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Lifestyles - Then and Now- War is an issue


Jeffrey Beyl

So one day in the summer of 1971
I walked into a local Navy recruiting station.
Giving Peace a chance

'never trust a person in uniform who winks at you '

I thought he was going to shoot me in the back. I thought he was going to grab me in a headlock, handcuff me, throw me in the brig and have me drawn and quartered. As I walked away I expected at any second to be shackled and chained and hung from the yardarm. And all I did was protest the war.

Pete Seeger once wrote a song called "Where Have All The Flowers Gone?" It was one of many songs of protest against war that I had learned to play and sang with conviction and belief back in the late sixties. In his song Seeger wonders where all of the young men are and he answers himself by stating that they have all gone off to war.
Well, not all.

You see, even though I never went to the war it was always there. It hung in the air like humidity. It stared back at us from the mirror, from our television screens on the nightly news. It washed up on the beach at high tide. It occupied our thoughts. It invaded our dreams. It was always there. It was a ghost. It haunted us. We thought about it, we talked about it, we fretted over it. Vietnam; it had a presence. Even though we never went to the war it was always there. It tapped us on the shoulder and said, "Hey! Here I am. Remember me?"

I know now that the war was far more horrible than I could have ever imagined. Despite what movies I’ve seen or what books I’ve read or which of my friends that went to the war I’ve talked to, I believe that the war was far more horrific than I’ll ever know. I may have been following what was "hip" at the time; I’ve been accused of that. And it was "hip" to be against the war. I guess I’ll admit it. But it all came down to this; I didn’t want to go.

It was called the rock and roll war. We listened to its music. I fell right into step with John Lennon when he sang "Give Peace A Chance". I believed in Pete Seeger when he sang "Where Have All The Flowers Gone?" and Bob Dylan when he sang "Blowin In The Wind". I was a member of the Woodstock generation. When Country Joe McDonald sang the "I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin-To-Die-Rag" I was right there with him singin along with the bouncing ball. I rocked and swayed and clapped along with Jimi Hendrix as he played the sounds of the war as raging feedback in his version of "The Star Spangled Banner." I wanted the war to end. I didn’t want to go. Oh yeah, even though I never went to the war it was always there to remind me that I could be forced to go at any time. "Pssst," it whispered in my ear. "I’m still here. Don’t forget about me."

Will the war go on? Will the war go on? Oh God, will the war go on? This we wondered and worried over. I didn’t want to go. But as I neared draft -able age I worried all the more. As the statistics and the body count skyrocketed so did the level of my apprehension and fear. It became tangible. We couldn’t avert our thoughts, like we couldn’t avert our eyes while looking at the bloody tongue of a road killed dog or the bloated, dead carcass of a sea lion awash in the surf. We couldn’t ignore it. We wanted to. We wanted it to go away. We wanted the war to end, to never have begun. We smelled it, our own trepidation, like smelling our own body odor. It was palpable.

It was strange to think that there were people suffering and dying over in Vietnam while we hung out on the beach and checked out the chicks tanned by the summer sun. I didn’t want to go. I wanted to surf. I wanted to listen to rock and roll. I wanted to play my guitar. I wanted to smoke a joint with my friends and watch the sun set. I didn’t understand the war. I didn’t know about death and I didn’t want to know. "Psst," hissed the war. "I’m still here." Will the war go on? Oh God, will the war go on? "Soon," it said. "You’re mine soon."

My brother registered for the draft in 68. I registered in 70. My brother got lucky. They never pulled his number. I was still classified 1-H, too young. So I went back to the beach and looked at the girls. I went back to the world of rock and roll. But I was at the younger end of the group I hung out with and a couple of my friends were called up. Uh-Oh! I figured that sooner or later I was doomed. I talked with my mother and father. I talked with my friends. I didn’t want to go to war. I began to reason that I’d rather sit on a ship on the ocean rather than hump through a jungle. I thought, what the hell, if I gotta go anyway, I’ll go on my own terms. So one day in the summer of 1971 I walked into a local Navy recruiting station.

I remember sitting in the recruiting office telling the officer that I’d rather join the Navy than be drafted into the Army. I’d rather help launch jets than shoot rifles. I’d never shot a rifle in my life and didn’t want to start now. I told him I’d rather swab the deck or clean the head than kill people. Oh, he understood perfectly. He agreed with me. It was a terrible war. It was an unjust war. We shouldn’t be there and I shouldn’t have to go there. "You’re absolutely right." He said with a smile.
I liked this guy right away. He understood me. He wasn’t going to send me off to die in Vietnam. He leaned forward earnestly in his chair. He appraised me. "What do you really like to do?" He asked.
Hmm, let me think about that. What do I really like to do? Let’s see, I’m seventeen years old, I live on the beach. I like to surf and swim and play two-man beach volleyball. I like to collect abalone shells from the tide pools. I like girls. I like rock and roll music. Yeah, that’s it.
"Well, I like music." I said.

There was a brief moment of hesitation in his response and for that brief moment I began to feel a bit like an idiot. Oh No, I thought, that does me no good. I’m as good as dead, I’m a-goin’ to war. Oh god.
But then he blurted "Great! So do I. Do you play music too?"
"I play the guitar."
"Great! You’re a musician. That’s great. I do a little singing. Play a little bass guitar myself."
Yeah, yeah, I’m a musician. That’s right. I’m a musician. I’m not a soldier. I play the guitar not the bugle. I carry a guitar not a gun. Yeah, yeah.
"I’ll tell you what," he said. "Tell you what." He nodded. He winked at me. He was my buddy. He understood. This was a terrible war. No one should have to go to Vietnam. "I’ll tell you what I can do for you. Let me ask you, do you surf?"
"Yeah! I said. Of course I was a surfer. I was a longhaired punk from southern California. I played guitar and surfed and I didn’t want to go to war.
"Hmm." He thought a moment. He was looking down into his lap. Then he snapped his fingers and looked up at me suddenly. "Ever been to Hawaii?" he asked.
"No." But I sure wanted to go to Hawaii. Hawaii, every surfer’s dream. Beautiful girls in bikinis, the Bonzai Pipeline, Wiamea Bay, Sunset Beach. Oh yeah, I wanted to go to Hawaii. Where I didn’t want to go was Hanoi.
"I’ll tell you what I can do for you," he said. He reached into his desk drawer and brought out some forms that he laid in front of me so I could read them on the desktop. He leaned across his desk and handed me a pen. He was smiling. He was my buddy. He understood. "I’ll send you to Hawaii. Would you like that?"
"Yeah!" I was nodding enthusiastically. My head was bobbing like one of those woogedy-woogedy dogs you sometimes see in the back window of station wagons. I could see the perfect tubes of the Pipeline. I could see the bronze-skinned girls with long, sun-bleached hair. I could feel the trade winds in my own long hair. I could feel the sand in my toes.
"It only makes sense," he said. "It’s obvious. You’re a surfer. You like the ocean. The Navy is a perfect fit for you." He gestured toward the forms. "Go on ahead and start filling those out. I’ll arrange for you to go to Hawaii. You can be in the navy band. You’re a musician. It’s the perfect assignment for you. What do you think?"

He was smiling. He was beaming with pride. He was my friend. He knew. It was a terrible war. It was an unjust war. No one should have to go to Vietnam. He’d see to it that I, his friend and fellow musician, wouldn’t go to Vietnam. He’d send me to Hawaii. I’d play guitar in the Navy band. I could surf the perfect waves of Hawaii. I could check out the perfect chicks of Hawaii. It was the perfect assignment for me.

I was holding his pen. I was looking at the forms he had laid out. I looked at him, my buddy, my savior. He wasn’t going to send me away to die. He was going to send me to Hawaii. Sun, surf, girls. I was a musician. He was going to arrange for me to play the guitar in the Navy band.
What? Wait a minute. I was going to play the guitar in the Navy band? The guitar? Wait a minute. That doesn’t sound right. I’m a surfer; I like the ocean, the Navy’s a perfect fit for me? He actually said that. I looked at him. He was my buddy. He wasn’t going to send me away to die in Vietnam. He knew. He understood. He was going to send me off to Hawaii to play guitar in the Navy band. He winked at me.

Then something hit me. Wait a minute, I thought, wait a minute. This guy just winked at me. Here’s a piece of advice; never trust a person in uniform who winks at you, especially when there is a war raging. Wait just a cotton pickin’ minute.

I put his pen down onto his desk. I hadn’t signed anything. I leaned my head to the side. I looked at him. I didn’t say anything. I knew, though, that this guy wasn’t going to send me to Hawaii to play guitar in the Navy band. They didn’t use guitars in the Navy band. This guy was probably going to send me right off to get my butt shot in Vietnam. I thought about that for a moment. I didn’t like the image I was getting. I pushed my chair back away from his desk. I looked at him then I stood up. I didn’t say a word. Then I did something I’ll never forget. Possibly one of the greatest things I’ve ever done. I flipped him the bird right in his smiling face and I turned and walked out of his office.
"Hey! Wait a minute," he yelled. "Hey! Hey! Hey! Come back here! Hey!"

I thought he was going to shoot me in the back. It was all I could do to keep walking and not turn around while visions of being shackled and chained flooded my head. But I walked out into the sunshine. I was a little nervous but I was smiling now. It was a beautiful day. I felt free. I wasn’t going to Hawaii but for now I wasn’t going to Vietnam either. I lived on the beach in southern California, home of sun, surf and girls. It was a beautiful day. I went home and got my guitar. I went down to the beach. I sat on a rock. I took out my guitar and played "Blowin In The Wind". I played "Where Have All The Flowers Gone?" Then I played them both again. To this day those songs hold a special place in my mind. They set me free.

I sat on the beach. I played my guitar. The waves rolled in. They weren’t the perfect waves of The Pipeline but I didn’t care. I looked out across the ocean. I was alive. I was free. But across that ocean was a country with strange foreign names like Dak To and Khe San. Across that ocean was a country where people like me were dying. I never did go to the war but it was always there. It tapped me on the shoulder and whispered "Pssst. Remember me?" Sometimes it reared up and whacked me in the face, "Hey!" it screamed, "You’re mine." But I wasn’t.

No, I never did go to the war. Any war. Thank god. Nor did my brother. But it was always there. Sometimes I feel a certain twinge of guilt about that. I got lucky. A lot of other guys didn’t. They never called me up. Then they did away with the draft and soon thereafter America pulled out of Vietnam. So I never went. But I did go to Hawaii. And I still play the guitar not the bugle. And once in a while, with my toes in the sand and the sun going down below the Pacific, I still play "Blowin In The Wind."
But there have been other wars and now we have a new one looming. Other countries with different names that we worry our sons may have to go to. The world turns and Dylan’s "Blowin In The Wind" and Seeger’s "Where Have All The Flowers Gone?" are just as poignant today as they were that day back in 71’ when I played them on the beach. This is now thirty years later. I’m too old, hopefully, to go to war, but my son….oh god, will the war go on?

It’s still always there, reflecting its ugly face at us wherever we look. It taps us on the shoulder and cackles, "Heh, heh, heh. I’m still here." I may not have gone to the war but my country has, my neighbors have, my friends have and now I worry that my son may have to. And that bothers me. That bothers me a lot. I do believe in fighting evil but I’m still wondering if that white dove will ever rest. Will the war go on? Will another war start? I’m left wondering; where’s John Lennon now that we really need him? Can we "Give Peace A Chance"? Must all young men go off to become soldiers? Will all the flowers be picked by young women to be placed on their young men’s grave?
Even though I never went to the war it was always there. It still is. And that bothers me.

© Jeffrey Beyl 2003

Also by Jeffrey
The Ostrich and the Fog (Fiction)

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