AP photo, published by CNN.
It was late in the afternoon of the day Notre Dame burned when my daughter called.
“This is your time period, isn’t it, Mom?”
“Well, mostly,” I answered, “apart from the 19th century Viollet le Duc restorations that, along with Victor Hugo’s novel, saved the building only that recently. One timeline has the building dating from the 13th century but it is actually far older. This building was begun in … ”
I was in defensive, art historian mode. Read more
A year ago I sat on a folding chair in an ordinary meeting room listening to poetry. The room had a table with the usual hospitality contributions – bottles of juices and water, crackers, a tray of vegetables and hummus. Another table held books for sale and a third a display of paper made from the pulped uniforms of veterans.
The event was a reading to celebrate the launch of Sound Off: Warrior Writers NJ, a volume whose unassuming size gave little hint of the explosion of power within. Some of the poets were already friends – Vietnam veteran Jim Murphy, Iraq veterans Kevin Basl and Nate Lewis. Others were names I had known for decades but had never met. Jan Barry and W.D. Ehrhart I knew from their work in Winning Hearts and Minds: War Poems by Vietnam Veterans, published while the war was still waging. Dayl Wise, co-founder of Post-Traumatic Press, Walt Nygard, Everett Cox were names I picked up along the way and, listening to their poetry, glad of it. Read more
Marines marching in Da Nang, 1965. Associated Press, via PBS
Even after the passage of 50 years time, it is hard to imagine anyone except Ken Burns who would have dared to take on a documentary about the Vietnam War. Love him or hate him, he has stature and respect and a resumé that means that, if nothing else, he cannot be ignored. Already, before it has aired, partisans of the extremes of opinion the culture has carried for all this time, are condemning it for not doing what it has expressly set out not to do – bring the issue to resolution. Read more
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
I had dinner recently with someone I had known from my neighborhood for several years. She wanted to get us away from our construction chaos, give us a very welcome break. I have known her only as kind and community-minded. She makes a point of greeting new neighbors, signing them up for the listserv, and inviting them to the picnic. She offers to help and she does. She is a few years older than I am. She carries memories. Read more
A few years ago, Mark and I were sitting with a friend in a Panera restaurant having coffee and talking. Suddenly a man I call the Panera Stranger thrust his hand at Mark and said, “Thank you for your service!” Mark mumbled something, I was paralyzed, and we were all – including, most likely, the Stranger, left feeling awkward and uncomfortable. Read more
Well, it’s only the evening of the first day and I am already unglued. Eight years ago today, Franklin Delano Roosevelt stood in the amphitheater at Chautauqua, the place I was sitting, to deliver what came to be known as the “I Hate War” speech. Tonight the program interspersed anthems and hymns with recorded segments of that speech. Read more
I found this, “How To Listen To Me, a Veteran,” on the website of the Office of Veterans and Military Personnel at Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis and found it quite useful, not just for listening to veterans but for listening to anyone who has a difficult story to tell. Some of his points challenge the assumptions of a culture all-too-given to lionizing anything military while at the same time not taking the time to listen to what they say.
His point of view merits discussion. This, for instance: “If you make the offer to listen to me though, you had better mean it. You had better mean that you will sit with me and listen till I am done telling, not until you are bored or uncomfortable. Make the offer to listen to me, and then be prepared in case I decide you are the right person to tell my story to.” Those sentences alone are worth separate discussion and he has many of them. Respond in the comments, if you will. Read more
It is March 1969 in a place west of Saigon that the men called the Tobacco Field. They also called it Ambush Valley. Civilians were rare here, so when this group of farmers walked nearby, Captain Meager (second from right) with his interpreter went to talk to them. Mark (who took the picture) said Capt. Meager asked them if there were Viet Cong nearby and they said, no, they didn’t know about any Viet Cong, which seemed too mundane a story for me so I saw more in it.
Howie Anderson, Floyd Roger, John Ropp – War Zone C, 1969, photo by Tom Vinceguerra. (Note the spices in John Ropp’s hand.)
The One String Violin, the book I am working on with Mark Smith, is almost finished. Finally I put all the sections together and added up the words: way, way too many. Even our most devoted readers might think we had overestimated their patience. So I set about to edit. First to go are all the extra words, of course, but there weren’t that many. I had to cut whole incidents, entire thoughts. Happily, we plan a website where the outtakes will find a home but until I create that I will put a few things here. This is from my epilogue, in which I talk about the process we went through that made it possible for such different people to write a book together.
Mark and I share a disdain for stories that focus only on one aspect of the war. Too many books and movies hit only one emotional note – all horror, or glory, or fury or brutality. Mark says war was 10% terror and 90% boredom. To me, 10% terror is plenty but there is that 90%.
So I learned about the ordinary. I learned about shipping film back and forth and what happens to clothing and skin in the heat and humidity. I learned about the way helmets were decorated and that the letters Mark received from home did not survive because he simply could not carry them around.
I learned, though, that dried spices were worth carrying because they could turn dreary C-rations into a kind of stew they called “Saigon Slumgullion.”
The war was filled with ordinary moments but nothing I could do would make them ordinary to me.