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A Crucible Endured
By John Crandell
October 20th, 2020: Once again I've voted for that young Captain Willard—for president, done wrote in the actor's name, just as I did four years ago. It is now two weeks before the 2020 presidential election and as a resident of a state that'll vote heavily for Joe Biden, I can afford to vote for anyone I want, vote in honor of the actor who rendered one of cinema's greatest unrecognized performances, who was not nominated for an award for his contribution to Apocalypse Now and it remains thoroughly impossible to imagine that flick without his presence in it. Out of the question, period.
That film premiered in the US in mid-August 1979, both in New York and at the Cinerama Dome near Sunset and Vine in Hollywood. Colonel Kurtz had been pulling into the driveway next door where I lived in a narrow canyon a few blocks from Pacific Coast Highway north of Santa Monica. As he stepped out of his champagne Caddie to go in and visit his sister, he'd look up into the forest of Eucalyptus enhancing the north slope of Rustic Canyon, the same view that had been reminding me of Vietnam. His sister had been blacklisted during the red scare and was not immune to accosting me, an aspiring landscape architect living above Judge Pastor's back garage, for tossing an occasional rock into Rustic Creek while planting a meadow of crimson red Azaleas. Six months hence, a monsoon caused the canyon to flood. Pets, front yard landscapes, chaparral and a brand new Mercedes were swept towards the Pacific. I warned her before it hit and she wouldn't listen, said she'd lived there for decades and such was impossible. Then came the horror. One will never forget Jocelyn with her telephone standing there on her front deck picturing the dramatic scene for the colonel. Afterward, she left a bottle of Cabernet sitting on the steps up to my second floor abode. She adored her brother, said it hadn't been easy for him – being him.
Who will win the next presidency two weeks from now? These past five years have been a hideous time to witness. The pendulum has hit apogee, and is reversing direction. If not, human civilization is likely finished. What shall transpire between now and next May's edition of The Veteran? Last night via Netflix, I saw the new movie about the trial of the Chicago 7. The finish line found me stomping, cheering, clapping and laughing – with tears in my eyes. Then I remembered the spot on Malcolm Avenue where I said my last goodbye to tunnel rat and pointman Norb Scheppers a few steps away from where Jerry Rubin had been hit jaywalking across Wilshire Boulevard, along where I would walk one day in winter 2003 towards Westwood United Methodist Church to sit up front and listen to Arriana Huffington, actor Mike Farrell, and others inveigh against the coming invasion of Iraq. There was Tom Hayden, sitting in profile, still as a choir boy, ready to pounce upon Cheney and Bush and their gambit. As someone once said a long time ago, the government forces us to take an active personal part in its proceedings, on pain of becoming ourselves, the victims of its violence.
November 26th, 2020: Near three weeks ago, Joe Biden was declared as president elect. Running outside with a tire iron, I rapped on an old trash can and yelled as loud as possible. Through the years here on The Farm I've imagined, pictured a scene in my mind, of a funeral for Darrel Finch. The scene in my mind has been something of a cortege out along the lane out front, of an old wooden flatbed wagon being pulled by one or two mules and a flag draped casket being born eastward to a waiting hearse parked at the highway. The family and attendees walk behind. It is dusk and suddenly the sky is rent by star bursts, as if it were the Fourth of July.
He died early yesterday evening of COVID-19, having asked not to be put on a ventilator. Payton, his grandson, is presently aboard the Navy's most secret submarine somewhere out in the Pacific. He now inherits everything on Darrel's two acres. Payton's father stayed by Darrel's bedside all day yesterday and held his hand as he lay dying. Darrel uttered that he was through and ready to exit this world. He'd been contending with diabetes for at least a decade, caused by contact with Agent Orange in his job with the Fourth Infantry Division in the Central Highland of southeast Asia. In 2003 I'd come here to visit old friends from college days and he saw and recognized the license plate on my '84 Skylark—2PLEIKU. He told Bonni and Bob that I could move in anytime and so I moved out of LA forever. Unmistakable messages from organized crime in my own profession thereat had given warning. Seventeen years now living here beneath double canopy have been a perfect, fiery combination of Kesey's One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest and Sometimes A Great Notion, a neo-Mad Max community in a dystopian century's infancy.
Simply by happenstance, this evening of a Thanksgiving Day, the sky towards the north was rent by starbursts; colorful explosions above a pentacostal church along the highway. They continued on and off for at least half an hour as I prepared a holiday meal. And I thought of Darrel at his uproarious best, in his arguments, out in his field digging and laying pipe and splitting wood come winter. His recent years had been a misery and he'd rather have been in his cups if his health had allowed. He was an outsized character, said that his time in 'Nam was the best year of his life. That can only indicate that he had been the center of everyone's attention where he labored, overseeing the supply of munitions for the division's third brigade. He'd been medevac'd home from Camp Enari a month before I was assigned there.
January 7th, 2021: Neil Sheehan, one of the giants of American journalism who reported the early era of the US war in Vietnam died today. In 1980 he authored a Pulitzer Prize winning book about the war and later served as the secret conduit for and main writer of the New York Times' historic revelation—The Pentagon Papers (courtesy of Daniel Ellsberg)—which as we all know brought the wrath of felonious Dick Nixon. There are two things about Sheehan which various obituaries today make no mention of. One is to reference what David Halberstam once wrote—of the years of haunted agony that Neil endured between his time reporting from South Vietnam and the point of being able to finish producing his great book – A Bright Shining Lie. The other point is that it was Neil who dug deep enough to discover that in January of 1945, Franklin Roosevelt turned America's back on Ho Chi Minh, refused assistance to the Vietnamese nationalist in the latter's effort to evict French colonialists. Among historians, the popular conception had/has been that Roosevelt had decided that America would oppose France's resumption of control over Vietnam in the wake of World War II. Sheehan's persistence revealed the true fact.
A curiously anomalous work examining the early years of America's descent into the swamp of southeast Asia would be published in 1997. It is based primarily upon an impressive array of primary source materials, more specifically—government records. The book was authored by then-Army major H.R. McMaster, a 1984 graduate of West Point. The publication—Dereliction of Duty— drew many positive notices and has never been reviewed within The Veteran. It is a very remarkable, veritably astonishing achievement in that he, a field grade officer, conducted the research and writing alone. Ironic then, that a read of his impressive profile on Wikipedia, leads anyone with an ounce of common sense to wonder why he would be so naive as to sign on as the very first in a string of Donald Trump's national security advisors. Despite all of the accolades, his foremost assumption regarding Lyndon Johnson's intent in conducting war needs to be aired. As well, it remains unfortunate that the title of his book remains so apt in regards to our country's continued involvement in the Mideast.
January 8th, 2021: NPR today relates that the chief investigator who delved into (only German) war crimes in the wake of World War II says that there was no "greatest generation" of that era, that he believes that the true greatest generation was/were those who arose and protested the US government's prosecution of American violence in Vietnam. The Speaker of the House today is telling BoneSpur Trump to either resign his office or be impeached in the wake of an historic insurrection on Capitol Hill. Twelve days remain until Joe Biden becomes Commander in Chief —after four long years of absurdity, mendacity, stoking of hate and lunacy—five and a half years after Trump's unbound egomania had become starkly apparent. One remembers the final months of the Nixon administration, snapping a photo of Gerald Ford waving at me as I leaned ten feet distant against the front fender of the vice presidential limousine a week before he replaced Tricky Dick. Reading, watching and listening, one feels that the present time is unprecedented and potently epic in American history, towers above Dick Nixon's demise. It is a Frank Capra cinematic dream come true to life and we are in no way near leaving the woods of this nightmare of lurid self deception.
Oh to be a fly on the wall of whatever room in the White House that Trump now inhabits. Ronald Reagan's speechwriter is saying that we should lower the boom on all those involved and responsible for the insurrection. JabbaSaurus' recent communications director now says that he has to go. The always insidious editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, generals John Kelly and James Mattis now, at long last cast blame upon POTUS for subjugating American democracy.
January 20, 2021: Ringed by barbed wire, a Capital inauguration. AF1 lands at a deserted Florida airport and no one is present to greet Donald Loser Trump. A woman assumes power, in a purple coat. Gaga sings, dressed in a red tent. Everyman Joe is sworn in, ten-plus minutes before he becomes commander in chief—a sober, unprecedented time in a Civil War renewed. We hear insipid sentences apparently scripted alone. Conventional ideas in a common, pendulus tone—contest to a daunting prospect. Nowhere near a Roosevelt, a Kennedy and surely not a Lincoln. Yet he speaks of truth, without inspiration. Minutes of silence for victims lost. Words without imagination at a moment leaving one to imagine what crucibles will yet be endured. The day and era beg exhilaration, as the sun breaks through. Kipling once wrote: "words are the most powerful drug."
February 1, 2020: Many a VVAW veteran may recall an astonishing photo taken long ago from Mutter's Ridge above Highway 9, west of Camp Carroll. Who took that photo? The Marine Corps conducted various deployments along the ridge during the mid to late Sixties. The most famous is known as the Battle of Mutter's Ridge. I once wrote to John Kerry at his senate office and asked if he knew who created the image. It being the photograph of a deserted mortar emplacement overlooking "The Rockpile" near the DMZ. It forms a two page spread in Kerry's/VVAW's 1971 publication of The New Soldier, the pictorial account of the organization's now storied event on The Mall and Capitol Steps in Washington. Interesting that the book's list of photo credits doesn't indicate who created that resonant image. Does any reader know who made that photograph? To say that that evocative photograph is haunting doesn't begin to do it justice. Please, someone tell us. A prominent enlargement ought to be permanently mounted in the National Gallery of Art.
Ave atque vale—Darrel Dean Finch and Cornelius Mahoney "Neil"Sheehan—at this discomposed point in the nation's life.
Due to stubborness, John Crandell kept getting himself detailed to fill sandbags, spray herbicide as well as be dispatched to sell money orders in the boonies for the 4th Division postal unit circa 1969 and 1970. Ultimately, he organized and wrote a protest against malfeasance by his unit's CO and NCOIC, gained every enlisted man's signature and sent the protest directly to Creighton Abrams at MACV. Unfortunately, the letter returned via Army chain of command two months later.
Neil Sheehan with journos Halberstam and Browne, circa 1963 (Associated Press).