Sunday, February 16, 2020

On The 50th Anniversary Of Tet- “What The Hell Are We Fighting For-Next Stop Is Vietnam”-Never Forgive, Never Forget” From The North Adamsville Vietnam War Class of 1969- Novack-Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War” Documentary

On The 50th Anniversary Of Tet- “What The Hell Are We Fighting For-Next Stop Is Vietnam”-Never Forgive, Never Forget” From The North Adamsville Vietnam War Class of 1969- Novack-Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War” Documentary

For “Mogie” Crocker and all the other brothers and sisters who laid down their heads in that goddam war. Never forget, never forgive-Sam Lowell, Si Lannon, and Allan Jackson-War Class of 1969  

By Sam Eaton

If 1967 was dominated by the Summer of Love (the 50th anniversary of which was commemorated last year mainly on the West Coast which was the central axis of the movement and which had a hell of a lot of space in this blog in 2017 since a goodly number of the older writers from North Adamsville were involved one way or another) then 1968 was the Year Of Tet, the year of war, real war for a lot of the same guys around our way who celebrated the “drugs, sex, and rock and roll” cultural explosion of the previous year. You may wonder why I, Sam Eaton am writing this piece since usually in this space I do a little political commentary, mainly around war issues, books, and music and am not one of the guys listed in the epitaph. That answer is simple and two-fold. First, none of those North Adamsville guys after seeing the ten part Ken Burns/Lynn Novack series and the memories it stirred in them felt up to the task of actually writing about those old-time war experiences. (Even Frank Jackman who was in his own way part of the North Adamsville War Class of ’69, a soldier in the Army at that time but one who unlike them refused orders to Vietnam and served some serious time in an Army stockade which will be expanded upon below refused to write about his experiences.) Secondly, I too am a member of the War Class of ’69 although I came from Carver about forty miles south of North Adamsville and have unlike the other guys never mentioned that hard fact in the public prints. Hell most of the people I know do not know I was in Vietnam during that hellish war. In the Burns’ documentary very early on one of the “talking head” ex-Vietnam Marines mentioned that a very close friend of hers husband had been in Vietnam as well as her own husband but it was not until twelve years into their friendship that the even knew that mutual fact. So this is me coming out of the closet and so bear with me if I stumble a bit. (By the way my association with the North Adamsville guys happened a few years later after Vietnam when we were all way or another in Vietnam Veterans Against the War, VVAW, mostly in Boston with former Secretary of State John Kerry and later, and now too, with Veterans Peace Action, VPA)  

One of the big things that jogged my memories while watching the early parts of the documentary was how very similar the backgrounds and attitudes of the various “grunts,” the guys who fought the war on the ground, the mainly white working class and black and Hispanic (Latino if that is the preferred reference) whose stories were being told. How much of a true cross-section of the millions of men who went to that war I don’t know but the stories “spoke to me,” spoke of my own upbringing. Spoke too of a lot of the values and unquestioning subservience that we all were brought up in during that heinous Cold War red scare time. “Better dead that red,” “if your mommy is a commie turn her in” real slogans that expressed the underlying terms which we dealt with for anything that moved anywhere not 100 per cent pro-American “my country right or wrong” another key slogan, could be construed as pro-Soviet or pro-“Red Chinese’ an actual expression used to describe that country after the victory of Mao and his brethren.)

I will go into the very similar “life-styles” of the North Adamsville guys, the “corner boys” which meant something in working class culture in the 1950s and 1960s but is something I was not part of down in Carver since in those days before it became something of a bedroom community for the high tech industry about twenty miles away it didn’t have anything like a corner pizza parlor, bowling alleys or variety store to be a corner boy around. Or enough guys with time on their hands to hold up the wall in front of the place. Carver in those days was something like the cranberry capital of the world and those in the town, including four generations as far as I can figure on the Eaton side and three on the O’Brian side, who actually worked the bogs, were called derisively “boggers” which defined the class division in the town. Including where you lived, our section called the “Hump.” 

For our purposes though the “boggers” and the other cohort, the middle class cohort called “the Pilgrims” since many of those families could trace their roots pretty far back although I do not remember that any family could claim forebear’s passage on the Mayflower shared common patriotic holiday traditions with parades and other festivities which is the only time there was social mingling. With the exception of a couple of great bogger football players those lines held all through school, most rigidly in high school where you had no chance with the Pilgrim girls and either tied up with a bogger girl or looked out of town, something which I tended to do since I couldn’t deal with what the bogger girl expected on their guys, marriage right out of high school and some Hump small apartment.

The big thing though is that in the Hump you went into the military when called up by the draft, or more usually since the high school drop-out rate for boggers was pretty high volunteer. In my own family, mostly uneducated, I would be the first to actually go to college and get a degree, those four generations of boggers all went to war when called going back to World War I. On the O’Brian side likewise and my mother’s uncle, Frank, has a square still named after him in the town common having died in World War I. So, and it came through loud and clear in the various documentary interviews, where was there room for not going into the military when I was drafted. Where was there a support system if I, or anybody in town, had refused. At the time this town would have crucified any young man who refused the draft, thought about Canada which was not even on the radar, or even thought to express an anti-war opinion whatever they thought instead and whatever doubts they had about going to war especially in my time, my war class time of 1969 when all hell was breaking loose in Vietnam, and in this country. So I went in, did what I had to do to survive and tried to forget about the awful things I did, and had seen done to people I had no quarrel with. It took a few years to shake that horror loose before I grabbed a life-line from a bunch of guys, fellow veterans, who wanted to stop the war madness- and still do.

The impetus for my getting off my duff had been watching a bunch of Vietnam veterans marching in silence (and in an orderly march manner something which tended to be lacking up to this day in later anti-war veterans peace marches and such), down a hot and humid Miami boulevard during the week of the Republican National Convention in 1972. The sight of those be-medaled soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen, stirred something in me that no dope, no alcohol my previous remedies of sorts could slake. Their rough treatment by the Nixon-fired up forces of law and order further made something in me snap. Don’t ask me now some fifty years later to explain everything I was thinking that pushed me on to the brink of self-destruction and everything that pulled me back any more than you could ask all those soldiers and Marines on the Ken Burns interviews what moved them to anti-war action. Amazingly when asked to articulate some of that experience and the why of it those interviewees stopped and could not come up with an answer other than the very familiar “I don’t know.”  Except I knew, they knew,  all roads led back to Vietnam, led back to the bad stuff we did there, stuff that we could never live down.  

Back in 1972, maybe 1971 too I was living in Rhode Island to be away from friends, family, girlfriends, everybody while I sorted things out. Didn’t let anybody but growing up friend Will Badger know where I was since while he had been in the Navy during the war shelling the hell out of places like Da Nang and far from the daily butchery on the ground he was a troubled soul as well. He did slip up one time and somehow my girlfriend who had been my fiancé before I left for Vietnam but as was the nature of the times we decided not to “go bourgeois” and get little white house with picket fence, kids, and dog married and wind up like our respective parents followed him one day. After something of a screaming match initiated by me we decided to keep company, be companions again and I was glad of that in the end even though we drifted apart a few years later when she wanted to get married and I was against the idea.

All through those experiences I kept thinking about that powerful silent veterans march and that fall of 1972 I went up to Boston once I found out where there was an active VVAW chapter. (This remember before the days of the Internet which would have let me find the organization in about two minutes. Then I had to check the telephone directory and got no information since the phone number was not listed as yet in that publication and only found out where they had an office and telephone number by going to Providence and Brown University to a Vietnam Mobilization office where they had such information about what was what in New England.)          

At that first meeting in Boston two things happened which marked me then and to this day. One was that in the political divide within the organization about what is always an issue with left-wing groups whether to push the electoral button or go for street confrontations I tended toward the street cred guys, the flame-throwers against guys like former Secretary of State (and U.S. Senator from Massachusetts) John Kerry who even then was looking for the “main chance” which he sought with a vengeance. This issue tended to draw something of a class line as well since those who favored the electoral essentially reformist way to deal with social change, with the struggle against the military machine and war tended to have been ROTC or OCS officers and from very middle class backgrounds and those like the guys from North Adamsville who I will discuss in a minute and me who wanted to “burn the mother-fucker down,” go after those in the mansions.            

The other thing that has stayed with me to this day are the friendships, social and political friendships, I struck up with the guys from North Adamsville and guys they had gathered around them like Josh Breslin from up in Maine whom they met out in California during that Summer of Love, 1967 that was the hot topic here last year and Fritz Taylor and Ralph Morse met in the Army. Everyone was a flame-thrower, a “burn the mansion down” guy then, and not far from that now either although time has mellowed them (and me) personally-a bit. The basis of that mutual attraction was the incredible similarity of all of our growing up experiences, the white working class and white trash poor backgrounds whether in North Adamsville, Carver, Olde Saco, Maine or with Fritz Fulton County, Georgia, the unquestioning patriotism, the anti-communism culled from the red scare Cold war night that enveloped us all, and the small town-ish values about “Mom, God and apple pie” Fourth of July parade façade that we swallowed hook, line and sinker.

Here is an antidote from the mad wizard Seth Garth which kind of sums up the social milieu around the war issue mid-1960s working class style which tells a lot, maybe all you need to know about how Uncle Sam got the “cannon fodder,” not my term originally but one that we all have adopted since back in the days, to fight his wars then, now too probably even with an all-volunteer army, the volunteer part subject to lots of social, class, racial, ethnic, and economic provisos. Seth had decided to attend his fiftieth class reunion, the Class of 1964 but the other classes around that time produced the same fact once the corner boys from different graduation years compared notes on the subject, a few years ago and as a prelude to that the organizers of the reunion (not so strangely the same “social butterflies,” male and female who were the “in crowd” back in high school at least the ones who were still standing), set up a class website to gather information about those still standing.

That class, that heart of the baby-boomer class, had about five hundred members of which about two hundred or so responded, about evenly divided between male and female. (By way of comparison my whole combined junior and senior high school had five hundred students to give another example of how small Carver was then.) One of the questions asked was about military service which in that day would have been a question asked and answered almost totally by males. Of that one hundred or so respondents ninety of them put down some military service from National Guard to Vietnam including a small clot of military lifers. That alone tells the tale about who went and what the environment was like for anybody who thought for a minute about resistance or even just questioning the aims of the war, or of war.           

We still gnash our teeth over our collective naïve, our collective taking in the bullshit without question and our failures to do something about the whole damn thing long before we were drafted or enlisted. (That latter condition, drafted or enlisted, the only thing that separated the entire collective which was as much about personal circumstances as anything since it never entered anybody’s mind, even special case, Frank Jackman, not to go into the military in our youth.)
The North Adamsville guys, I will deal with Josh, Fritz, and a couple of other guys in passing, were cemented together by one thing, they all grew up in the desperately poor working class and working poor neighborhood of the town called the “Acre.” All were members of the North Adamsville classes of 1963, 64, 65 (the prime years for young men who would face the grist mill of Vietnam which cut too many from those years in their prime). Josh was Olde Saco Class of 1967, Fritz Robert E. Lee High Class of 1962). More importantly the social glue that kept them together centered in their high school days around Tonio’s Pizza Parlor where they were the so-called corner boys, a mainly derogatory sociological and cultural term coined by legal professionals, cops, and academics who were worried about the angst and alienation of this swath of  youth. The term fit so completely that they adopted the expression for their own amusement. Mainly that amusement was hanging around Tonio’s since they rarely had dough for dates and such or going on what they called the “midnight creep,” grabbing stuff through burglaries to get dough for dates and such.  A hard dollar any way you look at it and it was a close thing that they mainly survived to tell the tale.       

You cannot, I cannot although I only him slightly personally and more through endless talk of his legend, talk about the North Adamsville corner boys without mentioning their “leader” Peter Paul Markin, always known as “Scribe.” (This is the real Markin who died in the 1970s not the former site manager of this blog who used the moniker on-line in honor of his fallen comrade which explains a lot of that “leader” point just made.) The Scribe was not the leader, leader, you know the one who kept things in order that was Frankie Riley who wound up 4-F (unfit for military duty) and who later became a very successful lawyer in Boston, but something like the intellectual leader. He was the guy who got Sam Lowell, Si Lannon, Jack Callahan, Bart Webber, Allan Jackson, Seth Garth, Frank Jackman, Jimmy Jenkins who would die in Vietnam in 1968, and Frankie all except Frankie who would be drafted or enlist in the military to head out to California in the summer of 1967 and get knee-deep, no, neck-deep in the Summer of Love. (Other North Adamsville corner boys Rick Rizzo and Johnny Kelly who lived right next door to each other and joined the Army together laid down their heads in Vietnam in 1966 so never got the chance to experiment with the “drugs, sex, and rock and roll” that drove those days.) Josh met this crew out there as well before his military service. Fritz came into the group through Sam when they were in the Army together.

Markin too was the guy who probably was the most affected by his loss of innocence from his Vietnam experience, by the shattering of his Summer of Love-like dreams for a new world which he really expected to happen according to all the guys. Like me his was “lost” coming back to the “real” world as we called it after landing in the U.S.A from Vietnam. He would drift back out to California and start writing for a bunch of alterative newspapers which were flourishing out there for a while. Did some award-winning work when he found and joined an alternative society of returned Vietnam War G.I.s who like him could not adjust to the “real” world and lived along the railroad tracks and bridges of South California doing the best they could. Singer/songwriter Bruce Springsteen would name a song later which would fit-“brothers under the bridge.” Markin wrote, or rather let them tell their stories for a while.

Josh who lived out in Oakland with him in a communal house then said he was starting to come out of his shell with that work. Not for long though because later in the mid-1970s he would develop a very serious cocaine habit which he fed by dealing the drug, always a bad proposition and wound up getting killed, murdered, down in Mexico after a botched drug deal with a couple of slugs in his head in some back alley. Nobody knows to this day exactly what happened although they still shed a tear every time his name is mentioned.

All of that was a few years later though when it was unmistakable that the “newer world” was not going to make it.  In 1972 they were under Markin’s guidance members of VVAW and in attendance that that first meeting I went to. They all had, except Frank Jackman who I will discuss in a minute, various evidences of their service on. As had I. My 101st Airborne patch on an old faded olive drab shirt with my name tag on it. Si had been attached to the same division and was the first to welcome me. The meeting, the long meeting as such things went in those days when in the interest of “democracy” everybody got to speak for as long as they wanted and seemingly whatever they wanted even if off-topic, went as expected as they were planning an action on Boston Common in conjunction with the inevitable Fall/Spring semi-annual anti-war mobilizations coming up a few weeks later. They invited me to Durgin Park for some food and drink (mostly drink and later some dope). During this meal/drink-fest Markin, who was back from California for a while since he was looking for a couple of guys who he had met “under the bridge” to get their “back stories” asked for my story.

Everybody except me laughed when I had finished my seemingly sad little tale of a story. Laughed a sardonic laugh when you think about it because Si asked me whether I had grown up in North Adamsville. I didn’t understand the question until he said that my story, like their stories, like the stories of Mogie, Mulgrave, Sullivan in the Burns’ documentary, was too familiar. That the working class from small towns and sections of cities and poor bastards in the ghettoes and barrios bore the brunt of the crap that went down in Vietnam no matter what happened at home (or among those groupings in Vietnam, not always brotherly, no way, the racial tensions would sometimes get hot and heavy especially when the mainly white officers overplayed placing black men on point or down in the fucking tunnels but also when guys from small white bread towns like me couldn’t figure out what made the black guys tick and the same the other way).   So I was “initiated” and like Josh and Fritz (and Remmy and Jamal, a couple of black brothers who have since died one of an overdose of heroin started out in the Golden Triangle madness) became an honorary North Adamsville corner boy. And I still am, proudly am.                 

The Scribe was one end of what happened to some guys during and after the war but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the special case of Frank Jackman, another North Adamsville corner boy. In the Burns documentary the famous Vietnam War writer Tim O’Brien laments, no anguishes over the fact that he had not refused to be drafted, not refused to go to Vietnam. Others both in that presentation and in real life in the organizations I have belonged to most recently Veterans Peace Action where there are clots of guys who anguished over those kinds of decisions that young people, young soldiers are forced to deal  just like Tim O’Brian had had to do. It may be hard for the couple of generations that have now come of age since Vietnam time to fathom what EVERY young male had to go through back then even those who were gung-ho to go. Draft refusal, going to Canada or Sweden, going to jail, going to the stockade, faking all kind of injuries that would make one 4-F (unfit for military duty) some of them pretty gruesome, faking mental disorders,. faking homosexuality then a way out, scrambling to get into National Guard or Armed Forces Reserved units. I could go on but you get the picture, decisions all around the subject. So plenty of similar stories and regrets. After the service, after the fact. That was my case and the case of all the North Adamsville corner boys, real and honorary, everybody except beautiful and righteous Frank Jackman was did refuse to go, who let his conscience and maybe a few generations of hard won integrity and thoughtfulness DNA guide his decisions. A little balls too as we used to say back in the day when somebody did some action worthy of such a note, jail time always a qualifier, once he had orders to do so, to report to Fort Lewis for transit to Vietnam.     

Now we all know, and if the reader doesn’t then a run though this ten-part Burns-Novack series will enlighten you to the fact, that during the American portion of the war, the American War as the Vietnamese rightly called it, every and I mean every young man had a decision to make, consciously or unconsciously, about what to do about his participation in the war machine. Like I said above some refused the draft, some went to Canada, some filed and received civilian conscientious objector status of some kind, some when in the service went AWOL, and a lot of other things. Maybe Burns could have spent more time on those anguishing decisions and on the resistance in the military itself especially after Tet, 1968. A few, and Frank Jackman was one of them, were of that small, small as against a couple of million man army, category of military resister. Went in like the rest of us did but at some point said no-no to Vietnam, no to the killing the rest of us, anti-war and pro-war, proud of service or not, have spent the rest of our lives trying to square up. Funny because of all the guys who hung around the corner one would have expected the wild man Scribe, Markin, to have been a resister if anybody was. Still Frank Jackman’s story can serve as a very graphic example of the anguish of the generation of ’68.

If you noticed the headline to this piece there is a reference to the War Class of 1969. That is because everyone who I have mentioned here from North Adamsville to Fulton County, Georgia, including myself, served in the military during that fateful year, the year after Tet proved to all who cared to see, all who had anything but a hidebound refusal to see, that the war, the American war once again as the Vietnamese correctly called it, was unwinnable. Meaning that those who served in say 1969, who were the grunts, the “cannon fodder” were serving for no reasonable reason except as we learned later through The Pentagon Papers and other Freedom of Information documents governmental hubris. Only the names changed throughout the changes in government the hubris remained until almost the very end. They, we, all served and forevermore called ourselves the class of 1969. That class included one soldier, Frank Jackman, who did not serve in Vietnam but who will forevermore also be a member of that class of 1969.

Frank Jackman had had orders to report to Fort Lewis in Washington for transit to Vietnam and through a rather long process including stockade time refused to go. We would often talk, we still do although not when Frank is around because he like a ton of Vietnam era guys, military guys, don’t like to talk about those times even if he was righteous and as courageous as anybody who went to death trap Vietnam, about how Frank out of the almost dozen guys was the one guy who refused to go, refused to righteously go despite no support at home and no history of there being anything like it done in his town, my town, our collective clot of towns, before. Frank was not a leader among the North Adamsville corner boys like Frankie Riley or the Scribe but a sideliner, a guy who was as comfortable with a book as a jimmy for those infamous midnight creeps. (Everybody, all hands, except the Scribe who planned many of the creeps but who was totally incompetent to carry them out participated in every caper on principal-or would have gotten the boot.) Make no mistake he had imbibed, believed all of the stuff us other guys did about duty, patriotism and the like but there was something of the quietude in him that spoke of something more, or maybe as he pointed out when we discussed it later, that was so much eyewash.

Frank like all the others accepted induction in his case after he finished college in 1968 and received his draft notice to report in January 1969 (he had received four years of deferment for going to college standard at the time dependent on decent grades but in a way the kiss of death for the army with smart civilian citizens mixed in with the usual high school graduates and drop-outs). It was about after three days down in Fort Gordon for basic training far from home that he realized that he had made a mistake, that he should have refused induction. Being isolated down in the South he waited until he got back home after receiving order to Vietnam as an infantryman to decide what to do in August 1969. (Yes, the August 1969 when half a million other kids, boys and girls, were like lemmings to the sea to Woodstock nation and good luck.)

All he knew was that the war was over for him. He made his way over to Cambridge and the Quaker Meeting House where they were offering G.I. counselling for those who were military refuse-niks. For years the anti-war movement had bene centered on draft resistance and maybe rightly so but as the years rolled on and the number of Frank-like guys started needing help organizations like the Friends expanded their operation. There was a political component to it as well since protesting government policy was leading up a blind alley and if the natural objective of the anti-war was to stop the war then they had to get to the troops. Get down in the mud at the base and stop depending on some politician-savior to break the fall, to half-heartedly call the whole thing dust in the eyes.  

Through the counselling process plans were outlined, options presented the most reasonable given Frank’s situation was for him to go absent without leave (AWOL) for more than thirty days which would leave him dropped from the rolls out in Fort Lewis (AWOL a chargeable offense itself although pretty far down on the totem pole of penalties) and then turn himself to the nearest local fort, Fort Devens about forty miles from Boston to put in an application for status as a conscientious objector. A strategy while outlined which was aided by assigning him a pro bone civilian lawyer. (Not all G.I.s sought, desired, or received civilian lawyers partially because so few of them were familiar with the arcane Code of Military Justice but the way Frank presented himself, presented the case they thought he could use good legal advice and make some splash. That turned out to be true on all counts.)  
As that time conscientious objector status for those who were actually in the military was rare, very rare, and in due course he was turned down although at every level those who interviewed him believed he was sincere which would help him later when he got to civilian federal court. By a stroke of luck, and a good attorney, he was able to get his case into the federal court in Boston along with a temporary restraining order to keep him in the jurisdiction of the court. (The stroke of luck was getting a notoriously conservative judge to see that Frank had a case in civilian court that he could win. That too would come in handy later. But that was only the surface, the technical stuff.)            

That is where that idea of whatever Frank had inside him, whatever grit the generations had left in his DNA came to the fore. He decided that he would no longer play the soldier and so one Monday morning when the weekly formation came up he walked onto the parade field in civilian clothing and a sign “Bring the boys home.” Immediately a couple of lifer sergeants grabbed him and that started his road to the stockade. He would eventually serve two six month sentences for refusing to obey orders to wear the uniform. For years he would make the few people he told his story to laugh when he told them that if the federal court had not granted his writ of habeas corpus he might still be in that stockade he was so determined to fight the bastards to the end. So maybe that story should have gotten some play, or stories like that when Ken Burns was trying to tie the knot around what the whole thing meant. Might have thought twice, as a civilian, about a remark attributed to him about “war being in the DNA of the human species and hence all beyond the pale, all doomed to bloody up the world and let untold number lay down their heads for some stupid cause. Still and all Frank belongs in that small cohort of the war class of 1969 as some kind of beacon. That says it all, all that needs to be said.                          

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