“There It Is”

In my review of Mark Treanor’s  A Quiet Cadence (http://www.washingtonindependentreviewofbooks.com/bookreview/a-quiet-cadence-a-novel), I cited Treanor’s use of the sentence, “There it is.” Those of us on the battlefield in Vietnam used that sentence to express our despair over a meaningless war that we didn’t know how to win.

When I reviewed Treanor’s book, my unspeakable memories of grisly deaths on the battlefield came back in full force. Thanks to his explicit descriptions, I remembered with renewed vividness the men killed by my side in ways so brutal that for years I suppressed the memories until they emerged to haunt me in flashbacks, nightmares, panic attacks, irrational rages, and depression. Those reactions, I eventually learned, are all symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI), the mental disorder that unbearable experience inflicts on the soul.

The men I was with were really boys. The average age of a troop on the battlefield was nineteen. I knew these guys in a way only possible when men fight side by side. I lived with them—slept beside them on the ground, sat in the dirt next to them eating C-rations, used their latrines, and went into combat by their side. When they were killed, what was left of them, often not much, was shoveled into a body bag to be shipped home for burial.

It was from these young men that I learned the sentence, “there it is.” It meant, that’s the way this war is, and there’s nothing we can do about it. We can’t change it. We have to live—or die—with it.

I spent thirteen years of my life in and out of Vietnam giving all I had to win the war. We lost. And I’m left with excruciating memories. There it is.

The Webcam

I’ve now been isolated for almost four months, thanks to the covid-19 pandemic. My long-time partner, Su, died at the end of March, and, of necessity, I have been grieving alone. I can’t spend time with my friends or children. I can’t do presentations and readings. I can’t attend meetings of the weekly Men’s Forum and the American Legion. I’m on my own.

At the invitation of friends, I did do one virtual offering of my fall of Saigon presentation, but I had no webcam, so all that viewers could see was the slides that I use. The results felt good to me. I decided that way for me to get through this time of quarantine was to do more remote presentations. So I ordered a webcam online.

Once it arrives, I can remotely do my three standard presentations—the fall of Saigon, the 1967 battle of Dak To in Vietnam’s western highlands, and living with Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI)—and I can do readings from my new books—Secretocracy, published in March and Coming to Terms, due out in July. I’ve already received an invitation to do readings and to play my magnificent Steinway. I look forward to both. I’ll contact major booksellers in the Washington-Baltimore area and propose that I do virtual promotional presentations for my new books.

But the date of arrival of the webcam is still uncertain. Apparently its delivery has been delayed by the pandemic lockdown. I’m still waiting.

The irony is palpable. Here I am sequestered from my readers, and now I’m prevented from reaching out to them virtually by the same lockdown that stops me from being with them in person.

I’m a loner by nature, but this is too much.

Hospice

My partner, Su, died in the local hospice at the end of March. My empty life as a result and my respect for the people who cared for Su inspired me to volunteer to work in the hospice with dying people.

It won’t be a new experience for me. During the AIDS crisis, I took care of gay men dying of AIDS. When the crisis ebbed, I worked with the homeless, then for seven years I volunteered in the hospice looking after the dying. I did that work, in part, because I knew that few Americans were willing to spend time with those near death. I was less a caregiver than a companion to those who had little time left to live. I was astonished to discover that we Americans avoid the subject of death and are afraid of being with those near death. So the hospice never has enough volunteers.

In my earlier years of working in a hospice, I don’t recall ever having any training. That has changed. I’m currently undergoing virtual training, thanks to the pandemic lockdown, offered on the internet. Much of it has to do with facing the existence of death at a conscious level. I was surprised at how uncomfortable that made me.

I won’t begin my volunteer work until after the lockdown is over, but I should finish the training within the week. As I progress, I’ll record here my reactions and feelings. This is beginning to feel like a major step.

The Steinway (3)

My daughter urged me to try the pianos and decide which one I liked best. The prospect of playing all those pianos excited me, and I set to work. I found one that thrilled me with the beauty of its sound. I tried others but kept coming back to that one. I realized that this was the instrument I had played in the lounge and fallen in love with.

That piano now sits in my living room. Susan had brought me there to select my favorite which she then proceeded to buy for me.

I had the piano appraised. It’s price, new, was $85,000.

I learned later where Susan got the money to buy that piano. It came from her share of her mother’s estate. The house I had bought for our family in Crofton, Maryland, was the only thing of value my ex-wife still had at the time of her death—she had long since gone through my savings she acquired during the divorce. It was a lovely large home at the end of a cul-de-sac on an oversized wooded lot that backed onto the Crofton golf course. The big yard gave the children plenty of safe space to play in. During our years in that house, I had worked hard to improve it. The result was an increase of its value.

As I learned later, after I left the marriage, my ex-wife neglected the house. When the time came for the children to sell it, its value had declined due to disrepair. They sold it as-is because none of the four of them had the time or money to restore it.

Susan used her share of the money she from the sale of the house to buy me the Steinway. She’s never told me why, but I think I’ve figured it out.

At the time of the divorce, one of my four children sided with her mother. The others, Susan included, were either neutral or sided with me. I speculate that when Susan found out that her mother had arranged for her sister to be brought into the courtroom just as I took the witness stand and I refused to testify against her mother, she was angry. My conclusion is that Susan used her share of her mother’s estate to buy me the Steinway as a way of evening the imbalance.

The end result is that I own the most beautiful grand piano I have ever played.

The Steinway (2)

Continuing the story of how I came to own my beautiful Steinway.

Long after my divorce, I learned that my wife had arranged for one of my children to be present during my testimony. She believed, correctly, that I would not level severe criticisms against her with one of her children listening. The end result was that I lost everything. My wife was awarded all our property, and I had to pay alimony. I was destitute. I was reduced to living in a rented attic in a joint house with five other men.

In the years after the divorce, I gradually regained financial equilibrium. Then my ex-wife died suddenly. I was free of the onerous alimony.

Meanwhile, my oldest daughter, Susan, now an adult, and I subscribed to the ballet series at the Kennedy Center every year. Often, before the performance, we would visit the opera house lounge. We would arrive early in the evening before the hired pianist was on duty. I’ve never been able to resist a playing a piano sitting idle and waiting for attention, so I asked if I could try the Steinway grand that was in the lounge.

Over the years, I tried a number of different pianos. One I played enthralled me. It had the most beautiful sound I had ever encountered. I played it before each of the performances that season. The next season, it was gone—replaced by another piano.

More years passed. One day, my daughter’s husband called me and asked me to come to their house right away. I explained that I was in jeans and a tee-shirt and would have to bathe and dress. No, he said, come as you are. He gave no explanation.

Alarmed, I hurried to their place. As soon as I arrived, they told me to get in their car. We were going somewhere. No explanation of where.

We drove into Washington, D.C., and I remarked that we were getting close to the Kennedy Center. Once there, my daughter and her husband escorted me through the stage entrance to the Eisenhower Theater. The theater’s stage was filled with Steinway grand pianos. I learned that the Kennedy Center was replacing its pianos and was selling off the old ones.

More tomorrow.

The Steinway

I own a magnificent six-foot Steinway grand piano. I play it as often as I can, usually every day, not because I want to improve my playing but because the instrument itself is so beautiful.

Some time ago in this blog, I told the story of how I came to own such a magnificent and expensive piano. The story is worth retelling, this time with more detail.

The story starts with my divorce from my first wife, the mother of my four children. During the divorce hearings, my wife had testified about me and offered evidence why she should be awarded the lion’s share of our joint holdings. When it came my turn on the witness stand, I was ready to relate the ways she failed me in my moment of greatest need.

That moment was in April 1975 when Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese, and I escaped under fire. My hearing was severely damaged by the shelling, and I was suffering from both amoebic dysentery and pneumonia, brought on by muscle fatigue, insufficient diet, and sleep deprivation when I was holed up in my office for weeks as the North Vietnamese laid siege to the city. Worse, I had a psychological illness we didn’t have a name for back then, Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI). The symptoms, which I had to the max, were panic attacks, nightmares, flashbacks, irrational rages, and depression.

When I arrived back in the U.S. in late May 1975, I telephoned my wife from Maryland at her father’s house in Massachusetts. I begged her to come to Maryland. I needed her. I was physically and emotionally ill.

She refused. She told me that she wouldn’t return until I got our house back from the family that had leased it for the three-year period we expected to be in Saigon. I finally repossessed the house the following July. Only then did she and the children come home.

They had toured the world when they were evacuated from Saigon, twenty days before the city fell in April 1975. They’d toured all through Asia and Europe, getting back to the states after I did. My wife knew that Saigon had fallen but she didn’t know if I had survived. She made no attempt to find out.

That was the story I was prepared to tell during the divorce proceedings. But as I took the witness stand, I spotted a neighbor coming into the courtroom with one of my daughters. I clammed up. I wasn’t about to narrate my wife’s considerable failings and egregious acts before one of her children.

More tomorrow.

The Secretocracy House

I’ve mentioned several times in this blog that my novels and short stories are fiction in name only. All of them are based on real happenings. The same is true with my most recent novel, Secretocracy. The house where the protagonist lives is a real place. Years ago, I, like my character, rented the attic of the house because it was the best I could afford. I had left a marriage but had to go on paying for my family’s home and had little money left over for food and rent for myself.

The house is in the northern peak of the District of Columbia on Holly Street that borders Rock Creek Park. When I lived there, it was already an ancient mansion four stories high (including the attic) built on a hill overlooking the park. The lowest level, a party room complete with bar, opened out onto terraces above a hillside lawn below which were trails that led into the park. When my children would come to visit, they would scamper down into the park to their favorite spot, a knoll overlooking the creek.

The floor above that was the street level. The double front door, on the street side of the house, opened into a grand foyer with a broad stairs that stretched from wall to wall leading to the vestibule with rounded staircases on both sides. Doors at that level led to the living room, dining room, lounge, and library—used as the bedroom of the couple who owned the house.

The third floor up was all bedrooms rented by single men. The top floor, the attic where I lived, had once been occupied by the house servants. Besides the living area, it offered ample storage space. Two stairways joined the attic with the rest of the house, one from the hallway on the third floor and one at the back of the house, called the servants’ stairs, that led to the kitchen on the main floor.

My living space was anything but luxurious. It had no ceiling—above me were bare rafters holding up the roof. It had three small windows, one at the back looking out at Rock Creek Park, one over the stairs on the right side, and one in the bedroom on the left. The attic was not heated or cooled. Heat rising from the lower floors kept the room above freezing in the winter, but summers were hard to get through. I depended on an electric fan to survive the heat.

My memories of the years I lived in that attic are happy, despite the lack of physical comfort. My five fellow housemates were men like me, down on their luck and barely getting by. We boosted each other and found ways to go on living.

Rerun: “Men Are the Noisiest Things”

I posted long ago in this blog about women’s way of judging men. They see us as a loud, brash, clumsy, and insensitive. All that came back to me recently when a woman friend observed, “Men are the noisiest things.”

That made me stop and think. She’s right. As my recent posts on masculinity pointed out, we men are proud of our strength, ruggedness, dominance. I think we actually enjoy banging things around. Makes us feel in charge.

The post of several years ago on the subject still stands the test of time. One evening when a lady friend was over for dinner, I went to the bathroom to take my meds after eating dinner—I can’t take them on an empty stomach. As usual, I opened the medicine chest, took each pill, put the pill container back on the shelf, and closed the door. Then I looked in the side cabinet for the capsules that come in jars so large they won’t fit in the medicine chest. I took those, put each jar back, and shut the cabinet door. I had spilled some water on the floor when I drank from the plastic cup in a holder by the sink, so I looked for a dry rag in the cabinet under the sink, closed the cabinet, wiped the floor, and put the rag in the laundry hamper, and shut it. Then I left the room and closed the door firmly behind me.

My friend was in the hall. She looked perplexed. “Were you having a fight in there?” she asked. “What on earth was all that crashing and banging?”

She went into the bathroom and closed the door. I stood listening. Not a sound.

As she pointed out later, we men make no attempt to keep the noise down. We stamp around, slam doors, bang into walls, and drop things in place without a thought. For reasons I don’t understand, women go out of their way to avoid conspicuous noise.

I thought back about what I had done in the bathroom. Yes, I closed each cabinet door firmly, dropped bottles and jars back in their place, slammed the laundry hamper to be sure it was properly shut, and pulled the bathroom door closed to confirm it was engaged. That all seemed like the normal things to do.

Not from her point of view. She folded her arms and shook her head. “Men are the noisiest things.”

Rerun: Abandonment (3)

For more than thirty years, I couldn’t get my stories and novels about Vietnam published. Vietnam was a shameful war, and no one wanted to hear about it. Then American attitudes changed. Today five of my novels and seventeen of my short stories are in print, with a new book, a short story collection called Coming to Terms, due out in July. The pinnacle was Last of the Annamese, published in March 2017 by the Naval Institute Press. That book tells the story of the fall of Saigon. Although it’s fiction, it’s historically accurate and complete. What helped greatly was that in 2016 the classification of my work in Vietnam was brought to an end.

Annamese helped in another way. It allowed me to confront my memories of abandonment and survival. I found an imperfect peace.

That peace is rooted in self-reliance. I learned that even if the whole world turned against me, abandoned me, and left me to survive on my own, I could depend on myself. I discovered in myself a resilience I didn’t know I had.

So, yes, I and others like me were abandoned. But we were a determined bunch, not cowed by hostile saliva. We worked hard and clung to each other. We watched as other warriors from other wars came home to thanks and honor withheld from us. We gritted our teeth and hung on.

When Americans changed the way they saw the war in Vietnam, they looked at us with new eyes. The young folks wanted to know what really happened. In the last half-dozen years, I’ve been to gatherings where people actually honored me and others who survived Vietnam. We are again upright citizens. We stand with other veterans who served their country.

Now at last, Americans are thanking us. Despite our resilience, our determination, our toughness, we Vietnam vets are more moved than we will admit. “Thank you for your service. And welcome home.” Those words make me cry.

In the process, I learned again what I had known since childhood: I can’t depend on others to survive. It’s up to me.

Rerun: Abandonment (2)

My briefing for CINCAC (Commander-in-Chief, Pacific) at Pearl Harbor didn’t go well. I passed out when I sat down after coughing through my presentation. I knew I was ill, but instead of going to a doctor, I booked a flight to Maryland. I can’t tell you how much I yearned just to go home.

When I got to Maryland, a doctor diagnosed me with ear damage from the shelling, amoebic dysentery, and pneumonia due to inadequate diet, sleep deprivation, and muscle fatigue. I telephoned my wife. She and our children had flown out of Saigon twenty days before the city fell. At her insistence, they went on a grand tour through Asia and Europe, arriving back in the states after I did. She knew that Saigon had fallen, but she didn’t know if I had gotten out alive, nor did she make any attempt to find out. When I got through by phone to her at her father’s house in Massachusetts and begged her to come to Maryland—I told her I was very sick and needed her—she turned me down. She told me she wouldn’t return until we got our house back (we’d leased it to another family for the length of our tour in Vietnam). It was July before I was able to repossess the house. Only then did she and the children come home.

It was the beginning of the end of the marriage.

When I finally returned to NSA in late May 1975—I had escaped from Saigon on 29 April 1975—I found that the war in Vietnam was seen as shameful, not to be discussed. That was a continuation of what I had been facing for years. During the 1960s and 1970s, when I trundled regularly between Vietnam and the world (the U.S.), I and the returning troops were regularly greeted by mobs who called us butchers and baby killers and spat on us. Now, after I returned from the fall of Saigon, I felt that the whole of the U.S. was spitting on me.

Three things got me through. One was the bond I had with the men who had worked with me in Vietnam. We stuck together and helped one another. The second was my determination not to give in to adversity. The third was writing. I wrote about what happened. By writing down what I’d lived through, I forced myself to face my unbearable memories.

More tomorrow.