A Kid in California Heading to the Brig

A personal journey of love for a strong mother to the land of the rising sun and a new pathway out of conscientious objector status

The Conscientious Objector: Let No Soul Slay Another - BahaiTeachings.org

Every war is a war against children.

–Egalntyne Jebb, founder Save the Children a century ago.

Sunburst graphic effect, simple, flat. Motion Background 00:06 SBV-300308689 - Storyblocks

These introductions to people I have, that is, keyholing into their lives, immersing into their dreams and sharing their gifts of living, learning their avocations, and then welding connections to my own life with theirs have happened this way many times over the course of decades:

“I found your website through something of a circuitous route. I first listened to a Courage to Resist podcast interview with Dan Shea and got interested in his story and background. A Google search took me to your interview with him for LA Progressive. From your bio, I did another search and first found some of your Dissident Voice stories and finally landed on your website, where I spent the next few hours.

I especially got caught up in the “Autobiography Through Many Lenses” page. The very mention of Henry Miller, napalm, Mark Twain (on autobiography being the truest of all books), ancestors from Ireland, and good God Malcolm Lowry (truly one of my favorites!) was enough to make me want to pore through everything of yours I could find.”

call of duty

[Article and photo: “Call of Duty: Resisting War in Venezuela”]

So, we’ll see if the good lord’s willin’ on this review, if I get something right, and do not immerse it all in my POV: “If the good Lord’s willing and the creek stays down I’ll be in your arms time the moon come around.” (Johnny Cash)

The linchpin for me is his refusal to go to THAT war, and some of his narrative, the memoir, deals specifically with those times. He also went from American, Western American, to Japanese. THAT war (sic): During the Vietnam War more than 170,000 men were officially recognized as conscientious objectors. Thousands of other young men resisted by burning their draft cards, serving jail sentences or leaving the country.

THAT war: United States’ military involvement in the Vietnam War began in February 1961 and lasted until May 1975. Approximately 2.7 million American men and women served in Vietnam. During the war, more than 58,000 servicemen and women lost their lives.

“One cannot be pessimistic about the West. This is the native home of hope. When it fully learns that cooperation, not rugged individualism, is the quality that most characterizes and preserves it, then it will have achieved itself and outlived its origins. Then it has a chance to create a society to match its scenery.”

— Wallace Stegner, The Sound of Mountain Water

“I am convinced that human life is filled with many pure, happy, serene examples of insincerity, truly splendid of their kind-of people deceiving one another without (strangely enough) any wounds being inflicted, of people who seem unaware even that they are deceiving one another.”

— Osamu Dazai, No Longer Human

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Fallers and large redwood tree, unidentified logging operation, Humboldt County, ca. 1915-1945 - Kinsey Brothers Photographs of the Lumber Industry, 1890-1945 - University of Washington Digital Collections

Family for Robert Norris is everything, and he starts spinning tales about his grandfather Frederick, born in Union County, Pennsylvania. He moved around, from Minnesota to North Dakota and then to White Salmon, WA, and that’s where Robert’s mother grew up, with the history of the Columbia River, Celilo Falls before the river was dammed up, coursing through her DNA.

Interestingly, his mother Kay talked to Norris about Kyoko Nakagawa, a Japanese-American girl who was her best friend until World War II broke out and the Nakagawa family was shipped to an internment camps.

“I was in high school at that time and remember well the events of that day and the days and months that followed. There were so many things I didn’t learn about until many years later. One of my very best friends in high school was Kyoko and we spent many lunch hours together gigglin’ and talkin’ about our futures. We’d usually exchange sandwiches because mine were on homemade bread and hers were on the store bread put out by Wonder Bakeries. We thought we were being so sneaky and clever to exchange our sandwiches. How young and naive we both were. I think when I was a junior in high school, I went to school one mornin’ and couldn’t find Kyoko. I didn’t know what happened to her. I was very hurt to think she left and didn’t say goodbye.

“I thought all her family were so nice. They had a home on the river and I remember I got permission to walk down there to see if she was sick and there was nobody home. Everything was gone. I found out a long time later that she and her family had been transported to an internment camp for Japanese in Idaho. I did try very hard and seriously to track her down and finally did only to find out that she died in childbirth just after her family was released from the camp after the war. I felt very sad for a long time after that.”

This man, Robert Norris, with his deep regard for the family, especially for his strong and adventuresome father, ended up deep in Japanese culture in the 1980s, becoming a language teacher, and then marrying a Japanese woman. He’s called Japan his home for more than 40 years.

He’s there now, in Japan, writing me emails, and his life now is slow, he says, with old age and some medical issues from the past catching up to him now.

I can hear those metal bars slamming: The date the cell doors slammed on him was in September, 1970:

“A military policeman places handcuffs around my wrist and leads me to a patrol car waiting to take me to the base prison. Jerry and Midge Kelly follow me to the patrol car.

I force a smile and say, ‘It could have been worse.’

Jerry shakes my had. Midge says, ‘You were very brace on the stand. I was proud of you. Make sure you write us.’

I get into the patrol car. A cloud of dust rises behind the car as it lurches toward the prison. I crane my neck for a final look and see Jerry and Midge grow smaller through a brown haze until they’re tiny specks in the distance.”

My name is Robert W. Norris. I’m a Pacific Northwest native, Vietnam War conscientious objector, and longtime expat resident of Japan. I’m one of those guys who took that 1960s jingoistic catchphrase “America, love it or leave it” seriously and ended up in Japan back in 1983.


From there it was on to the video interview with David Rovics. Imagine my surprise when I heard you mention that you and your sister had inherited some land near White Salmon, Washington. I mean, my mother grew up there and graduated from Columbia High School in 1943! Small world, indeed.

So that brings me to the reason I’m writing to you. My life story and tribute to my mother was published in January by Tin Gate, a U.K. hybrid publisher of memoirs, travel books, and biographies. I hope I’m not being presumptuous in thinking you might be interested in looking at it with an eye toward a possible review, or perhaps passing it along to others who might be interested in whatever happened to some of us old-timers who told the military to fuck off way back when. The following summary is from the book’s back cover.

“‘The Good Lord Willing and the Creek Don’t Rise: Pentimento Memories of Mom and Me’ traces the trials, tribulations, and unbreakable bond of two Pacific Northwest characters. Kay Schlinkman grows up on the banks of the Columbia River in the 1930s and 1940s. She overcomes a small logging town’s ostracism in the late 1950s for her divorce, excommunication by the Catholic Church for remarrying, severe criticism and rejection for defending her son’s refusal to go to war, and the burden of paying off her second husband’s gambling debts. She takes night classes to become qualified as a legal secretary in her fifties and continues to work until she’s seventy-eight.

“Robert Norris goes to military prison as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, embraces the counterculture upon release, wanders the world in search of his identity, and eventually lands in Japan, where he finds his niche as a university professor, spends two years as the dean of students, and retires as a professor emeritus. Despite their separation by the expanse of the Pacific Ocean, Robert and Kay maintain a lifelong commitment of love, respect, and support that enriches both their lives. This story provides a heart-warming example of how far a mother and son can go in maintaining their bond against all odds. A must read for all mothers and sons, and for those who’ve wondered what the road less traveled would’ve been like had they taken that first step.”

—Robert Whiting, author of “Tokyo Underworld” and “You Gotta Have Wa,” wrote,

“A most impressive achievement by a highly talented writer…an emotionally powerful memoir that spans nearly a century and several continents. Riveting and rich in detail with passages that evoke Hemingway and Maugham, it draws you in and doesn’t let up. For Japanophiles, the sections on life in Osaka and Kyushu offer important lessons on cultural assimilation. You come away from this book with gratitude to the author for having written it and respect for a life well lived.”

—Michael Uhl, author of “Vietnam Awakening” and “The War I Survived was Vietnam,” wrote,

“A bumpy, coming-of-age tale set in the logging country of the Pacific Northwest, dosed with a mother’s love, transforms an alienated young man into an expat and ultimately an emeritus professor in Japan. Robert W. Norris crafts the stages of this extraordinary journey—punctuated with a turn as a Vietnam War resister—in a narrative style that is both graceful and seamless.”

The United States of America v. Conscientious Objectors | Middle District of Florida | United States District Court

His book, the stories, the backdrops, all the encounters with his mom, before getting into the military hell we all hope those like Robert never have to get into, and those were the draft days, and, alas, he joined the US Air Force. Not going to college and living and working in Humbolt County, he was sure he’d be drafted and end up in Vietnam and dead, or dying.

The Air Force or Navy were options for he and his buddies, Troy and Shannon, sign up for the bombing brigade, the dirty Air Force. He made the Arcata all-county basketball team, but the boy Norris was depressed, disinterested.

Here, another salvo from Robert to me after I tsunamied him with emails a yard or so long.


Thanks so much for such a quick and great reply and all the links! Wow, I now have my reading set for the next few days. I’ve already gone over a couple of the Finding Fringe stories (great stuff) and the attached interview with Emily Green. Interesting that you mentioned the documentary “Sir, No Sir.” While working on the initial draft of my book, I queried the director David Zeiger and he kindly provided a nice blurb.

I’ll write a better letter later, but I wanted to send you the PDF first and ask for a phone number. Neither Amazon nor IngramSpark will allow me to order an author copy if I don’t have a phone number to provide the shipping company in case they need to contact the recipient of the package. Amazon allows P.O. Box numbers it seems, but IngramSpark doesn’t; they require a street address. Also, this PDF is large at 23 MB (there are about 20 pages of pictures), but most of the email addresses I’ve sent it to have handled it OK.

Thanks, too, for agreeing to read the book and for the offer of doing an interview. I really appreciate it. I’ll check out Cirque’s site and see if I can come up with an idea or two to pitch to them. I’ve had a little bit of success in having excerpts put up on a couple of Boomer sites, with another excerpt (from an earlier novel) to be published around Easter in Psychedelic Press (a U.K. journal dealing in research about the history, culture, philosophy, and science of psychedelics and other drugs) and yet another in the summer peace issue of BeZine, a literary rag out of Israel focusing on peace and spirituality.

OK, so here’s the PDF. I’m also enclosing a cover pic. I think you’ll agree my mom was pretty good-looking! Looking forward to getting a phone number (and street dress if that’s OK) so I can order an author paperback copy to send. I’m about to dig into the link on the Japanese poets writing about Fukushima.

Warm regards,


Ahh, that military life, short-lived, but here, in living color from the memoir:

While the majority of airmen return home on leave and report to other bases for their technical training after basic training, the others chosen to be military police (the most despicable and lowest career field in the Air Force) and I have to remain at Lackland for ten more weeks of specialized training. The hand of irony has played a cruel trick. Country bumpkin that I am, I’ve joined the Air Force thinking I’ll never have to carry a weapon, but now I’m to be trained in the art of combat and the use of deadly weapons. I know I can never kill another human being. It’s always been and still is an abstraction. Besides, I lack the courage even to use my fists to defend myself. The very thought of violence makes me sick to my stomach. I pass through the training without incident. But during those days of martial arts training; war games; kitchen labor called K.P.; stripping, cleaning, loading, firing, and handling of M-16 rifles, .38 pistols, hand grenades, bayonets, and knives; the classes on crowd dispersal, first aid, attack upon and retreat from an enemy, arrest and seizure, drugs, communism, terrorist activities, patriotism, military police history; and the propaganda the instructors use to inculcate the soldiers into submission and obedience, there grows within my heart an inchoate attitude of rebelliousness. It lies dormant, simmering below the surface, waiting silently for the right moment to emerge from its hiding.

For a while, however, the Air Force succeeds in brainwashing me. One image sticks in my head: a drill instructor during a training session in the use of a truncheon screaming at me in front of a gymnasium full of military police trainees. “Goddamn it, Norris! You dumb shit! You’ve got a left-handed stick! I told you to get a fucking right-handed stick. Now get your ass over to that pile and bring me a right-handed stick!”

“Yes sir,” I bark, turning redder each time I return to him with another “left-handed stick.” Finally, it dawns on me that all the sticks are the same. A wave of shame passes through me. For the rest of the military police training, the drill instructors call me Left-Handed Stick.

But the Air Force Base in Yuba City is not cloistered from the world:

During this time, I’m thinking about Vietnam and having a gut feeling that the war is wrong. Although we’re not allowed to take anything other than our guns and military equipment on The Good Lord Willing and the Creek Don’t Rise 116 the line, I smuggle a portable radio and earphones and listen to the lyrics of popular songs instead of just the melodies—songs by Bob Dylan, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, and all the others protesting the war. I’m also reading the underground newspapers that are finding their way on base and contain antiwar, anti-government stories about the My Lai atrocity, the shooting of Ralph Bunch at the Presidio, and the hysteria running rampant on American college campuses. All the little irritating items of military brainwashing and propaganda gradually build up inside of me. Things I’ve taken for granted before now make me bristle. There’s the time three of us guards are called before the squadron sergeant after roll call, and he reads us our rights and charges each of us with defecation on duty. “What’s defecation, Sarge?” I ask. “It’s taking a shit inside the marked line you are NOT supposed to enter, only guard, and you know that only the flight crew are allowed inside that line, and last night one of you smartasses took a FUCKING SHIT inside that line and right under the cockpit—that’s what DEFECATION means!” the sergeant screams. “You’ve got to be shittin’ me,” I say. The sergeant doesn’t think my remark is funny. There on the table as exhibit A for the prosecution is the big, black turd, hard as a rock, found the day before under the cockpit of the bomber I walked around for half my shift before changing to another place to guard. They’re actually planning to court-martial one of the three of us who was stationed on that post during the night and use the turd as evidence. It’s the final straw in realizing that military life isn’t for me. From that day on, I can’t keep my mouth shut in pointing out the inconsistencies and lies whenever I spot them. I miss haircuts and am constantly reprimanded for my shoddy appearance during inspections. I lose days off and am forced to undergo crowd control practice in case we’re called upon, like the National Guard, to break up a civilian demonstration. I know my sympathies would be with the demonstrators. I begin to think that if there really is an enemy, it’s the military. If the situation ever really comes up, I’ll cast aside my weapons and join the other side.

My order to fight in Southeast Asia comes through. I’m given thirty days leave before having to report first to a base in Texas for a month of intensive war training and later to a base in northern Thailand near the Cambodian border. This happens shortly after Nixon escalates the war into Cambodia, where B-52 bombers are now dropping tons of napalm. When I leave Beale Air Base for the start of my thirty-day leave, I know I’ll never make it to Texas.

He gets out of spending five years total in prison, and after six months, when he’s out, his only constant was his “mom’s complete and unconditional love and support.” He of course was dazed and confused, and he ends up on this journey of kicking around, mixing with counterculture, blue collar work, slaving in mills, hitchhiking, then to New York and following a one-way flight to Luxembourg, leaving behind the country of his birth, “the country I no longer felt a part of, venturing forth with no itinerary, just the hand of fate to guide me.”

He does the hippie trail through Europe, ending up in places he only dreamed of as a baseball-playing kid in Humbolt County, California. Paris, Spain, Greece.

The journey had given me an answer to what I’d been seeking since my court martial. The single sentence [ “I don’t feel I’m mentally or physically capable of killing another human being”] I uttered in response to my order to fight in the Vietnam War had saved four and a half years of my life and instilled in me an inchoate awareness of the power of language. The experiences in Europe had now reinforced that awareness and stimulated a need to express myself. I now had a purpose. I’d try to become a writer. I’d learn the craft. Through the writing, I’d rid myself of the confusion and derangement that clung to me so tightly.