Monday, February 7, 2005


Sunday before last, I visited the Oakland Museum for a trip into my past – that splendid, moving, troubling exhibit on Vietnam and California called “What’s Going On?” “What, indeed?” I thought, having turned off the headset narration, as I walked through 1965. I didn’t need the interpretation offered a new generation; it was in my bones. I found myself staring at the faces of those my age, American and Vietnamese. The past rushed in midst all those artifacts, especially those tiny “Things They Carried” – the dog tags, scapulars, Zippo lighters – displayed between montages of 1965 departures…from Travis and the Oakland Army Terminal.

Leaving via a long hallway devoted to the “legacy” of it all, I overheard a woman at the far end call to her husband “Did you leave a comment?” The man, my age, growled “Yeah, ‘Let’s put Bush in charge and do it right this time!’” I exchanged a pained glance with the young attendant, as if to say “He didn’t get it, did he? The ‘legacy,’ that is.”

Later, in the gift shop, I was in a more playful mood, when a visitor asked a clerk if they had a Bush cut-out doll book to go with those on Kennedy and Reagan. “No,” she said, “he wasn’t Vietnam era.” “Right,” I shouted across the room, “he’s Iraq-era.” In truth, the parallels – between eras, between my war and that going on now - were clearer than ever at afternoon’s end. Before heading home in the bright, warm sunlight, however, I paused to lose myself in the play of the multi-colored koi in the courtyard pool – a watery zen garden – and to smile at the two young Vietnamese Americans embracing at its side.

Two days later, I visited a friend, Carol. I arrived upbeat and smiling. But, soon, I began to speak of “What’s Going On” and that war so long ago and lost myself in tears. The pain burst out, as I spoke of the “gnawing, gnawing, gnawing….” In an instant, I faced up to the ancient pain, a pain I hadn’t understood or wished to acknowledge. I used that trite phrase with Carol – post-traumatic stress disorder – and paused to ask plaintively midst the tears: “Why does it always have to be disorder? Is it normal, is it sane, to see the pain and horror…and not react?”

Yesterday, I tried to work it out in poetry. Isn’t that the role of poetry…to make sense of the insane, the absurd, to heal, to enable one to walk forward with one’s wounds? I called it “What’s Going On?” What’s going on, indeed!

Still it tears
at this broken heart,
a shadow on a sunny afternoon,
that war so long ago.

The war I fought in paddies,
on more familiar streets,
and in a place that’s deep inside
and now so deeply scarred.

The stench of napalm, of burning human flesh,
aromas strange of nuoc mam and sandalwood,
they mingle with the smell of pot, tear gas,
and mildewed dusty pages,
pulled last night
from forgotten hiding places.

Chuck Eddy in the Saigon Post,
the Koelper circled on a map,
a yellowed May Day flyer,
a note to Mike Gravel,
a box of letters, all so old,
so full of love…of fear and hope,
a manuscript unfinished.
a story yet untold.

“Support Our Troops”
and “Bring ‘Em Home!”
“Aye, Aye, Sir.”
“Hell, no we won’t go!”
Green duffel bags,
the tiny things we carried,
squished between displays
of ’65 departures.

Travis, Oakland,
Tan Son Nhut and Camp Alpha,
a bar at Villa Roma,
a cry once stifled in the throat,
still there, still there,
gnawing, gnawing, gnawing.

Down a long last hall called “Legacy,”
a woman near my age
calls an aging husband:
“Did you leave a comment?”
“Yeah!” shouts back the angry man,
“Let’s do it again.
Put Bush in charge.
And do it right this time.”

“Some ‘legacy’,” I cry inside.
Is that the lesson
we’re meant to learn?
I, too, would like to do it again,
but, unlike some angry old men,
I’ll live with what’s done.

The sun is blinding,
sparkling on koi
darting about
their limpid Zen garden.

On its edge, just to the right,
two lovers – Vietnamese,
no, Viet Kieu –
embrace in their dream,
a dream so universal,
so private, so old…so new.

The scar, just picked open,
is healing again.

I urge you all to make the effort to take in this exhibit. It runs till February 28. Those of you who took part thirty or forty years ago – fighting, resisting, “supporting the troops,” or, as in my case, all of the above - will learn as much about yourself as about the era. And bring your kids and grandchildren. They too need to learn how to look at Vietnam…and at Iraq.

And, if you get a chance, hop on one of United’s new flights to Saigon, you will learn, as I did in 1996, that Vietnam at peace is a beautiful country with beautiful people. And you will learn, as the Vietnamese will tell you, “Vietnam is a country, not a war.” You will learn finally that half the people there were born after “The American War” ended in 1975. They are eager to get on with life.

Ah, life. It is good. It is beautiful…like a sunny afternoon in Oakland…beside a glimmering koi pond.