Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A Farewell Drink

Vietnam Service Ribbon I didn’t expect a call from Rich. I assumed he was back in Tennessee glad to be out of the Army like I was. I was staying at my parents’ place in Louisville at the time and Rich said he was out at the airport and would like to see me before he caught his plane. I asked him where he was going and he said “Back to Vietnam.” I couldn’t believe it and he probably could tell by my long silence. He said, “I’ll tell you all about it when you get out here. I’m in the airport bar.”
I saw him sitting in the corner at a table for two with a mixed drink in front of him. He didn’t notice me until I was standing right beside his chair. He looked up at me and seemed a little startled by my presence. “Hey man, how’s it going?” He motioned for me to sit down. He was in his dress greens which I thought we had both turned in months ago. The waitress came over and I ordered a beer. We didn’t waste time on pleasantries, that’s not the kind of relationship we had, so I asked him straight out, “Rich, why in the hell are you going back?” He was smoking one of those unfiltered cigarettes that turned his fingers yellow. He took a puff and blew it out of the side of his mouth.
“I can’t relate to anybody here. If I’m around people very long, I just get pissed off about something.” He took a sip of his drink; his eyes got a faraway look in them. “I don’t know, things just don’t make sense for me here anymore.”
I was still in shock, “And you think it makes more sense over in Nam.”
“Well yeah, I know the war can be pretty harsh, but life did make more sense there for me.” The waitress brought over my beer. It was a little early in the day for me to be drinking, but that’s what Rich and I did when we were together.
We first met in Army Intelligence School in Baltimore. He was sort of a loner but we hit it off right from the beginning. He was a serious guy, preoccupied by his thoughts. He thought I was funny and he had this explosive laugh that sounded goofy. When the rest of the guys went down to the “Block” to a nudie bar, Rich and I would go over to the EM club for a few beers and talk. After our intelligence training was over, we were the only two from our class sent to Fort Hood Texas.
I remember the night we got our orders. The Enlisted Men’s club was packed. We were all celebrating passing the program. One of the Sergeants came in and someone pulled the plug on the juke box. It got deathly quiet. The Sergeant said he had our orders and began reading them in alphabetical order. Rich and I were last. There must have been 30 of us in there. A couple of guys were gong to Germany, and one to Korea, everyone else was headed straight to Vietnam. When he called out our names and said “Fort Hood, Texas”, for an instant I thought I was home free. But then he added,”… to be deployed with the 198th Brigade to Vietnam”. The entire Brigade was going by ship to Southeast Asia, sailing from San Francisco. When the Sergeant left and the juke box was plugged back in, the song that began to play and had been interrupted was, “If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.” We laughed about making sure to get some flowers. We had to laugh.
Rich was sipping his drink, again staring into the open room. “So what happened at home?” I knew his mom had passed away shortly after he entered the Army.
“My dad’s still at the house, but he really didn’t want anything to do with me.”
“What about the job at the electronics store?” He’d worked at this store since he was 15. The owner, Herb, had taken him in after his dad kicked him out of the house.
“Herb hired a new guy. He said he would try to find work for me, but he really doesn’t need any more help.” He then added, “The Army told me I would make E-6 within the year and they’re giving me my old job back.”
Rich and I worked together for the first few months in Vietnam at the Headquarters base camp. Then he was transferred to Quang Ngai City. I only visited him once down there, but could see his lifestyle was much different from mine. He lived in a small walled compound in the heart of the city. He had his own small apartment. When he showed it to me, I could tell a female had helped him put it together. He said he had a hooch girl that came in and kept things straight. I suspected she was more than just his maid. We went out that day and had a beer in the city. It was the first and only time I was ever in a Vietnamese city. It actually felt civilized. He did his intelligence work under Lieutenant Wilcox and they were the only Americans working there. At the time of my visit, Lieutenant Wilcox and my lieutenant went off to play handball, then they were going to sauna before returning to work. Like I said, this was not at all like my Vietnam experience. They told Rich and me to go out and have a beer, so that’s what we did.
We sat in a café smoking and drinking warm Ba muoi Ba (Vietnamese beer). The waiter brought us a couple chunks of ice, but Rich waved him off and told me not to use it unless I wanted to spend the next few days and nights on the shitter. For a short while sitting there in the café with Rich, it didn’t seem like there was a war going on. The streets were full of bicycles, motor bikes and those 3-wheeled vehicles that were like tiny buses. I had trouble relaxing. I kept thinking how easy it would be for the VC to lob a grenade or satchel charge into the café.
Being together again at the airport bar, I thought this was probably the last time I’d see him, and it was. As he inhaled cigarette smoke, I noticed in this time of long hair and radical granny glasses, he still wore those grey plastic army issue ones. We shook hands and briefly looked into each others’ eyes. “Hang in there, bro’,” was all I could think to say. He nodded, “I will”, and he left the bar to catch his plane. I’ve looked for his name on the wall. There are several guys with the same name as his, but I don’t think it’s him.

Friday, August 20, 2010

An Authentic Retirement

Neville's hat and glasses Neville encouraged me to retire. He seemed to have found himself after retirement. He told me he gets up early, puts on a pot of coffee, turns on his computer and starts writing. “Sometimes it’s way past lunch before I realize I need to eat something.” He said when people ask him what he does, he tells them honestly, “I’m a writer.” When we met on Friday mornings, he brought along the latest chapters of the novel we were writing together.
We originally just met once a month for coffee. We talked about books, movies, politics, ideas…anything was fair game. Our conversations had a vibrancy and liveliness that left us both feeling exhilarated. I thought of our time together as being like Hemingway and Joyce on the Left Bank, or Huxley and Lawrence hiking the hills of Northern Italy or Kerouac and Ginsberg at a coffee shop in the Village. During one of our meetings, Neville suggested writing a novel together. He had the central idea worked out and shared it with me. I wasn’t working on a writing project at the time and hadn’t for years. My excuse was I was using up all my creative energy at work and didn’t have any left over for writing. I liked Neville’s idea and decided maybe this joint project was what I needed to get me going again.
So we started meeting at a coffee house on my Friday mornings off. I loved the unhurried feeling of our Fridays together. The characters and story line began to develop rather quickly. Neville considered himself a scientist and I considered myself a social scientist and this was the catalyst for his idea to write the book together. It was a detective story, but instead of having one main sleuth, there would be two, one with an acute mind for the technical aspects of detective work and the other, with a trained, observant eye for human behavior. His vision was that we could channel our often intense and always interesting discussions into a work of fiction.
Neville said many times that this book was going to be great, maybe even a best seller. I believed him. We were both excited as the novel began taking shape. Neville was immersed in the creative flow and it manifested in all parts of his life. But this flow was happening for me only on Friday mornings, when we were together at the coffee house. The rest of the time, I was working at the mental health center and feeling worn out, like I wanted to retire. I was happy for Neville. It hadn’t been too long before this that he had hit rock bottom, stuck deep in depression.
We first met when he came into the veterans’ counseling program as a client. His story poured out easily, as if he had been waiting for an open receptacle. His wife had left him for another man, he was “let go” from his job at the college where he taught science classes and he was forced to live at the local homeless shelter. We related well to each other right from the beginning. Somewhere in the course of therapy, his depression gave way to anger. He was angry at his wife, angry with the guy she took off with, angry with the boss who forced him out of his job and angry with the homeless shelter for some of their unfair policies and practices. He had a lot of good reasons to be angry and he talked emphatically about all of them.
I would not describe Neville as a guy who normally got angry. But the anger was necessary, supplying the energy and direction to pull him out of the depression. One session he brought in a scholarly paper he had written laying out all of his complaints against the homeless center. It was well written, displaying passion, keen perception and intelligence. This was the beginning of Neville’s transmuting his anger into constructive behavior.
We saw each other as counselor/client on a weekly basis for about 2 years. At some point his attitude about his losses; marriage, work, home and personal identity, began to change. I noticed this shortly after he moved into his own apartment. One day he told me he had hung some pictures on the wall and was excited about this. “You know I’ve never really had my own place before.” He said he went into the Army right out of high school and married right out of the Army.
Toward the end of therapy, he asked if we could get together for coffee outside of the sessions. We both recognized a unique friendship quality to our counseling relationship. I told him I would like to meet with him as soon as the therapy sessions were completed.  Several years went by before we actually began meeting. One day I ran into him at the bagel shop and one of us must have said, “Let’s really do it this time”, so we started meeting regularly over coffee.
Neville was working on several writing projects and gave me several of his shorter works. One piece was called “Finding a Niche”. It was reflective about the many roles he had adopted throughout life, like  son, student, soldier, husband, father, construction worker, scientist, teacher and park ranger. The piece ends with his discovering and choosing his ultimate role, just being Neville, what Existentialists call “living an authentic life”. He was through living in a reactionary mode, doing this activity or playing that role in reaction to others wanted or expected it. He was experimenting with being genuine, really choosing all aspects of his life, including how he defined himself. He said the essence of who he was did not neatly fit into any one of his previous roles. He had come to the realization that these roles shaped and influenced him, but none totally defined him.
He started wearing a hat similar to the Smokey the Bear hat he wore when he worked for the National Park Service. People around town often recognized him as a former park ranger and he liked that. He had cherished his role as a ranger and so it remained part of his new chosen identity. One Friday morning I noticed a piece of tape around the middle of his glasses. He told me they had broken and this was the way he’d fixed them. “I’m paying homage to all those nerds from my school days.” He said he didn’t realize it at the time, for he was too busy trying to be cool, but the nerds didn’t seem to care what others thought of them. They were involved with ideas and activities, unconcerned with how they looked. Neville wore that piece of tape for a long time. He wrote a story about being “cool” and how shallow and relative that is. His creative side was really flowing and there was nothing beyond it’s reach.
Neville lived off his social security check. At times he was totally out of money but I never heard him complain about it. He no longer defined himself by money or possessions. He didn’t own a car the entire time I knew him. He liked taking the bus. “You meet a lot of interesting people on the bus.” I often felt a strong need to get out of town, but Neville didn’t seem to have this need. He loved our little town and its natural surroundings. He had found his place in the world and had no desire for any other.
As our novel began to take shape, my view of the town took on a new depth and richness that wasn’t there before. We discovered the town’s beginnings, what it was like during the late 1800s and early 1900s. We became familiar with many of the early characters important to the town’s development. Neville did most of the research on the computers at the library. One day we walked over to view a mural on the side of a building that depicted the town’s early days. He pointed out some of the details in the painting that illustrated the town’s history. For example, Neville said the men using giant fire hoses to spray the surrounding hills were sluicing. This process caused a mud landslide that ran down the hill and into the town raising the street levels. He pointed out the buildings in the mural and then we rode around town to see what used to be brothels, tobacco shops or mercantile stores.It was like we were living in two different worlds. I’m sure this effect was stronger for him, for I would return to my regular life of work and family, but Neville immersed himself in the time and place of our novel. The story was beginning to write itself and go in directions neither of us could have predicted.
At the coffee house Neville liked talking to the young barista. He drew her out like a master. She told us all about her less than attentive boyfriend and how she wanted a better life for her young daughter and herself. Neville encouraged her to follow her dreams. She lit up when she saw us coming on Friday mornings. I should say when she saw Neville coming in with his side kick. She had a load of recent information about her life to share. Neville acted fatherly and supportive. I have to admit, I was a little impatient with the whole process. It was too much like my work and I wanted to get going on our novel. But this was part of Neville’s new life, listening to others with interest and enjoyment, and giving them encouragement.
One day Neville told me about meeting a woman on the bus that he was most attracted to. He would ride the bus at certain times of the day just to run into her. He didn’t waste any time and was soon seeing her on a regular basis. He told me about the freedom he felt at this age, not feeling pressured concerning relationships. He was determined to allow this new relationship to evolve at a natural pace. One day he said he never thought it would happen for him at this stage of life, but he was in love. “I feel like a giddy adolescent.” Once on our way to the bookstore, he pointed out where the two of them liked to sit on the grass and look out over the water. One day he told me, “Life doesn’t get any better than this.” Neville had been happy with his life before this new relationship, so it was like icing on the cake.
After I decided to retire and move to Arizona, Neville worked out how our novel could end in the Southwest, leaving some clues for our detectives’ successors to pick up on in our next novel. We weren’t sure how we could work together at such a distance, but assumed we would figure that out. Katie and I moved to Arizona in November and all my attempts to get hold of Neville failed. I called and left messages, emailed him and wrote him a Christmas card, but didn’t hear anything back. I knew our friendship was strong and figured there was a good reason he didn’t respond. In December I got a call from his lady friend. She told me that Neville had died suddenly of a massive stroke.
I had wanted to tell him that I was writing again and was feeling the excitement and creative energy we felt at the coffee shop. And that I also felt that retirement, was a unique time for a new beginning. I wanted to show him a picture of myself in the big cowboy hat I bought. He would have loved that I looked kind of goofy in it. I wanted to tell him that I had been down to the library and did some research on the cowboy years in Arizona. I found out by reading old newspaper articles that the “wild west” really did exist for a short period of time and that this time period would be the perfect setting for our next novel. Now I’d like to tell him what an inspiration he was to me and how much I’ll miss him.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Inspired by a Politician and a Folk Singer

 I’ve not gotten involveMeeting Hoyt Axtond much in politics over the years. In 1988 I  volunteered as a delegate for Gary Hart’s presidential campaign. I went to only one of the delegate meetings and decided I couldn’t stand all the boring speeches and bureaucratic BS, so I quit. Soon after I dropped out, that picture of Donna Rice sitting on Mr. Hart’s lap became public and his campaign collapsed.
The first time I got fired up about a political candidate was in 1972. I was a student at the University of Oregon and the candidate was George McGovern. Interestingly, Gary Hart was his campaign manager. At that time the student movement against the Vietnam War was in full swing. I, too, was against the war, but as a Vietnam veteran I didn’t feel comfortable joining in with the other students who were often against the soldiers as well. The protesters managed to get the Army ROTC program kicked off campus. I was opposed to this. I felt we needed educated officers in the Army instead of what we called the “90 day wonders”, officers who went through OCS. I participated in only one march and that was “Vietnam Veterans Against the War”.
George McGovern was a decorated WWII bomber pilot. After the war, he became a History and Political Science professor. I thought he was extremely intelligent and capable of becoming a great President and Commander-in-Chief. I was excited when he came to the U of O on his campaign rounds. He pledged that within 90 days in office he would pull the U.S. out of Vietnam in exchange for all of the POWs. The Vietnam War went on until 1975. Think of all the lives that would have been saved if he had won. His campaign rally was inspiring. In addition to his opposition to the war, he talked about America’s need to wean ourselves from our dependence on fossil fuels and to develop sources of energy more friendly to the environment. He also talked about reforming the health care system so that all Americans could be covered affordably.
Around this time, I was working at the Eugene Airport as a parking lot attendant. It was the perfect job for a student because there were long periods when nothing happened. This afforded me time to study; my grades improved considerably after taking this job. The morning after the McGovern rally, a lone RV pulled up to exit the lot. The driver was a big man wearing a cowboy hat. As soon as he was alongside the toll booth, I recognized him. It was Hoyt Axton.
After I returned from Vietnam I still had over a year to serve on my enlistment in the Army. I was stationed at Fort Hood, Texas. Having been out of the country for a year, I had a lot of music to catch up on. It was the end of the ‘60s and the new music that was emerging was folk blended with rock and country. There were a few artists/albums that I became passionate about. I listened to them over and over again lying on my bunk in the corner of the barracks. They helped me heal from my year in Vietnam. The albums were: Tom Rush,The Circle Game, Eric Anderson, ‘Bout Changes and Things , Richie Havens, Mixed Bag, Leonard Cohen, Songs of Leonard Cohen and Songs From a Room and Hoyt Axton, My Griffin Is Gone. I felt I knew these musicians intimately and owed them a huge debt of gratitude for their sensitive, heartfelt music that came at a time when I desperately needed to feel hope about life.
When Hoyt pulled up alongside the toll booth I said, “Aren’t you Hoyt Axton?” and he replied, “What’s left of him.” He told me about his months working for the McGovern campaign and how it had totally worn him out. We shared the hope that McGovern would win the election. I mentioned that just a few days before, I had bought one of his albums, but being somewhat star struck, I couldn’t remember the name of it. He mentally went through a list of his albums, and we finally decided it was Country Anthem.  He  asked if I had his most popular album, Joy to the World. I told him I didn’t. He disappeared into the back of the RV then reappeared handing me the LP. I didn’t think about having him sign it. He wished me good luck and took off down the road. I also neglected to tell him how much, My Griffin Is Gone, meant to me when I was in the Army.
McGovern lost the election by a landslide. I guess the country wasn’t ready for his “progressive” ideas and as we now know, Nixon  ran a ruthless  campaign. But McGovern is alive and well, living in South Dakota with history on his side. Hoyt died much too soon at age 61, but he lives on through his music and films. He gave us some American standards like Greenback Dollar and Joy to the World, but my favorite songs are on that 1969 album that I all but wore out when I was young and trying to find some sense to it all.