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Posts from the ‘Story’ Category

Memorial Stories

Like the great majority of the American population, I have no one in my family who died in military service. Generations of my ancestors served in conflicts from the Civil War to World War II, but no one died in combat. Five years ago I knew only one man who had been killed in Vietnam. The grief of war was an abstract thing to me. I understood Memorial Day, meaning I knew the difference between it and Veterans Day and the Fourth of July, but it still felt like a day of observance that belonged to other people. Read more

Chautauqua, and not a moment too soon

250px-ChatauquaInst_HallPhilosophyI came to the Chautauqua Institution six years ago and while I loved it, I had not been tempted to return. My own fault, really. I approached it, by habit, as a Learning Experience. I took classes. I listened to lectures. In the spirit of the Institution’s founding, I felt Improved. But nothing happened that stirred me.

This year, by chance, I came across the theme for the season, “What It Means To Be Human,” and saw the theme for Week 8, “War and Its Warriors: Contemporary Voices.” I scanned the speakers. Some were new to me but I had the books, in some cases multiple books, by four of them on my shelves. Read more

Next stop is Vietnam

431307_331173300258707_152560524786653_947670_642371523_nIt’s the liminal time and space. I actually have a little vertigo, probably from excitement and fatigue, but certainly because I am moving now between two worlds. I’ve probably been in this space for a while, which is why, a few days ago, I threw myself on the sofa and wondered what the hell I had gotten myself into. I’ve set a goal and that goal has tickets and an itinerary and other people committed here and expecting us there. In a few hours we will set out. We will drive to Toronto and leave – on a jet plane (those 60s songs are coming back spontaneously now) – for a 16 hour flight to Taipei and a two hour flight to Saigon.

Our goals as individuals are varied and will change as we learn, or as we encounter things that will take a while to learn. I go because I love to watch the encounters between cultures. Like fusion cooking, something new happens using the ingredients of each. That interests me.

As a nation we did not take the time to learn, 50-some years ago. Now individuals and groups of individuals go to make some sense, not of the war – the war has ended – but of why Americans could not have done that better and could we not do it better now. I go because the answer there is, “of course we can. Come, sit with us and talk. Share stories. Laugh. Cry. Live.”

Foxholes and Protests


Mark (right) and friends, January 1968.

I used to be annoyed with Mark’s friends and family for not at least trying to talk him out of going to war in Vietnam and then going back for a second tour. I could let myself off the hook because while I knew him and knew most of his friends I wasn’t in much communication with them.
When he set his sights on the Army we were in high school. He was an extrovert, school photographer and reporter. I was catatonically shy, loving French and my few friends but otherwise being generally miserable. But that isn’t the time that concerns me now. I am thinking of when he got back after his first tour in January 1968. Read more

The Dead

grave_2aI walk through the churchyard of Fairview Methodist Church in Rural Retreat, Virginia, among headstones carved with familiar names. These are people who were a part of my childhood. They helped me grow up. Their lives formed a network around mine and I was woven in among them.

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Method Editing

Seeing things from a soldier's point of view. Dong Nai River, Feb. 10, 1969.  Photo by Mark Smith

Seeing things from a soldier’s point of view.
Dong Nai River, Feb. 10, 1969.
Photo by Mark Smith

Years ago when I worked for a publication of the American Indian Program at Cornell, I frequently had the responsibility of editing the transcription of an oral talk by a Native speaker for print. Listening and reading are very different cognitive processes and they are also different cultural forms. I wanted the readers of a journal published on a university campus to sense the  cadences of a Native speaker for whom oral communication is primary. Read more

Hearing a War Story

11-02_story_telling-300x295A year and a half ago, it might be a lifetime, I got a lesson from Coyote, which I wrote about in Story-listening. At the time I thought I was balancing Story-telling (in which, not incidentally, I told about meeting Coyote to begin with) but, looking back, I see I took Coyote’s lesson to heart. Since that time I have chosen not just to listen to stories but to listen to those that are not easy to hear, that I wish I could put behind me or move on from or convince myself are no longer relevant. I have chosen to listen to stories about the Vietnam War.  Read more

The Shortest Day and the End of the World

fingerlakes_morning_grapes__612x388The wind has been moaning around the house for days now, especially in the morning and at night. During the day the sun might rally and make the winter look spectacular but then the wind …

It is easy to believe all those people who know nothing at all about the Mayan Calendar but are feeling the same existential angst human beings have been feeling for millennia at this time of year and they want everyone else to feel it, too. Read more


He sits facing the camera, legs crossed. A stripe runs down the outside of the pants leg. His left hand cradles a revolver while his right holds a Bowie knife against his shoulder. A jaunty striped collar sets off a strong head with dark, wavy hair and a fringe of beard. I notice the eyes, intent and knowing. They are different sizes, the left slightly smaller than the right. I have the same eyes.

This is my great grandfather, John Thomas Dixon. Most of his life he was a tobacco farmer in Charlotte and Prince Edward counties in Virginia but from June or July 1861 to April 23, 1865 he was a Confederate soldier, 56th Virginia Infantry. He fought in many well-known battles but his greatest claim to fame, if only in our family, was that he was wounded in, and survived, Pickett’s Charge.
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Country Funeral

“Have you ever seen a ghost,” my friend asked.

We were having breakfast at Cafe Dewitt. I was on the banquette with my back to the fishtank. We were early so no one was seated nearby but they would have been intrigued.

“I haven’t seen one, though I have always wanted to,” I responded. “But I think I heard one once.”

So I told the story.  Read more