The Vietnam Experience or Coloring on a Tabula Rasa
By Scott LeGette Franklin
If I was born a blank slate, it did not take long for the world to write the word WAR upon me. It was 1965 and the number of troops in Vietnam went from around 23,000 to over 180,000. That's 180,000 young Americans sent to a country that most had never heard of, to fight a war that was unwinnable. A war that was misguided at best, illegal and immoral at worst. Soon the death toll of Americans would rocket and the shock waves created would reverberate through every aspect of our lives. The names of the fallen were read each evening on the nightly news as families sat around the dinner table. Each name smudged on our collective psyche. Each wave of bombing would shake and tear at the fabric of our social order. The broadcast of real war footage into our living rooms shone a light on the horror of war previously unknown to those who had not been in battle themselves. This war, fought so far from our safe lifestyle here in America, would shape the world around me. It changed the music I would hear. It affected the films that I would see. It shook the conscience of clergy and drove them to action for Justice. It was a catalyst for social change that would forever erase a generation's innocence. If I was a tabula rasa the war would etch death, protest, and the upheaval of social norms upon me. And if I was a blank canvas it would also paint music, poetry, and art on my soul.
Scott and Terry in 2016.
He rolled into the auditorium style classroom at the University that I attended. I had seen him around campus. His legs amputated at different and odd locations as if done in a hurry. No thought given to the aesthetics or potential functionality. He sat in his chair nervously twitching the 6 inches of leg that remained below one knee. The other leg barely existed. Just enough there that he could bend at the hip into a normal sitting position. His appearance in the room had resulted in an immediate hush of nearly 100 students. He said nothing at first. He paced the floor by wheeling back and forth, as if he wasn't sure how to start or what to say. Without a word he pulled a pack of cigarettes out from his shirt pocket. His hand trembling slightly, he placed a cigarette between his lips and lit it. He inhaled deeply and let out a long billow of smoke. This was the 1980's. Smoking was allowed in most buildings, but not inside of a State school, let alone a classroom. I'd never seen anything like him.
By the early 70's I was a coloring book and the world had scribbled graffiti all over my pages. Phrases like mutually assured destruction, baby-burning, and carpet-bombing. Words like napalm and Viet Cong. Protest songs were being recorded into my skull: "War, huh! What is it good for? Absolutely Nothing," "What are we Fighting for? Don't Ask me I don't Give a Damn," and "Four Dead in Ohio." Images were burned into my brain: Naked girl on fire, Asian man with a gun to his head, Soldier without legs being escorted home in his wheelchair across an empty, wet airport tarmac.
I have been told that that in the 1950's, America itself was like a blank slate. Or maybe it was an etch-a-sketch. All the ugliness of two world wars erased by vigorously shaking itself clean. So I have imagined what it must have been like for a young man born twenty years before me. A young man raised by the Greatest Generation. I have thought of him and how he must have believed in our government and had been taught the value of serving his country. And that the United States was a country that was morally superior to the rest of the world. He would have heard our President argue that the freedom his parents had fought for was at stake and the only way to save it was to stop the spread of communism that was domino-ing its way around the world. I imagined this brave, honorable, kid would have voluntarily put his life on the line. I have pictured him signing his name on a document that would seal his fate forever.
After exhaling, he broke the silence, "I'm Terry and I'll be teaching this class." More silence. The class seemed stunned by the strange behavior they were witnessing. The cigarette smoke was spiraling upward in streams and dissipating into the high ceilings of the classroom. He continued, "If I'm going to teach this class, I'll have to smoke. If that's going to be a problem for you, leave now and drop the class." A couple of startled students started quickly gathering up their materials. As they started to head down the steps toward the exit he added, "And I might as well add that if you will be offended by my use of the F-word or any other cuss words then you should leave now too. You can drop the class." More students made rustling noises as they gathered up their things. A couple appeared to be in a real huff. He sat quietly and took long drags off his cigarette as ten or fifteen of the original 100 made their way out of this madman's class.
When the last of the deserters had fled, Terry relaxed a bit. He told us that as long as he was smoking, we were all free to smoke in the class as well. Someone in the front row asked if they could bum a cigarette from him. Terry laughed and then obliged. He seemed glad to have gotten past the smoking and cussing disclaimer. Instead of pacing in his chair he now authoritatively wheeled front and center and addressed us in a casual voice. He had our attention.
The class was new. It had caught my eye when I saw it in the offerings of the English Department. There was no description. It just said ENG965: The Vietnam Experience, Frazier. In my Freshman Composition class, I had written a research paper on the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial. It had only been dedicated the year before. There had been nearly as much controversy around the memorial as there had been about the war itself. Prominent conservatives had objected to the design. They had called it a wall of shame. They had been upset that the designer was of Asian ancestry. A compromise had to be reached in order to have a memorial at all. A second more traditional statue was built close by to satisfy the opposition. The research had piqued my interest in the war itself. So when I saw this class, I registered for it.
Terry informed us that it was going to be a film class. We would watch Hollywood movies about the War in Vietnam. Then we would have discussions comparing the films with his own experience as a soldier in the US Army. He told us that his legs had been blown off when he was hit by a mortar. He said that the Doctors had told him that prosthetics were not an option due to the small amount of leg that he had remaining. To lighten things up he assured us that he was in full possession of another appendage and he had children as proof!
"Platoon" was a fairly new release and would be the first film shown. Our professor would be watching most of the films for the first time. There was no syllabus. Terry was candid and told us that the class was going to be tough for him. He said that he was not sure if he would be able to complete the whole semester. It was going to be therapy for him. He explained that there was only one requirement to get an A and that was to complete a project of any kind about the Vietnam War by the end of the semester. There was no attendance or participation requirement. Ha! All those people that were offended by smoking and cussing left before that nugget was revealed!
He had not talked much about his experience in Vietnam or his feelings about it. He was using this class as a mechanism that would enable him to approach the subject academically. But it was obvious that this class was going to be anything but academic. Personally, I was about to participate in the only class in my entire college career that would change me in a fundamental way. With each film we watched and each emotion laden discussion led by Terry, I began to question everything that I thought I knew. Not just about Vietnam, but about our Government. I questioned our country's honesty with itself. I began to see that our entire worldview can be shaped by half-truths and one-dimensional perspective. I began to question myself. What kind of person was I? What kind of person could I be? And I questioned our entire system of education. Surely the experience in this smoke-filled, emotional, free-to-cuss seminar was at the core of what real learning should look like.
With each class Terry began to reveal more of his own feelings about the war. He talked about how his political views had been changed by his experience. There were heated debates that led a few more students to walk out and never return. I was riveted to my seat. I was flummoxed that college kids like me, that enjoyed the luxury of being of age during peace-time, could be so self-inflated as to believe that they knew more than our teacher. Our teacher had been there. He had crawled on his belly through the jungles of southeast Asia. He could point out the inaccuracies of the firefight scenes in "Platoon" because he had been in the middle of the real thing. He could tell us that it was true that our leaders had supplied them with crappy M16s that jammed and cost men the seconds they needed to protect themselves or their friends. The students that stomped out were slates just like me. Their slates were covered in indelible ink. Their ideas were like permanent tattoos not to be altered and as a result they walked out of the best class ever. Other students just stopped coming. They were probably quietly disgruntled or just not interested. Half way through the semester we were down to about forty from the original 100.
Those of us that kept showing up had started sitting close together toward the front of the room. I had a regular spot in the front. I had started on my project. I was testing a theory from a sociology class that suggested the popular culture prevalent in society reflected the political state of the country. I enlisted the help of my brother who had a large record collection and some nice recording equipment. The research entailed logging the major events of the Vietnam War and comparing the time frame of those events with songs in the top ten pop charts according to Billboard Magazine. Then I would record my voice narrating the events over samples of the songs and demonstrate the relationship. The correlation exceeded my own expectations. I was excited about the finished product and turned it in early.
Terry rolled into the room with a jam-box in his lap. I wondered what was up. Was he going to play my tape? My stomach turned over. The thought made me nervous. I told myself he would not do that. It probably wasn't as good as I had thought. He placed the tape player on the dais. He said, "Before we discuss the next film I want to tell you about a project that was turned in early by one of your classmates." My face heated up. Oh Lord. I hoped he was talking about someone else's project. Sort of. I also hoped that he was talking about my project. He went on, "Someone in this classroom has turned in the best project I have ever received." Holy Crap! Could he be talking about me? That would be a first. Surely it was someone else. Then he started describing the project. My project. I was breaking out in a nervous sweat. I thought he was going to say my name. He didn't. He told the class that he had listened to it several times. He talked about how much the music from that era had meant to him. Then he played it. LOUD! He was smiling. He was snapping his fingers to the music. I was shifting between ecstatic at his enthusiasm and then completely embarrassed every time my nasally sounding voice came back in over the music.
He played the whole thing. When it finished the class burst into applause! Now I wanted him to say my name. He didn't. I caught the eye of the girl who sat beside me. I gestured to myself. She mouthed, "That was you?" I nodded. She whispered, "Wow. You're like Walter Cronkite." Best compliment I had ever gotten!
I didn't start out in Terry's class a tabula rasa. I had words and phrases. I had images. I had music. But his class didn't just add new information to my slate. He taught me that I was an ever expanding canvas. New space was being created all the time. Clean, white space to paint colorful new ideas. Blank space not just to record music but to recognize its power. I learned that ideologies were not meant to be permanent tattoos. I learned to find confidence in my voice. And that I could use my voice to speak up in the hope that there will be a day when we come into this world and it etches only the word LOVE on our slate. That our world will not even have a need for the word PEACE because it has no opposite.
I wanted to thank Dr. Terry Frazier for the amazing experience I had as a student in his Film Class called The Vietnam Experience when I attended UNCC in 1988. Now through the power of blogging and the magic of Facebook I had that opportunity. Terry and I had a mutual friend on Facebook who helped us reconnect with each other. So we have now communicated via text and plan to get together when he visits Charlotte later this year. It has been an excellent turn of events. I am forever grateful that he had the courage to share his experiences, feelings, and beliefs about Vietnam with his students and I count myself lucky in the rarest kind of way to have been in his classroom.
Scott LeGette Franklin lives in Charlotte, NC with his wife Miriam and daughters Eliana and Carissa. He graduated from UNC at Charlotte in 1989 with a degree in Psychology. He is currently Broker-in-Charge for Savvy and Co Real Estate. He has recently taken up writing personal narratives for its therapeutic effect. He blogs at insaneearthlings.blogspot.com