Wednesday, October 10, 2012

“ The Times They Are a’Changin’”

It was the 25th of August, 1963, and the times were certainly changing for Jeff Sharlet and his fellow linguists (lingys) stationed at placid Clark Air Base in the Philippines. Their task – to intercept and translate COMINT, communications intelligence, from Communist North Vietnam for analysis.  Over in South Vietnam, rebellious generals were planning a coup against the regime of President Diem, and the lingys received sudden orders to a secret base, Phu Lam, near Saigon. 
Chances are these men did not have a good idea of what was going on back in the United States.  On the 28th  a massive protest demanding civil and economic rights for Blacks was held in Washington DC; reported attendance was as high as 250,000, making it one of the largest political marches in the history of the United States.

At the Reflecting Pool, Washington, DC:
March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963
The leaders of the sponsoring groups spoke passionately for justice and freedom  for all.  Most memorable was Reverend Martin Luther King’s (MLK) “I Have a Dream” speech in which he foresaw a time when
this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal. I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.
Negro (then the term for Black) celebrities were present, including Marian Anderson, who led off the official program with the National Anthem; Mahalia Jackson, who exhorted MLK to “tell them about the dream, Martin!”; and Harry Belafonte, who, during the '50s in the US, popularized  the Calypso sounds of the Caribbean as well as a large body of traditional and ethnic music.  Many of Belafonte’s songs, such as the Bahamian lullaby All My Trials, no doubt resonated through the protestors’ minds as they listened to words of action and hope:

I’ve got a little book with pages three
And every page spells liberty.
All my trials, Lord, soon be over.

Also there that day were two young singer-songwriters, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, icons of the social protest movement and its wildly popular music. By the time Jeff and his buddies returned to the States in the summer of ’64, the first Civil Rights Act had passed, thanks in part to the great march on Washington at which the two singers performed a moving duet of Dylan’s When the Ship Comes In:
And the ship's wise men
Will remind you once again
That the whole wide world is watchin'.

Joan Baez in concert, Central Park, New York City
When the Ship Comes In was followed by an accusatory homage to civil rights leader Medgar Evers, who had recently been murdered in Mississippi by a white supremacist:
♫The deputy sheriffs, the soldiers, the governors get paid
 And the marshals and cops get the same
 But the poor white man's used in the hands of them all like a tool…
 He's only a pawn in their game.
The folk music segment closed with an emotional ensemble performance of a traditional tune with new lyrics by activist Alice Wine later featured in the PBS documentary of the same name, Keep Your Eyes On the Prize:
Freedom's name is mighty sweet
 And one day soon we are gonna meet
 Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on
Jeff and his cohort may have seen the iconic photo of the momentous march on the front page of Stars and Stripes, the military newspaper that carried coverage from the Washington  event.  But they probably hadn’t seen the huge protest coming since most of them came from the north and the coasts, and hadn’t been exposed to Southern racism.  The situation in the South was eerily similar to the plight of the oppressed Buddhists in South Vietnam who were immolating themselves in the streets that same summer. 
Finishing up at Phu Lam in mid-October and returning to Clark Air Base, the young GIs resumed their COMINT work and went back to off-duty time in the bars of Angeles City and at the Manila racetrack along with occasional treks to the sea as well as the mountain retreat at Baguio.
Jeff’s pal and fellow GI Keith Willis has reminisced about the bar scene, how he wowed the B-girls with his dancing. †† Some of the dances he’d have been showing the girls were mentioned in a popular song, Land of a Thousand Dances: the Pony, the Chicken, the Mashed Potato, the Watusi, the Twist, the Slop, and the Bop among them.
Spec-3 Keith Willis on a rare ASA field exercise, Philippine Islands,‘63
The Twist and the Mashed Potato were especially popular, and the later film, Dirty Dancing, actually set in ’63, incorporated many hits of the day, including the wildly popular Do You Love Me (Now That I Can Dance):
I can mash-potato (I can mash-potato)
And I can do the twist (I can do the twist)
Well now tell me baby (tell me baby)
Mmm, do you like it like this (do you like it like this)
Stars and Stripes had been reporting on the uncertainties surrounding the Diem regime  back in August when the initial coup plotting fizzled, but within a short time, the generals were back at it in earnest.  The eavesdropping linguists may not have been surprised when they heard news of the coup in November, but the assassinations of Diem and his brother Nhu were a shock followed by the even bigger shock merely three weeks later, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas.  We know from Jeff’s letters home how sad and stunned he and others at Clark felt.
But life went on.  On one of his December ‘Club Clark’ shows, radio host Airman Jim Gleason played a tune fondly remembered by Keith Willis, Sugar Shack; Keith said the bar girls ‘employed’ by the GIs were their ‘sugar shacks’:
There's a crazy little shack beyond the tracks
And ev'rybody calls it the sugar shack
Well, it's just a coffeehouse and it's made out of wood
Expresso coffee tastes mighty good
That's not the reason why I've got to get back
To that sugar shack, whoa baby
To that sugar shack.
One of Keith’s doo wop favorites was also on the playlist that night:
I remember the nights we dated,
Always acting sophisticated,
Talking about high society,
Then she tried to make a fool out of me.
They call her Donna, Donna the Prima Donna…†
New Year’s ‘64.   In mid-January a covert operations plan for infiltrating North Vietnam was launched, OPLAN 34A.  At the end of the month, General Khanh seized power, in another of what became a long series of coups – from General Minh who had unseated Diem.  Countering the guerrilla war being directed from the North was not going well as a US classified study concluded "South Vietnam has, at best, an even chance of withstanding the insurgency menace during the next few weeks or months." At best. 
In mid-February Jeff and his buddies were ordered up to a small bleak base, Trai Bac Station, Phu Bai, near the DMZ, the demilitarized zone, to work from there carrying out so-called ‘black ops’ against North Vietnam. Depending on the season, the men lived in gritty dust or in lashing rain and mud; in either case, they sweltered.
Meanwhile back in the States, folk and protest music favored another GI linguist, John Buquoi, was increasingly popular.  Buffy Sainte-Marie’s scorching, hard-hitting debut album included her song, Universal Soldier, about individual responsibility for war and not blindly following orders, thus presaging the GI Movement against the Vietnam War.
And he's fighting for Canada, he's fighting for France
He's fighting for the USA
And he's fighting for the Russians and he's fighting for Japan
And he thinks we'll put an end to war this way
Phil Ochs, a master of satire, wrote Talking Vietnam Blues in ’64.  Had he not later committed suicide, he might have achieved the stature of Bob Dylan:
He [Diem] said: "meet my sister, Madame Nhu
The sweetheart of Dien Bien Phu"
 He said: "Meet my brothers, meet my aunts
 With the government that doesn't take a chance.
 Families that slay together, stay together."
Even artists known for their feel-good songs began to pick up the protest pen.  One was Sam Cooke, who, like Dylan, Baez, and Ochs, saw that the times were indeed a’changin in his A Change Is Gonna Come:
Oh there been times that I thought I couldn't last for long
But now I think I'm able to carry on
It's been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will
Jeff returned stateside in June ‘64, shortly before the Gulf of Tonkin Crisis.  But that’s another story.

† Links to music videos

All My Trials, traditional:

When the Ship Comes In, Only a Pawn in Their Game, and Keep Your Eyes On the Prize:


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