02 November 2012

The Widow

The war in Vietnam was always reaching out and poking me. Growing up, I'm amazed at how I was able to deal with it. It's like dancing -- you don't know the music has changed or you just ignore it.

She was the widow of an Air Force pilot and had two small children. Six and eight or something like that. Her home was a small three bedroom ranch and I babysat nights she'd go to the Langley Officer's Club. She and a major -- they always seemed to be majors -- would get home around midnight.

I remember she looked like Paula Prentiss and I thought she was beautiful. She wore silk scarves tied over head and her smile was big like her laugh. I was a frustrated 15 and rounding 2nd base with a very Christian, and consequently reluctant, girlfriend. I'd see their headlights pull into the driveway, turn off the television, sit up straight and pick up a magazine.

They would come in laughing - sometimes still smoking - Larks or whatever it was they smoked. I'd feign surprise and toss my magazine on a mahogany coffee table. Never sure what to do or say. She'd check on her kids while the major tried to shoot the shit with me. I couldn't talk. I couldn't listen. I couldn't do anything. I was a fucking wreck and I knew why.

I'd take my babysitting money from her and run like the wind. If only I knew then what I know now. I'd have stayed for hours throwing a cock block at the major while letting her know that I was head over heels about her.

14 October 2011

St Thomas More & The Nuns

With sisters: Chapel Hill, NC 1967

Dad gets his ears cleaned: Vinh Thanh, 1967

Sister Jane did not like my Cub Scout knife clipped to my shorts.

Up to the Fall of 1966, Army posts had been my home. Any Army post since they were the same no matter where. Same front gate, P.X., Commissary, movie theater and MP barracks. Grade schools were usually on post and that was life behind the wire. St Thomas More (Grades 1-6) in Chapel Hill was a strange world where nothing was familiar.

My introduction to trouble came by a fund raiser for a new church. I violated all rules of low profile by asking a nun why the Vatican didn't pay for the church. Later, it seems that same week, I stood in line for confession without any idea of what it was or what I was doing there. I saw a line and like any Brat, I joined it.

At lunch, I was caught by Sister Rose with a Playboy picture in an empty chocolate milk carton that had been passed underneath a table to me. I was kicked out of advanced reading class and placed in the slow reading class. I pushed a bully off a stage into a pile of metal folding chairs and I was never fast enough to kneel by my desk when a priest entered class.

I knew I didn't belong, but I don't remember caring. This was just another stop and I'm here to leave. The nuns allowed me time alone in the school chapel everyday. They told me to light a candle for my father and pray for him to come home safely. I would light a candle and sneak out a rear fire door. Steps from the back of the chapel was a golf course fairway where I prowled through the pine needle rough looking for lost balls.

I didn't need to light a candle to know he was coming back. The idea that he might not? It never crossed my mind. Today, I'm not sure where that misplaced optimism came from. Some of it had to do with his being invincible. That much I remember. I was well aware of the Green Beret celebrity at the time. Back at Ft Bragg my father had told me Barry Sadler was an idiot.

If an idiot can have a best selling record and be on TV -- then my Dad is coming home. The principal, Sister Jane, taught the slow readers. She never asked me to read until my last day. After I finished, she stared at me with that pissed off look I had seen so many times. "You do not belong in this class." she said. "No shit." I thought.

Dad came home. The Mayflower truck showed up. It was time to go.

08 February 2010

A Civilian in Chapel Hill

UNC - Chapel Hill Mid '60's
Sunchon Street, Ft Bragg, NC March 1966

Central Highlands, South Vietnam Summer 1966

I remember my father coming home but rarely his leaving. Except once.

We took him to Pope Air Force Base. A short drive from our quarters on Bragg. I remember he kissed my two sisters goodbye. He kissed my mother goodbye. And he turned to me, poked my chest with his finger and said, "You screw up once while I'm gone and I'll come back and kick your ass. You got that?" I nodded and he turned and walked away to Vietnam. I watched him swagger to a C 130 with a duffel bag on his shoulder and his green beret cocked at an angle.

Had he not come home -- That would've been my last memory of him.

I'm not sure any eight year old would understand him. I did. A little. I expected to be treated like a man when he said goodbye to me. We had spent a lot of time with each other the year before he left. Racing slot cars at the Hay Hobby Shop. Racing his Berkley at local sports car events. Taking his dare and eating a sardine that he told me was raw fish. He was never a chatty Cathy but we had our moments. Now he was gone and I felt an ease settle over our house on Sunchon Street.

The move to Chapel Hill took the ease I felt and put it on an island in the Caribbean with palm trees, coconut drinks and ocean breezes. Everything about Ft Bragg disappeared and I saw that civilian life was not the pawn shops, strip joints, car lots and bars and I saw on the other side of the main gate. The University of North Carolina looked like a giant officer's club and Carolina blue became my favorite color. I went into the record shops downtown where my mother picked out the latest Herb Albert and Tijuana Brass album and I picked up Beatle's 45s with the yellow and red Capitol label.

I was enrolled in my first Catholic school in June but had three months of summer when we moved into a house in the country. Older grad students and faculty lived in the same small houses tucked away in the woods with long drive ways and a concrete storm pipe at the beginning of each. By the end of the summer I had crawled through every one.

There was an art class I attended with my sister. A student lived in an apartment in an old house on campus and gave classes in the back yard. We sat around a subject and plopped water colors on the spongy paper while the sun looked down on us. Color was everywhere. In the red brick of the campus buildings, the white of clap board houses and the green of pines everywhere.

And in 1966, there was khaki and madras as well. High water trousers, white socks and crew cuts were still in vogue although longer hair was growing in popularity with the Beatles. There was also talk of the Rolling Stones but they were associated with hoodlums and communists. Nasty types who certainly didn't bathe and most likely shop lifted.

Our next door neighbor was in dental school. He was married and had a little boy who liked to drop rocks on toads and poke a wasp nest with a stick. The future dentist also had a Mustang convertible and a color tv where we all watched Cinderella. I thought it was a terrible waste of color.

Farther up the street were a Canadian couple who had a white Volvo 1800 and a West Highland Terrier named Donald Bane. He was getting his doctorate and she had her masters. He had something to do with English lit and I remember they were always laughing... a trait I still associate with most Canadians today.

Behind us was a preacher going to Duke for his doctorate in something biblical. I never remember him laughing but his son and daughter were good friends and I told my first story on their door stoop. It was about the secret life of their cat. Gerald, the son believed every word. The next day he told me his father said I had made it all up. I admitted I had and his sister asked me to make up another story. I did but it wasn't anywhere near as funny.

The drama teacher who had a parcel of kids and knew the writer Paul Green personally was the coolest dad. With longish hair turning grey at the the temples, he was a writer, an actor and looked like a cross between Peter Lawford and Johnny Carson. My mother only allowed tv on weekends and I remember Friday nights where all the parents got together for a party (except the preacher) and all of us kids were put in a house with a baby sitter, the Monkees on tv and a dozen hot dogs from a nearby drive in.

I wonder if it wasn't too much too soon. I was a successful story teller. I had access to fancy cars, actors and color tv. I lived a Town and Country life. Campus book stores and record shops. Swinging on a massive vine in the woods. Pondering colors and shapes as I painted.

I also started an annoying habit of forgetting what was most important. It was the summer I never thought about my father but the nuns were about to change that.

13 January 2010

Separate Rations, Sex and Quarters

Sicily Drop Zone

South of the Border

The Indian chief could have been a problem. Worse case scenario - I disappear. Best case - I get my ass kicked by some high school kids. I avoided both. 11 years later on Ft Bragg I came close very close to making a mistake that could have lasted a life time. At the time it seemed nothing more than a quick and easy solution.

We were waiting to load a C130 for a night jump in August. I was sitting on the tarmac reading 'Fear of Flying' by Erica Jong. I had already read the book but liked the image it presented... A paratrooper reading a paper back about fear of flying. Maybe someone from the Army Times would take a picture. No one who walked by me knew what the book was about but plenty of comments were made. None very original. Except one.

She was about six feet tall with blonde hair and piercing blue eyes. She was a private first class, a generator mechanic and I was told she spoke fluent French. She looked at my book and said, "How 'bout a zipless, Tintin?" I was stunned but managed to get out before she had walked too far, "I was thinking of something a little more physical, private!" She turned and smiled and duck walked away in a too tight parachute harness (MC1-1 Bravo) and a too big helmet cocked at a silly angle.

Have you read Fear of Flying where Erica Jong longs for the zipless fuck? A spiritual form of love making sans any removal of clothes or the more literal translation, the unzipping of zippers...his or hers. If you haven't read it you should.

We jumped Sicily drop zone that night and just like swimming in the Boy Scouts you couldn't walk off the D.Z. without a buddy. As I stuffed my parachute in an aviator kit bag I saw this tall figure coming towards me. "Who do I have?" said a woman's voice. It's Tintin, " I replied. "Oh, shit," she said. By the time we got back to the duece and half trucks and turned in our parachutes we had discussed, Erica Jong, Susan Sontag's, On Photography, the Bee Gees and dinner which we were to have together that night.

She cancelled dinner last minute but we went out the next night and saw the Woody Allen movie, Annie Hall. We dated for a couple of months and decided that it made sense to get married. Not because of love but for separate rations (money), quarter's allowance (money) and living off post (sex).

We were married in SC just across the border because there wasn't a waiting period. I remember the cement floor had yellow painted foot prints where we were supposed to stand. I lingered on the foot prints and had a uneasy feeling something wasn't right but a rail thin man married us in less time than it took for him to eat breakfast while his wife witnessed the event and handled all the paper work. In and out in ten minutes.

That night in a motel at South of the Border we didn't talk except to argue. The fighting lead to driving back to Ft Bragg around 2AM and by 7AM I was in another C130 and off on a 30 day field exercise to ponder my actions. I returned 30 days later to discover she had bought a house in both our names. It had a cyclone fence around the back yard and was in a very bad neighborhood. This was not the separate rations, sex and quarter's allowance I had in mind. I heard the Indian chief and this time I panicked.

I called a realtor who happened to be my mother and asked her what could I do. She explained it all...annulmets, waiting periods, etc. A day later I was sitting in front of a woman who was a JAG captain who asked, "Did you consummate the marriage?" She was in starched fatigues and I couldn't help but stare at her Judge Advocate branch device on her collar. Never saw many of those. "Uh, I'm sorry, what does consummate mean?" I asked as intelligently as I could. I wish she'd asked me about Susan Sontag because she looked like someone I could live off post with. She threw her pencil down and looked at me, "Did you sleep with her after you were married?"

I explained that we didn't sleep with each other after we married but we had slept with each other before we were married and did that count -- and she told me it didn't and before you knew it everything was taken care of. It all went away. I saw her a year later. She had married and was getting out of the army. She emailed me last year. Two grown children. Divorced. Deals cards in a casino. I often wonder why things happen the way they do.

11 January 2010

The Indian Chief - Part II

Hammond Hills, Ft Bragg   1966 -  The woods are in the background

Special Forces Camp A-223,  1966 - Vinh Than is in the foreground

The voice was a low rumble that crept out of green overgrowth and bushes.

I was playing in the woods behind quarters for senior enlisted men. Dad was a captain but Vietnam was keeping Ft Bragg hopping and officer's quarters were on a wait list. I wonder today if I would have heard that voice in the woods behind the officers billets. Maybe.

I was playing alone so it must have been a Sunday. We didn't go to church but everybody else did. I had a Man from U.N.C.L.E. attache case. The one with the secret camera and shoulder stock P-38.  I had asked for a trench coat that Christmas but would make do with a navy turtleneck and long blonde hair while working on a Illya Kuryakin accent.

"I am a great chief," the low rumble said. Not thirty feet away. Maybe less. I looked up from my brief case. "What?" I said, looking for the voice. "I am a great Indian chief and I'm looking for brave warriors to fight for my people." I turned to the voice and faced the bushes to my right and up a slight hill. I was calm. I was curious. I answered back. "What people?" "My tribe is out west - many moons away."

Out west? I was born in South Dakota and had lived most of my eight years out west: Ft Bliss and Ft Sam Houston, TX, Ft Sill, OK... I knew the west.

"Where out west?" I said putting my brief case down and folding my arms. "My people moved many times - many years." I nodded my head, "Me too. Where did you go?" "Many places," he replies. I remember as a kid hearing my father saying 'horse shit' a lot. I always wondered what the big deal was about horse shit but something was telling me this guy might have some.

I yelled to him, "I've lived  in Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and I was born in South Dakota. Do you know those places?" There was silence. Then, "Yes. We were in those places many times."

My father had left Ft Bragg and was in Vietnam. I had dreams of him in his camp spurred on by John Wayne in The Green Berets. My grandmother had taken me to see it. I also had the record that inspired the movie, "Ballad of the Green Berets" written by Sgt Barry Sadler, a neighbor and someone my grandmother thought was a, "pretty big honcho." My father thought he was a Staff Sergeant and not a very good one.

My dream was always the same. My father's camp is being attacked by Viet Cong. My father is giving orders to his men and I walk up carrying an M-16. He looks at me and yells, "What are you doing here!?" I shrug my soldiers. He points me to a position and I join a circle of men surrounding him. We aim our weapons at the charging enemy.

I ask the Indian chief, "Where were you in all those places?" "Come to me, brave warrior and I will tell you."

I looked down at my PX French Shriners and kicked at some dirt that looked just like the dirt at Ft Benning and Ft Jackson. I don't remember being scared. If anything, I thought this 'chief' was probably a high school kid who was teasing me in front of his buddies. He wasn't very convincing and I was getting bored.

"Come to me, brave warrior. I will take you back in time where many buffalo..." "Nice try." I thought. I waved goodbye to the bushes and walked the ten feet or so out of the woods and up a hill to our cul de sac. I jumped in a dumpster next to the car port and played astronaut and then I walked some fifty feet home.

I have no idea who the Indian chief was although I do wonder how lucky I was. I never mentioned it to anybody. Bigger things were going on. The army was kicking us off post since my father was in Vietnam. Another move --  but this would be the first time on the other side of the gate

12 December 2009

The Indian Chief - Part I

Dad in 1966
Me in 1966

The smell of pine trees and their fallen needles baked in the hot sun always makes me a little sick.

When I was running with a ruck sack, a rifle and sucking in red dust four platoons back, that burnt pine needle smell took me past the point of being, 'a little sick' to an anger bordering on satanic. I would kill Jesus to stop the stabbing pain in my lungs wrapped tight in that Pine Sol smell.  I knew the chest pain was really from smoking cigarettes and drinking too much on Hay Street the night before. But  I blamed the pine trees -- A useless fucking tree if ever there was one.

Eleven years prior, when I was eight, I played in the same woods the army was trying to kill me in. Just behind the duplex quarters of Hammond Hills which my mother thought were made of wax paper and toad shit.  And that's from a woman who grew up dirt poor.

As kids, we took pine tree branches and placed them in a semi-circle, shoveled dead pine needles with our hands covering  the branch skeleton in a rust colored wall. One semi-circle of dead pine needles stood against another and we fought our battles with pine cone projectiles. Meanwhile, my father baked in a record breaking heat wave in the Central Highlands with his SF camp about to be pounced on by an NVA regiment.

He would tell me, when I was home on leave, that he survived with the absolute firm knowledge no harm would come to him because, "I'm the kind of guy who never won anything." He suggested I think the same way. To do otherwise - - To think you could win the contest meant certain death. And as confusing as that was to me, at 19, something clicked and I understood.

A book was out about WW III and it explained how someone like me, a paratrooper in the infantry, would die before I ever saw the door of a C 130 somewhere over Western Germany. And while I thought of what my last moments alive would be like in a burning C-130 nose diving into the German countryside - - I never thought I would die in those peaceful woods behind the village of wax paper and toad shit. But I came close.

22 November 2009


My father and his shirtless team sergeant visit the Koreans. Vietnam 1966

A few years ago my father and I sat on my patio after dinner and discussed my job, which was and still is in sales. "I could never sell anything." he told me. He said it in a disparaging way... like sucking the words through his teeth. I knew he had visions of me in a white short sleeve button down with a navy clip on tie calling strangers on the phone and asking them for money. I mean, I have those images of me -- I don't know why he shouldn't.

But I was defensive and replied, "I couldn't sell a golf ball in a pro shop." He shot me an odd look. "Dad, all I really do is solve problems and build relationships." I added, "And I really enjoy the relationship part. Meeting someone, solving their problems and getting to know them. That's what it's about. Selling is nothing compared to the friendships I've built over years. That's why I do it."

My father nodded. "I did the same thing in the army. In Vietnam we built relationships with the people. We taught them to grow strawberries which they then sold to the army. We taught them to make clay roof tiles which later adorned officer's clubs and we helped them farm fish by providing A.I.D. Bulgar wheat as fish feed because no sane person would ever eat it."

Consequently, when the NVA put a regiment on a mountain over looking my father's small Special Force's camp, those same locals told my father what was going on with the NVA. I imagine a lot of lives were saved.

A few years later, my mother told me of a parents -teacher meeting at my first grade class at Ft Bliss. She said that while other children's work sat on their desks for their parents to inspect - - my desk was bare. "He doesn't do the work." the teacher said. "Don't get me wrong. He's just too busy talking to everyone. He loves it here. He's very social and trust me...there are kids who do their work and they don't want to be here."

Oddly enough, I fell into a line of work that's suitable for that six year old. Relationships are everything to me. It's comforting to know they were important for my father as well.