Wednesday, April 10, 2013

"Billowed Like an Arab's Caftan"

It was the summer of ’69, and my brother Jeff had recently died. He was but 27. Jeff had had an interesting life, and I wanted to recount it in a memoir. But first I hoped to secure for him a niche in the history of his times, a very public obituary. For days I holed up in my study writing a long synopsis of his short life, first his Vietnam tour, then his work as a founder of the GI antiwar movement.

I sent my account off to a senior editor at the New York Times, the paper of record – hoping to get Jeff at least a brief obit. I didn’t know the editor personally, but since we were both experts on Russia, I used our common interest as an entrée. Alas, he wrote back a few days later that he had tried, but the paper had a strict policy limited to current deaths, and, regrettably, I had let too much time pass.

That left the task of memorializing my brother exclusively to me, though years hence I would be posthumously grateful to my ex-wife and my father for recording their observations of Jeff and his times. The memoir would not be an easy task; I’d have to write my brother into the ongoing history of the Vietnam antiwar movement even as it was still unfolding. I went through the small archive Jeff had left behind and solicited letters from his friends and professors, but when I sat down to write, to record his days on earth, I couldn’t do it. At least not then.

Just weeks after his death, Nancy and I had had our first child, a little girl; later there’d be a boy named Jeff. The conflicting emotions of unbridled joy and profound sorrow were too much. I filed the memoir project away for another day.

Nancy and Jeff the namesake, 1974

Some years later, my father, a businessman – let’s call him Irving, that was his name – wondered what had become of the memoir of his younger son. He wrote diplomatically asking whether I’d mentioned the idea to him back in ’69, or had he imagined it. If he was right, and of course he was, Irving offered to help. Since I had all of Jeff’s papers, he focused on the times, the context of the ‘60s & ‘70s.

He declared the period a time of ‘great change’ – no surprise there – but then, with a keen eye, Irving riffed a long list of phenomena, some of which he clearly disapproved. He described a time:

                      beset with Vietnam, ecology, riots, drugs, radicals,
                    Joan Baez, human rights, sexual liberation, détente,
                    astronauts, Kent State, Watergate, inflation,
                    unemployment, welfare, disrespect for the law,
                    increased crime of all kinds, more concern for
                    the criminal, less concern for the victims,
                    lackadaisical court systems, and the influx of cults.

and he continued into the international realm, capping his riff with “the challenge of Russia.”

Black sails knifing through the pitchblende night
Away from the radioactive landmass madness

Irving took his self-appointed task seriously, asking rhetorically from what perspective Jeff’s story should be told – perhaps in the 3rd person, possibly the tumultuous times as ‘seen’ through the eyes of a typical high school boy and girl. Or possibly, he thought, I should personalize the account, adding in a few characters for impact. Of one thing however he was quite certain, “Naturally sex will be there as that change in the period is part of the story.”
One part of my father’s letter surprised me. When Jeff was in his prime, in the thick of the international GI protest against the Vietnam War, Irving seemed at best indifferent to his son’s deeply felt cause. Sometimes when he called home, Irving would ask, “Jeff, are you still with those anti groups?” – not quite implying disapproval, but more a concern that his younger son should move on, choose a career path.

Written nearly a decade after Jeff’s death with Vietnam in the rear view mirror, Irving’s letter clearly indicated he had come around on the issue of the war, lamenting the hundreds of thousands of mothers, fathers, and children who would feel the pain a loved one’s loss for “the balance of their lives.” And in the same paragraph, he expressed sadness for the former soldiers who returned home scorned, even reviled, and certainly forgotten, now “living as exiles in a foreign country.” Had Jeff lived, he couldn’t have said it better.

I can see by your coat, my friend,
you're from the other side,
There's just one thing I got to know,
Can you tell me please, who won?†

Then, closing his missive, my father, whom I’d never remembered having strong feelings about politics, turned his full fury on those who had led America into the “holocaust,” as he called Vietnam, concluding with uncommon vehemence that they “should stand trial like those at Nuremburg!”

My ex-, Nancy, who like Jeff would also die much too young, left behind her memories of him in a private remembrance probably written for the desk drawer sometime in the ‘70s, a document I saw only many years later. She sketched Jeff’s life, describing him as “small, dark skinned, muscular, very black thick curly hair,” and then in a series of near poetic strokes:

                      --He had that ancient look of a Persian or Assyrian.
                    --He had a gift for friendship.
                    --His mind was facile, theoretical.
                    --His experience was valuable.

Jeff at Indiana University, 1966

Nancy continued that Jeff had followed me to a Midwestern university, “lived poor, messed up, joined the Army, went to Vietnam,” came back to college, became an SDS leader, and then had moved on to the crowning achievement of his brief life – the creation of Vietnam GI, the immensely influential underground paper that gave impetus to the inchoate GI movement against the war. Jeff’s experience, as Nancy wrote, was “a heavy trip.”

And then with Jeff’s life coming to an end, in a few artful phrases she depicted his demise:

                      He was tired.
                    Did he know something was wrong with him?
                    Don’t know.
                    He was tired.
                    Found out about the cancer in Miami.

Nancy and I had flown down to see him. At the Veterans Administration hospital, she had watched Jeff in the X-ray chamber – a radiation map on his chest, lines and arrows, “zap here for what it’s worth” – while an old redneck waited his turn outside, smoking a Lucky and coughing again and again. Afterward she described a lighter moment, the three of us in the cafeteria laughing. Then we walked outside and the wind caught Jeff’s hospital robe so that it “billowed like an Arab’s caftan, and we laughed some more.”

We flew back north – I had to teach spring term – counting on chemo for Jeff, but cancer moves very fast in young people. Nancy closed, “but nothing worked” as she brought down the curtain on a life which had been like a luminous comet in the night sky – “His dying was awful and was finished on June 16, 1969.”

Link to music video

   Wooden Ships:

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