Jon Wolfman’s Open Call for our recollections of the veterans we’ve encountered in our lives sends me in two directions: family and friends and strangers. First of all I grew up on John Wayne and Gregory Peck movies about World War II and I played army from the age of six on. I was supposed to be the first kid in our family to graduate from college and my five year plan in high school was to graduate from the Air Force Academy, fly combat missions in Vietnam, go into the test pilots program at Edwards Air Force base and then NASA astronaut training so that I could fly the Shuttle. In October 1967 a funny thing happened on Haight Street and it didn’t quite work out that way. Instead I spent nearly fours years as a federal fugitive. I lucked out and after the US Attorney dropped the charges I never served a day in prison or the US Armed Forces.
Family: My Dad was a legitimate war hero and he had the medals to prove it.
At some point during the summer of 1956 or 57 the movie Twelve O'Clock High showed on local TV in Miami and we had a pizza party with the Savitch family to watch it with “Mac”. After it ended we all went outside to sit and talk. Charlie and Lottie told us all about life on the ground under Hitler’s Germany and Aunt Helen snorted and spat in her complete disgust for “…dat crazy lil’ houze painter from Austria.”
It was around midnight when Charlie asked “Mac” about the movie. Dad took a pull on his cigar and after a long moment he said, “It was pretty good except for the mission over Schweinfurt. We flew that second raid on Black Thursday in October of ’43 and that was the worst mission I ever flew – completely FUBAR from the get go. We lost our fighter escorts going in and we came in to our bomb runs in two different flights strung out over a half hour, so the Germans got to refuel and reload and hit us again on the way back home. The flak was so thick over the target you could barely see the planes off your wingtip and whenever you could see the sky there was another plane going down. If you weren’t a believer when you took off that morning, you were praying to your Maker to get back alive that afternoon…”
After finishing his beer he continued… “The Germans claimed they shot down over a hundred, and the papers in London printed that we lost sixty in the air and another seventeen crash landed in England. I think it had to be worse than that. I know the head count in our group was short by nearly a hundred and the 305th lost 85%. They gave us all medals for that mission and our crew got shipped back home to help sell War Bonds. Maybe the only reason I got out of England alive, I guess somebody upstairs was lookin’ out for me.”
Although the family photo albums were filled with pictures from the forties including shots that “Mac” took during his twenty odd missions with the Eighth Army Air Force, he kept his medals in his sock drawer and as I remember that was only time that he ever talked about the war.
My big brother Bill never served in Vietnam. He enlisted in 1962 and served in Germany. The closest he came to combat was three weeks of methamphetamine saturated DEFCON 3 status during the Cuban Missile Crisis when he manned an artillery emplacement on the German - Czechoslovakian border 200 meters opposite a division of Soviet tanks.
While President Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nakita Khrushchev brought the world to the brink of nuclear war, my brother was dug in next to a 155mm Howitzer spotting camouflaged Russian tanks hiding in the woods. He was always a little bit crazy, but after he finished his four year enlistment and returned from Germany, he slept with a gun under his pillow for the better part of a year.
Friends: I’m sure that many of my teachers were veterans from WWII, Korea and perhaps Vietnam, but I cannot recall any of them ever talking about their experiences. The first Vietnam veterans I met were part of the crew of black guys I worked with at Goodpasture Grain on the Houston Ship Channel during the summer of 1967 after I graduated high school.
During our breaks and lunch there was always a great deal of bullshitting and when September rolled around they asked me why a smart white boy like me wasn’t in college instead of working the docks twelve hours a day. I told them I wanted to pay my own way at the University of Texas and that maybe I’d sign up at mid-term. Their advice was unanimous: Get your ass in school and steer clear of the draft. You don’t want to end up in that clusterfuck in Vietnam.
A few weeks later in October 1967 it all went over the tipping point when I put in my appearance at a peace demonstration at the Oakland Induction Center. Swinging their batons in disciplined formations called “flying wedges,” the cops swept through us like scythes though wheat.
Punches were thrown and a bit of blood spilt by both sides. Those of us who chose to sit down in the middle of the streets got the worst of it. I think I was sitting on the steps of one of the entrances to the induction center when I got my head cracked.
By the time it was nearly over I was dizzily wandering around downtown Oakland with slightly blurred vision and a knot the size of a hard boiled egg on the right side of my skull. I was watching a group of cops close in on some kids who were burning their draft cards in the gutter when a guy over forty dressed in a business suit, came out of a bar with a drink in his hand, walked right up to the cops and said, “You guys, you guys! What you guys did this morning is a crime! I got a drink in my hand and that’s a crime too but nothing compared to… I spent twenty years in the Air Force defending this country and what you guys did… Jesus Christ, I saw a pregnant girl my daughter’s age get beat down on the street right in front of me! You’re sworn to protect and defend the law… you should be ashamed of yourselves.”
He walked over to where the kids had their little bonfire going, set his drink down on a window ledge, pulled out his wallet and passed out business cards to the kids, “If any cop beats you down, call me and we’ll sue the bastards…” then he unfolded a piece of paper. “This is my honorable discharge… twenty years and I retired a Major… twenty years,” and as he tossed the paper into the flames, he looked up at the sky and yelled, “Fuck this shit!”
The cops backed off and left the kids alone.
A bit over a year later I met my first wounded Vietnam Vet working in the Houston Post Office.
I was regularly teamed up with two black vets on a conveyor sorting station designed for four men. One was a gregarious father of three who stood over six feet and weighed over 250 pounds. He’d done his enlistment in the Navy. The other was smaller single guy around my age who’d been drafted as a combat Marine and they both teased one another about that ancient inter-service rivalry. I was the hippie honky in the middle. I think it’s safe to say that we enjoyed working together and we often emptied the conveyor that fed the station and had time to kick back and BS.
It was during one of these brief bull sessions that the discussion reached the question of why I was working at the Post Office instead of going to college. I still wasn’t sure about going back to school and casually mentioned the benefits of the GI Bill. That’s when the young ex-Marine opened up on me, “Are you crazy mothfucka? If you don’t stay in school, they’ll draft your ass and then you’ll really be in the shit! The GI Bill don’t mean squat if you get shot up or end up in a body bag,” then he pulled up his T-shirt and showed us the scars of a through and through wound that was only a small hole in his back but an eight inch scar on his belly, “Unless you want to end up on the floor of Huey with your guts in your hands, don’t listen to what any of those lying bastards at the recruiting centers say to get you to sign up.”
I identify these men as friends because they saved my life. With my personality if I had served in combat it’s likely that I would have been killed or wounded and either way I wouldn’t have become an astronaut or flown the Space Shuttle.
Most of them managed to get out on the other side of their trauma, held down decent jobs and raised families. Some couldn’t pull themselves through. Two of them come to mind from the 19 years I lived in Downtown Los Angeles:
Frank the Jewelry Maker and Joel Bloom – 1994
Frank was an older wiry black dude of indeterminate age who was above all other things a gentleman possessed of pride. One of the many denizens of Downtown Los Angeles who was technically homeless, he made his money by making and selling wire wrapped copper jewelry on the corner of Traction and Hewitt next to Joel Bloom’s General Store.
I never got Frank’s whole story because he volunteered only bits and pieces and on the streets of Downtown LA, it’s impolite to pry. Over the years that I knew him he told me that he was a Vietnam veteran, a recovering alcoholic and a veteran of decades on the streets. Whether out of pride or caution he steered clear of the free food pantries and charity shelters that occupied Skid Row. Frank always said there’s nothin’ but trouble down there.
A general welfare and food stamp recipient Frank refused to be a victim and surrender his check to the management of one of the many Single Room Occupancy (SRO) hotels, so he cashed his paltry $325 county check each month, went to the scrap metal dealers around Downtown and bought copper wire which he then fashioned into handmade bracelets at $3.00 each or five for $10.00, and chokers for $4.00 each or three for ten bucks.
From 1994 until he died in 2001, I was one of his steady customers. Whenever I stopped by Bloom’s little store to rent a video or buy some cigars, I always bought ten or twenty dollars of Frank’s jewelry and he was always happy to see me. One day after I hadn’t seen him for a few weeks, I asked Bloom (http://www.bloomfestla.org/) what happened with Frank and Joel sadly told me that he’d passed away.
Six years later Bloom, who was also a Vietnam Vet, lost his long battle with cancer and fifteen years later I still have a two of Frank’s pieces that I treasure because they bring to mind both men.
So what do I owe these men? I owe my father my existence. If he hadn’t survived WWII, I would have never been born. I owe him so very much more. I owe my brother my ability to aim and shoot a rifle and shotgun with accuracy. “Show us your best,” that was the challenging open call that USMC Veteran Steel Breeze issued two years ago and it was the kick in the butt that I needed to get out on the other side of over eighteen months of writers block. I have to acknowledge that debt to him because I began to write and publish over 230 posts that comprise a novel “People of the Book.” I still have another thirty pages to go before the first draft is finished, but the end is in sight and for that I am indebted to Steel Breeze. Then there are the hundreds of smiles giggles and laugh out loud moments that we all owe to Arthur James for his hundreds of off the wall stream of consciousness poetic comments.
In a historic sense all of us owe them and every vet we meet the life of freedom and choice that we enjoy from their years of service and sacrifice. How can we repay them? Well unless you’re a veteran who has lived through combat there is no way you can understand that there is nothing that can compensate them for what they have done. All that we can do is to try to honor the promises that our government made to them when they served, despite what “those lying bastards at the recruiting centers (and the VA) say to get you to sign up.”
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