government that the NVA and the Viet Cong would try to disrupt the election process, and those concerns were born out when Viet Cong warriors attacked a number of polling places in the Central Highlands and set up ambushes to discourage voters from travelling to the polls.

Fear, I suspect, roamed through the psyches of the South Vietnamese voters. Danger lurked at every juncture. Phantom threats haunted everybody’s minds, or so I imagine, fed by gossip, rumor, news intended to frighten. Sound familiar to some of the election hubbub bubbling around in the news and on social media right now?

The election in Khe Sanh Ville was held in a school, or maybe it was some kind of other community building. The location was brick with whitewashed walls as I recall, and it sat away from other buildings and the back was bordered by a grassy lot edged by a tree line that would be a great place for the enemy to hide before attacking the polling place.

Being Marines, one would think that we’d have sent a recon patrol out there to sweep through that tree line and into the country beyond, but that didn’t happen.

Instead, we set up a perimeter around the building.

I lay in tall grass out back and sighted my M16 towards those trees and tried to figure out a field of fire from right to left and back to right, imagining what those bad guys would look like coming at us with grenades and RPGs and AK-47 fire. The smell of wet crammed in my nose like damp and rotting leaves, and the taste too, like the garden dirt I used to eat as a kid.

1968 was the first presidential election in which I could vote, and then there was Nixon’s second term and Ford getting whipped and Reagan crushing Carter and Mondale, too, and then the first George Bush and on and on, the list a map for me to view the more recent history of our country and my life.

Even before I voted, elections were big in our house. First one I recall is Eisenhower against Stevenson when my mother was for Stevenson and my father for Eisenhower. My parents supported different people for president and were vocal about it. Unlike so much of our present bitter electioneering, there was a mutual respect between them and for others, too, something about people having a right to vote for whomever they wanted without being harangued, harassed, cussed, and looked down upon.

My mom and dad were from the generation that whipped Fascism and voting was a sacred right to them.

When Kennedy and Nixon ran against each other, our house stood with the Democrats and with LBJ over Goldwater later, and then I don’t know who my parents voted for because voting became something I did and who I voted for was my business and who anybody else voted for was their business.

Ken Rodgers Photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers

As I lay in the grass, trying not to be defeated by the leeches sucking my blood and boredom and the knowledge—the incessant insistence—that at any time I could be dead, I wondered about my role in the election going on behind me in the polling site. According to what I observed, which I have to admit was only from my lonely perspective in a far corner of Vietnam, was that a large portion of the South Vietnamese were for the communists, although who the locals around Khe Sanh—the Bru Montagnards—were interested in supporting was not known to me. Nevertheless, I saw myself as an agent of a government that in some ways was not all that popular and down deep in my innards that notion gnawed and gnawed and gnawed. It still does.

I don’t know if anyone actually voted in Khe Sanh Ville on September 3, 1967. The men who won that election, Nguyen Van Thieu and Nguyen Cao Ky, inherited a mess and ultimately their side lost the war, and even though a lot of my comrades don’t agree, I think we lost, too.

I know, even though I gained a lot of experience in the ways of war and humanity, I lost a lot of personal things, too: innocence, good friends, and my time.

Hopefully, on November 3, 2020, we won’t need guns and war to settle who wins our election.

Highway 1

At Uncle Frank’s I said goodbye to my parents as I headed back to Camp Pendleton.

Highway 1 wove south through Huntington Beach and Newport Beach and Laguna Beach towards the bus station in Dana Point. Uncle Frank sat behind the steering wheel of his Buick, his frame as thick as a big brick, trying, at first, to talk to me about anything but my leaving later that week on the big Continental Airlines 707 for my tour in Nam.

The towns whizzed by like nothing and the long beaches with the long waves where I enjoyed spending hours on liberty rolled in and the scent of surf and the sound of it, too, but nothing impacted my eyes and ears and nose, nothing but my battle to stuff my emotions back into my guts.

Tears would roll, if I gave in, and my words would buffet the roof of my mouth. I would shudder each time I tried to stop all of that emotion from showing up, from showing, from showing.

Ken Rodgers’ boot camp photo. USMC.

Uncle Frank must have known. Of course he knew; he’d been a Marine in World War II and was shot in the head, and his kids in the back seat? They kept their mouths shut.

By then my mom and dad relaxed on a Pacific Southwest Airlines flight back to Phoenix.

In Dana Point we bought burgers and sat on a bench outside and I stuffed my face so no one would expect me to say anything.

I didn’t want to cry.

Once, when I was eleven, I’d stepped across the street to carve Katsina (Kachina) figures with my friends. They handed me a block of cheap pine and a knife with which to carve and I immediately jammed a long, thin and wide sliver of wood between the fingernail and quick of my middle finger. I gnawed my nails back then so the wood buried deep.

After I stumbled home, my father grabbed me in front of his visiting friends, pulled his Case knife out of his Levis pocket, snapped out the shiny blade with the sharp point and squeezing my finger, dug out the wood as I kicked and howled and yanked. My head spun when blood squirted out from beneath my fingernail. I blubbered and whined and when my mother dosed the end of my finger with Iodine, he grabbed my face between his two muscled hands and said, “Son, you cry too much. Life is hard. Hard. Get used to it. You are a Rodgers and we don’t cry.”

So, I didn’t cry.

Until I got on that bus back to base after I looked at Uncle Frank and his kids, my mind with no words small enough to fit through my throat.

Blogger Ken Rodgers, photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers

I plopped in the back and I bawled. Ashamed, I hid my face and thought about never coming home from Vietnam, never seeing my family, arriving back in the State in a black bag. I mashed my face against the window and sobbed. I sobbed for all I’d lost and for what I never had with my mother and dad, with my sister, the moments gone that could not be recovered, the finality of it all, how it could be the end, the end, the end.

For those few miles between Dana Point and Oceanside I mourned the lack of rapport between my father and me. How we’d never had much of a relationship. How he’d said, “My job is to protect you and make you hard, boy. It’s a hard world. My duty is to teach you how to survive.” Never anything more.

And for those last few miles, at least, before returning to Camp Pendleton, I wanted so much more.

Years later, my mother said, after my father had died, “When we flew home from California that time after seeing you, your father did something I’d never seen, not when his mother died, or his father, either, but on that plane sitting there, he burst into tears.”

Stuck In Graton With the Jingo Blues

It’s funny how the mind pushes and pulls and wrestles with memory. One morning last week I awoke and my memory flared into 1990-91.

In early August of 1990, Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army assaulted Kuwait—one of the USA’s strong allies—and that recollection kicked around in my thoughts.

When Iraq invaded, it surprised me because not too long before, Saddam Hussein had been our ally. His country fought a brutal, grinding, eight-year war against Iran in which the United States provided important support for Iraq.

And now, late 1990, they became our enemy because they’d overrun another of our allies. What could Saddam Hussein be thinking? Didn’t he believe that we’d react? Did he believe that the US would sit on its hands, and if so, how did he reach that conclusion?

Saddam Hussein, photo courtesy of the National Archives

Nevertheless, the event shocked me and as the days soldiered on, my spirit felt like ghosting around in camo khaki dungarees and a martial aura swelled my innards and the air I breathed churned; alive, alive, alive.

I tuned into the news every morning before heading to work and every evening after returning home. CNN blared out of my TV and all the retired generals who made a living as color commentators talked power, war, and our democratic principles.

Subsequent to our debacle in Vietnam, and then hightailing it out of Beirut in 1983 after terrorists blew up the embassy and killed hundreds of Marines, I suffered from wounded pride, so the saber rattling sung to me.

Betty and I lived out among the vineyards west of Graton, California, and I had a friend in the same vicinity who had been a Marine during the Vietnam War. He and I began to banter about strategy and combat and global politics. It was heady, and the urge to go to war filled my brain with Ideas that had not entered my head since I’d escaped into existential hiding after my service in Vietnam. Mud and blood and mangled bodies, the dead in graves registration—it all barged back

I know war, and that knowledge should have been sufficient to give me second thoughts about combat. Instead, a dose of jingo infested my soul and jangled the marrow of my bones, slithered around like a worm that grew and grew until it became an anaconda swallowing my feet, knees, midsection; my mind.

The word jingo can be defined as the strident support of policies skewed towards war.

In the Corps, my buddy was a pogue (person other than grunt) but he fancied himself an armchair combat quarterback and we bounced ideas off of each other about war and Hussein, how long it would take before we crushed him and his vaunted Republican Guard.

At that time Betty’s and my life in California felt unsettled, as if we didn’t belong in Graton. We’d only been there a few months. So maybe that’s why, one morning I called the Marine Corps recruiter in Sonoma County (Betty didn’t know about this and doesn’t know, now, until she proofreads this blog), and said, “I want to join up.”

He started asking me questions like my recruiter in 1966, and impatient to find out if I could go kill people, I interrupted and championed my experience: Vietnam, Siege of Khe Sanh, 0311 (MOS—rifleman) with a lot of combat. Hell, I’d ridden the elephant and looked the tiger in the eye. As I rattled off my bona fides he interrupted me and asked, “Sir, how old are you?”

I paused and mumbled, “Forty-three.”

He chuckled. I imagined his staff sergeant mug nodding, grinning, condescending.

He said, “You’re too old, sir.”

I scolded him with a tale about fixed bayonets and savage combat, eyeball to eyeball. It was probably out of politeness that he then bragged on me and said, “Yeah, I know all about Khe Sanh,” which is something a lot of the young Marines I talk to say. ”Yeah, I know all about Khe Sanh.”

They may know Faluja or Ramadi or some nasty place on a frozen ridge in Afghanistan, but they have no clue about Khe Sanh.

A pause ensued, like the moment you are sitting in a fighting hole with a comrade when a live Chicom grenade plops in the red mud between you and each of you waits for the other one to do something about it.

But that passed and I said, “Well, thank you,” and he said, “No problem.” That was in the days before anyone said “Thank you for your service.”

As the months wound into 1991, I often wondered what, in reality, I could have done to really help out our warriors who drove into Iraq in the early months of that year.

Blogger Ken Rodgers, photo courtesy of Betty Rodgers

I mused about me being an advisor to young Marines as they landed in Iraq. Lecturing them about dealing with fear. I know fear. But then, learning to manage fear is something you gather when you are really…scared, not listening to somebody else tell you about it.

After the war was over, I felt proud of the young folks who fought in that event, and I felt like I was one with them. We’d all been tested in one conflict or another, or some of us anyway, and being in a way related to them and their efforts proved a comfort to me.

And then I began to think about how my Vietnam experiences, which I had felt were inconsequential, suddenly became relevant. Instead of hiding them from people, seedlings of my own pride appeared. For twenty-two years I’d been mostly silent, but now I could begin to speak about my war.

In early 1990, before Saddam Hussein perpetrated the invasion of Iraq, Betty and I attended an event where a gentleman who taught at the Navy’s language school in Monterey, California, talked about how so many countries in the Middle East were “tribes with flags,” and that a large number of those sovereign states were created to suit the post-World War I desires of European countries after the destruction of the Ottoman Empire.

In 1991, when the US and its coalition allies decided not to–after defeating Iraq—go in and conquer the country, I wonder if we didn’t because our government believed that the only way to control the tribes over there was to keep Saddam in power, as brutal as his reign was.


But in 2003 we went back in and tore the country apart, and then tried to stay, and without much forethought about what the end game might look like. We dealt with disgruntled Iraqi warriors, and Al Qaeda in Iraq, and ISIS, and the turmoil in Syria, Lebanon, and all the subsequent chaos. And I believe we will be dealing with those countries, those “tribes,” again, somewhere down the road.

And pondering that notion, my elation about our initial invasion, my desire to go in and fight for what was right—or what I thought at the time was right—was, at best, an emotional and foolish reaction.

The jingo bells don’t jangle so sweetly for me now like they did in 1990.

Now, after writing this piece, I must ready myself—to deal with Betty.

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 Christmas Past and Christmas Present

Betty and I are getting ready to celebrate Christmas here in Idaho. These last few years, Christmas has been muted, so to speak, vis a vis earlier years with lots of flashy glass ornaments of flutes and lutes and little angels, gifts wrapped like works of art and family get-togethers where we had to pull out and deploy both leaves for the kitchen table.

These years it’s usually a trip to the movies on Christmas Eve, sourdough pancakes with some of our Idaho friends on Christmas morning, and then a trip out in the ice and cold to photograph the magic of snow hanging off sage and the wild patterns of ice on the rivers. The light this time of year reminds me of the rays of light in Renaissance paintings, a rich hue that adds layers of meaning to what we can hear in our mind’s ears.

As always, pondering the future sends me searching the past for images of other Christmases: chasing quail through the old flood plains of the Feather River or riding my new three-speed Huffy along the streets of my old home town, my arms and legs festered with boils, but the joy of the new bike so illuminating, the pain of seeping sores could not compare.

Ken Rodgers, photo courtesy of Kevin Martini-Fuller

Every year I remember the Christmas I spent in Vietnam. It was 1967 and I was about as far from an American Christmas as you could get, not just geographically but ideologically, too. We were stuck out on Hill 881 South just a few miles east of Laos and a few miles south of the Demilitarized Zone. We were surrounded by hills and rough country, creeks and streams, jungle, and though they had not shown their faces much, the North Vietnamese Army.

Christmas Day began with a Red Alert that had us all in the trenches long before the rise of the sun. It was wet and so foggy we couldn’t see five feet in any direction. If enemy sappers had been in our wire, working their way toward our positions, we would have heard them long before we saw them. Private Foster, as he did every night or morning, depending on when he stood his watch, refused to get out of the rack and take his position on the line and when ordered to do so, threatened to whip me, the squad leader, the platoon sergeant and Lieutenant Dillon.

In the morning, I broke out several packages from home and opened them like I would have done on any Christmas. My mother made lots of fudge and hand-dipped bon bons and chocolate chip cookies and Christmas sugar cookies that looked like red stars and blue bells and green Christmas trees. She sent candles and socks which I shared with the men in my fire team, since we were always in need of candles and socks. There were tins of sardines and oysters which we opened and enjoyed along with our chicken noodle soup or ham and lima beans or beefsteak with potatoes.

As soon as the fog began to burn off, I led a fire team-sized patrol down the trail on the southwest side of the hill all the way to the bottom beside the stream that bubbled along from north to south. There were five of us…my fire team of three other Marines and the platoon right guide and me. We worked our way north along the steep western shoulder of the hill. Despite the grim and gory nature of the war in Vietnam, to have been with the five of us in the Annamite Mountains on December 25, 1967, would have been to experience the vibrant greens of a land with signature peaks that looked like the Alps without the snow, and long vistas of elephant grass waving in the winter breezes. The triple-canopy jungle sported huge trees and vines and fresh water frolicking down the steep flanks of the ridges and hills and mountains.

I remember that day, the sun suddenly warm and cheery as we patrolled along the trail, looking for sign of the enemy, boot prints in the red mud or rounds for an AK-47—the weapon of choice for the North Vietnamese Army—or 61 MM mortar rounds. We also kept our eyes open for cobras and bamboo vipers and other denizens that might harm us and hoping beyond hope, we watched for tigers and elephants. There is an old saying about men who have been in combat, that they “Looked the tiger in the eye and rode the elephant.” On Christmas morning of 1967, we did not want to see that metaphor come to pass, we were just hoping for the real thing. But alas, we only saw the verdant hillsides and heard the tinkle of the creek and enjoyed a momentary basking in the rare warmth of a meager sun.

I spent about four months out my thirteen-month tour tromping the wilds around Hill 881 South and I knew the trail and the creek and the hillsides, where the streams rocketed down through the wooded depressions that fed the creek below. It was a land of many greens, and the amber light of winter and the amber color of the jungle grass.

Presently we climbed back up the northwest end of the hill and entered the perimeter at the north gate. Not long after, choppers came from Khe Sanh Combat Base and brought Christmas Dinner.

In Vietnam, as I recall, we had A-rats, B-rats and C-rats, and I am not talking four-legged rats although we lived in close proximity to some of the most audacious rats you can imagine. A-rats was chow you got hot-cooked in the chow hall, B-rats was chow that was cooked at the chow hall and hauled out into the field in cans that kept the food warm, and C-rats was what came in small, individual-sized cans and boxes, chow for the Marine in the field and something we ate three times every day if we were lucky.

Christmas dinner of 1967 was B-rats and I can’t recall if it was ham or turkey or both, and if it was yams or mashed potatoes or both, and if it was hot rolls or just bread, and if it was corn or green beans or none of the above. Maybe there was pie—I suspect there was—and maybe ice cream that was mostly melted by the time we ate it. None of that mattered; what mattered was that for just a moment we were different, we were just men, sharing time together on a holiday that most of us knew well.

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 Insurrection, Imperial Dreams and American History

I recently finished reading Gregg Jones’ new book, Honor in the Dust, Theodore Roosevelt, War in the Philippines and the Rise and Fall of America’s Imperial Dream (New American Library, 427 pages). Amply footnoted and bibliographied, this book is a great read if you are interested in the history of American involvement in the Spanish-American War, the Boxer Rebellion and the subsequent campaign to quiet the insurrection against American occupation of the Philippine Islands in the late 1890s through the early 1900s.

Reminiscent of Civil War historian Shelby Foote, Jones’ writing style is narrative and as such we are right there in the jungles, in the villages, in the White House as we learn of all the Byzantine events, both in combat and politics, that took place in those years. Not the stuff of dry and tedious historical narrative, this book is intensely intimate in the incidents, the emotions and entanglements it describes
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We meet a wide cast of characters, Theodore Roosevelt, Frederick Funston, Arthur MacArthur, Emilio Aguinaldo, Littleton Waller, Geronimo, William McKinley, Nelson Miles. two-time Congressional Medal of Honor winner and Marine Corps officer, Smedley Darlington Butler, and William Jennings Bryan, just to name a few.

The United States, at the time this book describes, was a rising international power and wanted to flex its muscles and help spread democracy. (Sound somewhat familiar to certain events following 9/11?) The USA boasted a robust burst of growth and enlightenment and felt it imperative to share the benefits of American Democracy with the world, especially the downtrodden and enchained people of the old Spanish Empire: Guam, Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines.

In Jones’ narrative, we learn that the population majority of the Philippines thought we were coming to throw the Spanish out so they could create their own form of government. They wanted us to come in, defeat the Spaniards and then leave. I think I recall hearing something similar to this when we went into Iraq. They wanted us to go in, get rid of Saddam Hussein, and then leave. And herein resides one of the most important notions (in my opinion) about Honor in the Dust: History, as Santayana and Hegel believed, tends to repeat itself.

In 1898, we didn’t leave the Philippines as soon as we defeated the Spanish. We became involved in a protracted guerilla war with a well organized Philippine resistance generaled by then president of the short-lived Philippine Republic, Emilio Aguinaldo. Jones’ renditions of the grueling grind of the war, the weather and terrain, the personalities of the people involved, puts the reader ringside, so to speak, to torture, murder, pillage, misery, misunderstanding and no-holds-barred politics.

By the end of the insurrection and the surrender of the Philippine rebels, America’s dreams of Imperial might were battered, tattered and for the short term abandoned. Brave and famous Marine and Army officers were tried and in several cases convicted of what were basically charges of torture. President Theodore Roosevelt, a champion of American involvement in the affairs of countries cast far and wide over this planet was chastened by what he learned about the necessities of subduing a large country with determined resistance in a hostile environment.

But we weren’t chastened long (and here, again, I venture into my own opinions). After (and before) our experience in World War I, we sent the Marines into Haiti, Nicaragua and any number of other tropical destinations to put down Insurrectos.

Major General Smedley Butler, the above referenced two-time Congressional Medal of Honor awardee, had the following to say about his service in these various wars:

“I helped make Mexico, especially Tampico, safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefits of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912 (where have I heard that name before?). I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested.”

In Vietnam, my war, we also fought a protracted conflict with charges leveled against American warriors of torture, murder, and pillage, some of which, as in the case of the My Lai massacre, resulted in officers of the United States Army being court martialed and convicted of crimes.

For example, in Iraq we had events at Abu Ghraib and in Afghanistan we had Marines urinating on corpses and alleged murders of families by Army personnel, all symptoms, I think, of our military’s frustrations with the difficulties of fighting in guerilla-type conflicts. And in the cases of Vietnam and Iraq and Afghanistan, I see parallels with Gregg Jones’ story of the war in the Philippines. Young men are sent to far off countries that we think we are helping, only to become part of a protracted, vicious, guerilla war.

In war, bad things happen, innocent people get killed. What domestic and international politics require, the battle cannot produce. Often the combatants are reduced to involvement in internecine fights that are degraded to the lowest common denominators of horror, viciousness and torture. Not to say that the opposite doesn’t happen, too, because it does. In war, (and I speak here from my own experience) the best about humanity also comes out.

Yet, whether in the Philippines, Vietnam or Afghanistan, the horror that happens on the ground seems to repeat itself. And I wonder if we ever learn anything from the past.

As Hegel said, history repeats itself and as Santayana says, “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” But why? The 19th Century American philosopher and thinker, Ralph Waldo Emerson, may have figured out why: “The persons who make up a nation to-day, next year die, and their experience dies with them.”

Again, the book’s title is Honor in the Dust, Theodore Roosevelt, War in the Philippines and the Rise and Fall of America’s Imperial Dream. As you read Gregg Jones’ well-composed prose, I think you will be thinking about the past, the present and future of America’s foreign involvements.

On Agent Orange, sugar, bikers and the VA

Today I went into the local VA Medical Center to have a precancerous growth hacked off my face. Waiting for the scalpel-wielding physician’s assistant to call me in, I sat and watched a parade of veterans move back and forth down the aisles. The VA here in Boise serves a population of over ninety-four thousand veterans. The location is set in beautiful juniper and ash tree-studded meadows and ridges that rise above the main part of Boise town. Some of the buildings look like ante-bellum architecture one might see back east. Big, imposing, red brick buildings that soar up and over the city. The setting belies the facility’s purpose.

As Betty and I walked into the center to check in, I noticed the variety of men and women waiting to be cared for…is that the right word, cared for? It seems such a weak concept, cared for, for dealing with medical problems of folks involved in the business of defending and killing. Yet I am going to use that word, because I think it fits the milieu of Clara Barton and Florence Nightingale and Walt Whitman that has arisen in the wake of two hundred years of military mayhem that has become a populations-wide, Clausewitzian assault on humanity.

The people who staff the VA Medical Center do seem to genuinely care for and about the men and women who shuffle down the tile-floored halls. There are still a lot of World War War II vets around here, their skin like parchment, their walks slowed, canes and wheelchairs, and the Korean War Veterans are hard to distinguish from the WWII people, and then there is my group, the Vietnam era guys and then the younger women and men. I noticed a lot of young veterans there today, a big man in manure-stained cowboy boots and large straw hat, a red and white checked shirt that stretched around his hard muscles, and a young man with a high and tight Marine Corps-style haircut, his hair the color of a carrot. It looked dyed. His arms covered with tinted hieroglyphics, tattoos, that I didn’t really try to cipher. What I read are the eyes. The eyes are the tunnel to the heart. Enter through the eyes and you can crawl right into the guts of a man. This man’s gut sang the song of IEDs and napalm.

One man I noticed as I sat waiting for the knife looked like a Vietnam veteran. Dressed like a biker, lots of leather, lots of hair, he could barely shamble, as if the messages that went from his brain to his legs were being interdicted, like columns of men moving in the night , getting chewed up by artillery fire, mortar fire, ambushes. His difficulty getting around didn’t seem to bother him, though, as he struggled down the corridor chatting on his cell phone.

I wondered what had caused his troubles. A piece of shrapnel from a North Vietnamese 152 mm shell landing too close, an AK-47 round snapped off from a sniper’s spider trap, just nicking the bones in his spine. Maybe he wrecked his Harley and damaged his back, maybe it was work related and had nothing to do with the military and the only reason he was getting treatment at the VA was because, like me, he has a Purple Heart from some other wound. Maybe he had prostate cancer and it was eating up his bones, Agent Orange and all that.

I wonder about Agent Orange. It is suspected that Agent Orange is at the root of a dozen or so cancers, but there is no hard proof, as I understand it, that Agent Orange causes any of the maladies that we go to the VA to have treated. So, when I looked at these men, I wondered what role Agent Orange had in their difficulties.

I remembered the one time I know I got sprayed with that stuff. It was in 1968. Early morning, I was up and on watch. A plane streaked over the base and the surrounding landscape, spraying some kind of liquid. I wondered what it was. Now I know, or I think I know. And from the VA’s point of view, all of that is a moot point. By definition, I have been sprayed.

One of the subject ailments related to Agent Orange is diabetes. I am in the stages of pre-diabetes, but diabetes is part of my genetic makeup, and I love to eat sugar and I am a non-consuming alcoholic who consumed heavily for over twenty years. So is my pre-diabetes a result of Agent Orange or my ancestry and my behavior? I don’t know the answer to that and I don’t think anyone else does.

So, with those thoughts in mind, I wondered about all these men who come here from my era with all these problems. A lot of us were crazy after we came back from the war; drank, smoked, over-ate and ate the wrong things. Some of us consumed a lot of drugs, didn’t do physical exercise. So what causes all these problems, us or Agent Orange, or a combination?

Nevertheless, it is very interesting to me that we, as a society, have decided to pony up and fund the care these folks, including me, receive at the Veteran’s Admin hospital. As if we, our nation, see that the cost to be paid for the service they gave is ongoing. That we owe it to them.

The sheer number of men and women in the facility this morning is amazing to me. All these people, all these problems, and this is just a spot, a dot, a miniscule hint of all the people out there, all the people now fighting who will come home with problems, mental and physical, who will then trust that we take care of them.

This Veteran’s Medical Center is a symbol of the cost of the lifestyle we choose to keep. Sushi tonight, a movie at the art house, this weekend a rock and roll concert, a poetry reading, “Restrepo” from the video-on-demand queue, next week a camping trip in a state funded park, the private schools for the kids, the wide streets, the nights we live without worrying about mortar rounds crashing through the roofs of our houses, no IED detonating, spraying thousands of nails and screws and bolts around, decapitating our children on the way to school.

Sometimes, I wonder when I am sitting around the house, laughing at something one of my friends said, sometimes, I get a pang of guilt. What part of the cost am I paying for these men, these women who go off four and five times during their enlistments to these hot and freezing landscapes? Me, sitting around writing blogs, making movies, living off my retirement account, my social security, my motor home, my trips to California. What part of the cost am I bearing to keep the violence off the streets in my town? No invasions, no terrorists, no enemy slinking between the buildings down on Main Street.

What is the cost of all this? Sitting in the VA waiting to get a pre-cancer that may have been caused by Agent Orange hacked off my face, waiting to get cared for, I get a glimpse.

Alone

It’s often just enough to be with someone. I don’t need to touch them. Not even talk. A feeling passes between you both. You’re not alone.
                                                                                                                                          Marilyn Monroe

Betty ventured off this week on a photography trip and left me behind to toil over movie scripts. I could have gone along if I wished, but this is her time to create art and besides, I figured it was better for me to remain here and discover what it means to create a documentary movie script, sitting for hours in a chair in front of both the computer screen and the TV screen…back and forth from one time-code burn of conversation to the next. Capture the optimum moment when the speaker pronounces just the right thing, about how someone died, the flick of the speaker’s head, the flare of the smile, the wide gulf between his sweeping arms.

But even as we loaded Betty’s bags and camera gear, in the front room, something loomed, like a gaggle of ghosts ganged up in the peak of the cathedral ceiling. Maybe I could turn on the ceiling fan and scatter them to wherever they sneaked in from. But I suspect those ghosts really haunt me from the chambers of my own innards.

I think you can tell by this writing, that I am not totally comfortable with being alone. I don’t know why. I consider myself a loner. I’ve been called a loner. I am a writer which means I work alone. Alone, alone, alone.

What is “alone?” What does it mean?

A few synonyms:

Single, solitary, unaccompanied, unattended, isolated, lone, lonely, desolated, longing for companionship.

Right now I am unattended, or unaccompanied.

Right this moment, there is:

no laundry thumping in the washing machine tub

no one trotting up and down the stairs

no querying calls on the intercom

no prodding about what is right and what is wrong, what’s not done

no one to nudge me out of bed to turn up the heat first thing in the morning

no warm body next to me beneath the blankets, no one to snuggle.

Somebody once tried to explain Existentialist philosophy to me and all I retained of the conversation is that you are born alone and die alone. Being born alone doesn’t seem too bothersome since, if you survive, you have your whole life to ponder and prepare for your end. And I’m not sure you know anything at age two days, anyway. And you’ve got your mom. But dying, I think, presents one of the most frightening things a person can ponder. Dying…alone.

When I say dying alone, what I think I mean is that no one can step through that portal for you. You must gut it up and march through, even though you don’t want to: like reporting to the principal in second grade because you almost bit Thel Gillespie’s right ear off in a fight on the playground at recess. The sudden silence except for the rampant thump of your heart beat. Hesitation below the doorway lintel. Forcing yourself to reach up and knock. But is dying alone what’s gnashing at me now, seeding this sense of isolation?

Maybe it’s always bothering me.

I have questions. Do we need something extraneous to ease our minds, our fear as we walk down that hall? Take our minds off of what’s on the other side?  Or not on the other side?

Alone. I think we hope for one or more of a passel of rewards on the other side of that door: resurrection, nirvana, peace, love, spirits spun out with Alpha Centauri in the ecstasy of string theory. But all we really know is that we die. Alone.

I have more questions than I have answers. I wonder if we don’t bury ourselves in ideas, activities, social interaction to occupy our minds, keep us from pondering the finality of that ultimate moment.

Does fear of being alone and its concomitant possibilities generate social strategies intent on helping us survive? We hear, “multiply and replenish the earth,” even though we can’t seem to get a handle on controlling our population growth. The more of us, the safer we are? Is that the primal drive? The more of us there are, the safer each of us will be? I wonder about that notion…..we seem to be kin to bison in that regard, and red ants and black ants and termites. The more of us there are, the better our chances of survival. Like wolf packs, pronghorn herds, flocks of starlings, Hereford cattle, Nubian goats, Navajo sheep.

I have queries. Does being left alone lead us to despair?

One day in 1968 in Vietnam, during a particularly savage artillery and rocket attack, I huddled against the cold, wet red-mud walls of my bunker with my eyes closed as every round seemed to get closer, closer. The whiz bang sizzle, roar-whine of death singing. My mind exited my body, trying to hide. In a vivid moment, a steep gabled roof, me on the top, like a Wallenda on a high wire, gazing left, then right, then left…to the left insanity and escape. To the right, reality and what? Death, death, maiming? What did I want least? Insanity? Or death? I heard a soft click, looked up at a thin photographer as he shot images of me in my moment of despair. The sight of him, his ragged dungarees and scraggly red beard (an anomaly, that red beard in a military setting) made my heart (is that word too trite?)…my heart hurdled with…was it joy? (Again, is that word too hackneyed?) Or was it relief? Salvation? All I know is that while he captured my portrait, I was not alone. Maybe all we need is another person.

Not alone. But still, we die. Alone.

I’m glad Betty’s coming back