by Bruce Patterson, January 4, 2017
“I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower
“My opinion of mankind is high enough that I believe war would have disappeared long ago had not the sound sense of the people been systematically corrupted by commercial and political interests acting through the schools and the press.” --Albert Einstein
Been a good long while since I’ve thought about my time as a cherry paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division back during the long hot summer of 1967. Long time since I’ve thought about my old squad mates like Rock Parks and Shing-a-ling. “The Prince of Bed Sty,” Rock had tagged “Shing.” A twice-wounded veteran of the 1st Air Cavalry (1966-7), Shing was 6’2” with a chicken chest, some dip in his hip and glide in his stride. Rock Parks, a lifer old enough to be our daddy, was a self-described Private No-Class (E-1) who’d gotten himself busted down from Platoon Sergeant (E-6). His crimes? Getting caught drunk, AWOL and shiny-assed inside a whorehouse in the Dominican Republic.
Yup, to hear Rock tell it (soon after arriving in the bush as a Private E-2, he got zapped) he was laid low by a pair of butch-waxed, cracker-assed MPs thinking they was Marshall Dillan and Chester. Since Rock was down there in Dom Rep risking life and limb to help liberate the Dom-Repian people from the “Communists,” and because Rock had earned himself a Combat Infantryman’s Badge to go with his four stripes, four hash-marks and silver Jump Master Wings topped with a gold star and wreath, in fact he hadn’t even gone AWOL. If he hadn’t’ve gotten so rudely accosted, he’d of made it back for reveille fit and ready for duty. Moreover, says right there in the UCMJ: with rank comes privileges. Then how’s Rock supposed to contribute to the island’s peace and prosperity without him doing some fraternizing with the natives and, he didn’t mind copping to, spreading a little joy? They were colored girls, weren’t they? Wasn’t like he was transgressing upon some kind of US Airborne Taboo.
Rock had done plenty wrong, it was duly adjudicated during his Court-martial. And, of course, the severity of his punishment had nothing to do with him being one smart-assed, black-assed, black-eyed, black-hearted Northern niggah getting short.
And now they were talking about sending Rock to Vietnam as a buck fucking private and he took that as stone-cold chickenshit. Did I know how much money the Pentagon has spent these last seventeen years training him to be not just a professional killer for the US Taxpayer but a leader of men in battle? What kind of fool sends a man like him out to do a boy’s job? We’ve got plenty of boys, ain’t we? Why’d they wanna waste a man of his talents like that?
And for what? For him going over the wire and buying himself a shot of P? Shee-it. Right now he could sky-up to dark town Fayetteville and buy himself the same shot of P for about the same money. You know, so long as he didn’t mind old, fat and ugly.
My first hitch with the Eighty Deuce lasted for four months and during all that time I never did see Rock scared. That’s probably because he was mighty close to being fearless. Just going up in a vintage old flying boxcar could seem like quite some reckless adventure to a land lover, not to mention routinely jumping out of them with parachutes designed to get a unit of grunts on the ground quick with an acceptable percentage of Landing Zone Casualties (allowing your head to hit the ground during your landing was considered to be extremely bad form). As young, golly-gee and gung-ho as I was, I figured old Rock Parks probably wouldn’t feel much fear even while exiting his very first jungle-rotted combat chopper and running for his very first Vietnamese tree line. And even then all he’d probably cop to was having a heightened sense of Situational Awareness. Knowing Rock, he probably expected that, before his 365 days were done, he’d get at least two or three of his stripes back and maybe even earn himself a couple of medals. Those stripes would come in mighty handy after he’d retired and returned to civilian life, and the medals, well, they could be good for fetching free drinks if that was your thing (you can also sell them in a pawnshop).
What most impressed me about Rock was his seething rage at the hurt white people had done him, and his, while wagging their fingers like it was their fault. Rock’s stories made me feel ashamed of my Chicago “ethnic white” racist parents, my racist upbringing, neighborhood, city, state and, not the least, neighborhood buddies. Good for Rock. Good for me.
Now Shing-a-ling was smooth, slick and streetwise, his voice like Miles’ sleepy trumpet in a smoky late night nightclub and card room. On his way out the Army, Shing enjoyed schooling my young rabbit ass (I was 17, he 19). A lover of music and our barracks’ main DJ, first thing Shing set about doing was convincing me that music is for dancing. And that was one thing wrong with my surf music, he generously informed me. Unless you’re doing the Twist with Annette Funicello on some beach, you can’t dance to the shit. And don’t even mention Hillbilly music. Who wants to dance cheek-to-cheek, looking the wrong way and worrying over your toes? Psychedelic music? Come on, Sherlock. How you supposed to dance in the dark under a lightning storm during an earthquake?
You wanna dance, my man, you’ve gotta play some Soul Music. Wanna get tight with your squeeze, spin her some love songs. It’s all about love, you dig? The love of a woman or a man about all black folk get in this country. That’s why the brothers and sisters are so good at rapping (rhapsodizing) about it. It’s what puts the Jesus in Gospel Music, too. Music that swells your soul; music that makes you feel all better. A righteous antidote for the fucken Blues, ain’t that right? A way to stop the bus and get off under a sky as cool as a breeze. Like maybe all this shit here is just one long, fucken dance.
I hadn’t been settled in Fort Bragg, NC, for long when our battalion got detailed up to Indian Town Gap, Pennsylvania, to help put some ROTCs, and freshly-minted National Guard 2nd Lieutenants, through some war games. The bunch of us settled into WW2 clapboard barracks, the interior décor consisting of bunkbeds, wall lockers, foot lockers and butt cans nailed to every other ceiling post. As soon as we’ve dropped our duffle bags on the cots we’re claiming, Rock disappears outside and then comes back lugging a big, blond, roundish, flat-bottomed creek rock with the black letters “rock” spray painted on it. He sets the rock on his foot locker so his name is facing exactly front and center. When I ask him what that’s about, he says it’s to make sure nobody fucks with his shit. (Cussing up a storm is the least of a soldier’s vices.)
Shing and I spent our work days together up in the hills in regulation-sized foxholes with an M-60 machinegun firing blanks at trainees, him the gunner and me the feeder although we switched off. We had plenty of time between “exercises,” and Shing told me a good bit about his experiences in the war, the first battle of A Shau Valley (March, ’66) having made the greatest impression on him. Some wicked-assed shit over there in The Nam, he promised me. Ain’t no game. It’s the kind of shit you can’t know how you’ll take until you’ve taken it. Then there’s no guarantee you’ll take it again the same way the next time the shit’s flying. Just gotta do it, my man. Wanna know about fire, you’ve gotta touch it.
I don’t know what happened to Shing after he got out. The odds have never been good for war’s escapees, seeing how it’s usually the poor who wind up on the “front lines.” The World that kept us going not only failed to meet our cartoon expectations, never again could we look at ourselves or our people in quite the same way. The alienation—guilt, remorse, fear, rage, defiance, apathy and emptiness—drove scores of thousands to commit suicide, far more to commit mostly petty crimes (smoking pot, etc.) and get sent to prison—hard time in a world of hurt seeming like fitting end to those condemned to it—yes, Lord, they have sinned. Plenty of other vets hit the midnight road searching for the first light of a sunrise that never showed itself, their scattered bones bleached white and out of sight in some shooting range badlands.
You watch your baby being born and you remember the blown away non-combatants as tiny as this damp bloody thing cradled in your arms, and finally you get it. Finally you hate war with the passion you’d once reserved for those out to kill you. Finally you’ve found your real enemy because the motherfucker is staring at you in the mirror. So you shatter the mirror with your fist, admire your bloody knuckles and swear to god you’ll never throw another punch. Your newborn forbids it; this world of hurt forbids it. Although living under a despicable war machine is a chain and shackles around your neck and ankles, your heart and mind are finally yours.
* * *
FOOTNOTE: From the January 27th, 1968, start of the VC’s Tet Offensive, until June 1st of that year, American maneuver battalions like mine had 7,040 soldiers officially Killed in Action. It was a percentage of KIAs comparable to those recorded by US infantry battalions during the Korean War and WW2 in the European Theater. Still American KIAs represented only a tiny fraction of the Vietnamese killed during those four months, the vast majority civilians, virtually all being everybody but draft age males. As the warmongering and victorious Trump cabal has proven beyond any reasonable doubt—at least up till now—all were killed for nothing. All “got wasted.”