04 April 2010

Reading at Horton Gallery for Aaron Spangler's Art Exhibit

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I Spent two years on a foreign shore

Bein' a government whore

Sold my body, they stole my mind

Told me, "Boy, now you're mine."

Those two years 'neath the southern cross

Turned out to be my country's loss

Kill commies for Christ, the Chaplain told me

As I prayed on a wounded knee.

Cuz, "Might makes right, can't you see boy?"

It's "Our country tis of thee, boy"

But killin' people to set 'em free...boy,

Seemed like fuckin' for virginity.

What do you know when you're only 18

Twelve years of school's the only life you've ever seen

Always taught from government books

Always caught in propaganda's hooks

So I moved to the woods, where I tried to forget

I had to admit I just didn't fit

I fight the war most nights in my dreams

I wake myself to the sound of my own screams

But the country didn't seem to learn from our mistake

We’re still fightin' wars for big money's sake

Yellow ribbons decorate our stores

We all have become the government's whores

What do we learn when we watch our televisions?

We're lettin' other people make all of our decisions

Our name's on the government's books

We're all caught in propaganda's hooks...

***

At night, rivers of memories, images swollen as if by rains of the monsoon. I'm drawn into a torrent, dragged downstream...impossible to grasp onto branches of ‘Now’ to pull myself safely to shore. Fog overcomes me. Smoke smelling of gunpowder, diesel, burning hair and flesh. Mere pinholes of light burn indelible images onto the camera obscura of my soul.

I'm on a mountainside looking through field glasses at the valley below. Nine men in NVA uniforms are walking single file along the berm of a rice paddy. I adjust artillery. A marking round pops 100 meters in front of them. They turn and run the opposite direction. An explosive round falls 50 meters in front of them. They turn and run again. I'm downright giddy. It's ducks at the carnival. Explosions rain on top of them. Arms and legs separate from torsos.

On a small forward support base, a landing zone above the ville of Hiep Duc. It's my duty to receive grid coordinates of suspected enemy targets and check to be certain there are no friendlies located there. The radio crackles, the warble of a chopper pilot's voice requesting clearance to engage "three military aged males with packs and weapons evading". I've heard that terminology so often, standard jargon. Shorthand. Usually a cursory glance of maps reveal it’s clear and I give my permission to fire. This time I hesitate. I ask the pilot his altitude. He says, "three thousand feet, over". I ask him to take a closer look and call me back. A few minutes later he tells me to disregard his previous transmission. I ask the true nature of his intended target. "A mamasan and two babysans, doing laundry by the river." My heart pounds out of my chest. How many times had I given my permission to kill mamasans and babysans? How many?

Asleep in my 8 by 10 ammo box and sandbag bunker. My first night on this hill. A blast sends sand into my eyes. I sit bolt upright with a deafening ring in my ears. Grabbing bandolier and rifle I dash out of my hootch toward a large boulder. Rounding the corner I run smack dab into another man/child. Vietnamese. The enemy. His eyes mirror the terror in my own. Running away from each other, I hide behind the rock. All hell has broken loose. Machine guns on the hill outside the perimeter are firing for the other team. The wire has been breached. A man is on fire, dead on his feet. An aircraft named ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ is firing mini-guns indiscriminately downward, killing, wounding without regard of faction. My rifle remains silent. By dawn's early light, our flag was still there. Bodies laid out like trophy deer at hunting camp. Grinning men pose for polaroids with the kill. I stumble about, staggering, gagging...my senses numbed. I seek the chaplain, himself stumbling and staggering...dressed only in his olive drab boxers and steel helmet, dogtags and crucifix. I ask the meaning of all this. "Where is God?"... He, a father figure, an officer...a man of the cloth...he surely must know. But he stares, vacantly, into the distance...shaking his head and repeating, over and over again..."I don't know, I don’t know!” I realise, at that moment, no one knows.

***

Out of these nightmares, these screams, I found solace when I returned to the world...but not in the cities' streets of my youth, or an alliance with our nation state...but off, into the countryside, where I'd learned from the peasants in that foreign land a connection to the earth, to the cycles of the seasons...the rains, the droughts, the wildness of the forest creatures. Without a piece of land on which I could build a simple dwelling out of the natural materials on hand...the logs, the stones...I would have been homeless, continuing to wander as I did when I first returned. I found that the myth of the rugged individual, man as an island, is a lonely, bitter existence. So many others had emigrated away from cities and into the countryside in those days of turbulence...some were victims of police brutality during war protests, others abused by the system or by their families. They arrived in rural areas of America, seeking a simpler existence and some semblance of true freedom. The immediate actions of chopping wood and carrying water locked me into the present…seeking shelter and food, learning from others that which had been forgotten by my kinfolk. I shoed logging horses in Oregon, cut firewood and fabricated western shirts on a treadle sewing machine in the mountains of Arizona, cleaned chimneys and restored log cabins in Minnesota. I was in and out of relationships, struggling with my memories...drugs, alcohol, anger. Only a sense of place and the home I built, dug into the womb of the earth, with its simplicity and soft, interdependent harmony… the gardens, fruit trees and flowers, brought me SOME stability, SOME sanity, and a partnership with a woman who walks in grace…herself a veteran.

Four decades have passed…40 years! Yet I often awaken to the sounds of my own screams...I wonder and ponder, still. What IS it all about? To me it is about the directness of my needs, and to the needs of others in the greater community. The dying trees we cut to make firewood for heat or cooking. The solar panels we have added over the years to replace kerosene lamps. The music we make around campfires and the meals and work we share.

The angst that is felt by so many because of wars and intrigue...the rhetoric of politics...has become the history of the countryside...and is not unique to our nation or time. Waves of a new generation of warriors and wanderers are, even now, finding their way to their own sense of place, from their own private wars.

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