Vietnam and Skin Cancer

The legacy of my thirteen years in and out of Vietnam is cursing me more than ever before: skin cancer.

Throughout all those years in Vietnam, we Americans wore as few clothes as possible because of the heat. Temperatures averaged between 91 and 95 degrees during the dry season, peaking periodically to 104 degrees. That was far hotter than any of us were used to. Going shirtless was standard.

I stayed darkly tanned for all those years, and I became so accustomed to the weather that I dreaded the coolness of the states. I became so acclimatized that to this day I enjoy hot weather and dislike the cold.

I had no idea that continuous exposure to the sun would damage the skin of a pale-complected man of Irish-English-Scottish lineage. When I returned to the states after the fall of Saigon in April 1975, I continued to wear few clothes during the summer months. I even sun bathed.

Some years after Vietnam—I don’t remember how long—my primary care physician sent me to a dermatologist. The diagnosis: skin cancer. I had all three types: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma. The only treatment, as far as I know, is surgical removal of the cancerous tissue. I underwent so many excisions that I made no attempt to keep count.

The treatments went on for years. Then three or four years ago, for reasons I no longer remember, I stopped my dermatology visits. When I went for my regular routine checkup last month, my doctor recommended that I see a dermatologist. When I did, I discovered that I had skin cancer all over the upper half of my body. The excisions started all over again.

The worst so far has been inside my right ear. The skin there is so thin that cutting out the cancer required a skin graft, with flesh taken from my collar bone. The procedure took more than two hours. I now have one ear covered in bandages and a collar bone under gauze and tape.

I’ve learned my lesson, though it’s too late in life to seek correction by behavioral change. I’m stuck with the fruits of my youthful actions. It looks like I’ll be fighting skin cancer for the rest of my life. Fortunately, it’s not fatal.

Senatorial Representation

As stipulated in the U.S. Constitution (Article I, section 3, clause 1), “The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State.” At the time when the Constitution was written, a slave counted as three-fifths of a person for purposes of taxation and apportionment of the House of Representatives. As a result, some southern states had lower legal counted populations than northern states. Providing each state with two senators, no matter what the population, assured equal power in the Senate for slave states.

That arrangement creates major inequalities in modern times. The citizens of the smallest state, Wyoming (578,000 people), have legislative power in the Senate equal to that of the citizens of the largest state, California (39 million people). Citizens of Wyoming, in other words, have voting power 67 times greater than those in California. The gross unfairness is obvious.

This leftover vestige of a prejudicial past, like the filibuster and the Electoral College, must be expunged. Why do we as a nation go on accepting blatantly undemocratic practices when it is within our power to change them?

The answer to that question is, in part, because change is difficult and complex. But it is also because these practices benefit a minority of people. Members of that group tend be white, financially better off, and conservative in outlook. It is not in their interest to have the goods and the powers of the nation equitably distributed to all citizens.

The United States of America is, by all accounts, the greatest nation in history. That doesn’t mean it’s flawless. As citizens, we must work together to rid our homeland of blemishes that weaken us. Now with a new progressive administration in power is a good time to start.

The Electoral College

My post on the filibuster brought to mind another outdated relic of a bygone era, the Electoral College. Originally created by the nation’s founders to protect against uninformed voters, the law requires that each state name Electoral College members who will cast votes in a presidential election. Each state has the same number of college members as it has representatives in the House.

It is, unfortunately, a clumsy system that distorts the will of the people as represented in the popular vote. Almost 10 percent of presidential elections under the Electoral College system have resulted in the investiture of a president not elected by the nationwide popular vote. During the 2016 presidential election, for example, Donald Trump lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by over 2.8 million votes and won the Electoral College by 74 votes.

Most Americans oppose the Electoral College and would prefer that we elect our president and vice president by the popular vote. And the opposition is growing. A September 2020 Gallup poll found 61 percent of Americans were in favor of abolishing the Electoral College, up 12 points from 2016.

So the time is ripe, with a new Democratic administration and Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, to start the process of changing the Constitution with an amendment that will establish the popular vote rather than the Electoral College as the deciding factor in the election of the president and vice president.

Now’s the time. Let’s do it.

The Filibuster

The time for abolishing the filibuster in the U.S. Senate is long past. It is a leftover procedural relic used by southern senators to uphold slavery and block civil rights legislation. “Filibuster” is defined as any attempt to block or delay Senate action on a bill or other matter by debating it at length, by offering numerous procedural motions, or by any other delaying or obstructive actions.

Even today, the filibuster continues to be used to stymie racial justice legislation. Last summer, Senator Rand Paul used a parliamentary delaying tactic to derail a federal anti-lynching law. It is unpardonable that the U.S. has no federal law against lynching. Before the most recent attempt foiled by Paul, the last previous try was in 1922 when the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill. Southern Democrats halted its passage in the Senate by a filibuster.

How can we as a nation allow racial prejudice to continue to sully our law-making process? I can only hope that with Biden and the Democrats now in power, we will move to strip away obfuscation of civil rights. It’s high time.

Music

I’ve written here before about my attempts to escape my fate, to be a writer, by trying other vocations. The one I gave the most time and attention to was music.

I have a natural affinity for music, similar to my flare for languages—maybe it’s the same affinity. And my love for music showed up early in my childhood. I taught myself to play the piano and to read music when I was in grammar school using the pianos at school because my family was too poor to afford to buy one. At the beginning of my sophomore year at college (the University of California at Berkeley), I switched my major to music and three years later graduated with a BA in music. In my twenties and thirties, I composed reams of music, arranged music for a variety of instruments in the church folk groups I formed and ran, and composed and helped perform two masses for choir, folk group, and wind instruments. I learned to conduct choirs and led numerous performances. When I was in graduate school working toward my doctorate in Public Administration, I fulfilled the requirement in one course for a project by writing and recording with a group of musicians a musical illustration of government in action.

To this day, I still regularly play the piano, now a magnificent Steinway grand my daughter bought me some years ago—where she got the money is another story. And I listen to music during meals. I’m listening to and playing music less these days because so much of my time is taken up with words, that is, reading and writing, and I can’t have music playing while I’m working with words because to me music is never in the background—it is the focus of my attention when it’s playing.

So music remains one of the most important aspects of my life, although not the primary one. Reading and especially writing—on novels, short stories, articles, book reviews, and this blog—take up most of my time and energy. Music gets squeaked into leisure time, of which I have little.

But music is always there to comfort and heal me. It is still my salvation.

Death

My recent post on my volunteer work in hospice sprang in part from the fact that the subject of death is so much on my mind these days. There are several reasons why.

First, the pandemic. Well before the end of February, more than 500,000 Americans will have died from covid-19. The press reports this horrifying figure with such nonchalance that I begin to see that the U.S. is accepting a half million deaths as perfectly okay. No big deal.

Second, my partner of many years died last March. That brought home to me the naked facticity of death in a way nothing else could have.

Third, I’ve now lived well past the average age of death for American males. I’m in excellent health, better than any contemporary I know. And while I’m determined to live to be a hundred, I have to accept that the likelihood of my death grows greater by the day.

We Americans shun any discussion of death as being in poor taste, just as we avoid menti0ing sex and the ways that the human body relieves itself. It’s as if not talking about these facts of daily life will make them go away.

Meanwhile, the prospect of death haunts me these days. I know it’s coming. I just don’t know when. I haven’t accepted the inevitability of my own death. I still struggle with the very idea.

It would behoove me to come to terms with death. I don’t know how to do it.

Memories of World War II (2)

I remember the end of the war, though my memory is suspect. What I recall is being at camp—every summer, my parents sent me to what we called camp, a sort of impoverished resort for young boys that lasted two weeks—when word came that the war was over. The boys went wild in celebration. The problem is that the war didn’t end in the summer. Germany surrendered in May 1945, the Japanese in September. So I don’t know what we were celebrating.

And I remember the aftermath when consumer products slowly became available again. Life went back to being the way it had been before the war.

Only years later did I come to understand how fortunate we were as a family during the war. My father was too old to join the military, but two of my uncles on my mother’s side saw combat. One was so damaged that he never returned to normal. Only after Vietnam did I realize how fortunate the U.S. has been to have fought its wars not on its native soil but abroad.

I know now that the U.S. suffered from World War II but far less than our allies. The last war we fought on our own territory was the civil war. No American now alive knows the damage war inflicts on one’s homeland. With luck, we never will.

Memories of World War II

I am among the few people on this earth with memories of the second world war. Granted, I was a small child at the time, and my recollections lack the meaning that maturity would have given them. On the other hand, they have a kind of purity that only a child’s perception would have allowed.

I remember the declaration of the war. I played on the floor of my grandmother’s apartment in Mullens, West Virginia, while the adults sat in silence listening to the radio. All I recall is what seemed like an endless list being read by the radio announcer of one entity declaring war on another.

I remember the cars during the war. We couldn’t import foreign cars, and American auto factories had all been converted to the manufacture of weapons and wartime military hardware. The production of new cars all but ceased by 1940. My mother drove a 1939 Chrysler Imperial coupe, my father a 1938 Chevrolet sedan. Used-car sales were the only car sales. Cars captivated my young imagination, and I could identify brand and year of manufacture of nearly all the cars I saw on the road. Those models with headlights embedded in the fender rather than attached on rods especially intrigued me.

I remember the rationing. All kinds of things were of limited availability because of the war effort. I specifically remember gasoline, meat, butter, sugar, and coffee. Consumers were given ration stamps which specified how much of any rationed item they could buy. I remember my parents finagling to find ways to drive where they wanted and eat what they wanted.

More tomorrow.

Tom Glenn Classified (2)

During my Vietnam years, I had two multiyear accompanied tours there—my wife and my children were with me in country. Since there was no denying that I was in Vietnam, my connection with NSA was concealed. The covers I used at various times were as a State Department diplomat, a free-lance civilian employee of MACV (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam), and a CIA agent.

The point of the deception was to prevent the enemy, the North Vietnamese, from knowing that we were intercepting and exploiting their radio communications. As far as I know, it worked. We never uncovered any evidence that the enemy knew what we were doing.

And the American public never suspected that I was a civilian working undercover as military in Vietnam. So often after 1968 when I’d be returning with the troops, we’d be met at the San Francisco airport by mobs who called us “butchers” and “baby killers” and spat on us. The American public humiliated me alongside my military buddies.

Since my retirement in the early 1990s (I retired as early as possible to write full time), I have been faced with the opposite dilemma: how to become well-known. As a novelist and public speaker, my success depends in part on people knowing who I am. And it’s working. My recent blog post on the three media interviews just published pointed to the evidence that I am being noticed.

Moving from pretending to not exist to being a public figure ain’t easy. But I’m getting better at it.