Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Class Notes

Today I spoke to a high school English class about Vietnam.  The students are about to begin reading Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried and the instructor asked if I would talk to the class about my experience in Vietnam.  It was definitely an interesting hour.  I spent about 15 minutes telling the basic facts about my service, how Vietnam has informed my life since and then opened the floor for questions.  That pretty much filled the time.  About a third of the students actually asked questions and several students asked many.  I showed them these images.  No one looked especially bored.

The students were engaged and had no trouble coming up with questions. Some were easy:
  • How old were you went you went to Vietnam?  23.
  • What was Christmas like in Vietnam? The first one was sad because I'd just arrived.  The second was okay because I was about go home.
  • Did you ever torch a village?  No.  I did not tell them that we trashed a lot jungle.  They saw some of that in the photographs I showed them.  One student asked about wildlife and I could recall none beyond bugs.  Any animal with a sense of survival would have stayed way clear of an American infantry company in Vietnam.  I'm glad I did not tell them about the animal that set off our trip flares and was pretty much atomized by a wall of claymore mines.
  • How much did your pack weigh? 65 pounds plus 200 M60 rounds hand carried in a metal ammo box; 80 pounds when I carried the radio.
  • What did you find good about your time in Vietnam.  The mountains and the jungle.  When I could see past my own miserable situation.  I valued the friendships and camaraderie.  I also liked the irresponsibility.  I had no other obligation other than to show up and not fuck up.  I managed to do both.  I learned the sheer randomness of life and how to stay sane in the midst of uncertainty and fear. I neglected to tell them that I saw the Third World in person and understood why they were fighting us. That was a most valuable lesson.
  • How many people used drugs?  I estimated about 98 percent.  I was thinking illegal drugs.  Certainly 98 percent of the people I knew used pot and heroin.  If you include alcohol, just about everyone used drugs.  I told them pot kept me sane. 
Some were not as easy:
  • Did you see anyone die?  Yes.  I read a poem.
  • If you could go back in time would you make the same decision?  I told them I would like to think that I would but if I faced the same constraints and information, I would probably go to war.   I told them that my decision was much like Tim O'Brien's in "Rainy River".  I did what was expected.  Like him I was a coward.  I went to war.
Some were utilitarian:
  • How long did it take to get to Vietnam?  16 to 18 hours.  I told them about the long night that took me through Anchorage Alaska to Bien Hoa, Vietnam.
  • What was your favorite thing you carried?  I had to think about this one for a while but finally decided it was my canteen cup because I could fix hot chocolate in the morning.  Kind of like getting up and going to work.  Somehow it made things just a tiny bit normal. The emphasis was on favorite.  A book would also be a favorite.  I liked carrying the radio but it wasn't exactly favorite.
  • What was the least useful thing you carried?  I said grenades but I meant fragmentation grenades.  Frags.  You could not throw them in foliage  (actually I could not throw one anywhere far enough to avoid my own shrapnel); they were mostly for rolling into bunkers but I never had call for that so they were pretty useless. 
  • In the jungle was it so dark you could not see your hand in front of your face?  I recalled it being dark at night in the bush.  I told them about laying my position with something approaching me in the brush, so paralyzed with fear that I could not even let the next guy know that I was about seconds away from opening up with my M16.  And then it was gone.
  • Did you ever have fires at night or on the firebase?  Never at night in the field. I talked about the trip flare fire that started a fire and blew a claymore near my squad leader. I forgot to mention the trash fires when we burned excess rations and supplies that we did not want.   I did not tell them about the fire that started when Mario ambushed the NVA training cadre.  Or the napalmed jungle we walked through the day before.
  • At some point I mentioned to the class that I always carried a book. Later someone asked what I read.  T. Harry Williams' biography of Huey Long, Gay Talese, The Kingdom and the Power and Dean Acheson's auto biography, Present at the Creation.  I told them That Dean Acheson was a Secretary of State who initiated the policies that ended up sending me to war.  I told them about Love Story and the crying soldiers.  I said that pornography was plentiful. I did not give titles.
In all, it was a good experience for me.  I was uneasy about being too graphic but I was honest.  I didn't use a script or prepare for the class other than reading exerpts from The Things They Carried.  I would do it again.

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