My War Record
For Ian, Athena and Megan
The macho presidential “parry and thrust” of the past few weeks with the Democratic leadership demanding an explanation of Bush’s “lost year” in the “Champagne Guard” and the President returning fire with scandalous photos of John rallying with Hanoi Jane in the early 70’s, their “show me yours and I’ll show you mine”, has left me feeling a little inadequate and more than a bit nostalgic. I want to show mine. Though having never worn the actual uniform, I do have some history with warfare, which I’d like to share with you. I don’t know which parts of this to be proud of and which to disclaim. That gives me a sense of belonging amidst the current dialogue, and my promise to myself and to you is to tell the truth.
The Neighborhood Wars
Midway through the game I’d sometimes need to take a break. We would have been playing since 9:00 a.m. or so, summer or winter, no matter the 105-degree desert summer heat or the sub-zero, Eastern Washington winter with snow blowing sideways. Even hunger couldn’t intrude on the conflict…that’s how kids stayed skinny in the early ‘60’s: they’d run around all day and guard their time so jealously they’d often forget to eat.
But some things you just cannot ignore:
“I’ll be right back. I’m goin’ to the bathroom. Keep playin’ ”
So there I’d be, seated, with the door locked, after making sure no one could eavesdrop from outside my bunker.
Our team may have been losing or winning: there was no real way to tell, since “death” only had to last the requisite minute or so (a rough “count to sixty” was all resurrection required, sort of a “re-birth-honor-system”). But I felt the need nonetheless to gather together my imaginary top lieutenants, there in the bathroom, and take report from each commander and give them much their needed strategic instructions. Somehow I had appointed myself “general”, though I hadn’t cleared this with the real kids outside hiding under the junipers or up on the roof of the garage. I had my executive team assembled, as I unceremoniously took care of the bureaucratic paper work.
Most kids wanted to be Vic Morrow, or some guy named “Sarge” with a week’s growth of beard and a stubby, half-chewed cigar. They wanted to be supervisors, not management. I wanted to be Eisenhower.
“Okay you guys, Debbie’s brother is real sneaky. He’ll find a spot and just lie there and not move. He’s smart, so be careful.”
“I stepped in dog-do by the wood behind the Gaines’ place. Watch out for it.”
“That friend of Dave McCullough’s cheats. He doesn’t stay dead long enough and he’ll shoot you right after he falls down.”
“Does everybody have enough ammo?”
“Who’s that girl who’s Shirley’s friend? She has huge tits. How old is she?”
Earlier, there would have been a small group of kids, hanging around on Sanford on a Saturday morning, usually only the boys, but sometimes we’d let the girls play too, taking care to assure they weren’t all on one team. This wasn’t an effort toward equality, but rather, minimizing the baggage. Somehow eight-year-old boys in 1961 had figured women weren’t cut out for killing like we were.
”Let’s play war!” would lead to splitting into two teams and immediately running for cover. We used the whole block. We never seemed to identify who were the good guys or the bad guys. In ’61, we wouldn’t have held back from saying “Japs” or “Krauts” yet, but our war games were oddly devoid of this kind of nationalism. This was unusual, as most all our parents, government contract workers at Hanford, had lived through the recent conflicts. In the idyllic glow of nuclear science making our lives more convenient, automated and modern, maybe the adults had just wanted to forget the forties and Korea, and never passed along their pain to the kids.
Dale and Darla were from Louisiana and ate things like deep-fried pig’s feet and hominy. Their house always smelled bad. I had a vague recollection that their older sister, Barbara, when baby-sitting us when I was younger, may have tried to touch me inappropriately. How’d I miss that? What the hell were my folks so riled up about? We let them play anyway, but everyone tried to kill them first and often. And Barbara never sat for us again. I missed her.
David and Paul played, from down the street. I think they were Indians, though I never knew if that meant India or Oklahoma. They were brown, with jet-black hair and they were real handsome. I think sometimes when they were supposed to be killing, they were kissing girls.
Terry and Shirley played. They lived in the run-down house across from us. Their dad was a problem drinker, but years later, floating in whiskey, he gave me a garnet, my birthstone. I didn’t have the presence to say, “Les, you’re hammered. Why don’t you reconsider this tomorrow?”, so I kept it.
Often kids came from other parts of town who attended Christ The King with Pete and me. Going to the only Catholic school in town was a great education, but a cultural albatross. There was no way to be incognito with salt-and-pepper corduroy pants, white collared shirts and a v-neck sweater and a rosary in your pocket. How can a kid with the green badge of cowardice ever fit in? It also meant your folks paid for what everyone else got for free. At the time I didn’t understand what all this meant. Not wearing your foolish uniform on the weekends would have helped, but some of the kids in our army never figured that out. They got beat up on the walk home from school.
I had a very fine Tommy gun. Model: Mattel. Finish: plastic. But the black part looked like metal and the fake wood was convincing. You’d pull back the bolt and get a ten-second rat-tat-tat-tat-tat out of it. We also had this bazooka-type weapon that made a huge Boom!, and blasted air ten feet or so. Everybody had a sidearm. Some kids had these pathetic, revolutionary war muskets that were made of real wood and steel. No matter what weapon any of us had, no matter it’s intended caliber or action or capacity, miraculously, every gun made the same machine gun-like sound: “Eh-eh-eh-eh-eh-eh-eh-eh-eh!!!, just like on Combat or Twelve O’Clock High.
I read every book I could find on the Second World War, including William Shirer’s hefty Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. The idea of being “behind enemy lines” in Europe is an inbred fantasy now, and having to show my passport while traveling through Frankfurt or Munich or Geneva today carries a thrill and sense of danger well out of step with our modern world.
But the Neighborhood Wars came to an end, and we moved to a new town with new dangers.
The Clandestine Years
Our war games dutifully followed the trends promoted by black-and-white television: At a point in the mid-sixties, World War II shows waned in favor of spy shows. I read Ian Fleming voraciously and secretly (his books contained vivid sexual passages, and Bond smoked and drank and drove much too fast in his Aston Martin) as each new volume came out. We never missed I Spy and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. On Fridays there was a program featuring a well-built blond spy, Honey West , I recall. Some of us became spies in Junior High School, but none looked like she.
Kerry and I were deeply steeped in everything there was to know about the CIA, the KGB, and the OSS. We created alphabetic ciphers for passing messages at school and changed them weekly, for security reasons. We had code names for each other and places around the neighborhood where we would leave secret communiqués, checking each of our drop points at different times of the day, based upon a schedule we kept in a well-hidden book. We had “all-clear” signals we’d post on our front porches. We had a safe house, in Kerry’s basement, with an escape door. Everything could be stowed quickly. We hid toy guns in cutout books. We ate code sheets.
We did “operations” to stay sharp. One involved working our way through an entire block of backyards, one summer evening, when everyone was home from work, escaping the sweltering heat of their houses, barbecuing and drinking in the relative cool of their faux-verandas. We needed to move ever-so-slowly along the fence-lines and stay in the bushes. We blackened our faces and wore dark clothing. We got filthy. We made it the whole way without detection. We were proud of how dirty we got.
Another Saturday night’s operation involved egging cars heading up Canal Drive. What didn’t occur to us until the police arrived was the possibility that many of those cars may have been headed for the same get-together and that the drivers would share intelligence, once assembled, and we’d be nabbed. Having run the earlier “op” through the middle of the block, we were well-prepared to elude the authorities, taking three hours to cover the few blocks between Canal Drive and Yelm Street, slowly making our way home while the Kennewick Police Department cruised around and around. We knew we were getting good at this.
Other than guns, we never used packaged, toy spy materials. These could be traced and we knew better. We made our own.
It was time to reach out and work through agents who had plausible deniability regarding their handlers. That meant they couldn’t know who we were. To do our bidding, our cut-outs also had to be scared. That meant they had to be little kids. We found one, thoroughly vetted him to make sure he wasn’t a double agent, and kidnapped him. We bagged his head so he couldn’t see and walked him in circles. Once secure in our safe house, with the cellar windows covered, drapes covering Kerry’s mom’s Maytag and laundry, we began our indoctrination. Earlier, to create a diversion from Kerry’s annoying older brother Brian, we stacked Brian’s meticulously assembled and precious model automobile collection in a pile halfway down the street, poured Ronson Lighter Fluid on it and set it afire. He’d be engaged for at least an hour and Kerry was supposed to be at my house. We’d snuck down the middle of the block again so nobody knew we were there. We were good for long enough to brainwash the poor kid.
We convinced him we were a secret organization and that we knew everything about him. We dropped a few names of some bigger, known bullies to coerce his loyalty. We never revealed our identities and spoke in comically altered voices. He was scared shitless. We gave him a code name. We made him feel valued and that he was essential to the current op. We used words like “op” and “intelligence”. He was impressed.
We instructed him to collect intelligence on several other neighborhood junior high-schoolers and how and where to drop that information. His first assignment was a dummy dry run and we surveilled him to assure his allegiance. He did great. We gave him a secret signal, an empty envelope in his family mail with an “X” on the outside, to indicate he was to move on to his next task, setting off an M-80 on the porch of a couple who lived near the golf course who’d never done anything wrong.
Little did we know, Hoover and his boys were doing some of the same things to innocent citizens in New York and Palo Alto and Los Angeles. We were ahead of the curve.
Face to Face With The Enemy
By age fifteen, I was reading The Berkeley Barb and Ramparts, and considered myself a soldier of a different stripe. My generals were Eldridge Cleaver and David Harris and Tom Hayden and Gene McCarthy, and we had a war to stop. While impotently and half-heartedly trying to fend off substance experimentation and that thing that kept popping up in my pants, I was committed to a cause in a way I’ve never known since. I read voraciously: Soul On Ice, The Port Huron Statement, The Dialectic of Sex, Carl Oglesby, Noam Chomsky, Gandhi, King, Thoreau, accounts of WW II conscientious objectors, Bertrand Russell, everything I could find having to do with citizens’ responsibility to take action when their governments turned murderously mad.
By sixteen, I edited and wrote for an underground newspaper. I raised a clenched fist at football game national anthems. I had a peace sticker on my mom’s car, and she generously let it remain there, next to the “Abortion Is Murder” sticker.
I had many thoughts and many powerful convictions, though I’d never taken any steps that I couldn’t retreat from.
One day, during a high school assembly for the boys (we assumed the girls were having a similar one at the same time), we were treated to presentations by recruiters from each branch of the armed forces, though the Marines got to come even though (and they really hate this) they’re part of the Navy.
Each organization got to explain the wonderful benefits and advantages of their discipline, the excellent educational opportunities that follow service, the warm VA health coverage, the technical skills one can learn and the camaraderie of their own band of brothers. Not one mentioned body bags or getting fragged or leeches or the desperate feeling of doing something you know most of your people don’t want you to be doing.
I couldn’t sit still. I felt possessed. I’d been called to act. When the poor Marine kid who couldn’t have been more than twenty took questions, I waited for two or three to be posed, then answered. These mostly had to do with pay scales and how hard Pendleton really was. My question was different:
“Can you teach me to kill?”
“Can you please repeat the question?”
Oh shit. I have to say it again.
“Can you teach me to kill?”
The ringing in my ears and my timpani heart beat drowned out the answer. I recall being escorted out of the assembly, but nothing more.
I was out.
Resistance to the war was heating up. A year or so earlier, Johnson had lied (again) about bombing Cambodia, a country most Americans had to look up in their atlases and one that we’d not known we were fighting against. American cities erupted. Many Americans had been horrified at Daley’s police riot in Chicago the year before and were increasingly distrustful of Nixon and his real estate hustler demeanor. Then he mined Haiphong Harbor and the country reacted again, after once again consulting their maps.
Washington State University had a very small but committed SDS cadre, and I sat in on many of their meetings. They had a Panther speaker one night who identified his FBI “shadow”, standing in the rear of the auditorium, and asked him to say a few words. He declined and left.
We organized a university-wide strike that we were sure would gain us a forum to discuss Nixon, Standard Oil, illegal and undeclared wars, American imperialism and the death of thousands of GI’s and Vietnamese. We were wrong.
Running through the campus the night before the action, nervously and hurriedly scratching “STRIKE TODAY!” on blackboards and hoping the janitors didn’t walk in, I was sure of myself and certain we all were doing an heroic thing. But I hadn’t really thought about jail or being expelled, or worse.
WSU had but two or three main entries, and we’d mapped out the action for days beforehand: “If we block the main entrance between Gannon and Waller halls, we can shut down the machine and make the Regents and the Governor listen!”
Before dawn, several thousand students assembled at the appointed traffic funnel. We were certain we had the element of surprise and were dismayed to see so many University and Pullman cops on hand.
But our numbers were formidable, and responding to direction from the older guys with the bull horns, we moved into the four-lane street, stopping traffic. And then we sat down.
Cops swarmed the perimeter, barking threats of arrest and warning of the long list of city and university prohibitions we were violating.
We locked arms and sang. We knew the people in Selma and Montgomery had sung and that it was the right thing to do. It was. Somehow, it magically transformed us into a Borg-like force that was immovable.
And we didn’t move.
Cars with bewildered university workers who only wanted to get to the office and have their coffee were turned away, angry and not understanding the larger picture. Why should they? This was just another Thursday and what the fuck are these spoiled brats doing making me late for work? “It must be the ones from Seattle.”
One vehicle wasn’t about to yield. I sat in a circle of ten people, near the front of the larger group, facing traffic. A huge American pick-up truck approached, with massive, over-sized tires, not meant for sport four-wheeling, but for the ranch. The cowboy driving didn’t slow down, and continued undeterred toward the seated group, with his middle finger raised and a look of pure hatred on his face. Kids scattered left and right while one who was confused by the change from singing “We Shall Overcome” to being centered in the gun sights of a one-ton truck, froze in place, as the hurtling machine passed over him, as if he were a frantic rabbit running across the highway, dazed in the trucks high beams.
The police managed to stop the driver, and convinced him to back up and turn around, while he yelled “You fucking yellow fags!” and “Chickenshits”.
There was no song that could restore what we had going only moments before. We easily agreed to disperse, in retrospect, during a moment of faltering will. As I walked away, I noticed the JC Penney’s suit with white socks signature of the Intelligence Guys with cameras. One fellow with a crew cut took a nice shot of me with a girl I didn’t know. Emboldened, I approached him and asked if he was FBI. He smiled and turned his back and walked away.
Later I learned of Hoover’s domestic counter-intelligence program (COINTELPRO) and was sure my future had been dimmed that day.
Dodging a Bullet
I drew number 328 and was over-joyed. And, I felt guilty. That year, the Selective Service Commission had instituted the draft lottery. They used a tumbler with ping-pong-like balls with numbers that were paired with birth dates. That seemed fair. As long as McNamara’s kids were included. As long as Dulles’ grandkids and the Kennedy clan had to roll the dice. While it seemed to flatten out the obviously classist approach to who got called and who should serve, and while I knew that I would either apply for conscientious objector status or head to Vancouver, but never serve, if drawn, I was conflicted. On one hand, relief washed over me: I wouldn’t have to report to the induction center in Spokane. I wouldn’t have to be probed and numbered. As Arlo sang, I wouldn’t have to be “SEE-selected and NEE-glected.” I wouldn’t have to die for something I hated. But I wouldn’t have to take a stand either. I had the luxury of disappearing into the anonymity of the un-chosen. I was off the hook. I had dodged the ultimate bullet.
Chance determined the rest of my life, and I’d like to say I’ve been guided by that fortune ever since. But I’d be lying. And I promised to tell you the truth. I lucked out, three times, and I don’t wish it to have been different. Most of the time.
But I have never disqualified myself, as a result, from being a citizen. Or a warrior. I count. My opinion counts. And I’m proud of how I got here and what I’ve done.
But, upon a second re-reading of this, I realize I’m definitely not presidential material.