I arrived back in America on April Fools Day, 1971.
My reward from Peace Corps for extending my service was a month’s vacation, six bucks a day per diem, and a ticket home and back. Bangkok and New York were antipodes on the globe, so I scored a round-the-world ticket. I was curious to see how I felt about America. We had been warned. Soldiers returning from Vietnam weren’t the only ones who suffered “re-entry shock.”
Hawaii was as pretty as ever, but the mood in America had changed. When I left, America pulsed with energy, passion, political debate. Two short years later, everybody seemed burned out on politics.
Peace Corps asked me to visit the Big Island and talk to Thai 35, staging for Thailand. We were ancient history to Joe Blatchford’s new Peace Corps. I didn’t find many rebels, cynics, oddballs among the trainees. Many seemed to be apolitical, worse yet, Republican.
The Hilo Tribune ran a story about President Nixon maybe giving Lt. Calley a presidential pardon after his conviction for murdering “33 oriental human beings, by means of shooting them with a rifle" during the My Lai massacre. “Sounds fair to me,” a trainee told me. “Accidents happen in war.”
I met another guy who planned to work at Disneyland when his tour was over. “They have a great benefits package,” he assured me.
In their favor, they included fewer kids straight out of college with nothing but a liberal arts degree; more professionals with real life work experience. I spent one enjoyable evening talking story on the porch steps with a 50-year old guy who had sold his construction company in Denver. He and his middle-aged lady friend were enthusiastic and eager to experience Thailand, do good. It occurred to me they might do a better job than I did.
Gary Peterson, one of the younger trainees, was heading for an all-day rock festival in Hilo and I tagged along. I was in Thailand when 400,000 kids descended on Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in upstate New York for three days in August 1969 and pulled off the greatest love-in the world had ever seen. My brother Gene hitchhiked over from Boston to share the dope and acid, protest the war, and listen to rock royalty – Jimi Hendrix, Arlo Guthrie, The Who, Blood, Sweat and Tears, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. I caught the documentary in a Bangkok movie theater the following year. Woodstock was edited by fellow NYU film school attendee Martin Scorsese who spent a few years in the seminary like me before switching to film, and included a shot of my brother Gene waiting in line to use a porta-pottie.
Like Andy Warhol said, we all get out 15 minutes of fame.
Gary and I hitched a ride into Hilo with a middle-aged Japanese-American driving a beat-up Chevy truck. We told him we were Peace Corps Volunteers. He wanted to know why we weren’t wearing our Peace Corps ID tags. Maybe he thought we were hippies. He didn’t like them. He told us he just lost his only son in Vietnam, and tears started running down his cheeks. I didn’t know what to say, and neither did Gary. We rode the rest of the way in silence.
The costumes at the Hilo festival were familiar – army surplus jackets, tie-dye T-shirts, Jesus hair – but the wearers seemed oddly weary, their actions staged. There wasn’t much joy in evidence. The band spent 30 minutes fiddling with their mikes and amps and jacks. The music was bad. You needed pakalolo to stand it. A drizzle started to fall. One girl, maybe 17-18, knew the script. She stripped down to her bra and panties, danced and spun with her arms outstretched, eyes closed, a flower child receiving the blessing of the sky. I saw her later eating a cheeseburger and arguing with her boyfriend. The park was booked until 10 PM but by four the crowd had melted down to the band and a few groupies. Even the “pigs” had left.
The East Coast had a better vibe. Family, familiar food, my old room. In a bedside drawer, I found the letter my draft board sent me ordering me to report to Boston for my pre-induction physical. It seemed like another life.The New York Times ran a big story on an “Earth Day” celebration in the city and I drove in. It was springtime, the trees were starting to bud, and Sixth Avenue was blocked off and lined with booths stocked with literature and manned by smiling, eager college kids. The crowd was enormous.
The crowd was tiny at an anti-war rally I attended in New Fairfield a few days later with my brother Francis. It was sunny but chilly. A stiff breeze blew the Quaker flyers out of your hand and tore at the tacked up Peace Now posters.
“Where is everybody?” I asked.
“Home,” my brother Francis said. “Nixon figured it out. Co-opt the college kids. They’re the ones who scream the loudest.”
“But they’re still being drafted.”
“Not many.” Up on the stage, a folksinger was strumming away to an empty school field. “Besides, you only have to beat it once now. Then you can get on with your life.” The wind was brisk. He put on his gloves and turned up his collar. “Everybody your age is already back in grad school, or making money. People are bored with the war.”
I got a surprise call from Cornell Hawkridge. He was in Boston. His grand expose had finally come out and he had a copy of the book for me. “The American publishers were too fucking afraid, but I got a British publisher to do it,” he growled, still pissed, still determined to make America face up to its sins. “They used a photo of you and Scott at the market with the looted U.S. combat gear,” he added,” but it doesn’t show your faces.”I invited him down to Bethel and we spent the evening at my family’s house.
A Very Personal War turned out to be as unforgiving as Cornell. The cover sported an American flag. The stripes on the flag were formed of lines of bright red type: There were over 5,000 CIA agents in Vietnam at the same time as Cornelius Hawkridge. They must have been looking the other way. This is the book the authorities tried to suppress. The documentary evidence of a war that breeds millionaires from the corruption of the world’s most powerful army.
Cornell had to get back to the city. I thanked him for the book and we shook hands. He was one of a kind, and I felt sad to see him go. Something was leaving with him.
“What kind of impact do you think the book will have?” I asked him.
“In the U.S.?” he spat out. “Nothing. You Americans don’t get it.” Nobody ever accused Cornell of pulling his punches.
I read Cornell’s book on my way down to Washington D.C. Mike Morrow told me Dispatch News was struggling. They made their reputation on the My Lai massacre story, but remained a small, underpaid commune of journalists. Fame hadn’t brought them fortune.
The American public was tiring of a war in far-away Asia we were going to lose, and newspaper editors knew it. The big story was the breakup of the Beatles, announced by Paul McCartney that day.
I took a cab over to Dispatch’s tiny office on R Street and talked with Dick Berliner about their future and mine. The anti-war People’s Coalition was looking for video they could buy and use as part of a nationwide teach-in. A few other organizations had promised to look at the service when we had something to sell. I promised to stay in touch.
I was back home on the night of April 22, 1971 sitting at the kitchen table talking with my mom when my dad watching TV in the next room called out.
“Who’s your friend trying to tell everyone about the secret bombing up in Laos?”
“He’s on the news right now.”
I hurried into the room and there on the NBC Evening News was Fred, testifying at a public hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on refugees. “…the United States has been carrying out the most protracted bombings in history in Laos..” We couldn’t claim ignorance anymore as a nation. Fred was making sure of that. Slowly but surely, it was all coming out and when it did, unlike Hawkridge I had faith America would finally “get it.”
After Connecticut, I flew to Shannon, Ireland and took a train to Dublin. I loved Ireland. Everybody had the gift of gab, train conductors spoke in poetry. Before he left Bangkok, Irish Brian gave me his home address. Drop by if I ever found myself in Dublin. I was and I did, but he wasn’t home. “He’s not back yet,” his ma told me. Still on the road.
After visiting the dingy, grey, dead-end street he came from, with its blowing litter, graffiti-covered concrete walls and boarded up pubs, I understood why he left.
Don’t expect him back any time soon, missus.