Lifestyles - Then and Now- War is an issue
one day in the summer of 1971
I walked into a local Navy recruiting station.
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
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 Ive seen or what books Ive
read or which of my friends that went to the war Ive talked to,
I believe that the war was far more horrific than Ill ever know.
I may have been following what was "hip" at the time; Ive
been accused of that. And it was "hip" to be against the war.
I guess Ill admit it. But it all came down to this; I didnt
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-Im-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 didnt 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.
"Im still here. Dont 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 didnt 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 couldnt avert our thoughts, like we couldnt
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 couldnt
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 didnt 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 didnt
understand the war. I didnt know about death and I didnt
want to know. "Psst," hissed the war. "Im still
here." Will the war go on? Oh God, will the war go on? "Soon,"
it said. "Youre 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 didnt want to go
to war. I began to reason that Id rather sit on a ship on the
ocean rather than hump through a jungle. I thought, what the hell, if
I gotta go anyway, Ill 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
Id rather join the Navy than be drafted into the Army. Id
rather help launch jets than shoot rifles. Id never shot a rifle
in my life and didnt want to start now. I told him Id 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 shouldnt be there and I shouldnt have to go there.
"Youre absolutely right." He said with a smile.
I liked this guy right away. He understood me. He wasnt 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
Hmm, let me think about that. What do I really like to do? Lets
see, Im 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, thats 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. Im as good as dead, Im a-goin
to war. Oh god.
But then he blurted "Great! So do I. Do you play music too?"
"I play the guitar."
"Great! Youre a musician. Thats great. I do a little
singing. Play a little bass guitar myself."
Yeah, yeah, Im a musician. Thats right. Im a musician.
Im not a soldier. I play the guitar not the bugle. I carry a guitar
not a gun. Yeah, yeah.
"Ill 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. "Ill
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 didnt
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 surfers
dream. Beautiful girls in bikinis, the Bonzai Pipeline, Wiamea Bay,
Sunset Beach. Oh yeah, I wanted to go to Hawaii. Where I didnt
want to go was Hanoi.
"Ill 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.
"Ill 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. "Its obvious. Youre
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. Ill arrange for you to go to Hawaii. You can be in the navy
band. Youre a musician. Its 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. Hed see to it that I, his friend and fellow musician,
wouldnt go to Vietnam. Hed send me to Hawaii. Id 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
I was holding his pen. I was looking at the forms he had laid out. I
looked at him, my buddy, my savior. He wasnt 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 doesnt sound right. Im a
surfer; I like the ocean, the Navys a perfect fit for me? He actually
said that. I looked at him. He was my buddy. He wasnt 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
Then something hit me. Wait a minute, I thought, wait a minute. This
guy just winked at me. Heres 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 hadnt signed anything. I leaned
my head to the side. I looked at him. I didnt say anything. I
knew, though, that this guy wasnt going to send me to Hawaii to
play guitar in the Navy band. They didnt 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 didnt like
the image I was getting. I pushed my chair back away from his desk.
I looked at him then I stood up. I didnt say a word. Then I did
something Ill never forget. Possibly one of the greatest things
Ive 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 wasnt going to Hawaii but for now I wasnt 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 werent
the perfect waves of The Pipeline but I didnt 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, "Youre
mine." But I wasnt.
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 didnt. 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 Dylans "Blowin In The Wind"
and Seegers "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. Im too old,
hopefully, to go to war, but my son
.oh god, will the war go on?
Its still always there, reflecting its ugly face at us wherever
we look. It taps us on the shoulder and cackles, "Heh, heh, heh.
Im 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 Im still wondering if that white dove will
ever rest. Will the war go on? Will another war start? Im left
wondering; wheres 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 mens 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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