To Capture War

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I came of age during the lengthy era of the Vietnam War.

This so called “police action” began quietly as a post-WWII policy challenging Communist expansion. Vietnam had been divided as had Germany, China, and Korea, leaving a divide of western leaning democracies pitted against Communist dominated systems. America’s commitment to the Vietnam conflict officially began in 1959, with US aid to the South, and officially ended with the Paris Peace Accords in 1973. Said another way, I was a preschooler when Ike dispatched advisers, and in my first year of college when Nixon ordered troops home.

Though almost moot today, opinions vary on why this war became so universally unpopular. One assessment claims the intense media coverage, particularly on American television, soured the public on the war, while others claim support declined when the draft expanded to middle class, college-bound sons. Not that it matters. In retrospect, whether soldiers were poor or affluent, the draft sent them hell in Southeast Asia.

The view that more affluent Americans across the country grew alienated, does hold some merit. the days, weeks, months, and years of guerrilla assaults, deadly fire fights in the jungle, and the daily tally of “body counts,”* drained public support for this sweltering nightmare.

I recall many evenings washing dishes from dinner, watching a little black and white Sony portable tv. The network didn’t seem to matter; Cronkite, Huntley-Brinkley, or Frank Reynolds, all showed the same harrowing footage. Sweating soldiers slogging through a blur of elephant grass, the wounded medevaced onto thundering Huey’s, then wrapping up with an updated casualty count.

The Vietnam War was not presented through paintings, photographs, or sanitized movie newsreels. Instead the American public, including this growing girl from Spokane, Washington, absorbed the unfolding drama as a grim reality program, years before that term was coined. And that little 10 inch window to the world told me, as young and unsophisticated as I was, that this war was awful. That war is altogether an awful ordeal.

Film crews exposed the jarring horror of  surgical personnel splattered with blood, fighting their own war to save lives. The desperate Marines being interviewed while under assault at a stone wall in the ancient Vietnamese capitol of Hue; the massacre at My Lai, all of it awful. Americans watched firsthand their native sons give what Lincoln called “the last full measure.”

So many years have passed, and this “little girl” is now officially a graying Grandmother. Yet, as I type, my  recollections of fifty years ago remains vivid. And I know that, at this very moment, young people in battle zones face the exact same hell as the lethal jungles of Vietnam. And current American commitments have dragged on far longer than my childhood.

Still, the human cost of war has not changed–not one bit. And though the the draft is inactive, and the American public distracted, the price of conflict remains the same for those young souls presently in harms way.

In the spirit of comforting the disturbed, and disturbing the comfortable, I would like to finish this piece by reprinting a poem by WWI soldier and poet, Siegfried Sassoon. With words alone, Sassoon captures the true degree of awful, using no film crew, photographer, or painter.

Dreamers

By Siegfried Sassoon

Soldiers are citizens of death’s grey land,
Drawing no dividend from time’s to-morrows.
In the great hour of destiny they stand,
Each with his feuds, and jealousies, and sorrows.
Soldiers are sworn to action; they must win
Some flaming, fatal climax with their lives.
Soldiers are dreamers; when the guns begin
They think of firelit homes, clean beds and wives.
I see them in foul dug-outs, gnawed by rats,
And in the ruined trenches, lashed with rain,
Dreaming of things they did with balls and bats,
And mocked by hopeless longing to regain
Bank-holidays, and picture shows, and spats,
And going to the office in the train.
 
*Covid 19 deaths are currently presented in the same visual manner. Grim statistics take a toll.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles are available on Kindle.

You Know You Should Be Glad

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It was the night of February 9, 1964, a Sunday, when my older brother and I had to make a crucial decision.  We were both over stimulated, frantic, not one of our four feet remaining long on the floor. The house vibrated with our excitement and the weight of our impossible dilemma. For starters our birthday was the following day–the 10th, (though we’re not twins–he’s a year older). Still, that pre-birthday fuse had already ignited and by the 9th the two of us were banking off the walls.

The quandary we faced that Sunday night was whether to watch “Davy Crockett at the Alamo,” starring Fess Parker on Disney (The Alamo!), or the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. This was that first historic Beatles broadcast, live on American television, and we agonized between the two choices.

In 1964 there were no video players, no DVD players, no home computers, or dvr’s, in fact televisions were the size of Volkswagen’s and transmitted in glorious, flickering black and white. This difficult decision counted because there was no rewind, there were no do-overs. One gain meant one loss.

We liked Davy Crockett an awful lot.  We had watched all the previous episodes, and Davy biting the dust in San Antonio was the much anticipated grand finale. But, oh, the Beatles! And the adoration was real, palpable, an injection of adrenaline without the needle. We worshiped at the warmth of our bedroom radios, perpetually tuned in to our local AM radio station. Reverent silence accompanied replays of “She Loves You,” and “I Want To Hold Your Hand.”

What could two grade schoolers, sick with anticipation do with such a weighty conundrum?  It was 1964 and we had to choose.

Before the proliferation of electronic media, this little girl of the 1960’s viewed momentous events as they beamed across the screen. MLK’s elocution at the Lincoln Memorial, President Kennedy’s inaugural address, his assassination, and the escalating war in Southeast Asia–all experienced as reported at that moment.

In an earlier era, when Chum flew in his air race, and Helen danced in Rio at the Copacabana, there were no camcorders or Iphones. His signature landing and Helen’s near disastrous opening night grew silent as the applause subsided, then faded in time. Much like my brother and myself in 1964, they lived life forward, one opportunity at a time.

Silent photos and written records are all that remain verifying Chum’s aerial dash through darkened skies, and Helen’s energetic dance routines. They lived life forward, embracing events as they unfolded–experienced once, then gone. I would love to see footage of Chum’s Waco airplane lifting off at dusk, or watch Helen spring across the stage. But those wishes are pipe dreams, never to happen. No vintage film or recording, (except one I found by accident) exist in the historic record. The best I can do for myself, and for readers, is try to recreate the magic of the first time around in the pages of my River of January.

Oh, by the way, I’ve never seen “Davy Crockett at the Alamo.”

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, River of January and River of January: Figure Eight. Also available at www.river-of-january.com.