14 November 2006

An American Coward

I usually prefer to write my own stuff for my blog, but I thought this was too good to not re-post.

An Honest Confession by an American Coward
By: Pat Conroy

Pat Conroy's novels include The Prince of Tides, The Great Santini, The Lords of Discipline, and Beach Music. He lives on Fripp Island, South Carolina. This essay is from his forthcoming book, My Losing Season.

The true things always ambush me on the road and take me by surprise when I am drifting down the light of placid days, careless about flanks and rearguard actions. I was not looking for a true thing to come upon me in the state of New Jersey. Nothing has ever happened to me in New Jersey. But came it did, and it came to stay.

In the past four years I have been interviewing my teammates on the 1966-67 basketball team at the Citadel for a book I'm writing. For the most part, this has been like buying back a part of my past that I had mislaid or shut out of my life. At first I thought I was writing about being young and frisky and able to run up and down a court all day long, but lately I realized I came to this book because I needed to come to grips with being middle-aged and having ripened into a gray-haired man you could not trust to handle the ball on a fast break.

When I visited my old teammate Al Kroboth's house in New Jersey, I spent the first hours quizzing him about his memories of games and practices and the screams of coaches that had echoed in field houses more than 30 years before. Al had been a splendid forward-center for the Citadel; at 6 feet 5 inches and carrying 220 pounds, he played with indefatigable energy and enthusiasm. For most of his senior year, he led the nation in field-goal percentage, with UCLA center Lew Alcindor hot on his trail. Al was a battler and a brawler and a scrapper from the day he first stepped in as a Green Weenie as a sophomore to the day he graduated. After we talked basketball, we came to a subject I dreaded to bring up with Al, but which lay between us and would not lie still.

"Al, you know I was a draft dodger and antiwar demonstrator."

"That's what I heard, Conroy," Al said. "I have nothing against what you did, but I did what I thought was right."

"Tell me about Vietnam, big Al. Tell me what happened to you," I said.

On his seventh mission as a navigator in an A-6 for Major Leonard Robertson, Al was getting ready to deliver their payload when the fighter-bomber was hit by enemy fire. Though Al has no memory of it, he punched out somewhere in the middle of the ill-fated dive and lost consciousness. He doesn't know if he was unconscious for six hours or six days, nor does he know what happened to Major Robertson (whose name is engraved on the Wall in Washington and on the MIA bracelet Al wears).

When Al awoke, he couldn't move. A Viet Cong soldier held an AK-47 to his head. His back and his neck were broken, and he had shattered his left scapula in the fall. When he was well enough to get to his feet (he still can't recall how much time had passed), two armed Viet Cong led Al from the jungles of South Vietnam to a prison in Hanoi. The journey took three months. Al Kroboth walked barefooted through the most impassable terrain in Vietnam, and he did it sometimes in the dead of night. He bathed when it rained, and he slept in bomb craters with his two Viet Cong captors. As they moved farther north, infections began to erupt on his body, and his legs were covered with leeches picked up while crossing the rice paddies.

At the very time of Al's walk, I had a small role in organizing the only antiwar demonstration ever held in Beaufort, South Carolina, the home of Parris Island and the Marine Corps Air Station. In a Marine Corps town at that time, it was difficult to come up with a quorum of people who had even minor disagreements about the Vietnam War. But my small group managed to attract a crowd of about 150 to Beaufort's waterfront. With my mother and my wife on either side of me, we listened to the featured speaker, Dr. Howard Levy, suggest to the very few young enlisted Marines present that if they get sent to Vietnam, here's how they can help end this war: Roll a grenade under your officer's bunk when he's asleep in his tent. It's called fragging and is becoming more and more popular with the ground troops who know this war is bullshit. I was enraged by the suggestion. At that very moment my father, a Marine officer, was asleep in Vietnam. But in 1972, at the age of 27, I thought I was serving America's interests by pointing out what massive flaws and miscalculations and corruptions had led her to conduct a ground war in Southeast Asia.

In the meantime, Al and his captors had finally arrived in the North, and the Viet Cong traded him to North Vietnamese soldiers for the final leg of the trip to Hanoi. Many times when they stopped to rest for the night, the local villagers tried to kill him. His captors wired his hands behind his back at night, so he trained himself to sleep in the center of huts when the villagers began sticking knives and bayonets into the thin walls.

Following the U.S. air raids, old women would come into the huts to excrete on him and yank out hunks of his hair. After the nightmare journey of his walk north, Al was relieved when his guards finally delivered him to the POW camp in Hanoi and the cell door locked behind him.

It was at the camp that Al began to die. He threw up every meal he ate and before long was misidentified as the oldest American soldier in the prison because his appearance was so gaunt and skeletal. But the extraordinary camaraderie among fellow prisoners that sprang up in all the POW camps caught fire in Al, and did so in time to save his life.

When I was demonstrating in America against Nixon and the Christmas bombings in Hanoi, Al and his fellow prisoners were holding hands under the full fury of those bombings, singing "God Bless America." It was those bombs that convinced Hanoi they would do well to release the American POWs, including my college teammate. When he told me about the C-141 landing in Hanoi to pick up the prisoners, Al said he felt no emotion, none at all, until he saw the giant American flag painted on the plane's tail. I stopped writing as Al wept over the memory of that flag on that plane, on that morning, during that time in the life of America.

It was that same long night, after listening to Al's story, that I began to make judgments about how I had conducted myself during the Vietnam War.

In the darkness of the sleeping Kroboth household, lying in the third-floor guest bedroom, I began to assess my role as a citizen in the '60s, when my country called my name and I shot her the bird. Unlike the stupid boys who wrapped themselves in Viet Cong flags and burned the American one, I knew how to demonstrate against the war without flirting with treason or astonishingly bad taste. I had come directly from the warrior culture of this country and I knew how to act.

But in the 25 years that have passed since South Vietnam fell, I have immersed myself in the study of totalitarianism during the unspeakable century we just left behind. I have questioned survivors of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, talked to Italians who told me tales of the Nazi occupation, French partisans who had counted German tanks in the forests of Normandy, and officers who survived the Bataan Death March. I quiz journalists returning from wars in Bosnia, the Sudan, the Congo, Angola, Indonesia, Guatemala, San Salvador, Chile, Northern Ireland, Algeria.

As I lay sleepless, I realized I'd done all this research to better understand my country. I now revere words like democracy, freedom, the right to vote, and the grandeur of the extraordinary vision of the founding fathers. Do I see America's flaws? Of course. But I now can honor her basic, incorruptible virtues, the ones that let me walk the streets screaming my ass off that my country had no idea what it was doing in South Vietnam. My country let me scream to my heart's content - the same country that produced both Al Kroboth and me.

Now, at this moment in New Jersey, I come to a conclusion about my actions as a young man when Vietnam was a dirty word to me. I wish I'd led a platoon of Marines in Vietnam. I would like to think I would have trained my troops well and that the Viet Cong would have had their hands full if they entered a firefight with us. From the day of my birth, I was programmed to enter the Marine Corps. I was the son of a Marine fighter pilot, and I had grown up on Marine bases where I had watched the men of the corps perform simulated war games in the forests of my childhood. That a novelist and poet bloomed darkly in the house of Santini strikes me as a remarkable irony. My mother and father had raised me to be an Al Kroboth, and during the Vietnam era they watched in horror as I metamorphosed into another breed of fanatic entirely. I understand now that I should have protested the war after my return from Vietnam, after I had done my duty for my country. I have come to a conclusion about my country that I knew then in my bones but lacked the courage to act on: America is good enough to die for even when she is wrong.

I looked for some conclusion, a summation of this trip to my teammate's house. I wanted to come to the single right thing, a true thing that I may not like but that I could live with. After hearing Al Kroboth's story of his walk across Vietnam and his brutal imprisonment in the North, I found myself passing harrowing, remorseless judgment on myself. I had not turned out to be the man I had once envisioned myself to be. I thought I would be the kind of man that America could point to and say, "There. That's the guy. That's the one who got it right. The whole package. The one I can depend on."

It had never once occurred to me that I would find myself in the position I did on that night in Al Kroboth's house in Roselle, New Jersey: an American coward spending the night with an American hero.

13 November 2006

My Friday Experience in Discomfort

I flew back to Kansas City over the long weekend, and decided that while I was there, I’d see my doctor for my annual exam. Every 2 years, I am screened for cholesterol, and this was the year, so I got to fast before my exam so that they could draw blood for that. (High cholesterol runs in my family.) I had a whole list of things that I wanted to talk to my doctor about, so when she came in, I handed it to her and we went through everything. I got poked and prodded, as always, with a little extra palpitating based on some of the questions I asked. She decided that I needed to have an ultrasound done, and since someone does those there in the office on Friday afternoons, she asked me to try to schedule it for the same day. I got done with the exam portion and headed over to the blood-letting area for my cholesterol screening. I was also due for my once-a-decade tetanus vaccination, and that means I wound up with entrance and exit wounds on my arm. Woohoo. When I went to check out, I was able to schedule my ultrasound for that afternoon, and the lady told me that I had to continue to fast until that appointment, but I needed to have a full bladder for the ultrasound. She said to “drink AT LEAST 32 ounces in the hour or so before your appointment.” So, I re-scheduled my lunch appointment. Being the over-achiever that I am, I started drinking fluids a couple of hours before the appointment and downed close to 50 ounces before the appointment. Here comes the fun part.

On Friday afternoon, there was a really bad accident with a fatality on 435. (For those of you who aren’t familiar with the KC area, 435 is the interstate highway that circumnavigates the city. It is always busy.) Apparently, one of those HUGE highway directional signs—you know, the big green ones that tell you where the exits are?—fell on a car. They had to bring in a crane to pull the sign off the car. It took them about 4 hours. (Something new for the paranoid people out there to worry about, eh?) So, they shut it down. 435. They shut down the highway. For four hours. Closed. None of this one-lane-is-still-open-and-traffic-is-creeping-through stuff. I was ON 435 when they closed it. I HAD A FULL BLADDER on 435 when they closed it. So traffic stopped. That means I stopped. I honestly have never felt that way before, and I’m not planning on repeating the experience. I was driving my brother’s Toyota Tacoma (stick shift) pick-up truck. When your bladder is in danger of exploding and you have to KEEP your bladder full, a vehicle with a manual transmission is not the most fun thing to be driving. All of the traffic from all 4 east-bound lanes was being diverted onto Nall Ave. Fortunately, my doctor’s office is on Nall.

So I finally, painfully arrived at my doctor’s office, half an hour late, and went in. I was able to convey the urgency I was feeling to the reception staff, and they got me right in. (They’re always quick, there, but the kind lady physically went back and retrieved the ultrasound technician for me.) She didn’t even wait for me to change or anything for the first part of it. She just slapped on some jelly and snapped the pictures she needed and ushered me to the bathroom. God bless her sweet soul. I went back in and she finished the procedure on a much-less-uncomfortable me. (She told me that the receptionist was mistaken, and I really didn’t HAVE to fast for the ultrasound… I could have had lunch!) It was funny, though because as she was getting her gear put away she said, “I’m done here, but your bladder’s filling up again. You’ll probably want to use the rest room again before you leave.” Kinda strange to have someone tell you when you’ll need to go potty. Haha.

So I completed my annual well-woman exam, had blood drawn, got a Tdap shot (which means my deltoid is STILL sore, though it’s wearing off, now), breast exam, pap, pelvic, basic physical, and an external and internal ultrasound. When you add to that list the knee injury I’m still battling, you get quite the picture of my comfort levels for the remainder of the weekend. I have officially added “not needing to have a colonoscopy or endoscopy” to my list of things to be thankful for. Hahahahaha! Ain’t being healthy grand??

The trip was good, overall, though, and I had the opportunity to sit in a hot tub for a little while on Saturday night. That went a long way toward making things well again. :D

Much Love.

(BTW, I got a call from the nurse today saying that my cholesterol was within the normal range, but on the high side—nothing to worry about, just make sure I’m eating properly—and that she would call me back when they got my other exam results back.)

09 November 2006

On Politics-- because you need ONE more opinion.

Some people say that if you don’t vote, you can’t whine. True as that may be, I’d say that even if you do vote, you shouldn’t whine. Here’s my logic—follow if you dare. You voted, you got your say, and just enough of the country believed differently than you that the decision didn’t go your way. Be this amendments or candidates, you don’t get to whine. Sometimes you side with the majority, and sometimes you don’t. Not being part of the majority of voters (not necessarily the majority of the country) does not mean that you didn’t have a valid reason for voting the way you did. For instance, in this mid-term election, VA voted on the amendment stating that marriage should be limited to legal unions involving one man and one woman. Some voted yes, and some voted no. The reasons that each voted the way they did may be equally valid, but the majority said yes. Will it do any good for people to whine to others about not having this go their way? No. But they’ll still whine.

The difference is between words and action. Do you break fellowship with friends and strangers to make a political point, or do you gracefully accept the reality of the situation and move on? I’m registered as a Republican. I tend to vote Republican, not because I’m registered as one, but because the Republican nominees tend to represent my views on a lot of issues. If I find a Democrat who believes as I do more closely than his Republican opponent, I’ll “break party lines” and vote for the guy who best represents me. The thing is that I’m not voting in a popularity contest and this isn’t a p!ssing match. This is our country. If we want to have a representational style of government, then we need to vote for the people who represent us, regardless of their political affiliations. With the turnover of the House to the Democrats and the possibility of the turnover of the Senate, many Dems are gloating about getting some “comeuppance” or other. The fascinating thing about it is that some of the Dems that got the highly contested seats are extremely conservative and vote along the same lines as I; they’re just registered as Democrats. I didn’t vote for them (since I’m outside their constituency), but that doesn’t mean they don’t adequately represent my view of reality.

I think it’s really fascinating how much mess was being thrown around with this mid-term election. The media made a big deal about this being a referendum on President Bush and the war in Iraq—both of which were well-supported initially. The fun thing is that we are just not used to having a politician be honest with us, and then keep being honest. The POTUS said at the beginning that if we went into Iraq it wasn’t going to be easy, and it wasn’t going to be brief, because the fight wasn’t about the visible government this time, so much as the shadow organizations that the government was hiding. He, from the very beginning, made no bones about the fact that this was going to take time, thus the “stay the course” statement that got old after awhile. The reason he kept saying it is because it’s really the key. So we vote in a President who commits to a course of action that the overwhelming majority of the population supports, and then we remember that we live in the microwave society, and get fed up. We get someone in office who does not only what he said he was going to do, but also keeps the promises made by the previous occupant of the White House**, and everybody flips out. “Run, run!! Don’t you know that politicians aren’t allowed to keep their word?? Quick! Get somebody else out here, before we faint! We don’t care who, just somebody else! Even if they’re lying, cheating scumbags! We can’t have someone who actually loves our country and our troops running rampant. We’ve gotta try to hobble him!” So what do they do? They go to the polls in the mid-term elections and try to vote in enough democrats to change the make-up of the House and the Senate. They elected Democrats who fall on the same side as most of the Republicans. The message being declared by America, over an incredibly large bullhorn is, “WE WANT CHANGE… just not a big change. Just a little one will do fine. Let’s just change the name from Republican to Democrat. We still want our representatives in the House and Senate to vote the same way, but we want to call them something else while they do it.”

SO---> You voted, and the other guy got elected. According to my theory, you don’t get to whine. What do you do? You crack open those good-old lines of communication. If the new guy doesn’t tend to vote the way you’d choose, you write a letter or send an email or call his office. Let him know, respectfully, that since he represents you in the Senate (or whatever) that this is what you believe and this is how you’d like him to vote. NOW, this works better if you have an actual belief about a particular topic. Calling an anti-gun liberal to tell him to vote pro-gun is not going to help. If there’s a gun measure pending and there’s a reason you believe he should vote pro-gun on this particular measure, convey specifically and accurately WHY and how he can best represent his constituency. “Senator Nogun, I’d very much like you to vote yes on H.R. 47*. FBI statistics show that 92% of the time the possession/brandishment of a firearm by a citizen, when confronted by a someone with criminal intent, prevents crime. This means that in most cases, the gun possessed by the law-abiding citizen is not even fired. Furthermore, 86% of your constituency support this measure, according to ABC poll conducted by XYZ. Please protect our Second Amendment rights to keep and bear arms so that criminals are not the only armed people on our streets. Thank you for your accurate representation of your constituency.” You like/support what he does? Tell him. You don’t like/support what he does? Tell him. That’s the beauty of our form of government. You don’t have to be a Dem to speak to your Dem representative. You don’t have to be GOP to speak to your GOP representative. Nifty, ain’t it?? So if you hear me complain about a Democratic House, you have free rein to reach out and slap me on the back of the head while politely reminding me that it doesn’t matter what party “controls” our government—we control our country.

As I said before, there’s a difference between words and action, and whining to your co-workers won’t make any difference in the way your Congressperson votes, but making that call or sending that email just might. You must remember that what’s shown on TV isn’t necessarily the whole truth. News media have a job to do, and that is to sell newspapers, increase viewership, etc., and thereby, maintain continued gainful employment. Their job is not necessarily to accurately show reality. If they did show all of reality accurately, no one would pay any attention to them, because in reality, not everything is in imminent danger of blowing up or dying. Boredom does not garner support, so the news only reports what they consider stimulating. It’s more stimulating (negatively) to report that the sky is falling than it is stimulating (positively) to report that the fire department rescued that kitten from the tree. It’s more stimulating to report the body count in Iraq than it is to show that the majority of the country is peaceful and that the skirmishes are limited in range and severity and confined to certain areas of the country. (I know this because I know many people who have been in and out of Iraq during this conflict, a couple of whom just returned.) They also fail to report that the body count in this military action is much lower than any other armed conflict in recorded history, while the casualties are being treated more quickly and more accurately to produce better results and return more wounded (rather than dead) soldiers to their homes than ever before. Peace is boring. Dead bodies are exciting-- stimulating. They report the dead bodies. Likewise, relating to politics, the news will carry the story that half a dozen pacifists “converged” on city hall demanding that the recent gun legislation not go through long before they will carry the one about 86% of the population of their city owning and bearing small arms. They know that the “demonstration” will rile, or at least irk, enough of their viewers to an extent that they will continue watching the news, waiting for the next round of protests. It will also maintain the viewership of those 6 pacifists that protested at City Hall, because they’ll believe they’re making headway, just by being on the news. If an anti-gun legislator receives personally-written, well-worded letters from all 6 of those protestors, and sees them on television, but only receives one note from some guy named Jimmy Bob that reads, “Vote fur them gun laws cuz guns are cool,” he’s going to be more likely to believe that his anti-gun stance is an accurate representation of his constituency, and he’s going to sleep soundly after he votes no, while the majority of the people in his district go to bed fuming over their lack of representation. YA WITH ME?????

Ok, I know it’s getting hairy, but stick with me for just a bit. The last thing I’m going to talk about is the mud-slinging ads. During the days/weeks/months leading up to an election, you can’t turn on a television or a radio, or even walk down the street, without being faced with yet another political ad. The majority of them are negative and soul-crushing. Frankly, I think we should crack down on this nonsense and impose heavy fines for being obnoxious. If you can’t tell me who YOU are and what you believe, thus telling me whether or not to vote for you, I sure as HELL don’t want to hear you try to tell me who your opponent is, what he believes, and why I shouldn’t vote for him. If we’re being honest with ourselves, the ads from both parties are disgusting and should be removed from view. (I have a few ideas about where these things should be placed, if the respective candidates wouldn’t mind bending over…) Furthermore, the fines imposed for airing this rubbish should be stiff enough to make them feel it where it hurts worst—their own wallets. The party publishes a commercial smearing your opponent? YOU get to pay for it. You approve an ad that smears your opponent? YOU get to pay for it. Whoever stands to “profit” from the ad should be slapped upside the head and billed for the damage to the collective American Psyche, payment due immediately on penalty of jail time. I feel dumber and dirtier for having seen and heard some of the things that were aired by either party during these elections, and I’m running out of lotion, because all the showers I have to take after seeing these ads are drying out my skin. STOP THE MADNESS!!!!

Before you vote, do some research. Vote for the person who best represents you and who you think will do the best job of taking care of the interests of the country. Be responsible. Keep in mind that the person filling the job ultimately has to answer to you, and act accordingly. Be respectful of those in authority, whether or not they are your choice for those positions. Disrespect of those who occupy an office does not reflect poorly on them, just on you. Be kind. As Samuel Johnson once said, “To cultivate kindness is a valuable part of the business of life.” I’ve quoted this poem that my mother taught me before, and I’ll say it again.

“I have wept through the night
For the shortness of sight
That to somebody’s need made me blind
But I never have yet
Felt a twinge of regret
For being a little too kind.”

These are my official views. This is my blog. If you disagree, you’re welcome to do so… on your own time and on your own blog. :D
Much Love.

* H. R. 47: Citizens’ Self-Defense Act of 2005 “To protect the right to obtain firearms for security, and to use firearms in defense of self, family, or home, and to provide for the enforcement of such right.”

** After the various attacks on the US (Embassies, the Cole, etc.) on Clinton’s watch, he promised that we’d track down the cowards. He didn’t but Bush did.