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THE NOTIFICATION

August 30, 2008

Author's Note: This article appeared in Weekly Planet/Creative Loafing.

 
 

     THE NOTIFICATION

 

When I left the US Army in 1975, I moved into a duplex near the
University of South Florida, where I would complete the college
education disrupted by military service. One day my baggage arrived from
Europe, where I had last served. In it was my khaki and dress-green
uniforms, and three rows of medals the US Army had bestowed on me,
surely by accident, since I was a dedicated coward.
For the most of the nine years I had been a soldier, those ribbons
adorned my chest. They were a part of my military uniform, yet looking
at them in light of my liberation from a military life like a
straight-jacket, I didn't know what to do with them. I can certainly
sympathize with John Kerry.

For a while the medals and ribbons were stuck by their pins into the
wall of the second bedroom which served as the place where I wrote. I
wrote about the war, a great war novel, which I have not dared to look
at for twenty years or more. Like me, the novel was somewhat incoherent
in those days.

Unlike John Kerry, I didn't have a purple heart among my medals and
ribbons, much less three of them.  Me, deserving a Purple Heart? I
deserved the Golden Chicken.

Nor did I have a Silver Star, like John Kerry, just a Bronze Star, and
mine didn't have a V on it for valor. It was for service, I was told.
There were, I think, two or three awards of the Army Commendation
Medal. Where I got them or why, I can't recall.

There were a number of Air Medals, that is one award with a lot of
silver clusters. Each one, I think, meant 25 hours of combat flight or
50 hours of combat-support flight. These did mean something because half
the days in the war I flew in a helicopter in danger of being blown to
bits. I got tired of receiving Air Medals and stopped keeping track of
my flight time after a while.

We did crash into trees. We did fall from the sky like a rock. There
was a captain with us whose back was broken in a crash. To say I was
frightened would be an understatement. There may be no atheists in
foxholes, but there damn sure are no atheists in falling helicopters. In
fact, I adopted every religion I could think of once between 2,000 feet
and the ground.

Then there were the campaign ribbons. A couple of them, I think. I have
tried in vain to get my military personnel records a few times. Usually
I want my military records every time there is no writing assignment in
my immediate future. Then I think about bailing from being a writer and
taking a job with the government, if they will have me, but they
probably won't want Tim "Mother Jones" Ohr. This thought of bailing from
being a writer is just fear, like fear in a war, only a different fear
and a different war.

My father's World War II ribbons hung on his old uniform in the closet
until after I drug my body, still alive, back from Vietnam. I don't know
what happened to them after he died, but suspect my mother has them
stashed somewhere.

Stuck on the wall where I could see them day-by-day as I wrote, my
ribbons from Vietnam did not feel like they were mine. They belonged to
someone else, a hero, not me. It was too late to send them back in
protest as Saigon had already fallen. No one cared about the Vietnam War
anymore. It was passé.

The ribbons haunted me on the wall when I wrote. They were of many colors,

with silver clusters. I think some of them had a little green or
blue in them. Now that I think about, I'm sure they did.

 

Once an angry man in Chicago poked my medals repeatedly with an angry
finger. I wish I had thrown my medals away before then. He left my chest
black-and-blue. I didn't blame him. He had every right. In fact, he had
more than every right, and it was just my chest.

It was a regular weekday, I think. The operations section of the
missile battalion, where I was a clerk in Chicago, had just closed for
the day. It's like when your office closes at the end of Wednesday.  I
was on my way to the Non-Commissioned Officer's Club for what the war
had taught me to do - drink until the nightmares were obliterated so I
could sleep.

Warrant Officer H--- had notification duty. He was a WO-3 or 4. It was
the late 1960s, and the Vietnam War was raging. Daley's cops would beat
demonstrators senseless in Chicago. I would see it up close and
personal.

Mister H--- was a man in his forties. He was stern, red-faced, and
complained a lot. I think he was from the south. I am sure he was a good
man, and he had a wife and children. He was on notification duty, which
meant he was responsible after hours for telling anyone whose son died
or was injured in Vietnam within the area our base covered.
Personally I bet with good odds that Mister H--- hoped fervently never
to actually have to do this. During duty hours, there were others who
did this, and after hours meant from five until perhaps ten at night.
The duty was rotated between officers. There were a lot of officers in
our battalion. There were a lot of military bases around Chi town - our
unit alone had five. H--- wished for a little luck, to get through the
night without having to tell someone that their son had died or been
maimed in a senseless war halfway around the world.

That day, Mister H--- was not lucky.

He singled me out to accompany him because of those three rows of
medals and ribbons on my twenty-one-year-old chest. The medals never did
me any good. They did me no good that day. I understand why John Kerry
tossed his away.

I took a sedan out of the motor pool. I didn't want to be in the sedan
with Mister H---, who had a yellow telex between his hands in the back
seat. He kept reading the yellow telex and smoking cigarettes. (A telex
was a precursor of the fax.) I imagined Mister H---  was practicing
reading those unpleasant words.

The family lived about a half hour from where we were stationed in
Arlington Heights. There was a race track in Arlington Heights where
horses ran. All the soldiers played the horses, and one of our cooks was
a jockey who always had half the daily double.

The family with the dead soldier had a large house on a hill with a
pebble driveway. It was a upscale suburb, the heartland of an American
dream for the middle class. Their son should have been coming home with
a marching band. Just a short-haired, plain boy with a little acne, but
he was the heart of a home.

My recollection is that Mister H--- hoped I had the wrong address. He
wanted me to drive around the block. It was possible he wanted me to
agree that no one was home. "There's someone home," I said, "look at the
truck in the driveway." I don't think he wanted to know the truth.
He was a tough man when it came to inspecting the mating of nuclear
warheads which could destroy a city. He was firm and strict, and we were
all afraid of him in the operations section for his critical and sharp
tongue. But when we arrived at the home of the parents whose son had
died in Vietnam, Mister H--- could not will himself to leave the sedan.
I went to the sedan door to open it for him, and I begged him to hurry.
A woman, probably the dead boy's mother, was already near the door, and
could been seen through the glass with the curtains.

Poor Mister H---. He stood, he shook, he held the yellow paper between
his trembling hands, and his perspiration turned the paper wet. Our
boots crunched on the pebbles. The woman behind the door was calling to
her husband to "hurry quick."

"What's happened to our boy?" she asked, opening the door. "Is he
dead?" to which I had to say, "Yes," but it was as if she didn't hear
me. "Come quick," she called to her husband. "It's about our L----."

 

Chicago wasn't my first post upon returning to the United States. First
I had gone to Montgomery, Alabama.

Our unit played softball in the afternoons. I have never been good at
catching, although I am fairly good at hitting. We had extra innings
late into the night as I tried my hand as an outfielder.

The WACs in our outfit lived on Maxwell Air Force Base. I lived on
Gunter AFB, until I got a girlfriend and spent my time by the capitol
where George Wallace was governor. The game was on Gunter. The WACs had
missed their bus while watching us play ball so I offered to drive them
across Montgomery to Maxwell.
It was about halfway to Maxwell when the white Imperial pulled up next
to me. Angry young white men yelled, "What's wrong? Can't you get a
white girl?"

The three WACs in the car with me were black, something I had been
blithely unaware of, and I was white, a color I never felt.

True to life, I gave the punks the finger. This was not a wise thing to
do, as we careened around Montgomery while the level of insults
magnified. They shouted all the things you could expect from lower-class
white kids whose only way up seemed to be keeping somebody else down.
I saw a sign which said Police Station. I turned into the station. The
Imperial skewed away. To a cop on the curb, I said, "Those guys are
chasing us."

The cop looked at me coldly. "I wouldn't  stop here if I were you. You
better keep on moving."

Took his advice and moved, but I kept thinking how I could have
survived Vietnam only to be killed by pig-eyed racist white boys in
Montgomery.

"What's going on?" the girls in the back seat had asked. They couldn't
see from the low seats in the back of my Plymouth. They could only hear.
The WAC beside me, who had seen everything, said sadly and without any
anger, "Some white boys misbehaving." I'll never forget the look on her
face, not fear or rage, but just enormous sorrow, a well of sorrow so
deep no white person can truly feel it, although for a brief instant I
was close.

A few nights later, I was driving from a Montgomery nightclub. At a red
light, a Mustang pulled beside me. A young white man in civilian clothes
and possessing a crewcut pulled a pistol out and aimed it at me. "Pull
over," he said. He claimed to be a policeman. I didn't see any badge. I
floored my car and found a marked police car and asked the uniformed
cops for help.

They arrested me for drag racing after I argued with the uniformed
police. The last straw for them was when I said I wouldn't get any
justice in Montgomery. Then the cuffs went on, and I went into the back
of the cruiser.

 I was put in a hot cell with a plastic bed. Less than two months back
from Vietnam, I had been put in jail for a crime I did not commit and
for questioning justice in Montgomery.

Across the hall, a black man wailed out the names of the books of the
Bible. "Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy...."

In a few days, I happily paid the fine, glad to be leaving Montgomery
for Chicago, never sure there was a connection between the two events.
The cops and the racists didn't care if  I had three rows of medals and
did a tour in the Nam.

 

It was a sunny afternoon when Mister H--- and I came to the door. The
highways around Chicago were filled with busy traffic, lots of its
stopped or crawling. WGN probably had the news or the Cubs on. It was a
good year for the Cubbies, who would blow it in the end to the Mets.
Ernie Banks and Billy Williams still hit home runs.

Only a few nights before, my medals and the war almost killed me again
in the person of J---. He tapped on my medals and said, "Hey, sarge, you
been in the Nam."

  In Vietnam, I was in the Big Red One, but J--- was in the Cav. He
would show up nightly at the NCO club to drink himself to sleep like me.
J--- told me he liked killing gooks. He wanted to kill some more. "I
want to really fuck them up," he said. He might volunteer to go back for
another tour.

"I got something to show you in the car," J--- said.
"OK,"  I replied. He could have had a body there or a rattlesnake.
We got into J---'s car. When he reached across me, I thought he
probably had a bottle in the glove compartment. Instead, he pulled out a
forty-five.

"Nice piece, J---," I said, as he put the barrel against my forehead
and chambered a round.

J--- laughed. I thought, either the lunatic is just testing me out or
he's going to kill me.

"Let me have the gun, J---," I said. He took the cold Colt from my
forehead and handed me the pistol. He sure took a long time doing it, or
maybe it just felt long.

The next day, I went to the battery commander, who was among the people
J--- intended to shoot and kill, and we got J--- some help. I'm afraid
to find out what happened to J---.

 

The father yanked open the door. The mother screamed, "What's happened
to my boy?"

Mister H--- stuttered. He could not read the telex. His head hung, he
began to cry.

I took the yellow paper, wet from Mister H---'s sweat and tears, into
my hands. I read it precisely, pronouncing each word, starting with "We
regret to inform you." I felt like a machine, just like I felt in those
helicopters, smacking into the tops of trees as we flew over the jungle.

I was cold and machine-like because someone had to do it, and it was me.

"Bastards!" the father roared forth.

Then: "Sons-of-bitches!"

His face was red, veins stuck out on his forehead, his fists were
clenched at his side into giant wrecking balls which wanted to hit
something. He was a man who worked with his hands, a simple man of
simple beliefs. He was the apple pie of all American beliefs - God,
honor, country, duty, family - a man like my father.

"We have to elect Wallace!" he said. "God damn Johnson and the
generals. They should have died. Not my son."

"Hit me," I said, "hit me."

The middle finger of his right hand began poking at my medals.

"You've been there. What are we doing there?" he yelled at me.

"I don't know," I said.

He poked and poked, while his wife collapsed against the doorjamb. I
sort of took her in my right arm and said, "I'm sorry,"while the father's middle finger prodded and prodded  at my medals. I
didn't care. I still wanted him to hit me if it would help.

"No, honey," his wife said. "Take it easy. It's not their fault," she
said, indicating Mister H--- and me.

Still the middle finger drummed on my medals and my chest.
Then suddenly, within seconds, he stopped, and his anger left him.

"Hell," he said, "you're just about his age."

"No, sir," I said. "I'm two years older."

"Nineteen, twenty-one, what's the difference?" he said, then he began
to cry. He put his big, red and meaty hands over his eyes.

 

I don't remember much of the rest of the afternoon. Mister H---- had to
drive back because I couldn't drive. I sat in the front seat with him,
not wanting to sit in the back alone like some officer.  I do remember
having a big glass of scotch with Mister H--- in the officer's club. It
tasted good, and then it was morning.

The reason I could not drive that afternoon was that I spent it
thinking of the boy who died and other young men who had died. In the
First Infantry Division, we didn't call our dead by name once they were
dead. They were no longer private so-and-so, or even Butch or Lavon. We
called them giants. You put your giants into a body bag and your giants
on the floor of a helicopter. Before landing, the pilot would call over
the radio that he had a giant or  giants aboard so someone would come
take them off his hands. Before rigor mortis set in, the bags could roll
around a little on the helicopter floor. After a while, the giants
didn't move any more. The giants were someone's son, and in Vietnam, in
my personal opinion, the giants died utterly in vain. The giants flew on
after I got off the helicopter. The giants went to graves registration
where military morticians did whatever they did to bodies before they
stuck them into coffins, which now we now can't photograph and put on
the news.

 

In those days when I was trying to write beneath my medals stuck on the
wall, I didn't think about John Kerry much. I didn't know he had thrown
away or returned his medals. I would have known how he felt, though,
because those medals marked me for things I never wanted. They
represented things I never wanted to do and places I wanted to forget.
I think that if you have spilled your blood, not once but three times,
you have a right to do whatever you want with your medals. How dare
people who have not spilled their blood criticize John Kerry over his
war record. How dare they question how serious one of his wounds
when he spilled blood two other times. No wonder John McCain has come
outraged to his defense.

I wasn't brave like John Kerry. I didn't volunteer for a second tour of
duty. I didn't jump off my boat and track down a Viet Cong and shoot him
dead. I didn't save anyone's life. I didn't spill my blood.

Yet I had medals, and I must admit that one day I looked at those
medals stuck on the wall of my duplex and wondered very hard about what
they represented. Not what the people who gave them to me thought they
represented, that's for sure.

There are people who still believe in the Vietnam War. They regret we
didn't do it right. I run into them once a while. They think if we had
dropped more bombs, sent more soldiers, and killed more Vietnamese, we
would have had victory. If only our resolve wasn't sapped by people like
Jane Fonda and John Kerry, they'll say. It wasn't Jane - don't blame
her. It damn sure wasn't John Kerry. Our will was sapped by all those
young American bodies coming home in their flag-draped coffins to good,
hard-working American people who had lost their sons - and probably for
no good reason.

 

It is the same type of scenario I am beginning to see every night on
the news. In the Vietnam War, the government had weekly body counts.
They told you how many enemy died and how many of our sons, friends,
husbands, fathers, lovers. They don't do that in this war. I think they
don't want us to know. They leave it to you to compute the dead from the
confusion on CNN. Even one senior administration official in charge of
the war wasn't sure how many of our men and women had died and bled in
Iraq when asked recently.

 

When a child dies in a war, it is like a boulder hitting the center of
a calm lake, sending shock waves in all directions. The death marks the
men who served with him, then it marks all those who come in contact
with the family. It marks the man or men who killed him. It leaves in
its wake a family tragedy, before it cascades onto society and all of
us. War leaves behind damaged people like J---, and others in far worse
shape because their injuries cannot be repaired with time, love, and
counseling.

 

Violence is circle, like a wheel, and when you start it
spinning, you never know where it is going to stop or how hard.

 

What you have just read above spewed itself in one sitting out of a
well of inner anger I did not know I had. In retrospect, I can see the
anger arose out of a combination of current events: the return of more
and more Americans from Iraq in caskets, the arrogant maligning of John
Kerry's war record in the recent election, and what he decided to do

with the medals he earned,
and sick acts toward Iraqi prisoners who are helpless human beings.

It is a characteristic of a liberal mind that it is not closed. Thus, I
have read and re-read the above words many times since my subconscious
launched them to insure they are true. I find myself asking if there
were three WACs or two in my car? Did I truly take the mother in one
arm? Did J--- put the pistol against my head or just point it at me or
was he pointing it at my friend, Bill McGlothlin, who was with me? Is it
possible Mister H--- read the telegram while I couldn't speak? I decided
these things did not effect the deeper meaning of what I had written.
I believe it to be true.

On the drag-racing arrest, however, I find I was not entirely honest.
Another sergeant and I drove across Montgomery on US-231. He drove a
Corvette, and I had a Plymouth Baracuda. Between us we had about 800
horsepower, and the cars looked like they were drag racing when they
were parked. On the other hand, both of us had drank a beer or two at a
nightclub and were holding our speed to the limit because we didn't want
to be stopped. It is therefore possible that an off-duty policeman might
have misinterpreted what we were doing and conscientiously pulled us
over. It is certainly possible in the passage of thirty-six years that
the gun in his hand may be in my mind and not a real event. On the other
hand, this is what I remember, and what are we, but what we remember and
do.

It is not like me to leave an article without a bit of hope, a glimmer
of how to make things better. That information is within the article,
and it is for each of you to seize it.
 

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