Back to the Garden, August 2019

Parts of this essay appeared originally in Changes magazine, August, 1969. This version is adapted from Chapter 10 in my book of memoirs and essays titled Warbaby: Talking About My Generation, 2009.

I came upon a child of god

He was walking along the road,

And I asked him, where are you going

And this he told me.

Joni Mitchell, “Woodstock”

…My wife and I ended up working together in New York City for an “underground” newspaper, and we both truly enjoyed the time we had at home watching Ian become his own unique person. I was enjoying some real success as a writer and photographer, and I felt I was beginning to leave the war behind me.The social and professional circles we were running in were the “alternative lifestyle” folks whose world-views were largely formed from anti-war politics, anti-establishment values, and the perceptual enhancements of psychotropic drugs. Being a veteran was not a comfortable role for me, so I simply discarded it. I found some comfort in knowing that there were other vets who wanted the war to end—I had attended the first New York rally of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, but had remained on the sidelines. Frankly, I was not ready to join any movement, and I seemed to be completely unable to stand in a crowd and “demonstrate.”  While I wasn’t very conscious of it at the time, I remember that rally as the first dawning of a nagging anxiety that would soon come to dominate my life.

The Big City can be hard on one’s spirit, so in the summer of 1969, my wife and I decided to take a vacation. As it happened, all the buzz around the city was for the upcoming Woodstock Music and Arts Fair. The posters promised “an Aquarian Exposition: Three Days of Peace and Music.” One simply had to look at the long list of incredible artists who were to be performing at this music festival to know this would be THE greatest gathering of “freaks” since the 1967 Summer of Love in Haight-Ashbury. It even seemed like almost as many folks would show up for this big deal as had gone to San Francisco wearing “flowers in their hair.” I talked a couple editors into helping pay our way and decided that writing my Woodstock stories would be our ticket out of town. Nothing sounded more soothing to my soul than “Three Days of Peace and Music.”

Then can I walk beside you

I have come here to lose the smog

And I feel to be a cog 

in something turning

What follows next is the text of the article I wrote for Changes, one of the magazines that had sponsored my sojourn to Woodstock. This article was published in August 1969.

***

 

We were on the road very early Friday morning, leaving the city on the way to our first vacation in years. The morning sun bore its way through the valleys of the Catskills and reflected mirror-like on the silver thread of river below. My wife and I were young and touched with memories of a dream reflecting from the valley, passing by like a slow pan through the bus window. Ian, the baby, was sleeping soundly. We wondered how those people alone in the occasional houses growing on the slopes earned their livings. We speculated about how soon it would be before we could leave Brooklyn and the fifth-flight apartment to bring trees and blue skies back into the perspective of reality. Then we slept too, comfortable in the promise of the weekend to come.

I awoke as we passed through a small town. There were freaks and friendly faces everywhere; I figured we were getting close, but was surprised to learn that we still had miles to go. The countryside slowly transformed from naked hills to rolling fields dotted with tents, then unending pastures packed with people and lined with cars. The bus kept rolling. We moved slowly down a narrow dirt road as clouds began to gather in the sky. We stopped for a moment while the driver checked out an empty bus, off the road in a ditch. The sky grew darker. Finally the bus came to a stop and we all got out. As we emptied the bus, the rain came and, along with it, a lot of bitter cursing. As we ran for a wood-frame pavilion with picnic tables underneath I noticed a makeshift stand to the right surrounded by about a hundred people. There were signs advertising sandwiches for a dollar each. Things started to seem a little less perfect.

The rain stopped and the morning sun came through once again. There was a life-flow of people on the road headed toward the festival grounds, so we joined it. We reached the main street where the cars stretched out to the horizon. This was going to be big. Holly carried Ian, and I took the duffle bag with our blanket and extra clothes off to where the action seemed to be. After about a mile’s walk, we decided to look for a john, and found one. It was a small chemical toilet behind a watermelon stand with ten people waiting to use it. Our turn came then the walk began again, up the hill, through trees and past fields. One man coming down from the hill had a canteen full of water from which he was selling swigs to thirsty hikers—for $3.00 a piece. No water around? Impossible. 

Just as the duffle bag started to seem too heavy to carry any further, a Ferris wheel appeared over a hilltop like a monolithic symbol from a Fellini set misplaced among the oaks. There was a small amusement park where the rides were spinning and dancing – stupidly empty of people – against the darkening sky. The rides were laughable in their emptiness, but the hamburger, hot dog, chicken and popcorn stands—at 11 o’clock on the first day of the Woodstock Festival—didn’t seem so funny with their sold-out signs. We shared a warm coke and a plate of greasy French fries, which was to be our breakfast and lunch—in fact, the last solid food we’d have for nearly 14 hours. Now Ian had to go to the bathroom, so we asked the girl in the ticket booth where the toilet was. The reply: “Any place big enough to stand without hitting somebody.” That’s exactly what we used. At the festival gate we picked up press passes and noticed that the ticket takers were no more visible than the Ferris wheel riders had been. 

People were swarming in from every direction, and no pretense was being made to collect admission. After finding the press tent where I picked up promo material on the performers, we headed down the hillside to the front of the mammoth stage. Once again I thought of Fellini as we took a seat on the ground behind one of the huge light towers. Solid structure had bloomed on the pasture the last few weeks; in the middle of the back-country the light and speaker towers, stage, fence and crane came off like a science-fiction environmental architect’s nightmare. A beautiful nightmare, however.

We passed the waiting hours in sunshine. As we waited, what remained of the country open-air feeling dissolved in the constant influx of people. The city had followed us. The empty hillside became jammed as people no longer walked down; they climbed, crawled and squeezed their ways, trying to get close to the action. But the action was running late. The huge crowd hushed at the sound of  technicians working on the stage starting to set up. Something was about to happen. Over the speaker came a conversational voice giving microphone placement designations. “Mic one is on the drum, right? O.K. Mic two is on…” etc. The hillside was silent. “No. 4 is Richie’s voice.” 

The Woodstock Music and Art Fair and Aquarian Exposition took a deep breath and came alive with the first of what would be hundreds of thunderous cheers before it was all over. Richie Havens came on and so did everyone else. Havens wasn’t quite together, but he was the first act, and the quarter million waiting freaks knew it had all begun.

Throughout his performance people kept climbing up the light tower directly in front of us, and it didn’t look as if it had been designed as a grandstand. As fast as one group was told to come down, another would clamber up. Richie himself chased one group off the tower, but replacements followed like drilled infantrymen holding a hill. At one point, a wild-haired young stud of about 16, when told to come down, went after the fellow who had told him with clenched fists. Behind him ran a 12 year-old sidekick, unsnapping the sheath to his Boy Scout hatchet. A girl in the audience rose up to tell the first hellcat not to start any trouble, but before she got to him the other pint-sized punk had knocked her down, pulled out the hatchet and told her to keep her hands off his friend. Within the next half hour these two were to be called down off the tower four more times, and were to try to start four more fights.

After Hindu chants by Swami Satchidinanda, the second act, we were asked to observe one full minute of total silence, when “not even the cameras would click.” Instead of silence we got barking, screeching, mooing, and obscenities from a pack of peanut-brained numbskulls—the kind with short hair and long sideburns wearing new Sears and Roebuck denim jackets. Three hundred thousand people lost their minute of silence to half a dozen douche-bags.

The next act was Sweetwater, who came on so bad people were ready to leave. About then more people started up the light tower. This time, when told to get down, they didn’t bother. One guy climbed up about halfway and started shouting “the time has come.” Sweetwater started getting together, and the people sitting next to us handed my wife and me a joint. It was some of the most potent grass I’ve had in months and months. The vibrations were flowing on stage and the grass was seeping into my brain as Sweetwater went into their last and absolutely most fantastic number. The jerk on the light tower went up to the top, partly undressed himself, dropped clothes to the ground, and pissed on the crowd. I couldn’t figure out if he was crazy or just a “Crazie,”  one of a rather theatrical band of young New York-based anarchists/street artists.

At any rate we were afraid he wanted to jump and, if he had, he could easily have landed in our laps. I looked back over the hill and the hordes had gone beyond being simply impressive, they had become oppressive. Everyone seemed to be grooving on the stage, the sounds and the great universal connection, but—maybe because of the grass, maybe because of our proximity to too many bad things coming down around us—my wife and I got up and left. We climbed over heads for twenty minutes until we found a spot up the hill by the make-shift restrooms to sit down. Always being one to take advantage of any situation, I decided to use the john once more. They were all full, and I don’t mean full of people.

The rain began once again as evening settled firmly on the hillside, and the music shifted well into high gear. I finally wised up and decided to throw a blanket down in the press tent We parked the duffle bag and decided to go look for some food for the baby. After all the walking we had done that day, a bus coming down the road, stopping and offering us a ride, seemed like the angels’ own chariot.

“Where’s this bus going?” 1 asked the other riders. “Who knows?” was the only reply I got. No one knew until we got there. “There” was back in Bethel where we had arrived that morning. No, the bus wouldn’t be going back up the hill tonight.

Tired, hungry, and disgusted, we only found consolation in a food stand open 24 hours. For two and half bucks we got two small cartons of milk, a ten-cent bag of potato chips, three five-cent doodles and a pack of cigarettes—not even my brand. The land around the tiny town was becoming as jammed as the hillside we had just left. We ate, rested a few minutes, and headed back up the hill where, a few miles away, a blanket, tent, and blessed sleep were waiting.

The rain was merciless. The night rolled on and down it came. There were no crickets, no chirping frogs. The only sounds we could hear were the driving wind and rain, ambulance sirens and occasional strains of Arlo Guthrie, Melanie or Joan Baez. We were warm and comfortable in that tent, feeling pity for hundreds of thousands sitting on the muddy hillside. We needn’t have. It was 3 a.m. when the tractor came and pulled the tent down. They needed to use it for a hospital. Bad acid, accidents, miscarriages. There was trouble. The first aid people couldn’t handle it They needed every shelter they could find, so we sat under a table in the empty field, and still the rain came. A new, smaller tent arrived and we tried to put it up, but some of the posts were missing; there would be no more nice warm press tent. And the rain kept coming. A little after 4 o’clock we fell asleep in the staff tent. We would have to go elsewhere in the morning, they told us. The staff tent was also to be converted to a hospital.

There was no sunrise really. It just slowly became morning. The rain hadn’t let up at all, and there was no more reason to stay. We wrapped the baby in a raincoat and blanket, stepped out into the deluge, and started the 3-1/2 mile trek down the hill where we thought we would catch the first bus home.

Gray is a mood and a temperament. The world was grey on Saturday morning: grey in feeling and in texture. The road was longer and longer with every step. Still the unceasing life-flow moved, both up the hill and down. The first night had washed out thousands but thousands more waited to take their places. The cars stretched out on the main road, immobile. People slept in them, huddled close for the familiar touch of warmth and comfort. Saturday awoke to find itself immersed in grey.

There were no buses. There would be no buses. There was no water. There were no working telephones. There were only thousands of tired people, all sick or disgusted but somehow happy, somehow satisfied in the spirit of uniqueness that had become Woodstock. Radios talked about “hepatitis,” “disaster area,” and “bad trips.” Figures were juggled as if they could evoke the real magic of it all for parents, friends and straights all across the continent. They warned not to come to Woodstock. They spoke in statistics about people, drugs, miles of cars, acres of mud, and hundreds of blown minds. The festival had become like heavy acid. It was elation. It was beauty and joy. But it was heavy and unending. There was no getting out of it once you were in. Everyone spoke in superlatives, but no one ever said it was good or bad. For many it was a beautiful dream they wanted to end, but there was no ending in sight. No buses. No cars. The only things that moved, moved on foot. Newcomers would drop their packs and stretch, telling how they had just walked 8 miles to get here, then look crushed when told they had 3 or 4 more miles to go. They would lift their packs and head off the hillside where they would find no food, no water and no space to sit within half a mile of the music.


The day passed and the sun came out. Through a series of miracles we got out of the area on Saturday and caught a lucky ride to New York with some kids from New England who had decided to spend the rest of their trip visiting the city. The hills rolled back in the angular dusk light and the clouds gathered for another night’s rain. The road reminded me of a scene from Godard’s Week End. The cars lined up, the bodies stoned on the roadside giving up any goal but their heads. Small talk and sharing became the intimate communication of the landscape of a new America. As we rode away from the Catskills, I thought about the people I’d seen and met, from town, from the State Police, from around the country. There had been something there to learn. Still, the A train never moved so slowly as it did that night.  The five flights up to our apartment never seemed so long, and Brooklyn—warm in Con Ed familiarity—had never felt so friendly.


Fifty Years Later

We are stardust, billion year old carbon

We are golden, caught in the Devil’s bargain

And we’ve got to get ourselves

Back to the garden 

As I look back on Woodstock through the lens of fifty years, it is clear to me that the cultural significance of the event is everything we thought it was back then. It really was three days of peace and music. The performers and crowd and the production crew all worked miracles that weekend to stage the first event of its kind in American popular culture history. It was completely understandable that over the next few years our g-g-g-generation became known as “The Woodstock Nation.”  

For me, though, looking back on Woodstock shows me clearly something I could not see at the time. I found the whole event to be frightening: literally terrifying. The entire time we were there all I could feel was dread that something terrible was going to happen. I was on high alert the whole time, unable to enjoy the music, relax with the vibe, or go with the flow. I could not sit there in that crowd without seeing every bum trip that entered my peripheral vision: every bad-ass city-bred 15-year-old with a knife and an attitude. I worried that our toddler son would be hurt or get sick. I worried that we’d have to witness nut cases taking nose dives off the light towers. I worried that small verbal altercations would turn into mob violence. I don’t know how aware I was that I was doing all this worrying. It was really more like being back in Vietnam, covered with mud and soaked by the monsoon, where the trick was to push on, do the job, accomplish the mission, damn the torpedoes. In hindsight, my experience at Woodstock was nothing more or less to me than a serious Vietnam “flashback,” a body memory of unending tension and the unending effort required to get through it and survive. I see clearly now that my year in the war had made it impossible for me to relax and enjoy even three minutes of peace and music while sitting in a crowd of half-a-million people. 

I am glad I had the chance to go to Woodstock. I’m glad there are recordings and a movie documenting the great performances of many of the greatest artists of my era. And I am glad that I can look back on the experience from my 8th decade and smile and enjoy it now like I could not at the time.  But don’t ever expect to see me in a crowd of that size, or even one-tenth that size, ever.  I’m a whole lot saner and better grounded now than I was in 1969, but even the wisdom of age does not rewire a brain that has become adapted to war.

Manhood and the Killing Thing

This essay was first published, in an earlier form, in my original “Genderwonky” blog. I then included it as a chapter in my memoirs book. In resurrecting “Genderwonky,” I am now returning this piece to it’s proper home.

The Rifleman

Until my wife decided to transition from female to male, I thought that war was the one situation in my life that would lead me most to question, contemplate, and refine my own ideas about manhood. After all, war is the archetypal context for testing courage and cowardice, strength and weakness, the litmus tests of masculinity. And, of course, there is the killing thing.  Men are supposed to kill,  at least be willing to do so, even if as a very last resort.

Our man-images are almost always killers, after all. Even Roy Rogers and Gene Autrey shot down a bad guy now and then, though I think the Lone Ranger always managed to shoot the pistols out of the bad guys’ hands. One can apparently avoid killing if one’s aim is good enough.
Really good men were not only reluctant to kill, but very reluctant: forced to it, after all. The Rifleman, Lucas McCain, was the widower farmer who lived outside of North Fork. A pinnacle of masculine goodness, he was tall, strong, God-fearing, a loving single-parent father. He wouldn’t hurt a flea, except when driven to it by confrontation with unadorned evil. And then his weapon, his simple rancher’s carbine, loosed its fateful lightning, week after week, round after round, and bad guys’ bodies filled the ditches and watering troughs and alleys and galleries of North Fork. Before the blood had stopped running, Lucas would stow his highly modified Winchester, with its large hand-loop lever modified to fire rapidly―a cowboy’s assault rifle―in his buckboard, then he’d grab his son, Mark, and ride home to complete the day’s chores.


The Rifleman television series was created by a master of the subject of violence and our cultural ambiguities about a man’s obligations to, and reservations against, life-taking. Sam Peckinpah  is best known for writing and directing The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs, and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.  All of his best-known works explore violence, especially men’s violence. I remember seeing Straw Dogs, certainly his most controversial work, in 1971. I thought, then, that the film was reflecting a national obsession with violence stimulated by seven or eight years of the Vietnam War. That same year the country encountered A Clockwork Orange, Dirty Harry, and The French Connection. But, for me, that was post-Vietnam. My developing years were informed by The Rifleman, not The Wild Bunch, and certainly not by Vietnam. Proper violence was the redemption of manliness and the essence of goodness. It contrasted starkly with the cruel, senseless, evil violence that brought suffering to the innocent.
My formative visions were in black-and-white. Bloodied black faces and club-wielding white sheriff’s deputies in Southern towns. Civil-rights marchers set-on by police dogs. And there were the newsreel visions of Nazi death camps, enemy’s films captured by the white hats, of bulldozers plowing naked bodies, stacked like cordwood, into vast trenches.  These evils demanded counter forces of good. They came in two very different forms. The fascist evil was countered by G.I.s, Tommies, and the French Resistance: the good guys. Our bombs were the good bombs, cast like the Rifleman’s carbine, only when evil demanded it. On the other hand, the evils of American segregation and racism were countered by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, by the Freedom Riders, by Martin Luther King, Jr., by a doctrine of non-violent confrontation. I was completely confounded by the competing rightness of the “Good-guy” force of the Allied military struggle over Nazism and Fascism versus the “soul force” of Gandhi’s spirit. I just could not figure out how to be a proper man. Would I walk quietly with a big stick, or be one to shout out loudly for what is right with empty hands, and a willingness to die for that right?
I did not want to enter the military if it meant participating in the war. I did not feel even slightly threatened by Uncle Ho. I was afraid of being killed or maimed. I was even more afraid of being incompetent as a man and getting someone else killed or maimed. This last fear, I realize now, was the fear that I might not be willing to do the killing thing when, or if, it became necessary. Oh, I was afraid of other sorts of unmanliness, too, such as physical weakness or clumsiness, or a lack of courage, but the Army pretty much trained those away.
On the rifle range in Basic Training I learned a trick. The pop-up steel targets could be knocked down more easily by aiming low. Either I would hit the target, or my round would land in front of it, kicking up a shower of sand and stones that, in turn, would hit the target and actuate the scoring mechanism. While I had been unwilling to “kill” targets on the bayonet training course, shooting into the sand and getting guilt-free scores on the rifle range suited me fine. And it won me a Sharpshooter’s Badge. Several months later, while training recruits on the machine gun course at Fort Leonard Wood, I discovered I could do the same thing with the M-60 machine gun. My moral pangs about sighting a weapon on a man could be alleviated by firing into the ground in front of the target.

Bong Son Plain

My company was attached to the 70th Combat Engineer Battalion.  Because we owned a fleet of dump trucks, we were used more often as a dump truck company and a general purpose combat engineer company than as a bunch of bridge builders. It was early in my year in Vietnam when the call came that my platoon would be working a mission in the Bong Son Plain, northwest of Qui Nhon. Bong Son was “Indian Country.” Not only were there numerous Viet Cong units, but whole regiments of North Vietnamese regulars were thought to be headquartered up there. The First Cavalry Division was engaged in a major campaign to secure this Province, and we were going to help.
My memories are vague. We were working on clearing forest in a low-lying, somewhat swampy area. I don’t remember other 70th Engineer folks being there, nor even any 2nd platoon folks from my company. There was a detachment from a Navy construction battalion (“Seabees”) with heavy equipment. We were working together with them preparing a landing zone or landing strip. Our trucks were hauling bundles of steel matting. Our guys were wielding chain saws, hand-excavating “dead-man” trenches, and burying huge logs to which they secured the matting.
I was in my usual position, as platoon machine gunner, on the headache board of a dump truck. However, the trucks were needed to continue hauling matériel, so I was told to prepare a small defensive bunker for the gun. I used a shovel to hollow out a shallow pit, and then I filled a bunch of sandbags and stacked them around the pit. There is where I set up the gun and the spare boxes of ammunition. Nearby there was another, similar ad hoc bunker where I think our platoon leader’s radio operator was set up. Throughout the day the drone of saws and bulldozers was enhanced by the constant buzz of distant machine guns, the crackle of small arms, and the concussive whoomps of mortars or artillery. The air overhead was buzzing with helicopters, and occasionally with the passing of jet attack fighters.
What happened next is so strangely embedded in my mind, that it’s hard to describe it without it seeming bizarre. I became aware of the whiz-thud sounds of bullets arriving around me before I was even aware of the sounds of the rifles shooting them. I feel as though I was frozen in time and I sat there on some sandbags looking around, trying to see who was shooting, and where they were shooting from. I realized they were right in front of me, maybe only 200 feet away inside the tree line. I couldn’t actually see people, just the quivering of the leaves and branches. Then some shadowy life movements I recognized as legs appearing occasionally between tree trunks and bamboo stalks.
I seemed to grasp all at once, but in extremely slowed-down time), that there were a couple or three snipers, perhaps more, perhaps many more, firing away in my general direction from the trees at the edge of the clearing. I did not know, and could not determine, if anyone else was shooting. The racket of the heavy equipment and chain saws was far louder than the rifle shots. Slowly I became conscious that someone, the lieutenant perhaps, was yelling at me to shoot the gun.
My responsibility as the only immediate defense of this site was crystal clear. I had to return fire-for-effect. I had to find people targets and kill them, or try to. But that was not possible. How in the world had I managed to get into this ridiculous position as the conscientious-objector-cum-platoon-gunner?  In frozen time I plotted and schemed, trying to find ways to do both: to kill without killing, to protect those who were counting on me, myself included, without violating the lives of people I couldn’t even see, let alone hate. Rice farmers in pajamas: that’s how I pictured them.
“Lower the gun, you’re shooting the trees!” The voice again? My platoon leader? I was shooting into the tree canopy. I suppose I thought I could scare them away. Like the Lone Ranger, I thought maybe my machine gun could chase away the threat without any moral dilemma. But the threat continued. Men scattered behind trucks and bulldozers, looking for cover. The trees quivered ahead of me as enemy rifles continued firing. “Lower the fuckin’ gun!!!” And I did. Not at the quivering trees and shadowy life-leg apparitions among the tree trunks and bamboo, but at the ground just at the tree-line, just in front of the “target.”
The deafening roar of Huey helicopters came from nowhere, from behind and above me, at the treetop level. My head filled with the chop-chop-chop of rotor blades, the whine of the turbines, and a chorus of chukka-chukka-chukka from the choppers’ door guns harmonizing with my own gun’s song. Three of them banked hard just above me. As the third gunship passed, the door gunner’s left hand, which had lain across the chamber cover of his M-60 suddenly shot an exuberant middle finger toward the tree line, then morphed into a “thumbs-up” followed immediately by an “A-OK” sign aimed directly at me. “We did it! You and I,” he seemed to be saying. “We got the bastards!”
That day in the Bong Son Plain ended quickly as the Cavalry literally moved in to rescue us. We were hustled back to our trucks and back up the long mountain passes to our base camp. There was no searching for enemy dead or wounded. That wasn’t our role. We had to rest up so we could come back the next day and keep on hacking out forest and swamp and laying down steel. There was no debriefing. There was nothing but talk among my platoon mates about what had happened, and then chow, and then sleep.
Many months later I would have another chance to try out how I might handle the killing thing. That happened completely differently. Time didn’t stop. There was no conversation in my brain about philosophy. There were no words in my mind at all. It wasn’t surreal. It was, in fact, all flesh-and-blood too real. There was no  wiggling or quivering of leaves or a movement of shadowy forms, it was the face of a man, a young man, not more than 25 feet from my own young man’s face. It was all so plain. Only afterward did my mind begin to create, conflate, digress, imagine, and remove itself from what had been uncharacteristically clear. Unbearably real.
For more than forty years these and other wartime incidents have kept me wondering about my manliness. I am not Gandhi, obviously. I am not MLK. These were the “real” men, in my estimation. Nonetheless, I am here and able to contemplate ethical vagaries, and other men are not. Did I prove my manhood in war, or did I fail it? I’ve never felt like the Lone Ranger, and “Mad Sam” Peckinpah never gave us any real insights into what it was supposed to feel like to be Lucas McCain.

Just Like a War Zone

First published in my memoirs volume, Warbaby, Talking About My Generation.  This was written in 1998 at a time that I was in the process of confronting the realities of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  This blog post is being published 18 years later. I can scarcely remember how I felt back then, and for that I am eternally thankful.

 

June 2, 1998. Two days ago the little town of Spencer, South Dakota, was reduced to rubble by a tornado. Today I listened to someone on the news who flew over Spencer remarking that the remains of the town looked “just like a war zone.” It’s a common phrase used to describe disaster areas. When we want to convey the utter devastation of a place, whether Spencer or the South Bronx, or Detroit after the ‘67 riots, we say it looks just like a war zone.

In my profession I have had many occasions to study hundreds of Union and Confederate photographs of Richmond, Petersburg, Fredricksburg, Mechanicsville, Hopewell, Cold Harbor, and other towns and countryside locations of Virginia taken during, or immediately following, the Civil War. Most of these photos depict landscapes so strange as to be surreal. Looking at familiar hillsides and roadways where I drive and walk routinely, I am disconnected from them by the depth of their devastation. Scarcely a tree stands. Grass doesn’t grow. Fields lay wasted and roads rutted. It all has a trampled, abused appearance. In many of the pictures there are people—haunted, defeated, exhausted people. Often bodies lie about the landscape, twisted in forms that no living shape could take. My home, Virginia, appears in ghostly form in prints from Mathew Brady’s glass plates. It looks just like a war zone.

This laying waste to a country shocked me as much as anything else in Vietnam. When I arrived in An Khe, the place looked like something out of National Geographic. Within a matter of weeks, a few months at most, it looked like some burned, tortured, brimstone-poisoned, post-volcanic landscape. I no longer noticed anyone in the fields with their buffalo. Bicycles were rapidly replaced by motor scooters driven by slicked-up pimps with decked-out baby-sans on back. Tea houses gave way to opium dens and whore bars and black-market stalls.  Trees and bamboo thickets were cleared by the thousands of acres with defoliants, bulldozers, rome plows, even napalm.

Villages became prisons for pawns needing not to be pacified, but, rather, to pacify both Uncle Sam and the VC in order to prevent their being laid waste. The economy was trashed. The culture was deeply wounded. The fields were flooded when the rains came because nobody was tending to the canals and sluices of the paddies. Roads became impassible because they were so deeply rutted by convoys of military vehicles day in and day out. Where we kept the roads paved, they became nearly useless for a passer-by who could be caught in the crossfire of those who fought to control the roads. Market days with their trips to neighboring towns disappeared. Holy days with their pilgrimages and temple visits vanished. The towns and temples themselves were often lost, or appropriated for other purposes.

As the trees were removed the thin topsoil that sustained the fields washed away in monsoon rains leaving behind the gullies, eroded, blood-red laterite of sterile tropical subsoil. When the rains stopped, any useful soil quickly baked to iron rust or blew away in the wind, depositing itself in the eyes, mouths, and hearts of anyone trying to live in that newly barren country. Families, communities, congregations, parishes, neighborhoods, and nations were swept aside by politics and war. Even the social, cultural, and spiritual landscape looked just like a war zone.

I have enjoyed hearing the stories of those who have traveled back to Vietnam, and to see their photo albums and slide shows. Many say that it is great to walk the vaguely familiar streets of Vietnam with a thriving and proud culture growing new in what was once a wasteland. But there remain many booby traps and mines. The forests and soil are saturated with poisons. Whole regions, populations, language groups, and ethnic groups have disappeared, been removed and shifted, resettled, and reprogrammed. Children have grown up scarred, physically and psychically mangled by war and its ongoing, inter-generational effects. I have not been back, but I need only think about my scant memories of Vietnam to know that, despite the changes of thirty-one years that have passed since I was there, many more lives will pass into the earth before that place is healed.

I was not so stupid or innocent as to think that my tour of duty in Vietnam would be a picnic. I was scared to go. I didn’t want any part of killing; even less of being killed. But, I thought, we are there to do some good. Maybe it is wrong-headed. Maybe, I thought, if elections were held, Ho Chi Minh might win. Who knows? But we would do what we could. We would purify the water, improve the agriculture, cure diseases, teach democracy, and point the way to prosperity. Okay, maybe I was naïve, but I don’t think I was alone.

So what is it that has taken the place of naïveté? I am not sure. Basically I am a sane, healthy, functioning human being with a life I am thankful for. But when I look into certain recesses of my mind all I can see are child prostitutes, hungry people, dead or crazed comrades, and ravaged countryside. When I try to make sense of it, to write it all off as an aberration, of politics gone awry, of a flaw of the human spirit that sometimes manifests itself on earth, I am brought up short. I think: This is me. This is my doing. This is the way we “helped” Vietnam. There is no arrangement or reason or meaning to it. It’s just death and disorder and boundless havoc. When I try to view my own past, it is as ghostly strange, lifeless, and unfamiliar as a Mathew Brady photograph. It looks just like a war zone.

War Baby

This essay, which served as the introductory chapter of my memoirs collection, was written in the late 1990s. At the time there was a reinvigoration of the 1980s punk culture which, from the perspective of someone raised in the 1950s, was a strange admixture of violent symbolism and latter-day hippie values. At the time, I was struggling with my own moral dialectic over abstract ideas of peace and violence.

I was a war baby, conceived on or near VE Day and born in December 1945 just months after the surrender of Japan. My father was in the Navy, a chief yeoman’s mate on a sea going tug out of Norfolk, looking for U-boats, rescuing sailors from hurricanes. My mother was a Navy clerical worker; she met my father in the Navy. My mother’s brother, Uncle Sonny, was a sailor: one of the unlucky ones who saw too much, experienced more war than human tolerance allows. He drank, broke up his marriage, left my cousins fatherless, drifted, drank more. I always liked him. He seemed more real than most men. My brother joined the Navy out of high school. My mother beamed with pride when he went to the Naval Academy Preparatory School. She so much wanted a son to become a naval officer, but he got married to a WAVE instead. He cruised the world, including a tour as member of the “Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club.” My folks couldn’t afford to send me to college without assistance, so I had to find a scholarship. I got one through the Navy ROTC; went to the University of New Mexico and spent the summer in San Diego at North Island Naval Air Station. I learned about anti-submarine warfare, flew in planes, went on ships, learned how to be a sailor. Then I dropped out, let my hair grow, learned how to play the guitar, then got drafted into the Army, and went to war.

I was born in the Naval hospital in Key West, though my grandma always said I had crawled out of a conch shell on the beach. She gave me conch shells for my birthdays. My father said I was born at Hemingway’s old table at Sloppy Joe’s. But I was born in the Navy. A baby sailor who was the baby of sailors in a family of sailors. A sailor baby who got drafted and became a soldier. My mother called me a “war baby.” I never thought of myself as a soldier or a sailor. As life unfolded I thought I was a writer, an artist, a photographer, a scientist, an anthropologist, a lover, a spouse, a father, a hippie, a freak, a professor. I never thought of myself as a war baby, except as a cute idea, a statement of demography, a generational positioning at the advance guard of the baby boom. Now I think of war a lot, and I realize I have always thought of war a lot. It’s like breathing; you don’t think about it because you’re already thinking about it. It’s the scenery, the background, the context of everything else, so you don’t pay it much attention. But I have always been at war; even at war with war.

Maybe that especially. In the 60s we called it “peace,” but I’m not sure any of us—us being war babies, boomers—know what peace is. We tried to create it as an antithesis of war, rather than simply its absence, and as an antithesis of war, it, too, became war: a war of soul-force, of moral high ground, of freaks versus pigs, the doves against the hawks. In our recent maturity we have practiced other wars: wars for justice, social equity, clean air. Business-people wars and environmental wars and feminist wars and anti-homophobe wars and wars on poverty and more wars on war. We have never been without war.

Germany surrendered and Japan prostrated itself in the glare of the nukes, but war didn’t end in 1945. Within moments we were embroiled in the Cold War, the Korean War, the War of Falling Dominos, Vietnam, Cuba, Grenada, and on and on. And there were the oil wars, from latter-day Suez crises to Desert Storm, and peace-keeping wars like Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo. The Cold War grew until the end of the 40s and then flourished through the entirety of the 50s. My childhood memories are dominated by Saturday matinees with re-runs of WWII newsreels and current newsreels of Korean battles, of Ike and Monty and Mac and all the other generals governing our provinces in Japan and Germany, beating back the Yellow Menace, the Red Menace, running the government, advising us to build bomb shelters. Kids’ movies were likely to be about some Menace, even the little Green Menace from Mars! America saved the world every time.

Every year was marked by a succession of parades filled with soldiers and sailors, tanks, jeeps, kids trying to blow Taps and not doing so well, and older kids giving 21-gun salutes. Then we fought the big war again when they held the Nuremberg trials and again when they caught Eichmann. Every evening for years, it seemed, the television showed the black smoke of the chimneys at Auschwitz, the captured Nazi films of bulldozers burying Jews by the thousands, and the skeletal hollow-eyed ghostly survivors, if they could even be called that. We began every morning with the Pledge of Allegiance, with the civilians’ salute, the hand to the heart. The same salute we used when they sang the national anthem at ball games—rockets’ red glare, bombs bursting in air—and which we assumed for the sour blowing of taps and the rifle salutes on Decoration Day, July 4th, and Armistice Day. I played the drums in the marching band, in a martial uniform with braids hanging from epaulets, and brass buttons and white gloves and a billed hat. The drum beat huge bruises on my leg as we marched and tapped out the cadences of war on every holiday and at every firemen’s parade and high school football game. Our civic recreation was patterned after 19th-century infantry maneuvers.

It was always during nap time in the first grade—usually on Mondays—that the sirens would go off and we had to get under our desks and wait for the world to blow up. I was a junior in high school the night we all went to bed with our hearts breaking our chests and our teeth grinding themselves to dust because Kennedy stared down Khrushchev and a bunch of Russian guys and a bunch of American guys put their keys in the slots and their fingers on the buttons and we all knew the last war had finally come.


Boys, by the time they were ten or twelve, got buzz cuts: crews, butches, burrs with white sidewalls, stuck up with Butch Wax or Crisco or Brylcreem. Military haircuts that showed you were a man who had been to war, who was capable and ready and willing to go to war. Soldiers wore their hair short to keep the lice away, and in a world in which nearly all men had been soldiers, boys had to wear their hair short in order to be men, to avoid being sissies. Only two kinds of males wore long hair in my childhood world. One kind was punks, hoodlums, bullies. I thought they were all violent and stupid, poor, working-class sons of coal miners and steel workers and foundry men. They were violent young punks living the truly hard life.  The other kind was just the opposite: the kind people meant when they talked about “long-hair” music. They were effete geniuses, artists, musicians, weirdos of a higher order. I found their images enticing: Leonard Bernstein waving his white trusses in the windstorms of his music, Albert Einstein thinking thoughts unthinkable to others, Albert Schweitzer in exotic lands enduring the unimaginable for selfless service. I dreamed of long hair. I read stories about Wild Bill Hickock with his long golden curls, and I relished my grandma’s tales of selling lotteries at Buffalo Bill’s carnival. Jefferson was my ideal and he wore a ponytail. Washington was the ultimate manly man and had a wig. Sampson had long hair until it got cut off, then he was a weakling. Jesus had long hair, for Christ’s sake. You gonna to call him a sissy?

Like all middle-class American boys of the 40s and 50s I had toy soldiers and toy guns. Metal models of tanks and plastic or balsa-wood models I built of warplanes and warships. When we played, we played cowboys or war or space, and, being the oldest, I got to be sheriff or captain or commander. Boys, men, were supposed to aspire to ranks and wear badges and bars. I read the World Book religiously, and if you had asked me a few years ago I would have told you that I mostly read about collecting colorful postage stamps or how to identify spiders, but I really read about uniforms and insignia and warplanes and ships. I joined first the Cub Scouts then the Boy Scouts, and if you had asked me a few years ago, I would have told you it was about camping, tying knots, survival in the woods, outdoors fun. I remember now that it was about uniforms, ranks, assemblies, salutes, codes, pledges, merit badges, sashes, hazing, hierarchy, and order: preparation for war.

My mother let my hair grow until I was about three years old. When I got my first haircut she put those locks in a cigar box, and she still has them somewhere. Like Samson I lost my power so that I could wear the style of Power. Somewhere there is a photograph of me with a huge head of blue-black curly locks and a sailor suit. I always thought that combination worked fine, but the Navy wouldn’t have appreciated it. I have another photograph of myself at age four, in 1949, with very short hair. My hair stayed short until the autumn of 1964. Nearly every week of childhood included a trip to the barbershop. By the time I was a teenager I came to enjoy those haircuts. Italian barbers would wield straight razors and pretend to be sculpting something unique from your hair, but everyone always looked the same as everyone else when they got out of that barber’s chair. It was fun being talked to like a man by other men cutting your hair or awaiting their turn. Being asked about baseball or politics or which branch of the service I was going to go into. It was attention being paid to you as an individual as the barber deftly carved your head and your identity to be like everyone else’s. My barbers were the Feruzzo brothers.  One of them bought a new Corvette, ran it into a telephone pole. Nobody was hurt, but it made great barbershop conversation. Don’t remember his first name, but he did the best razor cuts.

I dropped out of college at the end of my first year after that first summer I owed the Navy in San Diego, learning the arts of war: how to kill submarines, buying beer out of a machine in the Bachelor Officers Quarters. The fall of  ‘64 I spent back in Pittsburgh hanging out on the campuses of Pitt and Carnegie Tech with the writers, poets, artists, and musicians. I gravitated toward the Bohemian aesthetes. I wrote dense and sophomoric poetry and played Renaissance music and folk music and let my hair grow until it rolled over my ears slightly and brushed the top of my turtlenecks. By the following year my hair had begun to regain its locks of curls, and I had grown a beard and mustache. This was unheard of. I was seen as some sort of anarchist, un-American, foreign-influenced, clearly dangerous. People would stop me in the street and ask if I were a beatnik or a Seventh Day Adventist. Or they’d just throw rocks and say “Get a haircut!” and call me a “sissy.” But then I got drafted. The big deal when you get drafted is the haircut. They line you up and the barbers tease you. They put an electric razor on your head and, without finesse or further discussion, they shave you to peach fuzz. No wonder the barbers of my adolescence thought they were sculpting individual masterpieces with each razor cut.

My high school teachers—at least the male high school teachers—all wore crewcuts and all were veterans and reservists. The first day of a class was always about the same. A crew-cut math teacher or civics teacher or history teacher would come into the room. He would announce that he was a marine or a soldier of some kind and he had fought in Korea or the Philippines, or Iwo Jima, and if anyone wanted to mess with him, now was the time to do it. Now, the first day of class was the time to decide if anyone had the balls to screw with the buzz-cut veteran macho-men teachers. And they would emphasize the point by slamming a book on their desk, or pitching a piece of chalk at some poor coalminer’s kid with long hair and a black leather jacket whose only thoughts were of his Indian motorcycle. Then, when the point had been made that they were tough men you didn’t want to mess with, they’d smile and tell a slightly off-color joke, and everyone would giggle nervously and decide this teacher was okay after all. They would be human and okay to get along with just so long as nobody mouthed off. Just so long as we all sat in our seats, in rows and columns and ranks and files, with our backs straight and our eyes straight ahead, and nobody chewing gum. To really make the point, though, two or three of these ex-marine teachers would occasionally grab one or two of the tough-guy hoods with leather jackets out by the bus stop at the end of the first day of classes. They would drag him behind the school building and cut his hair with dull scissors. You could wear the haircut of a warrior or you could suffer the consequences of living in a world of easily offended warriors.

This is the world I was born into. This is the world that the retro-punk youth of the 80s and 90s developed some fantastic nostalgia for. But what if a bunch of older guys were to rip their nose plugs out and shave their heads and make them stand up straight and beat snare drums in a marching band, wearing orange uniforms with epaulets, and bruise their legs and listen to sour notes barely sounding like Taps on a frozen November 11th, year after year after year? What then? Would that be cool? Or what if they tried to sleep, night after night, their rest robbed by fears they cannot identify, anxieties nobody understands? What if their legs were blown skyward by a Bouncing Betty, their balls with them? What if they had visions of carrying piles of body bags that leaked dark ooze? What if they spent an entire year in mud up to their ears with lead pelting their helmets, dismembering their friends, reducing their poetry to idiocy? What if their uncles came home from war and drank themselves into oblivion and died alone thirty years later?

This was the world I was born into. No retro-chic fashions, old movies and music can make it sensible. It was a world built on war, ready for war. It is a world, thank Heaven, that has nearly disappeared. But I see it trying to return. I see its potential rebirth in those who weren’t there before, and who think it’s cool. I see it in punker violence and warmongering young studs who yearn to kick some tail, any tail. I see it in those who have begun to find some hint of romance in the Vietnam experience, and who, because they are young, think that the sixties were silly, or who think that hippies drive pickups and listen to Led Zeppelin. Or who think that my generation was all about rock-and-roll music or getting high or free love.

That is not what my generation is about. It is about war: the love of war, the hatred of war, the myths of war, the cowardice and heroism and unthinkable pain of war. We are not “peaceniks.” We are the war babies.

Postscript: Note that this was written after the Gulf War but well before the beginning of the later and current hostilities in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Was I being prescient, or are we simply fated to have another war somewhere every ten or twenty years?  A good friend points out: “Before 1941 we had a ration of four and a half years of Peace for every year of War.  Since 1941 the ratio is less than one year of Peace for every year of War, and children under the age of 10 have never known Peace.”