Sunday Mar. 29, 2015

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What If I Didn’t Die Outside Saigon

So what do you want? he growled inside the chopper,
strapping me roughly to the stretcher
as if I were already dead. “Jesus,” I swore,
delirious with pain, touching the hot mush of my legs.
“To see my wife. Go home, play with my kids,

help them grow up. You know.” His camouflaged face
was granite, a colonel or sergeant who’d seen it all.
He wore a parka in the rain, a stubby stale cigar
bit tight between his teeth, a nicked machete
like a scythe strapped to his back. He raised a fist

and held the chopper. He wore a gold wrist watch
with a bold sweep-second hand. The pilot glanced back,
stared, and looked away. Bored, the old man asked,
Then what? his cigar bobbing. I swallowed morphine
and choked, “More time. To think, plant trees,

teach my kids to fish and catch a ball.”
Yeah? he said, sucking the cigar, thinner
than he seemed at first. Through a torrent of rain,
I saw the jungle closing over me like night.
“And travel,” I said, desperate, “to see the world.

That’s it, safe trips with loved ones. Long years
to do whatever. Make something of my life. Make love,
not war.” I couldn’t believe it, wisecracking clichés,
about to die. He didn’t smile, but nodded. So?
What then? “What then? Listen, that’s enough,

isn’t that enough?” His cigar puffed
into flame, he sucked and blew four perfect rings
which floated through the door and suddenly
dissolved. Without a word, he leaned and touched
my bloody stumps, unbuckled the stretcher straps

and tore the Killed-in-Action tag from my chest.
And I sat up today in bed, stiff-legged, out of breath,
an old man with a room of pictures of children
who’ve moved away, and a woman a little like my wife
but twice her age, still sleeping in my bed.

“What If I Didn’t Die Outside Saigon” by Walter McDonald from Counting Survivors. © University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

The last United States combat troops left Vietnam on this date in 1973. Troop strength in the country had peaked at over half a million soldiers in 1969, which was also the year when war protests at home were reaching their highest levels. In the early 1970s, Nixon began to withdraw troops to aid the transfer of the responsibility over to South Vietnam. At the same time, he increased U.S. bombing of the North and expanded American troops into Cambodia and Laos to try to cut off supply lines. In January 1973, the United States, North and South Vietnam, and the Vietcong signed a peace agreement in Paris. Although this agreement ended the United States’ direct involvement in the war, the cease-fire didn’t hold; within weeks, it was broken by North Vietnam, and the war was back in full force by 1974.

The war was so unpopular, and the anti-war protests so widespread, that returning soldiers were advised to change into civilian clothes before getting off the plane, for their own safety. One soldier, Howard Kern, blamed the public hostility on the media for focusing on the negative. “[They] showed the bad things the military was doing over there and the body counts,” he recalled. “A lot of combat troops would give their C rations to Vietnamese children, but you never saw anything about that — you never saw all the good that GIs did over there.”

After the U.S. ground forces withdrew, 7,000 civilian personnel remained in Saigon to help South Vietnam with the war effort. The last Americans were evacuated in 1975, when Saigon fell to the communists.

It’s the birthday of the politician and author Eugene McCarthy (books by this author), born in Watkins, Minnesota (1916). He served in both houses of Congress over the course of his political career, and he challenged Lyndon Johnson for the Democratic nomination for president in 1968 because he disagreed hotly with Johnson’s Vietnam War policy.

When he retired from Congress, he became a writer, penning several books about politics, and many poetry collections, including Ground Fog and Night (1979) and Other Things and the Aardvark (1970).

It is the birthday of the poet R.S. Thomas (books by this author), born Ronald Stuart Thomas in Cardiff, Wales (1913). Most of his poems were about the people and landscape of his native land.

He was an Anglican clergyman, as well as a poet, until 1978, when he retired and devoted himself to the cause of Welsh nationalism. He often grew frustrated with his fellow countrymen, though, blaming them for letting their culture fade away into history. In his poem “Welsh Landscape,” he called them “an impotent people, sick with inbreeding / worrying the carcass of an old song.” He didn’t learn the Welsh language until he was 30, and though he wrote his poetry in English, he wrote his autobiography in Welsh. He called it Neb (1985), meaning “nobody.”

It’s the birthday of actress, author, and comedian Amy Sedaris (books by this author), born in Endicott, New York (1961), and raised in Raleigh, North Carolina. The fourth of six children (including best-selling writer David Sedaris), she often found herself competing for her mother’s attention, resorting to wigs and costumes to stand out. Now, Sedaris says: “I need a costume to be convinced I’m someone else. Otherwise, it’s just me. What’s the fun in that?” Sedaris is best known for her portrayal of former prostitute and junkie Jerri Blank on the now cult-classic show Strangers with Candy, which debuted on Comedy Central in 1999 and co-starred Stephen Colbert. The show was modeled on after-school specials aimed at teenagers, with the character of Jerri Blank often spouting warped, amoral advice, such as, “Violence really isn’t the only way to resolve a conflict, but it’s the only way to win it.” Sedaris has appeared in dozens of films and television shows, including Sex and the City, Just Shoot Me!, Monk, Elf, and School of Rock. She’s become a favorite on late-night talk shows, appearing frequently on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, David Letterman, and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. In 2005, she began writing a mock monthly advice column called “Sedaratives” for the literary magazine, The Believer, where she advised an elderly, overweight person to lose weight, chiding him, “You’re not sixty-four, anymore. It’s time to grow up.” Sedaris is the best-selling author of two lifestyle and cooking books, I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence (2006) and Simple Times: Crafts for Poor People! (2010), the cover of which can be fashioned into a hat.

It’s the birthday of Eric Idle (books by this author), comedian, author, actor, singer, comedy writer, and composer, best known as an alumnus of the Monty Python troupe. Born in 1943 in South Shields in the northeast of England to Ernest, a rear gunner in the RAF, and Nora, a community health nurse. Ernest survived the war only to die in a car crash on Christmas Eve, 1945, when Eric was only two years old.

When he was seven, Eric’s mother, Nora, enrolled him in the Royal Wolverhampton School as a boarder. Unfortunately, Wolverhampton embodied most of the negative stereotypes one associates with English boarding schools, but it nevertheless left him well suited for a career in comedy. As Idle put it: “It was a physically abusive, bullying, harsh environment for a kid to grow up in. I got used to dealing with groups of boys and getting on with life in unpleasant circumstances and being smart and funny and subversive at the expense of authority. Perfect training for Python.”

Because he found school boring and wasn’t interested in sports, he studied a lot as a way to pass the time, and subsequently went to Cambridge. He studied English and was invited to join the elite Footlights Dramatic Club, where he met fellow future Python members Graham Chapman and John Cleese.

Eric has also written two novels, a play, a children’s book, two musicals, and many of the musical numbers used in connection with Python, including “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” In 2004, he reworked Monty Python and the Holy Grail into Spamalot, a Broadway musical, and in 2007 he presented a “comic oratorio” called Not the Messiah (He’s a Very Naughty Boy), which was based on Monty Python’s Life of Brian and a spoof of Handel’s Messiah.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

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