Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Searches - Prologue

Thought to myself, what more is there to learn about Jeff? After all he was my brother, I had boxes of his letters and papers, his posthumous archive. But one summer afternoon several years ago I was researching an aspect of my own Cold War America memoir – something about US government experiments with mind-bending drugs on unwitting subjects -- when I first heard from Ed Smith.

Ed was an ex-Vietnam GI looking for his former buddy Jeff. They’d lost touch in the late ‘60s. He’d found my son Jeff on the Internet, thinking he was his old pal. I replied politely, telling Ed about my memoir project, including the two chapters on Brother Jeff. Ed suggested we talk so I called. Told me about himself, also Army Security Agency (ASA) and a fellow Vietnamese lingy – Army-speak for linguist -- who had served with Jeff, said he was his best friend. Curiosity aroused, I asked for details and in a flash it struck me I didn’t know my brother as well as I thought.

It was late August ’63, the Kennedy Administration had ‘green lighted’ coup planning against ineffective President Diem. In the Philippines where the lingys were held in reserve, Jeff, Ed and six others were alerted during the night, told to get ready to ship out. Flown up to Saigon, installed in a dark corner at a base to the northwest. Ed said it was very secret stuff, but what the hell, time’s past I’ll tell you. Mission was to surveil communications of South Vietnamese generals planning the coup, White House wanted to be sure they knew what was happening. Ed told me other tales about Jeff’s covert work, more than enough to convince me I had a lot to learn.

A month or so later out of the blue, Karen Grote Ferb found me. An old girlfriend of Jeff’s from college days, she too was looking for him, wondering where he landed. They’d been together at Indiana University after Jeff returned from Vietnam. She had more surprising stories to tell. I’d been dimly aware of Jeff’s interest in the New Left at IU – I’d seen documents in his boxes although his letters were silent, but had no idea of the depth of his SDS involvement. Listening to Karen, I grasped that Indiana had been the link between Jeff’s Vietnam experience and his later radical leadership of the GI protest movement.

Karen LeMoine Grote IU '66 and Ed Smith (left) & Jeff, Philippines, '63

Complacency gone, I realized if I was to get my brother’s story, I’d have to find people who knew him as a young man. Both Ed and Karen gave me names, the search was on. It was my great good luck that Karen offered to help. GI buddies, SDS activists, Vietnam GI comrades, they were out there somewhere. We’d find someone who in turn would lead us to others, but decades since the ‘60s clues would sometimes lead up blind alleys. Inevitably our efforts produced many ‘hits’ but some bizarre ‘misses’ as well.

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