BEYOND THE BLOOD CHIT
by Erv Barnes, PhD
BEYOND THE BLOOD CHIT
by Erv Barnes, PhD
To see the craziness of war and the coincidences it produced witness the reunions after the fall in hospitals and clinics where there was so much volatility. The meeting of buddies couldn’t have been totally coincidental. As in many cases, the strongest bonds were forged by war. Assume the shots were real. And then if the shots hadn’t found their intended victim, then the assailant could’ve still been around.
The lovers cowed under the bed, as their hearts raced. The type of weapon used was identifiable by the sound it produced. If anything, it had to have been the US made M-16. Yet even the sound of a pistol would’ve been enough to send Schumaker diving for cover.
While under the bed, his nightmare once again came to life. Curled up in his trench, arms over his face, fingers in his ears, his sobbing turned to shaking. Smelling diesel, flares, fire, smoke, and all the other shit of a no good war, he was really shook up. Nothing cleared all that shit out of his system better than apiece of ass. It took a dirty bastard to fuck that up. Under the bed, as paralyzed as he had ever been, but not wanting to show his fear, he lay in Penny’s arms crying, and for no goddamn reason
He told her that Canada was a better option. “Considering the effectiveness of Agent Orange and napalm, there’ll be little left of Vietnam. It’s no prize either. To win, you’d have to burn every village. Burn villages during little nickel-and-dime, hit-and-run operations trying to save a dead horse.”
But as often was the case, Schumaker couldn’t show the full range of his emotions. If he had, it would’ve overwhelmed Penny. As it was, he leaned on her, and she clung to him. And more happened more quickly in such a short of period to time than had ever happened to her before. They instantly became intimate. This was how she got him to talk, and that from a man who didn’t have loose lips.
The Schumakers had been bosses of Starr County for many generations. Just as Archie Parr had been the boss of Duval County, they represented a political dynasty. Just as other bosses were in South Texas, the Schumakers were giants. T hey controlled the Mexican border. But with all that power, nobody understood why our naked colonel ended up in Nam. In Starr County, more people speculated about this than anything else. But only a few people knew what really happened.
The one teenage girl who could say anything wasn’t talking. Why wouldn’t she take advantage of such an opportunity? Why wouldn’t someone such as her be honored by an engagement to the patron’s son? In reality, the girl wanted to marry a gringo, and the rules allowed it, even if it was often frowned upon. But the bias on both sides was very strong and seemed as if it had always been there. It was rather hard for the older generation to adjust to their sons’ and daughters’ emancipation and that the Mexican father had been the Anglo boss’ ranch hand. The dimensions here were all encompassing and had painful consequences. The freight of color and prejudice was once again exposed.
Of course, there were Caucasian men from every generation, men of power and prestige, who would marry a Mexican woman. These men could do whatever they wanted with impunity. This tradition was well established way before there were any Schumakers. (Read the private diaries of Conquistadors.) At the time, El Jefe or the Patron, riding on the backs of the Mexican American population, began every new conversation with the same questions. “Are you native?” “Who is your father?” Or maybe, “Who sent you?” He’d view the person making the request with a jaundiced eye, this for a number of reasons, none of them good.
Even before he could express himself, El Jefe’s son knew that someday he’d step into his father’s boots. There was enormous pressure placed on him by his family. And the armor he wore was rebellion or stubbornness. It was considered a flaw and flaws weren’t allowed. His dictatorial father wouldn’t allow them. He refused to go to a private school in San Antonio and spent a great deal of time just goofing off on the bridge going into old Mexico. He wanted to impress the senioritis and did it with his great looks. He fit the romantic notions of the time. Filled with enchanting charm, he was full of himself and clearly had machismo, and could do pretty much what he wanted to do with women. Before many of his friends started receiving greetings from their draft board, he was perceived as being more than a little arrogant.
It was hard to believe that his subsequent breakup with a teenage girl was enough to send him into a nosedive and that his enlistment stemmed from his disappointment. After the smiling, laughing, meeting with the girl’s family, did he move too quickly and assumed too much? The sixteen-year-old was so easily mastered by Penny’s GI; this was in spite of the fact that she had vowed not to lose her virginity until after the wedding. Nowhere, except at confession, could she express her disappointment and shame over not being able to wait. Besides she felt nervous over being forced into marriage. She cried a lot. All the tears had to do with Schumaker. And her confusion was reason enough to call off the wedding.
But wasn’t our GI also trying to make sense out of his world? Because he was fighting a war for all of us, couldn’t he have his choice of women on Ongpin Street? But his claim to Penny was only based on his participation in fighting near the Laotian border.
“Penny Lane” was quite possibly the best song ever written. It was also their song. “The pretty nurse was selling poppies from a tray, and felt as if she were in a play.” Stoned? Yes, they were, but no one at home would know. Everyone back then wanted to be turned on. Witnessed Schumaker and Penny on Saturday; and Schumaker on Sunday with Penny, or it could’ve been with almost any other woman. Nowhere in the Nam experience was there a sadder couple. Perhaps people even then didn’t believe in victory.
There were too many abominable things about the war that the GI didn’t want to discuss. P enny though wanted to know everything. So she fed him alcohol, while he demanded hashes and LSD. The best shit in the world came from right next door. Indeed, to hear Schumaker tell it the war couldn’t be won without the shit. What happened to the clean-cut Army guy? “Hell, he ain’t been shot at. What does those goddamn protestors know? They burned our cars, our cities, fought our police, and they haven’t asked me how I feel. Do you know what I’d tell ’em?” And then he plaintively sung, “I’d love to turn you on,” and asked for more love. Against a backdrop of a diving airplane, through his laughter he meant to say, “Look, I’m surviving.”
And in the most poignant way the best he could do was evoke sadness in her. Here was this emancipated person, animated and intelligent, one moment laughing and singing and the next crying. He told her, that, if he ever got back to South Texas, as a border kid, he’d pick a fight with INS. In his county, everyday he saw the INS roam the streets looking for Guats, Nics, and Sals, who in turn were looking for freedom and opportunity. Wait until he became El Jefe. Wait and see who’ll lead the revolution. He talked about being the first to fire a gun.
Penny was trying to connect the pieces. She missed her father and couldn’t stop thinking about him. He would disappear for long periods of time. Maybe he would show up for her birthdays, or maybe not. This made her wonder about how much he really cared. Her grandmother and nuns raised her. Jack never exercised any authority. To search Laos anymore and get specific information about him seemed a lost cause. She still worried about him, especially knowing he spent weeks at a time behind enemy lines with other volunteers. In Laos, with respect to the war that didn’t exist, she continually ran into roadblocks. Wherever she stopped, children gawked at the taller Amerasian, crowded around her, but no one would tell her anything about her father. Over the years, Jack only hinted at his activities.
She seemed destined to becoming beautiful and seductive. Trying to stretch her money, she made male companions happy, completely happy, which seemed better than knitting or sewing. In the arms of men on the tourist circuit throughout South East Asia, Penny’s connections took her to cheap hotels filled with dope and prostitution. She had to brace herself for the possibility of violence.
“Now tell me should we cheer? It should help to know that you’re contributing, but how does one cheer another man’s death?”
And yet, she and Schumaker could’ve made a team. Each to the other was something special.
In the thick of it…. “Requesting permission to fire on 803513…. Receiving small arms and mortar fire…. Taking causalities….repeat, requesting permission to fire….can you send air craft?”
And the lovemaking went on and on and on, and the nightmares followed.
Shattered Schumaker’s crying and laughing under the bed brought home the horrors of Nam, while his talk about home in Texas offered an escape. He could be incredibly gentle. Far from being unusual, his fiancée jilted him and broke his heart. Penny couldn’t understand why the pretty seniority didn’t want to marry El Jefe’s handsome son, and why she preferred someone else. She told Schumaker, “America seems so complex. In vain I’ve tried to understand it.” To her all Americans were handsome, beautiful, and mostly white.
During long talks, Penny’s grandmother explained to her granddaughter why her sympathies lay with the Chinese Communist. She disagreed with Penny’s father but never confronted him. Still she became a thorn in his side. The rift in the family illustrated how intense their differences were. Hence they never talked about politics.
Penny’s grandmother never achieved independence. She couldn’t just jump into free love but instead chose a monogamous marriage. She never had an affair, nor could never have been unfaithful. And as a Filipina she didn’t suffer the bondage of many of her sisters the world over, examples of which she could cite. Only one generation separated her from the mui tsai, and beautiful girls and women were still sold into slavery.
The opinions of her grandmother weighed heavily on Penny. She felt increasingly vulnerable and wondered if she really belonged anywhere. After bickering with herself, she decided to pack a duffel bag. Heading first to Bangkok by train, she had a greater mission there than buying dope. Her lifestyle seemed correct and exhilarating to her.
As a woman traveling alone, she faced many hassles other women wouldn’t. She considered herself a traveler rather than a tourist and defended herself by saying she didn’t need a specific reason for moving about. Above all she prided herself in never losing sight of the realities involved. Remarkably, regardless of their culture or their language, her male protectors all seem similar, and most women she met asked the same questions. Did she have any children, and if not, why not? Then they would indicate their concern and would try to help her by urging her to use a charm or a trinket. In those days, single women didn’t travel alone and a woman’s barren state marked her as tawdry and wicked. Poor Penny didn’t realize that she was playing a potentially dangerous game. But let it be known that she was the same as her mother.
Like so many young people, she desperately tried to find herself. Her confusion was compounded because she never knew her flirtatious mother. But she didn’t take kindly to the label of whore, or think that her activities were acts of self-degradation.
In regard to her father’s home state, she told people she knew how to play basketball. She explained how her father was once a good outside shooter and gave up a college scholarship to work at her grandfather’s gas station. Then her conversation would turn away from Indiana to the black-market and where to get the best currency exchange rate. As an expedient, sex was nothing new to her. She looked for anything to fill a void.
It was a fine thing to probe and to question and to know for sure that she didn’t belong to the sorority of women who worked Ongpin Street. Then why did she feel she needed to apologize?
She came to Manila by ship. To those who have entered the bay by freighter as she did can vouch for the view. As she first wandered clogged sidewalks, she was guided by blind faith. She knew she would survive. Experience taught her that. And she rarely had to pay for anything. But how often would she prostitute herself? Desperate for human contact was the excuse she gave for her reckless. Penny wasn’t the only person to choose such a life.
The idea of him having to return to a war heightened Penny’s and her GI’s passions, passions pitted against the clock and shadowed by the darker side of their nature. Images of eroticism and death, phantoms of fear and courage. Grasping for life, the prospect of death possessed him. Danger had softened his heart. The desperation of two lonely people further intensified the experience. They also were on missions. They giggled and kissed, then clung to each other and stumbled. They tried to pack two lifetimes into those few days.
Left with the shakes, he hadn’t bought it yet as a succession of buddies had. He hoped a little R&R. would help him. He hoped that it would help him shed, even for a little while, his sense of terror. This kept them very busy well into the night. The killing dulled the soldier’s feelings. Generally Penny simply listened.
“The V.C. enjoyed the underbrush and could disappear anytime. That meant that we were never safe. They were in every village; and we may have thought that we were tightening a noose, but we never knew when we were walking into a trap. More and more we relied on our fighting instinct. Superior soldiers have to respect a den of ants. We didn’t want to kick ass. We just wanted to survive and go home to Santa Cruz or Des Moines. Our eyes had to be open.”
They knew they would never see each other again. But why was this so certain? Perhaps it was because both of them knew the realities of war and knew that our soldier might or might not live. He’d wanted to make a career out of the Army and enlisted; but neither basic training nor OCS prepared him for Vietnam. The top of his class, Colonel Schumaker came out of it all psyched up. He was not only considered a good officer but a good man.
Due to how he related to his men, he was command material. He was highly trained, a tough son-of-a-bitch. Unfortunately sometimes he acted as if the whole shooting match was his private war. In short, Schumaker was simply your-best-dumb-shit ever, because of his gung-ho attitude. But according to him, the son-of-a-bitching war turned his country into a nation of pansies. “No body gives a rat’s ass anymore.”
Penny pumped Schumaker for information. She listened for specifics, which might relate to her father. As far as she knew, her dad could’ve been dead, because she knew he risked his ass in enemy territory near the Ho Chi Minh Trail. She suspected a conspiracy of silence. He never told her what the jungle and the mountains of Laos were like or what it was like to be in trouble, endure hardships, costly mistakes, but too irregular to die. As a member of the Special Forces, Penny’s father organized, trained, equipped, and controlled teams of bandits. He did his best to keep the Lao domino from tumbling.
Alpha never showed. What now, Cisco? Why, how now!”
In a driving rainstorm, a chopper flew Schumaker out for his R & R. In flight didn’t they trace the Laotian border and see the trail? He was sorry to have to tell Penny no. He really didn’t want to talk about the war but was forced to describe a cleaned up version of a noisy, dirty, dangerous hell. Some veterans talked about Operation Ranch Hand and the effects of herbicides. Not that they would give Penny the information she wanted. “Many who thought they could close their eyes looked in vain in the other direction.” Throughout the war, were you to spend some time in Charlie-Med, you wouldn’t want to see anymore.
Schumaker said, “We do what we’re trained to do. But regretfully we can no more chase the enemy until we destroy him than he can overrun us. Can we win? Do we know how to do it? For some of us, joining was kind of a John Wayne’ thing to do.”
“All You Need Is Love.” It was that song that struck an accord with the couple. In the last analysis their room represented as much stability as they could expect.
This fact was suddenly brought home by a burst of gunfire. It came from outside their doorway. From the playful grins of cabbies, elevator operators, and hotel clerks…in the Philippines and based on the country’s reputation…he knew he was in for the time of his life. He considered himself extremely lucky. Oh, my goodness. Wow! Who would’ve thought that their hotel would’ve been so dangerous?
Colonel Schumaker had just survived days of around-the-clock shelling and waiting for death. This from an enemy that was beaten into the ground by 35,000 tons of bombs. Giant B-52 Stratofortresses emptied their payloads every three hours, twenty-four hours a day. Consequently his nerves were shot. Then when he heard the gunfire, his natural reaction was to grab naked Penny and pull her under the bed because he expected more shots. Here was Schumaker trying to forget the war, as it was fought just six miles from the Laotian border, or close enough to link him to Penny’s father, and Penny pumping him for information.
An airman out of uniform approached Penny with a stupid grin and two bottles of beer. She took this opportunity to confront the war. Think of her compass, as this was her chance to connect with her father, except this airman couldn’t tell her anything.
Just how was that war run? We couldn’t see our mistakes. Many of our own boys were dying, and for what? An end of the war was not yet at hand; and the lack of practice didn’t make us good losers. The Army was demoralized and undermined by drugs, desertion, and fragging. Defeat would look and taste the same in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. In October of 1974, Dr. Henry Kissinger said to a journalist, “It is difficult to win on the negotiating table what you have lost on the battlefield.”
Constant fog draped many of the jungle peaks; and perhaps the fog obscured the war to such an extent that the young lady could only see the native houses of nipa. Unhappily she couldn’t find her father in Vientiane. And she spent many days there with young Caucasians, many of them longhaired and American, loitering streets and in cheap hotels. Unlike her friends, who were hooked on hashes, she spent her time in a contest with her wits. As to where her father was, the American Embassy was no help.
There was an American in Laos named Jack, but he spent most of his time away from Vientiane. The fear that she might have to flee across the Mekong at anytime-centered Penny. You couldn’t tell her that she had nothing to fear. Come on, that was ridiculous. The market and the restaurants were open. Stalls were loaded with vegetables, eggs, chicken, pork, and other commodities. Indeed things seemed normal. Those who could gage in such things had been through wars before; whereas the whole world knew the kind of war that was being fought in Vietnam.
“At 1430 hours, Fire Support Base 31 received an attack. Six airborne troops killed, three wounded and one bulldozer damaged. On the following day, towards noon, Fire Support Base 31 fell under an attack again. This time by 122-mm rockets. Killed two and wounded four.”
Penny’s short trips into the countryside were considered risky. Going through checkpoints was the same as “escaping from tigers in order to meet crocodiles” (an old Lao proverb). She went as far as she could take a taxi, but once past K-6 and the American compound with its Olympic-size swimming pool, air conditioned Western-style ranch houses, gymnasium, school, and paved road, she entered the boondocks, where she could’ve gotten lost for good. At K-6 she asked again about her father. The responses were friendly but not at all helpful.
Hurt over being shipped off to a Catholic boarding school, brooding over the lies she was forced to live and her unfulfilled dreams, she looked for answers to questions about her life. She seemed destined to become a rebel. She made her mark without the help of her parents. It didn’t take her long to learn about class distinctions. The last thing she wanted was to be sacrificed to marriage. Her first love was a Malaysian playboy. There finally came a point when she asked herself when would she stop screwing around.
Her English teacher encouraged her write. This pleased her because she knew her aunt Margo wrote too. For a while nothing could’ve been better than that.
Now consider Penny’s grandmother and how much she knew about her husband’s activities in the Communist party. In those days wives didn’t totally exist without their husbands but certainly she possessed ideas of her own. Mrs. Ramos was no puppet, though she never expressed her own views, but she couldn’t have been blamed for that. You have to remember how far she had come. Back in China girl slaves had to endure domestic drudge. Whether beautiful or not, girls were sold by families of even moderate means. Luckily her family immigrated to Manila. Her father had kin there. Even before she married a Communist intellectual, Penny’s grandmother went through the May Fourth Movement, when men and boys cut off their ponytails and women and girls unwrapped their feet. She didn’t hesitate to give her support to Mao because she opposed all forms of exploitation and felt intoxicated by the invigorating breezes of revolution. It was a moment in time that shouldn’t be under appreciated.
Penny was troubled. The Catholic school added to her agitation. Right after she lost her virginity, she broke up with her Malaysian boyfriend. Sex had really been a discovery. It indeed seemed better with a guy who enjoyed the privileges of the Royal Club. Of his many attributes his wealth distinguished him. He was not just wealthy, but really wealthy. He owned a Mercedes Benz and often enjoyed the hospitality of the Sultan of Johore. There was no one more calculating and after more attention than him. “Right under the noses of the nuns, we would kiss.”
He would take his date to Penang for the weekend. Penny solicited the help of her grandmother, who said, “Don’t worry, honey. Poverty and ignorance are the worse sins of all.” Clearly she didn’t want her granddaughter shackled as bourgeois women were then shackled. Around this time free love reared its ugly head.
The older woman’s strength came from wisdom that came from living a long time. She frequently talked about her own grandmother, a very capable woman of the old school.” “Making money was everything, plain and simple. This excused everything, explained everything, and motivated (as I remember) my grandmother to deal in opium and slaves, always girls bought and sold for money, girls politely called mui tsai.”
Their faces had to be beautifully painted and powdered. It seemed as if men always looked for fair skin and felt their bodies here and there. Conversations were awfully brief. In that situation, their words were the same as was spoken all over China. By its very nature, bargaining had to be quick. After having chosen a concubine, obviously on the spot, then men had to convince themselves that they had at last bought true love. In their mind there was an affinity between love and slavery, where love meant possessiveness. The implications wouldn’t change. Only Penny could choose her man and love the man she chose. She thought about all of this and obviously felt pressured to marry for money. How many women surrender and think they’re free?
Tears rolled down Penny’s cheeks. She had to confess: “surrounded by flowers and gorgeous butterflies, with a misty view of water cascading down rugged rocks, as if the air wasn’t wet enough, being with Ptol at his family’s bungalow was extremely exciting.” She tried to explain her feelings to her grandmother, when that wasn’t necessary. She talked about walking to the waterfall, going on picnics, and having servants wait on her at the breakfast table. Still overwhelmed by emotions, and looking for relief for her grief, Penny felt compelled to explain: “The suspense and the worry, as compared with passion and love, made for one of the most terrifying times of my life. I set him up but then didn’t play by the rules.”
Usually after such a mistake, nothing was as important as saving face. With options rather limited, all over couples were called upon to rush into marriage when they obviously couldn’t control themselves. Given the opportunity to consummate their love, few couples could stop, which too often led to intolerable circumstances. But in Penny’s case, here was a young lady who listened to her inner voice and recognized that if she had caved into pressure, the risk of unhappiness would’ve been considerable: though generally, and in the case of most of these marriages, the couples appeared happy.
But still she often wondered what her life would’ve been like had she accepted Ptol’s proposal. On the top rung stood his family. Was he an heir to royalty? How much was a title worth? Could she have given him sons, which he would soon need to secure a position? There was a protocol that had to be followed. “Dirty, or old, or grass-stained sarongs were strictly forbidden.” Memories of those weekends with her Malay boyfriend, customarily two days and nights filled with parties and candlelight, would always be with her. They overshadowed an uninviting side, where tradition required wives to be sequestered. Everywhere she went around the Sultan’s strawberry-colored palace she saw beauty: alamanders and fangi-panni flowers everywhere. Everywhere there were the trappings of paradise; but she could never see herself stuck there.
Before they could leave the Philippines there were official things they had to do for the Peace Corps. The Peace Corps was in Ermita and on Jorge Bacobo Street. It was easy to find; but most people couldn’t find it. It was an old two-story house, and no different from other houses on the street. Obviously it had been a residence and had served that purpose for a very long time; but now it housed the Peace Corps. On the ground floor was a reception area, a lounge with a kitchen, and, most importantly, a clinic. Whenever they had to see a doctor Susan and Ted had come here, but otherwise they had avoided the offices; the outer offices and the inner sanctum of the director whom they were required to see before they could leave.
Their first stop was downstairs at the clinic. They had never been so thoroughly checked over. The clean white walls, freshly painted and scrubbed, gave one confidence that he or she would receive the very best care. The shutters, folded-in when they were open, allowed in a cool breeze. In a prominent place, hanging on a wall, there was a framed photograph of President Nixon. His was the only photograph, official looking and signed…a head-shot, glossy, with Richard M. Nixon engraved across the bottom…suggesting that he ran place which wasn’t far from the truth; but somehow, perhaps because of Ted’s loss of confidence in his government; he associated scorn with the photograph. He, though, hadn’t forgotten the glory of past wars. It was this war he would avoid and it called for desperate action once he and Susan made the decision, so painful that he didn’t like thinking about it. It was not just the war anymore; it was also about what his country stood for, and to have learned it from his Maoist friends, he had the Peace Corps to think for that. It was a time for reflection, and it all came down to not wanting to die, as he put it, in an unjust war. That was what all the big rush was about.
So unexpectedly they found themselves standing in front of the director. Ted had been thinking about what his father would do in his shoes, trying to find some justification for what he was about to do, the option clear enough, the one option out of two, and one that had been taken before by many men, a reaction to the strange and unfair idea of being drafted from the Peace Corps, the very idea, how dare Nixon…though it had never been fair for those who hadn’t received a deferment for whatever reason, an excuse or something that would keep them out of Nam. It was like being driven into exile. A lifetime in exchange for a year, if you survived it: Clark Air Force Base, Cavite, or Olongapo, his draft board had given him a choice; yes, a choice that really wasn’t a choice for him; but here, in the Peace Corps clinic, they declared him perfectly healthy.
There would’ve been more than twenty-five men standing in line. Many of them would’ve been Filipino, and Ted doubted that any of them really knew what they were getting into. The world was quickly closing in around him; Ted didn’t think unfortunately that he would have any trouble passing the psychological part of the examination, in spite of all of his bias and prejudices; but the tests were all easy, simple for him and even enjoyable, not as difficult as a college midterm. He would tell them what he thought of the war. He wished the tests weren’t so easy, but of course he had taken those tests before.
And all this time he was thinking about refusing to go…if he were back home, he would be thinking seriously about Canada. He hadn’t talked it over with Susan yet. He hadn’t seen enough of her recently for that, and anyway he wasn’t going let her make the decision. It seemed to him awfully unfair, a cruel joke in fact, after joining the Peace Corps, then to have them come after him: what was his draft board thinking? But he didn’t want to seem unpatriotic. He knew nothing about the Army and had worked very hard to avoid that crap. He thought it was better, made more sense for him, to get his education. And year after year, he had gotten a deferment. He went to college, graduate school, studied hard, and joined the Peace Corps. He thought again that that should’ve been enough. He was serving his country. Not as some dumb-ass grunt, but helping create something special: a national theater, no less. And at the same time he was afraid. He could hardly answer a single question on the test. They promised to send him to Germany. Should he chance it?
He said, “Honey, this came in the mail today.” She said, “Well, open it.” So he, poor guy, was told to report for his physical. He said, “I don’t want to do this.” She said, “What choice do you have?’ He said, “I need to talk to a lawyer. Any lawyer.” She had always been the realistic one. “A lawyer won’t do you any good. A lawyer is going to tell you to go do it.” He said, “I’ll think about it. Which shall it be? Clark, Cavite, or Olongapo?” She said, “I’d take Olongapo. You’ve been to Clark.” And then with a smile, “Which has the prettiest bar-girls? Seriously, my husband will go to Olongapo and along the way he’ll be decide our future. Ask him for me what I’m afraid to ask. Will it be Vietnam? I’ll stay home and he’ll call me long distance. And along the way I could have a baby.” He said, “Unfortunately, that’s been tried before and didn’t work. I still think a lawyer is our best bet. I know the Peace Corps has its own lawyer just for this.”
The first thing Monday morning Ted took off on his own to see the Peace Corps lawyer. He hadn’t worked out a plan yet, but was ready to hear the worse. He simply said, “I’ve got to know.” Susan said, when she found out, “I’m glad to see you’re not sitting on your ass waiting for them to come after you.”
Ted’s best friend in high school was sent to Vietnam. He had made up his mind that he wouldn’t wait to be drafted. That was really all Ted knew. Manila was one of the places servicemen in Vietnam liked to go for R & R, which always reminded Ted of his best friend in high school. Manila wasn’t their favorite place for R & R by a long shot; Bangkok was; but Mabini Street was cool. Mabini Street was a place where they could go shopping, and shopping for married men sometimes seemed more appetizing than bar-hopping. It was a very long street, filled with bargains, not as good for bargain hunting as Hong Kong, but almost; and it was because of the bargains that married men flocked there. It was because married servicemen went there that Ted started looking there for his very best friend in high school. Higher-ups who designated Manila, as a place to go for R & R, must’ve have had Mabini Street in mind. Some servicemen on R & R said Mabini Street was a good place to save money; the more you spent the more you saved, that sort of thing; and Ted thought that that was how his best friend would think. Servicemen on R & R had money to burn; and no one knew it better than some Filipinas. Some Filipinos said that it was servicemen on R & R who corrupted Filipinas, coming from Vietnam, horny and all; and as servicemen kept coming, Ted spent more of his time on Mabini Street, lookin’.. . But he didn’t know he could pick up the telephone and call his friend in Vietnam. He didn’t know war had progressed that far. And now, more than ever, after receiving his draft notice, Ted wanted to track down his very best friend and find out first hand how much fun a trip to Vietnam would be.
Ted’s father was now growing old. Shortly after Susan and Ted started teaching they received a letter from him. A letter from him was rare and unexpected. Dear Ted, I think I should inform you that there was a little mix-up yesterday. Your draft board thought I was you, and I had to go down. No need to worry though. I took care of it for you. I told them where you was and that you were in the Peace Corps. And they asked me a whole lot of other questions. Like I said, I think they was satisfied. Love, Dad P.S. I heard the other day that Alan Campbell chose to go to Canada. I think he’s a coward…
There was nothing more in the letter. Ted assumed his father did what he said. That he took care of everything. There would be Ted’s age that they would have to consider. He was close to the age when his age would keep him from being drafted. But Ted’s father’s reaction to Alan choosing Canada over the draft bothered him: his father had been a Marine during WWII and had already tried to get Ted to signup. So much for peace in the family.
There was no immediate reaction from his draft board, which meant to Ted they weren’t after him and that he and Susan could relax. Some of his buddies from high school who hadn’t gone to college were serving in Vietnam. They hadn’t been able to do anything about it. Alan was the only friend he had who chose Canada.
Ted tried to be philosophical about it, but he knew one thing. He said to Susan…though he admired his father and had bragged about him having been a Marine…”I don’t know what I would do, if they decided to come after me. You know I considered enlisting right out of high school. I considered all of my options. Susan said, “They wouldn’t want you. You’re nearsighted. That would keep you out.” He thought, “Let her think that. I’m nearly too old. Even if they’re after me, it will take them a while to catch me. I’m quite sure of one thing. I don’t want to go to Vietnam, and that’s for sure. Carry a gun and be willing to kill people? No.”
Now in his office at the University of the Philippines Ted wondered how he could face the anti-American demonstration forming in front of his building. Now that he understood that in his father’s eyes he was a coward, he knew he didn’t have to worry about being a standard-bearer. But…much to his surprise…he felt he needed to defend his country. He couldn’t forget that he was an American, a member of the Peace Corps with a mission, and his assignment was on that campus.
But he still wasn’t willing to die for his country. But there could come a time when he still would have to choose, though he thought as a Peace Corps Volunteer he was for sure exempt. You would think that. His status and his age should guarantee it. The long hand of his draft board seemed far, far away, and with an ocean between them and him he felt reassured. It now pleased him that he and Susan had made it through training without being deselected and that after serving two years they will be able to go home having won the gratitude of their country. All he had to do now was face an angry mob of demonstrators, students, who acted as if they hated his country, the country that sent him, and the question that he couldn’t get out of his mind was would he have to take the brunt of their fury. The Little Red Book contained a little bit of their ideology: a book Ted finally managed to read.
And that was what, whenever he walked on campus, Ted Johnson, the volunteer who joined the Peace Corps to avoid the draft, with no idea what he would do if his draft board came after him, except that he knew he wasn’t willing to die for his country, and yet would willingly face anti-American demonstrations, thinking he thought his father thought he was a coward and that in spite of that he could always go to Canada, (was what he) faced when he armed himself with Mao’s pocket-size book and left his office.
Almost all of the volunteers there were young. They had BA degrees, and had an interest in other people. I knew no duds. I didn’t really know all of them, but we were all recognizable on the Big Island as Peace Corps because none of us had cars. There were many people on the island who gave us a ride and wanted to know all about us. This was before international flights came to Hilo. We could hitchhike around easily. Sometimes we hiked to town, and people always waved. With our volunteering, and with our friendships with our neighbors, we got to know more about the island than we otherwise would have, and so in time we got to see most of it.
I was a little slow on the uptake when it came to politics. I had always been a Democrat. My father and his father had also been one. But Hawaii didn’t have the disparities I would later see. Native people seemed pacified. And though we knew a little bit about how Hawaii had been acquired (some of us had read or would read Michener) we didn’t see the true Hawaiians as being among the oppressed.
I wanted Hubert Humphrey to become our president. The plan was that we should get out of Vietnam and then perhaps our country could get back to normal. But I didn’t really know what Humphrey stood for. All of that became a blur. Humphrey even drove by our training site. Somehow we knew he was coming; we stood out by the highway, and watched him go by. His motorcade even stopped, and he got out, but as I remember we didn’t get more involved in the election than that. I don’t think we voted. When I think about it I want to say we were just too busy. No one can be involved in everything. Nixon won. The war went on, and what I remember is that we sort of forgot about the war until we were slapped with it in the face because we ran into some demonstration somewhere or because our draft board came after us even though we were in the Peace Corps and far away from home.
It was a big mess, serving our country but yet have our country come after me to fight a war. I adored our country. I just didn’t understand why we were doing many of the things we were doing; I understood the principals of the Peace Corps and why my wife and I joined, but I also saw harm in what we were doing. Life hadn’t prepared me for the great gulf between people and the squabbles that created. I hated greed. I became even more critical than I was when I simply blamed my parents for their consumption. And the longer I stayed away the more alienated I felt. I decided I couldn’t condone the behavior of most Americans overseas. In that regard I became a snob. Yet I served out my term with the Peace Corps the best I could and from that perspective still criticized a storm that I couldn’t control.