Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Searches - Successes Scored

Once I decided to uncover Jeff’s past – largely unknown to me, his older brother – I set out to find his long ago friends as guides on my journey. But where to turn first? Didn’t know enough about the names I’d been given to even make a list. So I plunged into the stream of memory, letting the current carry me wherever it might go. It was a process of hit or miss; I just went with the flow.

Read Jeff’s letters home from Army Language School (ALS), noticed a name I’d missed before – Keith Willis. Jeff wrote that he’d turned up in Monterey, they’d last seen each other several years back at a military prep, the Albany Academy (AA). Both guys found themselves studying Vietnamese. Like Jeff, Keith hadn’t chosen Vietnamese, the coming war chose it for him. It was ’62; JFK was pouring ‘advisers’ into South Vietnam, and ASA, the Army Security Agency, was stockpiling linguists, lingys in the parlance.

Keith was an easy find. I’d been ahead of him at AA, his address was in the alum network. He’d retired, lived downstate, was involved with our old school’s archives, and periodically came to the area. We met at a diner. By the end of the meal I felt like a lone miner who’d just struck gold. Keith had known Jeff at nearly every step of his last decade, the only one of many friends who did.

Over time, Keith filled me in on Jeff at ALS where the two of them owned a motorcycle together; on life in the Philippines where they shared the same barracks, did identical classified work; in Saigon where they were both sent on short notice in early ‘64 following General Khanh’s coup; then in Chicago where Keith had a corporate job when Jeff arrived after graduating Indiana University (IU); and finally, Keith was in touch as Jeff lay dying in a Florida VA hospital. Many of Jeff’s Vietnam GI buddies I later tracked down I had learned of from Keith.

Keith Willis, ASA Barracks, Philippines, '64

One of them was Vachel Worthington, Jeff’s roommate in Monterey. Looking for Vachel, Karen unexpectedly came across a Dave Reinhardt. Unexpected because Dave was a Marine and never knew Jeff. But he was also a Vietnamese lingy who’d served at Phu Bai where Jeff was sent after the Khanh coup. Dave was there a year earlier and became our most valuable source on that remote listening post where Jeff spent half his Vietnam tour. The Marines worked there side by side with ASA just below the DMZ, the Demilitarized Zone as the two units monitored North Vietnamese communications across the border.

How’d we find Dave Reinhardt, a name we’d never even heard? Jeff told me in the ‘60s of a special mission he was on with the Marines. Karen set out to find the long range reconnaissance unit for verification. It never turned up, but Dave did. He’d filed a PTSD claim and was looking for fellow Marines to verify his duties at Phu Bai with “spook types.” Karen got in touch, we’ve talked off and on with Dave, a North Dakota rancher, since.


Dave Reinhardt, North Dakota Rancher '08

I was especially interested in finding Jeff’s old girlfriends. Long exchanges with Karen convinced me that women retained what I called ‘emotional memory’ -- traces of Jeff’s temperament, moods, and even occasionally the tone of his voice. Before Karen left IU for grad school, she introduced Jeff to a friend, Miki Lang, an Austrian transplant and Comparative Lit student. Jeff and Miki hit it off, were together most of his Senior year. I thought she’d have a lot to tell. We began searching for her, thinking she’d probably married and changed her name. We hoped she’d kept the maiden name as the middle, but kept dead-ending everywhere. 

Karen never gave up, finally tried a wild card. Let’s assume Miki for reasons unknown still uses ‘Lang’ as surname. Up popped a web site talking about the premier professional international paintball player, Ollie Lang, with excerpts from an interview with his mother, Miki Lang. An Internet portal swung open, Karen went through, found Michaela Lang, former international humanitarian aid worker who’d served abroad for 16 years in Africa and India. Having returned to the States in ’88, Miki now lives just across the bay from San Francisco. Listening to her stories of Indiana days completed the picture Karen had begun – Jeff as major campus activist articulating his opposition to the war, and honing his political skills for what lay ahead – Chicago and the creation of Vietnam GI.


Miki Lang and Jeff Sharlet, Bloomington IN, ‘67

Tom Barton was an especially notable find. Karen was routinely trawling for information on Jeff when Tom turned up. He had just posted a brief but fairly complete account of Jeff’s public life. Looked familiar to me, but from where? Figured it out, it was a reprint of Jeff’s long obit from Vietnam GI, summer ’69. Tom had created an online anti-Iraq war newsletter, GI Special (now Military Resistance), re-running Jeff’s obit to show Iraq war soldiers GI resistance was possible. He identified himself as former East Coast distributor for VGI.

I followed up, went down to New York, interviewed Tom at his place on the West Side. First thing he said – saw himself following in Jeff’s footsteps, carrying on the antiwar fight, with the newsletter as successor to VGI. Like Keith Willis, Tom had kept files which he shared. Came away understanding how VGI was produced, how the Chicago group surreptitiously shipped the paper in bulk to Tom, how in turn Tom and his team smuggled copies into Vietnam. 

These were just some of the successes we scored in searching for Jeff, but we also came up short on a few memorable occasions, as the reader will soon see.

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