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October 11, 2014

Fifty Years After

An article published today in the New York Times takes a look at the controversy surrounding the effort by the Pentagon to stage a 50th Anniversary Commemoration of the Vietnam War. Which raises an interesting question. How do you commemorate a war that was a mistake, a war whose soldiers were branded as drug-addled losers and baby-killers, a war that was detested by a significant percentage of the population, a war that began with a lie and ended in defeat and chaotic retreat? Somehow, a pat on the back and a "thank you for your service" doesn't seem to cut it.

For that matter, whose war will we commemorate? Is it about the men and women who fought in it, the politicians and generals who got us into it and kept us in it, or the men and women who tried to get us out of it? That debate remains robust, judging by the comments that accompanied the article in the Times.

Most of the attention has focused on the web site, in particular an Interactive Timeline that purports to show the key events of the war. The gist of the objections is that the web site is just another attempt by the Pentagon to write a history of the Vietnam War that glosses over unpleasant events such as the massacre at My Lai and underplays what many people see as critical elements of the story, most especially the scope and impact of protests against the war.

There is some meat in the web site, especially the part called Primary Documents, a work in progress that includes many valuable source documents, including extracts from the Pentagon Papers and key diplomatic reports. Anyone seriously interested in learning the history of the Vietnam War should start there. Personally, I found the Interactive Timeline to be a failed effort, at least in this iteration. It's hard to say this without sounding disrespectful, but the decision to include the citations for every Congressional Medal of Honor winner in the timeline seriously disrupts the flow. Better there should be a separate area that lists all the CMH winners, with links to each citation from the related battle or action in the Interactive Timeline. Equally baffling is the lack of links from the Interactive Timeline to the Primary Documents area.

All that is beside the point. The Vietnam War has always been about more than the war and those who fought it. It was also about the changing times during which the war was waged and the changing attitudes of the American people towards their government. A social revolution became a political revolution as opponents of the war took to the streets to protest our involvement in Indochina. No history of the Vietnam War is complete without that chapter, and therein lies the difficulty with a Pentagon-sponsored history. Even fifty years later, it is clearly hard for the military to give anything more than lip service to a movement that at the time was seen by them as giving aid and comfort to the enemy.

For me, the reasoning behind the program --"to thank and honor veterans of the Vietnam War ... for their service and sacrifice on behalf of the United States and to thank and honor the families of these veterans" -- rings hollow. I'm sorry, but the brutal reality is that the hardest part of being in the Vietnam War was coming home. There was no grateful nation, there were no parades, no flag-waving greeters at the airports. Instead, we Vietnam veterans returned to a decades-long shunning by our peers and by many who served before us. We were the perpetrators of  horrors witnessed night after night, year after year, in the Living Room War. It was there we suffered our greatest defeat.

I had a chat recently with a Korean War vet. I said to him that they were the truly forgotten vets, which he agreed with completely. But all the while I was thinking that there's worse things than being forgotten. If we must somehow commemorate the Vietnam War, then let us do so by facing unflinchingly the hard facts about how we got into the mess, and how we got out of it, and what lessons we learned and have already forgotten. Nothing less will properly do justice to the millions caught up in the war, no matter what side they were on.

October 5, 2014

October Surprise

On October 5, 1968, I left the U.S. of A and headed west -- far west, all the way to where it turns into the Far East -- to begin my tour of duty in Vietnam. In the years after I came home, I would have this vague sense of unease around October, as if I couldn't quite find my bearings or keep focused on things. The shrinks have a name for this: anniversary syndrome. If you think about it, I'll bet you could rustle one up as well.

I am unaffected by it, for the most part. The flame of memory has long ago dampened to a mere flicker. A life has unfolded during the decades after my war ended. Each year pushes the memories further into the vault. But they never quite go away. Somewhere in the deepest part of my brain, nestled among some gnarly old neurons, they wait patiently for their moment to arise.

This year, many things have conspired me to get me thinking about that time in my life. An old friend from college comes for a visit and we go to see the Vietnam Wall. A guy I knew in the 1st Infantry Division gets back in touch after 45 years. Another guy I never met gives me a book about Vietnam. All of a sudden, I'm knee-deep in Big Muddy again, metaphorically speaking, of course.

So maybe it's no surprise that while I was cutting the grass I got to thinking about this guy I knew when I was working at USDA. Vietnam vets rarely talked to anyone about their time in country, and that included other vets. But K. and I worked together and soon enough discovered the big elephant in the room that we both shared living space with.

We would talk, K. and I, or rather he would talk and I would mostly listen.  I had a tour of duty; he fought in a war. My memories were of long shifts in the Tactical Operations Center listening to the war over the radio, spiced with nightly rocket and mortar attacks. His memories were of kicking his way into hooches, M-16 locked and loaded, a shotgun slung over his shoulder, a pistol tucked in his belt, and a knife stashed where he could quickly retrieve it. When he talked of those times, he would get that faraway look in his eyes -- not quite the 1000-yard stare, but close enough to it.

One day he came back from lunch and rushed into my office looking especially wild-eyed. He had been minding his own business when an old lady had her purse snatched. K. chased after the mugger, tackled him to the ground, and proceeded to beat and kick him to within an inch of his life. The cops had to pull him off. I think he was shocked at his own actions, and maybe a little bit scared by it. I tried to talk him through it, but we both knew it wasn't good.

The fact that his personal life was a mess didn't help. He was in a marriage that was doomed by his PTSD, and it didn't help that he was a good looking guy, the kind of guy who drew looks from the girls when he walked into a room. It was such an ego-boost for me when one of them would sidle up to me and want to know who that guy was. Yeah, thanks for asking.

Eventually, things fell apart and K. left town for a new job and a new woman. I never saw or heard from him again. I hope he found a way to live a reasonably normal life, although truth be told, K. always struck me as one of those people destined to live outside the bounds of normal. Then again, I doubt that any returning vet has much luck in finding normal any time soon.

I consider myself to be one of those lucky ones. I have incorporated the good, the bad, and the ugly into a workable 2.0 version of me. It's all good now, except maybe on a crisp October day when the wind blows from the west, the leaves rustle in the trees, and time sends a shiver rolling down my spine and I am that young kid waiting to leave on a jet plane, not  knowing when I'll be back again.

September 23, 2014

1963


If there is a ground zero of my youth, a time when everything changed, then 1963 would be it. In September, I was to begin classes at Georgetown University, the oldest Catholic college in the country. Inspired by the idealism of the New Frontier, I had enrolled in their School of Foreign Service, my hope being to join the diplomatic corps and help President Kennedy save the world. We all know what happened in November of that year, but in June there was another death of equal import. Pope John XXIII, the force behind the aggiornamento aimed at shaking up the Catholic Church, died of stomach cancer, leaving Holy Mother Church in a state of doctrinal uncertainty. The twin pillars of Western civilization -- church and state -- sustained mortal blows in a short period of time, leaving the rest of us dazed and adrift. The dream was gone before I even got started.

That realization came very quickly in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination. For days we were preoccupied with the events surrounding the funeral. I was at the Capitol when the wagon bearing the coffin made the final turn and stopped in front of Jackie Kennedy and Caroline and John-John. I can sill see them standing alone on the steps of the Capitol. The months and years that followed only increased the feeling of being abandoned by history. What sense did any of it make now? The idea of going out to save the world for LBJ held little appeal. As the New Frontier segued into Big Muddy, the sense of a disconnect between the dreams I had and the reality I was facing increased.

Equally important was the tumult in the Catholic Church. In 1964, Latin gave way to the vernacular, and the altar was turned around to face the people. These were massive changes back then. I won't pretend that I was deeply religious, but like every generation of Catholics before me, I had been indoctrinated with a peasant version of religion at Sunday School that really got inside your head. Much of that was turned topsy-turvy by Vatican II. What little belief remained was further shaken by the Jesuits at Georgetown, who opened my eyes to a more sophisticated and less certain model of theology than was contained in the Catechism. Eternal truths weren't so eternal after all. This fed into the general dynamic of the times: question everything. I guess it was natural that the first thing I would question was my own sense of purpose in the world.

None of this was helpful in terms of my academic pursuits. Georgetown's School of Foreign Service had a very rigorous curriculum, a mandated triple major in history, government and economics, along with intense exposure to theology and a foreign language in the first two years. The fact that I was not a very attentive student didn't help. I was growing in all kinds of different directions back then, and academics was usually of secondary interest to my exploration of life in the big city.

As fate would have it, I managed to scrape by and get a diploma. (How I passed the final trial by fire of oral comprehensives -- a holdover from the Middle Ages that was dropped not long after I graduated -- is a miracle I have never fully understood.) I was lucky enough to make some life-long friends who managed to endure despite the decade-long tidal wave of social and political changes that swept over our generation. As for my education, the best was yet to come.

It's hard to understand the tremendous upheaval of the 60s unless you were raised in the 50s. The foundation of our early lives was the near-total belief in God and the American Way, best embodied in the Pledge of Allegiance we all had to recite as children. One nation, under God. So simple, so comforting, so solid; yet those rocks upon which we were to build our lives would be crushed by the tumbling tide of history in an astonishingly short period of time.

September 19, 2014

Pig Herder

The Great Frederick Fair is an annual ritual in our household, as it is in most households around here. Whether its the food or the animals or the rides or the shows, there is something for everyone. Country and city come together for a week, sometimes with unpredictable results.

A couple of years ago I was at the Fair with my daughter making our annual trek through the animal barns. Cows, sheep, goats, and pigs were held in stalls awaiting judging at their respective competitions. (Yes, Virginia, there is toenail polish for Guernsey cows.) Each animal class has its own show ring, and there are handlers -- usually 4H kids who have raised the animals on their family farm -- to lead them to the ring from the holding stalls.

We were in one such area near the pigs. Now these pigs weigh in at several hundred pounds, so handling them can be difficult. Such was the case that day, as two teenagers were trying to convince two unwilling pigs to move from their stall to the show ring. They were holding half-sheets of plywood as temporary fences to guide the pigs along. My daughter and I were standing nearby, along with a few other adults and children, as the pigs slowly made their way into the ring.

Suddenly, and with surprising swiftness, the two pigs made a break for it, heading straight towards those of us watching. Seeing as how there were children in the area, I decided to try and block the path of the pigs. One of them saw me standing in his way and paused long enough to allow his handlers to regain control and steer the pig into the ring.

The other pig continued on towards me as I backed up against a half-open gate that led out to another area of stalls and from there ... freedom. We both arrived at the gate together, the pig managing to get its head in the opening before I could completely block it. If you have ever felt several hundred pounds of determined pig pressing against you, then you will understand the urgency of the moment. It was man against porker, but truth be told, it was no contest. Rather than risk having my leg crushed or snapped like a twig, I stood aside and watched as the pig trundled off.

To add insult to injury, someone came up and asked accusingly if those were my pigs. My pigs! Jeez. Not hardly, I replied. Do I look like a pig herder? With that, we resumed our sojourn through the animal barns. I later ran into one of the young ladies charged with maintaining order in the pig barns and asked if our errant porker was recaptured. Yes, she replied, although she declined to provide details. With that, I settled happily into retirement from pig herding.

Part of the Big Loop at the Fair Grounds

September 18, 2014

Mother S

 Somewhere around my junior year at Georgetown, I started working at the Safeway -- or as I liked to put it, Mother S: She Feeds Us All -- on Connecticut Avenue, right above Calvert Street, across from the restaurant where I would propose to my wife a few years later. I needed the money to pay for the room I was renting for $40 a month and to buy food to eat. I had worked part-time at a grocery store during high school, so it was a natural fit. I'm not sure how I found the job or how I got there, although in those days, I got around mostly by taxi. Fares were cheap, the rates being rigged to favor the congressmen who mostly lived in the Northwest section of DC. The poorer folks in Southeast and Northeast no doubt paid more.

The swanky Shoreham Hotel--the Beatles booked an entire floor in 1964 during their appearance in DC--was right around the corner on Calvert Street. North on Connecticut were several large apartment buildings that supplied a steady stream of old ladies who would pay for their groceries with money hidden under their mattresses since the New Deal. Paper money was less standardized in those days; many older forms of currency such as silver certificates and U.S. bank notes were still in circulation. I did have one old lady who would try to pay with matchsticks. She would bend them back as if peeling off ones from a money roll. I would gently inform her that we only took money at this store. She would greet this each time as a fresh revelation, then she would put her matches away and fish money out of her change purse. Today she would be in a nursing home. Back then, she was on her own.

I made some good friends while working at the Safeway. There was a group of guys who called themselves the Oxford Otters, after a local bar called the the Oxford Tavern, which was across the street from the National Zoo. My usual role was that of the observer, standing on the edge of the crowd watching the play unfold, so to be accepted as one of the guys was nice. Maybe it was because, like John at the bar, I was always quick with a joke, but there was no definitely place I'd rather be than working with the guys or hanging out at the Ox. (None of this was especially helpful in terms of my academic pursuits at Georgetown, but there is more than one way to get an education.)

Phil was a simple man, an all-American guy who eventually ended up in Vietnam. I hope he made it back. He gave me my first ride on a motorcycle: a 650cc Triumph Bonneville. Heavy metal thunder as good as it gets. I knew at that moment I was born to run, and in fact I did get a motorcycle after I came back from Vietnam. The only rush that ever matched that first ride was my first time on a slick -- the UH-1D Bell helicopter you see in every Vietnam movie--cruising 125 miles per hour over the jungle at tree-top height, turning and twisting with the curves of Highway 1, and nothing to keep you from sliding off the bench and out of the chopper except your ability to weight-shift against the guy sitting next to you.

Joe was a burly Irish kid who, like me, was in college. He had a girl friend, something that up till then had eluded me. He was good-looking and blessed with an easy-going temperament that often kept us out of more trouble than we might otherwise have gotten into. Ron was a tall, thin guy who didn't work at the store, but he was part of the group from high school. He had a way with the girls that they found irresistible, another skill that up till then had eluded me.

Then there was Jack, the youngest of us but in many ways the oldest. As I think back, I can see in his eyes the thousand-yard stare that would become so familiar to me. There was a wildness in him that came from a tough family situation. We were close, or at least I like to think we were. He often said he didn't care about anything, but unlike most of us, he really meant it. When I got to Vietnam, I would think about Jack and not caring about things. It became a way of coping that got me through the war, although not without its own side effects. I hope he survived the sadness, but we all know how scars from childhood linger in the soul.

For me, working at Mother S was an interlude before I got on with my real life. For most of these guys, this was their real life. Whatever the future might hold, right then in that moment we all somehow understood that this was the last time we would have money enough and time enough and  freedom enough to fool around and just have a good time. So, we worked and we hoisted a few at the Ox. Sometimes we would head out to the Campus Club at GW University, where Jack would maybe get into a beer fight with one of the students. One time we went out to this place in the woods one of the guys parents owned. We sat around shooting the shit, drinking beer, and eating Vienna sausages out of a can. God, what fun it was, living the simple life in a world about to go crazy on us.

It ended for me with graduation and then being drafted into the army. I moved back to DC and lived and worked in that area for 30 more years, but I never saw any of those guys again. The last time I went down that way, the Safeway was long gone, as was the restaurant across the street. Time had rubbed out another part of my past, leaving behind only the memories. That's life in the big city.

The Old Location of the Safeway

September 16, 2014

America the Beautiful

October can be an uneasy time for me. Anniversary syndrome seems to be hitting me harder this year, the undertow of the past seeking to pull me deeper than usual into its grasp. Memories claw inside my head, crying to be let out. So I do what any American would do. I get in my car, crank up the Stones and hit the road ... because I'm in need of some restraint, so if you meet me have some courtesy. Clouds hurried along by the breeze, fields turning yellow under an autumnal sun, mountains rising up to kiss the sky.This is America the beautiful. This is a country that's all about breathing room, about second chances, about taking chances. It's what we are all about. Well, it's what we used to be about. Too often lately, the America I see and hear is fearful and timid, frozen up inside. When did we get so fearful that we have to arm ourselves to the teeth? What in the name of God are so many people so afraid of? When did our dreams become so crabbed and pinched that we can't share them with anyone else? When did we stop being risk-takers unafraid to lose everything and start embracing any politician who merely promises to let us keep the crumbs left behind by the rich? When did we forget about being a land of second chances, a land where stranger helps stranger, a land that embraces challenges not runs away from them? The land of Roosevelt and Kennedy and yes, Reagan? When did morning in America become the twilight of the Gods?

On the Road

September 15, 2014

Those Were the Days

If I was to chunk out the first quarter century of my life into broad blocks based on geography, they would be labeled "Cohasset," "Washington, DC," and "Vietnam." The rough draft of the man I am today was first sketched out in those places. Of the three, I would have to say that my fondest memories are of Glover Park, a working class neighborhood occupying the heights north of Georgetown.

I spent my first year at Georgetown University living in the Loyola Dormitory, adjacent to the School of Foreign Service, which at that time was located on 36th Street, between and N and Prospect Streets NW. In my sophomore year, I moved to a house in Glover park owned by a woman named Della, a spindly old lady who rented her basement apartment out to me and a friend of mine named Mike, who hailed from upstate New York. He would still get the local papers sent to him by his folks. A typical story might read: On Sunday afternoon, Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Salvatore visited the home of Mr. and Mrs. Anthony Catanzaro, where they were served coffee. (Does this America still exist?)

In my junior year, I rented a room in a house on Benton Street, which ran east to west from Wisconsin Avenue to Glover Archibald Park. I was introduced to the place by my friend Denny, with whom I would eventually share an apartment on Connecticut Avenue. The house on Benton Street was presided over by Albert J. LePain, a short, slightly bow-legged, balding martini drinker from Massachusetts. Albert was the head waiter at the Madison Hotel, one of the elite hotels in Washington.

Besides Denny, my other best friend was Jack Fitzgerald, a non-student who was a computer programmer, something of an oddity at the time. Other people rented rooms during my tenure there, but they are long-forgotten. It was Fitzie who introduced me to the crowd at the Grog and Tankard, a bar on Wisconsin Avenue run by a woman named Nina. (This was long before the Grog changed to a live-band bar. The place has since closed.)

There's a wonderful old Russian drinking song that begins with these words:  "Once upon a time there was a tavern, where we used to raise a glass or two." That place for me will always be the Grog. I would sit in a booth with Fitzie, who would be greeted by all the regulars as they came through the door. Some would join us as we sipped on our 25 cent beers and maybe a hard-boiled egg we would get from a basket Nina kept on the bar. (Don't knock it if you haven't tried it.)

This was a cast of characters every bit as varied as those in Billy Joel's Piano Man. Sadly, I remember only a few of them. One traveled from city to city setting up convention sites. Another was a chauffeur who would have a beer or two or three while waiting to pick up his party from a night at the Kennedy Center. Herbie would sit at the bar and nod agreeably as he listened to the occasional clueless tourist bemoan the pervasive presence of those gays in DC, never realizing that Herbie was one of them. Presiding over it all was Fitzie, the ringmaster of our little human circus.

It was at the Grog and Tankard where I first spent time with adults who weren't relatives. I listened as they told their stories. Through the laughter came echoes of the losses that had piled up over the years. These were men who had ended up alone, men who gravitated towards places like the Grog, where they could drink in the lonely crowd and relive the dreams they used to have.

Looking back over my own wins and losses, I realize that at no time was I more carefree than when I was sitting in a booth with Fitzie, listening to the stories unfurl. If I could go back to any one time and place, perhaps that would be it. But it doesn't work that way. We are propelled relentlessly forward from cradle to grave, with no way back. Who the hell came up with that system?

Physicists speculate about parallel universes where all our stories unfold in every conceivable fashion, worlds we are forever barred from entering lest the universe come apart at the seams of time. But I doubt those physicists ever spent much time in a place like the Grog, a place where parallel universes converged every night and we all got to live the life we chose instead of the life we got.

This is the first in a series of reminiscences about that time in my life. I beg the reader's indulgence in advance as I let my mind wander among friends and places too carelessly left behind.


Benton Street