RECOLLECTIONS: A Load of Stone
By Steve Geiger
I grew up on a farm in east central Ohio. It was 125 acres, at the time, small to average. Most farmers supplemented their income with some other work: in the local paper mill or driving a school bus. During WWII a farmer could get a deferment because farms = food and it doesn't matter whether the produce was food or fiber or tobacco, the product was needed for the people as much as bombs were for the machine. I assume his father got one a generation before during The Great War. Mechanization meant farming was no longer a horse drawn activity so a male was needed to get it done. What this all meant was I did not come from a military tradition. When the time came, I would be the patriot in the family, either by default of being the second son who didn't get a deferment (one son could get a deferment for the same reasons as the father) or by naïveté.
But in the early 50's on the school playground the military played its role, a sort of trickle down effect following the war. First grade was a blur. Later there were discussions around "What did your father do in the war?" This often featured the accusation that if your father didn't serve he was somehow not as patriotic as the accuser's father who had gone off either to Europe, the Pacific or later Korea. This came of course from someone whose father was in the Army. After a consultation at home over this question, "What did you do in the war, Daddy?" I was told to point out that somebody had to grow food or the Army wouldn't be able to fight. But my defense always seemed to ring a little hollow with the kid whose father was in the Army. After all, no one got shot plowing a field.
Flash ahead to 1966 and college and the draft and I was lobbying for AFROTC as a way to do my part. Being loving parents they didn't want their last born to be turned over to the dangers and unknown ways of military service, so there was the admission of fear on their part, and on mine, the first recognition that joining was not an entirely positive thing to do. They feared the worst. I was blind to the protesters on Ohio State University's (OSU) campus, perhaps I was in denial; it did seem to me that there were no commies lurking off the Pacific coast and my course in the history of Vietnam taught me there was a civil war there. I only knew airplanes were a way to get out of there.
Their fear seemed a little overly emotional to me. What the fuck did I know about emotion? Looking back now—I clearly should have listened to them, but today I understand I should have been motivated by understanding the lies more than a fear of the unknown.
There was one farmer that I knew who was brave enough to voice the opinion that he wouldn't blame anyone for not sending his son off to this war. I do not know if he suffered anything more than whispers behind his back, but he was the only one that I heard voice that opinion. My parents neither defended him nor criticized. In Fairfield County, other than this dissenter, who now seems like a towering intellect, most defectors only spoke in whispers and only to those who they knew were in agreement. My memory is that only the youth were creating dissent to this war. Open dissent on campus was part of what only those radical Ohio State students did, but most in the countryside were not in favor of that "free speech" movement at OSU which was opposed by Ohio's Senator Bricker. He carried clout mostly because state schools received financial support from the government. Draft cards were being burned on many campuses, and the power structure saw that as a slap in the face, if not cowardly. Bricker tried to prevent the commie Herbert Aptheker from speaking on campus. Seems the First Amendment is subject to some limitations on state property. But Aptheker spoke and draft cards were burned.
So flash ahead further to 1973, a few months after I returned from flying missions in the B-52 and resumed civilian life. I was home on a visit, probably the first after leaving the service and I accompanied my father to the local quarry to get a couple tons of stone for the driveway in our two-ton '55 Chevy dump truck that was still in service hauling wheat to market. The quarry was a good 40 minutes away in that under-powered thing that could barely muster 45 mph when fully loaded. The quarry was a small operation, probably only two men, one front end loader and one guy on the scales. My dad was a township trustee and knew them from years of pothole maintenance that required a supply of stone each Spring, but those were brief encounters and as we shall see, didn't go very deep. They could easily go a year or two and not cross paths. Maybe they would say "Hi" at the county fair.
As the stone was being tended to, I'm hanging off one of the sideboards of the truck body looking into the bed as they dump gravel into it. Stone being dense, you couldn't fill that truck bed, only a couple cubic yards at most and it would be flat on the springs, literally groaning under the weight; by volume it was probably half full. There was an air of caution not to overload it. So my father and I are both watching and thinking about hills on the return trip and whether the truck could handle it and when to stop the loader. A bit of guesswork here, this was not a measured or practiced operation.
"That's enough!" And while the quarryman idled the tractor at the side of the truck, my dad said "This is my son, he just returned from Veetnam." The quarryman nodded and said . . . NOTHING. He may have grunted. Now I had plenty of anger at being "had" for the last 5 years, but I was simultaneously proud my dad identified me and surprised he had said anything at all about where I had been. And I was silently burning at the lack of enthusiasm I was getting from this guy, Perry County's representative of the Silent Majority. Not a "yea," "nay"or just "how ya doin'?" My father may have just been glad I was home in one piece, and this relative outburst caught him off guard too, but he definitely expected some approval from this guy. I think I also felt bad for my father. I felt his balloon deflate. What the FUCK had just happened?? But neither of us said anything.
This wonderful Midwestern one-syllable-jargon that passes for conversation in the mid lands and characterizes the level of political sophistication that is produced by the local schools, is both an admission and a condemnation. In an instant I was left to wonder what had just gone down. Something surely had, but the convention was "don't make waves." My father may have had as much to be angry about as me, but he had to live with these people and frankly I only heard him cuss once in my life, such was the depth emotions were buried by that society. I may have been the only one capable of speaking out, but I hadn't found my voice yet. I thought this was where the silent majority lived. It was all a lie. There was apparently no patriotism in these back woods, or this quarryman would have congratulated me.
On the other hand, maybe he thought I was one of the guys that lost this war? Maybe he lost a son or someone close and I was being ostracized. Maybe I was receiving the short end of "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all." But being restrained in that Midwest demeanor—I said nothing and we returned to the task of moving the truck onto the scales and out of the stone yard. And so ended this mute stand-off.
Maybe it just caught him off guard. No. He was an asshole or stupid or both. More than likely it was an example of how unsophisticated we are as a country and how unable we are to cope with uncomfortable issues and deal with opposing views.
I don't remember what my dad and I talked about on the way back. We probably made our way home, breaking the silence with a comment on how the truck was really loaded down with this load of stone, laboring up one hill and over-revving on the downside. I do know we didn't talk about the war or the quarryman's grunted response to my dad's one moment of pride.
As I write this in 2016, I realize that I am, at age 70, still dealing with low-level PTSD.
Steve Geiger was a Captain in the USAF and flew 225 missions from U-Tapao, Thailand and Anderson, Guam.