Thursday, January 30, 2014

For Pete Seeger (1919-2014)

I'm putting some stories together under the working title, "War Doesn't Have to be Hell, It Doesn't Even Have to be War." It's about serving in support units far away from the actual fighting. Forging Across the Muddy River is one of the stories. The idea of actual battle lines were beginning to erode during the Vietnam War and don't really exist at all anymore. As a writer for the 1st Aviation Brigade's HAWK Magazine, I was asked to write a story about the success of Vietnamization. I didn't know how to approach the story because there were a lot of mixed opinions about whether Vietnamization was the answer to getting out of the war. But I knew from the beginning that Pete Seeger was going to be in the story somehow. This is the story about the story I wrote for HAWK.
Forging Across the Muddy River

Shock and awe.
Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.
Not by the hair of my chinny-chin-chin. 
It’s amazing how a war cry can get started and then suddenly takes on a life of its own. And sometimes it doesn’t even have to be a war cry but merely a policy decision or a strategy adjustment or merely an advertising gimmick. Anyway that’s the way it was when Vietnamization made its appearance into the Vietnam War:

Once Vietnamization was in, carpet-bombing suddenly went out the window.

Vietnamization entailed winning the hearts and minds of the very people we weren’t able to defeat any other way and represented our best chance of getting the hell out of Vietnam with our pants still on and our reputation in tack.

HAWK magazine was given the task by General Hemingway to write an article defending, explaining, and praising the policy of Vietnamization. It would be a hard sell because most of the GI’s didn’t see it happening. They didn’t see the war being won, the South Vietnamese military taking on a bigger role, or our involvement ever decreasing.

But whatever Hemingway wanted, Hemingway got and what he got was my complete cooperation as I listed all the accomplishments of Vietnamization that would lead to the eventual end of the Vietnam War just as any skeptic who also happened to be on the company payroll would do.

I put all the facts and figures together that would make for a perfectly accurate and typically boring military status report but the challenge was to also make it an interesting story. I wasn’t sure how that could be accomplished given the nature of the subject and was ready to concede there was no way to make Vietnamization entertaining—just as there was no way in hell to make Vietnamization work, when I got an idea. 

Before coming to Vietnam one of my favorite shows was the Smother’s Brothers and one of my favorite episodes was Pete Seeger performing a song he had written called “Waist deep in the Big Muddy.” Columbia Records had censored the song and CBS had tried to censor the song but the brother’s persisted and in early 1968 seven million people listened to Pete Seeger tell the story of the Captain trying to lead his platoon across the Big Muddy.

I thought the song was an appropriate intro for an article about how the United States might finally be seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. So I opened the article with these words.

"In the Spring of 1968, Pete Seeger went on national television and sang a song entitled “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” which literally depicted troops, but figuratively a nation, trudging across a dirty, muddy river with the deepest and most dangerous part still ahead."  

That muddy river was where we were at the time, I wrote, but Vietnamization, like a rowboat moored along the bank waiting for us to jump in, was going to safely bring us to the other side. I didn’t mention that there were numerous holes in the rowboat but rather concentrated on the advancements of the ARVN (Vietnamese Army), the hearts and minds we were winning in the towns and countryside, and the improvements in the Vietnamese governments at all levels. I closed with the following line—

"Vietnamization is in fact becoming the solution, which the nation was searching for in the Spring of 1968. The way to the other bank of that muddy river is becoming clearer every day."

As with the HAWK Honey episode, I was again called in to the General’s office where he tried to do what Columbia Records and CBS could not do.

“The article is good,” he said, “but that first part has to go.  Too negative. Un-American. I don’t like that Pete Seeger fella. Isn’t he a communist?”

“I think he’s just a folk singer, an American folk singer.”

“Well I want the article to be more positive.”

Now old Hemingway may have been a good general; or he may not have been. It really didn’t matter. But in this case he didn’t know what he was up against—namely an ex-physics major—albeit for a very short time until a little phenomenon known as the Schrödinger Equation snuck up out of nowhere and knocked me completely out of the science field into the brave new world of business administration. I knew what General Hemingway did not know.

The only way you get more positive is to move further away from the negative and the only way to move further away from the negative is to admit a negative in the first place. And believe me when I say, the United States in the Spring of 1968 in the war in Vietnam was in a very negative place. I explained it to him in layman’s terms.

“General, you can’t say were doing better at something unless you concede that we were doing worse at one point. If we weren’t doing so doggone bad back then we wouldn’t need to be writing articles telling the troops how doggone good we’re doing now.  And there’d be no need to explain something as mystifying and befuddling as Vietnamization to soldiers smack dab in the middle of it everyday.”

“As the publisher of this magazine you don’t have to use my story if you don’t want to,” I explained, wisely substituting magazine for the phrase self-promoting rag that I would have liked to have used, “but I’m not going to let you use my name on any story about Vietnamization that doesn’t include that first paragraph. That’s a muddy river you’re going to have cross by yourself if you want to write this story yourself.”

Well he wasn’t about to write the story himself and frankly no one else wanted to write it either so we reached an agreement. The story was published as I wrote it and just to stick it to him, I suggested the title be “Bridge Over Troubled Waters.” I thought it made perfect sense. The war was the troubled water and Vietnamization was the bridge that would get us to the other side. Not only did the title fit but it was already being heard daily over the airways throughout the country. “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” had just been named record, album and song of the year.

My Sarge agreed but apparently there was some kind of clearing house for all of the in-country publications and there was a problem.

“We’re going to have to come up with a different title for your story, Phil,” he said one day as he tossed the manuscript on my desk. Seems the engineers over at”—and I don’t have a clue what the name was for their magazine but apparently some engineer unit got dibs on my title first.

I was disappointed because I thought my title was not only a literal description of my story but also possessed a certain literary quality not found in most military publications. “So what was their story—they build a bridge over a river?” I asked.

“You guessed it,” he said walking away.

Damn those engineers, I thought. We went on to title the story “Forging Across the Muddy River,” which will never pop up on a google search the way either “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” or “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” would have.

It was just a short five years later that the fruits of Vietnamization became evident to the whole world as the Viet Cong poured into Saigon and the last American helicopter frantically lifted off the roof of the American Embassy with former friends and allies hopelessly reaching for the skids as both banks of the Big Muddy collapsed into its waters.

The war was essentially over but not the way we had planned for it to end. Vietnamization dropped completely out of the vernacular of the day, replaced by a new term, boat people, which described those Vietnamese attempting to cross the now even bigger muddy ocean.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Two Words You Should Never Say

This story was published in the Virginian Pilot last weekend and it wasn't until later that I learned from my sister that the two words my grandfather cautioned my mother never to say were "swell and lousy" not "swell and awful." Obviously, only one of us was paying attention. I have made the necessary correction 
Two words you should never say
I don’t remember what situations brought it on each time I heard my mother repeat her father’s advice but I do remember hearing it often.
      “‘There are two words you should never say,’ he’d say”, she said. “One is swell and the other is lousy.”
She’d see our puzzled expressions and did what she could to keep the ball rolling just as, I’m sure, her father did when she was a child hearing this advice for the first time—or tenth time or hundredth time.
“We never knew if one of the words was swell or just a swell word,” she’d say, “or likewise whether the other word was simply lousy or simply lousy.”
“So what were the words, mom?” we’d ask.
“One was swell and the other was lousy,” she’d say leaving us still in the dark.
So there you have it. Still in my formative years and one of my few accomplishments was either being on the short end of a decade’s old running gag or the recipient of a bit of wisdom as clear as the back of my back.
But as I grew older and had the opportunity to read correspondences between members of my mother’s family and particularly between my mother and her mother, I noticed a certain consistency in them. There were four elements almost always present in every letter.
The first was that every correspondence was completed on the inside of the envelope flap as there was always one more thing to say and after they had used up every inch of margin the flap was the only place left to write on.
The next were the initials JMJ at the top of the first page—before the greeting, before the date, and before the number designating the page. The initials obviously stood for Jesus, Mary and Joseph indicating that the letter and everything contained in it was dedicated to the Holy Family.
And then, sprinkled liberally throughout the letter were the two other ingredients—the words swell and lousy used to describe every last bit of news contained in the letter. I later would discover the same abundant use of the same two words in the wartime correspondence between my mom and dad when they were merely sweethearts dating by mail.
Clearly my grandfather was tired of hearing the words swell and lousy in every sentence and couldn’t understand why every single possible event that might occur had to exist at the extreme ends of the spectrum so easily identified by the words swell and lousy. I think he had a valid point.
You don’t hear the words swell and lousy much anymore. I’d like to think his effort paid off and he was responsible for society coming to its senses but as I have pointed out, his message was very confusing and I’m not sure anyone took him seriously. But it was a swell attempt on his part but the lousy news is people are still living on the extremes. Just as there is no longer a middle class there is also, it would seem, still no middle ground.
There are two new words used to describe virtually everything that happens in today’s world, two words that pull into its clutches every conceivable act, idea, personality or situation. Hardly anything is simply good or bad, nice or naughty, enjoyable or displeasing, pleasant or uncomfortable. Everything has to be really bad or unbelievably good.
It’s got to stop. We have to come to our senses and regain a little thing called perspective. We have to get back to the middle of the road and stay out of the dangerous ditches on both sides—ditches where we don’t belong and where no good can come.
In an age where thousands and tens of thousands comments are sought and provided for every imaginable occurrence appearing or being reported anywhere in the universe there must be some criteria for accurately assessing the value of each one. There has to be more than just two choices. It’s a dirty job but someone has to do it. Someone has to say enough is enough.
If someone were to ask me for advice—and hardly anyone ever does—but if they did, if they wanted to know what I think would make the world a better place, this is what I would tell them.

There are two words you should never say. One is awesome and the other is stupid—and just to be clear, the words are awesome and stupid.
Anyone hearing these words should be appalled—really appalled.