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Friday, 21 May 2010

The Door Gunner to the Moment

Hueys in the LZ

Don Wentworth of Issa's Untidy Hut, commenting on the preceding post, Eternity -- a small fantasia upon the harrowing battle of Dak To in the Central Highlands of Kontum Province in November 1967 -- says this:

Have been reading sections of the Mahabharata, new Penguin John Smith translation, over the past few months and you have captured the essence. The proximity to nature, thus to death, which our culture is at such a remove from, adds to our horrific reaction to the Hindi POV; still it is all in the eyes of the soldiers, no matter what country or background. War, Death's close friend, makes us all equal in the end.

Don's thoughtful words gave pause for further thought.

"In the eyes of the soldiers..."
Always pretty much the same from that bottom-line POV, whether the soundtrack is a mournful phrase extracted from the dirgelike theme of a typical horrific day on the Eastern Front, or another set of shattered notes out of the unfinished Iraq requiem.

I recalled, reading Don's words, a moment in early 1968 when, swathed in a confining harness cast after a pretty bad car crash, I stubbornly attempted to continue a ragged cross country junket, and so found myself stranded in the Colorado Springs airport. This was immediately in the wake of Tet, the airport was jammed with young baby-faced soldiers being shuttled off to swell the ranks in that war in which it was by then apparent there was to be no winning, only more maiming and dying were left to be transacted. The looks on the green-clad soldiers' faces were ur-versions of the lost looks on the faces of those Airborne rangers pictured after the horror days at Dak To a few months before. The whole scene of mass apprehension and unrest at the crowded air terminal, whether viewed from subjective or objective perspective at that moment, seemed contained within some great formal national ritual of death production in which everyone in his own way was playing a part. But our culture obviously had/has no Mahabharata, nor anything resembling it, and so such rituals have no cosmic meaning, they are merely the endlessly recycling garbage of the historical, which finally has no meaning at all.

In later years I have returned repeatedly in my reveries to that wartime airport scene, a sort of impasse or roadblock that stands between my present geezer "mind" (optimistic I suppose to so dignify it) and any illusions that earlier more comfortable memories of being an American might have any real meaning at all.

A Shau Valley -  Socked in as usual!

And now again I'm thinking about a door gunner in the A Shau Valley in some documentary footage that keeps replaying in my head. It's 1968 or 1969, everything is green and blown in the rotor wash, the racket of the rotors won't stop in my mind as I lie in the dark and reimagine this scene.

It's a sleepwalker's fate to dream with eyes wide open. His dance with the moment allows him to know what is going on. Knowing he can't ever watch out well enough to save himself he must always knock himself out to watch out every fleeting moment. The jungle canopy seen from above is a seafloor of heaven, covering and concealing everything. Agitation of the rotor blades gives way to a weird calm and everything grows still. You forget everything, you remember everything, you remember only what you know and you know nothing.

A green reef of hill erupts with muzzle flashes and thin puffs of white smoke. You know everything has laws but mercy forms a great arc over everything, suspending laws of cause and effect in a great forgetting determined long ago. The world rocks and the rotation of the blades is suddenly disrupted by a great shock. Reality starts to spin yet still events lurch forward with a circular sameness, you are blown back against the struts, everything that happens now was ancient news long ago, nothing ever changes, a zombie glides through it all in your body with your eyes wide open.

First contact

Upper and lower images: US military action over A Shau Valley, Central Highlands, Vietnam, May 1969: stills from the film Hamburger Hill: The Real Story, directed by John Woggon

Middle image: A Shau Valley, Thua Thien Province, Republic of Vietnam, c. 1968: photographer unknown, from 1st Air Cavalry Division Assault into the A Shau Valley, 1968




Thanks for this, Don's "promixity to nature . . . which our culture is at such remove from," alongside your door gunner to the moment looking down to green jungle canopy, back to airport in Colorado Springs. Something of a similar (though different, further removed) memory in my head of the Oakland induction center, going for physical, everyone there about to be sent across the Pacific (or so it seemed to me, who somehow didn't get taken). . . . Back to more proximity to nature --


pink whiteness of clouds in pale blue sky
above ridge, sparrow calling from branch
in foreground, sound of wave in channel

what person considered “one,”
out of step with times

mirror reflection, kinds of
picture plane, looking

white clouds in pale blue sky above ridge,
wingspan of osprey circling above channel

TC said...


Yes, those were times it was in certain ways necessary to be "out of step with". O tempore & c.

TC said...

At the risk of seeming the self appointed deejay of historical suffering, here, in the spirit of ekphrasis, are some documentary embodiments of what was meant by "...a mournful phrase extracted from the dirgelike theme of a typical horrific day on the Eastern Front, or another set of shattered notes out of the unfinished Iraq requiem..."

Curtis Roberts said...

Everything in the writing of Sleepwalker powers/overpowers me and expresses clearly things I’ve felt, sometimes (not surprisingly) in dreams, although we once had an overwhelmingly bad crime experience that pulls me into the p.o.v. you’re working from. The “reverie” is fascinating and I’m glad you wrote it, not so much for the additional context it provides, but for the way you describe the Colorado Springs airport as a “wartime airport scene”. I’ve rarely, if ever, heard that description applied to an event taking place on American civilian soil and I don’t think most people perceived it that way. The war was always “over there” somewhere. Obviously, this had a great deal to do with 9/11’s impact (in the places it actually had impact). The problem with the “big” subjects (this is certainly one of those, maybe the biggest), obviously, is that they induce confusion, rather than clarity, and confusion has a way of persisting. When we became Quakers (Caroline was born a Quaker; I became a “Convinced Quaker”), things seemed so clear, even past the time I got the first “Hitler question” from someone. (The Hitler question is predictable, but not unwarranted or unfair.) After a while, though, confusion reasserted itself, but that’s not entirely a negative because confusion (or non-absolutism) can nurture tolerance, which is mostly a virtue, and “little Hitlers” inhabit Quaker meetings also.

Thanks, DJ, for posting these, including the photos, which have added to my knowledge and understanding. Learning that Gen. Kurt Student died, presumably happy and living well, at the age of 88, and probably sleeping more soundly than I do, makes me sleep less soundly than ever.

The Door Gunner To The Moment is a terrific title.

Sandra (if) said...

this reminds me of "Piloto de guerra" de Saint Exupery

TC said...


Ah yes, St. Exupéry seems to have been a bit of a sleepwalker. How else could he have survived three days on a thermos of coffee when his plane went down in the Sahara.

You know I suppose that in 1929-30 he flew incredibly over the Andes from Buenos Aires into Patagonia for Aeroporto, braving cold & wind etc. (and wrote about it wonderfully in Tierra de hombres and Vuelo nocturno).


Like a dream yes, a nightmare of history.

The time of which I speak was the first week of April 1968. The Spring General Offensive had been underway for some months. The third week of February was the worst of the war on the US side, 543 killed, 2547 wounded. At the end of February a new draft call went out for 48,000 men. McNamara stepped down in shame, the hawk Clifford stepped up. A lot of wide eyed callups were moving through the Springs that last week of March. Remember that was the week ML King was shot. There were riots. Civil unrest right here in the USA. A broken Johnson went on tv to say he would not run again. By then the military was asking for 100,000 more live bodies. War was in the air one breathed. People I had known in school and in ROTC had been blown away. Things were tense. Uniforms of one kind or another were about all that could be seen in that airport.

Angelica and I, in the preceding week, had been robbed, got married, survived a tremendous end-over-end wreck on the Ohio turnpike, and travelled, somehow, with all our worldly belongings (such as they were, a few clothes) about two-thirds of the way across country. What was going to come next for us or anyone was entirely in doubt at that moment.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Tom, you have made this scene so alive, conjuring a moment where all history seems to come together, a confluence of sorrow and struggle and loss, that it conjures for me painfully similar moments.

There was a feeling we were at war at home, a second front, the battle against the war - a mistake the succeeding generations of American warlords wouldn't repeat. No more draft. Simple. What comes more clearly into focus is the fact that the war on the home front is a class war. And, really, also in Iraq and Afghanistan, too, on the American side at least. Back then all, below a certain level, were threatened, all were potentially the baby faced recruits, all were potentially ur-versions of those Airborne rangers ... Now only the lower rungs of our caste system are threatened. My thoughts return to the Mahabharata, or rather a bizarre amalgam of the Mahabharata and some Heinleinesque future society of perpetual professional war, and a huge sadness for all those who now die without recognition. In both cultures, or all cultures, on all sides. Such incredible sorrow. Back in the day it seemed as if the populace turned against the soldiers; now, it seems as if the country, the government is the one that has turned its back and not only on the soldiers, but on all who don't share their ideology and POV.

Your memory of specifics galvanizes this moment, and anyone who has experienced anything remotely similar is there. The Kent State campus riots ... for me, a peaceful demonstration being coordinated by outside organizers, a bonfire in the center of a busy intersection in front of a large university. The Newark riot police, who cut their teeth in previous summers splitting heads in the ghetto, waiting. The "peaceful organizers" at the rear of a large crowd of students, suddenly lobbing bricks and bottles at the cops, the moment they'd been waiting for, and so heads were split once more, bones broken, women trampled.

The organizers gone, nowhere to be seen, mission accomplished.

To come away from a scene like that with a life-changing, bigger picture revelation - that is what was instantly conjured in my mind by your wartime airport scene. When I read the Mahabharata scenes like these are never far from mind and the cosmic perspective that you so rightly mentioned throws me right back on myself.

Robinson Jeffers might have noted that we are a troubling development of nature. Yet, looking around at nature itself, there is much there that serves as a template.

What a wonderful, strange, frightening, spinning "ball of confusion" it all is. Thanks very much for sharing these very personal, life defining moments.

It helps us all.


TC said...


Thanks very much again. Yes, all this comes back, and back.

You've put me in mind of Jeffers' 1934 letter to Sister Mary Powers, who had enquired about his religious beliefs.

"I believe that the Universe is one being, all its parts are different expressions of the same energy, and they are all in communication with each other, therefore parts of one organic whole. (This is physics, I believe, as well as religion.) The parts change and pass, or die, people and races and rocks and stars, none of them seems to me important in itself, but only the whole. This whole is in all its parts so beautiful, and is felt by me to be so intensely in earnest, that I am compelled to love it and to think of it as divine. It seems to me that this whole alone is worthy of the deeper sort of love and there is peace, freedom, I might say a kind of salvation, in turning one's affections outward toward this one God, rather than inwards on one's self, or on humanity, or on human imaginations and abstractions — the world of spirits.

"I think it is our privilege and felicity to love God for his beauty, without claiming or expecting love from him. We are not important to him, but he to us.

"I think that one may contribute (ever so slightly) to the beauty of things by making one's own life and environment beautiful, as far as one's power reaches.This includes moral beauty, one of the qualities of humanity, though it seems not to appear elsewhere in the universe. But I would have each person realize that his contribution is not important, its success not really a matter for exultation nor its failure for mourning; the beauty of things is sufficient without him.

"(An office of tragic poetry is to show that there is beauty in pain and failure as much as in success and happiness.)"

TC said...

Don, speaking of "... in the eyes of the soldiers": this very moving film is the only one I've seen that captures the latest war from that POV. It went more or less unnoticed. (But it's about emotions, whereas The Hurt Locker was about explosions; that's what will always put the stubs in the seats.)

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Oh, Tom, thanks for this - I've a number of quotes by RJ that skirt around this but this is right to the point ...

And thanks for sending me to the post on The Messenger. Your post tells the tale - I'll see it.


Curtis Roberts said...

Many of the lines written here – Tom’s, Don’s, Stephen’s – will stay with me. Two salient examples:

“the endlessly recycling garbage of the historical, which finally has no meaning at all” &

“everything that happens now was ancient news long ago”.

Waking up this morning in the Hudson Valley, not far from West Point, and reading Pres. Obama’s address to the graduating cadets put those in mind, and also how much I feel and how little I feel I know.