Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Tag: Vietnam War (page 1 of 2)

Perfume River

51u0D0URQ+L._SX314_BO1,204,203,200_Perfume River

By Robert Olen Butler

Hardcover: 272 pages

Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press; 1st edition (September 6, 2016)

Of all the modern writers I admire and who have inspired me the most, Robert Olen Butler would be at the top of the list. Butler’s latest, Perfume River is a literary tour de force. Beautiful, haunting, and evocative, I have never been moved by a novel as much as I have been moved by this one.

The story about two brothers, Bob and Jimmy, and their strained relationship with their father is the story’s critical mass. The story moves seamlessly back and forth through time as both brothers come to terms with their dying father and the spiritual wounds of the Vietnam War which split apart the family. What’s so moving about the relationship between the father and his sons, is how Bob and Jimmy represent the polarity of the war: Bob the one who goes off to fight to win his father’s favor and Jimmy who wants nothing to do with the war and runs off to Canada. Butler could have stopped here, and the book would have been a fine one as the two brothers in later years reconcile those differences. However, Butler doesn’t. Instead, he takes it to the next level with the real story here: laying to rest the ghosts of war.

One early scene that resonated most for me was on the eve of the Tet Offensive, and the older Bob tries to get back to the compound, and he hides in a banyan tree. It reminded me of this Buddhist statuary at a temple in Ayuthaya, Thailand, where the roots of a banyan tree had grown around it. This moment in the story was both gripping as it was almost surreal the way Butler described it. For Bob, this was a defining moment not only for trying to survive Tet but also the deep, dark secret he will carry with him through life.

The story is also a microcosm of the nation coming to grips with the war and the wounds that still exist. Even more, is the significance of the character of the other Bob, himself a veteran of Afghanistan. As America continues to find itself ensnared in that conflict, the character of the second Bob is a grim reminder of another generation of young men and women sent into harm’s way.

For many of us, who were not in Vietnam, we come with our own perceptions of the war from the movies and documentaries we have seen and the literature we have read, which is good and bad. But my read of Perfume River…there’s this human element with the two Bobs and Jimmy that again, and this is just my perception of the story, has really helped me understand the war and the lives it took…physically, mentally, and spiritually.

It’s hard to say if a novel could provide some semblance of closure for the men still fighting that war, but I believe Perfume River does just that. If anything it serves to remind us of the generation of young men who still carry the scars of war with them. If we are ever truly going to heal as a nation and lay to rest the ghosts of war, it takes authors like Butler to remind us that it can be done.

The End is Nigh

It has taken me six months, but I feel that I almost finished with my latest writing project, a novella about one day in 1968. I wrote out the first draft for this novella, based on a poem I wrote a few years ago, when I was in Laos last December-February. The story itself is already finished; I am now just fleshing out a few chapters and scenes.

Like my first novel, War Remains, I knew how the story was going to finish before I even started to write it. What was most interesting for me was the journey I would take to get to the final scenes. For me, writing is always a journey. It is always a journey of discovery. For this story, I drew upon a lot of my childhood memories growing up in Oglesby, Illinois in the 1960s. There are some autobiographical moments in the story and at the same time, the story allows me to travel back home.

I like this story a lot. I am going to go out on a limb here and say that it is the best thing I have written–even better than War Remains.

Lou-J’s Café, 1968 – Oglesby, Illinois Part 2

The summer went by too fast, but he was excited to get back to school. He liked buying new notebooks, pens, and pencils. His mom even bought him some flared pants that had become the latest fashion craze. This year he is in the fifth grade. The teacher’s name is Ms. Snell, but some kids have already started calling her Ms. Smell.

Being a teacher has got to be rough, he thinks when you have a strange or funny name.

He’s halfway through grade school and as his mom told him when school started, it’s all-downhill now. He’s not quite sure what “downhill” means but hopes it means something good and not something to do with the reports his teachers have been sending home to his mother.

Teachers tell his mother that he is a good listener, but that he’s a little lazy. Doesn’t pay attention enough in class. He learns the word daydream. He doesn’t always do his homework, but he’s good in reading, spelling, and social studies. He’s a voracious reader. On library day, he checks out four-five books. Likes to read biographies of Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, James Whitcomb Riley and George Washington Carver. The other kids laugh at him and call him a bookworm.

Poor in math.

Poor in science.

If you ask him, he can tell you a little about the USS Pueblo, Tet, Vietnam, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy and Apollo 1.

The night he went to the carnival with the Sharpe boys was the night Bobby was assassinated.

He can’t add or subtract fractions though.

“He reads a lot Mrs. Miller,” one of his teachers tells his mom during a teacher-parent conference after school one day, “but he doesn’t pay attention in class. His mind wanders. He has the tendency to daydream.”

He can name all fifty states and capitals.

This past summer, he got to visit seven of those states when his grandparents took him on his first long vacation to Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky. His grandfather wanted to go to South Carolina and visit Fort Jackson where he had been stationed in World War II.

They got to drive right on base after the MP’s manning the main gate asked his grandfather what was the nature of his business.

“I told him I had been stationed there during the war,” said his grandfather whenever he had the chance to tell his story. “Well, he took one look at me, probably thought I was someone important, nodded his head and then waved us right through.”

Of course, much had changed since 1944 and his grandfather had a hard time finding any familiar buildings. They drove around for almost thirty minutes trying to locate the barracks his grandfather had stayed in but it had been demolished. The only thing that hadn’t changed was that America was in another war. They passed hundreds of soldiers marching and running. Some were carrying M-16s. Maybe Danny Sharpe is here, he thinks.

He wonders if any of them will come home in flag draped coffins like the ones he sees on the evening news.

“This week in Vietnam, there were 25 killed and 100 wounded.”

He likes Archie comics.

Someday I am going to write to the Archie Fan Club he tells his friends.

“They pay five dollars for the best letter,” he tells Sam and Glenn one afternoon.

“Pay you five dollars?” Sam laughed. “In your dreams.”

The Cherry Coke comes in a tall, plastic glass that is scratched from months of use; the fries are served in this red and white checked cardboard tray. The fries are greasier than usual, but he doesn’t mind. Soon, they’ll be swimming in a pool of ketchup. Why is ketchup sometimes spelled catsup? He ponders this as he squeezes out the red sauce from a red bottle. He’s been doing that a lot these days: questioning everything.

He likes the simple things in life, like these red and yellow bottles: red for catsup, yellow for mustard.

He hears the door open and a group of seventh and eighth graders come in. They’ll take over a corner of the room before the noisier L-P freshmen and sophomores arrive.

Johnny Lucas, one of the eighth graders walks by his table and steals some of the boy’s French fries. Lucas’ friends laugh.

Bonnie intervenes before Lucas can take some more of his fries; she used to baby-sit him but he probably doesn’t remember or is embarrassed to admit it. Either way, he knows that Bonnie is not someone he wants to tangle with and plops down on a padded chair. The same kind of chair made at Spiller & Spiller, this furniture factory on Brunner Street in LaSalle, where the boy’s mom works the dayshift from 8-5

His mother bends tubes of steel on a machine called a “bender” into chair and table legs.

“You kids want something?” Bonnie asks.

The way she says “kids” puts them in their place, at least for now. She snaps her gum again. Loud enough to sound threatening.

A round of Cokes is ordered. Three orders of fries.

“Hey Jude” ends. There is a grating sound emitting from inside the jukebox as a mechanical arm is lowered to retrieve another record and place it on the turntable.

The next song is “Green Tambourine.” Good choice because Lucas and his friends like this one a lot. The single reaches Number 1 in 1968.

Another semi rumbles through town shaking the plate glass window. The boy looks up at the clock. 4:00. His mom will be home in another hour. She’ll be tired again and smelling of grease and oil. Tonight she has to work at the Holiday Inn. It’ll be pot pies or a TV Dinner again. That’s okay. She promised to order some fried chicken from the Mel Rose Tap on Saturday.

He finishes off the last of the fries, now coagulated with ketchup and takes a sip of the Cherry Coke. A bus from the high school passes outside. The high school kids will be in soon. They are always loud and a little rowdy. They won’t bother him but Lucas and his friends will have to be careful.

Mary Hopkin’s “Those Were the Days” begins to play.

He likes her voice. It sounds so sweet. Makes him think about two girls in his class, Janie and Debbie. They have sweet voices, too. He sits next to them in music class. They don’t seem to mind.

Those were the days.

We thought they’d never end.

We’d live the life that we’d choose.

Something like that.

Lou-J’s Café, 1968 – Oglesby, Illinois Part 1

The ten-year-old boy stops in at Lou J’s Café on Walnut Street in Oglesby, Illinois, a small town of 4,200 (1960 census) just across the Illinois River south of LaSalle and Peru and 90 miles southwest of Chicago. He comes here about two or three times a week after school has let out at Washington Grade School.

Oglesby’s business district runs for a couple of blocks down Walnut and includes a Ben Franklin store, Lou’s Grocery, Royal Lanes Bowling Alley, two drug stores, a dry cleaners and a dozen bars. Across the street from Lou J’s is Clydesdale’s Furniture Store that at one time had been Oglesby’s movie theater. That piece of Oglesby history might have been lost on him, but what isn’t lost on him is that he has enough allowance for a Cherry Coke and an order of French fries for the times he comes here each week.

School has already started and there’s a hint of autumn in the air. Sometimes he stops in with a friend from school; other times he is alone. Makes no difference to him. At least when he’s alone he doesn’t have to share his fries.

He passes men hunched over the afternoon edition of the Daily News Tribune at the lunch counter seated on wobbly stools, the linoleum around their base worn from years of traffic. Some grip heavy, white mugs of freshly brewed coffee. The aroma of burgers sizzling on the grill (each patty with a slab of onion on top) wafts through the café. A basket of frozen, crinkled fries is dropped into boiling, bubbling oil.

There’s a television tuned to a ballgame but for the team, the Chicago Cubs and this late in the season, it’s wait until next year.

The owner of Clydesdale’s is one of the customers at the counter; he’s engaged in a heated debate with the druggist from Dittmar’s and the jeweler from Marzetta’s about Humphrey and Nixon, George Wallace, taxes, the war in Southeast Asia.

When the boy shuffles in, a few heads turn then its back to newspapers, the ballgame and the heated discussion Clydesdale is chairing.

Outside, a semi from Schwermann’s, a trucking firm in town, rumbles down Walnut returning to Marquette Cement for another load. Most of the men in town work at the cement plant that is the life and blood of the town. Others work at Westclox, more aptly and perhaps affectionately referred to by locals as the “clock factory” in Peru, or Sundstrand in LaSalle.

At the “clock factory”, they don’t make clocks. They make fuses for bombs.

There are a couple carloads of men who commute daily to Caterpillar in Aurora, Peoria, or Pontiac about an hour away. There’s a new steel mill coming in at Hennepin not far from Oglesby. It’ll be good for the local economy.

There are a lot of French-sounding names in the Illinois Valley. Joliet. Marquette. LaSalle. Tonti. Hennepin. Creve Coeur. These French explorers and missionaries are remembered with the names of towns and streets.

Oglesby was once called Portland due the cement mined and manufactured in area. Later Portland was renamed Oglesby in honor of Richard Oglesby the governor of Illinois, 1865-1869.

History is what reminds us of who we are and where we have come from.

The boy and his family (mother and younger brother) live on Magnal Avenue (a couple of blocks east of Lou J’s on Walnut). If you stand on Magnal Avenue and face south, you can see the giant storage bins of the cement plant rising up in the distance. In the morning, there is always a fine layer of cement dust on everything. Likewise, on most mornings you can hear the drivers at Schwermann’s starting their diesel engines that screech and shimmy before engines turn over and rumble.

The neighborhood is also the closest thing that Oglesby has got to an ethnic neighborhood with dozens of Italian families, some who are related to one another living east of Magnal Avenue. Get within a block of this neighborhood and you get a good whiff of Italian cooking seasoning the air and the omniscient pungent aroma of garlic. On Saturday nights, especially in the late spring and summer you can hear men shouting as they bocce ball on a court behind Angelo’s Tavern.

In an adjoining room, the boy plops down at a table in the rear and grabs a menu stuck between sugar, salt, and pepper shakers. It’s strictly out of habit; he knows what he wants already: Cherry Coke (a little heavy of the cherry syrup) and an order of fries, but it makes him feel important with that menu in his hand.

“Are you ready to order?” asks Bonnie, who has to work the counter, waitress the tables, and also work as cashier.

She’s not a tall woman, but she towers over the young boy who hasn’t looked up from the menu yet. It’s got to be her hairstyle. It’s 1968, but her Beehive hairstyle, heavy on the Aqua Net hairspray says otherwise; more like circa 1955. She snaps her gum and taps her foot knowing that the young boy is going to order the same darn thing.

He looks up from the menu and smiles. “A large Cherry Coke and an order of French fries, please.”

“Extra cherry syrup?” she asks. She knows the drill; knows what all the regulars like.

“Yes, please.”

She smiles and writes down his order. He’s got good manners, she thinks as she walks back to the counter. He’s not like the noisy older grade school students or the freshmen and sophomores from L-P High School that stop in later.

There’s something about that kid that’s special but she can’t put her finger on it.

She knows his mom and has seen her out a few times at some of the local bars. One time she bumped into her at Sparkle’s Cleaners and Laundromat. She knows how hard it is for her working two jobs and raising two boys. She’s got two boys of her own at home and waitressing six days at week at Lou J’s is also barely enough to make ends meet.

With his order on the way, the boy gets up and walks over to the Wurlitzer jukebox. He fishes for a quarter in one of his pockets. A quarter still gets you three plays and he knows what songs already: “Hey Jude” by The Beatles, “Those Were the Days” by Mary Hopkin and “Green Tambourine” by the Lemon Pipers.

He likes music but he hasn’t gotten into it as much as other kids his age. His mom has a lot of records she’s always playing: Johnny Cash, The Beatles, The Supremes, Elvis Presley, and Gene Pitney. Sometimes his mom drinks a lot when she listens to Johnny Cash.

Two years ago, he started watching The Monkees on television. He knows all the lyrics to the theme song. He doesn’t know that they are not a “real” band. He likes their music though. They’re cool and groovy.

Groovy. He likes the way that word sounds. He picked up that word from watching The Monkees and Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in.

He started using the word over the summer. The first time was at a carnival in Spring Valley when he rode the Double Ferris Wheel.

“Wow, that was groovy,” he told Tommy Sharpe after he had ridden the Ferris wheel.

He had gone to the carnival with the Sharpe boys: Tommy, Ray, and Danny. It was the first time to go anywhere without one of his parents or relatives. Danny was the oldest and had left for basic training during the summer. Now he was in Vietnam.

Goodnight Saigon

I am not what you would say a big fan of Billy Joel—I mean I liked some of his stuff back in the 70s like “Piano Man” and his early 80s stuff like “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me,” “Pressure,” and “Allentown” as well as “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”

However, there’s one song that I just can’t get out of my mind, and probably because it gets a lot of playing time on my iPod—his haunting “Goodnight Saigon.” That one puts a lump in my throat and gives me goose bumps.

Thanks Billy for this moving song and God Bless all our Vietnam Veterans.

Goodnight Saigon

By Billy Joel

We met as soul mates on Parris Island
We left as inmates from an asylum
And we were sharp, as sharp as knives
And we were so gung ho to lay down our lives

We came in spastic like tameless horses
We left in plastic as numbered corpses
And we learned fast to travel light
Our arms were heavy but our bellies were tight

We had no home front, we had no soft soap
They sent us Playboy, they gave us Bob Hope
We dug in deep and shot on sight
And prayed to Jesus Christ with all of our might

We had no cameras to shoot the landscape
We passed the hash pipe and played our Doors tapes
And it was dark, so dark at night
And we held on to each other
Like brother to brother
We promised our mothers we’d write

And we would all go down together
We said we’d all go down together
Yes we would all go down together

Remember Charlie, remember Baker
They left their childhood on every acre
And who was wrong? And who was right?
It didn’t matter in the thick of the fight

We held the day in the palm of our hand
They ruled the night, and the night
Seemed to last as long as six weeks…

…On Parris Island
We held the coastline, they held the highlands
And they were sharp, as sharp as knives
They heard the hum of our motors
They counted the rotors
And waited for us to arrive

And we would all go down together
We said we’d all go down together
Yes we would all go down together

When a taxi ride becomes a mini history lesson

After I finished teaching two teacher training classes in the Solbridge building (the building houses an international school of business associated with Woosong University) near Daejeon Station this morning, I caught a taxi outside to go to HomePlus—about a ten-minute ride away—to pick up a few things.

As soon as I told the sixtysomething driver in Korean where I wanted to go, it must have really impressed him because I got bombarded with a volley of questions (in Korean and English) from where I was from and what I do in Korea.

After we got through that small talk, he told me that he had fought in the Vietnam War for two years and had been stationed first in Saigon in 1965 before moving up country. His English was pretty good—good enough to tell me that he suffers the side effects from the use of Agent Orange during the war.

All this in about a fifteen-minute taxi ride to HomePlus.

As for the South Korean military represented the second largest contingent of foreign troops in Vietnam, second only to the U.S. forces. It has been argued that South Korea willingly joined in the Vietnam War because it represented a fight against communism, which South Korea was eager to stem under the guidance of President Park Chung-hee’s military administration. Park initially sent two Korean infantry divisions and a marine brigade in 1965. At their peak, the Korean military had over 50,000 soldiers on the ground; all together more than 310,000 South Koreans served throughout the war. About 5,000 of them died in combat in Vietnam, and more than 11,000 were injured or wounded.

Without question, it was a win-win situation for South Korea given that these troops were paid for and that those troops gained valuable battle experience, not the least of which the South Korean army became skilled with using some of the most advanced US military weaponry.

Although the price tag in terms of financial and economic aid to the South might smack of mercenary underpinnings, the war actually helped build the economy of South Korea because of massive U.S. military contracts and related economic aid awarded South Korea. To be sure from 1965 to 1975, South Korea’s GNP grew 14 times, and exports increased 29 times. Moreover South Korean automakers as well as shipping magnate Hanjin also benefited from the war effort.

And here was one veteran, a taxi driver talking about his war experience to a foreign passenger. He might have just been trying out his language skills but it turned out to be a mini history lesson.

Robert S. McNamara, Vietnam War Architect, dead at 93

If the names of the soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines listed on the Vietnam War Memorial could speak, they might say something like this, “McNamara is dead, pass it along.”

Check out the Op-Ed piece in the New York Times.

Essential reading: The Best and the Brightest, David Halberstam

Vietnam, a Television History, Stanley Karnow

Essential viewing: The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003)

Body Count

I don’t remember exactly when I heard about some far off Southeast Asian country and the war that would consume the 60s and part of the 70s for the first time. However, when I did, it was when I heard the week’s body count reported on the radio.

It was on the hourly news on WLS Radio out of Chicago. Right after Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco” and before The Box Tops’ “The Letter” the disc jockey would read some of the news coming off the wire and say something like, “This week in Vietnam ten soldiers were killed, fifteen wounded and five missing in action.” While I wouldn’t know this at the time, (I was eight or nine at the time) it must have seemed so surreal to have the war and body count interspersed between the music.

Although I probably had a hard time understanding terms like guerilla warfare (were gorillas really fighting each other?) body count, KIA, MIA, I knew what killed meant. That’s okay, within a couple of years I would know what all those places, words and acronyms meant.

This was not long after Tonkin and the USS Maddox when Washington upped the ante for our involvement in Vietnam and before Tet when North Vietnam put all their cards on the table. Tet. In many ways the Tet Offensive was the media turning point that really brought the war home to America-into our living rooms every night on the nightly news.

It was Walter Conkrite, David Brinkley, Chet Hundley, Peter Jennings, Bob Young and Frank Reynolds who announced to the nation each night the fighting and the number of killed, wounded, and missing in action.

(Years later, in 1983 Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam: A Television History would show just how important television was in reporting the war and perhaps in galvanizing anti-war protests. What I always found disturbing and ironic was just how important that “body count” was for determining who was winning the war. Of course, a lot had to do with Robert S. McNamara trying to run the war the way he had run Ford.)

Other than the war being broadcast into our living rooms on the nightly news and the weekly body counts we would hear on the news-both on TV and radio-Oglesby, Illinois was about as far away as one could get from the war. Sometimes I overhead my relatives talk about the war, but like trying to figure out what exactly a “body count” meant and what exactly was a VC, the war was just not within my grasp of knowledge.

The war was what I saw in B&W.

One time though, I overheard some men tell my grandfather that this kid came back from Vietnam and opened a can of beer with his teeth.

“He learned how to do that in Vietnam,” said one of the men, pronouncing the “Nam” with a short “a” sound. “Can you imagine that? Having to open a can of beer with your teeth?”

“It wasn’t like that in “double-you-double-you-eye-eye,” said another man. “Hell, I didn’t have a beer for almost a month.”

Opening a beer can with your teeth. The thought of that image shocked me and sent shivers down my spine.

I knew three young men who were drafted and sent to Vietnam-Jody, our landlady’s son, John, the boyfriend of my Mom’s best friend Barb, and Johnny a drummer and one of my Mom’s friends. They all went to Vietnam around the same time: Jody ended up being a clerk and assigned to some rear echelon desk job. John and Johnny, on the other hand, spent their year trying to stay alive-from one fire camp and fire fight to the next-and counting the days until they returned to the States.

And all three would and try to get on with their lives.

Not long after John had returned from Nam, my Mom invited Barb and him over one Sunday afternoon for dinner. John had been over a few times with Barb before he had gone to Vietnam and he was always quite talkative-cracking jokes, telling stories, and talking about when he and Barb were going to get married and settle down.

For the most of the afternoon he sat quietly on the floor cross-legged just staring-with dark, sunken eyes-straight ahead at the tiny B&W television we had in the living room. When offered a beer he guzzled it quickly, and then another. Dinner was some of my Mom’s famous homemade chili, which he gulped down quickly.

He had a hunting knife in a leather sheath outside his brown cowboy boots. At one point he took out the knife and began to clean his fingernails.

“He’s like that all the time. Really quiet,” said Barb. “And at night he has nightmares and shouts out names.”

(Years later, when I started to read up on the war, I would learn about this “1,000 yard stare” that many veterans experienced.)

Johnny fared no better. Once a promising young drummer in the Illinois Valley, he had lost interest in playing when he came back and went back to work at the same garage he had worked at before he had gone to Nam.

I once overheard Mom talking to one of her friends how much Johnny had changed since he had been back. I saw him once or twice a few months after his return, but I couldn’t see how he had changed. He had short hair at first, but he grew his long blonde locks back in a few months. He wore his army fatigue shirt a lot with a large peace symbol sewn on the back. I thought that was pretty cool.

Once, when my Mom was talking on the phone with a friend I heard her say “shell shocked” but I didn’t know what that meant.

“He’s not the same Johnny I used to know,” my Mom said.

No one ever talked about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. That was not part of the vernacular when used to describe the past generations of fighting men that had defended America’s honor, but which had become more pronounced in veterans returning from Vietnam. It would be years for people started talking about that openly and before it was properly treated.

What was talked or known about returning veterans, at least indirectly, was how some veterans were depicted on television dramas and in the movies-either they were crazed drug addicts getting in trouble with the law or emotional misfits. I still remember one episode of Hawaii Five-O where a returning veteran gets involved with drugs.

Later, the first wave of movies about returning veterans like Heroes (starring Henry Winkler, yes the “Fonz” and Harrison Ford), Coming Home and The Deer Hunter reminded viewers of this other kind of “body count” about the difficulties and hardships-both mental and physical-many veterans faced coming back home.

(Ironically, thirty-eight years after the Vietnam War officially ended with the fall of Saigon we are seeing the same kind of “body count” with many veterans returning from Iraq suffering from PTSD.)

Jody did not talk much about the war when he came back. He had studied art before he had been drafted but when he came back, he had lost interest. He moved back in with his mom and I would see him on and off for the next couple of years before I finally left home in 1976 (to join the Air Force).

I saw John a few times after that Sunday afternoon he came over. Wonder what happened to him and if he made out okay. I never knew what happened to Johnny after I saw him those few times after he had come back. I often passed the garage where he worked at in LaSalle and I think I heard someone once say that he ended up owning that garage and that he had gotten into customizing cars. I hope he made out okay, too.

When Chester died on “Combat”

The first time I became aware of death—at least in terms of our own mortality—was not learned in Church or by attending a funeral, but by watching an episode of Combat when I was five or six years old. 

In this particular episode, which guest starred Dennis Weaver, who played Chester on another hit TV series, Gunsmoke died in one of the combat scenes. It really put the zap into me because to this day I still remember crying afterwards. I liked Chester a lot on Gunsmoke and it saddened me that he had died. I really believed that Chester had died in a war. 

This would have been right around the time that the fighting in Vietnam was escalating and news and images of the conflict were being beamed into homes across America. It wouldn’t be hard for a five or six-year-old to have a hard time separating fact from fiction. Perhaps, I had even overheard family members talking about the war.  

It was the first time I remembered being scared about dying and even asking my father what happened when we died. When he told me that when we died we went to heaven and lived for eternity it was hard, very hard for me to grasp what eternity or even forever meant. To a six year old, an eternity was the time after supper to before breakfast.  

Crossing the Isthmus of Panama with Howard and Other Stories — Part 3

 

When I first arrived at Howard AFB in September 1976, there were very few airmen below the rank of E-4.

From what I understood, before I arrived most of the airmen stationed at Howard had served in Vietnam—either at bases in Thailand or Vietnam. Whether or not that was true or not, or one of the military/urban legends associated with the base (another one was about whether or not you could swim because if the canal was ever sabotage, the side of the canal that Howard was located on would be under water) there were a lot of E-1’s (Airmen Basic) to E-3’s (Airmen First Class) arriving at Howard in 1976 not long after the Tactical Air Command had taken over the United States Southern Air Command.

As one of those E-1’s arriving I was soon put to good use pulling all kinds of lousy duties/details like cleaning offices (which I thought was absurd later when most duty sections paid Panamanians to do the cleaning—like we did in the barracks) as well as painting the hangar floor (where some of the supplies were located) battleship gray. I got to do that my first weekend at Howard; guess they were waiting for me to arrive. Come to think of it, when I did arrive, I was the lowest ranking airman in the supply squadron. Yes, all that military training was being put to good use—and now I was being put to good use cleaning the Chief Master Sergeant’s office and painting the hangar floor.

At the same time I wasn’t too keen on working in the Base Service Store and maybe my attitude could have been a little better because I started off on the wrong foot rubbing some people there the wrong way (maybe that is why I was having to pull all those lousy details). That probably got people thinking about finding a different job for me as it were because not too long after my friend Howard arrived I was soon transferred out to the Repair Cycle Support Unit on my way to a better position that I would stay in until I left Howard AFB in September 1978.

The Base Service Store carried everything from toilet paper and cleaning supplies to pens and stationary. Most of the time I worked there was spent stocking the shelves in either the store or the hangar where supplies like boxes of government issued toilet paper were stocked (none of this 3-4 ply stuff that you can pamper your butt with these days). My AFSC (Air Force Specialty Code) was 64530 Inventory Management Specialist—a fancy expression for supply.

The one nice thing about the Base Service Store was that you could meet a lot of different people on any given day. Stocking shelves was a little boring (I had done that the previous year when I worked at K-Mart) but it was cool working along the flight line and watching A-7’s, C-130’s and C-141’s landing and taking off.

One thing that I found surprising about being stationed at Howard was that many people worked from 9-5. No wonder so many people wanted to extend their tour of duty there. Many of the people I would get to know in the first few months I was at Howard had been in the Vietnam War like Larry Easterly who had been a gunner on a Huey (he had done two or three tours in Nam) and for them, coming to Howard was like being on R&R I guess. Maybe that was just another one of those military/urban legends or something that I have come to accept as the truth over the years.

When I first arrived at Howard and got a glimpse of the base and later Balboa in the Canal Zone it was like nothing had ever seen before. I regret that I hadn’t been a little more up on my history of Panama. However, when I was in the sixth grade, my classmates and I made a clay model of Central America and if I am not mistaken, I was responsible for making the Panama Canal.

I would soon learn, as I had not when I was making that clay model that the canal did not run East-West, but instead North-South.

There would be a lot of things I would learn in those first few months of being in Panama. I did get to see a little of the Canal Zone a few days after I arrived with my sponsor Airman First Class Gary Grimes. He took me to Balboa and Miraflores Locks and I got to see a ship transiting the canal for the first time. It was also a real treat to cross over the Thatcher Ferry Bridge and see the Pacific Ocean on one side and the canal on the other. No matter how many times I crossed that bridge in the two years that I was stationed in Panama it was always a thrill for me.

Ron Cortez, Cerveza Atlas, Cerveza Panama, Monkey Meat, the Ancon Inn, Ovalo, Paris, the Foxhole, Gran Morrison, Chiva buses….

 UPDATE: August 2015

My novel about Panama, The Panama Affair is now available at Amazon!

Panama. It sounded just as much exotic as it did foreboding for Gary Taylor, Kevin Rooney, and Frank Costello, three airmen assigned to a military base in the Canal Zone during the 1970s, who soon became enraptured with its beauty, danger, and adventure; for Buck Smith, an analyst for the CIA it was a constant source of frustration and anguish as he followed the meteoric and deadly rise of Manuel Noriega.

Things become complicated when the airmen cross paths with one of Smith’s associates in Panama City and the lives of these individuals become intertwined in drugs, deception, and death. The airmen will be forced to face their demons, but doing so only leads to more strife.

Friends will become enemies. Old hurts will resurface. The death toll will rise. No one will emerge unscathed.

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