Graduation Day, Part I

June 10, 1966 dawned warm in San Diego.  This was something of a rarity, as the hated “June gloom” condition of fog in the morning with a few hours of sun in the afternoon was the more usual pattern for the weather in that city which is celebrated for its climate. True summer usually returned to the neighborhoods, parks and beaches of San Diego much later in the season, or so it felt to us.  This was a very special day for me however; me and almost one thousand other seventeen and eighteen year olds who attended Herbert Hoover High School.  This day was graduation day.

The approaching end of my public school years had been a muted affair up to this point.  I was aware of a great many events which made up the Senior experience; the prom, something called a Baccalaureate, the rehearsal for the actual graduation ceremony and perhaps a few other activities which I have now forgotten.  None of these appealed to me, and the prom was never so much as a possibility as there were two unattainable requirements for attending, being 1. an ability to dance, and 2. a date.

Dancing was for those who had some sense of rhythm, and of that I had little.  I was threatened with dance lessons by my father as a young boy, but I think he mostly used that as a club to get me to agree to taking piano lessons, which he wanted all along.  Dad was pretty crafty like that.  If I really wanted to learn to dance I could also have learned a move or two by sitting in front of the television and watching American Bandstand.  Every week the newest dance, and there was a new one every single week, was premiered on that program, and a roomful of kids bobbed and weaved and gyrated in manners which resembled epileptic fits as much as anything that I would call a dance.  They all seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely however and that was attractive, but they were also dancing like they had done those dances all of their lives.  There was no “beginners’ section”, and no intermediate.  They just danced their hearts out.  With my imperfect mental filters and underdeveloped neural processors I assumed that any performance that was less than I was seeing on TV would open me to ridicule, and in the sometimes harsh and challenging culture of the pre-teen and teenager in America there is a very good chance that some of that would happen.  And after ridicule comes humiliation, and then there is a fight which I would most likely lose.  No, it just wasn’t worth the pain.

And then there was the problem of a date.  I had very little experience at securing one of those, as this usually required talking to girls, something which I eventually got pretty good at.   But then, rising to the next level of expressing interest in some sort of relationship required facing the possibility of rejection.  That possibility I had little stomach for.  Over the years I had watched as Hollywood hunks Cary Grant, Clark Gable and others won the hearts of the fair lady with witty conversation delivered with impeccable timing to gorgeous leading ladies, who became putty in their hands in no time.  Complicated putty perhaps, but putty none the less.  I tried a few of those lines, and even thought up a few of my own, but my timing was no better than my rhythm on the dance floor, and the responses to my witty lines were never what Vivien Leigh said to Clark or what Eva Marie Saint said to Cary.  On those times when I tried it their looks were like “I’m sure that you’re normal on your home planet,” or so it felt.  With that background, asking a girl to accompany me to a dance at which I wouldn’t be able to dance in the first place was as likely as a herd of pigs flying in formation through the bell tower in the front of Hoover High, so after one short and superficial romantic relationship in my junior year with a lovely young woman a grade behind me I let the whole thing go for quite a few more years.

When the Senior Prom came around I saw it as an opportunity to hang out with some of my slacker friends.  I told my parents that I was taking a girl whom I had known since elementary school to the dance.  I don’t remember now who I said I was taking because the odds against such an event actually happening were so remote that the cover story never really stuck in my head.  I actually owned a suit which I wore to the piano recitals which I was periodically coerced into performing at, and it was in that suit that I strode out the front door, acting like a man in charge of his world.  I climbed into the family car and drove off for my evening of teen revelry but instead of meeting up with my “date” I stopped at the neighborhood park and picked up Gene and Benny and Roy.  I changed out of the suit and got into some more comfortable street cloths I had stowed in the trunk.  From there we drove to a supermarket where we shoplifted half pints of whiskey and then headed to a dark canyon which led to the base of the dam that held back the city reservoir.  We spent the evening putting on a good buzz, and when I returned home well after midnight with more than a little wobble nobody was up to bust me, and nobody would have bothered me much anyway.  It WAS the Senior Prom, after all.

The baccalaureate was another event that I passed on.  I had no idea what a baccalaureate was then and I still don’t know to this day.  Oe thing that I did know was that I had no interest in spending time at school when I didn’t have to be there.  My neighborhood was my community and nearly all of the relationships outside of my family that meant anything to me were centered there.  As the baccalaureate approached I had to choose between spending time at school with people I hardly knew, doing I had not a clue what, or hanging out at the Park with all of my favorite people, including the lovely Elizabeth Wentley and her even lovelier older sister Margaret, to whom I would of course never even dream of hinting of my attraction to them.

The rehearsal for the graduation exercise I could not avoid, and especially not the main event itself, so as one O’clock rolled around on that June Friday I sat on a metal folding chair among the thousand other students who covered the track and part of the football field.  The sun was now hanging right over the top of us and more than a little bit of sweat began to trickle down the back of my neck.  The flat mortar board graduation hat sat comfortably on my head while the speakers droned on, but I noticed that some of the surfers in my class were not having such an easy time with theirs.

“Surfer” in San Diego in 1966 meant more than just guys who road on fiberglass boards in the waves off of San Diego beaches.  Some guys who identified with the surf scene never touched a surfboard, but wore the long (for then) hair, sometimes bleached a weird yellowish orange version of blond, a Madras shirt with colors suitably blended by many washings, and shorts with huarache sandals.  But they never once got up on a surfboard.  We who actually touched surfboards, even if ever so little, called those guys “Hodads” or “Grimmies” which was short for “Gremlins”.  I have no idea why we called them that or where the names came from.  The joke was that their surfboards, if they had any, were bolted to the racks on their cars.  Anyway, the surfers real and imagined who were seated in the metal chairs had their mortar boards perched on their big, poofy heads of hair and those aerodynamically unstable hats wobbled first one way or the other on their owners’ big hair, which offered me some amusement while I waited in youthful agony for the whole thing to be over.

“As we therefore go forth into a bright future—.”  A person called a valedictorian was giving a speech, but my mind was elsewhere.  First I thought about the past, and how I really did not like school at all.  I could remember sitting in Mrs. Stanton’s first grade class at Hamilton Elementary.  I was gazing through the high windows in the back of the room which opened out onto the playground and the canyon which I knew lay just beyond the high fence that enclosed the school yard.  I remember thinking “I have eleven years more of this to go” instead of paying attention to Mrs. Stanton’s instruction.  Probably that was the day when she was covering “how to dance” or “how to talk like Cary Grant or Clark Gable”.  At least this episode demonstrated that at the end of the first grade I could successfully subtract one from twelve, unless you include kindergarten which blows that theory out of the water.

“And now, as (at this point fill in the name of the forgotten valedictorian.  Any name will do) so beautifully just spoke, we will begin to send you graduates into your bright futures.  I will begin to call the names of the graduates, who will then come up onto the stage and receive their diplomas from the Principal, Mr. Marcus Ahern.  Abaados, Theodore—.”  I knew Teddy and I knew that he hated the name “Theodore” more than he hated anything in the world.  I laughed out loud at the thought of Teddy grinding his teeth, and one of the teachers looked my way with a frown.

“Screw you” I thought.  “You can’t touch me anymore.”  And that was true I suppose. I broke eye contact and looked away however, over the football field where during my incoming sophomore year I had attempted to make the hight school football team.  A place on the team meant a letterman’s jacket of the school’s colors, and a sure ticket to popularity.  Kids wearing a letterman’s jacket didn’t have to know how to dance to be interesting to the opposite sex, but kids weighing 110 pounds didn’t do very well on the offensive line either, and after a two week course in pain and humiliation I threw in the towel on that absurd notion.

For the next two years my athletic efforts at Hoover were next to nil.  I had wanted to work some little job somewhere and make a bit of money but my father insisted that only after I brought home a report card with “straight A’s” would I demonstrate to his satisfaction that I had extra time enough to to hold a part-time job.  Even if I somehow managed to overcome the barriers of algebra, geometry, and chemistry, gym class would certainly be the wooden stake in the heart of any dreams I might have held of straight A’s.  I had quickly learned that grading in gym was based on output rather than effort, and I was never, ever, going to be an athlete.

As a consequence I found myself in my junior year placed in the “cull” class.  The kids were divided into the “A”, “B”, and “C” groups, according to their abilities, and then there were the culls.  I happened to know what culls were because I read dime paperback western novels.  When the cowboys completed a cattle drive to the railhead, the cows were sold to buyers who waited there.  The cows were sorted as they went through the chutes according to the shape that they were in.  The most miserable ones, the ones worth only their hides and their hooves which could be turned into soap or glue or some such product, were the culls.

This designation was, of course, meant to denigrate us, but that is not how we took it.  We were not jocks and had either lost, or never had in the first place, any interest in being jocks.  The deal was “you’ll get your “C” grade if you just keep busy and stay out of everyone else’s way, and that is exactly what we did.  We would play basketball or lift weights or loaf around the track untroubled by coaches with their stupid whistles shouting instructions or barbs, but my favorite exercise was “doing the bleachers.”

A real bleachers workout was a strenuous mix of sit ups and push ups and running up and down the stairs.  We mostly walked up the stairs or sat in the press box and yakked and daydreamed.  Sometimes we made paper helicopters and floated them off of the top of the bleachers to see who’s the wind would carry the furthest.  One cull, Tim Elspeth, talked about how grass was made of cellulose which was a complex sugar, and since his parents were making him mow the lawn he was trying to figure out a way that he could break down the sugars in the grass clippings and then ferment them into a grass wine.  I never heard that Tim ever succeeded in that quest but I used to love listening to him as he described how he tried.  It was certain that such conversations never occurred in the “A” groups and it was damned certain that Tim had a better grasp of chemistry than I ever did!

My one last-gasp attempt at jockery came in my senior year when I joined the diving team.  I was always a better than average diver and could do a number of flips and gainers and so forth off of the diving board.  I have written elsewhere of doing a perfect one-and-a-quarter flip off of a high board (this maneuver is also known as a belly flop) when I was  trying to impress a girl.  Also, my father and I took a vacation once and went to the town swimming pools whenever we would stop at the small towns and sub-cities where we would take our evening rest.  I would always go straight to the diving board and frequently would soon be in competition with the local talent.  I could always hold my own, and many times won the contest, which usually led to my inclusion into the local pack and a fun evening.  My father took vicarious pleasure in seeing his son stand up with the small town kids; I think because he came from a small town himself and could identify with both me and them.

So we would meet at a country club on the eastern fringe of the city and there practice our dives.  We didn’t have a diving coach; all of the coaching was directed towards the swimmers, so we mostly horsed around and tried new dives that one of the other divers knew.  One time I was trying to keep a backward flip “tight”, or close to the diving board. I was too tight as it turned out, and almost did a face-plant into the recoiling fiberglass board.  A very quick adjustment on my part just averted a potential disaster, and ever after I landed a good distance away from the board, giving up points on my dives and considering myself the winner of the bargain.  Ultimately, I only made junior varsity on a diving team which only sported half dozen members total, and my understanding of my non-jock status was now carved in stone.

“Carleston, Jennifer.  Carpenter, Edith.  Carpenter, Franklin—.”  Argh!  I was dying for this to be over so that I could spring into my “bright future”.  On the short term that future would be a trip to the beach, and I was more ready for that than appeared at the moment.  Under my gown I was dressed in shorts covering a swimsuit, and a tee shirt.  On my feet were two old black leather shoes that were too small for me and an old black pair of socks.  Those black beasts were past their prime by a long shot and today was their last hurrah.  My feet felt like sausages stuffed into two hard leather skins, and those leather vises would be exiting my life as soon as this annoying exercise in torture was concluded.

“Davis, Alfred.  Davis, Lisa —.”  Another vision of my bright future flitted around the edges of my consciousness.  For the last twelve years we had been involved to one degree or another in a conflict that was simmering in what had been known as French Indochina, but was now divided up into the countries of Laos, Cambodia, and North and South Vietnam.  For the last two years that simmering conflict had evolved into a first class war.  Many of the older kids in my neighborhood had already volunteered or been drafted into one branch of the service or the other, and the probability that I would soon be in the military was always lurking in my sense of the future.

I was OK with that.  My father had fought in a war and I was ready to prove my mettle and go fight in one too.  Of course, I knew that people died in wars, but it seemed like they always died well.  In the movies there was little blood and no pain.  Well, at least I didn’t feel any pain while I was sitting in a soft theater seat munching popcorn.  And it was always very heroic too!  So I knew that my path out of the aimless humdrum of my teen years led through one of the services, and since I wouldn’t go Navy because my father had been a sailor (my little rebellion) and I wouldn’t go Marines because I had watched “The D.I.” staring Jack Webb and it looked like Marine boot camp sucked, and the waiting list to get into the Air Force was so long that you got drafted into the Army before your name was called for that (unless you were rich or the offspring of a politician), I just figured that it would be the Army for me.

“Dupree, Martin.  Duquesne, Cecilia —.”  I’m next!  At last I’ll get up and walk to the stage, and when I come back to my seat I will still be a few days shy of eighteen years old but I will be finished with school, and the scowling teacher can kiss my ass.  Maybe I’ll laugh out loud and flip him off when he looks my way!  No, that won’t do.  Mom and Dad are in the stands and Dad is a teacher at my high school, so anything I do will reflect on him, and he is still an overwhelming presence in my life, which is another way of saying that this salty old ex-sailor can still kick my ass.  I will, therefore, remain silent.   It’s done though.  The end that I dreamed about in Mrs. Stanton’s first grade class is here.  What comes next I don’t know and, to be honest, I don’t really care.  What I do know is that it’s coming, and whatever it is, it’s coming soon.

“Durden, Glenn—.”


Death Comes For Three Friends: Why Not For Me?

Death.  Now there’s a topic that will always attract attention!  Just the word is enough to set the mind to working, sometimes changing the topic and sometimes creating fantasies to explain how we don’t fear death.  In the end, however, only a person terribly sick in body or sick in mind ever welcomes death.  Or perhaps I’m employing a cheep trick designed to attract readers to my blog by writing of death; a hook to snag the curious fish and pad my ego with the numbers of those who take the bait.  Huh, Why didn’t I think of that sooner?  No, really, all joking aside.  If you feel that I am playing some sort of self-aggrandizoing game I urge you, dear reader, to go elsewhere.  I am writing about death because it is something common to all of us and something that I have seen my share of.  I sincerely hope that those of you who press on will derive something positive from the activity.

Death is something that is very common; as common as life, and we see life all around us.  The streets and buildings of our cities and towns are filled with life, and if you try to reserve a camping space at a state or federal campground on short notice in my Pacific Northwest you will quickly feel like there is way too much of it.  We are surrounded by life in our families and friends, as well as in our workplaces.  In our yards life explodes as flowers and vegetables and ornamental shrubs and trees, if we are of a mind to cultivate them, and life explodes as weeds if we should chose the opposite.  In the mountains and in the countryside and even in the driest of deserts, if you know where and when to look for it, life abounds.

It is very easy for most of us to shut death out of our view as we cruise, totter, stumble, careen and otherwise navigate our way through life.  All of us have to deal with death at the end of things however, and just about all of us have to deal with it along the way.  A tree you planted might have been killed by beetles; a disappointment.  A beloved pet who loved you as you loved it for many years as you grew up begins to piddle on the carpet, struggles to get from its bed to its food bowl, finally quits eating and dies one night on your dinning room floor.  Father/Mother in heaven, how much pain, and how much I loved that cat!.  One or more of your parents finally runs out their course on this beautiful but broken planet and goes to join their parents who died before them.  Yes, it happens to us all, so unless you are better at deceiving yourself than I have been you have tasted the bitter cup of death and know that it is a cup that we all are destined to drink.  I hate death, but it is common to us all and therefore deserves to be spoken of.  In fact, perhaps it’s sting may be softened if we would speak of it more often and deny it some of its mystery.  A devil known is always better than a devil which is not.

But death is a big topic and I do not write of big topics.  I am a storyteller and propose to write about three particular deaths and how those people were related to me, and perhaps what impact their death had on me.  I had experienced the deaths of pets while a child; the almost obligatory death of goldfish and parakeets which I could not keep alive no matter how I tried, and a couple of cats who’s death by automobile and disease gave me a good deal of heartache.  And I saw more than my fair share of death in the war in Vietnam, but in that case we knew it was coming.  When people shoot at you and launch things that explode on impact into where you are working/sleeping/hiding, death sometimes happens.  Hell, it happens a lot!  That’s the point of war!  But the thing is that you expect it.  Death is not a surprise visitor in the night.  Rather, death always has a place set at the table in such situations, and frequently arrives to share an unpleasant meal.

In fact, I did not begin to develop a true sense of the randomness and injustice of death until I returned home from Vietnam.  In very short order after my return I learned that three friends who had never left the safety of the United States of America had died while I was away at war.  Three people whom I had known for one year, three years, and nearly all my life were gone by the time I turned twenty one.  That shook my soul and contributed to some degree to a very nihilistic and pleasure-driven personal philosophy that guided my life for many years.  I propose now to write of these three people.  Their deaths impacted me in many ways and contributed to my living as if death could take me before the sun rose the next morning, and I must confess that the way that I lived certainly increased that possibility.  But that was not my friend’s fault.  They were people who lived their short lives and died without the least intent of injuring me.  I will therefore write a celebration of their lives, and thereby celebrate the victory that my puny literary endeavor gains over that old worm Death, who has deluded himself into believing that he is the winner in the end.

I met Kathy Hustead at a house that she was sharing with three young women, one of whom was an old friend from my neighborhood.  I was on leave for a month between my two tours of duty in Vietnam and Cynthia Orgulson invited me over to drink some beer and smoke a joint or two at her place.  I went to that house and the party began, and before the evening had ended I had formed a very interesting bond with Kathy, and a very uninspiring relationship with Olivia, the young woman who had first secured this living space and thought of herself as the alpha female.  I usually get along well with people but we did not click at all, and I quickly departed from that house but my connection with Kathy remained intact.

We did a lot of things together for the rest of that month, which was odd if you think about it.  Kathy had a boyfriend, and we never elevated our relationship to what you could call romantic.  It’s not that I inhabited some lofty. shining tower of platonic indifference; I would have pursued a romantic relationship with Kathy in a heartbeat!  I knew that this was not likely to happen but enjoyed her company so much that it didn’t seem to matter.  And Kathy sensed the genuine enjoyment that I felt of Kathy for Kathy’s sake, and not for what I could get out of her, and returned my affection in her own way openly and honestly.  We both knew that I would go back to war in a dwindling number of days and that my odds of coming home in a box were such that deep attachment was a dangerous thing, so we developed a more superficial attachment that was all the same thick and strong, like the cables on a great suspension bridge, and we swore that we would renew our friendship as soon as I should return to America alive and released from the military.  I hoped that Kathy was thinking “Who knows what a year might bring?”  I certainly was thinking just that thought.

Three years earlier I met Doug Barnett on the hight school diving team.  I had always loved diving off of the boards at swimming pools and had become pretty good at doing flips and ‘corkscrew’ dives and gainers and a host of other maneuvers, mostly at the Navy pool which my veteran father had access to and at the municipal pool near Balboa Park in San Diego.  Doug and I were thrown together on the junior varsity team for Hoover High because we both loved diving, and because we both couldn’t quite achieve the gymnastic perfection required to truly compete at a varsity level, so for us junior varsity had to do.

We certainly did know how to have fun though.  Our practices included a good deal of goofing off and experimenting with new dives, which often ended up in painful ‘belly flops’, and we loved to climb up on the three meter board, or high board as we called it, and practice wobbly and ill-advised dives from that height.  We buckled down as best we could when competition with other teams rolled around, but our skill level was limited and a second or third place was the best that we could ever seem to muster.

When we weren’t competing or practicing, Doug and I were hanging on to the edge of the pool, trying to avoid the cold spring wind that rose up from the canyon below and blew directly at the San Carlos Country club, who generously allowed our very working class school to base its program there.  On competition days we had to stand perfectly still on the board, waiting for a judge to blow the whistle that told us it was time to begin our dive.  I froze my wet, skinny little cojones off standing in the wind on that board, and frequently didn’t care how well I scored on a dive as long as I could quickly get back into the warm water of the pool.  Any other time we would be in the water of not very far removed from it, laughing and talking about our dreams (mostly girls) and the lives that we meant to pursue when we graduated.

Before graduation day came Doug and I made plans to get together when he got back from a trip that he was going to make to see his father in Wisconsin.  Doug’s family had been broken up by some trauma that he never shared with me and he struggled to remain involved with both of his parents.  The split had been ugly, and so it would require the emancipation that Doug’s eighteenth birthday would provide to enable him to journey the fifteen hundred miles to visit with and strengthen his relationship with his father.  Doug swore that he would call me when he returned, and I believe that he probably did so.  I was not there when he called however, for I had joined the Army to seek adventures where I might find them before Doug could return.

I knew Jo Herrera for most of my life.  I met Jo, or Josefina, in kindergarten and we were friends all through elementary school.  Jo’s family was Mexican but her parents were very proud that they had retained their Spanish heritage.  Jo invited me to her house to begin learning the Spanish language when we were very young, the first or second grade I think.  I didn’t stick with it because tadpoles and playing tag with the other neighborhood boys and other such pursuits eclipsed learning a second language from a girl who was in all ways very average.  We liked each other but in the most innocent and prepubescent manner, and by the time I began to develop an interest in girls in the later years of elementary school La Donna and Willie, who were very pretty, had captured my heart, attention, and fantasies.  Jo remained a friend, but very much on the margins of my attention.

We went to different junior high schools and so I didn’t see Jo for three years.  Then, in 1964, we were reunited at Hoover High School.  Time had been very kind to Jo.  In those three years Jo blossomed into one of the most beautiful girls that I have seen even to this day.  Jo’s was not a painted-on beauty either.  She just quietly went through her days giving light to every room and situation into which she walked.  In our senior year Jo was elected homecoming queen.  I think that the vote was as close to unanimous as one can get at a high school with nearly three thousand students.

A big part of Jo’s beauty was her personality.  She really didn’t seem to know that she was beautiful, or if she did know it she didn’t act as if it really meant anything.  Jo was often seen hanging out at school with people she had known for years even if they weren’t ‘cool’, didn’t have letters in football, basketball, or track, or didn’t have cars.  Jo really was our queen.  The popular kids deferred to her for he beauty and accomplishments, and the rest of us loved her for her humanity, and in our wildest dreams thought that she might someday be interested even in one of us.  Jo was special, there is no doubt about it.

When I got home from Vietnam I set about making contact with my old friends, and was for the most part successful.  My life was rocked however when I went to look for Kathy, Doug and Jo.  Kathy married her boyfriend who was a stock car racer.  She was sitting in the stands one evening watching a race when one of the drivers lost control of his car, flipped over and over, and landed in the stands right on top of her.  Killed her instantly.  Doug was involved in a drug deal that went bad and took a knife blade to his neck.  He lingered for a while but finally, mercifully, died of the knife stroke that had changed him from a laughing kid on a diving board into an insensate vegetable with decubitus ulcers.  Jo developed an aggressive cancer of the ovaries or cervix or something down there and died quickly.  None of them saw their twenty first birthday.

I did see my twenty first birthday.  Now why the hell is that?  I heard bullets whistle over my head (they don’t ‘whang’ or ‘ping’ or any of that Hollywood ricochet bullshit.  They make an evil, fluttering whistle sound as they go over your head or past your ear, and you love that sound;  it means that you are still alive).  I heard rockets explode scant yards away from where I stood, saved from blast and shrapnel by the aluminum walls of buildings, sandbags, and the bodies of other soldiers who stood between me and the point of impact.  I saw men drop on the field of battle, or hanging from their harnesses in the door opening of a Huey helicopter, and bodies of enemy soldiers plumping up under the burning Vietnamese sun like roadkill in the middle of a country lane.  How, I asked myself, did I come back from that hell to resume my life when these friends had theirs taken from them for no damned good reason at all?

I will not pretend that I pondered these questions deeply.  I was far to stoned to do anything like that.  I was twenty one and the fact of my survival of the war had in many ways trumped the self-doubt and insecurities that I had felt as a child.  As a result I tackled life with an irreverent and egocentric gusto in which I felt wildly empowered to seek gratification of any want that I felt as quickly as I might once I was aware that I felt it.  Still, the memory of these three friends and their tragically shortened lives haunted me in brief, unexpected moments of sober reflection.

In later years those memories have come to haunt me even more.  Perhaps Twain was right in his short work “The Mysterious Stranger”.  Perhaps Kathy and Doug and Jo were spared painful and unloved lives and slow, agonizing and unnoticed deaths by their early exit from the world of the living.  Perhaps.  Mark Twain was a pretty good writer, and could use his noodle.  But I call ‘bullshit’ on that.  Death is not natural after all.  Death was not a part of the plan.  Death is the peculiar province of a certain son of a bitch who is frequently portrayed as having horns and hooves and a pointy tail and, well, you know the picture.  Death shouldn’t be.  Kathy and Doug and Jo should not have died, and I should not feel guilty that i didn’t.  And I no longer feel the least bit guilty about that.

I hope that my three friends have found peace.  I don’t believe in a God who takes pleasure in barbecuing His victims so I know that I have a good chance of this hope being true.  In any case, I have survived my own folly long enough to finally understand that we are given a time to be on this planet, and if we live long enough to learn some wisdom along the way we should share it with those who come after us in the hope that we might bring some clarity to them, and make their passage through this life a little easier.  It is this that I hope I have accomplished by writing this story.  If I have failed in that, at least I hope that you have been entertained.

A Wild Ride with Chris

     One of the most interesting characters that I had the opportunity of serving with in the military was Chris Burnett.  Chris was either nineteen or early twenty-something, like all of the rest of us, and was one of the most easy-going fellows that I have ever had the pleasure of knowing.  I don’t believe that Chris had any enemies, at least not among the ranks of common soldiers, and he seemed to do his job well enough for the majority of his year in Vietnam to escape any attention of his officers or NCO’s.  Chris lived to enjoy life, and being in a war and in the crazy, regimented environment of the U.S. Army did not seem to make much of a difference to him.  I sometimes thought that Chris acted as if he had never really left his civilian life at all; that the olive drab fatigues and mess hall food and occasional bullets and rockets were only an aberration which would soon pass behind him and allow him to get on more fully with what he did best, which was living and enjoying life.

     I met Chris soon after he arrived in-country.  The GI’s and I had established a platform atop a water tower where we could spread out our lawn chairs and bask in the Vietnamese sun when we were not working at the port some twenty miles distant on the Saigon River.  I ascended the ladder to our outpost in the sun on my day off and found Chris sitting there already with a cooler filled with ice and beer and reading Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass”.  I did not expect to see anyone on our water tower reading poetry, and nodded in his direction as I set up my own chair and opened one of Bruce Catton’s many books on the American Civil War.  It didn’t take but a few minutes before we were chatting like old friends and discussing books we had read and interests we would pursue when we returned to the ‘real world’.

     That evening I introduced Chris to the rest of my gang of friends when they returned from working on the docks, and after the obligatory question “Are you CID?” (Criminal Investigation Division: the branch of the Army devoted to stamping out pot smoking threats to the military establishment.  We believed that if they answered that question in the negative we were safe from any bust that they could put on us.  This was probably not true, but it is what we all believed), we all settled in to party and get high and do all of the coping stuff that we did while we were ‘over there’.

     Chris was one of the more decent guys in our group and was always careful to be mindful of the feelings of others, especially the Vietnamese who’s country we were ‘guests’ in.  Such consideration was rare, and many of the GI’s would be dismissive or openly hostile to any and all Vietnamese, from the men who burned the stuff from our latrines to the prostitutes who’s services they availed themselves of when they managed to get to Bien Hoa or Saigon.  This attitude made me uncomfortable but it just made Chris mad.  On his days off Chris would sit and chat with the female workers who would pick up and return our laundry, shine our boots, and generally clean up our bunk houses, or hooches as we called them, while the rest of us were at work at the docks.  Chris was always kind, kidding with the ladies and talking with them about their lives and about his own as if they were old neighbors.  The Vietnamese men who worked in the mess hall or maintained the grounds in our battalion area didn’t talk with anyone very much, either due to caution or because they were Viet Cong and would be throwing mortars at us that evening.  We couldn’t be sure.  Anyway, Chris seemed to be only dimly aware that there was a war going on; everyone was his friend.

     Don’t get the impression from what you have already read that Chris was a monk or a saint however.  Chris was a young man who was placed in an environment where many of the social constraints on life in the U.S. had been thrown out of the window.  He was as likely to sneak away into town and purchase an evening with a lady as the next guy, and Chris was sneaky enough to do this more than most and still not be noticed by anyone who cared.  The difference between Chris and others who did the same was that Chris managed to retain some sense of propriety about this business as is illustrated in the following case.

     Several of us were in Saigon one evening, having a few Tiger beers before we returned to the docks where we would stay that evening.  We were not supposed to be in Saigon in the first place, but that is meat for another story.  Chris was drinking beer with the rest of us but a very pretty bar maid had attracted his attention and he began to buy her small glasses of what was little more than water which we called Saigon Tea.  This was the accepted manner in which one secured the favors of the lady in question.  We were in a very high class joint with lots of officers and civilian contractors present, so a common soldier stood little chance of making headway in this environment.  Chris was persistent however, and after dropping what must have been nearly $200 on beer and Saigon Teas the lady led Chris outside, flagged a man on a motorcycle, gave him an address, and sent Chris off to await her arrival.

     We were all extremely nervous about this.  We didn’t patronize this bar often and did not really know anyone there.  The man piloting the motorcycle with a grinning Chris on the back through the darkened streets and alleys of Saigon could have been Ho Chi Minh’s nephew for all we knew.  We didn’t know whether to admire Chris’ guts or be in awe of his idiocy, but nobody intervened when he climbed onto the bike and disappeared into the gloom.  We returned to the docks unsure if we would ever see Chris alive again.

     Indeed we did see Chris again.  He showed up for breakfast at the mess hall on the port with a nasty hangover and the appetite of a much larger man.  “So, how’d it go?” we asked  “Well”, Chris began, “the guy on the bike twisted and turned until I had no idea where I was (I doubt that Chris knew where he was when he got on the bike in the first place), and then dropped me off at a house.  The people there were asleep, so it took a minute or two for them to get the door open.  An old woman let me in and then lit a small lamp.  In a second room there was a bed with a little boy in it where they had both been sleeping.  At just that time Mai, that is the girl’s name, came in the front door behind me and the old gal began to haul the kid out and get resettled on the floor.  I could see that they were going to sleep on the floor so that I could get it on with Mai in the bed.  Mai was probably the old lady’s daughter and might have been the kid’s mother.  I don’t know about the guy on the motorcycle; Brother?  Husband?  I could see that this whole thing was just wrong and nobody should have to do what they were doing to survive, and I told them that I would be sleeping on the floor and that they should all get into bed and get a good night’s sleep.  Mai was confused, as was the old lady, but they crawled back into their bed while I stretched out on the mat that they had just abandoned.  When I got up I left whatever was in my pockets on a table by the door and hitched a ride back here.”  Chris said that like it was a perfectly normal thing to do, and anyone would be likely to do the same.  The rest of us listened with amazement, thinking back on times when we had behaved a lot less honorably, and agreed that Chris was the strangest guy we had ever known, and in our company that was saying something.

     This brush with civility did not deter us for long from seeking the pleasures of Saigon however, and one especially memorable event deserves to be recounted in these pages.  One evening at our base camp we were sitting on the porch outside of our hooch and it occurred to my friend Chief that it would be a great evening to be partying at the Capitol Apartments in Saigon instead of sitting on lawn chairs on a wooden porch in Long Binh.  The Capitol really was an apartment but it also had a bar on the roof with all of the drinks and diversions offered by any other Saigon bar.  The place was one of our favorite venues but it had the disadvantage at that moment of being twenty miles across the Vietnamese countryside at ten o’clock at night in the middle of a war.  We discussed that obstacle and decided that with a little luck we could overcome it.

     Strawberry, who was from Gary, Indiana and who’s stateside employment probably included auto theft, said that he could hot wire the supply room two-and-a-half ton truck.  Chief, Chris and I agreed, like absolute imbeciles, that this could work, so we walked across our battalion area to where the deuce and a half rested, climbed in and fired her up.  Straw ground the truck into gear and we headed across Long Binh towards the main gate.

     At this time, forty plus years after the fact, I cannot remember what we said to the MP’s who were guarding that gate.  We were four idiots without helmets, flak jackets or weapons giving them some bullshit story about why we had legitimate business driving a truck into the pitch black Vietnamese countryside at almost eleven o’clock at night.  It might have been that they figured the Army would be better off without morons like us who’s insanity might some day get good men killed.  Or maybe they were bored and didn’t care.  Or maybe we just cooked up a really good bullshit story.  I don’t know.  The result of whatever force was at work that night was that we soon found ourselves lighting a joint and laughing as we rolled down Highway 1A heading for a good time that we could hardly have predicted only an hour or two before.

     We were approaching the bridge over the Saigon River near where our port was located when suddenly Straw hit the brakes and the deuce came to a screeching halt.  “What the hell?”  “What’re you doing?”  “You gone F’n nuts, man?”  We were all babbling when a whole new bunch of babbling caught our impaired attention.  Outside of our truck, which had become enmeshed in concertina wire which the Vietnamese Army strung across the highway at night to prevent enemy soldiers from riding in to do their dirty work, were a dozen South Vietnamese soldiers with their M-16 rifles all pointed at our heads and probably yelling for us to come out with our hands showing.  Come out we did, but with the kind of stupidity reserved for flatworms and drunk, stoned, horny GI’s.  We just piled out of the cab and jabbered at them with no more real communication than we received from them in return, pointed at the wire and began to tug on it, trying to get it out of our wheels and axle so that we could continue our journey.  The commander of this detachment of soldiers, either impressed with our bravery or amazed by our stupefaction, directed his men to help us with disentangling our truck from his wire, and soon waved to us as we rolled across the bridge and into Saigon.

     Once in the confines of Saigon we felt like we were home free.  We were four unarmed, unhelmeted, unflakjacketed inebriated dorks in a stolen truck in Saigon after curfew in a war; what could go wrong?  I was dreaming of the party that was soon to come when all of a sudden “BAM”!  The truck came to a stop in the back end of a car parked on the street.  “What the hell, Straw?” someone asked, and Straw tried to back up and disengage from the car but the gears were stuck.  In a moment a Vietnamese guy was yelling at us, pointing at our truck and at the car.  We tried to give him some money but he wouldn’t take it.  After a minute or two Chief said “Look”, and pointed to the car.  In the back seat, which had been empty a few moments before, sat a teenage girl holding the back of her neck and moaning.

     We knew instantly that this was a scam.  The curfew applied equally to Vietnamese teenagers as it did to developmentally challenged soldiers in stolen trucks.  Still, this was a wild care that we had no intention of playing.  Abandoning the truck we ran through the darkened post-curfew streets of Saigon, open targets for any Viet Cong or American MP’s who might see us, and made our way successfully the remaining few blocks to the Capitol Apartments, where we ascended to the roof and continued to party as if this was all part of a normal day’s work.

     The next morning we could see that there were MP’s waiting at all the entrances checking ID’s.  Our battalion at Long Binh had no doubt reported a missing truck, and a truck with those unit markings was reported to be resting in the rear end of a civilian’s car near the Capitol.  Even the Army can add two and two and so the MP’s were looking for anyone who did not belong there.  We decided to separate and go out different exits at different times.  I don’t know what advantage we thought that would confer upon us, but it made us feel like we were doing something clever so that was our plan.

     I went first and pulled out my wallet with my ID as I approached the door.  The MP took my ID, looked it over, handed it back and waved me through.  I walked away on automatic pilot; I couldn’t believe that I was free!  I caught a cycalo, a sort of rickshaw hooked up to a small motorcycle, and rolled through the early morning streets of Saigon towards the docks that we had passed the night before.  Upon arrival I headed to the mess hall and waited as Chris and then Chief showed up.  We ate some breakfast and drank coffee, holding out from going to our duty stations and hoping that Strawberry would make it back.  Finally, as we were about to give up, Straw came staggering through the mess hall door and headed straight to the coffee dispenser.  It seems that Straw had a really good time.  We later learned that because our particular unit was based in Saigon but detached to support the battalion in Long Binh, our ID’s included the base unit’s home location as being Saigon and it was this home location that saved our bacon.  We almost never had contact with that home unit but in this case that connection came in very handy.  Our officers knew what we had done but had no way to prove it, which either really pissed them off or impressed them.  I never discussed it with them so I don’t know which way it went.

   When it was nearing time for Chris to go home he began to lose interest in his work.  Chris told me that he was trying to do his job but the BS which was routine in the military at that time, plus Chris’ longing to return to his family and girlfriend (whom Chris did not at that time know had moved on with her life) simply seemed to capture most of his attention.  Chris was finally ejected from the shack where he had monitored the flow of cargo out of ships which tied up at Deep Draft Number One and was reassigned to the motor pool, where it was believed for some altogether unfathomable reason that the U.S. Army might get some productivity out of Chris.  That project failed miserably.  I would occasionally look out the window of my building and see Chris wandering amongst the jeeps and forklifts smoking what he wanted people to think was a cigarette, but I knew it wasn’t.  Chris finally just threw in the towel and told our unit commander that he was retiring.  He had only four weeks until he left both Vietnam and the Army, and he was simply done.

     The commander, Lieutenant Williams, tried to explain that you just can’t do that.  Chris would have none of it however, and continued to take up space in the motor pool until the sergeant overseeing that operation complained to the Lieutenant that Chris was harming moral.  That was not really true.  All of the guys in the motor pool liked Chris as much as we did, but the Lieutenant finally came and accompanied Chris to a pile of sandbags which lay on one side of our communications bunker.  “Move those sand bags to the other side” he commanded, and then walked away.

     Chris moved the sandbags, two at a time, for a few hours, taking frequent breaks inside the commo bunker where it was air conditioned.  Eddie Morales, one of our group of friends, was in the bunker listening to the Doors and Velvet Underground and would have loved to enjoy Chris’ company, but he would have been roasted had he been caught with Chris inside where he could hear things he hadn’t clearance to hear, so Eddie would chase him back outside into the sweltering heat to continue moving sandbags.  When Chris completed his task he sat down in what shade he could find and awaited the return of the Lieutenant.  At length, Lieutenant Williams returned, surveyed the work and said “Well done.  Now move them back to the other side” and left.

     Chris was not impressed with this order and sat down to figure out how to meet this new effort to make him do useless work.  At that moment Chris remembered that a very important somebody, a general or congressman or senator or something like that, was supposed to visit the port that day.  This Very Important Personage would come by helicopter and there was only one good, open place for a chopper to land.  Chris sprang into action and began to place the green sandbags in a large circle in the dry red Vietnamese dust.  Slowly a peace symbol about thirty feet in diameter took shape and was completed in time to greet the visiting VIP.

     That was the end of the line for Chris.  He was told to stay in his hooch at Long Binh until he left the country, which was fine with him and exactly what he did.  About a week after this we returned from work to find his bunk stripped and his footlocker open and empty.  At a time when guys were routinely waiting one and even two weeks past their scheduled dates to leave Vietnam Chris had left a week early.

     Many guys wrote back to us when they left ‘The Nam’.  I certainly did, for a while anyway.  You make connections in a place like that which are not easily broken.  Chris never wrote however, and although we were disappointed we understood.  Chris was a good-hearted guy who lived in the now, and once he left Vietnam and the Army I’m sure it was as if they had never existed.  I hope to run into Chris some day, but I haven’t in over forty years and so I don’t suppose that I ever will.  If you’re reading this Chris, I hope you’ve had a happy life.  I suspect that you have. 


A Snake’s Tale

I have never in my life purposefully sought to have much in the way of dealings with snakes.  Surprise encounters did take place from time to time, and I have written elsewhere of spending an evening sitting on a pile of wood in Vietnam almost right next to a large king cobra, and being chased in Georgia by a water moccasin that was too stupid or too truculent to care that in addition to fishing gear I also carried in plain sight a 12 gauge, double barrel shotgun.  I have had other encounters with snakes however and in one case the encounter was quite intentional.  I now propose to tell you that tale.

Vietnam forty years ago was a place where there were many ways that one could die.  When I was there in the middle of a war I made the acquaintance of the cobra mentioned above, but there were more snakes there than cobras!  The bamboo viper, which is green and blends wonderfully into its surrounding jungle, is so poisonous that the GI’s in the U.S. Army called it the ‘step-and-a-half snake’, since that was about all of the time that you had after being bitten before you did a face-plant onto the jungle floor.  I feared and hated those snakes, and would not hesitate to kill one.

But not all snakes in Vietnam were our enemies.  One snake, Leroy was his name, was in fact quite welcome in our company.  You see, we had a rodent problem in our living quarters.  Well, heck, we had a rodent problem throughout the entire country of Vietnam, but that is a different story.  At the docks where we worked unloading supplies from barges, LST’s and freighters of all kinds and sizes, the rats were huge and we needed terriers to keep them sort of under control.  The rats there were too big for a cat to handle.  At our base camp about twenty miles away from the docks, where we had assembled aluminum prefabricated bunkhouses called ‘hooches’, we were free of the river rodents but plagued by a much smaller variety which nonetheless had appetites as big as their gargantuan riverine relatives.  Any morsel of food, such as what might have arrived in a care package from the family back home, was fair game if it was left out by accident or the result of a drunken stupor.  Even worse was their sweet tooth for our marijuana.  We would stash our weed in paper-covered bundles in the insulation of our hooches on the off chance that we might have to endure a surprise inspection.  We didn’t fear inspections too much because, well, what were they going to do to us if they found something that they didn’t like, send us to Vietnam?  Still, it was an aggravation that we could live without so we hid the weed in the insulation.

But the mice found our weed.  One evening we parted the fiberglass batting to retrieve our stash and found the paper wrapping gnawed through and most of the weed eaten.  A few teaspoons of dope remained but it was sprinkled with mouse droppings, as if the dirty rats wanted to rub it in a little.  We decided that this meant war, and we retired to the enlisted men’s club to hatch our plans over a few dozen cans of beer.  The result of those deliberations was Leroy.

My friend Chief and I made a trip into Saigon the next day to replace our devoured marijuana, or ‘can sa’ in Vietnamese.  As we made our purchase we explained, with some translational difficulty, our problem to Papa San, our Vietnamese supplier.  Once Pop understood the problem he laughed a good belly laugh and said “No problem.  You come back tomorrow.  Con ran numbya one.  No more trouble with numbya hukin’ welve chuot.”  We figured out that a ‘chuot’ was a mouse, but had no idea what a ‘con ran’ was.  If it kept our con sa save however, it was fine with us whatever it was.

Chief and I arrived the next day and, as promised, Papa San was there with a large burlap bag tied off at the top.  The bag giggled and squirmed a bit when Pop moved it, but otherwise lay perfectly still.  “That con ran” we asked?  “Yah” replied Pop.  “No charge.  Onna house.”  “We take a look” we enquired?  “Soo-ah, I show”.  Papa San took a knife and and cut the string which bound the sack shut.  Chief and I peered into the open mouth of the sack and then jumped back about three feet at the same time, because staring up at us was what looked like a very large snake.  “No worry for GI” said Pop.  “Con ran numbya one for GI.  No care about GI.  Con ran eat chuot.  chuot numbya one for con ran.  Con ran numbya hukin’ welve for chuot.  I tell you before, con ran numbya one.”  We had never been given a bum steer by Papa San before, so we agreed to take the snake.  We offered Pop some money but he wouldn’t take it.  We were good customers and, as he said, the snake was on the house.

When we got back to our hooch that evening we hauled out our sack to show the guys the solution to our problem.  The reaction was mixed.  Ray Harris, an African American from West Memphis Arkansas, hated snakes and nearly put a turd in his underwear when he saw Leroy.  Chief (not the Chief with whom I went into Saigon, but a Native American from Oklahoma) was not especially pleased, but agreed that desperate times required desperate measures.  Phiz was one of those guys who actually liked snakes, so he offered to switch bunks with Ray so that he would be well off of the floor where Leroy would mostly be crawling.  It took lots of coaxing, but Ray finally gave in and Leroy was turned loose to become the newest member of our family.

Leroy, it turned out was only about four feet of some kind of constrictor.  He was a pretty snake, as shakes go, but we almost never saw him.  We tried to keep the doors of our hooch closed as much as possible to keep him inside, relying on keeping our screened windows open and fans ‘requisitioned’ from among the supplies which we off-loaded from the freighters at the docks to keep our hooch ventilated, and we noticed immediately that the rodent population began to decline.  Our weed was never again tampered with and even some foodstuffs were safe to leave out, as long as it wasn’t something that a snake would like.  One drawback was that when you returned to your hooch after an evening of sloshing down beers at the EM club and turned down your blanket you might find two beady little reptilian eyes staring back at you.  You just never quite get ready for that. I would lift Leroy gently out of my bunk and place him on the floor and he would slither away to curl up in somebody else’s bunk.  After making sure there were no snake turds in my bunk I would then crawl into the sack and not give Leroy another thought.

Ray never did get used to Leroy though, and one night it was Ray’s turn to stagger home late and find Leroy in his bed.  Out of the darkness we heard a decidedly un-manly shriek and then the voice of Ray shouting “Shit! Goddammit! Goddammit!  Somebody get that f___ing snake out of my f___ing bed!”  Larry Wiest, a logger from the Pacific Northwest, lifted Leroy out of Ray’s bunk while the rest of us tried to calm him down.  It was of no avail.  Ray grabbed his pillow and blanket and went to crash in the hooch of a friend in Headquarters Company.  Ray remained our friend and hung out with us but he never slept in our hooch again.  Ray left Vietnam three months before I did, glad to be going home and especially glad to be as far away from Leroy as he could get.

Leroy was still living with us when my turn to rotate back to the states came around.  The snake had grown to almost six feet in length and was getting quite fat on the ample food that was available.  That amiable reptile had become very much a part of our little family and we came to leave the doors of our hooch open once Leroy had established it as his home base.  We would hear reports of his midnight slitherings in other hooches but most of those guys didn’t mind a little rodent control, so they didn’t object too much.

None of the guys to whom I wrote after I left Vietnam ever mentioned Leroy, and I suppose that one day he just crawled off into the Mekong Delta and rejoined the natural world.  I hope so, and I hope that there are hundreds if not more little Leroys crawling around the marshes and jungles of southern Vietnam to this day, keeping the vermin under control and living the good snake life.