A Few Short Tales of High School Days

It seems like an eternity since I was in high school and there is a very good reason for that;  it HAS been an eternity since I was in high school.  A little more than forty seven years, to be more or less exact, and with that passing of time a weird thing is beginning to happen in my head.  Rather than fading with time as one would expect for the mental images of those long ago days, my memories seem to be getting sharper as I savour the promise of reuniting with a small number of those friends and acquaintances who shared all or most of those crazy teen-age years that I spent at Herbert Hoover High School.

I have no experience with high school life today, but I feel comfortable in assuming that it is far different from the high school environment of 1966.  School was much more regimented in the middle 1960’s.  Dress codes forbade shorts or sandals on boys and dresses with thin “spaghetti straps” on the shoulders or skirts above the knee of girls.  Proper hair length for boys was determined  and enforced by the school administration, and boys with hair to the collar or facial hair of any kind was not to be accepted.  All disruptive behavior would receive immediate and unwanted attention from a vice-principal and repeat offenses led to expulsion from Hoover and a transfer to one of the two continuation schools in the city, or “Hard Guy High’s” as we called them.

In such a regime one might suspect that every trace of individuality would have been snuffed out like a candle in a hurricane, but this was not the case at all.  Those of us who felt disinclined to conform found no end of ways to express our individual personalities.  My purpose for writing this memoir is to share a few of my brighter (or dimmer) moments as I navigated the uncharted teenage sea that was my young life during three years of Herbert Hoover High School.

I was acquainted with a surprising number of my fellow students at Hoover.  People tended to not move much in those days and a group of us knew each other from the earliest grades of elementary school.  My junior high school, or grades seven, eight and nine, was the distant point of a triangle made by my three K-12 schools, so I picked up another set of acquaintances there.  Even with this large peer group it was easy to get lost among the nearly three thousand students that attended Hoover every year.  Therefore I naturally gravitated towards a smaller group with whom I could enjoy a closer relationship.  Or three subgoups really, which consisted of kids from my neighborhood, kids who were considered nerds, and oddly enough, quite a few really pretty girls.

The kids from my neighborhood were of course my natural allies, and this group gave me entry into a variety of subgoups at school.  Matt Robinson, for instance, was a Popular Kid and was my best friend.  We got into a fight on the schoolyard in the fourth grade and were inseparable ever after.  Matt had everything I did not have, or so it seemed to me.  Matt was handsome and I had freckles.  Matt had muscles and I was so skinny that if I stood sideways and stuck my tongue out I looked like a zipper.  Matt could grow his hair to the limits allowed by the high school administration but my military father kept mine unacceptably short.

Matt and I went on our first date in the ninth grade.  Somehow we managed to get two girls to go to a movie with us, and the movie we chose was “The Longest Day”.  Matt and I were both very shy then and both of us, after multiple soft drinks, had bladders the size of the Hindenberg but were too embarrassed to get up and say that we were going to the bathroom.  I know, it sounds ridiculous today.  Back then however bodily functions were much more of a source of embarrassment, especially if you were fourteen years old and with a girl for the first time in your life.  That movie seemed to stretch on for as long as the actual D-Day in Normandy that it depicted.

After the movie the parents of one or both of the girls, I can’t remember if they were sisters or not, picked us all up to drive us home.  When we were within walking distance of our homes both of us told the father that we were close enough and would walk the rest of the way.  The dad complied and let us out of the car.  Matt and I waved as they drove off and then we ran like the wind to a neighborhood gas station one block away and spent a blessed few minutes relieving the pressure of what could have developed into two major and embarrassing accidents.  For some reason which I don’t recall we never saw those girls again.  Matt later on became much more comfortable with girls, and in fact married his sweetheart by the time I returned from the Army, but that is another story.

Matt and I also had dreams of being football stars.  We knew that the girls were crazy about football players so it was straight to the fall tryouts we went just before the beginning of our sophomore year.  I knew I lacked the skills to pass, catch, or run with the ball, so I determined that I would play on the offensive line.  All 120 pounds of me.  I felt very much like an athlete as I bought my high-top boots, my mouthpiece, and got my physical exam and subsequent certification to participate.  I lifted weights and ran laps and ate a little more than my usual microscopic portions of food and when the first day of practice arrived I was ready for action.

Or so I thought.  I quickly learned that it is exceedingly difficult for a guy who weighs 120 to block or tackle a guy who weighs twice as much.  I also learned that in football people do not hit you because they are mad at you or because you have had a disagreement; rather, they hit you just because they CAN hit you, and they are SUPPOSED to hit you, and the harder that they hit you the more the coaches like it.  I was never a particularly aggressive kid so this was extremely difficult for me. I stuck it out however for about one and a half weeks until one day a prospective defensive tackle rolled over my head, and even with my helmet on I thought my head would pop like a zit.  As quickly as I could get my shit together I walked off of that field, turned in my gear, chucked the boots and mouthpiece in the trash and walked home, forever cured of any aspirations to play football at any organized level.

From that lofty point my athletic ambitions quickly receded to a much more manageable level.  In gym class, a class in which anything more than a ‘C’ for me was a miracle on the order of the parting of the Red Sea, the boys were divided up into three groups.  The ‘A’ Class was made up of the boys who were not quite good enough to be on a varsity or junior varsity teams but were still quite sports minded.  They would hustle, grunt, sweat, and act for all the world like the olympic athletes that they thought they should be.  Then there was the ‘B’ Class.  These guys knew that they were not physically gifted enough to play with the big boys but they gave it all that they had for what it was worth.  For my money, these were the kids who should have received grades of ‘A’, as they pushed themselves more than anyone else in that class.  And then there were the Culls.

I was a Cull.  We were the guys who just didn’t care about gym one way or another.  We knew that we were not athletic, we were not impressed by the kids who were athletic, and the coaches sensed our antipathy towards the whole macho circus that was gym class, so they labeled us Culls and gave us a ‘C’ grade if we would do anything at all and not get in anybody else’s way.  I suppose that I should explain what a cull is.  In the days of the western cattle drives when a herd got to Dodge or Kansas City or wherever, the herd would pass through a chute one by one before the buyers.  The prime cattle would be sold at a certain price, but the sick, lame, lazy, crippled and crazy cows would be ‘culled’ from the herd and sold for practically nothing, which was what they were worth.  The funny thing is that we had a very positive sense of identity and took proudly to the label.  If ‘Cull’ meant somebody unwilling to march to a tune that was totally unfit for them then Culls we were.

It was in this class that I hung out particularly with two guys, one from my neighborhood and one possibly from Mars, but most likely a more distant planet.  David Triplet was a classic nerd.  David was a little taller than me and weighed a good fifty pounds more.  Most of David’s weight was around his middle, and he seemed to spread out from smallish shoulders to large, round hips.  If I looked like a zipper, David looked like an avocado or a pear.  David also had poor eyesight and therefore already had rather thick glasses.  To top it off, on those occasions when David had to run he did so in an odd, flat-footed stumping sort of manner.  David would stump around the track rather than run, fat giggling around his waist and his moobs, or man-boobs, giggling on his chest.  Sometimes the coaches would make David run just for a laugh for themselves and the A and B Classes.  David would run cheerfully, laughing at them far more than they were laughing at him.

What they didn’t know is that David knew how to make wine.  That’s one of the things that nerds know but popular kids don’t.  David would somehow manage to make wine out of different fruits a long time before making alcohol at home was legal.  Perhaps he lived in an attached house or maybe his parents allowed his unusual hobby.  Perhaps they shared it.  Either way, David would occasionally bring a flask of his wine to school and we would toast each other’s health out behind the bleachers.  I remember one day when we were at the top of the bleachers making and flying paper helicopters.  We would see whose creation would whirl and flutter and sail the farthest distance.  David told me how grass is made of a complex sugar which he should be able to break down somehow and ferment into an alcoholic beverage, and since his parents made him mow the lawn it seemed only right that he should take his payment for that labor in the form of grass wine.  I do not know if he ever succeeded in his endeavor.   I was acquainted with several of the popular kids through my neighbornood connections like Matt and others.  All of them could sport the latest clothing styles and do the dances that they saw on American Bandstand and Soul Train, but not one of them ever talked about making grass wine, at least not in my hearing.  I found David a lot more fun to be with than anyone in the A Class.

Another of my Cull friends was Leonard Chinn.  Leonard lived near the edge of my neighborhood and we hung together at the local park, so it was natural that we hung together at school too.  What was a little unusual for the time however was the fact that leonard was what was then called ‘Colored.’  It is funny that we came to be friends at all.  My parents were both Southern and there were few good feelings in my family towards a group that would come to be called African Americans (although my father later supported Colin Powell for president, except that he declined to run).  Yet Leonard and I hit it off at once and we spent many long hours together talking and goofing off as boys of any color will do.

One time my relationship with leonard paid off in a big way.  The mid 1960’s were a time of considerable racial turmoil, and added to that was the tendency of people even from the same neighborhood to form smaller groups which viewed people from other groups with suspicion and hostility.  I don’t know if it is still that way, but it certainly was then.  I was walking home from a friend’s house one evening and took a route a couple of blocks south of the one that I usually did; why, I don’t know.

As I turned a corner and headed in the direction of my street I saw a group of three colored kids on the corner a half a block away.  We actually saw each other at just about the same time and I was fixed upon the horns of dilemma.  I could continue to walk forward and face certain humiliation and probably a beating, or I could turn and run which would still probably result in a beating since I was not very fast, and the shame of running would haunt me forever.

My choice was reluctant but immediate and I walked forward with as much courage and appearance of unconcern as I could manage to project.  When I arrived within a dozen feet of the group I recognized Leonard’s brother Richard at the same time that he recognized me.  “Oh, that’s Leonard’s friend.  He’s cool” Richard said, and I said “What’s up?”,  and we slapped hands and I continued on home a little quicker than before so that I could change my underwear.

Anyway, Leonard and I hung together at school just as we did in the neighborhood and one of our favorite times was when we ate lunch together.  We would bring sandwiches or buy hamburgers in the cafeteria and eat them with a host of other students next to the gym building.  leonard and I however would eat standing up in the three or four foot deep recesses in the building where the doors were placed.  That would give us cover while we tore pieces of bread off of our sandwiches and threw them out of our covered doorways onto the pavement where hordes of seagulls were attracted to the promise of a free lunch.

Anyone who has any experience with seagulls knows that these debased yet egalitarian creatures will cheerfully crap on anybody at any time, and we lurked in our stucco bunker and laughed until we were sick as the circling seagulls bombed the unwary diners with raucous glee.  To this day I can’t tell you why Leonard and I weren’t pounded to a bloody pulp by the white-painted victims of our demented prank, but nobody ever put two and two together.

Another fond memory that I have of high school is the very good relations that I had with a number of very pretty and popular girls.  One must not however assume that I was a Casanova; in fact I was quite the opposite and that was the key to my success.  I was terribly shy all of my early days and found it nearly impossible to communicate a romantic intent to a girl for fear of what I considered the inevitable rejection, and that with laughter.  I surprisingly did have a girlfriend in high school and we were together romantically for a few months.  Terry was a very pretty girl and very nice and I wanted to continue our relationship, but as with so many first relationships it drifted inexorably apart.  For the rest of my high school years I was destined for a life without romance and I knew it.  The funny thing is that I found this reality in some weird way liberating.

It turned out that I could very easily talk and make friends with some of the most popular and pretty girls at Hoover because I projected no romantic intent whatsoever, and they could easily sense that I was not pursuing them for anything other than conversation.  I have always liked to talk.  Claudia Ramsey, Rebecca Crum, Denise Sherman, Elizabeth Shoup, all were girls with whom I chatted in classrooms and in the hallways, and even sometimes on the phone.  Many times the jocks and other Popular Dudes would see me yakking it up with some angel in white and later ask me if I was having any luck.  To make an empty claim would be the end of the whole thing so I truthfully replied “Nah, we’re just friends.”  Just that alone was enough to buy me some cred and gave me access to the popular group which afforded a bit of protection to me and the more interesting nerd friends who’s company I preferred, and I accepted that bonus with grace.

One time I was playing poker with the homecoming queen in a Spanish class.  I had brought a deck of cards and had been playing some hands with the other culls earlier.  When I got to Spanish class on this day I was early for a change, and pulled out my cards to play a few hands with Roxanne Taylor whom  had known since kindergarten.  Right when she was asking for two cards a stern looking adult entered the classroom and Roxie took on the look of a bird caught in a trap.  The stern adult faced me and said “I have a meeting after school.  You want to drive home?”  My father taught ‘Bonehead English’ at Hoover because his Navy career and natural pugnaciousness prepared him uniquely to deal with the academic and social misfits of Hoover.  “Sure” I answered, and dealt two cards to the homecoming queen.

It would be easy to continue telling stories of my three years at Hoover, but that is enough for now.  I don’t look back on those years with nostalgia, but I don’t regret them either.  I correspond with Matt every once in a blue moon, and the girl with whom I learned to kiss lives far away but communicates occasionally on Facebook.  Unhappily, three of my friends were dead by the time I came home from Vietnam.  I wondered at the time where I was more safe.  When I attended my twenty-fifth year reunion I saw a cluster of the popular kids.  They were clustering just like they clustered twenty five years ago.  Pathetically it looked like they hadn’t changed a bit over the years; they had hit their Elvis year at seventeen and nothing better seemed to be offered.  I wonder if it will be the same for fifty years?

To be honest, there are only a few people whom I would like very much to see;  Matt, Leonard, Terry and a few others who’s stories will be told at a later date.  Perhaps I will be more interested in seeing who’s still alive than simply who’s at the reunion, and since it is a little less than three years away perhaps I shouldn’t get too cocky about my own chances.  Still, it was a distinct and formative period of my life and I enjoyed it at least as much as I did not, so i look forward to the reunion with more than a little positive anticipation.

When Death comes For a Friend

I received some really crummy news today.  A friend of mine has A.L.S.  ALS, or Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, is a very nasty and untreatable disease.  In a nutshell, ALS causes degeneration of the nerves which conduct signals to the muscles.  As those nerves fail and finally die the muscles lose their ability to contract.  Things like walking, talking, swallowing, and finally breathing become progressively more difficult and finally impossible.  What my friend has received, in essence, is a death sentence.

A couple of things come to mind as I try to come to grips with this news, and the first of those is the definition of the word ‘friend’.  This person and I do not attend each other’s birthday parties and in fact I don’t even know when his birthday is.  We have never visited each others’ homes, nor lifted an ale at the pub.  In fact, at work is the only time that we see each other at all.  So how can I call this person my friend?

I call him friend because I like him and he feels like one.  We have worked together for many years and we have spent many hours talking together.  We both love gardening and football, although I watch college ball and he prefers the pro game.  We both love eating and cooking and classical rock and old movies but most of all we love to talk, and we like to talk with each other.  It has never occurred to us to get together away from work.  We would probably enjoy a friendship that extends beyond the confines of our workplace but the subject has just never come up.  I have a very full social life away from work as does he, so it just seems to work best for us to pursue our relationship at the workplace only.  Does that make our relationship any less a friendship?  I don’t think so.  I have several friends with whom I spend a great deal of time when I am not at work and I take great pleasure from their company, so I know what it feels like to be a friend and it feels very much that way with My Friend.

And that is why my eyes filled with tears several times today when my mind turned to my friend and his diagnosis.  My friend is younger than me and has a wife and young child.  His wife also works where we do and I speak with her from time to time on the phone in the line of duty.  We like each other too, but our relationship is much more that of ‘acquaintance’.  I have not spoken with her since I heard the news, and I know that it will be hard to talk about.  I will want to say something sympathetic but what will that be?  “I know what you’re going through?”  No, I don’t.  “Is there anything I can do for you?”  No, there isn’t.  “I’ll be thinking of you and praying for you both?”  Big friggin’ deal; he’s going to die.  Change that!  Perhaps I’ll just say “I have no idea what to say.  I’m as helpless as you are in this matter.  If you think of anything you need that I can do; anything, just say it.”  Maybe that will help, but probably it won’t.

The hardest thing for me is that my sense of fairness has been outraged.  Why does this decent, hard working family man and his loved ones have to go through this ordeal?  My friend does not deserve this.  Charles Manson, a name synonymous with ‘monster’ for my age group, rests comfortably in his cell in a California prison, living to a ripe old age and content in the tortured jungle that is his diseased mine.  Idi Amin, a dictator as likely to eat his victims as merely to kill them, dies after a long life of comfort in exile in Saudi Arabia.  Even Ariel Castro, the man who recently imprisoned and brutalized three women for more than a decade, met his end quickly at his own hand; no slow, wasting disease for him.  So why do these criminals get a pass and my friend must die slowly before his family’s eyes?

Mark Twain took a stab at that problem in his short book entitled “The Mysterious Stranger”.  In that story a young man runs into an extraordinary individual who turns out to be an angel.  At first delighted, the young man is soon horrified to learn that his new angelic friend’s name is Lucifer.  When the angel detects this reaction he says “Oh, you are thinking about my uncle, but what difference is that to you?  Who are you, a human, to judge us angels?”  Twain’s theology is tortured and Augustine answers that question clearly in “City of God”, but the story goes on to make a good point.

The young man learns that a friend of his is going to die soon.  He begs of the angel to spare the friend’s life if he can do it, and the angel replies “yes that is possible, but are you sure that you want that?”  The young man assures Lucifer Lite that he wants just that very much and so Lucifer says “It is done”.  Lucifer then shows the young man that his friend will now live a long life filled with disease, heartbreak and despair until the day when he finally, mercifully dies.

Now I’m OK with the proposition that an early death may be preferable to a lingering, tragic life, as long as that death is not self-inflicted.  In my view, willingly seeking death in order to avoid what is assumed, but not known, will be a long and painful life is caving in to Despair, who eats the souls of men and particularly enjoys dining on the souls of those who serve themselves up by their own hand on his infernal platter.  I am not talking about the position that suicides go to hell which would be a topic for a later conversation, and I assure you that you will not correctly presuppose my position.  I am only saying that Despair loves and feeds on our own personal despair, and I have no great desire to gratify his appetite.  But I can’t see how this can apply in my friend’s case.  There is no unexpected happy end to be found in his diagnosis.  ALS ends, after a very disagreeable time, in death.

But maybe I can still find some solace in Twain’s words after all.  Lucifer the nephew asked the young man “who are you to judge angels?”  The answer to that particular question is that angels can and will be judged just as humans will be judged and humans have (or will have) the rational powers to judge just as well as angels, but my comfort is not to be found in that quarter.  Instead, Twain’s greater (and probably unintended) observation that the imperfect perceptions of humans make it very hard for them to discern the course and ends of heaven-ordained events, or even events chance-ordained but guided by heaven for ultimately desirable ends, gives me some hope that a prognosis even as grim as my friend’s may, in the end, be shown to be in some way a mercy.  We are somewhere at the beginning, in the middle, or near the end of the creation parade.  We cannot see the whole stretch of time and do not know how all of the pieces will ultimately fit together.  It is therefore our lot to bet on a loving God who sees the clowns, the lions, the ringmaster, the Tattooed Lady and the guys sweeping up the elephant droppings all at the same time.  We do not have that perspective and can only hope in the One who does.  The alternative to that view is that we are all alone and utterly screwed and that would point towards Despair, and you know where that leads.

So will any of this make it easier for my friend if I share it with him?  I don’t know; probably not.  But maybe so.  Maybe the existence of a ‘maybe’ will be enough to kindle a hope that it will all work together for good in the end when the whole parade has passed by.  And in the end, isn’t Hope a much better thing than Despair?

Here Comes Santa Claus

Behold, the holiday season approacheth, and when we say “holiday season” we mean, by and large, Christmas.  Thanksgiving is a big deal to be sure, and grocers and home decor retailers look forward to that day with breath bated and fingers crossed.  Halloween too is a financial bonanza for candy retailers and, a few years down the road, dentists and bariatric surgeons.  But Christmas is the holy grail of the holiday season.  All of the business concerns mentioned above plus a galaxy of other purveyors of toys, clothing, tools, jewelry and every other conceivable commodity up to and including fruitcake lick their chops and compete with each other gladiatorially for their share of the mega billion dollar pie which will be divided up between Thanksgiving night and Christmas Eve.  Even the President’s economic policies will be celebrated or panned according to the holiday fervor that will be expressed at cash registers and internet shopping sites these next two months.  And all of this is to celebrate – – – Christmas?

Many have lamented the commercialization of Christmas before and it is not my intention to harp on that theme now.  Christmas in America is, well, Christmas, Xmas, The Holliday Season, or whatever anyone wants to call it, and I will not presume to lecture anyone about how they should conduct themselves during this time.  My primary sphere of interest as concerns this season is to be found in how I conduct myself at this time, and I now propose to describe the manner of my celebration and the reason why I choose to celebrate in that manner.

To begin with, Christmas is the time when I pay special attention to the fact that Jesus was born.  You know, Jesus.  The Jewish kid born to a homeless couple two thousand years ago who had a short but remarkable career preaching that God loves the little, overlooked folk and pointed out that the authority for His teaching lay in the fact that He was actually God Himself.  Well, part of the Trinity really, but we’ll set that aside for now.  I don’t really know just what day Jesus was born on, and frankly I don’t care.  December 25 is as good a day as any, so it is just fine with me.

The whole concept of gift-giving is an interesting topic all by itself, but again I will limit my comments to why I give and how I chose to do so.  Jesus and His life provide my model.  Somewhere between Christmas day and two years later some really rich guys showed up and gave some very expensive gifts to baby Jesus.  I would bet that Jesus was not like the baby in the commercial that is trading stocks; He no doubt squalled and nursed and pooped in His diapers just like any other kid does.  Jesus’ parents almost certainly converted that gold, frankincense and myrrh into hard currency and used that money to pay the bills and finance their flight to Egypt to avoid the murderous soldiers of the paranoid King Herod.

Later, Jesus was famous for distributing funds to the poor and needy of the province of Judea.  He made a point of the fact that He didn’t have a place of His own to lay His head, but depended on the generosity of others as He passed out the gifts and offerings which came in as a result of His preaching and teaching.  Judas the betrayer even complained that a very expensive vial of perfume that a follower broke over Jesus’ head could have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor, although many suspect that Judas had his hand in the till and really didn’t care so much about the poor after all.  Still, Judas’ complaint points out that the usual pattern for Jesus was to eschew luxury and pass on to the needy the things that they needed to survive one more day, and that point brings the whole topic of giving to my own personal doorstep.

My inclination is to celebrate Christmas the way the Three Wise Men did and the way Jesus did Himself.  As regards the Three Kings of Orient, I am as rich as they were in the eyes of poor people living in Africa, Asia, Latin America on reservations in the United States and elsewhere.  One little pot of gold probably didn’t stretch the Wise Man who brought it to Jesus, and a check for one or two or three hundred dollars to brighten the life of a family in Chad or Bolivia wouldn’t really stretch me all that much.  Heck, I spend that much every two weeks for groceries.  More than a new sweater for my wife, a computer game for my granddaughter, or a Made In Washington gift box for my brother, a gift to a family in Africa of rice, millet, some chickens or a goat and a few, and I do mean few, dollars to spend on something just for fun for a change, is a gift that I believe to be worth giving.

At home there are myriad individuals, groups and agencies who are dedicated to making life better for the shadow people living at the margins where I don’t have to see them in my comfortable middle class world.  These individuals, groups and agencies are blessed by every dollar given to them and they, in turn, bless the very people who Jesus came to minster to and hang out with.  Instead of a toy or some other item which will be forgotten by the time that the Super Bowl is played, money given to these recipients will truly fulfill the definition of a gift in my estimation and will be worth the effort of giving.

There will be elements of stress in this holiday season for me.  Many people cannot grasp the point of my gift-giving philosophy, and the label of ‘Scrooge’ will inevitably be invoked.  I do not intend to be the negative manifestation of Scrooge at all.  Rather, I hope to channel the Scrooge who emerged from the ordeal of the three visitations and lived a life of giving generously to those who were truly in need.  Also like Scrooge, I purpose to give to my family, my friends, and my community the gift of myself; my time, my relationship, my friendship, and my genuine interest in their lives.  But then, why should I wait until Christmas to do that?

KIA, MIA, EIA, SBIA, KIFO, Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off

There are a great many things that are bad about being a soldier in a war.  In most cases, if you are a soldier in the United States Army it means that you are far away from home.  It also means that you have left the familiar way of life in which you grew up and are now in a regimented society where the rules, the hierarchies and even the logic are completely different from anything that you ever knew before.  The training which you have to undergo, at least at the time when I experienced it, included being run and exercised beyond exhaustion, made to crawl in mud with live machine gun fire going over your head, gassed with something like tear gas on steroids and made to remove your gas mask just to prove to you that it works, and made to eat Army chow.  In two month’s time the sanity of civilian life is just a memory.  All of that is nothing however compared with the knowledge that somebody on the other side is trying to seriously injure or kill you.

Death is a fact of life (is that a logical absurdity?) in a war zone, and different people will deal with that fact in different ways.  For me, personally, I hated the thought that the bullet which would get me travels faster than sound, so I would have no warning of it’s approach.  I would be just walking along minding my own business, albeit in a uniform and possibly carrying a weapon in somebody else’s country, and BAM!  It’s lights out.  That very real possibility was extremely creepy to me so I exercised my best available option and refused to think about it.  I have always been good at avoiding unpleasant realities and this talent served me well for nearly two years in Vietnam.

Sadly though, in war unpleasant possibilities often become realities.  People die in wars, and efforts to glamorize wars gloss over the fact that death is an ugly thing which, in my Christian worldview, is not natural at all but is a corruption of what ought to be.  The ways that a soldier can die are many but the effect is the same:  KIA, or Killed In Action.  When that unhappy event takes place the soldier’s Commanding Officer, or C.O., must perform the unenviable task of writing the letter to the family of the deceased:  “Dear Mr. and Mrs Smith; I regret to inform you that your son, Clarence, was killed in action on June 26, 1968.”  The letter usually goes on to describe how their son was performing a brave or even heroic act when he met his end, in the hope that this message will somehow help the parents to deal with the fact that their son will never walk, roll, or even be carried alive into their home again.

Most of the time these letters are true.  A soldier performing his or her duties in battle is brave.  Period.  And many times heroic, almost superhuman, feats of courage are performed.  Many times, however, things are not exactly as the C.O. might describe.  I doubt that anyone ever received a letter saying “Your son Seymour was killed when a mortar round landed on the latrine that he was using”, or “Jeffrey died when he ran over a land mine while driving the jeep he had hot wired so that he could drive AWOL into a village and get laid”.  Trust me, this happened.  Also never mentioned is when the unfortunate demise came as a result of what is called ‘friendly fire’.  “I’m sorry to inform you that your son Gregory was killed by fire from Company B of Third Battalion.  We cannot determine who pulled the trigger, but the entire company will be given a month’s latrine duty (immortalized by the now-familiar description of ‘shit detail’)”.

All of these realities were the stuff of our daily lives, and like soldiers everywhere we made light of them to help us deal with them.  There were said to be tigers roaming in the jungles of Vietnam when I was there, although nobody I knew ever saw one, and so we came up with our own cause of death:  EIA, or Eaten In Action.  We often laughed about how a C.O. would go about explaining that one.  In my own experience I rarely came close to being a KIA, an MIA (Missing In Action), or and EIA.  On various occasions I learned to recognize the sound of steel jacketed lead flying over my head and the ‘crump’ of rockets, grenades and mortars going off nearby, but my closest encounters with being a bad day for my C.O. lay in another direction; the days that I almost became SBIA AND KIFO.

I spent a large part of my time in Vietnam working at a port on the Saigon River.  We would unload big ocean going vessels as well as Navy LST’s and barges, stash all of the goodies that they carried in warehouses and yards, and then backload those vessels with blown up equipment destined to be shipped to Japan to be returned to the United States as Toyotas and Datsuns.  When containers, either full or empty, were replaced in the holds of ships they would be lashed together with large pieces of wood between them to keep them from rolling around.  These large pieces of wood were called dunnage, and they were stacked, until used, in what was appropriately called the dunnage yard.

I worked the 7 PM TO 7 am shift in that yard towards the end of my tour, and it was a job well suited for me because I basically had nothing to do.  When ships would come into port and were unloaded the dunnage would be stacked in some convenient part of the yard, and when dunnage was needed to lash together containers for some outgoing cargo a gang of laborers would come and load what was needed onto a truck to carry it away.  My participation in this process was nearly zero, which neatly matched my inclinations and abilities.

My lack of input was not the only thing that I loved about duty in the dunnage yard.  Our port on the Saigon River was in a very flat part of the real estate of Vietnam.  The Mekong Delta is flat as a board, and the myriad streams, rivulets, canals, sloughs and such are like heaven for the mosquitos which make up about eighty five percent of the animal protein in that corner of the world.  That fact made the Delta hell for everything and everyone else.  The trick to finding some relief from that diabolical life form was to to gain some altitude to where there was some kind of breeze.  The mosquitos were usually bloated from feasting on anything that drew breath and could not fly well with their delicate wings.  A perch in the breeze was my best shot at escaping the persistent proboscises of that devilish hoard.  I found that perch up on the highest part of a pile of wood in the dunnage yard.

Of course, my open perch up on that stack of wood had the decided disadvantage of making me an excellent target for any bored Viet Cong who might think it worth his while to come close enough to take a pot shot at me, so I limited my use of the woodpile to late afternoon and evening.  Almost as welcome as the breeze was the fact that that I could see anyone coming from a good distance away, and if I happened to be smoking some of the almost hallucinogenic native flora I would be aware of an unwanted visitor in plenty of time to stash my bag in some crevasse in the pile and pretend that I was counting boards or something equally unlikely and unconvincing.

It was on my much loved pile of dunnage that one night I almost became SBIA.  Be patient, I will share the meaning of that collection of letters shortly.  This particular night stands out for two reasons.  The first is that it was the first time that I heard in-a-gadda-da-vida.  One evening each week the Armed Forces Radio would produce a half hour or hour, I can’t really remember which, of real rock and roll such as was being heard in the States.  We would read about bands such as Cream, Led Zeppelin, and Jimi Hendrix in month-old copies of Newsweek, but the only chance to actually hear them was on the Sergeant Pepper Show.  On this evening I was perched on my pile, comfortably mellow from the effects of one or two ‘Saigon Bombers’ as we called the pre-rolled joints that we bought, and listening to the radio program.  That song by Iron Butterfly came on and I felt like I was transported far away from the steaming evening in that desperately unhappy place.  I sat there in the dark for quite a while after the song was finished, probably smoking another bomber (which we smoked like cigarettes) until the approaching lights of a work crew announced the need for some dunnage to be loaded up and removed to the dockside.

I quitted my post and returned to the shack where I would find the perfunctory paperwork which would need to be filled out.  While I was placing a few forms in a clipboard I heard some frantic shouts followed by a general commotion, and finally a couple of gunshots.  My first impulse was to hit the deck which I did.  The continued voices roused my curiosity however and I peeked around the doorframe to see that the men were milling about with flashlights while more men were running in our direction.  Always ready for diversion, I arose and proceeded to the gathering of men to see what was going on.

When I got there I slipped through the ring of excited men and saw at once what the commotion was about.  Lying at the food of my pile of wood was the freshly killed body of a king cobra that was nearly eight feet long.  When quizzed as to where the shake had been discovered, one of the men pointed to a place no more than a half dozen feet from where I had been sitting.  It was a very strange and disconcerting thing to look at the body of the snake that could have ended my life with a quick strike and a bite if I had reached my hand down to hide my stash of weed or even if I had placed my radio on my right side rather than my left and then reached for it when I got up to leave.  I sometimes remember that night and wonder what my C.O. would have said in his letter to my parents.  “Dear Mr. and Mrs. Durden; I regret to inform you that your son, while bravely performing heroic duty in the dunnage yard, was Snake Bitten In Action”.

I was given yet another opportunity to test the creative writing skills of my C.O. while working at the port.  One of the Viet Cong’s favorite amusements was to send a lone rocket propelled grenade or mortar round into the port’s perimeter, partly to see if they could cause a little damage but mostly to see us fall out with our weapons pointed into the darkness from which no assault would ever come.  Charlie, I am certain, would sit out there and laugh while we would lay there on concrete, in mud, or vermin infested bunkers for an hour or two before going back to the job of bringing in the river of supplies needed by the US. and allied forces fighting in Vietnam.

One particular night Charlie treated us to this form of entertainment and it had some unexpected results.  But first a little background about the rodents of Vietnam.  There are mice and rats in Vietnam in such profusion that they make up most of the remaining fifteen percent of animal protein in that part of the country that is not mosquito.  This fact led us to to try multiple means of pest control.  In the aluminum structures which we called ‘hooches’ and lived in at Long Binh we had mice.  We rarely saw them, but we could not afford to leave out any kind of food items, especially the delicacies which we received in care packages from our families back home, for fear of losing anything which could be accessed by gnawing, and I mean through paper, cardboard, or even wooden footlockers.  When they crawled up into the insulation in the roof where we hid our Saigon bombers and ate the whole stash, leaving random bits of weed infused with mouse droppings, we had had enough.  Chief, the leader of our gang of misfits, went to a Vietnamese woman who was a part of the day laborers whom the camp leadership would allow on the grounds during the daytime to the menial labor that we would otherwise have to perform.  “Mama-san” he said, “GI got numba 10 problem.  Beaucoup mice run all over, alla time eat GI’s food.  What we do?”  Mama-san said something that I didn’t follow.  Chief seemed satisfied however, and next day I found out why.  Mama-san handed Chief a sack that sort of moved and Chief passed Mama-san a wad of bills.  We went into the shade of the hooch and opened the sack.  Out slithered a boa constrictor, or something that looked just like one, and slid silently under a bunk.  A few guys jumped back but the Chief reassured us that the snake was the answer to our problem

It turned out that indeed it was.  The rodent population plunged in our hooch and seemed to increase in everyone else’s.  There were still apparently enough mice that didn’t get the message however, for that snake hung around our hooch for most of the rest of the time that I was in Vietnam.  The only negative thing was the occasional night when I would return to the hooch well lit up after a few hours at the enlisted men’s club and pull back my blanket, only to find our snake curled up and sleeping off a meal.  It takes a while to get used to a thing like that.  At such times I would carefully lift the snake out of my bunk and down to the concrete floor, inspect my bunk for any covert snake turds, and then crawl into bed to enjoy a rodent-free evening’s rest.

At the port we had a much bigger problem.  The rats that dwelled along the river and amongst our yards, warehouses, admin buildings and mess hall, were bigger than cats.  These beasts would not relish a direct engagement with a fully grown American soldier, but they were a frightening thing to come upon in the dark and could be quite fierce when cornered.  The answer to these creatures presented itself in the form of a terrier which some G.I. probably rescued from the kitchen of a Saigon restaurant.

That dog was a brutal, efficient killer; sort of the Great White Shark of ratdom.  It was a thing of beauty when Cujo (not his real name, but you get the picture) zeroed in on a victim.  With the silence and speed of a cobra he would close in on a rat, and then with an explosion of snarling and shaking the rat would fly into the air, twisting and tumbling end over end, only to land in the death-dealing jaws that awaited him on the ground.  I don’t recall that the rat population declined at all, but I will be eternally grateful for the hours of entertainment I received watching that mutt deal out vengence to our furry, flea-bitten, disease carrying, very large mutant rodents.

Which brings me to one particular night at the port.  We had received a few desultory rounds of small arms fire that evening which made everyone edgy, and then a rocket propelled grenade slammed into a sandbagged wall to the right of our main gate.  This resulted in our usual ballet of grabbing our weapons and taking up defensive positions.  My unit was assigned to a particularly wet and unsavory part of the port along the riverbank near the barge landing.  We knew the drill and waited in the dark for the all-clear to be given.  Going against rules, some of the guys lit cigarettes and cupped them in their hands the way that soldiers do to make as little light as possible.  All was calm, even boring, until a small flurry of squeaking brought pandemonium upon us.

I do not know what spooked that massive river rat.  I have trouble believing that anything smaller than a Sherman tank could do that job.  Something did, however, and we soon had a huge, beady-eyed, squeaking ratasaurus scrabbling across our legs as we lay in the wet dirt.  This was the last straw that broke Ted Ruczinko.  Ted was one of our group and we knew that he feared the rats like I fear spiders, or worse.  Ted loved the dog and the snake like two wives, but on this night neither were there to save him.  Perhaps it was the strain of the alert as well; I don’t know.  We only had one major assault on our port in my two years there, but the random shots and explosions, along with the occasional casualty, may have built up in Ted.  What I do know is that Ted well and truly lost it it when that rat scrambled across the backs of his legs right up by his jewels.

Ted bellowed out a curse and jumped to his feet, and then began to cut loose with his rifle at that rodent.  We wouldn’t have minded so much if the rat wasn’t still running across our own legs.  With howls and curses, those of us in the firing line jumped to our own feet to get out of the barrage.  Two guys behind Ted rose up and tackled him, holding him on the ground until his thrashing and swearing had died down to shaking and sobs.  We took stock and were amazed to find that nobody was hit by Ted, and we could not explain that then nor can I explain it now.  Ted poured out almost a full clip missing the rat and, more to the point, missing us.  We later forgave Ted, but thereafter he was instructed to retreat to a bunker the next time that any kind of alert was called.

I am once again forced to wonder how our C.O. would ‘splain that one to grieving parents.  “Dear Mr. and Mrs. Croy; I regret to inform you that your son, Leroy, was Killed In Freak Out while bravely defending a mudflat from an assault by rats”.

Shoes

I am not entirely sure why, but I feel led to write a story about shoes.  It really isn’t because I am an avatar for Imelda Marcos; I don’t have two hundred pairs of shoes in my closet.  In fact, I have one pair to work in, one pair to run around in one pair for weddings and funerals, and some sandals.  Shoes have had some interesting impacts on my life however, so I suppose that they deserve their fifteen minutes of fame, or at least a moment in the sun.

And a moment is the most that I can give them, at least as regards my early years, exactly because of the sun.  I was born and raised in San Diego where, unlike my current home in Washington State, the sun tends to come out.  Because of this happy phenomenon my neighborhood friends and I rarely wore shoes.  School, church, and the occasional piano recital or some such event were the only times we allowed the noisome things to imprison our leathery dogs which barked to be free.

This fact, of course, led to a predictable slew of inconvenient and painful events.  Glass was always lurking in vacant lots or city streets looking to see who’s foot might be sliced open, and the dreaded stubbed toe was frequently the payoff for running or bicycling or even inattentive walking.  Buried fires at the beach would get your attention in a hurry and grounded bees and doggie doodoo in the grass at the neighborhood park were always a real crowd pleaser.  Still, the risk was worth the reward.  Cuts could be stitched up, stubs could be babied, burns salved and bandaged and doodoo washed off.  We lived for the feel of our bare feet on the grass and sand and asphalt that made up the surface of our corner of the world.

There were however times when the shoes had to go on, and in order to cover both formal and informal occasions we had leather and athletic shoes to cover our feet.  Buying these shoes was always an adventure.  My mother would take my brother and I to the Buster Brown shoe store whenever old shoes simply could no longer contain our growing feet.  We were not a rich family and purchases of clothing and shoes had to wait until there was no wiggle room left.  I consequently looked part of the time like an overstuffed sausage.  When it was no longer to be endured, away we would go to Sears or Penny’s to buy our clothing and to Buster Brown to get our shoes.

I was always excited to get new shoes because I hate having my feet cramped and confined.  This is why to this day I kick my shoes off when I travel in a car and used to when I traveled in an airplane.  The latter has produced some awkward moments in the aftermath of the ‘shoe bomber’.  I once had a passenger point me out to a flight attendant who asked me the point of shedding my footwear.  I explained my comfort-driven action and pointed out that the Shoe Bomber attempted to light his Converses while they were still on his feet.  This answer satisfied the flight attendant, but I have made it a habit to travel in sandals ever since.

The salesman at Buster Brown was a true professional, and he fussed and fluttered and carried on over my feet to get just the right match.  He would pull out his tape measure and check the circumference of my feet at their midpoint.  Then he would break out something that looked like the deck of an aircraft carrier that I would stand on one foot at a time.  This device had moving parts which would slide up and down and side to side to measure the length and width and every angle of my feet.  The salesman would then disappear behind a curtain and then reappear like the Wizard of Oz with a half-dozen boxes under his arms.  We would try them all on until the right pair in all the store were resting comfortably on my feet.

This was not the end of the process however.  The final test came when I would walk to a machine that resembled one of the old upright scales which, for a penny, would give you your weight and tell your fortune.  This device, however, had a slot at the base into which I would stick my feet, and a screen on the top of it into which I would look while I turned on the X-rays.  Yes, X-rays.  On the screen, which glowed an eerie green, would appear the bones of my feet and the outline of the toes resting within the outline of the shoes.  Of course we could feel how much more comfortable our new shoes were than the old models, but it was so much fun to ram our feet into that machine and expose them to more radiation than was received by Hiroshima!  People simply didn’t know about the dangers of such things in that early part of the nuclear era, which would explain the radium dials on our bedside clocks that enabled us to read the time in the dead of night.  It’s a wonder that everyone my age doesn’t glow in the dark.

One of the times that I had to wear the leather dress shoes was at Sunday School.  My family went to church only in my ninth or tenth year, and the summer of that year was pure misery.  We would have to sit on hard chairs in the unventilated Sunday School room for an hour while our teachers told us Bible stories, illustrated by the ubiquitous flannel figures which seemed magically to cling to a board covered with some sort of fabric, and led us in the usual familiar songs.  I hardly remember a bit of it.  That summer was one in which I was outgrowing my shoes, and nearly all I can remember is the agony of feet stuffed so tightly into my shoes that I couldn’t even wiggle my toes.  I sat in that chair and changed the position of my feet, untied the shoe laces, stared at the clock and tried to hold my breath for a full minute (I never was able to do that), in short I did anything and everything that I could get away with to distract my attention from the unrelenting torture that my feet were undergoing.  Unfortunately, nothing succeeded in granting succor to my aching pups except exiting that building and peeling those shoes off as fast as I could.  We would all walk home together; me with my little grey jacket and pants, my tie, and my shoes with the socks stuffed in them tied together and dangling from my hand.

As I grew older shoes began to take a new place in my life.  The schools of San Diego were like any other in that social and cultural divisions existed.  Before the advent of surfing as a cultural distinguisher the dominant social divisions, in my schools at least, was between the “Soashes” and the “S.A.’s”.  I really don’t know if ‘soash’ has ever been properly spelled; heaven knows I just made this spelling up out of thin air.  The best way to communicate the proper sound is to take the word ‘social’ and leave the ‘al’ off.  The name came from a description of the members of that group as socialites, or preppy, sort of, or into climbing up the social ladder.  These were the kids who were usually better off economically and wanted to play sports and date a cheerleader or even the homecoming queen.  One very obvious identifier of that group was their white tennis shoes, or ‘tennies’ as they were then called.

The opposing group was the S.A.’s.  I have no idea where that name came from either, but it may be something that Spanish speakers started:  “Hey, Ese” some would say to others as a greeting, and ‘Ese’ in Spanish sounds like S.A.  I really don’t know if that was the origin or if it was something else.  What I do know is that S.A.’s were thought by Soashes to be hoodlums, and they they were not wrong by much.  The S.A.’s usually wore khaki pants and white button-down shirts with the tails out and James Dean hair styles, but they always wore hard, pointed black leather shoes which they called ‘knobs.  The reason for that name was because if you got into a fight and had a clean shot you would try to plant that hard, sharp pointed shoe in your opponent’s, well, knobs.

I grew up in an S.A. neighborhood but secretly hated knobs, and although I owned a pair for use when necessity dictated, I preferred to wear a pair of dark canvass tennis shoes if I wore shoes at all.  Keds, I think they were.  I would hang out at the park or my friends’ houses, or even at the houses of my brother’s friends, and be safe because my tennies were dark and I was ‘Freddie’s Little Brother’.  My brother had a very good pair of knobs and was experienced in using them.  It is a valuable thing to have a pugnacious and respected older brother.  When called upon I could produce the required khakies and white shirt and knobs and do my best hard guy imitation to acceptable neighborhood standards, whether I liked it or not.

It could be a very bad thing to be walking in the wrong neighborhood with the wrong style of shoes.  Far better that you be wearing no shoes at all.  Whole neighborhoods were set apart by social division just as schoolyards were.  North of El Cajon Blvd. was solidly Soash, and south of University Ave. was S.A.  It was unhealthy to show up at a park or recreational center inappropriately attired as to footwear.  In fact, I rarely ventured into other nearby neighborhoods on foot; shod or not, since somebody could recognize me from school as an outsider.  It was better to stay on home turf and mingle with others at the beach or in more distant neighborhoods where a sort of truce existed.

A huge break in this constipated social fabric came when the surfing craze hit in about 1960 or 61.  The new group, the ‘Surfers’, were initially drawn mostly from the Soashes, and therefore the battle lines were between S.A.’s and Soash/Surfers.  Before too much time passed however the new class of Surfers grew to such proportions that most other groups were simply overwhelmed by the size of the Surfers as a group.  It became bad judgement to pick a fight with a group which consisted of most of the young people in the entire city.  The S.A.’s and many others found themselves driven to the margins of society and this gave me the chance that I had been waiting for for years; the knobs went into the trash and it was tennies and sometimes normal leather shoes from then on.

One of my final acts as a child also involved shoes in a slightly unusual way.  On my graduation day from high school I lined up with my graduating senior friends to take the final walk and get my diploma.  I was completely uninterested in the whole thing.  I did not go to the Senior Prom because I did not know how to dance and was too shy to ask a girl anyway.  I did not attend any of the social and ceremonial functions common to such an event, and I only attended the graduation exercise because my parents said that I had to.  When the moment arrived, there I stood with cap and gown and some old, beat up shoes.  Nobody looks at your shoes, anyway.

The school officials finally began to call our names and, since there were nearly a thousand of us, it took some while to get through the list.  At last they did however, and we took our diplomas and returned to parents and friends for handshakes, backslaps and so on, and then my friends and I gave our caps to our parents, returned our gowns to the school, peeled off those old shoes and chucked them into the trash, and headed to the beach in the shorts and T-shirts that we wore under our gowns.  School was over.  Childhood was over.  We were headed to whatever our futures would bring, but we would do so after one more summer barefoot in the sun.

I still have no great love of wearing shoes, and do so only as a matter of extreme necessity.  I am always amazed when somebody says that they have more than two or three pairs of shoes.  I suppose that I shouldn’t be however.  To some extent many people still do define themselves by shoes and clothing and other material articles, and I guess that I do so in my own countercultural sort of way.  I can’t really think of a deep or philosophical point to use to sum up this story.  It was just a story about me and shoes, so I’ll leave it there.