When I started posting these chapters to the prequel to A Curious Confluence: The Story of Adrianna – that was while I was still in Paris back in January – I was working on rationalizing and blending four story threads (one is yet to appear in this blog) and was finding it extremely challenging trying to present something that resembled coherence, and something that readers might find interesting.
A great deal of the story is still in my head, being constantly conjured. A surprising amount is already written and awaits the blender. An equally surprising amount has already been published here.
As the brothers head out rue Faubourg St-Jacques it is time to let them attend to their mission, take a break from fiction and turn our attention to a real place and time.
I spent a lifetime one year in Vietnam.
I have written a petite memoir about that year.
I am going to post it here, chapter by chapter, prior to getting back to the Prequel.
Shadows and Memories
Copyright © 2013 by Noel McKeehan
The widow of one of my fraternity brothers recently gave me a letter. It was a letter that I wrote to Tom in 1967. I was in the military at the time. I was in the Air Force. I also was in Vietnam. I was in Saigon. Tom had saved that letter all these years. The letter is written on pages torn from spiral stenographer’s note pad. The tops of the pages are still laced with the hole-centered vestiges of paper that had once secured them to the spiral. They were written on both sides. They were print/written in a weird mix of printed capital letters, accompanied by, with no apparent rhyme or reason, cursive. I still “write” that way. There is no way to mistake them as having been written by anyone but me.
That was weird: I can no more remember anything that I wrote in that letter, or remember writing it, than I am able to remember the events of my birth. It was as if I had been allowed to travel back in time.
Once I had travelled back, however, the flood gates opened. The nucleus of things that were going on in my life that was presented in that letter suddenly gathered all the other components necessary to bring that nucleus into full blown cellular existence. It was a single celled being, but it was, nevertheless, a being.
This little book is my presentation of that being. Since that being experienced its brief lifespan in Saigon in 1967 that is the name I have given the work.
The book starts with that letter. That letter is unedited.
Since I have written this book based upon the pack of memories that the letter to Tom unleashed, and since those memories have come forth as fully formed stand alone entities with no back story, there are a few people and a few things that need to be briefly mentioned.
Ruth was my first wife. I met her late in College and we got married not long after I graduated. By the time I went to Vietnam we had two children.
Jack was a friend whom I met in my first year in high school. Over the years we became ever closer friends and shared a large number of adventures.
Several of those adventures occurred in Vietnam.
I grew up in Portland.
I went to High School at Central Catholic High School.
I went to college at Portland State College – now Portland State University.
I graduated from Portland State in the spring of 1964. Prior to graduation I had taken and passed a test for admission to Officer Training School in the United States Air Force. At graduation I had a firm induction date in September to commence OTS.
Finally in the spirit of full disclosure, this is not a “What did you do in the war, Daddy” sort of book. This is a “How I best remember getting through it” sort of book.
To that end, the tongue engages the cheek just enough to attempt to take the edge off the deadly seriousness of the whole thing.
Everything told here is true and happened in the manner described. I should point out, however, that I report events as if I were Pogo – Walt Kelly’s brilliantly conceived observer of the ebb and flow of things. Through Pogo’s eyes things always looked ridiculous.
The Author in Nha Bey in 1967
27 February 1967
I likewise am sorry that I haven’t written but my reasons are somewhat different. I even tore one up that I had written because it was fucked up. Also, I’m not trying to keep the correspondence on a one-for-one basis.
First, don’t tell me about not being able to leave. You, at least could if you wanted to, get in your little pink car, say screw it, flip a BA at fading Pullman and go off into the world to make your fortune. (Of course it wouldn’t be long before general Hersey came calling, but at least you have a choice.) I absolutely can’t leave. I am under official orders telling me against all human logic to stay in one of the most unsafe, unhealthy dunghills in the entire world. I can’t even catch a bus ride to Bien Hoa on my day off because I have duty and travel restrictions (an “E” prefix on my AFSC – Air Force Specialty Code – which looks like: E8054) because they think that I know too much and cannot be allowed to be put in a situation more liable to capture than Saigon. This means that I am on a treadmill which must make 365 revolutions before I can get off.
At least I’ve somehow reconciled myself to this. For awhile I didn’t think that I was going to be able to do so; I was really on the ragged edge of insanity. Now I just float through the whole situation, hoping no-one will say much to me because if he does I will lash out and try to destroy him. The only people I can tolerate are the ones who become irrational when they talk about being here. This is, truly, the only rational way to react here, which may go to show you how much of a paradox everything is. I want to destroy the ones—the vast majority unfortunately, who want to “make the best of it, and take things as they come.” This, fat, satisfied complacency can only be defined in terms of what Conrad wrote about. These are the ones who have no trouble coursing through life because they never perceive anything. They don’t really act, they merely flow along the stream. They are unruffled, but by the same token they never participate in life because they never see it or find it.
Seriously, there is a drastic need for someone to take a real stand. But no one has. No one apparently will. While Johnson mumbles of a bitter long struggle (if that is any sort of a definition) military men talk of a situation that is “bigger than all of us.” God damn it, it isn’t bigger than all of us. If someone would just have the guts to do something, we could begin to accomplish something. You will notice that there is a trend toward accepting Bob Kennedy’s thesis of talking to the NLF since they constitute “A” (possibly “THE”) legitimate voice of the Vietnamese people. This is a sign of hope, but why did we have to wait so long? Why can’t we have somebody as president who is capable—like Kennedy?
(Incidentally I’ve got to take a parenthetical time-out here to say that this whole place just shook like an earth quake. Some B-52s just dumped a hell of a load of explosives someplace near here. Now they’re doing it again—5 minutes later. I guess there will be more too—Jesus, if that doesn’t run the V.C. to the conference table I don’t know what will—that is sort of ridiculous isn’t it?)
Speaking of things that are sort of ridiculous next winter when I get back, I want you and me and Doug to find a little crummy tavern, wherever we happen to be—you may be home for Xmas by that time. I want to sit there and drink beer and eat “o-cello special super-wonderful” sandwitches [sic], and play shuffle board, or whatever the game is and get obnoxiously drunk. I hope that my repeated reference to this type of thing in my letters doesn’t sound like random ravings because they are not. One of the major things that has gotten me through this horror show so far has been knowledge of the fact that I could return to controlled absurdity when I got back. The description of the action doesn’t come anywhere near telling its value. For instance sitting on a table taking turns drinking out of a ½ gallon pitcher and making lewd observations about the young ladies present could be pretty high schoolish. But when it is something totally spontaneous, totally without thought, just like waking from a dream and finding yourself doing something, I think it takes on a real value. If you’re doing something like this merely because at that moment it was what you wanted to do, it seemed natural, then it has a sort of legitimate meaning; it isn’t for appearance. Since these things that we do spontaneously always take such a rather macabre form they are of especial value to us. They allow us momentarily to transcend general life and all the “non perceivers” that I mentioned earlier; they allow us to sit back and let this stupidity go by, for awhile at least not affecting us. When I return from here, next to seeing my wife I need this, because there is no such reprieve available here; at least I haven’t found it.
I may have asked you before, but I don’t remember for sure and you haven’t answered me in any case, about Multnomah Law School. Just how useful would a degree from there be? Would one from the University of Washington be sufficiently more useful that it would be worth the extra trouble?
I was going to pick up a beginning accounting course with the U of Maryland extension Center here, but I found out that if I accepted financial assistance from the Air Force my obligation would be extended 24 months from completion of the course. Doing a quick about face I vacated the premises screaming and foaming at the mouth. I guess I’ll have to pick it up in my first year in law school.
Ruth seems to be getting along quite well; she has gotten high grades so far in her interior decorating course and is now taking a course in antiques also. This coupled with her experience at the rug and drape company should put her in a good position to get future jobs. Along these lines, one of the biggest moral uplifts since I’ve been here was something she said in one of her recent letters. A rough quote would be “I hope you don’t change your mind about law school because I think it is best for you and also what you want. You know by now that I will help in every way I can.” Somehow this makes life in the future begin to become more real. After being told for more than 2 years about the terrors of getting out of the Air force and going on “The Outside,” I guess it has had some effect upon me. Not having ever really had to make my way on “The Outside” I have no quick answers to these merchants of doom. All I know is that I don’t like the military and I want to be a civilian, at which they laugh derisively and all-knowingly. With Ruth giving me the concrete as well as moral backing that she is there is no doubt in my mind what is right. Actually there never was, but while I was more than willing to throw myself into the black, swirling unknown, of “The Outside,” I was a little reticent to do so to Ruth and the kids. This tour has solidified what I knew all along. Further it has given me some real confidence in myself, plus a conviction that I am needed in politics. I know I can do better than many or most of those now running the show; when I see messes like this I know that people like you and me are drastically needed. Perhaps salvation is just around the corner.
A final thought, one that I touched on before but didn’t amplify, is think long and hard about how you fulfill your military obligation. In fact let’s do some real serious analysis of this subject both drunk and sober this Christmas season. I hope you don’t think that I am getting nosey, because I am truly interested, and feel that I have some reason to consider myself an authority of sorts. We’ve got to consider the political necessity of the military, and what status this necessity entails. i.e., is being a 6 months reservist as good as being some sort of officer? We also have to figure that Vietnam service probably isn’t a necessity, because as time goes by I think this is going to become an albatross—not around the neck of those who participated, but definitely of those who instigated it. Thus, since it won’t be a question of your patriotism, but of your good sense, and since being here is probably the worst thing that could ever happen to a person, I think avoiding here would be wise. Anyway, there are a bunch of things to consider, and since I just stumbled into the military I think I have learned a little bit about what to do and what not to do.
A final thought is that I have heard, I guess obviously who from—Dick—that you are not looking as healthy as you might. Seriously, you don’t serve yourself or any of your friends or our cause by destroying your health at the age of 24. Once you do ruin it, it will never be properly restored. You ought to at least eat 2 good—not pizza—meals a day, either cooked by you or at a restaurant. Possibly if you walked to and from the tavern it might help also. Remember that the day of the unattractive politician is over, and being half dead is hardly attractive.
I’ve put my nose into your business about as much as is possible, but possibly the closing will justify it to you:
A E K ∆ B Noel