Thursday, September 21, 2017

Sailing To Oblivium: September 21, 2017

Someone asked what I think of the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary on the Vietnam War. So far, I think it’s telling some much-needed truths. I have embarked on a journey, over the last year or so, to study that period of our country’s history. It is a tangled mess. Maybe the film can untangle it a bit.

It was what one might call a “political ass-covering war.” Of course, there was no real threat to our country or our way of life. There were threats to politicians. Political parties and individual politicians stood poised like demons of the night to swoop upon any opponent that showed the slightest inclination to question the myth of American invincibility. Gathering votes proved to be the dominant motivator, along with the chance to make money of course. Some things never change.

There was this shibboleth, you see, that Harry Truman had “lost” China, as if other countries were our property to own or not own, even countries with a population of 500M people. No current president was going to lose another country, or there would be political hell to pay.

It didn’t matter to them how many 18-year-olds died while they played their games.

The word that came to mind during last evening’s episode was “hubris.” In short, it refers to a sense of excessive pride or self-confidence. The Greeks broadened it to include excessive pride toward or defiance of the gods, leading to nemesis. I guess we could include the gods of war and finance.

Remember when the criminals at the Enron Corporation were instituting schemes that financial experts said would never work? They warned that others had tried them and all had failed. “Not to worry,” the whiz-kids said. “They never worked before because we weren’t the ones in charge.” Now, that corporation lies in the same smoldering trash heap of history as the former Republic of South Vietnam. Hubris is a cruel mistress.

The makers of the film might have lingered a bit longer on the Westmoreland strategy (if one stoops to call it that) of “We’re going to kill you until you quit fighting us.” That had worked with Germany, Italy, and Japan. It just had to work on this backward little nation with an army of half-starved peasants in black pajamas. It didn’t, though. Those little men and women were just the latest in a line of fanatical patriots who had been fighting foreign invaders for 300 years. We were simply next in line

Joe Galloway, the journalist-hero at the Ia Drang Valley did point out, in the documentary, that the emphasis on body counts made warriors into liars. Thomas Ricks, in his book The Generals, goes much further, talking about how officers would count scattered body parts each as a separate corpse, and how two commanders almost came to blows over the ownership of a severed arm.

And we wonder why our country is still where it started in Afghanistan 16 bloody years ago.

So, to answer the question about my view of the documentary, I find it accurate based on my experience and readings. Am I bitter, as a veteran? No, I never experienced the horrors of the band of brothers following Hal Moore or the Marines abandoned at Hue. Was I ever scared s**tless? Well yeah. But I’m also scared when I think that some of the people who post pure insanity on the internet are out there driving cars with pistols beside them on the seat.

No, I think I’m fascinated and intrigued. There are lots of dots to be connected. Go back and watch the scene in which the Vietnamese man describes Nguyễn Cao Kỳ. It’s pretty funny, actually, given our current predicament.

I’ll stick with “intrigued,” maybe with a dash of impending doom. Until March 20, 2003, I had always assumed—hoped maybe—that our country would never make a strategic blunder as great and tragic as the decision to go to war in Vietnam. Of course, we did, only to see that decision itself eclipsed on November 9, 2016.

As F. Scott Fitzgerald had a character observe, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Maybe that wouldn’t be too bad. Right now, our past looks better than our future.

A young Arkansan who loved to fish and hunt
and always wanted to be a Marine.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Growing Up Southern: September 19, 2017

To paraphrase a saying attributed to Ulysses S. Grant, my father could whistle two songs, one was the hymn “Farther Along.” The other wasn’t.

Oh, he liked music. He just never pretended to be an active participant. He loved to close the grocery store a little early and bundle us off early to some live performance. Famous artist or unknown, it didn’t matter to him. He wasn’t above hauling the whole family down to a small venue in Rison, Arkansas to hear a young singer who had no arms, their molecules having obviously reassigned to his lungs. It was quite a show as it turned out, although I never heard of the artist again.

But, as I said, some of the artists we saw were well known. The group Johnnie and Jack played once at our high school auditorium, and they were famous. Perhaps their most popular song was “Poison Love.” Check it out, and note the fancy Latin-like rhythm guitar work by Johnnie Wright. This “Rhumba Beat” became associated with them on such classics as “Down South In NewOrleans.” That’s steel guitar legend Shot Jackson with them on the videos. I hope he was there with them in Pine Bluff. Heck, I don’t recall and I didn’t even know who he was then.

Johnnie was also famous for being married to music legend Kitty Wells for a few days short of 74 years. She wasn’t with them the night we saw them, though, as far as I can remember. She may have been busy recording “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.”

Oh, and that music on the video? That was a genre called “Country and Western Music.” It became extinct somewhere around the early 1980s. Those of us who were privileged to hear it while we were growing up still miss it after all these years.

The biggest shocker, to me at least, about our musical pilgrimages came to me in the 1960s. When they made that awful, terrible, pathetic, laughable film about the life of Hank Williams, I was telling my mother that I had gone to see it. She looked at me and said, “Well you saw the real Hank Williams once.”

“I what?”

“He came to Robinson Auditorium and your daddy took us all to see him.”

“You’re kidding.”

“You weren’t but about three or four.”

From all accounts, he was sober for that performance. It was a Sunday I think. Daddy remembered Hank saying of the song “My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It” that it “ … has been buying a lot of beans for me and the boys lately.”

I wish I could say I remember it. I do remember seeing those giant (fake) columns at the front of the building, and if I allow my mind to run wild I can conjure up the image of a man with dark circles around his eyes singing away. That may be pure imagination. At any rate, I can say I actually saw the man. I suppose if he had been armless, I might have a stronger recollection of it.

Daddy bought us a Johnnie and Jack songbook at their concert. I think I still have it stashed away somewhere. I’m thankful for every musical outing he took us to. I guess I’m also thankful that they didn’t have cell phones in those days. Real life was a lot more fun.

A life much too short

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Growing Up Southern: September 17, 2017

Sometimes I think back about things I’ve done in life and wonder, “how in the world did I do that?” Sometimes I wonder, “why?”

Take vacations, for example. As newlyweds, we thought it would be awfully nifty to take a vacation. (Nifty is a fine old word that can be used as a replacement for the tiresome “awesome.” Pray do).

Only problem was, we had very little money to spend on vacations. So, for the price of one night in a motel, we bought a tent from Sears and borrowed an ice chest from someone. We put some ice in the chest along with sandwich fixings and soft drinks, loaded them in the car, along with swimming attire and few clothes, and headed for the panhandle of Florida, now known as “the Redneck Riviera.”

As they say down South, we “was getting ready to do it in tall cotton.” One of the more pleasant memories of my life is watching my trophy wife bending over the front seat rest making us sandwiches from the ice chest in the back so we didn’t even have to stop for meals. Have I mentioned that she had this knockdown gorgeous figure? Well she did. It was sure worth watching. Still is.
See what I mean?

There was this national seashore at Pensacola that had a campground. It had the bay on one side and the Gulf of Mexico on the other. We arrived there without mishap and picked out a good spot. We pitched our tent under what passed as a shade tree, set up chairs, and commenced to vacation.

Have I mentioned that it was over a hundred degrees under what passed as a shade tree? Well it was. A can of beer, retrieved from under a blanket of ice, would reach ambient temperature during the journey from ice chest to chair. Sweat would roll down your body even if you didn’t move. Any metal left uncovered would quickly become too hot to touch. Food spoiled in the heat and clothes stayed sticky at all times.

But, you know what? We’ve stayed in some pretty fancy digs during our 44-year marriage, and the fact is, we’ve never been happier than we were in that sweltering Florida heat.

Did I mention that, one day, we purchased a whole chest full of shrimp, boiled them that evening, took them to the beach, and ate every damn one of them while we watched the sun go down? Well we did. It’s the only time in our long experience that I’ve seen Brenda eat all the shrimp she wanted.

I guess it wasn’t too bad, even given the heat and all. We came back year after year. There’s something to be said for being young and not knowing any better.

Camping Partner … after we could afford
a cookstove and bountiful eyeglasses.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Growing Up Southern: September 16, 2017

We turned as the bride-to-be started up the aisle, resplendent in her white gown. In the crowd, to her left, were two girls in tank tops and shorts. Oh dear. Has respect now left the upper world?

I was relating this story to a group of friends. I commented, “I wouldn’t be surprised to attend a funeral some day at which spectators wore shorts.”

“Ahem,” said one of the crowd. “Saw that last month.”

Last night’s Bill Maher show brought this to mind. Tim Gunn, star of a TV show called Project Runway was on the show. I have just seen bits and pieces of Gunn’s show, while my wife watched, but evidently it is quite popular.

Anyway, Mr. Gunn was bemoaning the current state of dress in America. I must note that he was wearing a blazer with checks over a striped shirt, but no matter. He seems to enjoy a reputation as an
Tim Gunn has a point.
arbiter of taste, so I will bow. He referred to “the slobivacation of America.” I’m still thinking about this, not sure I fully agree with his detective work. On the other hand, one trip to any Walmart store in our country will cause one to understand his concern.

As a child of the Not-Deep South, and a sucker for discards, I’ve wound up with box upon box of family photographs. A look through them reveals on solid fact about men who lived in the land of my roots during my early youth, men who had worked digging fenceposts for 50 cents a day, but were never so poor that they didn’t own one dress suit. It just wasn’t proper. My father bought his at the Henry Marx store in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, suits of a flexible design suitable both for church or for courting the precious young thing he won and married.

As you look at those old photographs, you wonder how long it took to save enough money for the suits, shirts, ties, and hats (oh yes, hats) those men wore. Appearance must have been important for them. It held true for women as well. A young couple may have had, as they say in these parts, “neither a pot nor window,” but the man had a suit and the woman had a “Sunday-dress.”

This was the generation, by the way, that they now call “The Greatest.” Some tended the country while others chased the fascists off the planet. Many didn't wear their Sunday clothes for a while.

Something happened afterward, though. We started, as Mr. Gunn suggests, to become increasingly unconcerned about how we appeared in public. I don’t know why or when. I suspect it began the first time we allowed a surly teenager to eat at the table wearing a baseball cap. It went downhill from there and led, eventually, to a scene witnessed recently wherein a moron wearing a broad-brimmed cowboy hat sat through a church funeral without once removing the monstrosity.

It’s worse in Texas. I hear they even let young women wear short dresses with cowboy boots, Barfola.

John Steinbeck noticed the association between dress and social status in a scene he used twice that I know of, one in a collection of short stories called Pastures of Heaven and again in East of Eden. A rich landowner tells a worker that they are going to town, only to have the worker say he must change clothes first. When the landowner comments that he doesn’t change clothes for that purpose, he is met with, “Yes, you have to be very rich to go to town dressed as you are.” (Quoted from memory. My Steinbeck books are currently packed).

Anyway, Mr. Gunn made an impression. I think I’ll start dressing better and see what impact that may have. It’ll scare the hell out of the Walmart cashiers, but it may speed up my transactions at the bank. Fortunately, I don’t have to worry about attracting a women. I already found me one.

An aunt and uncle dressed
up for Sunday visiting

Friday, September 15, 2017

Growing Up Southern: September 15, 2017

They say the “Greatest Generation” gave up its present for our future. I think of that a lot. Fate has placed one of those great ones into our care, a saint who now requires constant supervision. If paying back a debt requires sacrifice, so be it.

"I've had a good life," she says.
Caregiving now requires of Brenda and me that one, or both of us, is with our ward at all times. We don't have the option of traveling anywhere together, just the two of us. We now know how our parents, one of whom is that ward now in our care, must have felt when we were helpless children. In each of our cases, our parents would have no more left us with a babysitter than they would have rented us out to a textile factory. Care was a constant obligation.

Life can be confining. People sometimes laud us for our sacrifice, but, to us, it is simply something you do. Just as you can’t refuse to take a breath, you can’t refuse responsibility. What you can do is live a life of pleasures gained from what some would call the mundane, unimaginative, or uninspiring.

Something like enjoying, together, the colors of a forest changing tones just before dusk.

Something like helping one another repair an old tractor that has given faithful service for over 50 years.

Something like making a reference to a mutually revered book or movie, such as, “Gee, people are driving just like the race scene from On The Beach. Remember that?” Or, one watching Rebecca for the 20th time simply because the other loves it so much.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. We miss walking along the seashore together after having boiled a pot of shrimp and feasted “bigly.” We miss walking the streets of Washington, D.C. and feeling the flow of history coursing through us. Cannery Row, San Francisco, Gettysburg, Chichen Itza, Fallingwater, Chicago … we miss them all.

But one can’t always pick and choose in life. We believe that those are the happiest who can find beauty in a fallen leaf, joy in sharing a good book, or comfort in recalling old friends and family members that are no longer with us. Sometimes, that is all that life is willing to grant us.

Young and ready for life

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Growing Up Southern: September 14, 2017

It's the only building I ever designed. The company I worked for couldn't find anyone else to do it. That was over 35 years ago. It's not an award-winner, but it's held up pretty well. 

Paid a visit to the small Southwest towns of Fulton and McNab Tuesday evening. It’s an interesting part of the state, if you look in the right places. The fire station/library/meeting hall sits in Fulton. That's one thing.

The two towns account, between the two of them, for a population of around 300 people. But they turned out a room full of folks who were determined not to let fortune pass their communities by, as it has so many small, rural towns in Arkansas.

Times are hard for such communities these days. The cost of providing public services has risen to the point where it is almost impossible to maintain the facilities and systems required for them. Young folks want to live where the action is. Old folks want to live near medical facilities. Folks in between want to live where it’s not too far to drive to work and their kids can go to “good schools,” whatever that means.

It is hard for the Fultons and McNabs to compete.

There occurred a major reason for hope a few years back. A company announced plans for a major coal-powered generating plant, now operating on a site about halfway between the two communities. The 600-megawatt facility employees over 100 people in what is a highly technical operation.

The plant hasn’t resulted in major growth for the two communities. The site is within fairly easy commuting distance from the State of Texas, just across the Red River from Fulton. That state has no income tax, so guess where local workers choose to live?

Speaking of Texas, Fulton was the site of a major supply and “jumping off” spot for those who eventually led the fight to remove what is now Texas from Mexico. Supposedly, Stephen F. Austin operated a supply store temporarily there. The towns are near Old Washington, the Confederate capital of the state and the site of some marvelous old homes. Troops marched and camped all around the area during the 1860s unpleasantness but no major battle ever took place. The two towns are only a few miles from the City of Hope, boyhood home of President William Jefferson Clinton. The area claims a spot in our state’s history.

We met in a first-rate community center in McNab, the result of efforts by energetic mayor. The communities plan to work toward more park and recreation facilities. I told them that was a good start toward making their cities more attractive to new residents. It’s going to be a “hard row to hoe” for those folks, but I left feeling optimistic. The land around is pleasant, green, and unspoiled. The towns are located practically on Interstate 30. People seem nice. The leaders have hope and energy.

And who knows? The next Walmart may decide to locate its headquarters there.

She has held up pretty well
for nearly 40 years.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Growing Up Southern: September 12, 2018

I’ve never been in a hurricane. Can’t imagine the horror. I experienced what they termed a “tropical storm” once. Close enough for me. I have no stomach for the real thing.

For someone from the rural hinterlands, the terrifying thing about winds connected with the sea is that they just don’t stop. On and on and on they go. We are used to a few minutes of violence, and then, like in a Beethoven symphony, the sun breaks through. None of this blowing for three days crap.

The storm I experienced originated in the South China Sea and poured over the little compound where I was stationed about three-quarters the way up Monkey Mountain outside Da Nang. We had two towers and an entry shack to guard. We were doing a fair job of it until the storm hit.

One tower stood across the road from us and some 50 feet above our compound. It provided a good view of the compound and the lands beyond the mountain. It was isolated and a bit scary around midnight, but provided a magnificent view during the day.

When the storm hit its peak, a man from Oklahoma we called “Preacher” Hargraves was on duty in the tower. Of course we couldn’t see it for the driving, sometimes horizontal, rain. The wind had blown some of the roof away on our barracks so we were huddled up anywhere we could find a dry spot. Someone said, “Look yonder.”

Oh, by the way, we called him “Preacher” because he spent every spare moment reading his Bible or delivering his testimony while he cut our hair or expounded upon our wicked ways. He tended to get on people’s nerves.

Anyway, we looked and saw Preacher Hargraves running full-tilt down the hill, his M-16 slung over his back and his Bible flapping in one hand, all getting soaked. We fully expected to see a full company of NVA regulars descend the hill behind him.

When he reached where we were, he stopped to catch his breath. Our leader, a First-Class Machinist Mate named Webb asked him why he left his post. “You’re supposed to be in Tower One.”

“The storm blew the damned roof off,” Preacher explained in a manner totally inconsistent with his normal comportment.

Tower One got off easy. Tower Two was up the road a piece. We manned it with an M-60 machinegun, but only at night, and not anymore. When we went up after the storm subsided, there was no more Tower Two. It was gone completely and we never found a scrap of it.

We lived on snacks and hoarded gifts from home for three days when downed trees prevented supply trucks from reaching us. I don’t remember how long we wore rain-soaked clothes and boots. Later, we found that the storm had moved the base supports of our rather large elevated water tank a couple of inches. I suppose they rebuilt the towers, but I don’t know. I left the country soon after that.

Since then, as I say, I never wanted any part of a real hurricane and my heart goes out to those who have seen the worst of them.

Here’s an uplifting bit from Ludwig Van. Starting a 22:40, it is a masterful bit of work where, in a few seconds, he takes us from dark and brooding to a magnificent outburst of hope. It’s for our friends in Texas and Florida.

Modern view from near where our compound stood