Saturday, June 23, 2007


A few weeks ago, Minstrel Boy wrote about “his cherry”, Timmy, an earnest young man who served with him in Vietnam. That got me thinking about my own cherry days and the idea of cherryhood. Cherry was the near universal name given to fresh arrivals in Vietnam. Another term was “fucking new guy” also known as FNG. Neither appellation was particularly welcoming. In the field, the general attitude toward new guys was wariness because they would either: a) do something stupid that would get someone else killed or b) do something stupid that would get themselves killed and fuck up everyone else’s day. Either way, cherries were a liability until they proved their ability to stay alive and contribute to the primary mission, staying alive. I believe the mission also said something somewhere about fighting Communism and defending America but, in my unit, it came down to everyone staying alive long enough to go home.

If you do not know already, the term cherry refers to the part of female anatomy that is lost during first intercourse. New guys were “virgins” until they proved themselves in some way. Minstrel Boy’s unit had a fairly clear definition: a first kill or return after being wounded and evacuated. I gather from his stories, either opportunity came quickly. By that definition, I was a cherry my entire tour. I never killed anyone nor was I wounded. My unit’s definition was less rigorous: you were a cherry until the next new guys came in and you could apply that name to someone else. I was among the last new guys my unit saw for about nine months. The US was withdrawing forces in 1971 so instead of brand new cherries from the States, our replacements were rotated in from the departing units. They had about as much time in-country as I did. If they were cherries, so was I. After a few months, it didn’t make much difference.

The concept and terminology is part of ritual harassment in the military. In basic training, you are a “trainee”, a “maggot”, subject to abuse from just about everyone. Not quite so much in infantry training but still way low in the pecking order. A new guy arriving In Vietnam, faced indifference and wariness, at best, and, typically, constant reminders that others were far closer to returning home. The effect, for me was resentment and a desire to “escape” the harassment/indifference by deflecting it to someone even worse off (more time left in-country).

It’s a self-perpetuating cycle, all too human and not unique to the military. But very much part of the military culture. I had enough people harassing me during my first six months in the Army that I wanted some revenge, which could only be exacted on those below me. Despite my feelings, I skipped that opportunity. That’s never been part of my temperament. When I was in position to abuse others, as company clerk, I was more interested in fucking with the system and helping fellow grunts get by than harassing anyone. I guess that was my revenge. Toward the end of my tour, I was excited by my impending departure but that was more from sheer joy and relief than any desire to harass those who had more time left.

Minstrel Boy’s unit took a much better approach to training cherries than did mine. Their new guys were assigned to veterans who would show them the ropes and, hopefully, get them past their first kill (preferable) or wound (less preferable). My unit did not have anything quite so formal. Cherries were the responsibility of the squad and the squad leader who provided some guidance, but not a lot. No one showed me how to load a pack or explained much of anything to me. It was more like. “Here’s your equipment. Don’t fuck up.” At least that’s how I remember it. Maybe I was so scared, dumb or both that I just didn’t see what was actually happening. All I knew was that I had to follow the guy in front of me and just do whatever he did and not fuck up. That the guy in front of me was sometimes also a cherry made no difference--somewhere up the line was a veteran who provided the example that would percolate back to me. My squad leader was reasonably good about answering questions but in that deadly, fearsome environment I didn’t always know what questions to ask.

I must have learned enough. I didn’t get killed in a firefight but that was mostly luck since I was never in a real one. My company didn’t walk into deadly ambushes like all the other companies in the battalion. Nor did I make some fatal mistake and get myself and others killed in an accident, which was the most likely way to die in Alpha Company. I would have appreciated a mentor like Minstrel Boy and hope that I would have had sense enough to follow his lead. Of course, that didn’t do Timmy much good in the end. Not only did he have an experienced guide; he also wanted to understand and learn. He still ended up dead. Somehow that doesn’t seem right, especially when a doofus like me survived.

My unit finally got real, just-in-from-The-World cherries in September and October. Within a few weeks about a half dozen of them were wounded, never to return, in a mortar attack on a landing zone. What all this tells me is that combat is a matter of skill, luck and timing. Skill will keep you alive. So will luck. Until your luck runs out. Then you’re time is up. When that happens, you’re fucked, no matter how good you are or how long you’ve been in-country.


My Meeting with John McCain, The Response

Back in April I corresponded with my senior US senator, John McCain, regarding American policy in Iraq and the Middle East. I sent him a "transcript" of the conversation I would like to have with him and asked to continue the discussion in person. Yesterday, I received a reply. The senator is unable to meet with me at this time.

The senator did, however, describe my letter as kind and thoughtful so we can assume that I did not misrepresent his positions on the issues I addressed. Unlike most letters I receive from the senator, this one had a real signature; the ink actually bled through the paper. No signature machine involved.

Perhaps during his final two years in the Senate, he will have more time. I'll check back.


Friday, June 22, 2007

Looking for a Hard Rain

In case you don't already know, I also blog at Mockingbird's Medley, usually with content different from my posts here, sometimes not. I was on my way to posting an item there today when I and found head Mocker, Mimus Pauly's, post on the alienation and disappointment he has experienced as a thinking American who loves his country. The entire post is worth the read so you will truly understand his final words.

And it is the idea of shattering of that bond [faith in our Constitution, laws and ideals] that the pretenders in Washington on St. Patrick's Day saw fit to honor. Forget about al-Qaida for a moment -- that is the existential threat America faces. People who know deep down that this country is porked beyond remedy if things don't change soon, yet maintain their bogus fronts because it makes them feel less apprehensive. Neo-cons. Thirty-percenters. War fetishists. Fake Christians. Empty vessels.

I don't know when that stormcloud is finally going to burst open, but the longer it takes, the harder that rain is going to pour when it finally does. I hope those pretenders know how to swim...

I'm not sure I want them to swim. I want the rain to wash that kind of ignorance and hatred away.

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Thursday, June 21, 2007

Hike Naked Day

Today is Hike Naked Day. If you plan to be on the Appalachian Trail today, you may encounter naked hikers such as these gentlemen.

How you deal with the encounter is up to you.

I did not hike naked on my thru-hike. I was in town that day and had forgotten about it. I hiked naked once on the Beamer Trail in the Grand Canyon but did not care for the feel of gear on my flesh or the idea of having nothing, however insubstantial, between all that rough rock and my butt. Sun exposure was a bit much, too.

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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

A Clear Mission

Describing Operation Arrowhead Ripper:
"The end state is to destroy the al-Qaeda influences in this province and eliminate their threat against the people," according to Brig. Gen. Mick Bednarek, deputy commanding officer of the 25th Infantry Division. "That is the number one, bottom-line, upfront, in-your-face task and purpose."

Sounds pretty straightforward to me. In 30 to 60 days, al-Qaeda will no longer be a force in Diyala Province. I understand the mission and the definition of the expected success. I can support this mission on the premise that destroying any al-Qaeda capability makes the world a better place. I also understand that al-Qaeda is a supple and determined organization, capable of adapting to circumstances, able to use Arab and Islamic identity to good advantage against a foreign occupier.

Results may vary.


Juan Cole does not think the operation in Diyala will succeed in reducing violence there.
Diyala has a Sunni majority, and a lot of the problems in that province began politically in the first place because SIIC has dominated it politically. In the short term, this operation may 'pacify' Baquba. But likely it will inflict tremendous damage on the city, will cause a lot of the 300,000 or so inhabitants to flee and become refugees, and will likely not change the political situation, which is Shiite dominance of Sunnis along with some Kurdish separatist plans for parts of the province.


Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Colonel and His Daughter

[Today seems like the right day to post this.]

Although I stopped writing about Arlington Cemetery funerals a while back, I do have one more to acknowledge. In this case, though, the story is one of a full life rather than early death. Earlier this year, an 86 year old retired lieutenant colonel was laid to rest at Arlington, one of the many World War II veterans now passing from this life. The Washington Post obituary was pretty typical: 20 plus years of military service followed by a variety of military related civilian jobs in the DC area. What makes this funeral notable is that the deceased was the father of my first Great Love.

Sure enough, Joan was listed among the survivors along with her brothers and sisters. Her last name was different but I recognized her instantly and a flood of memories came back. No doubt we all have stories of love pursued and love lost. I’m hardly unique in that respect. Where my story takes is odd turn is Vietnam.

We were “together” about two years, of which we were apart for 18 months. But even as a distance relationship, it worked for me. Hell, I was on my way to and in Vietnam. For the first time in my awkward life, a pretty woman liked me. We were friends and becoming lovers. The disappointment of being separated from this wonderful person after only a few months together was pretty intense but the hope she offered during the time we were apart was vital. Joan was a strong connection to the life I had once lived and wanted to begin anew. She was at National Airport when I came home on that amazing morning in January 1972. Although our relationship did not last, our time together was both an awakening and a godsend.

Her family also welcomed me. Her mom and siblings were friendly, very interested in music; a younger brother played flute in a rock band and Frank Zappa was well regarded in the household. The colonel was reserved, and I can imagine, not always thrilled with me. I was not reticent about my opposition to the war. I had just completed an excellent course in US diplomatic history(*) and, of course, knew everything, so I can only imagine how that came across to this retired senior officer. I was pretty angry too. Still, he welcomed me, even inviting me to share evening martinis with him. Months later upon learning I had been assigned to infantry, Joan reported him saying something like “Good. He’ll get his fingernails dirty.” I took his words more as a barbed jest–he had some snark in him–rather than hostility. (I did, indeed, have clean fingernails since I paid some attention to basic hygiene. He was right, though.)

Occasionally, I think I went to Vietnam to prove myself to the colonel and to show myself worthy of his daughter. I try not to think that since: A) it’s a really stupid thing to do (not that I was beyond doing stupid things) and B) the decision involved more than Joan and her father. But they were part of it all, certainly the best part, and I have always been thankful for Joan’s love and her family’s support during that time. Our relationship did not last but my gratitude sure has. I sent a card to the family through the funeral home offering my condolences and recalling fondly their kindness to me during that time. Now, I wish I had explicitly said, “Thank you.” Certainly, much of what was positive in my life then came from Joan and her family. I've never forgotten.

My most enduring memory of the colonel is from December 1970. Joan and her parents accompanied me to National Airport for my flight to Oakland where I would process into Vietnam. I don’t remember too many details from that night but I do remember the handshake, hugs, good wishes and all three of them standing in at the gate as I walked down that ramp.

Godspeed, colonel. Thank you, your family and Joan especially for everything.

* Norman Graebner’s course was exceptional. His ideas and passion made a 75 minute lecture fly by. His understanding of American diplomacy and interests is as relevant today as it was three decades ago.

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Fathers' Day 2007

[Today is both Fathers' Day and my own father's birthday, his 101st. He's been dead for almost 45 years, so I have not celebrated either day with him for a long, long time. I make do with the memories he left me. The following is from my Appalachian Trail memoir.]

I thought of my father often during my 2002 AT thru-hike. He died in November 1962, so the 40th anniversary of his death was prominent in my mind. As I walked, I frequently recalled memories of him and wondered about his thoughts and feelings in his final months of life. I don’t have a lot to go on. I did not know my father well. He died just before my 15th birthday. What memories I have are those of a pre-adolescent and teenager, so I know nothing from him of his thoughts, feelings, hopes and dreams. Much of what I know (or think I know) of him I learned after the fact.

As a 54 year old thru-hiker I compared myself to my father at that same age. He turned 54 in 1960, a middle class businessman in a small town. He was a third generation pharmacist, working first in the family drug store and, after World War II, for a drug store chain. He was a pharmacist at the Peoples Drug Store in Danville, Virginia from 1949 to 1962 and store manager after 1951. He was married with sons aged 12 (me) and 14 (my brother, Neil). He was somewhat physically active, walking to and from the bus stop daily and swimming at the YWCA on a regular basis. At my age, my father had less than two years to live.

My father and I never hiked or camped together. He seemed to enjoy my enthusiasm for outdoor activities when I was a Boy Scout and told me about his own experiences as a scout. But that interest never translated into active participation. I cannot imagine him doing anything like a long distance hike. Work and family would have precluded that kind of endeavor, had it ever occurred to him. Looking back, I wondered if he would have been proud, appalled or amused at my decision to give up home and career to spend six months walking in the woods. I like to think that my father had sufficient sense of adventure to share my excitement but I really don’t know.

As I walked the trail from April to September, I tried to remember the months prior to his death. I don’t have much real information to go on–he and my mother did not let on that he was dying until the very end. Besides, I was a teenager, fully absorbed in my own world. Absent a clear warning, I was largely oblivious to my father’s condition. I knew he was ill, maybe even that he had lung cancer. He’d smoked Camels until 1961 and had a noticeable cough. But as far as I knew, he was responding to treatment–he went to work until maybe a week before his death. His death was a real surprise to me. To everyone else, too, according to my Aunt Peg.

Most days on the trail I would think and wonder what he and my mother thought and felt on that same day in 1962. Maybe they did not believe that he was going to die. They kept things pretty normal. I try to remember that time but cannot recall anything that would have warned me of his death. What I remember are the things that directly affected me: escaping Catholic school, starting public high school, making new friends and conflict with my father.

Perhaps the conflict with my father keeps bringing me back to his death. As a teenager, I behaved in ways that he did not approve: smoking, shooting pool, making the wrong friends. I feared his disapproval and at times wished he were dead–life would be so much simpler then. And then he died. And life was anything but simple. I know that my wishes did not kill him but I have always regretted them. I wish they were not my last memories of him. Even more, I regret that I never had the opportunity to know my father as an adult and vice-versa. Whatever his concerns in 1962, I think he would be proud of what I have done with the life he gave me. But his death closed the door on any chance for us to resolve the our conflicts. Lingering doubts from that time have been part of my life ever since.

Thinking about my father made him an important part of my thru-hike. Despite my sadness about his death and my feelings toward him at the time, I do have fond memories of him. I swam often with him at the YMCA and summer days at a public pool. He tolerated and, I think even supported, my rebellious attitude toward the Catholic education that he agreed to when he married my mother. I inherited his love of books, the one passion that I know he shared with my mother. That gift that has rewarded me immensely over the years. He encouraged my curiosity and independence which, ultimately, led me to the Appalachian Trail in April 2002. In that respect, this thru-hike is a gift from him.

This time on the Appalachian Trail, 40 years after my father’s death, has helped me to understand my relationship with him better. The events of his death or my feelings at the time have not changed but I understand them better now and am grateful for all that my father gave me.

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