Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Terror


If a man with a handgun openly displayed on his hip walked out onto the main street of Dodge City when the town’s cops were Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson, that man was subject to being shot dead on the spot by the marshal or his deputies. How have we come to the place where a disturbed teenager or ‟lone wolf” nutjob with a history of domestic violence and mental illness can carry a weapon of war into a WalMart or a public school? These sorts of incidents would never–NEVER–have happened in the days when I was plinking tin cans with my homeboy buddies back in the early 1960s. Later, I lived on the mean streets of New York City’s Lower East Side in one of the Big Apple’s truly dark periods (late 60s and early 70s). I saw a man felled—probably murdered–by a knife-wielding gang, and I can remember many episodes of running my ass off on my way home from work to get into my locked front door before a band of bad guys could catch me, hurt me, and take my money. It was a tough time in the big city, but in my years in New York, I never ever heard a gunshot. Today, in my quiet, peaceful hometown of Richmond Virginia, I wake up nearly every day to the news that some toddler, or school kid or grandma was shot down in their front yard in some neighborhood a few blocks away. I hear the nearly nightly rapid-fire discharges of 9-mm pistols with high-cap magazine issuing from the windows of cars cruising down the streets of my quiet Victorian neighborhood. Teenagers are gunning each other down daily.

I have no issue with a human being exercising their natural right to protect themselves and their families with a firearm, but since the 1990s gun owners and freedom lovers have been absolutely brainwashed into thinking that the right to keep and bear arms is meant to be totally unfettered, completely unregulated, and that is the result of the National Rifle Association’s dance with the Devil; that is, the firearms industry and its very deep pockets. Our individual freedoms do not grant us the rights to impede others’ pursuits of life, liberty and happiness by sentencing our entire country to an endless round of terrorism from unstable people armed with weapons of war.

I bought my first firearm in 1962 with the help of the NRA through its joint program with the U. S. Government known as the Civilian Marksmanship Program. The gun was a Springfield rifle, model of 1903, a Government-surplus weapon of the type that would be carried by ‟doughboys” when they went to fight ‟over there” in The Great War. It took my teenage body a bit of work before I was strong enough to carry all that steel and walnut, and to not wince at the punishment my shoulder was subject to when I fired a 30-06 round at a target.  My second gun was also from government surplus. It was a .45 caliber semi-automatic pistol, Model of 1911. My Navy ROTC unit armorer, a Marine Corps gunnery sergeant, worked on my pistol, exchanging parts from our armory, to make that gun more suitable for me to use when firing in competition against the shooting teams of other universities. It was good enough that I won my event against the team from the Air Force Academy!

As a teen and a young adult, I loved shooting and shooting sports. I never hunted anything, although that same Gunny once took me on one of his favorite forays careening around the New Mexico desert in a jeep shooting at jackrabbits with a pistol.  I didn’t care to kill anything, but I enjoyed deploying the power of the gods to smite soda bottles and cans at a distance. As a young soldier and husband awaiting the birth of my son, I was assigned duty on the machine-gun training range at the Army Engineer School at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. There my job was to help maintain safe practices on the range as trainees learned how to operate the potent M60 gun. The day I arrived at my new unit in Vietnam, I was handed my new ‟best friend,” the enormously heavy and awkward (but highly lethal and accurate) M14 rifle. I was also asked about my experience with the M60 and was immediately assigned duty as machine-gunner for my combat engineer platoon.

Both the M14 and M60 use the same 7.62mm NATO ammo: a hefty 30-caliber high-power round. I found myself going out on missions armed with a heavy rifle, an even heavier machine gun, at least two 20-round magazines of ammo for the rifle, two bandolier belts of ammo for the machine gun, a beefy tripod on which to mount the gun, and at least one box of additional ammo belts to feed the gun in case of enemy ‟contact.” The only good thing about being in command of such enormous firepower was that I had an assistant gunner to help me, and we went on our missions in the backs of trucks. While I always felt incredibly fortunate to be in a combat engineer outfit rather than infantry, at least those weary foot soldiers got to carry one of the new-fangled very lightweight M16 rifles which shot the relatively speedy but tiny 5.56 bullets.

Months later, I was transferred to a new job at battalion headquarters, where I worked in the ‟S4” yard, the heavily secured zone where combat-priority materiel were stored. I often found myself being the sole person on night duty at the yard. There was a .45 auto pistol in a holster and web belt that hung on a hook inside the S4 tent. My immediate superior, a staff sergeant, asked me if I knew how to use it. I told him about my NROTC shooting squad days and he encouraged me to wear that pistol and shoot anyone who tried to come around and ‟requisition” materiel from the yard without proper paperwork, even if it was ‟the colonel himself.” Occasionally I had to drive out into ‟Indian Country” accompanying a truck loaded with construction supplies for building helicopter landing zones or forward artillery fire bases. The sergeant encouraged me to carry the pistol in those cases.

I was very fortunate in that my year of duty in the war zone was relatively free of serious combat episodes. Our base was routinely rocketed and mortared. Our trucks were peppered with sniper fire. We had to search, find, and disarm booby traps—what today would be called IEDs—along the roads we travelled, but heavy firefights were not part of my experience. Nonetheless, I know for a fact that my having been armed and trained with both an automatic weapon (the M60 gun), and a semi-automatic pistol (the 1911) saved my life and the lives of others.

Once I was out of the Army, I had no interest in owning a gun at first. I was trying to find a normal life with my family. Besides, I was living in New York City, and guns were just not available, and the consequences of being caught with a firearm were serious. Eventually, I tired of city life, moved to the Virginia countryside, and renewed my old love of shooting. I reunited with the NRA by joining up so I could read the monthly editions of The American Rifleman magazine. The NRA had always been a patriotic and somewhat conservative organization, but its primary focus was marksmanship, gun safety, and education.  In the late 70s this began to change. Rather than simply informing members about various state, local and national laws or proposals related to gun ownership and shooting sports, the NRA transformed itself into a lobbying organization. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the NRA became more and more extreme in its efforts to affect legislation and advocate for the complete freedom for citizens to own all sorts of firearms while fighting any efforts at regulation or restraint. Their political stances moved very sharply to the right, and they became an unabashedly partisan organization.

I could no longer read The American Rifleman without becoming furious. The drumbeat set up by The NRA was quickly reflected in all the gun press as enthusiasts’ magazines, technical journals, shooting-sports reviews and other gun-related media began reciting often nasty partisan and contemptuous language ridiculing anybody or anything vaguely to the left of center and promulgating paranoid conspiracy theories of upcoming gun-grabbing forays by Democratic leaders. It is in the writings of many of the gun magazines of the 90s that I find the beginnings of the ugly ironic rhetoric that we now associate with the sort of alt-right ‟deplorables” who gang up on any internet ‟snowflake” post that might favor gun control, women’s equality, civil rights, or common decency. While it is certainly the case that much of the incivility in today’s rightist language is clearly a desperate reactionary response to advances of the past few decades in the civil rights of people of color, women, GLBT folks, and immigrants, the pattern (and patter) of the discourse is one that I feel was presaged and shaped by NRA’s CEO Wayne LaPierre and his take-no-prisoners, make-no-compromises, philosophy beginning in 1991. This was the very approach taken by the GOP’s Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich beginning in 1995, and it has remained the dominant attitude of the American right ever since.  It is the dangerous and tiresome song that is sung by ‟gun-rights” activists every time another mass murder takes place. Gingrich is a lifetime member of NRA and a longtime fan of LaPierre. When we look around today and see ourselves swamped by the powerfully divisive nature of our contemporary politics, I believe it began with Newt Gingrich’s tenure as Speaker, and his strategy came straight from the the pro-gun-lobby strategy of NRA’s LaPierre.

I cannot go to WalMart and purchase an M60 machine gun. The laws of the United States do infringe my right to own a machine gun. They just make it expensive and very difficult to do so, and they require a strong measure of accountability on the part of those who choose to own such weapons.  I guarantee you that, even though I am trained and experienced in the use of a machine gun, I cannot own one and would be subject to some deadly consequences at the hands of law enforcement if I tried to carry one in public. An AR-15—the civilian version of the M16 military assault rifle—is the weapon of choice by most mass murderers in America these days. (That said, they could be equally efficient in affecting their evil intentions with a much cheaper and arguably less finicky Kalashnikov AR-47 or one of the many variants easily purchased any day in our country). The difference is that the machine gun is fully automatic while the assault rifles are simply semi-automatic. 

The M60 can fire 600 rounds a minute, while the AR-15 can only fire about 90 rounds a minute in the hands of an average experienced shooter with 3 loaded 30-round magazines. Obviously 600 rounds a minute in a crowded ‟soft target” situation could do unimaginable carnage before the barrel of a machine gun overheats or the ammo runs out. It is unimaginable because it has never happened. Not in America. The ‟right” to keep and bear machine guns has been effectively infringed by the government, as it should be. Is a fire rate of only 90 rounds a minute so much more acceptable? Isn’t Congress an eensy-teensy bit allowed to infringe the rights of some gun owners sometime? I would love to be able to ‟plink” with an M79 grenade launcher and I really enjoyed learning how to fire a shoulder-mounted rocket launcher with a High-Explosive Anti-Tank rocket at an old tank hulk back in basic training or A.I.T.  Weapons of war can be fun, but, alas, my right to keep and own such toys have been infringed by Congress, and I can’t play soldier in my back yard.

This notion that gun-owners’ rights are absolutely not infringable is a very new thing. It has nothing to do with the history of firearms in this country, nor is it something that was ever conceived by the authors of the second amendment. It did not come about until hardcore reactionary nuts like Wayne LaPierre and Newt Gingrich got their grips on the country’s conservative politics. This is nothing but libertarianism taken to its most absurd limits, and it is not a perspective that was shared by any of our country’s founders. It is certainly correct to say that the second amendment was designed to protect individual communities and states from despotic leaders. Remember that tories and British troops quartered themselves on American colonists’ farms and in their houses and seized their firearms and their provisions. The second amendment assured citizens of the young new nation that they could keep their muskets. It was never intended to mean that any citizen of any sort in any instance could wield the power to murder dozens of other citizens in a moment. This is a perversion of our nation’s sacred Bill of Rights by fanatics, and it must end now.

To my libertarian, freedom-loving, unlimited-gun-rights-advocating friends, I beg you to invoke your better sense and drop this idiotic facade of unrestrained firearms rights being somehow woven into our historic fabric as a free people. That is bullshit and you need to stop consuming it. It is killing our children and grandchildren, and it is destroying our country. The terrorism of mass murder continually moves us closer to, not further from, authoritarian rule and the loss of more personal freedoms. Your AR-15s are much more likely to be seized with each new homicidal horror, and it won’t be by snowflake liberals. It will be by your neighbors when they are sick to death of this idiocy, or by some ‟law-and-order” autocrat who can’t tolerate dissent or resistance by mere citizens. Please support strong, appropriate gun laws everywhere before we no longer have any liberty left to protect.



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.”

The Lotus Is a Flower


The Lotus (Sanskrit and Tibetan padma) is one of the Eight Auspicious Symbols and one of the most poignant representations of Buddhist teaching. The roots of a lotus are in the mud, the stem grows up through the water, and the heavily scented flower lies pristinely above the water, basking in the sunlight. This pattern of growth signifies the progress of the soul from the primeval mud of materialism, through the waters of experience, and into the bright sunshine of enlightenment. 

Nitin Kumar in “Exotic India Arts” 


It was April 1967. I had been in-country for eight months, and I had had only a single day pass into An Khe, and no other free time or R and R leave. But my turn had come, and before I knew it I was on a C-130 transport bound for Cam Ranh Bay where I checked into a brand new barracks and spent my first night in Vietnam sleeping inside a real building.  The following morning I was on an airplane bound for Singapore.

Like most guys heading out to an exotic Asian port-of-call for R and R, I had planned meticulously how I would satisfy my deepest cravings as soon as I hit Singapore. These were not what you might think. I was tired by the time I finally checked into my hotel, so I called and asked if there were 24-hour room service. Assured that there was, I placed an order and requested a wake-up call—for 3:00 a.m.  At 3 in the morning I was awakened by front desk. Within minutes there was a knock at my door. I tipped the waiter generously and, after he left, I sat in bed and nearly cried with joy as I ate my steak, drank a tall glass of fresh milk, and, for dessert, sipped a double Chivas Regal on the rocks. I was in the lap of luxury. All my needs were fulfilled. Well, maybe not all.

The following evening I took up with a rowdy crew of Royal Australian Air Force fellows who invited me to join them in their favorite Singapore sport: brothel-hopping! The idea of this game, or so they told me, was to have fun, drink and eat well, get some attention from some pretty women, and do it all for no more than the cost of a few shared cab fares. Well, I was very low on funds, so a night of cheap entertainment sounded like just the right thing to do.

We met at our arranged rendezvous—there were four of us—and began by hailing a cab. One of the RAAF guys—our self-designated “fearless leader”—asked the driver to take us to the “best brothel in town,” and off we went. Now, in Singapore in 1967 (as in 1867 and, no doubt, 1767 as well), a cabby hauling a load of foreign soldiers or sailors to a brothel was simply all in a day’s work. I was feeling kind of nervous, however. This was not something I was experienced at, and I really didn’t know what to expect. My newfound friends had not told me precisely what it was we were about to do.

We arrived at our destination, disembarking in the circular driveway of an elaborate Colonial mansion. At the door we were met by two Chinese “gentlemen.” They were well-dressed, well-mannered, and very, well, large.  Our fearless leader asked our cabby to wait and gave him a large tip to encourage him to do so.

We were ushered inside by a middle-aged woman dressed in exquisite Chinese high-fashion silk brocade. We were led to a lavish Victorian parlor room with dimmed lighting and plush furnishings. As we each took up a place on the overstuffed chair or settee of our choice, a beautiful young woman appeared and asked us if we would care for some refreshment. In minutes we each clutched a cocktail or a large glass of fine whiskey as a couple more beautiful young women arrived bearing plates of delicious Chinese appetizers: dumplings and shrimps and things I could not identify. All delicious.

And then it was time for the “main course.” One by one the working women appeared. Scantily dressed, mostly in negligees and harem gowns and filmy lingerie. They circulated around us like gentle sharks around fidgety prey. They would touch each of us as they passed and then, relying on whatever radar their professional experience had instilled in them, they zeroed in on us and took up places alongside us. More beverages were delivered, along with plates of fine sweets and pastries, both Asian and European types.

The sex workers were clearly experts at their trade. They were mostly Chinese women but there were also exotic racial blends. Singapore was famous as a world crossroads of cultures with beautiful women carrying mixed heritages of beauty from the Asian, African, and European continents. Being neither intimidating nor shy they knew how and where to touch, stroke, glance, nudge, and smile. They could not be, and would not be, ignored. After all, they were the reason we were there, weren’t they?

Apparently not. As one very appealing young lady’s fingers began to dance precariously close to my vulnerabilities—did I mention I had been in the jungle for the last 8 months?—Fearless Leader stood up abruptly and announced, “These women are too old and ugly. Let’s go find a better brothel!” On cue the other RAAF chaps jumped to their feet. It took me a minute to realize I was about to be abandoned, then I, too, leapt up, and quickly followed the crowd out the front door. Our cabby was waiting. Thank Heaven for that, because the “doormen” who had so politely greeted us were looking quite unfriendly as we jumped into the taxi and drove off.

Once in the cab, Fearless Leader told the cabby that the women were below our standards, and hoped that he could recommend a higher-class place for us to try out. Now I was beginning to understand the essence of “brothel-hopping.” As promised, we were doing this to get free drinks, free food, lots of attention from some beautiful women, and to spend nothing more than cab fare. The “main course” was not on the menu. We were in it for the appetizers! Well, I thought, that’s a neat game. But I couldn’t get the ugly looks of the guards from that last brothel out of my mind. This was also about danger and adventure, and I had plenty of that back where I was coming from. I was beginning to have some doubts about “brothel-hopping!”

Our next stop was a much less fancy building on the exterior—almost a retail establishment by the looks of it. At the door, once again, there stood two large gents. Our cabby greeted them as old friends or relatives. And, once again, a madam arrived at the door to escort us to the inner sanctum. The arrangements here were a bit different. The large room we entered was laid out like an old British men’s club. There were several other customers already present. Large tables were scattered around, each surrounded by big chairs and a scantily clad lady or two. There was a stairway ascending to a second-floor balcony, and there were working ladies standing along the entire length of the stairs, each showing her best selling points.

We were escorted to a table near the stairway. Our table was already set with trays of food, glasses, pitchers of water, and fine linens. Within minutes beverages began to appear. Once again we ate, we drank, and we enjoyed the focused attention of the establishment’s employees. And, once again I was caught offguard—perhaps because I was working on my fourth glass of scotch—when Fearless Leader announced loudly that this was a “second-class whorehouse” and that he’d “be damned to spend even ten cents for one of these skags.” The RAAF chaps were instantly on their feet and heading toward the door.

I did my best to catch up with them, and as I came out the front door, it was evident that our cabby and the door guards had enlisted some friends There were four mean looking gents standing between us and the cab. The largest one stepped right up to Fearless Leader and said, “Perhaps you need a little more time to select one of our ladies. Surely at least one of you has found a companion for this evening?”

“Yes,” I shouted quickly, “I have!” The RAAF guys stood frozen in their spot beside the taxi. They were very quiet and very nervous. At that moment the “madam” took my arm in hers and tugged me gently back toward the club. The cabby opened the door and my “friends” climbed in and drove away. I never saw them again. Back inside I was led back to the table where we had been sitting. In a few minutes, I was again accompanied by the woman who had been gaining my full attention just at the time we were interrupted by Fearless Leader’s signal to abandon ship. And with her came Madame Madam! Now it was all about negotiations and business terms. My new friend—her name was Mei—would accompany me to my motel and stay the night. The madam would provide us with a private taxi for the ride home. The driver was another very large Chinese gentlemen.

This was all new to me. “Mei” is a very common name and nickname for young Chinese girls. It means “Flower.” But my escort for the evening was not a young girl. I suspected she was at least ten years my senior. She was attractive in a worldly way, but mostly, fortunately for me, she was a consummate professional. She knew what we were going to do with the rest of our night. I had no idea.

Just Sit!

When we arrived at my motel room, Mei began immediately to undress. It was no strip-tease, just an economy of motions needed to transform from dressed to undressed—totally undressed—in about a minute. I was completely mesmerized by the mature, post-child-bearing, but taut fit body of this woman. She stood there a moment and let me just look. She was completely naked but for a simple necklace chain with a small carved stone figurine around her neck. She then turned her attention to me. Somebody had to. I was standing there like a dummy not knowing where to begin. She began by unbuttoning my top shirt buttons, but I told her I could do the rest. Soon I was stripped to my skivvies, but she quickly indicated I would have no need for those, and off they came.

Mei took my hand and led me straight to the bathroom where she turned on the shower, adjusted the temperature, and ushered me in. She proceeded to lather up a wash cloth with a bar of soap and then to wash me thoroughly from head to foot. Now don’t go imagining that this was some sort of sensuous foreplay meant to get me ready for what was to come. Not at all. It was simply washing. She then washed herself equally thoroughly. We dried ourselves off and proceeded to the bed.

Mei did not speak much English, and I didn’t then speak any of the Chinese languages. Nonetheless we found we could communicate easily enough with gestures and a few shared words. Still, it took me quite a while to figure out just what she was getting at as she instructed me as well as she could to assume a certain position. It was not a position I had ever been in before, though I did seem to recall seeing something similar in an illustrated edition of the infamous Kama Sutra.

Once I managed to find my place, we, well, we had sex. Sounds kind of clinical, I suppose, but it wasn’t. Nor was it any of those earthy, passionate, grunty-steamy, monosyllabic euphemisms we often use for sex. And it certainly wasn’t “making love.” What it was was competent, appropriate, enjoyable, relaxing, and—I think I mentioned that Mei was a consummate professional. Clearly, she knew her business.

As I felt myself beginning to drift off, still entwined with this stranger’s body, Mei expertly disengaged herself and popped to her feet. She extended her hand, motioned me out of bed, and, once more, led us off together to the shower for another thorough cleansing. After we had dried ourselves again, Mei walked back out to the bed, removed two pillows, and plopped them side-by side on the floor. She then walked back to the bathroom and re-emerged with two small face towels. She walked over to one of the pillows, and in an amazingly fluid motion, dropped down into a seated position on one of the pillows, folding her legs into a sort of pretzel that I knew was often called “the full lotus.”

She gestured to the pillow beside her and said “You sit here.” With much less grace I took a seat, awkwardly crossing my legs, knees pointing skyward. She chuckled at me and helped me rearrange my legs into what I many years later learned is called “the adepts pose.”  This wasn’t completely novel to me. I had some familiarity with Asian religions partly through my youthful fascination with the “Beatniks.” I had read Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, and much of Ginsberg’s poetry. I had become somewhat fascinated with Asian arts and culture, and, in preparing for coming to Vietnam, one of the books I had read was Buddhism by Christmas Humphries. I had already pegged the little female figurine on Mei’s necklace as a Buddhist icon. Apparently Mei wanted to practice her meditation, much as American Christians might pray before going to sleep. I was willing to learn something new, and I figured I would only be in my uncomfortable position for a matter of minutes.

Mei instructed me to place the tip of my tongue against the back of my upper incisors and to relax my mouth in an opened position. She then placed the small face towels on each of our laps. At first I thought this was to cover up our private parts as a gesture of modest respect for the meditation, but that wasn’t it. The tongue-on-the-teeth thing meant that once engaged in meditation, there was a pronounced tendency to drool! The little towels caught the flow. She placed my hands, palms up, on my knees, fingers gently curled, and said, “Just sit!” Within minutes I was fidgeting. “Just sit,” she reminded me.

After a while I felt my body begin to relax. I felt more relaxed than I had since arriving in Vietnam. But my mind was full of thoughts and questions. I was thinking about my wife and baby, wondering if I should feel guilty sitting here naked on the floor next to a prostitute. I decided I shouldn’t. I was pretty sure Holly would have understood. I turned to take a better look at Mei. She seemed to be totally lost in her own mind, or soul, or wherever it was someone goes when they do whatever it was she was doing.

“Just sit!” Her eyes were half closed and she did not move, but she was well aware that I was not simply “sitting.” I tried, once again, to return to that relaxed state. And then it was morning.

“What the heck?” I thought, and might have muttered. Suddenly I was aware that daylight was streaming through the windows and Mei and I were still sitting on pillows on the floor. We had been there all night. I had slept that way, but Mei appeared just as she had so many hours ago. Her eyes were half open, attentive. She knew I was awake and, without comment she stood straight up and reached her hand to me. I tried to stand, but my legs were nearly frozen in place. Mei was laughing at me. Eventually I got my legs moving and she pulled me up to my feet.

Without another word or gesture, this new acquaintance and mentor led me straight to the bed, arranged me into another interesting position, and, once again, we had sex. This time was even better. Still not love-making, but, perhaps, friend-making. And when we were finished we, once again, immediately trotted off to the shower.

We dressed and Mei gathered up the small bag she had brought along. I paid her the remainder of what we had agreed on and a decent tip, and then asked her if she would allow me to buy her breakfast. She simply shook her head to say “No.”

Then she astonished me. She leaned forward and kissed me warmly on my cheek and swiftly and without comment placed her necklace with the small stone figure around my neck. As I was gazing at it and wondering what the heck this was all about, Mei simply said “Bye-bye,” and walked out the door and out of my life.

I wore Mei’s necklace for the next couple months around my neck along with my dog tags.  When I came back home from Vietnam I continued to wear that necklace. I discovered eventually that the figure was Kuan-Yin, the Buddhist bodhisattva that symbolized compassion. Kuan-Yin is a feminized avatar of the  Indian Buddhist saint Avalokiteshvara. In China and Southeast Asia Kuan-Yin plays a role much like that of the Mother Mary in Catholicism, and I can remember one temple in Vietnam with idols of Mary and Kuan-yin flanking the entrance door. Kuan-Yin is a protecting spirit, and I felt protected by Mei’s kind act for the rest of my tour of duty.

In fact, when I returned to my company from Singapore, I had to report to the Sergeant Major who informed me that I was being transferred. No longer would I be serving with a combat engineer platoon. Instead, I was to be acting company clerk for two or three weeks, and then I was to move up to 70th Engineer battalion headquarters. There I would serve out the last three months of my Vietnam year as a combat matériel supply clerk for the S4 officer.

Somewhere along the line I lost the prized necklace Mei had given me. I believe that the chain simply broke and it slipped away somewhere, perhaps to be found by a passer-by.

Postscript: I came home from Vietnam in the late summer of 1967. Within two years I began having problems with anxiety and panic attacks. I soon began trying to control my problems by finding that very relaxed state I had experienced sitting cross-legged on the floor next to Mei. By 1970 I had begun to consider myself a sort of Buddhist, and for the next six years I studied books on the subject and learned a variety of techniques to help my meditation. On several occasions, after returning to college to complete my education, two of my professors routinely took me with them on trips to visit various Buddhist temples and monasteries in Virginia, D.C. and Maryland. I toyed with the idea of joining a monastery, but was determined to finish my college education in Asian Studies. I did spend several evenings in two different Buddhist temples—one of the Therevada school and one of the Mahayana school—sitting with monks in meditation. I remember the first time I joined the monks at the Mahayana temple. The Japanese monk in charge of the evening’s meditation session pointed me to a place on a bench with others already seated. He was unsure as to what my experience might have been in doing meditation. He told me to just sit as relaxed as I could, with my eyes half closed, and my mind clear and tranquil. He finished his quick lesson by repeating, “Just sit!”