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.

Personal Earthquakes

My mother worked for the US Postal Service. She went to work in the early sixties, when we were still in grade school and stayed on until her retirement at age sixty five. The woman had four kids and a house, and a yard, and she probably was pretty overwhelmed—something I now understand. To get an extra pair of hands my parents decided to house a student each term who attended a business school in Spokane called Kinman Business School. Lord knows what kind of credential awaited these secretaries-in-training after completion, but these girls ended up learning shorthand, typing, and similar office skills.

The first girl who lived with us stayed in the second bedroom off the hall. I think her name was Corrine. I can’t remember exactly because it was around 1965 or 1966, and we were pretty young. Corrine was from Alaska, and I remember she was part Filipino or Native American, which I thought was pretty cool. Her hair was long, thick, dark, and she ratted up a poofy top bubble in a clip while letting the rest fall in black curls. My hair looked a lot like Ramona’s from the Beverly Cleary books, and I admired her thick tresses all the more.

Our house was constantly in a state of chaos, with noise, messes—people coming and going and generally a hectic backdrop of activity. But walking into Corrine’s small quarters felt like a completely different world, a world of order and gravity. All of her things were neatly stowed away, her bed carefully made, and the space even smelled differently than the rest of the house. I loved visiting her room, as it felt like an oasis of tranquility in a sea of crazy disarray. And it was in her little sanctuary that serene Corrine shared her life with me just a little.

She told me about the terrible Alaska earthquake a couple of years prior, how her house in Cordova had been damaged; and that Anchorage was split nearly in two by the tremors. Her narrative made a big impact on me because I had just read about the Alaska quake in an issue of National Geographic. Corrine lived through an event memorialized in National Geographic! Corrine was part of a bigger, unpredictable world.

There was also a picture on her dresser of a boy. When I asked who he was, she told me he was Ty, and that they planned on getting married in a few years. Married! I never knew a girl who had plans to get married! The only people I knew who were married were parents, and they were boring. She explained to me that her boyfriend’s name, Ty, was short for Tyrone, and he was visiting Spokane soon because he was in the Army and heading to a country called Vietnam. Tyrone wanted to see his girlfriend, and future wife before shipping out to Asia.

Marriage, Ty for Tyrone, Vietnam, Earthquakes . . . Corrine fascinated me.

Now my memories are a little sketchy concerning Ty’s visit to our house. I do remember he was white, an interesting contrast to her dark, exotic appearance, but he had dark hair, too. They sat on the couch in our living room and held hands which struck me as very interesting. I am sure that there were deeper emotions at play with his visit, but whatever happened fell below my 11-year-old radar. He did spend a lot of time with her in her room, with the door closed. But who knows?

And then Ty was gone.

The school term ended, and apparently in a successful manner. Corrine packed up most of her things and returned to Cordova for the summer. I’m not sure of the agreements or adult discussions, but she did return the next fall. Her room remained a wonderful respite from the cacophony of the rest of the house, and the same picture of Ty’s remained on her dresser. Letters began to arrive in the mail written on onion-skin parchment, imprinted AIR MAIL. I’d never seen stationary like that, and she told me that was the best way she and Ty could exchange letters overseas. The paper was light blue, and felt like stiff tissue, but held its shape without creasing. Corrine had stacks of it, both fresh and received—the only sign of clutter in her neat little world.

And then one day Ty came back to our house, and this visit was very different from the first meeting. The couple did not sit on the couch and hold hands. Not this time. My pre-teen sensibilities were scandalized to see this grown man lying across her lap sobbing like his heart had broken. Poor Corrine! She too, was dissolved in tears, red, puffy eyes behind her glasses. Ty couldn’t stop, he could not compose himself, and he wouldn’t let go of her either. The whole scene seemed very surreal. I didn’t understand how a grown man could fly apart like that, and in front of everybody.

That episode happened a very long time ago. And it was also only yesterday.

I grew up, went to college, majored in American History and became a teacher. For years and years I taught a unit on the Vietnam War to high school juniors. I know the facts surrounding America’s entrance into that long, long, conflict. The 1954 French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, the Geneva Accords that split the country at the 17th parallel, the Marines landing at Danang in 1965, the devastating Tet Offensive in 1968, The My Lai Massacre, the Paris Peace Accords, the protests on the home front, the bombing operations (all by name), and finally the controversy over The Wall. But in all my teaching of those facts, of all the stories from Veterans of that war, after all of the analysis by historians regarding the War in Vietnam—nothing about those years affected me as deeply as the change in that boy from Alaska, utterly destroyed by his year-long deployment when I was eleven years old.

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January