(My mom and dad) met at Edison High School in Minneapolis. I think their lockers were near one another. After high school, Dad joined Roosevelt's CCC, cut timber and built roads in northern Minnesota, and joined the Marine Corps in 1939. He wrote... from his new duty station, so happy to be in Pearl Harbor, Oahu. The morning of 7 December, Dad was walking down the steps of the chapel in the navy when the Zeros flew over on their first bombing run. He spent the rest of the day atop the Marine barracks, manning an antiaircraft piece. On 16 July while the secret A-bomb was detonated at Trinity Site, New Mexico, (my parents) were married at Saint Charles Borrowmeo Church in Minneapolis. Halfway through Officers Candidate School in North Carolina, the Japanese surrendered. Dad was transferred to Crane Naval Weapons Depot in Indiana, where he and mom lived in a cabin and were the only human inhabitants on a pristine lake. I have a photo of them, looking radiant... I was born a couple of years later. Dad mustered out of the Marines... a couple of years later, Dad enlisted in the Army and was schooled in intelligence.
When I was four, we took a train to New York City and boarded a ship that steamed past a whale lazing on the surface, made port in French Morroco, threaded the Strait of Gibraltar, and paused for a day or two in Italy and Greece, before we reached our new home in Istanbul. Dad worked at the Consulate.
The folks enrolled me in kindergarten at Notre Dame de Sion, run by French nuns. I began hearing French and German from my fellow students and Turkish on the street. The next year, I was in first grade at the American Community School. We lived across the street from Rumeli Hissar, a fifteenth century castle. It had a real dungeon I peered at through the iron bars. I played in the courtyard and on the ramparts overlooking the Bosporus, and ships from everywhere.
Dad's boss, some mysterious colonel I never saw, gave him his choice of overseas assignment. Dad liked the Dominican Republic, and brought home Spanish language LPs from the State Department library... Dad opted for Costa Rica instead... I loved the long black beach at Puntarenas.
Dad retired... (then) joined the American Red Cross as a liaison to the military and after a training period, got assigned to West Berlin. We flew to Frankfurt, and took the duty train through the Soviet Zone. Pulling into the outskirts of Berlin at dawn was eerie. Outside the window were armed East German and Russian soldiers looking back. In their sentry posts in the grey dawn, our cold war enemy looked not fierce, but like boys who wanted to come in from the cold.
One evening I went to a movie with a friend. We saw Lost Command with Anthony Quinn. The opening scene is the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu fighting off an overwhelming force of Viet Minh. Crouching in bunkers and trenches, low on ammo, they overcome personal differences and band as a fighting unit until they're overrun...
I walked out of the theatre with my pal, and declared, sure as I'd ever been of anything, "I'm going to enlist in the army." A few months later I was in basic training at Fort Ord, south of San Francisco. A Green Beret sergeant came by our company and asked if anyone wanted to apply for Special Forces. Yep...
I was real clear I wanted to go to 'Nam and take on a numerically superior force of Communist soldiers, and kick ass... we learned tactics and strategy, radio communications, use of light and heavy weapons, operation and intelligence, engineering and demolitions and medical procedures to diagnose and treat everything from septic gunshot wounds to rat-bite fever and bubonic plague. I'd get a chance to use it all, and also see, up close, leprosy, suppurating amputations, yaws, clap and maybe a thousand dead bodies. I contracted malaria, stepped on a punji stake, burned leeches off my legs after crossing streams and get medevaced out of the bush. Two days later, my unit was machine-gunned as the Chinook helicopter came in to pick them up. The half who weren't killed outright were wounded, some horribly. Sometimes I think it over, then find myself hyperventilating, sitting on the floor, shaking.
One of my favorite lines in film is from a movie called Wolf. Jack Nicholson's character is listening to Michelle Pfeifer's character complain about her hard luck. Nicholson wryly replies, "In an odd way, you're your own problem." For me, this really sums up the universal condition... it certainly spoke to mine. It's impossible to have a real relationship with anyone else if you really don't know and love yourself.
"Why don't you go to Viet Nam? You're always talking about it." And I did. I taught for two months in Vinh, a few kilometers from Ho Chi Minh's birthplace. In general, people could not have been kinder, and I got a lot of material for the novel I'm writing on the American war... mostly, though, my heart and mind got a lot of healing. I'm learning a lot, mostly about me.
SONG: "It's a Wonderful World"