Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Faces in the Yearbook

I’ve never gone to one of my high school class reunions. The last one would have been the 46th. I find this hard to believe. McClure was a big high school in north St. Louis County, with over 3000 students, grades ten through twelve. Sometime in the 1980s, the planning committee for our 20th or 25th class reunion tracked me down in Washington state. Ever since then I’ve been receiving yearly reunion notifications. In recent years these emails have also contained death notifications of some of my former classmates.
I didn’t know a lot of my classmates and many of the names in these emails sounded familiar, but I had trouble putting a face to the name. I saved the emails thinking that one day I would look these people up in the yearbook, which has been stashed away at my sister Karen’s house for the past umpteen years. On our recent trip to Seattle, I found the box containing yearbooks at the bottom of a stack of boxes in her basement and I threw it in the car for the trip home to Arizona.
The other day I looked up all my now deceased former classmates. To my surprise, I recognized most of them. Not only did I recognize them, but I could hear their voices and see some of their mannerisms. I’m sure I haven’t thought about these people since we were in high school, but now they have come back to life in my mind.
When I look at their pictures, my thoughts and feelings about them are frozen in time. I’m 63 years old, yet I’m looking through the eyes of a 17-year-old. That girl was really cute and what a body! That guy was tough, I wouldn’t have wanted to get on his wrong side.That girl was really sweet to me, why didn’t I talk to her more? That guy was  cool but that one was a real nerd.
I found myself feeling compassion for all these students. We were together in high school at the very beginning of our adult lives and at a time in history, just before our society radically changed. I’m sure many of them married and divorced, lost spouses or children along the way, had multiple ups and downs and now those of us who have survived are in the last part of our lives.
One guy from my class never got a chance to be a hippy, go to college, have a career or a family. His name was Mike and he died in Vietnam in 1967, just two years after we graduated. He was one of the cool guys, tall with blond hair and good looking. I didn’t know him well, but we had a mutual girlfriend. To be more precise, she was my friend and his girlfriend. Her name was Marley and she went to a nearby Catholic school. I first met her out cruising the burger stands with some of the guys. This was an activity she never did, but on this one occasion the car she was riding in ended up right next to our car at the Jennings’ Steak & Shake.
That night we all ended up over at her friend Birdy’s house. Birdy’s parents’ weren’t home for some reason, so we raided their liquor cabinet, drank mixed drinks and listened to music. At some point, Marley and I paired off and found we had a mutual passion for a lot of the same music. It was 1964 and the Beatles had opened up America to the British invasion. She didn’t like some of the British groups, but she did like The Animals, The Kinks and The Zombies. We also shared a love for the early ‘60s girl groups like The Shirelles, The Chiffons and The Ronettes as well as Mary Wells. But our musical tastes parted company in several areas. She didn’t care for the “Stones” and she liked jazz and folk music, which I wasn’t into.
Marley was excited to share an album with me that she’d recently bought. It was “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan”. I had never heard of the guy. At first I didn’t like it. I thought he had a terrible voice and was an even worse harmonica player. But she convinced me to hang in there with him, which I’m glad I did. Marley and I became friends after that night. She called me Yeager and I felt I could talk to her about anything. We got together periodically, just to talk and listen to music.
After graduating from high school, I went on a week long trip to Florida with my friends Petie and Jeff. We drove non-stop from St. Louis to Fort Lauderdale in Petie’s Corvair, Monza, with the top down. When we got there, after considerable effort, we found a motel room to share. The rule was, if any one of us hooked up with a girl, the other two would stay clear of the motel room.
I spent most nights sleeping in the car or sitting on a bench on the board walk looking out at the ocean. Luckily I had the motel room all to myself to sleep in during the day. On one of the nights, I remember hearing the familiar nasal voice of Dylan coming from the arcade nearby. But it wasn’t one of the folk songs Marley and I had become familiar with. It was rock ‘n’ roll. The song was “Like a Rolling Stone”. I found the jukebox in the back of the arcade and played it over and over again that night. I was anxious to get back home to ask Marley what she thought about Dylan going electric. I thought about her a lot during that trip and decided I wanted to tell her my true feelings and that I thought our relationship should be more than just friends.
But I never told her my feelings and shortly after that I went into the Army. When I was home on leave after completing my training and prior to going to Vietnam, I went over to her house. She was surprised and happy to see me, but when I entered her living room, there sat Mike on the couch. I could tell they had a romantic thing going on and it made the visit awkward. Mike asked me about the Army. I told him I had signed up for 3 years which allowed me to choose my MOS(Army job). I felt my choice of Intelligence would be interesting and a lot safer. Mike was 1-A at the time and said he was going to allow himself to be drafted. I mentioned that he’d probably get stuck in the Infantry and he replied, “I’ll take my chances.”
I got a letter from Marley when I was in Vietnam. I had about 2 months left on my tour. She said that Mike had stepped on a landmine and was instantly killed. I had trouble feeling bad about it at the time. I had already experienced so much death and destruction. I knew Marley was devastated, so I wrote a letter back with what I thought were comforting words. I told her I would see her when I got back.
Mike looks happy in his yearbook picture. He wasn’t dating Marley yet, but I think he had a lot of different girlfriends in high school. I found his name on a replica of the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Truth or Consequences, Mew Mexico a couple years ago.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Who Am I To Judge?

I only broke down and cried twice in Vietnam. The second and last time was after my fellow interrogator, Jim, was wheeled out of the ER at the hospital in Chu Lai, briefly came to and said, “Yeager, I’m glad it was me who went instead of you.” He had been shot in the gut and it wasn’t the kind of wound that one surgery could fix. As he drifted back out of consciousness, I hurried outside, sat down on a wooden bench, put my head in my hands and sobbed. It should have been me lying on that gurney all shot up. It was my mission.
Earlier that day I was interrogating a young VC (Viet Cong) woman. She told me the location of a large weapons cache and I reported it to my superiors. It just so happened that one of our battalions was launching a mission into the exact same area that evening. I was told by “L.T.” (our lieutenant) to get my interpreter and the VC woman and mount up, battalion was sending over a helicopter to pick us up in less than an hour.
At the time, I was getting “short”. I had less than a month before going home. And as my time “in country” shortened, I was becoming increasingly paranoid. I was one of the seasoned interrogators. Part of the job was accompanying the infantry on their mission if we found out any vital information from a detainee, such as the location of a weapons cache. We also screened villagers in the field, if we suspected there was  enemy activity in the area. Evidently someone higher up in the ranks liked the idea of us interrogators working directly with the units in the field. Rumors were circulating that our Interrogation team might be broken up and each of us assigned to a different battalion in the field. In other words they would turn us into grunts(Infantrymen). This whole prospect worried the hell out of me. I had heard of too many guys getting killed on their last days in country. I wanted to go home alive and with all my working parts.
Our unit put together the latest intelligence maps, so I knew this mission would drop me right smack in the middle of a big NVA (North Vietnamese Army) buildup. It was starting to get dark outside. I thought it would be suicide to attempt to lead the soldiers to this weapons cache in the dark and in the middle of hostile territory. I flat out didn’t want to go, but I had to. It was my job.
As I was suiting up, Jim approached me and asked if he could go in my place. Without a moment’s hesitation I said, “It’s all right with me, as long as you run it by L.T.” Jim and Steve had come into our unit at the same time. They were new replacements for some of the guys who’d already gone home. Both were smart and capable, but they were “newbies” and hadn’t been tested by fire yet. L.T. gave Jim the OK.  I watched as the chopper briefly touched down on the heli-pad and Jim, the VC detainee and my interpreter, Chang, climbed into the Huey and flew off to NVA country.
Jim was excited about going out on his first mission. I remembered that feeling, it was exhilarating. I too was full of it when I first got in country. But it was totally gone within a few months. This was a seriously dangerous mission. An FNG like Jim shouldn’t have been the one going. But I didn’t allow any of these thoughts to occupy much space in my mind. My thoughts at the time followed a different path, more along the lines of: He wants to go on this mission and I don’t, so why shouldn’t he. He’s got to learn sometime and it might as well be now. Besides, I’m too short to give a rat’s ass.
That evening we were sitting on our bunks, having a few beers, probably passing around a joint. OD was playing his guitar and as we sang along to some popular song, I heard a jeep drive up to the entrance of our hooch. The brakes squealed and it stopped right in front of the door. The driver yelled, “Is Yeager in there?” My heart sank. I knew it had to be bad news. I opened the hooch door and an MP, not bothering to get out of the jeep, simply said. “Your guy’s up in the hospital, he’s been shot.”
I grabbed my rifle and helmet and hurried down to the motor pool to get a jeep. I drove alone up Highway 1 to the Americal Division Headquarters hospital. Thinking back, that was a crazy thing to do, but at the time, if I had been ambushed, I would have thought, I’m just getting what I deserve. I was an expert at pushing away my feelings. We all were, but as I followed the headlights up the dirt highway in the black of night, I was consumed with a sense of dread and guilt. God please don’t let him die.
Sitting outside the operating room on the wooden bench with my back against the wall, the guilt turned to shame. I can vividly recall how humid the night was. Above my head swung a bare light bulb on a wire, causing shadows to circle around my feet. I composed myself and walked back into the recovery area. Jim was awake and recounted for me what had happened. “I was walking point.” He said with some effort.
Those fucking grunts should not have allowed him to walk point. But, who was I to judge?
“II rounded a bend and thought I saw someone lying on the trail up ahead. Suddenly I recognized it was an NVA soldier, but before I could lift my rifle, he sat up and shot me, then all hell broke loose. I lay there feeling like I was going to pass out. Somebody dragged me off the trail and I stayed there in the brush listening to the others fighting for their lives.” He was eager to tell me everything that happened. I stood at the side of the gurney listening, trying not to pass out myself.
Jim told me he had to crawl to an area where a soldier hoisted him over his shoulder and carried him to a small open field. He said he lay in the field for what seemed like only seconds but it was probably longer, “My mind was going in and out ”, when a medivac chopper arrived.
Jim survived. I saw him that next year in Texas . I was still in the Army stationed at Fort Hood where he looked me up. We met in Temple, Tx. at a Mexican restaurant. He walked in with the help of a cane. I thought maybe he wanted to forgive me, let me off the hook, like he did the night he was shot, but that didn’t happen. Instead he told me in great detail about his many operations and how much of a struggle everyday things were  for him now. I felt sorry for him. Then he looked me right in the eyes as we munched on our chips and salsa, and said, “You know Yeager, you’re the reason I’m all fucked up. It should have been you on that mission not me.”.
That was the last time I saw him, but I’ve thought about him a lot over the years. I’d like to think I’d do things differently if I got the chance, but the hard reality is, I probably wouldn’t.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Our Vacation From Retirement

We spent 6 weeks traveling to and being in the Northwest. It was a chance to get away from the heat of the desert and visit family and friends. Now we’re back and having to adjust to the heat all over again. Highs here in Green Valley are in the 90’s, which is still damned hot, but at least it’s not over 100. We Southwesterners universally dread triple digit temperatures. The extreme heat does seriously impair one’s motivation to go outside.
I only wrote two blog entries during the month of August. I had trouble keeping any sort of routine going while traveling. Before we left, I promised myself that I would continue to write, exercise regularly and eat good, healthy food. After several days on the road, I realized that promise blew out the car window.  I surrendered to the reality of being self- disciplined, on occasion. Our trip turned out to be a vacation from our usual retirement routine.
Katie and I were surprised by how much we enjoyed being in the city of Seattle. We stayed in a basement apartment of a friend’s house in the Greenwood area. We could walk to restaurants, coffee shops and grocery stores. Prior to this trip, Seattle had been a place to visit for short periods of time, usually on weekends; after a few days we were eager to get away from the crowds, the noise and the fast pace. Now that we’re retired we discovered that during the middle of a weekday Seattle is a very pleasant city to be in. And there was always somewhere to go, something interesting to do and somebody to do it with. We just needed to remember to get back home by 3:30 in the afternoon.
It was good to see young people and young families out and about. Living in a retirement area for the past couple years, we’ve become accustomed to everyone around us being old. We enjoyed watching these young families. I could appreciate their energy and aliveness, yet at the same time, I was often struck by the thought, I’m glad I’m not in that stage of life anymore. The young adults seem so driven and rushed. As we leisurely walked around Green Lake, they would whiz past us either running (often pushing a stroller), roller skating or walking and talking fast and seriously with a friend. I hoped they were figuring out how to change the world for the better. I’ve certainly given up.
Another thought that came to me on these strolls was, We have to be whatever age we are. It just wouldn’t work to skip a stage of life. All the striving, worrying and disillusionment along life’s way seem necessary in order for us to be comfortable with our present age. From my current perspective, these young up-and-comers’ attempts  to get ahead in the world mostly look like a big waste of time. I guess they have to do something with all that energy.
In Vietnam we had a saying that came in handy right before my buddies and I did something unauthorized, “What are they going to do, send us to Nam?” We felt we were already in the worst situation possible.  Approaching old age puts us in a similar position. Most young people stop seeing older people, unless, of course, we’re in their way. And hardly anyone is interested in what we did in the past or what we’re doing currently. This realization could lead to depressing thoughts about oneself, or to a new sense of freedom. That woman who wants to wear purple and eat more ice cream seems to have figured it out. The hard part is letting go of old thoughts that instruct us to follow patterns of behavior that aren’t relevant anymore. To embrace this new sense of freedom, one has to stop caring so much about what others think. When I viewed the young people hustling around me as one giant ant colony, I felt like I was close to the correct perspective. .
I noticed I spent a lot of time doing the same things I do at home, only in a different environment:                                 
                                       Here I am in Talent, Oregon, outside a coffee shop reading.
Seattle Trip 2011 009

And here I am on our friend’s back deck, reading. Every once in a while, I looked up and remembered, Oh yeah, I’m not at home.

The best part about the trip was reconnecting with friends and family. There is nothing better in this life than being with people you care about and who have known you from years past. It’s good to be back in Green Valley, even though it’s still too hot. Traveling is a great adventure, but there’s nothing like home.