It’s Only Rock and Roll

     I love rock and roll, and while I understand that it is really only rock and roll, nevertheless I like it.  The truth is that I like most music and if possible never miss a chance to hear it live, or as close to live as I can get.  In my twenties, which occurred during the bulk of the seventies, I saw a great many concerts, most of which I remember.  Sort of.  Growing up in the fifties and sixties in San Diego however afforded me and other music lovers a lot fewer opportunities to hear live music but we did the best we could.  This is a tale of my love of music and pursuit of exposing myself to it as much as possible.

     In the 1950s I had two avenues for the above mentioned exposure to music; the AM radio and my father’s record collection.  Dad had big, thick 78s with a variety of classical pieces on them and 45s of mostly Country and Western, singles from movies, and big band stuff.  It’s all I knew then and I loved it.  I can still hear Gogi Grant’s “The Wayward Wind”, Debbie Reynolds’ “Tammy” and all of that Rachmaninoff stuff that came on the thick, black records that were kept in the heavy pressboard boxes.  I mostly listened to what Dad listened to until a guy named Buddy Holly came along.

     The second phase in my life of music appreciation arrived with Buddy and the big Bopper and Bill Haley, et. al., and lasted through the great rivalry between the West Coast Beach Sound and Motown.  Most of the white guys in my neighborhood were solid Beach Sound, but the Latinos and Filipinos and the few black guys preferred Motown.  I came down squarely in both camps.  I loved Smokey and David Ruffin and especially the Four Tops, but I loved the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean and others just as much.  Every night when I wasn’t hanging out with friends at the local recreation center which we just called ‘The Park’ I would be home listening to KCBQ, hearing my favorite two and three minute songs being spun by the legendary disc jockey Happy Hare.

     Then one day I got to see Jan and Dean live.  Concerts were rare in those days, in San Diego at least, and when my friend Ellen Marie and I heard that there was going to be the filming of a television show which would be emceed by Elizabeth Montgomery, the star of the TV show ‘Bewitched’, featuring the surf singing duo, and that they needed members for the audience, we signed up as quickly as we could.  Ellen was one of my best friends in the neighborhood and we could often be seen hanging out together.  We both had braces on our teeth and the other kids joked that if we should get together as a couple we would be the “clash of steel”.  We never did have that kind of relationship, but our friendship was more solid and of longer duration than most of the romantic liaisons in my life.

     On the big day Ellen and I walked up to University Avenue and boarded the Number Five bus that took us directly to downtown.  From the old Horton Plaza it was only a walk of a few blocks to the Spreckles Theater where the show would be filmed.  Ellen and I showed out tickets, bought some popcorn and candy for a buck or two, and found our seats in the auditorium.  We were not too far from the stage and could see everything very clearly.  Ellen and I yammered away with each other until Ms. Montgomery mounted the stage and gave us all instructions on when we were to cheer, when to clap, when to laugh, and so on.  Ellen and I sort of paid attention, but we were too excited about seeing Jan and Dean to care very much about the details.  Finally all of the instructions were delivered and the crew began to film.

     The whole thing seemed a little bit odd to us but we played ball as best we could, clapping and cheering and laughing on cue.  Of course, Ellen and I would frequently laugh at the wrong time because the whole thing seemed silly, and to a couple of kids in their mid teens it was truly silly indeed.  But at last we came to the payoff.  During a break for technical reasons Jan and Dean came out on the stage and the cheering then was genuine.  The stars of the show, as far as we were concerned anyway, waved to the crowd and said a few words to the people in the front row.  

    After a few minutes they disappeared again and it was back to business.  The crowd settled down, Ms. Montgomery began her introduction, and Jan and Dean reentered the stage as their cue was given.  The “cheer” sign went up, but we were already providing that prop, and this time in earnest.  Ms. Montgomery said a bunch of words that nobody paid attention to and then Jan and Dean stepped up to sing.  The “cheer” sign was not up, but as the duo broke into “Surf City” a few of the girls screamed and some of us began to sing along with them.  That was not in the script however and the “cut” sign was given.

     “Please don’t make any noise while the boys are singing” admonished Ms. Montgomery.  “The producers want to hear the singers, not the audience.

     We settled down again as best we could and the introduction was made again, complete with canned and less-than-spontaneous cheering this time.  Jan and Dean burst once more into “Surf City” and this time the audience maintained its cool until the end of the song, at which time we anticipated the “cheer” sign and burst into wild applause.  Jan and Dean’s time was precious, and so their closing act of “The Little Old Lady From Pasadena” came right after that.  Same format, same admonition when our youthful enthusiasm got the best of us, and same sense of awe as the singers produced, right there in front of us, the songs that we heard at least twice per day on the radio.

     After a few more laughs, cheers, and rounds of applause, all delivered on cue, we were excused and filed out of the Spreckles and onto the sidewalk running along Broadway under the brilliant San Diego sun.  As we walked back to Horton Plaza where we would wait with the sailors, the derelicts sleeping on the grass, and the pigeons which flocked around the domed fountain which was a fixture in downtown San Diego as long as I lived there, Ellen and I dissected every word, every movement, and every glance that had undoubtedly been aimed directly at us.  The Number Five finally arrived and we climbed on board, thumbed our dimes into the box by the driver, and rode that bus back to East San Diego and to the park where we could brag about our adventure to all of our friends, who were jealous as could be but insisted that they really preferred James Brown anyway.  And indeed, some of them did.

     All of the Motown and Beach stuff came to a screeching halt in January of 1964 when the American release of the Beatles’ “I Want To Hold Your Hand” exploded onto the charts and the English Invasion was under way.  My Navy father wouldn’t let me grow a “mop top” but a lot of my friends did, and we listened faithfully to the radio as sometimes two or three new groups with a totally new sound emerged each week to make a splash.  The Beatles were nearly everybody’s favorites at first, with the Rolling Stones a very close second.  My one and only girlfriend, Rhonda, was much taken with the Stones and I have to admit that I was more than a little jealous of that, so I had to claim some favorite other than them. I chose the Kinks, partly because I really liked their music and partly because they were even uglier than the stones, at least to judge by the bands’ pictures on their album covers.  I don’t know why that mattered, but it did.  

     My relationship with Rhonda ended amicably – no point in being a sore loser – and I was soon in the market for a new girl friend.  That mission was a lot like Ponce de Leon’s search for the fountain of youth.  I was terribly shy and after my first relationship ended I couldn’t muster the courage to try again.  This was a pitiable condition because Teresa Beal, the prettiest girl in the neighborhood by my standards, was unattached.  I was on good terms with Teresa and I dropped more than subtle hints of my interest, but never received any indication of interest in return.  The thought of just coming out and expressing my interest made me nauseous, so I dithered and plotted how i would eventually make my move.

     My opportunity came in May of 1965 when it was announced that the Beatles would perform in Balboa Stadium.  The Beatles were an irresistible draw and I was certain that an invitation to go see them would be irrefutable proof of my ardent and undying love, and Teresa would fall into my arms like Snow White into Prince Charming’s, or something like that.  Tickets were $3.50, $4.50 and $5.50, and all I could afford were the $3.50 variety.  Two tickets added up to $7.00, and that was a lot of scratch for a sixteen year old kid living in East San Diego in 1965.  The tickets were procured and rested in my dresser drawer for days and weeks as I struggled to find the right time and right words to ask Teresa to go with me to see the Beatles.

     The upshot of this tale is that I didn’t have the cojones to pull the trigger.  Beatles or no Beatles, you don’t get a date unless you ask.  I tried as best I could but Teresa and I lived in the same neighborhood; if she turned me down I would be faced with that fact every time I saw here and everybody would know.  That wasn’t going to happen and so I asked my brother if he wanted to go instead, which he did.

     Brad is also an interesting musical tale.  My brother spent two years at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, and had recently returned from the Army.  In Texas Brad learned to like old school Country and Western.  Hank Williams, Carl Smith, and Marty Robbins were his sort of acts.  A few weeks after returning home Brad walked into our bedroom while I was watching either Shindig or Hullabaloo, which were television shows that featured rock and roll acts playing their music.  It was sort of like early videos, only live.  Anyway, that night the Rolling Stones were singing “Satisfaction” when my brother walked into the room and my old fifteen inch black and white television screen was filled with Mick Jaggers’ lips, teeth and tongue.  “What in the hell is that?” asked Brad in stunned amazement.  “Give it a few months” I replied.  “You’ll be borrowing my records.”  And indeed he was, so when I mentioned the concert Brad leapt to the occasion.

     We found our seats and almost had to pay for oxygen, they were so high up.  I had never been to a real concert before and had no idea what to expect.  The opening acts were all pretty good; Cannibal and the Headhunters was my favorite of that bunch, but soon we got to the main event.  Out they came; four tiny figures on a stage down on the fifty yard line who wasted no time in starting the show.  The audience wasted no time either in breaking out in pandemonium.  Girls were screaming and kicking the sheet metal which surrounded the stadium lights.  Guys raced out onto the field only to be tackled by burly security men.  It turned out that Ronald Angulo, a kid from my neighborhood, was one of the first idiots to pull that stunt.  The Beatles sang twelve songs and that was it.  It actually seemed like less than that, but I am assured that we got twelve.  And then it was over and I went home again to crow at the park, although it was hollow because I had wanted to be there with Teresa.

     My love of music grew over the next decade as music became the medium by which  disillusioned youth expressed their feelings to one another and the world.  Music had become a complicated business and revolution filled the air along with the sounds of Hendrix, Cream, The Starship and a million others.  But I’ll never forget the simple love that I had for the music, just the music, of my youth.  No great causes or movements, no subliminal messages, just innocent music.  Yeah, it was only rock and roll, but I liked it then.  I still do.


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”.