Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Vietnam 1964-65: Dawn of the Dread

I don't have a vivid memory of the day the word "Vietnam" joined my small family of words, but it must have been in Mr. Bennett's geography or history class (you could never be sure with him) in the 9th grade.
If you look carefully, you can see Vietnam from here.

He might well have mentioned the Gulf of Tonkin incident and the ensuing Resolution, but that really meant nothing to us. We did not know the whereabouts of Tonkin, nor did we care, nor did we know or care if the alleged incident actually took place (even casual readers of history now strongly suspect it did not).

Looking back, I wish he had given us the names of the two greatest "I-Told-You-So" figures of all time: Democratic senators Wayne Morse of Oregon and Ernest Gruening of Alaska, who both voted no to the resolution that would lead to a nightmare that still isn't quite over.

Before continuing, watch this and weep:

Anyway, whatever Mr. Bennett said, there were many obstacles between his words and our ears: One, he was a nice, lovable man, but he was boring, and the classroom's fluorescent light created a distracting (for me) eerie jaundiced sheen to his already jaundiced skin.  Two, we still hadn't fully purged the WWII Victory Parade films from our system -- some of us never did. 

Three, we were entering the age of TOD (Testosterone Onset Disorder), so the boys, in particular, couldn't concentrate worth a damn and weren't fit to be around. I assume things have drastically changed by now, but back then teen boys were beasts of relentless horniness, their language filled with sexual slang and innuendos. They were full of torrid sexual stories that had never happened, while their true stories were so tame they could now be shown on CBS Sunday Morning.

(Full disclosure: The girl who sat behind me in Mr. Bennett's class said to me one morning, pointing to her calf, "Look, I shaved my legs this morning. Feel it!" I did, just touched it, and I can truthfully say I never gave the Gulf of Tonkin another thought for the rest of the day.)

While a worried Mr. Bennett -- himself a hobbled war veteran -- slugged through whatever description he was giving us, my friend Richard would likely be demonstrating, once again, his ability to fart on command, and, out of respect for our likable teacher, he'd only cut the SBD variety. But we sure as hell knew when he did it!

Anyway, Vietnam? Just more crap that would be on the news. Vietnam now, the Belgian Congo or Algeria or some such place before that. Didn't mean anything to us!

In the tobacco fields the following summer, however, we heard that word more often. Some of my fellow croppers expressed a desire to go there, some worried they'd be forced to. Some from each group wound up going and some from each were killed.

When school started back, in September of '65, we heard much more about the war. To use a meteorological analogy, Vietnam was gradually escalating (most frequently used word of the decade, incidentally) from "Tornado Watch" to "Tornado Warning." Some classmates' older brothers were already there.

From the time the "war" "officially" started until I was 19, there were some perfectly acceptable ways to avoid it. One of those was to be married, and for a brief moment that was my secret plan. I would get married as soon as I could  find a dang girlfriend, any girlfriend, but that deferment quietly disappeared in 1965 (thanks, LBJ!!) before I could even "go steady."

The other was a student deferment which would keep us off the draft-board's list for four years as long as you stayed "in sequence," meaning in your second year, you had to have completed your freshman requirements, after your third your sophomore requirements, etc. If you fell out of sequence, you were toast.

So all the boys knew we had better get into college and hope like hell the war would end before our four years were up. We really wished the godforsaken network news anchors would stop saying, "There's still no end to the war in sight."

Kindly old Mrs. Morse, who taught me both Algebra and English in the 10th grade, would frequently remind the boys that they better be able to get into college and that if they failed Algebra or English, they would be rejected and have a big ol' target on their back at which first the draft board, then the North Vietnamese, would take aim from point-blank range.

This can't be true, but I would swear that Mrs. Morse would even occasionally punctuate her warnings by pretending to mow us all down with mock machine-gun fire: "Boys, you'd better buckle down or the next thing you know . . . ra-a-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat!!"

We, the boys anyway, found ourselves studying for our lives. Either make a good grade or go to war where you'll probably die. Friends, that was a lot of pressure to put on a kid. Today's generation faces a tremendous amount of pressure to get into the best schools, and many young people have collapsed under it, and some have even taken their own lives. 

My generation, of boys anyway, desperately wanted to get into any place that would keep us alive for four more years. Some cracked under that pressure. Some took their own lives.

After just a few chapters, I couldn't make any sense out of algebra at all. I was seized by a kind of algebraic writer's block. On a good day, I could get the answer, but couldn't figure out that whole half-page process (the only part that was graded) that led me to it. On most days, I didn't know what the hell was going on. (On the most basic level, it seemed a travesty and a perversion to combine numbers and letters. What was that about? Make up your mind, for God's sake!)
I still don't know the answer!

So while the rest of the class did algebra, either at the board where we could all watch or at our desks supposedly toiling away, interrupted only by Richard and Tommy Ray's dead-on imitations of squirrel mating calls, I stared out the window into the vast skies doming little Pinetta, seeing there a rice paddy where angry little people wearing black pajamas fired away at me.

I had similar visions for years to come, an interior low-budget drama in which my acceptance of an early death on foreign soil was played out in an endless loop, like Tim O'Brien's poor Nam vet Norman Bowker driving his father's Chevy round and round the lake in the story "Speaking of Courage."

Admittedly, I am a pessimist, an over-reactor, a fortune teller of doom, but I'm pretty sure I wasn't the only kid who lived with those nightmarish premonitions during the draft.

The following embarrassing anecdote will illustrate how certain I was of my imminent, non-heroic, non-glorious, non-patriotic, non-cinematic demise:

I was reading about baseball -- in either Sport magazine or Sporting News -- when I saw for the 823rd time a Charles Atlas Dynamic Tension ad.

I secretly ordered Mr. Atlas's (with a name like that, you knew he was gonna grow up to be a body-builder!) free book, which told me nothing. So I took some money I had saved and secretly ordered the little books that actually included his secret method for getting "A BODY LIKE MINE!"

I learned three things from this investment: 1. Don't drink tea because it stains the walls of your stomach just the way it does a porcelain mug. 2. Put your hands together in front of your chest and push really hard until one hand finally gives in. 3. The advanced, real, real secrets to A GREAT BODY were in yet another book that was more expensive than the first.

Should I go for the gold? I slept on it, you know, about whether or not to go whole hog on this thing and, from there, what I would say when all the hot babes started paying more attention to me. (Practice: "So, uh, Thunderball's playing at the Woodard theater. Wanna meet me there? We can share a snow cone!") 

When I woke up and rolled out of bed, I pictured myself in Vietnam, but having Charles Atlas's muscle-bound body. Then I got shot, and all that muscle tissue did nothing to slow down the bullet's entry into my vital organs. My buddies, apparently gung-ho extras left over from a WWII movie, hefted my buff, chiseled body and placed it in a body bag that would've easily held two of the real Roy.

After that little vignette, I yawned, rubbed my eyes, and said, "Well shit. What's the use? If I'm gonna get killed anyway, I might as well save my money and stay skinny."

I did. I secretly placed my Charles Atlas Dynamic Tension books in the bottom of a garbage can and, sure enough, to this day I still weigh the same as I did in the 9th grade. And I'm still alive, as of this writing.

And still no end to this series in sight. We'll be right back. 


  1. Enjoyed that, Roy. However, scary times for young men/boys 😟

    1. Thanks for your comment, Sharon, and those certainly were scary times.