Saturday, September 23, 2017

Vietnam: So far away, yet so close to home...

I’ve been watching the gripping PBS documentary “The Vietnam War.” I might have been drafted to serve in Vietnam — I was the right age — but I escaped that through a college student deferment and later enlistment in the Minnesota Army National Guard.

So I am able to sit here today, now a senior citizen, unscathed by direct involvement in that terrible war, a war so vividly and unsettlingly recalled nightly on the television documentary and fought by so many of my contemporaries.

For the most part, I also missed the gravity of the goings on in Southeast Asia at the time, but not entirely. I was in my mid-20s in the mid-1960s, a fledgling journalist, still single, intent on having a good time, although I was obligated to be a “weekend warrior,” as National Guard personnel were often called.

Still, there was the niggling concern throughout that President Lyndon Johnson, so intent on “winning” in Vietnam, might actually resort to activating National Guard and Army Reserve personnel, safely training in their home towns — towns like Duluth. He never did call us up, though, much to our relief. The PBS documentary pointed out that he didn’t dare: opposition to the war, already mounting, would become too great.

So we — the we being those of us in uniform one evening a week or one weekend a month and for two weeks of active duty camp in the summer — rode out the war safely at home while many others of our generation were wading through rice paddies and crawling through jungles and dying on battlefields half a world away. There’s a wall in Washington bearing the names of the 58,000-plus Americans who didn’t make it. 
One segment of the Vietnam Wall in Washington DC
with names of fallen servicemen (Source: Wikipedia)

But the war did hit me in a striking manner during one period of my home-front military service. Midway through my six-year obligation, I transferred from the Army National Guard unit operating out of the Duluth Armory to a U.S. Army Reserve unit headquartered on Park Point (in a building still in use).

Because my work as a newspaper reporter often conflicted with regular unit meetings, I was allowed to make up those meetings at various other times, working in the unit’s office with permanent reserve personnel for a few hours. I was a typist in my regular duties, and the Army always had plenty of typing to do. More typing than shooting.

Off in a corner of our “orderly room” (Army jargon for office) was a desk occupied by an officer not directly associated with our unit. He was a regular Army officer, a career man with the rank of captain, assigned to the Duluth-Superior area to carry out a grisly task.

His last name was Wood (I don’t recall his first name), known to us and addressed by us as Captain Wood. Captain Wood kept largely to himself, not mixing it up much with the Reserve troops. And he’d be there sporadically when I was, his desk occasionally empty for the day. I learned quickly why Captain Wood was often missing. It was his job to inform immediate survivors — usually parents of soldiers from this area who had been killed in Vietnam — of the deaths of their sons.

In that period of our military history, parents of soldiers were not told of the deaths of their sons by telegram or other means. An Army officer, usually accompanied by a regular-army sergeant, drove to the homes of the dead soldiers’ parents and other loved ones to inform them in person.

That was what Captain Wood was assigned to do in this region, along with helping survivors arrange for burial and other details. And during the time I was an observer of his activities, he was kept plenty busy. Someone in the orderly room would inquire about Captain Wood’s absence on any given day and be told he had gone to Ashland or Hibbing or Ely or to homes in Duluth or Superior to tell parents that their sons had lost their lives in Vietnam.

While I didn’t get to know Captain Wood well, I being a flunky enlisted man and he being an officer, I was in his presence quite often and I don’t think I ever saw him smile. A small man, with dark hair and eyes, always in a neatly pressed Class A (dress) uniform, he had good reason to be somber, to be reticent.

Away from the battlefield itself, I can’t imagine a more stressful military duty. And it showed on Captain Wood.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Bombs in the news…

By Jim Heffernan
Bombs have been in the news a lot lately — the N-bomb, the F-bomb, Michael Moore’s Broadway show (bombed). Now the United States and North Korea are staring each other down over North Korea’s bomb plans.

In many, many decades of life, I have found that living is more tranquil when bombs are not in the news. I’m old enough to actually remember the dropping of the A-bomb on Japan, bringing World War II to an end.

The A-bomb (for Atomic) is the father of the N-bomb (Nuclear). Somewhere in there to further scare us are the H-bomb (hydrogen, stronger than the others) and another N-bomb (Neutron), which only kills people but leaves buildings standing. Drop a neutron bob on New York City, for example, and Trump Tower would remain standing. Not so much its inhabitants. 

I was 5 years old when atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. News of it was everywhere, and even a child of kindergarten age understood that it was something terrible, frightening. I can recall my parents talking seriously about it at supper, ignoring the Lone Ranger on the kitchen radio in the background.

The whole idea of such a big bomb frightened me. And here’s how it manifested itself on one occasion: I was playing on our front porch when a huge bomb-like object suddenly appeared in the sky above western Duluth. It terrified me. I ran into the house screaming to my mother that the atomic bomb was coming.

She darted onto the porch and saw immediately what it really was: a blimp (a.k.a. dirigible). Not the Good Year blimp, just an ordinary blimp that looked an awful lot like a great big bomb. My mother allayed my fears, explaining that it was a harmless aircraft. Not to worry.

As time went by, the atomic bomb became kind of a fun thing for kids. One of the big breakfast cereal producers—General Mills, maybe Kellogg’s—offered kids an “Atomic Bomb Ring” for 25 cents and a box top from one of their cereals. I got one. It was an adjustable metal ring with a tiny plastic bomb on top. If you held the bomb close to your eye, inside the bomb you could see something like sparks flying. Wow.

Of course the threat of an atomic attack prompted the schools to add atomic bomb attack drills to fire drills. I learned later that some schools in the country had the kids “duck and cover” beneath their school desks. We just filed into the hall and stood facing the lockers lining the wall until the all clear. This was not nearly as much fun as a fire drill, which required us to file outside the school in orderly fashion and breathe the fresh air of a beautiful day. You could say atomic bomb drills bombed in comparison.

Oh yes, the F-bomb. Got to deliver on that. It was brought to the fore recently by short-lived White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci in an interview with a New Yorker magazine reporter during which Scaramucci dropped several F-bombs, shocking nearly everyone and probably resulting in the loss of his job after serving just 10 days.

But it opened the door to several media organizations, like the New York Times, to use the entire F-bomb word in reporting on Scaramucci’s diatribe. I was shocked. I remember the first time I ever saw the word in print: summer of 1963 reading Irving Wallace’s novel “The Carpetbaggers.”

It’s a word that was very familiar to teenage boys of my generation, and many generations before and after, but nobody ever wrote it down, for goodness sake. (Goodness had nothing to do with it.)

I had actually learned the word several years before. Right around the time the A-bomb was employed for the first time, I learned what is today referred to as the F-bomb stood for. A neighbor boy and I were in the alley next to my home (these things always happen in alleys) discussing various swear words and their seriousness. They were all bad, of course, but “hell” and “damn” didn’t seem like they would bar you from getting into heaven, should the occasion arise. A few others were more serious—you know what they are without my actually spelling them out.

Then my friend (we weren’t close, though) said he’d tell me the “worst” swear word of all. It was what we today refer to as the F-bomb. And he was right. It has endured as the worst swear word of all throughout the many, many decades of my life. Oops, we’re back to square one.

Editor's note:  We learned to "duck & cover" in the 50's.  Check out the video the Dept. of Education and civil Defense Dept. prepared for those of us growing up in that era HERE.