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Saturday, December 19, 2015

Time for Reunion

by Mary Pfeiffer

For some forty-eight years, Ronald Kraft harbored a nagging notion of an unfinished task. If he retained a restlessness, a feeling of having left a work not completed, a war not won, he tried to push it aside, catalog it next to things too difficult to talk about. But he couldn’t forget.
He had once been a Marine.
Ronald came of age in the 1960’s when a war in Vietnam threatened to hijack America’s draft-age men. Rather than wait for his inevitable draft notice that offered no choice of time or service, Kraft voluntarily joined the Marines. He was appointed to the rank of First Lieutenant at the same time he received his master’s degree. A few days following graduation along with two hundred eighteen other newly commissioned lieutenants, he reported to the Marine Corps Basic School, a required training ground for all new officers.
In 1967, the escalating war and its rising casualty rate required increasing numbers of troops and lieutenants to lead them. To fill that need, The Basic School (TBS) squeezed training for Kraft’s Alpha Company into five months instead of the usual eight. Their schedule included grueling, often fifteen-hour-days, of combat conditioning, both mental and physical. The new lieutenants quickly came to realize that failure was not an option and that donning a uniform in service to their country wasn’t an abstract idea. With an ever-increasing likelihood that they were going to be involved in a shooting war, the men worked together to strengthen those weaker and encourage the discouraged. In doing so, they forged friendships and pledged support to have one another’s back always.
TBS graduation ended what the young men assumed would be years of camaraderie. The majority were immediately dispatched to Vietnam and assigned as platoon infantry officers. Spread among 82,000 Marines fighting in Vietnam, the classmates of TBS had little means of contact or communication with one another.
Coming home a year or more later, Alpha Company scattered still farther. Even if there had been an easy way to find a fellow officer’s whereabouts, it was time to plunge into the lives they would make for themselves, not to look up Marine buddies. Alpha Company men were three years and more behind those who, having seen no military service, were already making names for themselves in their professional fields. With youth passing too quickly, the men needed to focus on family and careers. They did so quietly. Lessons learned in the war zone—detachment, vigilance, control, anger—were habits not compatible with home and were stuffed away as much as possible.
When retirement from his civilian career finally gave Kraft time to look back and reflect, he wondered how his classmates had fared, if they too experienced vague, un-ended dreams. He emailed and phoned the few former classmates whose locations he knew. They compared their various post-Vietnam experiences and discovered common lingering feelings: hesitancy to speak of their war experiences, dread of stumbling onto someone who had protested against what they had risked their lives for, determination not to appear to “live in the past” or “glorify war.” Wondering if looking back together might bring closure to a time so separated from the rest of their adult lives as to read like fiction rather than fact, and, in doing so, influence their futures, Kraft called for reunion.
He directed a yearlong search for class members, from Acly, P. to Zimmerman, J. Several of the first found joined the search. They combed social media, looking hard at today’s photos to see resemblances to those twenty-one-year olds who stood beside them at muster. They explored in They discovered three post-Vietnam military deaths and thirty-one who had passed away during the ensuing years. Eventually they found every class member, widow, or family of a fallen. Phone calls went out to the men; letters invited widows and family of those fallen.
By the time they assembled at a hotel in Fredericksburg, near the Quantico Marine base, the planning for the five-day event was evident in every detail: the opening Welcome Home ceremony, young Marines in dress blues posting the flag against a mango sunset, the national anthem sung over lumps in throats, and the bugler signaling evening roll call before a sobering reading of the names of the fifteen who gave their lives in the war.
Reggie James, Marine turned minister and emcee for the program, stated the purpose for the gathering—to “perform reunion, to get back together, to remember, to reconcile who we’ve become with who we were”—and declared the reunion begun.
Those who came to the reunion included career officers, men who left the Corps for civilian careers, and the classmate whose career ended with one bullet to both legs. The attendees were different from their earlier, physically-fit, shorn-hair, straight-standing selves, though the difference wasn’t as great as might be expected. At seventy, these men retained practiced military postures. Even grayed, bald, or bearded, the men recognized one another. They greeted one another with loud voices and shouted nicknames. Although a map on the class website showed the location of every living member (and burial site of the fallen), they still asked, “Where are you now?” “Retired?” “Did you stay in?”
Conversations accounted for what they were doing in retirement: tutoring kids at a Carlsbad library, authoring a book on Vietnam, bicycling in Colorado, rescuing dogs, making pottery. They came from dentistry, clinical social work, and the priesthood. They took time away from law practices from Maine to Texas. One left his sailboat in New Zealand; another, his fifty-foot yacht in the Bahamas.

The second morning they field tripped to Quantico, site of The Basic School. As the busses pulled into the parking lot, a chorus went up from the men. A new building and air-conditioned classrooms had replaced the stuffy ones they endured. And gone was the mock Vietnam village where they studied Viet Cong tactics and various types of booby traps they would encounter in the sweltering tropical country.
A lieutenant colonel, currently teaching at TBS, addressed the group. He reminded the men—as if they could forget—that The Basic School had to mold Alpha Company like so much clay into leaders who would defend freedom half a world away, their firing kiln the shortened schedule never used before or since. Every day for five months was filled with all they had to learn if they were to survive Vietnam.
He recalled that two dozen brought brides with them to The Basic School, from weddings squeezed in between college graduation, commissioning as lieutenants, and traveling to Virginia. Brides may have thought it time to start their married lives. In truth, their husbands were consumed with preparations for deployment to the war zone. One veteran confirmed what was on every mind. “At TBS I was so focused I’m sure I neglected my new wife. Constant in my mind was the thought, Did I miss something; do I understand it correctly? I had to get it all and get it right.”
The Quantico visit sparked remembered experiences—or escapades—from TBS days: the bachelor party pillow fight that accidently knocked the groom-to-be out cold, the Friday night drinking parties before Saturday morning practice on the obstacle course, their final test—a three-day “war” in an unfamiliar forest when temperatures dropped to record lows with sleet and snow.
Before long, talk took on a serious tone. Wives from TBS days told newer wives that during the final days of school, the men wrote their wills and filled out ready-to-send insurance letters lacking only date and cause of death, “in case . . .” It was a scary time, but neither men nor wives allowed the worry to surface. Husbands didn’t want to worry wives; wives didn’t want their husbands to worry about them.
The men’s conversations that followed compared assignments and experiences in Vietnam. Eventually a voice offered, “Real sad about Allen (or Sandberg or Gray).” Then a silence before someone recalled an incident in Basic School involving their fallen friend. Someone recalled that Ted was the first to fall only three weeks after arriving in Vietnam, before some of the Company finished specialty schools and shipped out. Married while still in college, he left his widow with two small children. These comments cast a somber shadow over the room.
By the fourth day of reunion, with Basic School days revisited and their war experiences shared, friendships renewed. Classmates once again felt trust for one another. They let opinions about the war creep into conversations. Gathered in pairs, sometimes threes, men talked about coming to the reunion. Gerald Aveis admitted, “I had to come to find out what it was like for the others. I needed to discover if they had the same feelings—fear, disappointment, disillusionment—and settle the period in my mind.”
Most of the two hundred four classmen came home with no visible scars from their ordeal. They let themselves imagine that the nation would greet and welcome them and be as thankful for the safe return as the returnees were. Instead, they saw everyone hurrying about their busy lives beneath puffy-clouded US skies. The Marines were treated as if they had just returned from picking up dry cleaning that needed to be put away so they could return to the business of American life. Snatches of conversations mentioned sharp edges. One says they returned from war like pottery shards and fragments of glass. But instead of being ground down and scrubbed until they were polished specimens ready to be displayed and admired like beach glass, he recalled feeling as though he was shoved into a crevice, beyond the tides’ ministering sands, ignored, abandoned to exist with whatever jagged edges the war left on him. Gathered here, they finally could admit their disappointments and disillusionments and turn their talk philosophical. This reunion had, as one man put it, “let me get my old and young selves back together.”

The alums of TBS 68 finished their reunion with a visit to the Vietnam Memorial Wall. Exiting the buses in D.C., everyone paused for a moment to take in the black panels stretching head-high across a sun-spotlighted stage. Without breaking the early Sunday quiet, they separated into couples and threesomes, spread across walkways, consulted lists. Gray heads and navy blazers were patterned over the more than 58,000 names etched into the granite. Come to pay respects, their manner said. A long time coming.
A man of slight build, a 4th Platooner, moved along the wall, passing several panels, pausing, reading, moving on, searching. “Conway.” He traced the letters as though reading Braille, fingers lingering over the name just found. He squinted, lost in thought, then touched a patriotic-ribboned rose to the name, let it drop, moved on. He found others: Hoffmann, Figueroa. When he hadn’t found a name in several panels, he retraced his steps, reread.
 “They have to be here. Together,” he spoke to the wife of forty-eight years beside him. He ran his finger along one line then down to the next. “It was the same day, their deaths. They’re grouped by date.”
His wife knelt to inspect names that ran all the way to the ground. “Kelley,” she pronounced, touching a name. “And Knollmeyer.” The final name was spoken as benediction before she stood to watch her husband place a rose in front of this panel. He didn’t stoop but bent slightly and dropped the white flower to the ground. These found names were not among the fallen from TBS Alpha Class.
Speaking almost in a whisper, more to himself than to the one who watched his actions, he claimed, “Seven are mine, my platoon; twelve in the company. We were hit by heavy fire: rifles, machine guns, mortars, grenades … I remember them all … every September …  call their families.”
All here knew his story, the man who carried himself confidently, white hair clipped military close, gray eyes, tanned complexion testimony to an active life. His classmates spoke in regret for him, that he should have followed in his father’s, his uncle’s footsteps, both USMC generals. Then they added admiration for the life he had made for himself. They watched for but failed to find hint of his career-ending injury, his souvenir from that September skirmish. Their eyes said they recalled his brief bio, the one each man prepared before the reunion, printed for all to read but never spoken of.

Someone might think that it was foreordained that I would become a Marine, given that my father, uncle, and brother-in-law all served in the Corps; and unquestionably, I was immersed in everything Marine from an early age. … No one ever said to me, “Are you going to be a Marine when you grow up?” However, it was clearly communicated to me that I had an obligation to serve my country.
  Several Basic School classmates and I arrived in Vietnam the first week in January, 1968. It was going to be a very bloody year. We just didn’t know how bloody it was going to be.
  On the morning of [September] 19th, near the intersection of Route 4 and a railroad berm, the battalion encountered a large force of NVA hidden in holes and trenches concealed by tall grass, banana trees, and a tree line. Fox Company mounted an assault only to be hit by heavy fire. ... In a brief period of time, we had twelve men killed and thirty wounded, of which I was one. One instant I was erect, and the next I was splayed out on the ground. It was as if I suddenly had an amputation without any anesthesia. I kept staring at my right leg, trying to figure out why it was on backwards, with my right heel inches away from my eyes. I was paralyzed, and it was dawning on me that I might not make it. Not once did it cross my mind that I might be wounded and never be the same again, that my “career” in the Marine Corps would consist of ten and a half months in a body cast, rehab, and a medical retirement. 

A short distance from the wall, three soldiers frozen in bronze looked on in solemn tribute to the names of those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their comrades and nation. Time for ceremony. The reunited Alpha Class assembled in front of the statue and assumed its same respectful gaze until eyes were drawn to a Marine in dress blues. He paced a distance to dappled light filtering through tree branches and lifted his bugle. The observers caught their breath at his slow, mournful sounding of “Taps”. Shoulders squared, backs straightened in muscle memory of long-ago training; the moist eyes reflected another kind of memory. Every clear note pulled at hearts with all is well.
Maybe Kraft’s magical five days of reunion accomplished his purpose. Their fallen were honored and remembered. As important, classmates not seen in forty-eight years discovered they had wrestled with common feelings of abandonment and rejection after they returned home from the war. They weren’t and hadn’t been alone in their recollections of a time more difficult than anyone who hadn’t been through it could understand. That realization fostered healing. In reuniting, reconnecting, and remembering, they put back together the pieces that hadn’t fit since that time. As the remaining members of the class—those they referred to as “sitting up and taking nourishment”— were pulled back into the supporting body that sustained them through Basic School, the last jagged edges from that early duty finally were smoothed, allowing them to feel like the polished specimens they are.

From procrastinating to editing to teaching, Mary Pfeiffer loves all aspects of writing. In her teen years, she wrote a weekly newspaper column. Then she taught writing to teachers in her local school district. Currently she teaches Memoir Writing at Collin College in Texas, edits for other writers, and works on her own and her family’s memoirs. Her recent writings are anthologized in Ten Spurs: Best of the Best and Widowhood for Smarties.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

M'aidez: Of War and Peace in Iowa and Delle

by Claude Clayton Smith

All Hell broke loose in Iowa City after the National Guard killed the kids at Kent State.
It was just before Mother’s Day, 1970, a sunny May day toward the end of the semester. Several thousand students were loitering on the wide grassy area along the Pentacrest—the five original buildings of the University of Iowa—the ground so littered with blankets and beer cans and bongs that I could hardly find a spot on which to squat.
Frisbees were flying everywhere. Strains of George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord wafted on breezes laced with sweet-smelling pot. The mood was festive despite the tensions dividing the nation, simply because it was such a grand and glorious spring day. The weather had turned unseasonably warm. Girls were in shorts or granny dresses, their long hair held back with colorful headbands. Some wore blue jeans with peasant blouses or tie-dyed tee shirts, their breasts as unfettered as the breeze. Bare-chested guys sat on the grass in shit-kicking boots and old jeans with wide belts and bellbottoms. Others wore bright tank tops like old men’s undershirts. Shoes and sandals had been shed in favor of bare feet. Everyone was wearing love beads. I’d made some myself, alternating earth tones on a length of elastic that hugged my neck as if it belonged there.
Final exams were approaching but no one was in class. It was early afternoon and I’d just come up to the Pentacrest from the OAT—the Old Armory Temporary—where I’d been holding conferences with my freshman students. I had an office in the OAT and was avoiding the TA cubicles in the English-Philosophy Building in order to avoid Ann-Margret, a wannabe actress who looked like the original—hence my nickname for her— because our relationship had run its course. The OAT sat beside the Iowa River, which bisects the campus. As it turned out, it was old all right—a pre-fab thrown up after World War II—and equally as temporary, because it would burn to the ground before the day was out.
But first I had to hurry to my basement digs on Church Street to check the mail. I was expecting a letter from my college roommate in Vietnam. He’d been drafted from his high-school teaching, while I had landed safely in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Gary’s last letter had hinted of a move into Cambodia.
Half an hour later, when news of Kent State broke, I was back at the Pentacrest, my hair bound with a pheasant-filled tie filched from my landlord’s closet, sitting in the street with a thousand others, the words of Jane Fonda echoing in our heads. “Take to the streets!” she’d urged during a campus visit. So we’d taken to the streets. I was feeling guilty because my college roommate was squatting in a rice paddy somewhere in Vietnam while I was literally screwing around in Iowa City. I’d recently been purged of venereal warts with dry ice at the university hospital—there was an epidemic at the university—and the current chaos seemed like Armageddon.
Then the festive mood turned ugly. We were blocking traffic to end the War. It seemed entirely logical. The only vehicle we let through was a florist’s van, in honor of Mother’s Day. “Flower power to all you mothers!” we yelled, and the van driver caught the spirit: “Right on!” Then a pickup truck came roaring at the crowd, its redneck driver putting an end to our demonstration with one of his own. He was protesting as a citizen, he was later quoted as saying, since his taxes paved these city streets. We thought he’d stop but he didn’t, effectively parting us like the Red Sea. After which everyone scuttled home.
That night we congregated at the river to watch the OAT burn. I don’t think anyone to this day knows how that fire started. The OAT was a firetrap that deserved to be burned, which was why I kept nothing of value in my office there. Or the OAT just might have gone up in flames as a matter of principle. Or it might have been a burnt offering to the great God of War. The timing was uncanny, and the OAT lit up the night sky with red flames like an Iowa sunset. “Right on!” everyone yelled. And the OAT burned right on down.
But not everyone enjoyed that fire. Several graduate students watched their doctoral dissertations go up in smoke, and one of the professors from the English Department, addressing us by bullhorn, was choking back tears. In the morning it was clear that, fearing further violence and destruction that might rival Kent State, campus officials had had enough, declaring an end to the semester although final exams were yet to be taken. They announced a variety of policies for those worried about their grades, then sent us home to our parents—who didn’t want us either.

Fortunately, I’d been selected to go abroad that summer as a group leader on The Experiment in International Living. I was taking twelve high school students to live in Delle, France, a village of less than three thousand inhabitants on the Swiss border just south of Basel. I was relieved to be out of the country.
In contrast to the States, Delle, a medieval village in the heart of rolling farm country, was tranquil and timeless. No one there spoke English, and my hosts—Jean and Liliane Lassauce—had no TV. Each of my students had a host family too, making my job of roving ambassador relatively easy. I’d been an Experimenter to England in 1965, when the program was restricted to college-age participants, but this summer was a test case for the younger kids. They were only sophomores, and if they did well, the program would be opened to high school students in the future.
Several dozen people of all ages, waving signs emblazoned with our names, were waiting at the tiny station when our train pulled into Delle in the late afternoon. For a few minutes the platform was a confusion of scrambled luggage and welcoming embraces, then the family groups dispersed one by one.  
The Lassauce family lived in a restored nineteenth-century farmhouse just across from the station. Jean and Lili were in their early thirties—I was twenty-seven at the time—and their son Eric, away at a colonie de vacances, was eleven. The Frisbee I brought as a gift for young Eric was the first Frisbee ever seen in Delle. 
Lili, a caring and spirited individual, worked at the bank in the village. She was old enough to remember German bombs exploding in the neighborhood, one of which had killed her childhood friend. When I asked if the people of Delle ever discussed World War II, she said le moins que possible, given the gamut of stances from resistance to collaborateur. But it was easy to tell where her sympathies lay. Jean, more reticent than his wife, was a supervisor at a local factory. He was slim but wiry, with a shock of black hair and a prominent nose. When we visited his usine for a brief tour, each worker greeted him with obvious respect. Later, I solved a mystery that had been plaguing his staff for weeks. They were having problems understanding the instructions for a new machine from the States. The instructions were in English, and Jean had no idea what the word “drawing” meant—drah-vange, as he pronounced it.
“C’est le dessin,” I said. And everyone smiled, then cheered.
I visited Lili at work, too, taking Jean’s bike up the lane and over the railroad bridge, descending into the village along a series of twisting streets, always struggling to remain upright on the slippery cobblestones. This was usually at mid-morning or just before lunch. Sleeping late, I’d throw open the wooden shutters that kept my tiny bedroom in total darkness, and, blinded by the daylight, make my way down to the high-ceilinged kitchen for the wonderful coffee and fresh bread waiting there. At the bank Lili would chide me for sleeping in, but once the jet lag was behind me I was up at dawn. Jean kept regular working hours, but Lili had to stay at the bank each evening until the day’s receipts tallied. Any error would keep the entire staff overtime, often for hours.
I loved to bike around Delle. The central square held an ancient statue within a circular fountain, and the landmark clock tower prevented me from losing my way, rising as it did above the sloping, tiled rooftops of the village. Quaint bridges crossed a shallow river here and there, the water rippling out to the ruins of distant ramparts where it had once filled a defensive moat. The local watering hole—La Buvette—occupied the ground floor of a narrow five-story building of which the top three were broader than the bottom two, leaving room, I was told, for wagons to pass by in the old days. Another curious structure boasted Les Cariatides—five painted wooden carvings like the figures on the prow of a sailing ship. Spaced along the façade of the building, they rose at a forty-five-degree angle to support an overhanging roof.  Each represented some quality of justice. Chateau Feltin, just around the corner, dated from the sixteenth century. It was in need of repair, an enormous gatehouse to a much larger chateau on an estate now lost to the ages. At a shop beyond it I bought a béret.
Next door to Jean and Lili lived a local character known as Charlot, a squat old man with a bulbous nose and shrewish wife twice his size. The two were perpetually at war. To keep the peace Charlot disappeared each afternoon, dressed in baggy pants, a loose long-sleeved shirt and black vest, a béret pulled aslant of his forehead. On his arm hung a woven basket, and within the basket was a checkered linen cloth. Heading for the local woods by a circuitous route, he would return just as stealthily several hours later, his basket laden with mushrooms beneath the checkered linen. Then he’d hand the basket to his wife and there’d be peace for a while.
Yves Michalet was my counterpart in Delle, a local teacher in his early forties who lived in an apartment adjacent to the village schoolhouse, a building with a castle-like stone turret and winding staircase. He too had a young son named Eric, a schoolmate of Eric Lassauce. But his attractive wife, Marie-Rose, was a bit standoffish. Though born in France, she’d been raised speaking German, and her French accent was telling. They had a younger daughter as well.
Yves was a handsome man with fashionably long black hair and one eye that drooped slightly, as if he were perpetually squinting. Being a teacher himself, he knew how to address me at just the right speed so we always understood each other perfectly. To get acquainted he took me on a tour, including les pas du diable—legendary stone footprints in a shady glade—where the Devil had allegedly appeared to a would-be saint. Nearby, I stood with one foot in France and the other in Switzerland, a cliché pose, as Yves pointed out. 
We spent much of our time visiting my students in their French family homes. Yves knew all of the French students, since they’d been in his classes, and was familiar with their parents as well. It took us several weeks to make the rounds, a happy task that meant long evenings at table. My students had been placed with families of similar socio-economic backgrounds, and so the wealthiest American lived in “the American quarter,” a section of the village with the pretensions of a suburb. But even the lovely modern home where we dined that evening—like all homes in Delle—had no screens on the windows, and as luck would have it, a large bluebottle fly was soon swimming in my wineglass. What to do? Spoon it out and put it on my plate? The conversation was bright and convivial, growing louder as the hours slipped by, and whenever I tipped my glass, the fly would float away from my lips to the opposite rim, so I was safe for the time being. It was a large wineglass—the fly had appeared on my third refill—and by the time I had sipped my way to the bottom, that fly was so pickled I shut my eyes and chugged it, maintaining the international peace.    
On another wine-related occasion the luck ran better. We had taken our French and American students on an excursion into Alsace-Lorraine, where we visited a local winery. While down in the wine cellar one of the girls in my group casually mentioned that her father was an importer of fine wines. She was asked her father’s name, and our guide’s mouth fell open. “Monsieur Aaron?” he said. “C’est pas possible!” We were soon skipping through the cobblestone streets with gift bottles of wine. 
But there were difficult times as well. One of my students should never have been accepted to the program. The youngest of nine children—and the only boy—Arthur had shown up for orientation back in the States with his mother and eight sisters. His mother had confided that she was glad I was Arthur’s group leader because he was in need of a father figure. Arthur coped with his fear of The Experiment by taking photographs, his new camera his first line of defense. He took photographs of everything, keeping France at arm’s length rather than confronting it head-on. On our very first night in Delle, as I was later told, he drove his “French brother” from their shared bedroom, insisting, “C’est ma chambre!” Fortunately for me, on the following day his host family left for a vacation on the coast of Spain, where Arthur passed a month alone, playing in the sand.
Once my visits with Yves were completed, I was free to enjoy my time with Jean and Lili. On one occasion we traveled to Belfort, where the famous lion sculpted by Bartholdi guards the chateau. On another occasion, drinking late at someone’s third floor apartment, I felt so peaceful and happy that life seemed surreal, a feeling confirmed when I glanced out the window to see a motorcycle rising into the night sky. Blinking, I looked again. Some sort of festival had gotten underway in the little cobblestone square down below, featuring a daredevil who rode a motorcycle up a wire. 
A few days later, as Jean roasted a pig beside a pond outside of Delle and Lili sunned herself in the grass, I paddled about in a kayak. Finding a bamboo pole, I went fishing, catching a hefty carp that I held up for them to see. Lili guessed that it weighed four kilos. Later still, visiting Eric at his colonie de vacances, I won a sack of groceries by guessing its weight—identical to the weight of that carp.
Then the kind of thing happened that I’d dreaded all along. One of the girls in my group—there were seven in all, innocent and dewy and unaware of how attractive they were—telephoned to say that her “French father,” who was actually Italian, had tried to kiss her. I solved the problem by hastily arranging an American “sleep-over” at the home of one of the other girls. The amorous father seemed to take the hint, and peace was restored.
Then there was Peter, a shy prep-school boy who had brought his guitar to Delle and often went off to strum it by himself. One afternoon I found him sitting alone with his guitar and crying softly. We were at a lake in the Vosges Mountains on a joint excursion, and the students had paired up to go paddle boating. Peter had gone too—that wasn’t the problem. The problem was that, for the first time in his life, he actually felt a part of something. The esprit of the day—of the experience in Delle—had overwhelmed him, and he was weeping with joy.
During the final week of our visit we threw an American party for the French, complete with hot dogs (“chaud chiens”) and custom-made buns (“les petites pains”) created by the local baker from my elaborate drah-vange. The students made a tree to present to the village, decorating it with fake dollar bills to perpetuate the myth that, in America, money grows on trees. The idea was supported by Lili’s schoolgirl English text, in which the first lesson began “My tailor is rich.” There was singing, a series of skits, and Yves read selections from Le Petit Nicolas, a favorite character in books for young children. Then someone put an old Paul Anka album on the record player and Lili introduced me to Michele. She was a friend from the bank—half French, half Vietnamese—a product of the days when the Vietnam War had belonged to France alone. The resulting mixture of the races had produced a kind of Polynesian princess. Twenty-five years old, Michelle was the reigning beauty queen of the territoire de Belfort. The lights were dimmed and we danced to Paul Anka: Put Your Head on My Shoulder
It was after midnight when I walked Michele home. The stars were out, the summer evening chilly, and as we wandered the cobblestone streets I suddenly found myself trying to explain about the War. How some of us had been drafted and some of us had not. How I’d taken part in protests in Iowa City. And now here I was in Delle.
I don’t know if Michele really understood anything I tried to explain that night. It was the attempt, I hope, that mattered. I just held her—she was shivering and crying softly—after which the remaining days in Delle became a blur, permeated by the melancholy perception that something wonderful that had just begun was already ending.

Claude Clayton Smith is professor emeritus of English at Ohio Northern University. He is the author of seven books and co-editor/translator of another. His own work has been translated into five languages, including Russian and Chinese. With the late Alexander Vaschenko of Moscow State University, he is co-editor/translator of After the Bear Feast: The Poetic Dialogues of N. Scott Momaday and Yuri Vaella, forthcoming in the spring of 2016 from Shanti Arts Publishing.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Last Thing He Was Afraid Of

by Caroline Horwitz

Unexpected Fact: If you have dinner with your uncle on Saturday, and he jokes, eats heartily, and makes future plans with you and your relatives, it doesn’t mean he won’t be dead by his own hand on Tuesday.

The body in the coffin didn’t look any different from the man I had known.
I hadn’t felt that way at his wife’s calling hours five months before, or at either of my grandparents’ a decade ago. Those bodies looked fake and heavily coated with makeup—wax figures of those people I knew so well. But their deaths had been caused by cancer, emphysema, and congestive heart failure. They hadn’t looked like themselves for some time, their appearances ravaged by their gradual expirations. My uncle’s suicide lasted only as long it took a 9mm Glock to send a bullet from one side of his head to the other.
          I was shocked to learn his calling hours would feature an open casket given the nature of the death, but the funeral home director assured my family that a closed casket wouldn’t be necessary.
          “Of course, we’ll have to turn it the opposite way against the wall,” he said, “to show the left side of his face instead of the right.”
          To hide the entry wound.
          My mother and I were the first ones at the funeral home. I’d never seen the body of a gunshot victim and expected serious damage. The movies seemed to indicate that huge portions of the skull would be blown off. But there was Jim, handsome as ever, perhaps just resting on those blinding-white pillows.
If I looked a little closer at his face, though, I could make out the edges of gauzy bandages on either side of his head and a hint of puckered, dried scabs peeking from beneath them.

He started drinking again right after his wife Amy died. He promised her on her literal deathbed that he wouldn’t. She endured over twenty years of his drunken episodes, and the emotional and sometimes physical abuse that came with them, only to be cancer-stricken a year after he finally got clean and started therapy.
A shadow of the perky, glamorous woman she used to be, she begged him to maintain sobriety.
“You can’t go back to drinking when I’m gone, no matter how sad you are,” Amy said. “Promise me.”
“I won’t,” he said. “I’m done with that.”
          But he did, and he didn’t try to hide it either. Just weeks after her funeral, his refrigerator was stocked with twenty-four-can packs of Coors Light. Some of his siblings wanted to confront him about it. Others wanted to leave it alone, feeling they weren’t in the position to tell a grieving widower not to have a few beers if it made him feel better. My mother was livid at them more than at him.
          “When he drinks in front of us, he’s pleading for us to say something!” I heard her cry to one of my aunts or uncles over the phone. “He wants to know that we care enough about him to stop it.”
          He was nonchalant when she addressed it. “I’m being careful,” he said.
          It was easy to tell when he had been drinking. He was loud and red and giddy and said nonsensical things, often concerning dead celebrities. T.S. Eliot and Johnny Weissmuller were particular favorites. Countless times we heard him claim that Eliot was almost illiterate and his wife was the writer behind most of his work, and that Weissmuller was closely related to our family.
          “We could trace it, I bet!” he’d say, voice booming. “If we really wanted to.” Eyes unblinking shards of blue so bloodshot they might be terrifying, if not for that irrepressible glee.

          The Glock 17 is one of the best-selling handguns in the world. Jim only owned his a few years, seemingly purchasing it for work-related purposes. As a security guard, he earned more per hour any time he wore it.
That gun disturbed my mother as soon as she learned of Amy’s diagnosis with advanced skin cancer.
          “She’s everything to him,” she told me. “I’m worried what he’ll do.”
          I don’t know how many days passed after Amy’s funeral before my mom attempted to convince Jim to give up the gun. Not many.
“Please let me take it for a little while,” she implored him. “You can have it back later, but I just don’t think it should be in your house right now.”
          He refused. “I’m not going to do anything stupid,” he said.
It wasn’t an explicit promise not to kill himself, I suppose.

          He was the seventh of twelve children, my mother the eighth. Though a year apart in age, they were in the same class throughout school since Jim was held back in first grade.
“He was always self-conscious about that, I think,” my mom said.
She had great affection for him despite having little in common. She was well-behaved and studious, reading the newspaper every day by fourth grade. He had little use for rules and little fear of authority, crumpling notes from teachers and swiping his parents’ cigarettes.
          Shortly after Jim was born, my grandmother suffered a nervous breakdown. It was so severe that she became catatonic, remaining in the hospital for months while my infant uncle was cared for by a nursemaid. Could this have been the catalyst for his tragic life, my mom wondered?
          “A newborn baby needs to be around its mother,” she said. “Mother always said he noticed everything.” 

Jim earned a bachelor’s degree in marketing but opted for manual labor after working an office job for less than a year. Working in factories and operating cranes guaranteed he wouldn’t have to wear business attire forty hours a week.
          “I’m not taking another job that makes me wear a monkey suit,” he said.
          He met his wife in one of these factories. She was a seventeen-year-old small-town beauty queen. He was thirty-one. When he picked her up for their first date, her father sat on the front porch of their rural home, a shotgun in his lap.
          “He didn’t understand,” my uncle said years later. “Dying was the last thing I was afraid of.”

          When I was a child, he was my favorite uncle of the six. He was the fun one, the charming one, the leather jacket-wearing, motorcycle-riding black sheep. By the time I was eighteen months old, I’d shout his name upon hearing the rev of any motorcycle engine. Perhaps there was some draw besides his cool-guy persona. He was the only uncle to never have children, and I had no father.
          He was hardly a substitute, though. As I grew older, his visits with everyone grew more sporadic. He was hard to contact, sometimes avoiding family functions for almost a year despite living less than an hour away.
          He had somehow managed, despite his best efforts, to be the fittest of the twelve siblings. He drank, smoked tobacco and marijuana, ate greasy food on a regular basis, and hardly exercised. But he was trim, muscular, and healthy, unlike many of my more-disciplined aunts and uncles who still struggled with their weight and a myriad of health problems.
A month after Amy’s death, my mom asked how he was feeling.
“I’m cursed with good health,” he told her, with no trace of humor.

          Jim spent a summer of college in the seventies working at a cattle slaughterhouse. He hated it.
“They could smell the blood,” he said. “They knew they were next.”
I never knew what position he worked. I didn’t want to ask. He didn’t kill them; that much I knew. He was farther down the line. Close enough to hear the cows’ panicked lowing, though, before each was silenced with a shot to the head from a captive bolt pistol.
Was there any pain?

          At dinner three nights prior, I sat across from him at my aunt’s dining room table. I faced a man who, that night at least, was cheerful and sober and knew he was seeing us for the last time.
I combed through my memory hunting for any possible foreshadowing comment, but there was none. He fooled us all.
          Most suicides seem to be accompanied by a resounding survivors’ cry of Why? Not so with our family. You want reasons? Take your pick: lost his wife; flawed husband to her; no children; alcoholic; history of depression. The query that prickled beneath our skins was far more uncomfortable: Why now?
Five months. It seemed an odd amount of time. Too late to be an immediate reaction to losing Amy and too soon to have fully sampled life without her and decided against it. There was no significance in the date he chose—no anniversaries or birthdays or milestones of any sort. The reason was a simple and surprising one.
Dependent upon a variety of factors, headstones require different amounts of time to produce, inscribe, deliver, and affix upon a grave. Amy’s took five months.
It arrived the week before he killed himself. The last piece of the puzzle, as it were. The last task he wanted to see to completion for her.
His body and gun were found in the woods adjacent to the cemetery. A pink rose, Amy’s favorite, lay on the new headstone.
The police found no note of any kind when they searched Jim’s house—my childhood home. He and Amy had planned to buy it from my mother after she moved out of town. Almost right after they moved in, though, Amy received her diagnosis. They couldn’t afford the purchase anymore, so the title remained under my mother’s name and she let them live there for free.
The house was immaculate. His two small dogs, like children to him, were in their crates as they always were when he was out. He knew it wouldn’t take the family long to find them. I imagine they were the only ones to receive a goodbye.
The coroner’s report found no alcohol in his bloodstream. Why would it? He didn’t need to be drunk for this.
Every step of the bullet’s journey is measured and chronicled in the report as the “hemorrhagic pathway.” It’s a trail, really. A trail that passes through tissue and muscle and bone and lobe, leaving rhyming verbs in its wake: Lacerate. Macerate. Perforate.

 “I should have gotten that gun,” my mother said after the funeral.
“You tried,” I said. “It wouldn’t have mattered. It’s what he had, so it’s what he used.”
“Jimmy,” she whispered.
I hung my long-sleeved black dress back in the closet. I’d only worn it once before, five months ago.
“He just didn’t want to be here anymore,” I said.
It was all I could think to tell her. And it occurred to me that it could very well be the truth.

Caroline Horwitz’s essays have appeared in publications such as Animal, Forge Journal, Lowestoft Chronicle, Mothers Always Write, and The Summerset Review, among others. Her work has been nominated for the 2015 Best of the Net Anthology and listed as a notable entry in The Best American Essays 2014. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction from Chatham University and lives in Las Vegas with her husband and son.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Black Market Pall Malls

by Emily Rich
2015 Essay Contest Winner, Theme: “War and Peace”

Colonel Troung was getting up from the desk again, excusing himself with a polite bow, pulling at the creases of his threadbare trousers as he stood.
“Why don’t you smoke at the desk like everyone else?” I asked. I was worried about falling behind on our cases. “It won’t bother me if you do.”
The colonel’s eyes scanned the long folding table “desk”: took in the neat pile of manila folders, the inkpad for taking fingerprints, the stacks of loose forms anchored by a stapler, a hole punch, a small piece of cinderblock.
He gave an apologetic smile. “No ashtray,” he said. “Too messy,” and stepped outside into the dusty heat.
The year was 1989 and the official ends to the conflicts in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos were years in the past. But the borders still teemed with camps of refugees who didn’t want to return home. Most lacked proof of official ties to the ousted regimes and would be denied asylum by Western countries only willing to take in the politically persecuted.
My job, as a caseworker for the quasi-governmental Joint Voluntary Agency, was to interview the displaced and mold their individual hardship stories into narratives that would impress the American Immigration officers stationed in the camps. Colonel Troung was my interpreter.
The colonel’s arrival had signaled a change in the nature of our work at JVA. That year, in a gesture aimed at normalizing relations with the US, the Vietnamese government released thousands of former South Vietnamese bureaucrats and army officers who’d been sent to re-education camps after the Fall of Saigon.
Many of the newly freed fled the country immediately, some by boat, others across land through Cambodia, paying “snakehead” refugee smugglers to get them into Thailand, into the camps where I worked. Colonel Truong was in the latter category.
 He had been a rising star in the South Vietnamese Army, had been sent to Fort Benning to train with Americans, had been awarded the Silver Star of Bravery by American forces during the war. He was what we caseworkers called a “water walker,” someone who would be awarded US refugee status, no problem at all.
Because of his excellent English, he was offered a six-month stint as an interpreter for our organization. So now, the military wunderkind-turned political prisoner-turned refugee, was sitting on a folding chair next to a twenty-four-year old caseworker in a bamboo hut on the outskirts of Aranyaprathet, Thailand.
At first, I viewed Colonel Truong with suspicion. I’d been a history major in college and had studied about the war, how it was a mistake, how the South Vietnamese government was corrupt and undeserving of American attempts to prop it up. The idealistic just-out-of-college me had come to Thailand to help the victims of the war, not the perpetuators.
In return, Colonel Truong was nothing but gracious and respectful.
He admired the seriousness I applied to my job, he said. He advised his fellow education camp parolees to wait until they could get me as a caseworker. He was patient, with kind eyes and a gentle manner. With his oversized head and thinning combed-over hair, he reminded me of an elderly Asian Linus from the Peanuts cartoon. More like an egghead physics professor than an American-trained warrior.
He was also a nervous wreck. He would spring up suddenly from our little folding table desk and pace the dirt floor or gaze out the cutout windows of our bamboo wall. His hands shook and his legs were constantly moving even when he was deep in conversation with a refugee applicant.
Sometimes, between interviews, he would tell me about his decade in captivity, about the forced marches, the compulsory labor, the disease and starvation that did in fellow prisoners on a daily basis.
“I was once so hungry I ate another man’s vomit,” he told me, and then laughed awkwardly, embarrassed.
“I’m so sorry,” was my inadequate response.
He seemed to want something from me during these conversations, some sort of recognition of the unique horror of his situation, but I was unable to see him as anything more than one more story in the endless tales of hardship and brutality that were recounted before me on a daily basis. Before my stint in this camp, I’d spent three months stationed outside Khoa-I-Dang camp, interviewing Cambodian survivors of the murderous Khmer Rouge. Imprisonment, forced labor, starvation, it was all part of the cruelty unleashed by the senselessness of war.
One time between cases Colonel Truong unfolded a black and white photo of himself in dress uniform wearing the Silver Star. It was an eight by ten photo, an official portrait, creased heavily at the folds. He told me he’d taped the portrait to his calf before he fled Vietnam. Other than the clothes on his back and gold to pay the snakeheads, it was the one possession he had brought with on his escape to Thailand. It was his ticket to the US, and he knew it.

In the picture, he is crisp and pressed, grinning with pride. In some ways I could see the familiar Colonel Truong: the wide forehead, the dark eyes, the sharp nose that reminded me of an Indian arrowhead. But in other ways he looked different. His face in the picture is young, angular. His eyes are brilliant, energetic and alert. His smile is cocky and self-assured. Could such a man be capable of anything in a time of conflict? I wondered. Bravery, heroism, cruelty, atrocity? What would have happened had the war turned out differently and he could be jailer, not prisoner in its aftermath? The idea of it made me shudder.
Because he worked for us, Colonel Truong didn’t have to live in the refugee camp anymore, but he was not allowed to leave the cheap hotel compound where the JVA workers stayed. There were five other interpreters in situations similar to his, and the group of them kept to themselves after hours.
There wasn’t much to do in Aranyaprathet in any case. On Sundays, our only day off, the other caseworkers and I liked to wander about the local open-air market. Once, while meandering through the tables of piled sarongs, tin cookware, plastic strainers, and serving utensils, I passed something that caught my eye—a kitschy, ceramic hula girl attached to a turquoise lagoon ashtray. It was the kind of thing I thought was “campy;” something I might have displayed ironically in my off-campus apartment back home. I bought it for Colonel Truong.
I plunked it down on our folding-table desk Monday morning.
“Now you have an ashtray!” I exclaimed, happy with myself.
          I guess I thought he would react with amusement, but he said nothing about the ashtray’s silliness, only thanked me with a bow of his head and a slight smile. As if I’d given an order for him to accept it.
From then on he smoked at our workstation and did not take breaks outside.

Colonel Troung smoked throat-scorching Krong Thip brand Thai cigarettes, one after another. American cigarettes were banned in the country at the time.
“Can I try one?” I asked once. I wasn’t a regular smoker, just curious.
I took a drag and wheezed it out immediately. It was like inhaling field hay infused with Pine Sol.
“These are terrible!” I coughed. “What type of cigarettes did you smoke back home? Were the Vietnamese brands as bad as these?”
He sort of chuckled, and his eyes took on a far-off, remembering look.
“During the war I smoked Pall Malls,” he said. “American brands are always the best.”

Day after day we interviewed refugee applicants. Usually they were single men, but sometimes whole families would array themselves on the wooden bench in front of us. Western aid groups provided them with decent clothes and they would sit straight and proper as if in a church pew, children scrubbed and combed, parents clutching Ziploc baggies of what few documents they had. The hopefulness in their eyes never failed to break my heart.
One time a young father who couldn’t keep his story straight was trying our patience.
“The town he says he was born in is in the North,” I said. “But he claims his father was in the Army for the South?” I was trying to pin him down on specifics. When did the family move? What was his father’s rank? Where was his father now?
The man stalled. In the silence, an oscillating fan whirred and ruffled the stacks of forms on my desk.
The man’s wife said nothing but held her eyes on me with a beseeching look. Their three young children focused silently on their hands folded in their laps, as they’d no doubt been instructed to do.
Colonel Truong broke from interpreting my questions and began lecturing the young man in Vietnamese. His tone was stern but soft, in a caring, fatherly sort of way. The man bowed his head and frowned.
          The interview was over. We fingerprinted everyone and placed their file on the stack to go to Immigration. Colonel Truong pinched the top of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. He was crying.
          “They will never make it to America with that story,” he said.
          He was normally so stoic and this show of emotion unnerved me. Did he mourn for the tragedy of this one family? For the young father who reminded him of his own lost youth? Or for the whole sorry state of his countrymen, crammed on a foreign border, raising up children in the hopeless dusty squalor of refugee camps with only the slightest prayer of escape? Colonel Truong had been granted his freedom and a shot at a new life but until that moment I hadn’t understood how irretrievable was his loss. These were his people and this was the tragedy he was destined to carry with him even as he made a new life for himself in the States. A generation lost to war.

          I was a rule follower in those days; not someone who would, for example, go to the black market areas of Bangkok and pick up a carton of smuggled American cigarettes. But I knew plenty of co-workers who would. Every smoker on the JVA staff had a supply of Marlboros or Camels or some other American brand. On a Friday when Tan, our Thai driver, was going into the city for supplies, I gave him money to pick up two cartons of black market Pall Malls.
          On Monday, I pulled them from the plastic bag beneath my chair and handed them to Colonel Truong.
          “I thought you might like these better than the Krong Thips,” I said, feeling suddenly self-conscious.
          His hands trembled as he held them out to receive the gift. His mouth slackened, his eyes moistened. He seemed in awe.
          “My old brand,” he said. “You remembered.”
          He held the cartons before his face, marveling at the crimson packaging, the regal lettering. Pall Mall. I watched nostalgia overtake him as he travelled back in time, as he became again the young promising officer working for the Americans, anticipating a bright future carrying him, carrying his country up and up and up.

Emily Rich is the non-fiction editor of Little Patuxent Review. She writes mainly memoir and essay. Her work has been published in a number of small presses including Little Patuxent Review, Welter, River Poet's Journal, Delmarva Review and the Pinch. Her essays have been listed as notables in Best American Essays 2014 and 2015.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

What I Know about Dads

by Sharon Frame Gay

What I know about dads fits into a 3 x 5 photograph, ragged, faded, and dog eared on one corner as though someone was trying to save the page for eternity. The photo was taken by the shore of a lake. He sits in a chair, with me firmly planted on his lap, a child of few months still sporting my milk teeth. The wind is rustling his hair. His eyes squinted into the camera and the sun. My tight ringlets must be tickling his nose as the wind tosses my hair like a dandelion.

He is a handsome man, Irish as Paddy's Pig, as they say, with dark hair, light brown eyes, an athletic build. There is an assurance about him, the kind of confidence one exudes after fighting in the South Pacific during the war. His gentle fingers wrap around my body, though I can imagine that in another life they may have thrown hand grenades or clutched his cross in violent prayer in a distant foxhole.

He was a gifted skater, a bar room brawler, a sweet talker, with just a hint of cruelty at the corner of his mouth, coiled like a sleeping snake. He met my mother when she was home from college one December, a restless young woman looking for somebody to waltz her around the frozen pond and warm her feet by the makeshift fire in the moonlight. By spring thaw, they had married and began a life together, a life filled with chaos and drama, long nights at the pub, the scent of other women.

With the storms and turbulence, one autumn, before the first snowfall, he simply vanished. Slammed the door on his children and wife and skated down some angry highway, leaving my mother to waltz alone, and my brother and I to spend endless days in new schools explaining to other children that we had no father. No father. As though he whimsically appeared one day, then fetched a magic carpet and took himself away to another realm.
When I look into the mirror, or at my brother, I see him in our faces. We resemble his Irish heritage much more than we do my Swedish mother with her glacial blue eyes and Viking figure. I see him in my cheekbones and in the color of my iris, in the slant of shoulder. I see him in my brother, in his quickness to brawl as a young man, though later my brother harnessed that energy and put it into becoming a Marine, and later a pilot, following in footsteps that were only marked in sand.

My father remarried, I heard. Asked his entire family to never tell his new wife that he had two children. We no longer existed. We didn't die. We were never even born.  Ghost children, perhaps peering out from an old photograph, creased and tucked into an ancient leather wallet, hidden from the light of day.

My photograph of that summer morning so long ago by the lake is one of the few reminders I have that I was once held in his arms, the light summer breeze bearing witness. In the old dog eared photograph, I am peering up at his face, but I can see now that his gaze was already far off into the distance.

Sharon Frame Gay grew up a child of the highway, traveling throughout the United States and playing by the side of the road. Her dream was to live in a house long enough to find her way around in the dark, and she has finally achieved this outside Seattle, Washington. She writes poetry, prose poetry, short stories, and song lyrics.