Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Genesis of the Memoir

How did the idea for the memoir begin? Well, you might say it began in mid-June 1969. I was grading papers when I got a phone call from my father telling me my younger brother Jeff had just died in a VA hospital in Miami. I knew how serious his cancer was and had long planned to fly down the next day to see him again and meet with his doctors about new courses of treatment. I hadn’t seen him since spring break in late March, but had kept in regular touch. My parents had just assured me the previous week his condition was stable. I was stunned and overcome with anger, remorse, and guilt that I hadn’t been there. The idea for the memoir took shape during the next few weeks in the course of the funeral, the burial, and the sad, sad days that followed. Jeff was my younger brother by seven years. When I went away to college and then on to the Army and Europe, he was a mere boy of 10. Although we wrote long letters, I had missed his growing up. I felt I owed him.

Jeff died young, much too young at 27, but he had an interesting life. He had hoped to go to Dartmouth, but ended up in Vietnam. Our father was a businessman, fairly prosperous, but he went bust, so private college was suddenly out of the question. Instead, Jeff enlisted in the Army, was trained in Vietnamese—not the European tour he’d expected—and was shipped over there very early in the war, well before the escalation of ’65. As an operative in a semi-secret intelligence outfit, he was involved in some unpleasant stuff. He came back to finish college at Indiana University very much against the war. In grad school at the University of Chicago, Jeff diverted his national fellowship to creating Vietnam GI which soon became the most influential underground paper addressed to Vietnam GI’s opposed to the war. In effect, Jeff became one of the founders of the GI antiwar movement.



I’m sorry to say the memoir project didn’t get very far during that summer of ‘69. Jeff had left behind a small archive of documents and letters from his Vietnam tour and editorship of Vietnam GI. To supplement this, I solicited letters about him from his friends, professors, and fellow antiwar activists, but my first-born had arrived just weeks after his death, and I found myself awash both in grief and in joy. I couldn’t continue. It was a time for grieving, not writing. I packed up his papers and put them away with the promise to myself I would come back to them someday. That ‘someday’ came in the early 90’s.

I had spent my life teaching and writing about the Soviet Union, and then one wintry day in December 1991 the country no longer existed, another empire had bitten the dust. My topic, the law, suddenly became more interesting, so I shifted my attention to post-Soviet Russia. But I also saw the opportunity for a memoir on the interesting times I had lived through and began outlining. It was to be my memoir into which I would fold Brother Jeff. I would call it “Cold War America,” about how the long Cold War had impacted our society, mostly adversely in my opinion. The idea was to use my witness to and even peripheral involvement in the Cold War as an angle of vision for writing about the great events of the period.

I was certainly not a major actor, more a bit player with occasional dramatic scenes and some lines. In the ‘50s I was a Cold War soldier in Germany, a linguist on the front lines, so to speak, of the sub rosa intelligence war between the US and the USSR. In the ‘60s I became a scholar and did a year of study in Moscow, coincidentally at the same time Jeff was in the bush in Vietnam. Later in the decade I worked for the Peace Corps training young men and women for Southeast Asia.

By the early ‘70s my first book appeared; it was based on work done for the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency in connection with the SALT I treaty negotiations with the Soviet Union. In the ‘80s as the Soviet empire began coming apart, I wrote essays for the US Information Agency. And throughout the entire time I published extensively in the scholarly literature on Soviet and East European developments, especially on human rights. In the middle of my memoir, I planned two chapters on Jeff, one on his Vietnam experience, the other on his antiwar leadership.

But before I got past planning the memoir and into the actual writing, two people who had known Jeff well contacted me out of the blue. Both were seeking Jeff, hoping to get back in touch. Neither knew that he was long gone, nor did they know each other. Ed Smith, a fellow Vietnam GI, told me things about Jeff’s time in Vietnam I never knew, while Karen Grote Ferb opened up for me the world of Jeff’s SDS activism back in college, about which I had only scattered documents from his archives. Ed gave me names of other ex-GIs who had served in the shadow war with the two of them, while Karen put me in touch with a number of Jeff’s fellow SDS activists at Indiana. I followed up.

Until I met Ed and Karen online, I had thought I knew my brother well. Although we had caught up with each other after he returned from the war and I from Moscow, our opportunities for contact were limited. He was completing his education and I was off elsewhere starting my academic career. However, as I listened to Ed and Karen and corresponded with others they led me to, I realized that I had not known Jeff that well, not just the missing years of his childhood, but also his time as a young adult. I had been laboring under an illusion. I had much to learn about my brother. I soon put my own Cold War memoir in abeyance and began to focus solely on what had simplistically been those two chapters on Jeff. The deeper I went into his life during his final decade, the more I realized this would be a voyage of discovery as I belatedly learned about my remarkable brother; hence the title of this blog, “Searching for Jeff.”

There is a brief biography of Jeff at
http://en.Wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeff_Sharlet_and_Vietnam_GI


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