Posts Tagged ‘Vietnam’

Viva La Revolution

Friday, April 1st, 2016

Viva La Revolution

It was a glorious, spring day. Puffy, white clouds caressed an eye-popping, blue sky. Cool but not cold. I was on the quad of my university playing guitar and singing “The Great Mandala” by Peter Yarrow. “So I told him, that he’d better, shut his mouth and do his job like a man. And he answered, ‘Listen, Father. I will never kill another.’ He thinks he’s better than his brother that died.” Vietnam. It was a war that killed and mutilated and left many a young man’s future tossed off onto the shoulder of the highway of life, forlorn and forgotten. All for a cause that didn’t exist .

“If we don’t stop communism in Southeast Asia, we’ll be fighting them in San Diego.” I was from Colorado. I didn’t care if the Vietnamese invaded San Diego. But it never occurred to the hawks that the agrarian communism of Russia and China didn’t appeal to Americans the way it appealed to undeveloped countries trying to throw of the yoke of colonialism. In Vietnam’s case, us.

Every night you saw film of injured or killed American soldiers being carted off the battlefield, Viet Cong executed, villages set on fire and the women and children running in terror, Buddhist monks self-immolating in protest. The nightly news. I don’t know if I can convey how important it was. If you wanted to know what was going on, you read the paper and watched the nightly news. There were 3 of them: NBC, CBS, and ABC. And they were insulated from their parent companies so that the news wouldn’t be beholden to advertisers. So when you watched the news, you got…news!

Walter Cronkite was the anchor for the CBS nightly news. He was the man who cried when Kennedy was killed. He was the man who told America after the Tet offensive in 1968 that, despite what our leaders told us, the war in Vietnam could not be won no matter how many young men we threw at it. Because we weren’t fighting a country, we were fighting an idea: freedom.

The draft had made the war a part of every family’s nightmare. It brought families to the verge of civil war. I remember that year, 1970, my family celebrated Easter at a brunch. And my sisters yelled at me for being against the war. I have to explain yelling in the context of my family. It was more like stage whispering. “How dare you not support your country?! How can you sit there and judge the actions of the elders?!” To which I would respond, “It doesn’t make sense. The only way it makes sense is from the perspective of those profiting from it.” That didn’t stop the stage whispers.

Vietnam was the main reason the children of the people got together. Protests, marches, sit-ins, lie-ins, love-ins, draft card burnings. The anti-war movement was the burning flame in the heart of American youth. Women, blacks and gays pinned their movements to it, because here was a large group of young American men who would listen and even help with their causes.

April, 1970. The United States invaded Cambodia. Richard Nixon was elected in 1968 because he promised to “get America out of Vietnam, with honor.” Those last two words translated from Nixonese to, “never.” Students across the country left our classrooms behind and took control of the grassy open spaces on the campuses, and created “peace villages” made of tents and sleeping bags and lean-tos, protests, laughter, speeches, heated discussions, music, love and life. The teachers joined us and the administrations panicked. Had they waited us out just a little longer, boredom would have set in. “Whatcha doing tonight?” “Protesting I guess, you?” “Yeah.” We were young.

But they panicked. They called the governors and the governors called the national guard. So it was at my school, so it was at Kent State where the national guard murdered 4, unarmed students and wounded 9 others.

So there I was, singing and playing when the national guard formed a phalanx, three soldiers deep, along one side of the quadrangle. Our fearless leaders with the bullhorns ran to the other side of the quadrangle to put as many students between the soldiers and them as they could.  A beautiful woman crossed in front of me, carrying a bunch of daisies towards the guardsmen. I followed her. She placed a daisy in the muzzle of each M-1 rifle the soldiers carried at port arms. Some softened but many yanked the flower out of their weapons, crushed it in their hands, dropped it, and spat on it to show their utter male contempt for the fact that she made them doubt, even for a moment, that they were doing the right thing. The young man in front of me let the flower stay in his rifle. I knew I knew him and I could see from his face that he knew me.

“Regis High School?” I asked. “You were two years ahead of me,” was his reply. Will was his name. I knew him because everyone in the school knew him. He was brilliant. Everyone thought that he would win a Nobel prize or become a supreme court justice or the first black president. Faced with the draft, he joined the national guard in hopes of staying out of Vietnam. So there he was with all his promise, dressed in drab, olive green carrying a rifle with a daisy sprouting out of it.

We talked about high school. Memories of crazy, wonderful, mean, brilliant Jesuits made us laugh.

His sergeant growled in Will’s ear. “You taking up gardening, son? You miss your mama that bad?” The sergeant turned his dead eyes on me and I back up a step. Will expression removed the flower from his rifle and turned the weapon upside down so that any residue of peace could tumble out.

Way in the back of the crowd, the leaders of our protest exhorted us over bullhorns to “Kill the pigs”, “Fuck Nixon”, and “Give peace a chance.” I guess they hadn’t been able to decide if they were going radical or hippie. I wondered, Why were the leaders in back, I wondered. Shouldn’t they be in front inspiring us with their compassion or fierceness, depending on which bullhorn you were listening to? I thought about Wellington and Napoleon, surrounded by their adjutants on their opposing hillocks, watching their armies slaughter each other. Did Agamemnon lead the fruitless charges against the walls of Troy or was he back in his ship thinking thoughts of empire with a slave tending to his lap?

Will nudged me with his rifle.  “I think you better get out of here,” he said. “…said the joker to the thief,” I replied. I forgot about history. Now I was lost in the Jimi Hendrix version of Dylan’s song.

His rifle nudged me a little harder. I could smell his nervous sweat and gun oil and the daisy.

“I mean it, man.”

I looked at him. Without turning his head he slid his eyes sideways. I followed them. Behind the phalanx an officer, red-faced with anger, yelled, “Fix bayonets!” I looked at Will who unsheathed his bayonet and attached it to his rifle. He gave me a sheepish shrug and I ran. I ran across the boulevard to fraternity row. The frat-boys were for the war because their fathers had made sure their sons wouldn’t be drafted.

Before my eyes, the peace village that had was full of life and love was destroyed in a matter of minutes by young men carrying rifles with blades attached. In their wake were only cries of terror, agony and rage.

My lasting memories are of the clowns on the bullhorns, a governor who decided the national guard was the right way to stop a peace demonstration, a beautiful woman who smelled like spring, and a boy, a school mate and potential friend, separated from me by a gun with a blade attached. For a brief moment, the war and protest had been forgotten as he and I shared memories of a less dramatic childhood.

I read later that Will and all his potential died in Vietnam.

The revolution ended a few years after that. Not because xenophobia, bigotry, misogyny, and fear of anything sexual or non-Christian were defeated.  No, they went into hiding in the Republican party along with the war-profiteers waiting for a more opportune time. The revolution ended the day they ended the draft. No longer unified by the larger cause, black rights, women’s rights, and gay rights had to stutter step on their own through the decades.

The leaders with the bull horns became bankers or hedge fund managers. We all sold our souls for a piece of the American pie. But some of us tried to pass on to our children the knowledge that we all, every living thing, live and breath on this little blue marble in the middle of space. And, no matter what we believe or what god we pray to, we had better learn to get alongPerhaps some of you are those children.

Has a spider monkey ever had its way with your ear?

Thursday, July 9th, 2015

Has a spider monkey ever had its way with your ear? I don’t recommend it.

There was a time when I was a young, vibrant revolutionary. I thought of myself that way. In the sixties, 80% of the people my age supported the Viet Nam War…as long as they didn’t have to fight in it. They saw their future wrapped securely in the American flag. But I was a believer in Jefferson’s dream: “the Tree of Liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” I wasn’t a tyrant and I wasn’t  sure if I was enough of a patriot to shed blood, but I envisioned myself like Jefferson, writing meaningful and trenchant tracts while fucking my brains out.

All around me was change. The streets seethed with protests and marches mostly peaceful, sometimes not. Civil rights, women’s rights, and nascent gay rights movements were trying to shake the country awake. Clearly, we stopped shaking way too early. Permeating all of it was Vietnam. Universal draft made the war something that was on everyone’s mind whether they red, white and blue approved or not. The hallowed halls of academe reverberated with debates, arguments, fist-fights, rage, and whimpering. And that was just the sociology department.

Twenty percent of nation’s youth were willing to throw their souls into the jaws of civil and not so civil disobedience for ideals. We clung to our student deferments like life preservers in a roiling ocean knowing that we were lucky to be in school and not on the front lines.  Yes, we were cowards and yes, we hid behind those who truly were on the front line. But, in our own lily-livered, yellow-bellied, pusillanimous, chicken-hearted ways, we fought the good fight.

And into this vortex I stepped, bright-eyed, holding the cause dear to my heart.  I was a mix of conservative and socialist. I listened to every side and tried to find a common, Confucian middle-path through the insanity. My heart was equally divided between the left and the right.

I was betrothed, if that’s the right word. Not engaged, certainly not married, but unmistakably attached to my high school sweetheart by a mixture of love, loyalty, and the comfort of the familiar. No longer a Catholic, something of a Taoist without realizing it, I was unwilling to tell my devout mother that the church and I no longer saw eye to eye on any level.  All the religious school torture I had gone through was for naught except that it created in me a true loathing for anything that even had a whiff of cult. I was educated but no more Catholic than it served me and it only served me in my mother’s presence. I wasn’t afraid of my mother, I was afraid of damaging the relationship we had. You see, I had a catholic size guilt built around relationships.

I was nineteen and there were no end of women around the campus. Every form of them. Women whose voices made me melt though the rest of them didn’t. Women whose bodies made me harden even as their voices or opinions ate away, bite by excruciating bite, at my lizard-brain interest. Occasionally, there was a woman who had body, mind, and soul. And I knew, had I not been betrothed, that she was the one … Until the next one. You see, young men want to fuck every thing that moves … and some things that don’t. Men don’t want to know women’s names or get to know their friends, unless the friends are other women. They just want sex. If they, perish the thought, become friends with the women, it just muddies the water and could lead, perish the thought, to love. Then it’s a whole other story.

One of those next ones brings me back to the spider monkey. She and I, the woman not the monkey, had been in a couple of classes together and were working on a project for one of those classes. She rented a house near the campus and I went over with at least a modicum of hope that she and I could collaborate on something more intimate. You see, I had not strayed but, as Oscar Wilde said, “I can resist everything but temptation.”

She was a raven-haired, deep-voiced vixen who generally wore clothes that, in today’s standards weren’t revealing, but in that era revealed just enough to tweak my good, Catholic boy’s holy, little heart with a lustful wrench. I stepped into her house which gave the feeling that Woodstock and the commune were just out the back door.

A wonderland of macramé and tie-dye hung from every conceivable spot framing her like a hippie portrait. She wore something that I immediately assumed was God’s answer to my forbidden prayer—had I believed in God. A translucent muumuu. The words  muumuu and sexy sound like they should never be used in the same sentence. But…oh, my…

The dress’ patterns made her body appear and disappear, making me contort in all sorts of uncomfortable and obvious ways to manipulate her, myself, and the sun into the perfect angle.

We cracked a couple of beers and sat down in her living room. Jimi Hendrix played in the background and she smiled. I took the smile as encouragement but deep down I suspected that she was laughing at the effect she was having on me. I was, after all, listing heavily to my right side to try and get everything lined up. I was on the verge of broaching the subject of the 800 pound gorilla in the room when in bounded Mogo, her pet spider monkey.

I have to preface this by telling you that young children and animals like me. It’s not anything I do on purpose. They just do. And Mogo was no exception. He was on me like police on a hoodie-wearing black kid. Mogo’s proud, human mother, clapped and cooed her approval of Mogo and I getting to know each other. I didn’t mind. Mogo was friendly and cute and stared at me with those knowing, kindred eyes that speak more profoundly of evolution than anything ever written. He took one of my fingers, smelled it, made a face and a sound that made the woman clap and coo more enthusiastically. He touched my face, groomed my hair for a while—yes, I had hair then— before plopping down on my lap giving the impression he had found a new home.

The look on the woman’s face was one of finding the gold at the end of a rainbow. I had passed a  major test. She moved close. Her smell, her voice, that fact that she was much smarter than I, overwhelmed me. I leaned toward her. She toward me. The electricity we generated battled incense for dominance of the air.

I don’t know much about monkeys but I know Mogo was jealous. Of whom, I was not certain. He jumped up between us, grabbed my head with four prehensile paws, wrapped his tail around my throat and screamed while he tried to mate with my right ear. The woman screamed and flapped her hands uselessly and I would have been truly peeved had I not been doing the same thing.  Kind of proves the point that I wasn’t patriot enough to bleed for a cause.

The screaming and flapping spurred Mogo’s desire. Something wet touched my ear. I managed to get a hand between my virgin ear and Mogo’s growing interest. I tried to pry him off. Something about that movement broke the woman’s shock. Scolding and prying loose Mogo’s incredibly strong fingers–taking a little of my flesh with them–she was a flurry of activity. Between the two of us, we were able to dislodge monkey from sexual conquest. Mogo angrily scampered up a floor lamp, screeched and masturbated. Isn’t it amazing how much men are like monkeys?

I checked my ear for damage and she apologized profusely as she dabbed blood off my forehead and neck, both victims of  Mogo’s grasp. I could not wait to get out of there. The ironic thing was that her ministrations put me, her, and the sun in perfect alignment. I made my excuses and left wishing her and Mogo my best.

She and I ran into each other on campus once in a while and she made straightforward advances but Mogo had taught me that being true to my betrothed was the righteous path … Until the next one. To this day, I wonder if Mogo ever found the right ear for him.