Viet Nam vets are now old and gnarly.  They are a sort of passé cliché.  But back then they were young.  They were my age and coming back from the war.  I was working at a Broadway Departmentswift boat Store unloading the trucks and doing other odds and ends.  We got there early and all the guys on the dock as well as other people who worked there would gather by this one door and wait to be let in.

We would knock on the door, or bang on it, or kick it, and start hollering and eventually this really old guy, with a belt of keys, would come down the aisle, about as slow as he could go and let us in.  Joe waited there with us.  He had been in Viet Nam, had long dirty looking dark hair, and looked like he was wasted a lot; he worked somewhere in the store, but not on the docks.  For some reason, that old man just got on Joe’s nerves and he would start to cussing the old man when he took his time getting to the door; Joe would cuss him every step the old man took down that long aisle.

 One day, out of nowhere, Joe didn’t cuss the guy but reared back and before anybody could do a thing kicked the door with his steel tip work boot and broke it to pieces.  I didn’t know you could break a door like that, but Joe did.  He had strung telephone wires through the bush in Viet Nam.  He would creep along in the bushes with the wire so that people up at the front fighting could phone back.  One day he got shot and his left forearm was shattered.  Somebody said he was shot in two places, but I never saw the other place.

 I was a dishwasher at restaurant in a shopping center.  We had three cooks.  One big fat guy, an old lady who passed out from the heat a couple of times, and a young guy, who was mostly American Indian, who had a fine sharp featured face and thick black hair brushed back in an Elvis pompadour.  He had been back from Viet Nam for almost a year, and sometimes when I was washkng dishes, I turned around and he would be going like ack, ack, ack with a broom like it was a machine gun at me.  And once he stuck it right up to my asshole and did that and I almost jumped out of my skin.

 He had been on one of those boats that go up rivers like in the movie, Apocalypse Now, and one day they got off the boat and were checking things out, and he said he saw the guy who shot him up in a tree, and he was hit in the stomach.  But, he said, somebody on his boat had got the fucker.

He had married this white woman who, from the picture he showed me, looked like she was maybe 300 pounds.  He had a child by her, and then they had split up.  She said he had emotional problems; he said she had cheated on him and he had emotional problems.  He wouldn’t pay child support, so most weekends he would check into the county jail and put in time for failure to provide child support.

He asked me to go out drinking with him a few times, and in a way I sort of liked the guy.  But I am not a drinker.  And he told me that he had been in jail because he had been in a bar room fight and poked out a guy’s eye with a bottle, but they had put it back in. So he really couldn’t understand all the fuss. Really the guy scared me.

Draft Dodgers

I was in my green hole on May 4, 1970 when I heard four students had been killed at Kent State by the National Guard.  Usually, I think about such things and then swallow it, but that day I felt like I just had to talk to somebody, so I drove 15 miles or so to this gas station where a guy I knew was pumping gas.

tiernamen squareWe weren’t really friends.  But we had known each other in high school.  He was a year behind me and when he graduated he went off to Harvard.  He was real bright, the son of a postman, and had red hair like me, but more orange.  He had heard about the Kent State thing, and while I went on about it, he didn’t seem much affected.  Finally, he said, leaning up against my car, “You are fucking innocent.”

That sort of stuck in my like a burr.  I don’t know what he had seen at Harvard, but he had seen stuff I had not seen and guess I never will.  I guess he had seen with his own eyes how people at the top act and talk about people that are not at the top.  For years after, he worked with an international leftist, marxist, trotskyite, union movement; he lived in a commune and worked in factories so he could organize workers.  When he applied for a job, he never put down that he had been graduated from Harvard because if he did, they were sure not to hire him.

Somebody back then said, he had learned more about politics from resisting the draft than he had ever learned or would ever learn from any political science class.  I had learned as I think Max Weber said, Society is God.  Or as Sartre said, Society decides who lives and who dies.  And politics is about the use and distribution of power within that society.  Or as Mao said, power comes from the barrel of a gun.  I had learned that when push comes to shove society doesn’t give a flying fuck about the individual, at least not about individuals who have no power and can’t defend themselves.  For such people there is no recourse.  They are like that kid in Tiananmen Square.  The tank just rolls over them and you’re just a red spot on the pavement.

Maybe at Harvard my friend had met the people who drive the tank, for whom the draft and the war was a matter of inconvenience because they had doctors and lawyers and connections and ways to get in the National Guard with no sweat.  And not like it was for so many a ball crushing major mother of a titanic fuck up that altered their lives in significantly destructive ways.

At Harvard I suspect, he met the real draft dodgers.

A Big Yellow Streak

In the fall of 68, while I was trying to go to graduate school, I room with my best friend.  He was from Tulsa, Oklahoma, and like myself a working class kid who was ill-equipped to be a working class kid.  During the course of the quarter, he was drafted and reported.  He got through boot camp ok and was made an MP, though I can think of few people less physically imposing.  He was assigned to guard a missile base, in Arizona, I think.  24 hours on, 24 hours off.  He became “catatonic” and the army let him out with the stipulation that he did not claim medical reparations.

Another friend, also a working class kid and much more suitable to be one, since he worked out regularly and was very strong, decided not to endure the suspense, and joined the Marines voluntarily.  He thought it would be the event of our generation and wished to be present for it.  At that time, to get volunteers, the Marines were lopping six months off the tour either at the end or up front.  My friend chose up front, and during the six months fell in love and had a car accident that screwed up his knee.  The Marines would not take him.

Another friend, the son of a car salesman, became a marijuana salesman and decided when the war came along to go underground.  He stayed with me for a month maybe longer right before I dropped my groceries in the parking lot.  He was jailed once for weed and the FBI came and he said he would report as soon as he got out of jail, but he didn’t.  He was at Woodstock.  And drank very heavily.

Another person, less a friend but respected, decided not to step across the line at the draft board.  Funny to think of being arrested for NOT do something.  He was immediately jailed for not doing something first in a minimum security prison, and after he led a food strike there, a maximum security prison off the coast of Washington State.  He said that later somebody approached him about making a “movie of the week” out of his story.  He was the son of a philosophy professor who had been a CO during WWII.

These people, along with John Wayne and my father, both of whom said cryptically, “a man has got to do what a man has got to do,” constituted my moral compass as I agonized and tried to understand what was wrong with me, why I didn’t so clearly want to do what a man has got to do.  Being tough, sucking it up, following orders was a good deal of what my working class heritage was about.

And those Southerners seem to go off to war at the drop of a hat. I was not a real man like John Wayne, but instead a coward with a yellow streak a mile wide down my back.  And a coward in two directions, for if I truly objected to the war itself and was not just a coward with a yellow streak a mile wide down my back, I should go to jail like my other friend but I couldn’t do that because the idea of prison scared me pissless, making me a coward with a yellow streak a mile wide down my back.

One might here begin to sense the depths of my inward conflicts although these remarks do not do justice to them.  It would have helped greatly had I been sure in my heart that the war was morally wrong in some absolute sense.  But I just couldn’t reach that conclusion.  Now it’s easy to say, oh yea, Vietnam was morally wrong.  Indeed, it just trips off the tongue. But back then the best I could do was to characterize it as a major “fuck up” and in that way another dimension of life as perpetually “fucked up.”

Winter of 69

In the winter of ’69 it rained a record at the time; houses slid down hills; hills slid onto the freeways.  The ants came marching in making patterns across my kitchen floor.

report for physicalOne morning in December I was up by 5 because I had been called by the army for a physical.  I had to be there at 630; I got up so early because the windshield wipers on my car didn’t work, and it was raining.  No way I could take the freeway, so I mapped out the trip on side streets.  I drove very slowly sometimes sticking my head out in the rain to see what was in front of me and through a narrow space down on the left side of the windshield where the swilling water left a clear spot about the size of a stamp.  I arrived on time a nervous wreck.

We were told to take off our clothes, stow them in a locker, and to place our valuables in a little bag we carried around with us.  So there were all were walking around in our underwear following a yellow arrow drawn on the floor from one station to another where they checked our blood and our eyes and our ears and had us all bend over and this onereakdown guy came around and said spread your cheeks and you did and he stuck his fucking finger up your ass.s b

This was the LA draft board, they accepted anybody.  The guy in front of me had marked down that he had TB and was a drug addict.  The doctor looked at the paper work, asked him to touch his toes, which he did, and the guy said, “You’ll do.”

At one station we had to pee into a little bottle for a urine sample.  Fifty of us all standing around peeing into little bottles.  But I couldn’t pee.  I was in a panic wanting to pee.  But the more I panicked the less I could pee.  Finally, another group had to come in and I left without peeing.  At the last station of the day they checked my paper work and the guys said, “You didn’t pee.”  I said that I had really tried but couldn’t pee.  Apparently I was not the only one who had suffered this problem, because he said, there’s a john around the corner, go in there in pee.

So I went into the john and closed the door and sat down on the toilet because I felt I might shit too.  Also I was tired and wanted to shit.  I still had trouble peeing. As I am sitting there with my drawers around my ankles still struggling to pee,  The door swings up and this guy in uniform takes a look at me and says, “Fucking Shit!” and slams the door.

I can’t today even fathom the degree of shame and humiliation I felt that day at my inability to pee.  Eventually, I peed.  I apologized because it wasn’t very much.  He said it was enough.  A month or so later, I officially received my 1-A making me officially eligible for the draft at the moment my year in graduate school was over.  But it seemed to me that there were a god in the heavens, he would have been standing there and given a 4-F to anybody who couldn’t pee on demand.