Friday, January 9, 2015

Derri Sykes, 4 July 1947 - 09 January 1968, POW, KIA - PART 1

Like a lot of old vets, I sometimes find myself surfing the Internet looking at pages dedicated to the Vietnam War.  Usually, this is an exercise in self-indulgent nostalgia that, while it serves no purpose, can't be said to do any harm, either.

Last summer, though, I came across a picture of Derri Sykes on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund page and it provoked a profound and lasting change in my thoughts and emotions about Vietnam.  I was initially struck by the quality of inherent dignity apparent in his photo.  A little investigation led me to accounts of the action in which he was taken prisoner. Those descriptions of the engagement in "Happy Valley" in early January 1968 left me disturbed.

Admittedly, I was in Army Aviation during my year in Vietnam, spending my days in an air conditioned air traffic control tower.  But, after that tour, I did serve in a National Guard infantry unit where I picked up a passable knowledge of the theory of small unit engagement.  I found it hard to believe what I read about the battle that destroyed Sykes unit.

Did the 196th Light Infantry Brigade really send two companies of infantry across an open rice patty, unsupported by air or artillery, resulting in both being virtually annihilated from a barely concealed enemy fortification? Evidently it did.  In the end, two companies of the 3rd Battalion were sacrificed in a futile attempt to recover bodies and survivors from a previous massacre that wiped out a sister company.  This seemed more like Tennyson's "The Charge of the Light Brigade," except that many of the soldiers loudly objected to being sent across open ground within sight of the bodies of the prior day's casualties.

Derri Sykes was seriously wounded and taken prisoner; he died of his wounds within a day of his capture.  During his last hours he asked fellow prisoner James Daly (author of Black Prisoner of War:  A Conscientious Objector's Vietnam Memoir, reviewed here. ) to carry a message to a wife in California.  He was taken away by guards before he could make that message clear.  Daly was later informed he had died.

Trying to make sense of this upsetting story, I did what writers usually do:  I read.  Two books that helped me in my reevaluation of the Vietnam war were:  Westmorland:  The General Who Lost Vietnam, by Lewis Sorley, and, My Detachment:  A Memior by Tracy Kidder.  Westmorland, a singularly colorless figure, developed the idea that North Vietnam was bound to lose a war of attrition because it couldn't replace men and material as fast as we could destroy them.  That it could and did was a fact denied by him for years, with disastrous consequences.  The result at the unit level was a ruthless pursuit of "body count" of enemy dead, which lead some unit commanders to show a mindless aggressiveness in pursuit of an elusive foe.

Except sometimes they were not so elusive.  Sometimes they set the traps and American companies walked into them.  In this case again and again.  It was Derri Sykes bad luck to be lead into such a trap.

Today is the 47th anniversary of his capture and death.  Had he lived he'd now be the same age as me. Life is inherently a matter of luck.  War emphasizes this with a starkness that's sometimes hard to bear.  Born within a few months of each other, he was black and I white.  We were both draftees.  I had good luck in Vietnam.  Derri Sykes had bad luck.  I'm now 67, he will forever be 21.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Lost Memory Of Skin

I read too many books to buy them, so I'm dependent on the offerings of my public library.  With my move to Portland, Oregon in 2010, I've come to use Multnomah County's online eBook service through Library-to-go more than the physical library branch.  There's nothing wrong with Portland's public libraries, but age and disease have taken their toll on me.  It's easier to prowl the stacks from home.  I've got to say, too, that I find the eBook format attractive.  It's always been about content for me, not packaging, so I embrace my Kindle and Nook without hesitation.

But, that's changed my book selection habits considerably. Browsing Library-to-go is different from visiting the library's new book section (where new is always months behind the bookstores).  It's different, even, from roaming the stacks of the brick-and-mortar collection.  The online library offers several different ways to access their titles other than the mere fiction/non-fiction divide.  On-line, books may be presented by acquisition date, which reaches further back than just "new;" or, possibly by something called "relevancy," a term I've yet to see defined.  Search filters allow me to browse books that style themselves "literature," or focus on historical fiction.  The Library-to-go search engine always presents me with possible alternative titles I might like at the bottom of a selection's description page. This allows the possibility of surfing the library like you do the Internet.  Visits to Library-to-go sometimes take longer than visits to the physical library.  Russell Banks 2011 Lost Memory Of Skin was a recent acquisition of the eBook library, so it popped up when I asked for literary fiction listed by order of acquisition date. 

It has been quite a while since I've read a Russell Banks book. Lost Memory Of Skin has a lot of familiar Banksonian elements.  He has given a gritty realistic feel to its dialogue.  It examines the inner lives and thought habits of young men, and, is inspired by actual events in the real world.  As usual, through a particular fictional story he has helped us examine social problems in new ways. Those problems are distinct, yet intertwined: internet pornography, our criminal justice system, the collusion of big government and academia, and the tension between privacy, secrecy, and individual responsibility.

Banks signals his intention that the story be read as more than what the surface plot gives us when he fails to give any of the major characters names.  We have the "Kid," the "Professor," and a "Writer." They interact with characters named, "Shyster," "Rabbit," and "Paco."  The characters with real names are minor and two dimensional.  Those with street names fill out and seem real.  What we expect is turned on its head.  There is a lot of that going on here.

In a rare moment of candor, one of the characters (it would be telling to give the name, so I won't), sums up what seems to be the major dilemma faced by those in the book.  "...I don't feel guilty for all those years of deceit and betrayal, secrecy and lies.  That was the nature of the world then and now, and those are the rules of the game that runs the world.  And once you know that, you either play the game or it plays you.  I only regret that I stopped playing the game.  Now it's playing me."  Will we allow the character his self-absolution?  Will we allow it for ourselves?  Should we?  

All Banks questioning allows him to have a bit of writerly fun, too.
     "Is this what writers do all the time,"  the Kid asks the Writer, "sit around asking themselves questions that can't be answered?"
     "Yeah.  And when they can't answer them they write about them."
     "To give somebody else a chance to answer them."
     "Does it work?"

Banks must have crossed his fingers at this point in the story (page 372 of 419), because the Writer is about to fulfill his purpose in the novel.  Banks has deliberately created such a cloud of lies, secrets, and mystery that without the introduction of the Writer the poor Kid (not to mention the poor reader) might never figure out what's just happened.  So, this freelance writer of travel articles is parachuted in by Banks as an dues ex machina device to allow us to make sense of the novel and get on with our lives without feeling cheated by Mr. Banks.  This is always a tricky ploy for an author, but Banks brings it off.

Lost Memory Of Skin, HarperCollins e-books, 2011, is written in a way that marks it as a familiar Russell Banks book.  It also has some innovations that indicate a writer that continues to learn and grow.  That's what both the reader and the writer want in each new work  This one does, anyway.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Murder of Mike Brown: Why I left Saint Louis

Mike and Brian 2007

I moved from Saint Louis to Portland, Oregon in August of 2010, after having lived in Missouri for 18 years. When people in Portland ask me why I decided to move I always hesitate before answering, trying to judge whether I want to give a vague but  acceptable reply like, "Oh, the weather here is so much nicer" (which is true), or, "You know, Portland is so much more liberal politically and socially, I just like it here" (also true), or give them the real reason:  "Saint Louis is the most racially hostile place I've ever encountered, and being in a gay, biracial relationship was just too damn stressful."  That's a very harsh judgement, and I usually reserve it for friends who might really want to know.
My first relationship with a black man in Saint Louis began in 1994 and ended in 1997, for reasons not related to our ethnicity.  During the time we lived together we had a house in Lafayette Square, an upper middle class enclave about a mile from the Arch.  Residents of the Square are mostly, but not entirely, white. The surrounding neighborhoods were mostly lower income and black.  I never felt any personal hostility from our upper income neighbors, and if Kurt did he never mentioned it to me.  Outside the Square, though, it was a different story. Just walking together was enough to draw stares, sometimes hard, hostile stares. Blacks and whites share public space in Saint Louis, but they don't often share it together.  Usually blacks pair with other blacks and the same applies to the whites.  I'd been introduced to this traditional segregation shortly after my arrival in Saint Louis in 1992.
At my new job, I'd sat outside my workplace, taking a smoke break with a black female coworker. As we chatted and smoked, she suddenly stopped talking to me and glared off into space.  "I don't like you either, you old bastard," she said.  She was looking at a man about 50 feet away, in line for an ATM at the bank next door. I was surprised to to see that his face was twisted in furious hatred as he stared at us. "What's that all about?" I asked her.  "He doesn't like to see a black woman and a white man sitting together and talking like friends."  I was dumbfounded.
Soon, though, I realized Saint Louis was a very tense place.  There were stories in the Post-Dispatch that exposed the troubled relations between the races.  One in particular sticks in my mind.  It was about a black burglary suspect who police chased up to the top of the building he broke into, and how he then jumped off the roof to his death.  Except that the autopsy report found he had been beaten to death before he jumped to the ground.  The police were the only witnesses, and they all said he jumped.  And that was that.  No charges ever filed.
When different races encountered each other, they usually avoided each others eye.  On a couple of occasions, I passed groups of three or four young blacks who glowered at me.  Once, while waiting at a traffic light, I glanced idly out my car window at a black man on the other side of the busy street. Noticing my interest, he directed a stream of obscenities at me. Oftentimes, Kurt would be the only black when we were in a group of whites, or I would be the only white when we were with blacks.  Talk about feeling like a potted plant.
I got a new perspective on my Lafayette Square neighbors shortly before Kurt and I broke up in 1997.  The city had suddenly decided to remove an old basketball court in Lafayette Square Park and replace it with--nothing.  Some people in the Square had objected to the cursing that accompanied the pick-up games there. The court was next to a child's playground that the neighborhood association and the city had spent considerable money improving.  It didn't seem to matter to them that there were no other nearby public courts.  Of course, the fact that the players were almost always young black men had nothing to do with the decision, they said. There were a couple of wild neighborhood association meetings that failed to bring about any change in the city's plans.  The intensity of the racial fear, though, and the willingness of Square residents to shelter their bigotry behind their children's innocence, seemed evident to me.
When I entered into a new relationship in 2007, it was again with a black man.  This time though, he was not a native of Saint Louis.  Mike is from California and, like me, came to Saint Louis for work reasons. He was quick to tell me how uncomfortable he was in the racial atmosphere of Saint Louis, and since we were both retired, we decided to find a more agreeable place to live. In 2010 we finally sold both our houses and left town the day after the last closing.
Portland has its own racial tensions.  Everyplace in this country does.  But it's nothing like Saint Louis.  Here, mixed race couples, straight, lesbian and gay, are a common sight.  They don't bring stares.  The police have been problematic here.  They seemed in the past more ready to shoot than is always justified.  That's not just my opinion, it's shared by the FBI.  The black community has major problems with the way they are treated by police.
During the Occupy! movement, however, it was my personal observation that police used great restraint in situations that were very tense.  Only two weeks ago, I witnessed a black man wielding a butcher knife in the street who was dealt with professionally and without lethal force. It was a near thing.  Most important, the city's new mayor and political leaders are committed to improving relations between police and the black community.  It isn't happening quick enough.  But they seem to be trying.
It's all so different from what I experienced in Saint Louis.  I'm glad I don't live there anymore. 

Sunday, August 10, 2014

A Life Taken Prisoner: Black Prisoner of War--A Conscientious Objector's Vietnam Memoir

Book Cover Image
James A Daly's griping memoir, Black Prisoner of War rests in the unenviable position of  #2,519,472 in the Amazon ranking of books.  Its an unenviable and undeserved position.  What I read struck me as a straightforward, well written account of Daly's experience in the army. What made his experience different from most others, of course, was his being captured and held as a prisoner of war for five years in a series of camps in Vietnam.  Add into the mix his claim to have been a conscientious objector all along, and the fact that, as one of the few blacks held by the Vietnamese, he was the object of continuous and sophisticated indoctrination by his captors, and you have a unique story worth telling.  Originally published in 1975 by a now defunct company, Black Prisoner of War, was republished by the University Press of Kansas after Daly's death in 1998.  It didn't do well either time despite the efforts of co-author Bergman, a publicist.  When the book hit the stores the first time, the war was over, South Vietnam had passed into history, and America was obsessed with other issues.  Even an interview with Walter Cronkite and an appearance on the Today Show didn't get the necessary attention to make the memoir pay out.

What killed the book then, and still haunts it, was hostility against a man who was perceived as a collaborator with the enemy.  A couple of high ranking POW returnees, who strangely enough never met him during their prison camp time, preferred charges against him.  The Army quickly dismissed the charges, but the damage was done.  Certainly, the controversy around him itself justified his putting forward his story.  Daly's memoir is an important contribution to the literature of the Vietnam War. I'm a Vietnam Vet who doesn't believe that my experience was universal, so I won't judge Daly, question his motives, or his honesty. The reader should understand that Daly is giving his very personal experience, and his inner reaction to it, and not trying to write a history.

I was only the fourth reader to review the book on Amazon.  The other three reviewers all made judgments about James Daly's character, honesty, and motives.  They were negative judgments and that was reflected in the low number of stars they gave the story.  It's the nature of history to deal in objective fact, and of memoir to relay subjective and personal truth.  The two rarely coincide.  Both are valid.  I hope my favorable review and ranking do a little to redress the balance between history and memoir in Daly's case.

No review would be complete without mentioning the contribution of co-author Lee Bergman to this volume.  I found that Black Prisoner of War was, despite one reviewers claim, written in a quite readable, simple style. Few people know how difficult it is to produce this type of writing.  It takes a trained writer.  Lee Bergman spent his professional life as a publicist and I have to assume that it was he, rather than Daly, that actually wrote this story.  Jim Daly was an intelligent, but relatively uneducated and unsophisticated man.  His career aspiration after he left the army was to be a professional cook.  Not chef, cook.  He ended up being a mail carrier and a failed laundromat owner.  He may have been a nice enough guy, but he wasn't a writer.  Bergman was. That he is able to present the unusual life this simple man lived in language that reflects the complexity of the issues faced, and the earnestness of Daly's response, is a tribute to his skill as a writer.  I don't know if Bergman is still alive.  I can't find him with a Google search.  If he is out there, I'd welcome his comments on this blog post.

I came across Black Prisoner of War while researching the battle in which Daly was captured for another project.  His account of that battle was helpful to me.  Anyone with more than an idle interest in the Vietnam War will find this book worthwhile and valuable.  It presents the experience of one man in a strikingly different way than most such works.  Daly's saga is one of race, politics, religion, philosophy and individual choice.  Like him or not, agree with his choices or not, his sincerity and essential truthfulness are evident. You get the sense of what it was like to be Jim Daly in those years.  Few memoirs can leave you with the feeling you've glimpsed the core of someone else.  This one does.

Those Veterans who suffer from the effects of Agent Orange will be interested to read Daly's account of being sprayed by US aircraft as they defoliated the rice fields around his POW camp in South Vietnam. He could smell, and actually taste the stuff. It will come as no surprise to them that he died in his 50's from complications of his resultant severe diabetes. Daly, of course, didn't know the toxic effects of Agent Orange when he wrote the book.  Nor did he know he would develop a disease the government now accepts as caused by the defoliant. That we unwittingly kill our own should give us all reason to question the wisdom of war. Any war.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Everett Ruess: His Short Life, Mysterious Death and Astonishing Afterlife

One of the sad truths I learned when writing about Amelia Earhart was that most people are more interested in her disappearance than her life.  The allure of vanishing without a trace attracts folks.  Especially when the disappearee is young, talented, and good looking.

Everett Ruess is one of those pretty, artistically gifted missing whose story pulls us to him.  The twenty year old rode alone into the Utah desert in 1934 accompanied by two donkeys packing his drawing supplies, food, and an ambition to find something in the wilderness that would sustain him throughout a lifetime of creating art.  His donkeys were found a couple months later, as well as various items he was known to be carrying  (though not all).  Also found were a couple of his signatures on desert rocks:  "NEMO 1934".  The allusion to Jules Vern's Captain Nemo captured Ruess's attraction to high culture and craving for isolation from a society that seemed to puzzle him.

Phillip Fradkin's Everett Ruess: His Short Life, Mysterious Death, and Astonishing Afterlife documents Ruess's "short life" and "mysterious death" well and in an engrossing manner, often through Everett Ruess's own words.  However, Fradkin's account of Ruess's "astonishing Afterlife" leaves me unsatisfied.  Something about this boy still draws us to him, but it's hard to put a finger on just what.

A University of Utah art curator has classified him as a "gifted amateur." A little Googling led me to the conclusion that prints by this "gifted amateur" go for about a thousand, when they can be found. I have some work by other similarly gifted artists that might bring five bucks on a good day.  For some reason, Ruess is different.  The Ruess family were prolific writers.  Everertt produced a high volume of writing while sitting around the campfire, and his mother and father kept the letters, later publishing some of them.  Everett was sometimes a powerful writer, and was clearly working to develop his writing further.  He was, in my opinion, more talented as a writer than painter.  His writing is, however, limited to describing a desert he preferred to paint.  No one argues his writing stands alone.  Studio photos by the then well known photographer Dorothea Lange were widely published during the searches for Ruess, and they show what most would call a very good looking young man, even if one suspects his beauty is primarily his youth.  All things being equal though, do we care more about the fate of the beautiful than the ugly?  Maybe.  But, for eighty years?

Twenty year olds-pretty and plain-drop out of sight everyday.  They run away, get killed, change their names, get lost in the desert, are swallowed by bodies of water, and sometimes just vanish.  What is it about Everett Ruess that makes anyone pay any more attention to him then anybody else?  And, they do pay attention.  In 2009 a journalist and two university scientists published what turned out to be an erroneous DNA identification of bones found in the dessert as those of Ruess.  When the ID proved wrong they ran into a blizzard of criticism.  A project that one of the experts thought would be "interesting and fun," but not of much consequence, came close to ending careers. 

Perhaps it is Ruess's fascination with the beauty he discovered in the desert that keeps us interested in him.  In fact beauty was something of an obsession for him.  An obsession taught him by a mother who seemed more interested in art than family.  Stella Ruess seems to have been a very attentive mother, but she was attentive in the manner of a sculptor molding bronze.  Art was all in the Ruess household.  Since father Christopher was absent for many of the formative years of his children's lives, Stella's view was not to be tempered by his more practical bent. 

Most of what we know about Ruess comes from the promotion and publishing efforts of his mother after his disappearance.  She kept his name and work alive for decades after she must have known he was dead.  At some point Everett became an art project, not a missing boy.  The same held true for Amelia Earhart.  Her husband George had no problem with publishing her unfinished book and his own biography after her death.  I've no problem with that.  She left a stack of unpaid bills.  But, he then backed a movie that suggested her last flight was connected to a US intelligence mission against the Japanese, a scenario many today believe true simply because of that movie.  I'm sure had she popped up again after the movie release she would have been furious at the lie. 

Unfortunately, this is the way we make money in the age of celebrity.        

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Round House

Louise Erdrich has been an important American writer for twenty-five years, yet it took most people by surprise when her latest novel, The Round House, won the National Book Award for fiction.  Perhaps it's because, while no one doubts her tremendous talent, she has insisted on writing in a distinctly Native American way rather than conforming to the smart, edgy style of her nonindian contemporaries.  By Native American way I mean an elliptical nonchronological style based on family, clan, and tribe, instead of the urban/rural setting with linear time flow construct used by most of us. However, in The Round House, (Harper, 2012) Erdrich earns her place in the mainstream by meeting three difficult challenges that defeat most writers .

The narrator of this novel is Joe, a thirteen year old boy who is growing up on a reservation in the Dakotas.  How many novels have you read whose children think, act, and speak like adults, at least part of the time?  Joe's thoughts, emotions, and behavior are perfectly believable, all the time.  I haven't encountered a more real child voice since To Kill A Mockingbird.  Both books explore a child's response to injustice, In Mockingbird it's racism, while Round House deals with rape.  Both books deal with crimes that society has made complex, but a child sees as the simple atrocity that it is.  The choice of a child to tell the story, and the skill Erdrich uses to make that child's voice real accomplish her first task.

The second is to artfully present a political argument without scaring away the reader with her passion.  Her focus is the injustice of the American legal system. US law prevents Native American tribes from using their own system of law and courts to prosecute crimes against their people by nonindians off the reservation.  Writers who make political points with their work frequently produce heavy handed polemic that drives readers who just want a good story away.  Erdrich handles this problem skillfully by making Joe's father a tribal court judge.  Antone Coutts, the husband, is ready to kill to avenge the rape of his wife.  Antone Coutts, the Indian judge, is perfectly powerless to do much except appeal to white friends in seeking justice.  Erdrich simply lays out the jurisdiction problems and leaves Antone standing helpless as his wife's rapist strolls about the reservation, safe behind a wall of white privilege.  The character and the story make the political point naturally and without the obvious hand of the author.

Finally, Louise Erdrich tells a story about the effect of rape that goes beyond the victim herself and shows the corrosive result in the lives of those close to her.  Both her husband and son are changed irrevocably by the crime.  They become different people.  People you may not like as much as you did when the book starts.  You may not like them, but you understand. 

The Round House takes us from particular lives of Native Americans to the universal lives of human beings.  That makes her mainstream.  And the way she does it makes the author and her work worthy of the National Book Award.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Glass Palace

Amitav Gosh's The Glass Palace (published in the U.S. by Random House, 2001) is historical fiction at its best:  entertaining, informative and compelling.  For those who like to immerse themselves in in a weighty multi-generational saga that not only concerns itself with family but with the fate of nations, its a perfect read. 

The novel revolves around the life and loves of Rajkumar, who starts the story as an eleven year old Indian orphan in the Burma of the 1890's.  He is in perfect position to witness the defeat of Burma's last king, and his deportation to exile in India.  Rajkumar, a very advanced eleven year old, finds his life long love in one of the queen's child attendants.  Their story anchors a book that explores the politics of independence and the economics of colonialism through the end of WWII and beyond. 

The Glass Palace surprised me by giving me a quick course in the process of harvesting teak in the depths of a rain forest and bringing it to market across the world.  It introduced me to the Indian National Army, with its doomed 25,000 Indians who joined Japan in the hopes of expelling the British from India after the war.  As the book ends the reader is given a peek into the bewilderingly crazy society of the military dictatorship in Myanmar.  These things are not part of the usual knowledge of Americans, even those who like history. 

Amitav Gosh invites the reader to put aside the frustrations of our modern high-tech life and join him in exploring the past of a land most of us can hardly imagine.  You'd do yourself a favor in accepting his invitation.