Sunday, January 25, 2009

Peace Is Hiding

Lucky life is like this. Lucky there is an ocean to come to.
Lucky you can judge yourself in this water.
Lucky you can be purified over and over again.
Lucky there is the same cleanliness for everyone.
Lucky life is like that. Lucky life. Oh lucky life.
Oh lucky lucky life. Lucky life. -- Gerald Stern

TD went to a different high school than I had, but was a dear friend through music. He was a tuba player and we'd spend hours at each others homes, playing 33 1/3 recordings of the symphonies we loved. I had my Russian phase, and we'd darken the room, put on Shostakovitch or Tchaikovsky and imagine the Tartar hoards blazing across the steppes. While our friends were tripping out to Cream's Disraeli Gears, TD and I would light incense, lie on our backs in the dark, and imagine the fat worlds created by Gustav Holst or the bubbling streams that ran through Elgar's lush England.

We ran with a crowd of devoted musicians and lived for the most over-the-top symphonies. Louder was always better. And while we loved rock n roll, too, we spent more time discussing The Merry Wives of Windsor--or even the advantages of Hurst shifters in your Chevy--than we did the British Invasion.

TD would catch fire over a hobby, then quickly lose interest in it. Once he bought a 16mm movie camera. We went to the desert and made student films. Then, one day, I found the camera on my doorstep in a cardboard box. It had been completely disassembled down to turn screws and springs.

After high school, TD and I took divergent paths. Frankly, he startled all of us by enlisting in the Army and shipping out to signal corps training at Fort Gordon, Georgia. I thought we were all in total agreement that the Vietnam War was illegal, immoral, and unnecessary, and that it was plain stupid to let yourself get drafted if you could get a student deferment. My friends were deferred, I was spared service because of a heart ailment, but TD followed the stern advice of his father, who believed the military would teach him proper discipline. His father said he needed straightening out.

TD shipped out and I moved into the only co-educational dorm at college, a three-story hall on campus so filled with pot that you got high just walking through the halls. It took a while before I joined in earnest, but when I joined, it was most certainly in earnest. And while I became drum major of the marching band, my interests had shifted to protest marches and rock 'n roll. I jammed on sax and flute with the dorm band and we covered anti-war songs: "Be the first one on your block to have your boy come home in a box."

TD's first letter from Fort Gordon arrived in my dorm mailbox in mid-year. It was a thick letter, stuffed into an envelope with a dove painted on the back flap with the notation: peace is hiding inside envelopes, let it out!

In sum, TD was completing training, preparing for an overseas assignment. He would not say exactly what signal school had taught him, and he was worried about shipping to the war. He asked questions about college life, what we were listening to in college, whether I had discovered pot, if I had joined the peace movement. Strange stuff, I thought, for a soldier to ponder. But that year, as we exchanged letters at least every two weeks, I realized I had become part of his lifeline.

The letters always bulged in their envelopes. He had studied photography and sent pictures of the Georgia countryside, inventive landscapes and experimental exposures. There were no self-portraits in uniform and anything in the letter to suggest TD was in the Army.

Then, early in the year, the first letter arrived from Garmisch, from a military base in Bavaria. The back flap had several doves and the words: Let It Out. He had been spared! The letter was thick with descriptions of German beer, photos of the rolling hillsides and woods, and descriptions of off-base food, how amazingly fast you could drive on the Autobahn. I couldn't tell what he was doing there, officially, or how he really felt about the Army.

I wrote about the marches up Highway 101, the demonstrations at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco with Joan Baez and Stephen Stills, the heady mead wine we squirted from bota bags as we walked along the panhandle of Golden Gate Park, the mounted police with long billy clubs and how it felt to have one poked into your back. There was nothing remarkable about what I was doing; it was what everyone did, wasn't it? Mid-week I was a college drum major in a uniform with bright buttons, and on weekends I smoked weed and wore blue overalls without a shirt and marched in protest.

By my senior year, there was something disturbing in TD's missives, but I couldn't quite put my finger on it. His prose had gotten truncated, bitter, and stayed off topic. One envelope had a wad of hashish in it. Another came later that said he had been in a horrible off-base accident, that he had rolled a jeep off the road. His lip had been damaged and he might never play brass instruments again. There were no pictures inside, nor any tangible peace to let out. Our letters trailed off, then stopped entirely.

A few years later I heard from friends that TD had come home. In fact, he was moving to Davis with another friend, to live in the town where I was working as a journalist. We gathered together and got mightily high and listened to Pink Floyd. We especially loved Atom Heart Mother, which was a rock symphony done in atonal measures with brass, strings, synthesizers, and raging guitars. TD never spoke about the military. If I had felt guilty for not writing at his darkest hour, the pot took it all away, and he seemed to harbor no resentment. After a while, though, the blush had worn off. I had a reason to be in Davis, and they did not, and soon they went back to the San Fernando Valley.

Not long after that, I received a call that TD was in a bad way and I flew down for a visit. He was hearing things, saying things that did not make sense, and was flying off the hook at apparently the slightest remark, my friends reported. I could see it for myself, buy we seemed to be of little help. One of the fellows called county mental health and we got an appointment to bring him in. At first, TD got in the car, seeming happy to be getting help, and he walked into the interview as we took seats in the waiting area.

When he emerged, followed by the worker, he was all smiles. "There's nothing at all to be concerned about," the worker said. "There's no reason for him to be here."

I felt shaken to the core. But we walked with TD back to the car where he instantly turned on us as a stranger, threatened to get even with us, to teach us a lesson. We spun him around, marched back into the facility and reported his remarks to the intake worker who immediately found him a room. The last time I saw TD I brought him a paper grocery bag filled with his clothes. I had gone to his house and his mother would say nothing to me.

I flew home to my journalism job, still unsettled that we had done the right thing. And later, after Tim had gotten out, moved far away somewhere, we all lost track of him.

For the longest time I felt guilty for not going to Vietnam. But I also have befriended men who had gone, who told me I was lucky to have missed it, and that there was no sin in a medical excuse. To this day, Steve cannot sit in a public place unless he has a view of the door. In Vietnam he buried civilians alive. More recently, William came home from Afghanistan over a year ago and cannot keep from getting drunk and putting his fist through walls.

I don't know what you needed to get straightened out in Germany, TD, but wherever you are today, wherever it may be hiding, no matter how many pieces have come apart into so many boxes, I hope you've found a way to let peace out again.

1 comment:

tangobaby said...

I found myself reading this post, slower and slower, this time not wanting to get to the end and dreading to hear what happened to TD.

I had a boyfriend who also did not go to Vietnam. He described the mortal fear he had of being drafted and about the friends of his who never came home, or who came home much like TD. It was a time I didn't know about, but he instilled his story in my head so well that it felt like I was there too.

I hope TD has found a way back to life and is able to leave those hard years behind him.