Archive for the ‘Vietnam’ Category

Their Last Full Measure of Devotion

May 28, 2017

In the novel King of Soul, which I have recently published, college students Donnie and Kevin take an impulsive road trip to Kevin’s home in Ohio. This happens in early May of 1970. While  on the road in Tennessee, they pick up Ed, a hitchhiker. Ed has been honorably discharged from military service in Vietnam only three weeks ago.  In chapter 23, we find  Donnie and Kevin accompanying Ed to a bar in Nashville:

       At the China Beach bar and grill in downtown Nashville, Donnie and Kevin tagged along while Ed linked up with a buddy of his from the war.

       Sled was a sort of hillbilly with a twist. His West Virginia upbringing had been traumatized in a snow-sledding accident that happened when he was ten years old. In a head-on collision with a pine tree, a low branch had penetrated his left cheek. A scar that resulted from the surgery gave the appearance of a question mark on the left side of his face. From his teen years onward, all John’s people called him “Sled” because of what had happened to him in a sledding accident when he was a kid.

       Ed and Sled had become friends at Fort Hood, Texas, before they both went to Vietnam. They were assigned to the same Company, but different platoons. On this particular evening , Sled and Ed were having beer and burgers as they celebrated the fact that they both had survived Vietnam. This was the first time they had seen each other since both were honorably discharged. Donnie and Kevin listened intently as Sled reported to Ed the account of how their CO, Lt. Gary, had fallen in battle only 11 months ago.

       Sled explained that, in a strategy to avoid group casualties, Lt. Gary had his men spread out as they were advancing down a jungle hillside.  Three dozen soldiers had distanced themselves from each  other, and each man was walking alone.  The radio man reported that an NVA encampment was below them, but the exact location had not yet been determined.

       Delta company was thus strung out for a mile or more. When their point guys reached the bottom, they caught sight of evidence of the enemy bunkers above them, up on the north side. Sergeant Charles halted his men at a covered spot.  He knew they were near the enemy because, he said, he could smell their rice cooking; but as he took a few steps to obtain a better view of the area in question,  suddenly he was struck with a bullet. It hit him in the abdomen;. Within seconds, an assault by automatic weapons erupted  somewhere northward and above them, with what sounded like AK-47 fire.

Sgt. Charles did not make it home alive from Vietnam.

On this Memorial Day, 2017, we remember Charles and the other 54,000 American soldiers who never got back here to taste the good life of the dear ole US of A. We appreciate that these men and women sacrificed their last full measure of devotion so that we we can live free.

VietMem2

King of Soul

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A Woman from the War

January 13, 2017

I think it was several thousand years ago that we heard about a war between the Greeks and the Trojans. And this collective memory in our mankind memory bank is evidence that this war thing that we hear about– and sometimes catch a glimpse of while others of us jump bravely into the fray–this war thing has been with us for a long time.

Now it is not very often you meet a woman who has spent 28 years in the US Army, but this is what happened to me yesterday.

I walked into a room where some folks in my hometown were gathered for a certain purpose, and at the end of the meeting I met Lieutenant Colonel Lory Whitehead. What she had to say seemed important to me, so I gave her some money and she handed me a book of poems she had written. This is what happens in America. She had something to sell, and I bought it. And when I read the little book of poems it knocked my sox off. May we always be so free to exchange information without censorship and without meddling from whomever is surveilling at any particular place and time.

I’ve never been in the military, but I know people who have served us in that way. I have no understanding of what these brave souls go through; but because I read Lory’s collection of letters, memoirs and poems that she collected over almost fifty years, I at least have some feeling about what these people go through to defend our freedom.

I was born in 1951. But about ten years before I came into this world, there was one hell of a big war that happened on this planet. While growing up, I learned about it in school, and every now and then I’d meet someone who fought in it, but it wasn’t until much later in life–like about a year ago when I began seriously researching a different war, the war that dominated the politics of my youth. (You know the one I’m talking about.)

Twenty years before we got into Vietnam, when the Big War was going on– the one where we drove the Nazis back into their holes– most of us Americans who were alive at that time, early 1940’s, banded together for the purpose of winning the damned thing.

At that time, women played a large part in our collective effort to defeat the Axis powers (Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Emperor-worshipping Japan), but what the women were doing then was not much connected to combat. You’ve probably heard that old song from the period about Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy from Company B. That song, always sung by a female vocal group, is closely associated with the role of our women during World War II–to mostly act in supportive roles, Stateside.

All that changed (like everything else) in the 1960’s when women became more and more directly involved in our military endeavors. By the time of Desert Storm, women were taking some combat roles.

Lt. Col. Lory Whitehead’s poems include profound reflections of her experience in war, most notably in Kosovo.

What I would like to bring to your attention today is a poem that whe wrote and published in her 2014 book, reluctant warriors. The poem I have selected is: mama’s two hands. I never in my life thought I would read anything like this, but as it turns out, I have read it, and perhaps you should too. Read ’em and weep.

mama was a soldier, her right hand

knew how to hold a salute

and had learned to fire

handguns and automatic weapons,

even grenade launchers

that strong hand waved men

forward as she led them

into harm’s way.

and covered her eyes in pain

at memorial services

for fallen comrades.

mama was mama, her left hand

held a nursing baby to her breast

and was always available

to erase the tears of toddlers

frightened by loud noises.

that was the gentle hand, it pulled

errant children out of danger

and toasted the living

at weddings and christenings.

poor mama, it was often difficult

to keep each separate hand

in its proper place

and always the right hand

would be envying what

the left hand was doing.

RelWarrior
(Copyright © 2014 by Lory Whitehead)

Reading a poem like this made me realize just how much the world has changed, even in the time-range of my lifetime. And this world is still changing, probably getting faster and faster. Because: while humans have always been changing, modern technology has enabled us to step up the pace of change, exponentially. I’m just hoping it does not spins out of control beyond repair.

Nevertheless, if our world does ever spin out of control, my ultimate hope is in Christ, which is to say, God. Not any man, nor woman.

Smoke

Thanks to our Veterans

November 11, 2016

On this Veterans’ Day 2016, I say to all men and women who have served our United States as soldiers and workers in our armed forces, Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, National Guard. . .

Thank You.

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All you men and women who are serving, or have served, in our armed forces, and then lived to tell about it, please know that we are glad you made it through your dutiful missions, still alive and kicking.

As a remembrance of those who did not make it back alive, we reflect upon the cause–our freedom as a nation of free men and women–for which they fought, bled, and died. Toward that end, we recall the words of President Abraham Lincoln, which he spoke at Gettysburg battlefield in November, 1863.

“. . . from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Glass half-Full 

America Bleeding

November 7, 2016

In the middle of my teenage years, back in the day, I was a high school student. On the other side of the city where I grew up, our state university provided education for thousands of students who had already matriculated to the college level of learning.

Here is a picture which I lifted, by iPhone helicoptering technology, from a book that I recently perused. The image depicts a campus walkway, circa 1965, where students are going into and out of the LSU student Union building. A few years after this photograph was snapped, I became one of those students, 1969 version, who traipsed from class to class on the campus of LSU.

LSUnionWalk

The book from which this image is lifted is linked here:

  https://www.amazon.com/Treasures-LSU-Laura-F-Lindsay/dp/0807136786

This morning, while viewing this photo as part of the research for the novel that I am now composing, I found something interesting about it. Take a look at the apparel that these students are wearing. Most of them are clothed in solid colors, which, in this photo, registers as either black or white. On almost every student whose garb depicts this black/white arrangement, the black is on the lower half of the body–the pants, or skirt part.

Considering the way Americans dress nowadays, this seems to be a boringly plain, regimented arrangement. It is, however, perhaps a little more dignified than what we might see at a typical 2016 visit to, say, Walmart, McDonald’s, or any college or university.

Notice, however, that six of these students in the picture are wearing a clothes motif that stands apart from the black/white pattern. And in every one of these six individuals, the fashion statement is the same:

Plaid.

Six students are wearing plaid.

This was a new trend in youthful clothing  during the mid-1960’s. It was, however, the beginning of a virtual tsunami of color that would be be flaunted in the coming years, in the clothes and fashions of young people. By the end of the decade, this small bursting forth of crisscrossed chromaticism would metamorphose into a riot of  self-expressive color displayed uninhibitedly on our young bodies. Thus would we baby boomers strive, in our own threadish way, to find and establish own generational identity.

My memory of this elaborative fashion development began in my eight-grade, 1964-65. The pattern retained in my mind from that time is a certain kind of plaid:

Madras.

The Madras plaid came from India, specifically a city there named Madras, which has since had its name changed to Chennai.

What was really groovy for us back in the day was that Madras plaids had an earthy, handwoven look. The fabric itself had curious little irregularities in it. . . little clumps in the thread, and variations in the weaving. The look and feel of it was a departure from the American stuff, which was obviously machine-made, bland and boring.

So we started wearing the Madras plaid in–I think it was–about 1965. This photograph seems to have captured the very inception of that style-shattering sea-change in our thread preferences.

A very attractive feature of the Madras was this: it bled.

When you washed your plaid shirt, or pants, the colors would “bleed.”

With each washing, the threaded pigments would migrate slightly out into the white regions of the fabric.

This was way-cool.

It was groovy. All that color was leaping out of the grooves of regimented style, testing the compartmentalism of society, violating the tick-tacky of conformity, even setting the stage for a fading American resolve to retain our post-WWII position as policeman of the world.

But this fashionable Madras bleeding was but a small shriveling on the torso of the American corpus writ large.

At the same time, in the mid-1960’s, America was bleeding real, red blood, and it wasn’t cool.

It was hot blood, 98.6 degrees.

America was bleeding in Vietnam.

America was bleeding in the ghettoes of the cities.

America was bleeding in Selma.

America was bleeding in Watts, in Detroit.

America would bleed in Orangeburg, at Jackson State, at Kent State.

But that was nothing new.

America had bled at  Lexington and Concord, at Yorktown.

America had long been shedding blood in the cotton fields, and at the trading blocks in New Orleans, in Charleston.

America had bled in Kansas, and at Harpers Ferry, Fort Sumter, Antietam.

America bled at Gettysburg and Appammatox.

America bled at Little Big Horn and at Wounded Knee.

America bled through the hands, the arms and backs and feet of thousands of immigrants who drove steel stakes into the railways that stretched all the way from Boston to San Francisco.

America bled at Haymarket, Chicago

America bled prolifically at Verdun, Amiens, Flanders

America hemorrhaged at Pearl Harbor, at Normandy, at the Bulge, at Iwo Jima  and Guadalcanal and Okinawa.

And America continued its bloodletting in Korea, at Inchon.

America bled at Ia Drang, at Khe Sanh,  at Saigon and Hué and Danang.

America wept bloody tears at My Lai.

America bled from Kuwait to Baghdad

America bled in Beirut and Mogadishu, and in Kosovo.

America bled at the Word Trade Center on 9/11.

America bled at Fallujah, and in Helmand, Qandahar and Kabul.

America weeps for the blood shed at Mosul and Aleppo.

America weeps, America bleeds in millions of D&C’d in uteri.

We have always been bleeding somewhere. It is the way of all flesh.

And America is still bleeding; she is bleeding now.

As to which way we will be bleeding tomorrow, that remains, until 11/9, to be seen.

Glass half-Full 

Tan Son Nhut 1970

October 9, 2016

VNamMus70

When Johnny came marching home again it was in 1971, although really, there was no parade.

He wasn’t actually marching, anyway, but rather flying commercial out of Vietnam on a PanAm from Cam Ranh Bay. The jet featured American stewardesses, and this was a very favorable detail that our exiting guys did not fail to notice as they soared off to Pacific destinations and ultimately all the way back  over here to the good ole USA. It was a long flight from the war, and a long time to have to watch stewardesses traipsing up and down the carpeted aisles, serving food and drink; but our guys managed to get through it.

My old friend Johnny’s departing flight from Vietnam was a reversal of his arrival there, a year earlier, on a commercial US aircraft.

But here’s a curious fact that he confided to me. The “scaredest” he ever got while in Vietnam was on that first day, during the jet’s approach into Cam Ranh, because the descending plane was drawing enemy fire!

Welcome to Vietnam! Haha!

Last week, during the first days of October 2016, my old neighborhood friend Johnny told me about his one year tour in Vietnam. He lives in Louisiana, where we both started life; now I live in North Carolina. We brought our wives and had a Florida panhandle reunion at the beach.

We were chums in high school, but after our graduation in 1969 he went his way and I went mine. I went to college; he went to Vietnam.

I was protesting the war; he was over there in the middle of it.

Before last week, I had not seen Johnny since about 1975.

Now I’m writing a novel about that period of time, and about some of the differences–and reconciliation– between those two diverging groups–“them that went” and “them that didn’t.”

As it turned out, Johnny’s year of duty at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, just north of Saigon, was, he admits, easier than the brutal combat some of our guys had to endure out in the jungles while they were on patrol  being relentlessly pursued by the silently stalking Viet Cong.

During our time of defending the former Republic of Vietnam, tons and tons of weaponry, machinery, and supplies had to be delivered into the country to supply our people there. Tan Son Nhut was a busy location for transport and communications, and we needed a lot of guys on the ground to keep systems oiled, protected and combat-ready. My friend Johnny was one of those men.

During high school, Johnny had acquired some work experience in appliances and refrigeration. After our high school graduation he was not inclined, as I was, toward college. He worked for a while. Then he saw, you might say, “the handwriting on the wall” about how career choices were shaping up in 1969-70. So he volunteered for the Army. After boot camp at Fort Polk (Louisiana) and some duty-specific training at Fort Belvoir (Virginia), he shipped out, which is to say, he was put on a flight path that landed him at the Cam Ranh Air Base where they almost got shot down before setting foot in the infamous theater of Vietnam.

StratCom

When my friend arrived at his post on the perimeter of Tan Son Nhut Air Base, he spent a year on guard duty, keeping watch over the rice paddies and distant jungles beyond the fence, and reporting whenever mortar fire or any other unfriendly thing was approaching the air base.

Inside the base, there were moments when our guys could take a little time off. Here’s a pic that Johnny snapped; it depicts a recreational session of high-stakes card-sharking, with maybe a little bluffing and probably some bravado bullcrap thrown in to keep the game interesting.

VNGame

Here’s a pic of Johnny, taken when he had only been in Vietnam a few days.

JLViet70

Last week, after Johnny showed me a few hundred photos that had been stored away at his home, I thanked him for taking the time to meet me in Florida so we could talk about Vietnam.

Because I can’t write a book about what was happ’nin’ in the USA in 1969 without talking about Vietnam. I also thanked my friend for his service to our nation.

And I thanked God that he survived it. There were 58,000 of “them that went” who did not.

If you were a college kid like me in the 1960’s-’70’s, you will find it well worth your time to visit a few of the men and women who did not do college at that time, but who served–by choice or by draft–in the military. Right or wrong, won or lost, however you call it, they did what our country called them to do.

We may need many more like them before it’s all over with.

King of Soul

The Bang at Trang Crossroads

September 18, 2016

Here’s ann excerpt from chapter 11 of the new novel, King of Soul, now being written; the scene is Vietnam, about 45 years ago. . .

(Warning: viewer discretion is advised. This passage could affect your feeling of well-being in the world as it presently exists, and as it existed then. . .)

Ahnika was terrified; she was so scared to turn around and then see that plane coming at them, but she turned her head  anyway. The pounding of her bare feet against the road made everything in her terrified vision seem to bounce up and down with insanely out-of-place energized chaos and this only compounded her terror. The planes that usually zoomed above their village had never come this close before. Why was it flying so low, so fast, so directly toward them. And why, since it was bearing down so close, so fast–why were bombs coming out of it, tumbling projectiles? This was not right. There was something wrong. Then came the explosions. It was no bad dream. These bombs were exploding; the smoke was billowing faster than the villagers could run; it was covering the whole world. Her brothers were just ahead, running faster than she could. But Auntie was behind; that’s why Ahnika was looking behind, because Auntie was back there, with little brother in her arms. There was a part of herself–a part of her family–a part of her Vietnamese life still behind her, trying to run, stumbling, falling. Falling?! Auntie had fallen. No No No No!, but no, Auntie had not fallen, but little brother had fallen from her arms; little brother was down on the road. Ahnika saw the look of confused desperation on Auntie’s face, and just as Ahnika was about to try to do something, maybe stop, maybe try to get little brother,  a soldier grabbed him and then little brother was in the soldier’s arms but he was still wailing while the soldier was up and running again. Go! go! he yelled at Ahnika. Just ahead, other villagers were coming fast out of a the hut by the side of the road. Yellow and purple smoke was swirling as they ran through it; now there was bomb smoke behind and yellow and purple smoke ahead where the men had set off the smoke markers that were supposed to mark the temple grounds so their pilots would know where to not drop, but something was wrong and these explosions meant for the Viet Cong were hitting us instead something was wrong. After the first marker plume had fanned out but failed to prevent the pilot from hitting the wrong spots and so after he had dropped his loads off course something was wrong and while the ARVN commander was trying to stop the next drop, Auntie buckled at her knees, reached back behind herself to find out what was wrong with her leg and her pain was registered on her face she was clutching at the back of her leg and now her fingers were stuck together with the sticky napalm and so Auntie did not see it when the soldier who had got little brother took a direct hit of the stuff he was incinerated. But then the white-shrouded Caodai man who had earlier been in the temple with them picked up little brother he was not crying anymore and the whole scene was darkened with smoke and roaring noise and pain so bad you couldn’t even tell where it was coming from but then Ahnika was struck with such a force from behind that she was down on the ground gravel in her mouth in her face and the worst pain ever felt by woman or child behind her, or in her behind in her shoulders, her arms but then she was up again desperate energized by the fear and running, running, pulling at the neck of her clothes because they were too hot, too hot but when she pulled at them then suddenly their entire cloth just fell away and she was up again running, running, wailing naked, crying with the pain, past any understanding of what was happening to them all or why or why or how this burning world could have turned out this way and she had her arms flung out to the sides , like a cross while she wailed and cried, like a cross she appeared and she felt like the pain of the whole world had fell on her shoulders but it was not her shoulders it was somebody’s else’s in the nightmare, somebody else’s writhing, stretched out in pain and taking on the shape of a cross. It wasn’t her any more it was somebody else in that cross, in that Trang crossroads as they ran, ran, toward Cu Chi, but she couldn’t remember who it was taking the brunt of so much pain could it have been her or somebody else as everything in the world is going wrong and the weight of the whole damned world falls on those shoulders stretched out like a damn cross.

King of Soul 

A Boomer Looks Back

September 5, 2016

VietMem2

Now that I’ve been growing up for 65 years, I am at last approaching some semblance of adulthood.

During the course of my baby’boomer lifetime, I have seen some changes; some of them I am actually starting to comprehend.

Now I look back on it all and find myself wondering about some things, but quite sure about some other things.

Several years ago, my wife and I spent some vacation time on the island of Maui, in the great state of Hawaii. While driving one afternoon down the western slope of Hale’akala volcano, we happened upon a memorial to a great man named Sun Yat-sen.

In his lifetime, during the early 20th century–1911, Sun lead many of his countrymen in a revolution that deposed the old monarchy of their country–the Chinese Qing dynasty. But before that happened, he had spent some time in Hawaii; that’s why there’s as statue of him there.

At the base of Sun Yat-sen’s memorial a quote from him is carved in the stone, and this is what is said:

LOOK INTO THE NATURE OF THINGS

Ever since I saw that, I have been working that pearl of wisdom into my way of living as much as I can. And this principle of living and learning has been not only a motivation for me toward acquiring useful knowledge, but also a source of great joy and satisfaction.

This principle is expanded in the Proverbs of the Bible: Understanding is a fountain of life to one who has it. Proverbs 16:22.

Now this may seem like a philosophical idea, but it is really very productive in the living of real life. Here’s a nuts n’ bolts example:

In 1992, when I was still a young man of 41, working as a carpenter to provide for our three children, and for my wife who had not yet become a nurse, and for our household, I took a job with a construction company remodeling (a refurb job) an old K-Mart. My job was to tear old stuff out from around the inside perimeter of the store and replace it with a newer style of retail display.

I had been visiting K-Marts ever since I was a teenager in the 1960’s. So I had been seeing those retail structures for most of my life. But to look behind the facade, into the structure, and then to reconstruct the structure based on newer, more modern components–this work experience held a strange satisfaction for me, as well as a source of income for a season of our life.

Working on that K-Mart was more than a paycheck; it was a joy to behold as the various phases of reconstruction unfolded beneath my hands and before my eyes.

Look into the nature (or structure) of things!

Many years have passed; now I’m looking back on it all. Part of the outcome from this reflection will be a novel that I am now researching and writing. It is a story that takes place during the time of my youth; it has become a cathartic process for reconciling the difference between what I thought I knew then and what I now know about that turbulent period of my g-generation’s growing up.

Ours was the generation whose maturing was said to be delayed because Dr. Spock wrote a book about child care that–as some have judged it–convinced our mothers to spoil us.

While there may be an element of truth to that judgement, I have noticed in my conversations with some people lately that there is category of folks in our boomer generation who were definitely not spoiled:

Those guys and gals who fulfilled their duty to our country by going to fight the war in Vietnam–they found themselves in a situation where they had to grow up in one hell of a hurry.

What I am seeing now is, in my g-generation, there was a great divide between: Them that went, and them that didn’t.

While I was college freshman in 1969, trying to figure out what life was all about, and marching against the war, those guys who who went to ‘Nam were required–and yeah I say unto thee–forced to figure out how to keep life pumping through their bodies and the bodies of their buddies who fought with them.

Those soldiers who went over there had to grow up a lot quicker than I did.

I did not go to Vietnam. My lottery number in 1970 was 349, so I literally “lucked out” of it.

During that time, a time when I was stepping lightly through ivory-tower lala land, our soldiers on the other side of the world were trudging through jungles, heavy-laden with weapons and survival gear. While I was privileged to be extending my literacy skills,  they were committed to learning how to kill the enemy before he kills “us.”

Now it turns out my research about the ’60’s is swirling around two undeniable maelstroms of socio-political showdown: civil rights and the Vietnam war.

So, in my project of looking into the nature of things in the 1960’s, I am learning about that war and how it came to be a major American (undeclared) war instead of just a civil war between Vietnamese.

One thing I have found is that Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara undertook a similar project in 1965. When he was in the thick of it all–as one of the best and brightest industrial leaders of that age, having been recruited as an insider in the White House, then calling the shots on major events, wielding incredible military power on the other side of the planet, in the heat of the moment and in the fog of war, he found himself wanting to know. . .

how the hell did this happen? how the hell did we get here?

McNamara’s question lead to a .gov-commissioned research project, paid for on our taxpayer dime, and ultimately made public by the primary researcher of that undertaking, a former Marine Lt. Col. named Daniel Ellsberg.

Look deep into it. In Ellsberg’s case he looked deep into 7000 pages of military documentation, starting in the 1940’s and going all the way through Tonkin Gulf in 1964.

Look into the nature of things.

I’ll let you know in another year or two–when the book is done– what my search dredges up from the streets and battlefields of our g-generation’s  search to find meaning and fulfillment, and maybe even a little justice and mercy thrown in.

But one thing I want to say, now, to THEM THAT WENT:

Although things did not turn out the way we had intended, there isn’t much in this life that actually does end up like we thought it would.

You went and did what the USA asked, or compelled you, to do, while many of us were trying to pull you back to stateside.

Thank you for your service. We’ll need many more of your stripe before its all over with.

Glass half-Full

Listen: Boomer’s Choice

Hammer and Sickle ’65

August 23, 2016

Here’s an excerpt from chapter 5 of the new novel, King of Soul,  now being researched and written. We’re talkin’ ’bout 1965:

       The manipulations of human history had conspired to contrive a vast, geographical hook. The hook itself was forged in the shape of a country; it was a skinny little wire of a nation, slung long and slender along the 900-mile S-curve of an Asian sea strand.  Upon this seacoast hook the fearless pride of Pax Americana would be fearlessly snagged, fish-like. But the snagging ended up requiring an extremely long expedition, for the catch fought on the line for eleven years before being reeled in.

       This was Ho’s intention all along; he was a very patient angler. Ho was not a novice; he had been around the world a time or two. He’d been to London and to Paris, Hong Kong and Can-ton. He had spent part of the 1930’s in Stalin’s Russia, and had learned a thing or two by observing Uncle Joe’s tactics. Ho Chi Minh understood what it would take to get his fish on the line, and how to handle the catch once it was snagged. The expedition would take 11 years, but eventually South Vietnam was dragged up into the Viet Minh boat.

       Uncle Ho had learned a thing or two.

       Around the world, especially in defeated France and in bold America, there was talk about Ho Chi Minh—who was he and who did he think he was and what the hell was he capable of.

       Some folks never saw the hook at all. When they looked at that odd-shaped southeast Asian country on the map, it resembled something else, with its long arc curving around the western shore of the South China Sea. .  . . . maybe a domino?

       No. Vietnam was no domino; there was nothing straight nor square about the place. Nothing predictable. But we didn’t know that until much later in the game.

       The shape of Vietnam did, however, have resemblance to a sickle, like that sickle of the  infamous hammer and sickle. It was a curved blade,  hauled upon the lean, hard backs of legions of peasant laborers. As the years of the 1960’s rolled by, the sickle was forged into a weapon, to be skillfully wielded in the hands of militarized Viet Minh insurgents and Viet Cong guerillas. And that army of sickles was backed up by the persistent pounding of Uncle Ho’s communist hammer.

       Vietnam was a hammer and sickle; that’s all. It wasn’t some great domino scenario that toppled the Republic of the South during the 1960’s, ultimately rejecting President Diem and killing him, and then later ousting Thieu and Madame Nhu,  like Ho had swung up at   Dien Bien Phu.

       After the French pulled out—with tail between their legs in 1954—when  the Americans pulled in, hellbent on showin’ the world how to defeat communist incursion, it was pretty slow going for awhile. B’rer Ho Chi Fox, he lay low, waitin’ to see what  B’rer Rabbit-ears would pickup on his radio, because B’rer Rabbit did have a pretty fancy radio, and a lot of heavy equipment to back it up with, and a heap o’ ordnance to fling around with a lot of fired-up thunderations. B’rer Rabbit-ears could sho’nuff make some powerful destructions when he put his mind to it.

       By the time things got really cranked up in 1965, the man in charge of yankee warfare had come up with a plan. But there was a problem.

       The problem was an old one; stated simply, from a mathematical viewpoint, it was this: the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.

       No way around it; shortest distance between Hanoi and Saigon was a straight line. But the line didn’t go through Vietnam; it went right through two other countries.

       If Uncle Ho were to set a taut insurgent line of troop transport from, say,  Hanoi to Saigon—like from the handle of the sickle to the endpoint of the sickle’s curved blade—it  would pass, not through the south part of Vietnam, but through Laos and Cambodia.

       This was a problem. It wasn’t so much  a problem for Ho—his stealthy, low-lyin’ insurgent diehards just crawled right under the rules of international proprietary expectations; they slouched through Laotian jungles and beneath Cambodian canopies like it was nobody’s business. After a while, the clandestine route they had cut for themselves was called by the name of the one who had commissioned it: the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

King of Soul

Mysteries of 1964: Meridian and Tonkin

August 11, 2016

From the new novel King of Soul, now being researched and written, here’s an excerpt. In chapter 4, we find Uncle Cannon speaking about murder in Mississippi, and then the scene changes. As Uncle Cannon was saying, on August 4, 1964 . . .

        “Now these white-power types and KKK misfits who been runnin’ around for a hundred years like they own the place—now they won’t have a leg to stand on when Bobby Kennedy and Hoover’s FBI agents show up with their high-falootin’ writs of law.  I’m sure the Feds knew if they’d root around long enough, something rotten would turn up.”

       “Well now something has turned up. Three dead bodies. Over near Meridian, they found those three dead boys—two yankee college students and one local black, and all hell is gonna break loose. The old ways are gonna go, but they ain’t gonna die without a fight—probably a pretty damned ugly one.”

       The old man shook his head. “With Kennedy being shot last year in Dallas, and now Johnson, who is an extremely competent politician, following in his wake, this whole civil rights movement will mount up  like a tidal wave. It’s gonna break right over the Mason-Dixon line and keep on going, until it rolls all the way down to the Gulf. . .”

~~~

       It just so happened that, while Uncle Cannon’s projections were being uttered into the sultry southern air, a wave of a different kind was being set in motion on the other side of the world. It went thrashing just beneath the choppy surface of  Gulf waters that lie between the coasts of China and Vietnam. The Gulf of Ton-kin.

       A phosphorescent wake—the eerie, night-time straight-line underwater path  of a launched torpedo—went  suddenly slashing beneath the stormy surface of the Gulf of Ton-kin, sixty miles off the coast of  Vietnam. The torpedo had a target:  a destroyer ship of the U.S. Navy.

       Under cover of the dark, stormy night, the torpedo’s path was nigh-impossible to see, almost as difficult to detect as the P-4 North Vietnamese patrol boat from which it had been launched.

       In the air above the USS Turner Joy naval destroyer,  a plane-launched flare erupted,  illuminating  for a few moments the rain-stilted night sky. In the desperate brilliance of one flare flash, a boatsman’s mate caught plain sight of the attacking boat; he noticed, in the fleeting brightness, an odd detail—its long bow.

        Meanwhile, all hell was breaking loose, with the two U.S. Navy destroyers firing ordnance wildly into the stalking mysteries of the Tonkin Gulf.    Two  members of the gun crew sighted the offending boat in the strange light of their own exploding 3-inch shells; one squinting seaman managed to hold the object in view for what seemed like almost two minutes.

       Two signalmen, peering through dark Tonkin night-soup, strove to pinpoint the patrol boat’s searchlight, as it swept through the dark seas several thousand yards off the starboard bow;  Director 31 operator could identify a mast, with a small cross piece, off the destroyer’s port quarter, as it was illuminated in the glare of an exploding shell that the Turner Joy had fired.

      Ahead of the USS Turner Joy, on the flagship Maddox, two Marine  machine-gunners were posted on the ship’s signal bridge; after sighting  what appeared to be the cockpit light of a small-craft, they watched through the fierce weather. Having no orders to fire, they visually tracked the unidentified vessel—friend or foe they didn’t know—as it churned up along port side of their ship; later the miniscule light was seen coming back down on starboard.

       Up on the flagship Maddox bridge,  Operations Officer Commander Buehler was not surprised at  the spotty hodgepodge of indecipherable bogey signals and sightings from various quarters of the two ships; for his ship’s radar contact had earlier indicated something approaching at high speed, which had suddenly turned left when it was 6000 yards from and abeam of the USS Maddox. He knew from the swerve that whatever that was—some vessel the radar contact had indicated—had fired an underwater  torpedo. Approximately three minute later, a topside crewman on the Turner Joy had spotted the thin, phosphorescent wake of the torpedo as it missed both ships and  then disappeared in the dark Tonkin waters that chopped beneath them.

       Later,  black smoke could be discerned,  rising in a column through the black night, and the mysterious P-4 bogey aggressors were seen no more. Where did they go? Davy Jones locker.

King of Soul

In Memoriam

May 29, 2016

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I have written a story in which, in the year 1937, a young man and an old man travel from Paris to a World War I battlefield cemetery in Belgium. In the scene, Philip poses this question to Mel:

“How could this place have been a battlefield for a world war?”

       The old Frenchman cast his eyes on the passing landscape, and seemed to join Philip in this musing. He answered slowly, “War is a terrible thing, an ugly thing. I did not fight in the war; I had already served my military duty, long before the Archduke was assassinated in Sarajevo and the whole damn world flew apart, like shrapnel. But I had many friends who fought here, and back there, where we just came from in my France, back there at the Somme, the Marne, Amiens. Our soldiers drove the Germans back across their fortified lines, the Hindenberg line they called it. By summer of 1918 the Germans were in full retreat, although it took them a hell of a long time, and rivers of spilt blood, to admit it. And so it all ended here. Those trenches, over there in France, that had been held and occupied for two hellish years by both armies, those muddy hellholes were finally left behind, vacated, and afterward . . . filled up again with the soil of France and Flanders and Belgium, and green grass was planted where warfare had formerly blasted its way out of the dark human soul and the dark humus of lowland dirt and now we see that grass, trimmed, manicured and growing so tidily around those rows of white crosses out there, most of them with some soldier’s name carved on them, many just unknown, anonymous, and how could this have happened? You might as well ask how could. . . a grain of sand get stuck in an oyster? And how could that oyster, in retaliation against that rough, alien irritant, then generate a pearl—such a beautiful thing, lustrous and white—coming forth in response to a small, alien presence that had taken up unwelcomed residence inside the creature’s own domain? The answer, my friend, is floating in the sea, blowing in the wind, growing green and strong from soil that once ran red with men’s blood.”

       Now they were arriving at the battlefield. Jacques parked the car, leaned against the front fender, lit a cigarette. Mel and Philip walked through a stone arch, along a narrow, paved road lined with flowering linden trees, spring green with their large spadish leaves, sprinkled with small white blossoms. The sun was getting low behind them. Shadows of these trees had overtaken the narrow lane, turning it cooler than the surrounding fields, acres and acres neatly arranged with white crosses and gravestones, and continuous green, perfect grass between all. Having reached the end of the linden lane, they stepped slowly, reverently, along straight pathways, passing hundreds of silent graves on either side. The setting sun was still warm here, after their cool approach from beneath the trees.

       At length, they came to the row that Philip had been looking for, the one he had read about in the army guidebook, where his father’s grave was nested precisely and perpetually in its own place in eternity . . .

The excerpt above is taken from chapter 27 of Smoke, the novel I published last year. I highlight the above passage as a memorial to the brave men and women who have died in wars while defending our United States of America and assuring the causes of human freedom throughout this tragic, precious world.

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