Veterans Day. When I was a kid and lived in the Washington DC area, this was one of the two days a year that my dad would take me to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The other day was Memorial Day. We would stand there, my dad, a sibling or two, and myself, while the Marine guard did his stretch of time. Then there was a shortchanging of the guard ceremony. Afterwards, my dad would take us to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. Today, children probably still go to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and watch a changing of the guard before their father takes them to the Vietnam War Memorial or the Korean War Memorial or even the World War Two memorial (none of those existed when I was a kid). Even back when I was a little boy -- knee high to a grasshopper as the expression goes -- that tomb of the unknown soldier had me asking not only how could a soldier be unknown but why did such a thing happen.
When I lived on the streets (and even today, for that matter), I met (and meet) a good number of war veterans. Back when I was homeless, most of the vets were from the Vietnam debacle. Since that time, the system in place in this country has added several thousand more vets from a number of other military adventures. My friend Loren was one of those men from the Vietnam adventure. Like so many others, he had been drafted into the service against his will. When he got his orders to go to Vietnam, he took a truck from the motor pool where he worked and ran it through several gates and a couple of parked cars in the Officerís Club parking lot at the Colorado Army base he was stationed. He did six months in the stockade and was thrown out of the Army. He celebrated by going to a rock festival and ended up in Berkeley. His father didnít speak to him for years, but it was worth it to Loren just to have avoided the war.
Loren had a campsite near the Berkley Marina. It wasn't in the marina proper since the cops patrolled there -- they had to protect the boats. It was in an undeveloped part of the acreage on the west side of the I-80 freeway in Berkeley and was the home to dozens of street people back in the mid-1970s. On rainy nights Loren graciously let me share the lean-two he had built. We would pick up a couple six-packs of beer with money we had earned from our day labor jobs and head down to our bayside camp. One evening, a guy attacked us on our way out of the beer store. There didn't seem to be any reason for the attack and the fellow's girlfriend apologized after the cops came and told us all to get the hell off the street. Another time, Loren was attacked at his campsite by a trio of young men that jumped into their car and drove away after Loren produced a machete he kept in his sleeping bag just for such incidents. I haven't seen Loren in more than twenty years. When I visit Berkeley I always try to find him on Telegraph Avenue, but have yet to run into him. I have run into mutual friends that tell me he is still alive, despite the fact that he was beaten badly by some other young men back in the mid-1990s.
Another buddy of mine, R, who spent a year in the Navy off the coast of Vietnam begrudgingly helping the US launch jet planes to strafe the people and countryside of Vietnam, joined the Vietnam Veterans Against the War as soon as he got his discharge papers. He and I spent many an hour talking politics, books, and women before he met an untimely death last year. One conversation particularly relevant to today occurred when he and I were somewhere in that state's Central Valley on Veterans' Day. We were stuck in the middle of whatever town it was (Salinas?) while the parade progressed. As we sat in the shade of some trees and sipped surreptitiously on a quart of Rainier Ale, we joked that Loren should have been there with us. After all, noted R bitterly, this is our day. He continued by noting how much better they treated vets after they were dead. Shit, he said, you even get a decent burial. And a freakin' American flag to go with it. When you're in their goddam uniform, you ain't no better than a maltreated dog who they're trying to kill. If you get out alive, they just want you to go away. Especially if you have an ailment that can be attributed to their war.
There's a poem by Randall Jarrell called "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner." If anyone ever had any doubt as to how the elites that send our brothers and sisters into war really feel about the "grunts" that wear their uniforms, let me reproduce it here for education's sake.
The Death Of The Ball Turret Gunner
From my mother's sleep I fell into the
Ron Jacobs lives in Asheville, NC.
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