Dysentery

My recent meanderings in this blog about Vietnam unearthed a memory that has long lain forgotten: my first bout with amoebic dysentery.

I don’t remember what year it was—sometime between 1962 and 1975—during one of my shorter trips (four to six months) to Vietnam. I remember thinking at the time that whatever was wrong with me was a minor nuisance rather than a serious illness. I went on working with the troops on the battlefield supplying them with intelligence on the enemy derived from the intercept and exploitation of their radio communications. What I was able to do for them was far more important than my bowels being in an uproar.

When I finished my tour, I returned to the U.S. My wife took one look at me and gasped. It never occurred to me that my appearance had changed. When I got to my house, I slipped into the bathroom and looked in the mirror. I was shocked. I was so thin I looked like a man starving to death. I stripped and stepped onto the bathroom scales. I weighed 135 pounds. My normal weight was around 180. I decided then and there to see a doctor as soon as possible. He diagnosed me with dysentery.

Over time, I healed and regained the lost weight. I saw the dysentery as an annoyance like so many others I had to put up with during those years, including athlete’s foot and crotch rot. I counted myself lucky that small disorders were the worst that happened to me. I could so easily have been wounded or even killed on the battlefield. Men fighting next to me died, but I somehow escaped injury.

The worst physical problems I suffered came with the fall of Saigon. For days on end, I was holed up with the two communicators who had volunteered to stay with me to the end as I got the other 41 guys and their families out of the country safely. We had little to eat because we couldn’t get out to get food. We couldn’t sleep because we were regularly battered by the rocket and artillery attacks launched by the North Vietnamese as they prepared to seize Saigon. We finally escaped by helicopter after the North Vietnamese were already in the streets. The chopper I was in was fired upon but managed to fly to the U.S. 7th Fleet cruising in the South China Sea. When I got back to the states, I was diagnosed with amoebic dysentery (again), severe ear damage (from the shelling), and pneumonia, due to inadequate diet, sleep deprivation, and muscle fatigue.

But through it all I was never wounded. Talk about luck. The worst I had to put up with was dysentery. I can’t complain.

Barista

Between the ages of 17 and 21 when I was in college at the University of California, Berkeley, I worked at a great variety of part-time jobs to support myself and pay for books and tuition. Because my class schedule changed every semester, I had to change jobs based on when I was available to work. I didn’t attend summer school so that I could work fulltime to earn enough money to get me through the fall and spring semesters.

The dozen or so jobs I had during college ranged from soda jerk to filling station attendant to restaurant bus boy, but my favorite, bar none, was as a barista in an espresso coffee shop named “Il Piccolo Espresso,” located on the street that ran south from the university’s Sather Gate (I don’t remember the street’s name), the main entrance to the campus. My job was working behind a counter making coffee from the espresso machine and serving customers. This was in the days before espresso was popular with most Americans. Italian immigrants, of which there was a large population in Berkeley, made up the majority of customers. That meant to work there, I had to speak Italian. That was one of the languages I had taught myself as a child, so I was all set.

 Because I was obviously not Italian (blond-haired, blue-eye, pale skin) and because I was the only non-Italian working there, I was something of a celebrity. Americans with no Italian heritage stopped in to catch a glimpse of me. The other people working there, all Italians, and especially the shop’s owner, enjoyed my peculiar presence and pushed me forward to wait on the occasional customer who spoke French (the other language I taught myself as a child) instead of Italian.

Unfortunately, when a new semester started and I wasn’t free during peak business hours, I had to leave my job as a barista and find other work. But ever thereafter, until I joined the army and got posted to Fort Meade, Maryland, each time I visited Il Piccolo Espresso, I was welcomed with open arms.

Rerun: The Bond (2)

Continuing my post from yesterday about the bond between men fighting side by side:

I have no doubt that what I did saved lives and hurt the enemy. But I didn’t personally kill enemy soldiers. I had no way of directly protecting the men who fought by my side. I was armed with a .38 revolver to defend myself, but I never used it in combat. That wasn’t why I was there. So my sense of kinship with my brothers fighting at my side could not have been as strong as it was between those actually doing the fighting.

And yet it is the most intense love I’ve ever felt. Emblazoned in my memory are the moments of death of men who fought next to me. I can’t talk about them. It hurts too much. Those hideous events, along with the ghastly happenings during the fall of Saigon, are the source of my Post-Traumatic Stress Injury. The memories never fade. They will be with me always.

When I’m with other veterans, especially those who served in Vietnam, I know the bond is still strong. A quick nod, a brief look in each other’s eyes, a handshake—we recognize each other. Nothing needs to be said. We each know we put our lives on the line for each other and we’d do it again.

Rerun: The Bond

A reader today sought out a blog post of sometime ago about the bond men fighting side by side form with one another. I think it is one of the most important posts I’ve ever done, so I offer it again here:

I’ve written here a number of times about the bond that forms between men who fight side by side. I’ve said that it is the strongest bond I’ve ever experienced. But I’ve never devoted a blog post to that bond, what causes it, and what it’s like.

I’m not a psychiatrist or sociologist, so I can’t talk in scientific terms about the bond. I can only tell you how it affected me.

I have to start by stressing why men fight in combat. They may have been put in harm’s way because of their desire to defend their country or their devotion to God or their determination to fight evil. But on the battlefield, men fight for each other. In combat, they fight for the lives of their brothers fighting at their side. They are determined to keep their fellow combatants alive even if it means giving up their own lives.

The feelings among men fighting by each other’s side is the strongest love I’ve ever experienced. Soldiers and Marines don’t call it love—that’s too sentimental. But that’s what it is.

I’m sure I didn’t experience that bond to the depths that other men in combat did. I wasn’t there to shoot and kill the enemy. I was there to provide information about the enemy—where he was, the size and identity of his units, what he was doing, what his intensions were. The men by my side were the fighters, intent on destroying the enemy and defending each other.

More tomorrow.

Resistance to Public Health Measures

According to news published this morning, the U.S. is reporting its 20th day in a row of more than 100,000 new cases of Covid-19. The country is now averaging over 1,300 Covid-19 deaths per day. As of yesterday, more than 12.2 million people have been infected and 256,783 people have died of the virus, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. And the newest spike coming this winter is expected to be the worst we have faced.

And yet, in the middle of the pandemic, some Americans are resisting public health measures designed to reduce health risks, citing their right to freedom of action under the Constitution. They maintain that a law requiring the wearing of a mask, for example, is unconstitutional because it limits their freedom.

According to that way of thinking, any law restricting unhealthy behavior would be unconstitutional. Worse, refusal to wear a mask is endangering the health not only of the person unmasked but of others. It is profoundly foolish and selfish.

All this is important to me because as an older man with a history of lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), if I came down with Covid-19, it would likely prove fatal.

Most Americans, fortunately, are too generous and too respectful of others to take such a stand. If we work together and with the likelihood that a vaccine will soon arrive, we can survive the pandemic. So much is possible if we put the good of others first.

So let’s wear masks, keep six feet from one another, and avoid gatherings. If we work together, we can achieve almost anything.

Rerun: The Story of Shay (3)

The last installment of Shay’s story. His father is telling what happened:

“Everyone yelled, ‘Run to second, run to second!’

“Catching his breath, Shay awkwardly ran towards second, gleaming and struggling to make it to the base.

“By the time Shay rounded towards second base, the right fielder had the ball. The smallest guy on their team who now had his first chance to be the hero for his team.

“He could have thrown the ball to the second-baseman for the tag, but he understood the pitcher’s intentions so he, too, intentionally threw the ball high and far over the third-baseman’s head.

“Shay ran toward third base deliriously as the runners ahead of him circled the bases toward home. All were screaming, ‘Shay, Shay, Shay, all the Way Shay!’

“Shay reached third base because the opposing shortstop ran to help him by turning him in the direction of third base, and shouted, ‘Run to third! Shay, run to third!’

“As Shay rounded third, the boys from both teams, and the spectators, were on their feet screaming, ‘Shay, run home! Run home!’

“Shay ran to home, stepped on the plate, and was cheered as the hero who hit the grand slam and won the game for his team

“That day,” said the father softly with tears now rolling down his face, “the boys from both teams helped bring a piece of true love and humanity into this world.

“Shay didn’t make it to another summer. He died that winter, having never forgotten being the hero and making me so happy, and coming home and seeing his mother tearfully embrace her little hero of the day!”

The end of Shay’s story. My thanks to Larry Burbank.

Rerun: The Story of Shay (2)

Continuing from yesterday the story Larry Burbank sent me:

“In the bottom of the ninth inning, Shay’s team scored again.

“Now, with two outs and the bases loaded, the potential winning run was on base and Shay was scheduled to be next at bat. At this juncture, do they let Shay bat and give away their chance to win the game? 

“Surprisingly, Shay was given the bat. Everyone knew that a hit was all but impossible because Shay didn’t even know how to hold the bat properly, much less connect with the ball.  

“However, as Shay stepped up to the plate, the pitcher, recognizing that the other team was putting winning aside for this moment in Shay’s life, moved in a few steps to lob the ball in softly so Shay could at least make contact. 

“The first pitch came and Shay swung clumsily and missed.

“The pitcher again took a few steps forward to toss the ball softly towards Shay. As the pitch came in, Shay swung at the ball and hit a slow ground ball right back to the pitcher. 

“The game would now be over.

“The pitcher picked up the soft grounder and could have easily thrown the ball to the first baseman. Shay would have been out and that would have been the end of the game. Instead, the pitcher threw the ball right over the first baseman’s head, out of reach of all teammates. 

“Everyone from the stands and both teams started yelling, ‘Shay, run to first! Run to first!’

“Never in his life had Shay ever run that far, but he made it to first base. He scampered down the baseline, wide-eyed and startled.” 

More tomorrow.

Rerun: The Story of Shay

The software that I use for this blog reports to me daily on users’ searches to go back and reread blog posts of as long ago as three years. One of the most frequent searches is for the story of Shay. Because it is so popular, I decided to post it again for all to read. Here it is:

 Larry Burbank, another Vietnam veteran, sent me the text below. I pass it on to you.

At a fundraising dinner for a school that serves children with learning disabilities, the father of one of the students delivered a speech that would never be forgotten by all who attended. After extolling the school and its dedicated staff, he offered a question: 

“When not interfered with by outside influences, everything nature does, is done with perfection. Yet my son, Shay, cannot learn things as other children do. He cannot understand things as other children do. Where is the natural order of things in my son?”

The audience was stilled by the query.

The father continued. “I believe that when a child like Shay, who was mentally and physically disabled, comes into the world, an opportunity to realize true human nature presents itself, and it comes in the way other people treat that child.”

Then he told the following story:

“Shay and I had walked past a park where some boys Shay knew were playing baseball. Shay asked, ‘Do you think they’ll let me play?’ I knew that most of the boys would not want someone like Shay on their team, but as a father I also understood that if my son were allowed to play, it would give him a much-needed sense of belonging and some confidence to be accepted by others in spite of his handicaps. 

“I approached one of the boys on the field and asked (not expecting much) if Shay could play. The boy looked around for guidance and said, ‘We’re losing by six runs and the game is in the eighth inning. I guess he can be on our team and we’ll try to put him in to bat in the ninth inning.’

“Shay struggled over to the team’s bench and, with a broad smile, put on a team shirt. I watched with a small tear in my eye and warmth in my heart. The boys saw my joy at my son being accepted.

“In the bottom of the eighth inning, Shay’s team scored a few runs but was still behind by three.

“In the top of the ninth inning, Shay put on a glove and played in the right field. Even though no hits came his way, he was obviously ecstatic just to be in the game and on the field, grinning from ear to ear as I waved to him from the stands.”

More tomorrow.

Writing

My dry spell in writing continues. Ever since the death of my partner, Su, at the end of March, I’ve been stymied. I’ve tried multiple times to continue with the novel I was writing based on our relationship, but words won’t come.

Instead, I find myself sitting at the keyboard and remembering—how much she enjoyed the steak dinners with elaborate desserts that I fixed for her once a week, how I cleaned house before she came over, how she telephoned me every day at eight in the morning and again at eight at night. We always sat out on my deck, weather permitting, and drank in the beauty of nature before us. She claimed the hall bathroom as her own, and kept her cosmetics and lotions there. I always saw to it that the towels and face cloths there were fresh and clean.

Now the steaks I bought for her sit unused in my freezer. The ice cream, chocolate sauce, and whipped cream have been in my refrigerator so long I don’t know if they’re still edible. The house gets dirty and stays that way—no one to see it but me. I find myself waiting for the eight o’clock phone calls, then remember . . . It’s too cold to sit out on the deck, and the linen in the hall bathroom remains unused.

I have all the raw material to write our story, but I can’t do it. Someday soon, I’ll try writing a story about something else. But so far, no other story comes into my mind.

Someday. Not now.

Musical Logic in Writing Words (3)

I apologize for going into detail about the logic of music, but I believe that an intellectual understanding of that logic is necessary for the reader to grasp the underlying reasoning in Wondratschek’s writing.

And that description of musical logic is just the beginning. Writing words and sentences according to these rules rather than according to the rules of language results in highly poetic but hard-to-comprehend texts. It produces in passages like the following:

            The visible conceals the invisible.

            Like even numbers conceal the odd, like a fan conceals a face?

            A movie star, female, a big icon, in an interview: “I’m only a beautiful woman when no one’s looking.”       

Hence Self-Portrait with Russian Piano was a major challenge to read. The central character of the story was a musician, an exiled Soviet pianist living in Vienna. He thinks and speaks according to the logic of music.

Obviously, I found reading the book difficult. And I am a trained musician, with a BA in music. I regularly play the piano and, now many years ago, composed reams of music. I concluded that if a trained musician had trouble reading the book, non-musicians would find it all but incomprehensible.

The result was that I couldn’t recommend the book for the general reader—reading it would be too difficult. That didn’t mean that I judged the book as in any sense inferior. It’s just not intended for those who can’t think—and read—in musical terms.