Wednesday, January 20, 2010

No Tattoo

Vietnam is the legacy of my generation. When I graduated from high school I had somewhere to go. I had received a Congressional appointment to West Point, the United States Military Academy (Army). Immediately after graduation, my family took off for a vacation, traveled across country from the west coast (the left coast I hear it called these days) to the east coast. There were stops along the way. They left me at West Point, just a little ways up the Hudson River. West Point was established early in our nation’s history. Generals on both sides of the the Civil War were graduates of West Point. I marveled at the little things, like the marble stair treads worn out by the feet of those who had been there.

I failed at West Point. I was too young. I survived the summer and the first month of the first semester and then couldn’t do another day. This was 1963. I left in October, at the very last moment and got into Santa Clara University to finish the semester. I nearly flunked out of there too, but continued to the end of that school year. I had been assigned to a signal company in the army reserve. In the summer of 1964 I went to boot camp. Just before graduation I fell to the meningitis epidemic that was alive at Fort Ord in California. After a month in hospital, I was assigned as a supply clerk to that same signal company.

I went to meetings and summer camp until 1966. In the fall of 1966, I found drugs and quit the army. Heh. There is of course no such thing, but if you stop going to meetings they don’t hunt you down, or they didn’t then. For that matter I quit everything, let my money run out, and started living on the street. I went from 185 pounds down to 148. My mother came back and masterminded a way to keep me out of jail. She stuck me in a mental institution. Then she pointed out that I suffered from brain damage due to the high fever of the meningitis in 1964. She finagled that argument into a way to get the charges against me for desertion not filed. This was a difficult thing to do. It took the four months that I was in the institution, probably no coincidence of timing, that I got out after the case was settled.

Then we went overseas in 1967 right after I was released from the hospital. I spent the next two years in East Pakistan. In the summer of 1969 as I was returning home to the States, I received my Honorable Discharge from the army upon completion of my six year military obligation.

That’s my military history. It has taken me most of my life to get it that when my mom stuck me in a mental institution, I actually qualified for it. But I still think my mom was “God with skin on” on this one. That’s what I thought then. What a remarkable skate. When I quit the army I knew what I was doing. I said to myself, I don’t care if I spend the rest of my life in Leavenworth. It was really literally beyond me to keep going to those god damned meetings.

Decades later in AA, I ran into the walking wounded still fighting the war in Vietnam. This poem is about me coming home intact. On the way to Bangkok from Hong Kong, I found out that we flew a route directly over Danang. That put me at 35,000 feet above the war. That is not very far. I marveled that everyone on the plane didn’t seem to care. This poem is also about one of the walking wounded. It is very hard still to keep them sober.

No Tattoo

I thought I escaped
the war when I came home whole,
intact, no tattoo.

I thought you came home
with me but I see you there
still among paddies
and pain, the click of
Bettys, nowhere to go now,
or the bamboo pits'
pointy shit smeared stakes.

How can I get you away?
I am too far gone.

March 20, 2009 9:29 PM


  1. Oh man...that is so damn sad.
    And applies to the 'war' out there on the streets too.

    'I'm too far gone' many times, how many times?


  2. Viet Nam left its markon a whole generation in our nation. I have a friend of forty years who died recently of alcoholism. I still say he was killed in Viet Nam.

  3. You are right too. The war was bigger than just over there and certainly of much longer duration, both before and now long after. We fought in Vietnam for reasons of European Imperialism, not because we thought the cause of the South was just. In fact it was obvious that the government in the South was successively corrupt. We were prevented geopolitically from backing the right side. Had we backed Ho Chi Minh in the beginning, things would have turned out very differently but we couldn't abandon the French. We were unable to see the differences between Ho's nationalistic communism and so-called International Communism, which has basically never existed. Events have proved that.

  4. Vietnam to me as I remember graduating high school in 70 might have had a bigger impact except college and a high lottery number numbed the effect. Viet Nam’s impact was the death of a close friend, arguments and a brief period of estrangement from my dad, a reason for being part of a once rebellious generation, and lets not forget the wonderful folk and rock songs that followed to make us all remember how wild and committed we once thought we were. I know it was horrible for so many, but for even more it was viewed from such a long distance.
    Unfortunately, I think my experience was more the norm than the exception for even those of my generation, the ones who didn’t loose family or friends, were spared or escaped or lucky enough to only be exposed through the movies, books and maybe T.V. There wasn’t enough horror for enough of us and even less for those before you and after me. And that was what was really wrong with Viet Nam. It was horrible, but not horrible for enough of us. There weren’t enough visible tattoos. And two many who went through the horror still are hiding theirs.

  5. Anthony, it is often like this. Old men who do not go are the ones who engineer wars and see them as sources of political gain or sources of economic boon through intensified destruction which creates a huge demand for war material. Arguably, World War II was the primary solution to the world wide depression that came before. Ghastly.

  6. Vietnam was a distant memory by the time I came along, but my dad often talks about how he escaped the draft by the skin of his collegiate teeth. The story behind your experience, and the unique perspective that informs the voice of this poem, is really fascinating... do you ever feel that could have been, or in some ways is, you?

  7. Joseph, Vietnam was a war fought in the streets here too. The mainstream media and the mainstream voices that shouted down the students and related protesters never really understood how totally passionate we got. The war protest movement was largely peaceful, though there was a small contingent of pugnacious types who wanted all out revolution. The peacefulness of the movement doesn't really reveal the turmoil behind the position. I have never felt the same about the later student involvements. This extended into very strange places both in the social fabric and into the souls of the protesters.

    So to answer your question, yes. The war happened here and we were changed by it. It was very hard not to fall short of what was called from us and many of us misbehaved badly, treating the boys who were comning home as the enemy. But war does that to people. We became what we hated. That is always what happens. It happened in Nam and it happened here. The drugs we took created our casualties here as certainly as there, in part from the drugs they took. We had that in common.

    Yes. From this vantage point, I was no winner in avoiding the conflict. I did not stay in touch with my high school classmates, nor they with me. I found out not long ago that the rumor among those people was that I had died in the late sixties. Very few people were looking for me. One found me quite by accident, and then later I found another because he had slightly larger presence on the internet than usual due to a career that included acting in mainstream TV.

    That I died in the late sixties arguably is spiritually true. That's the point of some of my poetry.


The chicken crossed the road. That's poultry in motion.

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