Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Arise! A Latter-Day Poet of the Vietnam War

The war in Vietnam has long been over, but from time to time new writing still appears illuminating the period in a fresh light. So it is with John Buquoi’s just published book of poetry, Snapshots from the Edge of a War.* Although the eloquently and vividly written poems were written one by one, the collection can be read as a single long narrative poem about a large part of America’s war in Vietnam.

The perspective is John’s – as a Vietnam GI, later as a civilian contractor, he bore witness from the fateful year of ‘63 until the end of his extended time in Vietnam in ’70. From the distance of time and much reflection, the poet looks back nearly half a century; his poems have a retrospective antiwar tilt with a hint of the bittersweet.

John was ASA – the Army Security Agency – a semi-clandestine communications outfit, the military arm of the NSA, or National Security Agency, in Washington DC. After a year of intensive study of Vietnamese at a military language school on the California coast, he was shipped out to Vietnam. It was fall of ’63 as a simmering coup in Saigon was coming to a boil.

South Vietnamese generals were plotting against President Diem with sub rosa support from the Kennedy White House. To be on the safe side though, Washington sent in a small team of Vietnamese linguists (lingys) to secretly monitor the generals’ communications to learn what they were up to outside the earshot of the US Embassy. Jeff Sharlet, my brother, was part of the lead group stationed at a remote listening post outside Saigon, the capital, in August. John Buquoi arrived as a replacement in October.

Early in the narrative poem, the poet is out on the town in Saigon with Jeff and other lingys. They were walking toward the Imperial, a French-Vietnamese café when old waiters at l’Imperial/sprint out from the open air café/racing a pursuing billow/of hot shrapnel steel, smoke and fire/from Mr. Charlie’s tossed grenade. 1 For John it was a violent welcome to the Paris of the Orient from the Viet Cong (VC).

Saigon Street Scene, 1960s

Then came the coup a few weeks later on November 1st as the lingys tapped into conversations/between the general staff/we listened to the chaos/of the bloody coup d’etat. 2 Overnight Diem and his brother, the secret police chief, were out, assassinated, and the generals were in.

The coup over, the linguists returned to their other assignments, but sometimes even those might be interrupted by the more mundane. One day he was on guard duty atop the American school for children of soldiers’ trailing families in Vietnam. Very hot, very bored, John passed the time watching two little Vietnamese ragamuffins spend the afternoon laboriously draining a pond across the road – an arduous job.

The pond finally drained, the kids gathered up a mess/ of tiny gasping fish and crabs/trapped dying on the bottom mud/maybe to take home for dinner/or perhaps to sell at market. Admiring their industry and perseverance, the poet mused, I can’t help myself but wonder/about which side will have the will/to stick it out all the way until/that far off final ‘win’…and why.3

As ’63 came to an end, John again bore witness on Christmas Eve to the ever-present VC. Standing in a bar, he and a friend felt the tremor of a blast. Running out they saw that a massive bomb had devastated a small hotel mainly housing American military advisors. First on the scene before help arrived, the two GIs sprinted toward the destruction.

We made it through the fence/into the Stygian courtyard scene/of burning cars, twisted steel/blasted brick and glass/into a silence beyond death/soundless but for the crackle/of the scattered fires/and the occasional explosion.4

A wounded Vietnamese man stumbled from the wreckage, pointing back where his friends were still trapped. John plunged into the choking smoke, found the two bloodied, deafened guys, and just hoping for no second bomb/we crawled out along the floor.4 Merry Christmas from Victor Charlie.

Sent up to an outpost near the border with North Vietnam in early ’64, John got a call that two of his good buddies back at Saigon base had been killed – while watching a softball game. The VC had planted a bomb under their section of the bleachers – they told me it was all over in a flash of fire/… they told me all they thought there was to tell, except/they didn’t tell me that 50 years on as I remembered them/I would see them so then time young ….5

John was at Phu Bai, ASA’s northernmost listening post where the linguists liaised by radio with South Vietnamese commandos infiltrated across the border. Often as not, the commandos were soon killed or captured by the Communist border troops while watchers just as young as they/listen here, close by, listening/listening, listening, waiting/until their faint transmissions end.6

To unwind the stresses of the latest failed black mission, the guys went off to the base club – a hole in the wall with cheap drinks – where they're greeted by Bill, a great gruff, bluff, comic walrus/philosopher, storyteller/our mustached brother holding court with a bottle of whiskey. Jeff, distracted, tired, slouches down/and Bill, in greeting sloshes out/a double Cutty Sark his way/Jeff downs the shot but craves a beer6

Already deeply disillusioned with the war, Jeff raged:

this place stinks and this war’s bullshit/
we’re not fucking helping ‘em here/
just makin’ some fat white guys rich/
from people dyin’ on all sides/
’just war’, my ass, there’s no such thing/
not here anyway, least of all.6

Hearing the last call for drinks, the gang loaded up and headed out to the base perimeter to continue partying. Peyton joins them, a beat poet/philosopher, weaver of spells/young Kerouac still on the road/the sandbag bunker full of drunks/… until the first dim wash of dawn mists up/pale pinked orange and gold pastels from/over east’s South China Sea, and/beyond those places once called home.6 So went many a night at Phu Bai.

In the midst of the nightmare that would soon engulf their daily lives, the poet showed his affection for the Vietnamese. Sitting in a bar with Jeff down the coast in Danang, they encounter a Tom Sawyer kid called ‘Joe’, all/Vietnamese with a huge smile/and sparkling eyes that made you think/you could probably trust this one/even as you checked your wallet.7

A bus in Danang

Little Joe, maybe all of eight years old, beaming mischievously among the bar girls, made his pitch:

Hey, G.I. guys! I watch your jeep
 make sure it not get stolen here? …
guys, guys, for sure I watch it cheap
only maybe 10-20 p[iastres]
I guarantee you satisfied
nobody else watch jeep like Joe
and I can tell you about these girls.7

John and Jeff laughed, gave him some coins, you couldn’t help but love the kid.7

It’s ’65, the war would soon be in full throat, John was back in Saigon. Tracing favorite images from Graham Greene’s famous novel of Vietnam in the ‘50s, the poet found himself on the street where the author’s heroine lived, perhaps even in the same building. Within this perfect corner/at the razor intersection/ of the fiction and the real/ … we relax … with a magical twilight meal/as we try to ignore the war/thunders across the river.8

Drawing from his memories of the lively Saigon night scene, the poet records snapshots from the past. A GI in from the field celebrating his first firefight, just seventeen, already killed a man/

          No shit, I stood up and he looked at me
          motherfuckin’ zip maybe ‘bout my age
          and right then, man, it was like Dodge City
          I beat him on the draw Matt Dillon style9

But as the Dodge City kid keeps retelling the story, he dissolves to tears, calling his ‘momma’/screaming for Jesus to come take him home.9

At another bar was a lovely girl whose name meant ‘Teardrop’ She day- dreamed of childhood days back in her village, swimming in the cool canals/nights listening to the soft rain/by the light of yellow candles/near to comforting kitchen fires/safe from the thunderstorms of war. All dead now except her mother/she works here just to care for her/in this old taxi dancing club/a hostess to Americans.10

Early spring and the Marines were about to hit the beaches. Like an impending war game, the US was moving its pieces into place. John and a radio operator were dropped on a peak eagle high above the coastal plain/just eastward from bloody Route 1911 – their mission to listen for the enemy’s counter moves to challenge the arrival of the first US combat units.

Exploring their turf, the two GIs found trenches hacked from bedrock/granite defenses all around the hill/hand hewn so deep so long ago.11
From which of Vietnam’s wars from over the decades and even the centuries, they didn’t know. But the silent stone’s message was clear to them,

                   those who hand cut trench terraces
                   from black bedrock had never quit
                   and we knew their heirs, our ‘enemies’,
                   would never give up their father’s land
                   not even to us…Marines or no 11

Just a few days off the hilltop post, the poet finds himself in the cramped cool cocoon/ of a World Airways flight/homeward bound/trying to shake/cold turkey/the adrenaline high/of life and death/in a war zone.12

John’s war was over – or was it? As the next post will show, he would soon be back in Nam, but in a different role, one that afforded him even broader vistas of a society being torn asunder by war.

The book is available in e-book, Kindle, and hard copy.

“frag racing,” J Buquoi, snapshots from the edge of a war (2015), 10. Quotes from the poems in the text are indicated in bold blue type.

2  “oversight,” Ibid, 8.

3 “hangin’ in,” Ibid, 14.

4 “hangin’ in,” Ibid, 45.

5 “what they told,” Ibid, 16.

6 “phu bai nights,” Ibid, 18.

7 “joe,” Ibid, 34.

8 “maybe,” Ibid, 36.

9 “dodge city kid,”Ibid, 40.

10 “two girls called kieu,” Ibid, 42.

11 “ground truth,”Ibid, 51.

12 “homecoming,” Ibid,53.


Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Final Scenes of a Short but Interesting Life

Back to Nam, into the bush …

Sunset over Phu Bai South Vietnam, 1960s

Post-coup Vietnam was not a happy place. True, Diem, the president, and his notorious brother Nhu, the secret police chief, were gone, but the junta that assumed power couldn’t govern effectively. The generals had few political skills, and by early ’64 they had fallen out among themselves. General Khanh, one of the tougher combat commanders, seized power, and Jeff and his crew of Vietnamese linguists (lingys) were hastened back to Saigon.

However, there was nothing to do this time; Khanh bloodlessly consolidated control within a day. Jeff, with time still to serve, then got sent north to Phu Bai, a remote listening post just below the DMZ. The base was located in South Vietnam’s narrow coastal lowland between the mountains of Laos in the west and the South China Sea to the east.  A chopper flew Jeff and other replacements up. Short on crew, the pilot assigned Jeff to man the door gun, a light machine gun on a 180 degree swivel.

Phu Bai was a fairly primitive base, but perfectly positioned to monitor North Vietnamese military communications across the border. Jeff was billeted in a six-man tent with plank walkways connecting the tents to the heart of the base.  It was blistering hot, and when the monsoon season came, the rains were torrential.

The rest of the place was a series of small wooden structures – HQ, the club, the barber shop installed in a small shack, and a store – except for the air conditioned operational buildings where the Morse code operators, or ‘ditty boppers’, and the lingys worked.

The entire base – not much bigger than a large baseball field – was encircled by barbed wire and defensive bunkers in the event of a Viet Cong (VC) attack. The threat, however, did not seem serious since there was only a single security guard with a sidearm manning the ramshackle front gate.

Jeff’s outfit, called Detachment J, had a two-fold mission in the then-early Vietnam war. They were to intercept and listen to the North Vietnamese Army’s radio messages, as well as maintain radio liaison with South Vietnamese commandos infiltrated across the border into enemy territory.

Off-duty, there wasn’t much for a GI to do in the desolate environment. The little club served cheap drinks to all ranks, and an occasional movie broke the monotony. Boozing was the main preoccupation, as one of Jeff’s buddies who later rendered a familiar scene at the club in a poem:

                   Jeff at the bar has a live one
                   a fool enough to take him on,
                   Phu Bai’s favorite Socrates
                   debating war’s ‘morality’
                   ‘I’m telling you, this war’s bullshit
                   and we’ve got no business here
                   we’re not here to help these people
                   we’re just getting lots of them killed’
                   later, last call passed, cutty’s gone
                   so with a case, two, sometimes more
                   st. pauli girl, chilled black label
                   he, Bill, Jeff … continue on out at the wire
                   closer there to the nearby war
                   Jeff recreating his debate,
                   dismissive of his rival’s stance
                   predicting, boy Cassandra like,
                   disastrous outcomes from the war
                             the sandbag bunker full of drunks
                   but none too drunk to miss the stars
                   moonless clouds of constellations
                   laced above their no ending war … *

It wasn’t just nightly boozing though; there were other laughs and good times as well. Periodically guys were rounded up to drive 6x6 trucks to Hue, the ancient capital, to pick up supplies. A junior officer in a jeep would lead the convoy, issuing strict instructions that the trucks were to stay together in column.

However, like in a slapstick movie, as the convoy reached the city the drivers would sometimes peel off in various directions. That way the ‘lost’ drivers and helpers could spend part of the day in Hue rather than just loading up and heading straight back up the road to Phu Bai.

On an off-duty day at other times, Jeff and a bunch of guys would drive to a wide sandy beach on the South China Sea for an afternoon of sun and surf. A photo from one of those outings reminds one of a relaxed beach scene on Long Island Sound the morning after a rousing house party at a New England college.

Once in a while Jeff and a buddy would borrow a jeep and drive south to the city of Danang on the coast. They’d put up in a hotel and enjoy a few days of creature comforts sorely missed back at tent city in Phu Bai.

Driving back one time over Đèo Hải Vân (Sea Cloud Pass) high above Danang, the two guys pulled over and took in the magnificent view of the heavily jungled mountains rippling down to a beach at the edge of the sea. Spying a finger of forested land jutting from the shore far below – a shimmering green peninsula – Jeff and his good buddy wistfully talked about opening a casino down there after the war.

It was then still early in the conflict and the war had a long way to go, but the memory lingered.

Hitting the books on the antiwar front …

Pro-war rally, Indiana University, 1966

Vietnam behind him, so he thought, Jeff headed back to college. He took a campus job and hit the books hard that first term of ’64. But even before fall classes began, there had been a skirmish in the Gulf of Tonkin between North Vietnamese torpedo boats and an American destroyer. It was an election year, and the incumbent President took full advantage with lethal retaliation, stoking war fever in the land.

As a Vietnam GI with a critical MOS, or Military Occupation Specialty, Jeff took note with some concern, but then the President quieted the drums of war as quickly as he had roused them. It would prove to be a false calm.

As he began his second term at Indiana University (IU), Jeff worried about the rising tensions in Vietnam – deadly Viet Cong (VC) terrorism met by heavy US aerial reprisals inevitably followed by renewed hot rhetoric. Having been assigned to an obligatory reserve unit, as an experienced Vietnamese linguist would he be recalled to active duty?

Fortunately Jeff wasn’t, but not long after his reelection, President Johnson (LBJ) set in motion a massive escalation of US involvement against the VC and their sponsors in North Vietnam. At IU, a small band of students began to organize against the war. From those beginnings emerged the new campus chapter of SDS, or Students for a Democratic Society.

Jeff was friendly with the activists, but stood aside from SDS, not convinced that such a loosely structured group of idealistic students could do much to affect the war, a war for which he had brought home a deep aversion. However, a new friend fresh from the ‘free speech’ struggle at Berkeley arrived on campus and persuaded him to lend his ex-GI status to SDS to strengthen its antiwar posture.

Taking on the war was an uphill struggle at IU, a very conservative place. Default sentiment was ‘rally around the flag’ – the country was at war. Adding to the prevailing mood, the university president, Elvis J Stahr, a former high Pentagon official, invited a string of pro-war Washington heavies to speak at IU.

Nonetheless, Jeff and the small band of activists shouldered on – mounting visible and audible demos against the campus visits by Nixon and a brace of gung ho generals. By his senior year, Jeff assumed leadership of the SDS chapter and stepped up the tempo of antiwar protest.

Decades later, a fellow activist remembered him saying at a rally, “This is the second time in my life that I have belonged to an organization run by Elvis J Stahr,” going on to add that he had first served under Secretary of the Army Stahr in the Army in Vietnam.

Then Jeff posed a rhetorical question, “And so why is the man who was Secretary of the Army, who was involved in making war on another country –
a man of the war machine – qualified to become the President of Indiana University, supposedly an institution of higher learning?”

Wrapping up, he concluded:

                   We need self-determination for students to get the
                   education they want and need, and we need self-
                   determination for the countries in the world now
                   oppressed by the US military machine, today
                   especially in Vietnam.**

An outstanding student as well as a major activist, Jeff’s life at IU was not just protest and no play. He and friends were regulars at Nick’s, a pub a block from the IU library. For lighter refreshments, it was off to the Gables, the soda bar and restaurant on Indiana Avenue, or the pizzeria just around the corner.

Sometimes the group gathered for an evening of folk music at one or another off-campus apartment – several of the activists were talented musicians. Then there were the free-swinging parties at the East 2nd Street house Jeff shared with a few of the guys.

And not least, there were his long relationships with successive girlfriends – with Karin, Karen, and Miki. All in all, good years.

Chicago bound – ready, set, go …

Chicago, “City of Big Shoulders,” cauldron of protest

Jeff headed for grad school. He had won a Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship and applied to Yale, Chicago, and Michigan. He had in mind an academic career— or did he? Chicago was his choice – not only a top school, but in a  city alive with activism and protest.

As his IU mentor later recalled, in ’67 Jeff was ambivalent about his near future, torn between competing visions. Would it be the rigors of a PhD program or his compelling desire to continue the fight against the war – in fact even upping the ante in the process? He enrolled at University of Chicago for the fall term, but his heart wasn’t in the academic game – at least not then with a war that had to be stopped.

By the end of the term, Jeff had made the choice which would determine his destiny. Dropping out of Chicago, he plunged headlong into the city’s many-sided antiwar scene. Draft resistance, however, wasn’t his thing; neither was the pacifist Quaker group, nor yet more SDS marches and demos – been there, done that.

Instead, Jeff poured all his energies into pursuing the grand vision he’d been nurturing for some time – stopping the war by mobilizing the GIs, the guys with the rifles, against it. Not as difficult as it sounded, for Jeff knew that many fighting men in Nam had doubts about the US mission. Yet other than tete-a-tete in bars and GI coffee houses, they had no way to make their voices heard.

To give expression to those GIs – to give them voice – Jeff used his fellowship funds to create a GI-led, underground antiwar paper. It was to be by and for serving GIs as well as their comrades in other armed services deployed in Southeast Asia. With Jeff at the helm and an editorial board of ex-Vietnam GIs, Marines, and airmen, Vietnam GI (VGI) launched in early ’68.

VGI was an almost instant success with the guys in the trenches, on the ships off-shore, and at the airbases arming the attack choppers and fighter bombers. It resonated as well with many GIs at stateside bases being readied for deployment to Nam.

Letters-to-the-editor praising the paper began streaming in to the Chicago office, with the writers often asking for more copies of VGI to share with buddies. Most of all, the letters revealed the real war behind the sanitized military briefings in Saigon – aptly lampooned as the ‘Five O’clock Follies’.

Getting the monthly issue out was challenging work. The lead was always Jeff’s interview with a recently returned combat veteran, but first a good source had to be found and be willing to talk about an unpleasant experience. Other stories arrived in the mail, some from the field in Nam, some from the stateside infantry training depots.

Jeff usually added an editorial, and there were also photos, including those the Pentagon hoped would never see light of day; and of course the many ‘Dear Jeff’ letters featured monthly in the ‘Mailbag’.

Everything had to be edited into good readable prose, but prose easily accessible to the average grunt, usually a high school grad. Then came typesetting, proofing, and printing. Printing VGI got harder and harder as the FBI’s Chicago field office persuasively ‘urged’ many area typographers to refuse to print a ‘subversive’ paper.

Finally, there was the monthly distribution ritual. Normally a periodical could be mailed at a low rate as ‘printed matter’. But Chicago postal inspectors were on the lookout for leftist and anti-government material, hence Jeff and his staff had to go the more expensive ‘First Class’ route not subject to postal inspection.

Even so, great numbers of First Class envelopes, especially addressed to military addresses, could not be simply dumped at the post office without arousing suspicion. Volunteers would therefore drive all over the greater Chicago area depositing small numbers of the paper in many corner mailboxes.

All of this this took money for typesetting, printing, and mailing, hence fundraising was a constant of Jeff’s editorship. Getting the paper out was nearly a fulltime activity, so for most of the time for Jeff and senior staff, earning money from a regular job wasn’t a viable option.

It was an intense time, but Chicago was a lively town replete with legions of activists supportive of the GI antiwar cause. Jeff and friends would occasionally get respite from the fever zone with dinners at friends’ apartments, bar hopping to cool music venues, as well as from parties at the place he shared with fellow editors on the city’s North Side.

Still, the tension level remained high with the Feds, the Army’s military intelligence group in Northern Illinois, and the Chicago Red Squad nosing around combined with the chronic problems of scarce funds and deadlines looming.

On the road for Vietnam GI

The ‘Yard’ at Harvard University, Cambridge MA, 1960s

From his base in Chicago, Jeff covered a lot of ground traveling both at home and abroad on behalf of Vietnam GI (VGI) or as a leader of the GI opposition to the war. By ’68 there was in place a network of GI antiwar coffee houses in the little tank towns outside infantry training bases.

The coffee houses run by antiwar volunteers were havens for GIs less than enthusiastic about the war. Off-duty guys could get a cup of coffee, a piece of pie, and read the irreverent underground press – especially the GI papers, foremost VGI – undisturbed by disapproving non-coms or brass.

Periodically, Jeff traveled the coffee house circuit to rap with GIs and gather their stories for the paper. Some of them were awaiting deployment, while others were just back from the ‘zone’ – the combat zone. During the spring Jeff hung out at ‘Mad Anthony Wayne’s Headquarters’, the coffee house outside the gates of Fort Leonard, MO; in the fall he was at the Oleo Strut, which served the growing number of GI war resisters at Fort Hood, TX.

Another of Jeff’s travel beats were the two coasts, especially the Northeast and the San Francisco Bay Area. That’s where the money was – where the well-to-do antiwar liberals were to be found. Fund-raising was a pressing necessity to keep VGI afloat. Often a wealthy individual would throw a cocktail party with Jeff as guest of honor to talk about his paper and the GI movement as the hat was passed around.

He was also in demand abroad. During the summer it was a trip to Kyoto to counsel the Japanese peace group on how to handle Vietnam deserters being hidden from the Japanese authorities and  US military police. When he served in the Philippines, Jeff had made a leave trip to Japan and liked the country.

Late fall ‘68 Jeff was with a delegation in Stockholm where the Swedish government had given sanctuary to many deserters. Ideally, he would have preferred antiwar GI’s to stay in the ranks and spread the word, but he respected an individual’s decision to bail out of the war.

By far, Jeff’s favorite destination was the Boston area. He was familiar with the town, having visited extended family there during his younger years. Many of his classmates from the Albany Academy had also gone to Harvard, so he was acquainted with Harvard Square and environs as well.

Several of VGI’s most generous financial supporters lived in and around the Square, so it became a frequent stop whenever he hit Boston. Most importantly though, he would visit the Boston Draft Resistance Group (BDRG) and his friends there further along the Charles River embankment in Central Square.

Jeff would give BDRG the templates for the latest issue of VGI, and they in turn would have thousands of additional copies printed. Their cadre of activists would then distribute the paper at military facilities throughout New England. It was a good arrangement.

By late in the year however, a medical problem that Jeff first experienced in Vietnam flared up, and he decided to head home for some doctoring.

“Because I could not stop for Death …”

Veterans Administration Hospital, Miami FL, 1960s

Home for Jeff was the Miami area where his parents lived. Exploratory surgery in early ‘69 detected cancer. It had spread, the odds were not good. Back at his alma mater, Indiana University, a friend arriving at a party of Jeff’s old college pals brought the news – the room went silent.

Despite his dire prospects, Jeff soldiered on, withstanding heavy doses of chemotherapy along with uncomfortable rounds of radiation. He fought hard, and by early spring the disease was in remission. The VA Hospital granted him a furlough.

In relays, friends and comrades from Chicago and Boston made the long drive down to Florida to spend time with Jeff. All of them would sit around drinking wine, listening to music, and laughing – there was lots of laughter about the many good times together.

Some will come, some will go
                                    We shall surely pass …
                                    We are but a moment’s sunlight
                                    Fading on the grass

Through the underground papers and the growing antiwar press inspired by Vietnam GI’s (VGI) success, news of Jeff’s illness flashed across the country and abroad. Dozens of cards and notes began arriving from myriad people in the antiwar struggle – everyone from Bernardine Dohrn, a national SDS leader, to individual GIs who only knew Jeff through his editorship of VGI.

Unfortunately the remission came to an end, and he had to return to the hospital for more chemo, more radiation, and IV’s, always the IV’s. But all was to no avail as he rapidly declined. In great despair one afternoon during late spring, Jeff attempted suicide, but failed. The end was near.

A few weeks later he slipped away – his heart stopped – he was gone. Death at an early age, he was only 27. He was widely mourned wherever an underground paper carrying his death notice was read. At the last SDS convention, a minute of silence in memory of Jeff was observed by the nearly 2000 gathered.

In an uncanny foreshadowing of what would become his destiny, many years later a friend recalled Jeff once telling him of his plans for Vietnam GI:

          He told me that this was what he wanted to do
          at this time in his life. And he thought this would
          be the most important thing he had ever done
          in life.***

Of the many obits, the most eloquent one began:

                 Many good men never came back from Nam. Some
          came back disabled in mind. Jeff Sharlet came back
          a pretty together cat – and he came back angry.
               Jeff started VGI and for almost two years poured
          his life into it in an endless succession of 18-hour
          days, trying to organize men to fight for their own

As Emily Dickinson, the poet of Amherst, wrote, Because I could not stop for Death/ He kindly stopped for me.

*J Buquoi, “phu bai nights,” Snapshots from the Edge of a War. e-book         forthcoming via Amazon, 2015.
**D Kaplan, “Reminiscences of Jeff’s March 1967 Peroration,” August 2011.
***D Kaplan, “Last Conversation with Jeff,” August 2011.




Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Scenes from a Short but Interesting Life

The formative years …

The Albany Academy, Albany NY

My younger brother, Jeff Sharlet, spent his formative years well up the Hudson River at a venerable old school in New York’s capital. The campus of the Albany Academy with its extensive grounds and playing fields could be found just off Academy Road. Established in the early 1800s, the school boasted a number of graduates later distinguished in American life of the 19th and 20th centuries.

After the Civil War, the Academy adopted a quasi-military structure, and students, now called cadets, wore uniforms. Classes were small; the faculty, products of elite colleges, were dedicated; and the facilities excellent.

Private school also came with a lively and upscale social life. The Academy boys mixed with girls from the several country day schools of the Capital region. There were proms, balls, and dinner dances as well as gala house parties at the grand homes of the wealthier families.

In a word, the Albany Academy was not a bad place to get one’s education in a pleasant setting while enjoying schoolboy life in the process.

Jeff spent his middle and high school years at the school, flourishing there nearly up to the end. He excelled academically, played two sports creditably well, and performed as an effective member of the Academy’s battalion. By senior year he was appointed an officer in one of the line companies.

Then things began to go awry. Our father, who had provided Jeff a comfortable existence, lived beyond his means and ran his business into the ground. Jeff had his eye set on Dartmouth College, and through junior year his grades and activities strongly indicated he would get in.

However, at the end of football season that fall our father sat him down and broke the news that they’d be unable to afford Dartmouth or, for that matter, the tuition at any private college. Because our parents always made a point of never discussing business in our presence, Jeff was caught completely by surprise.

As a young man with a sports car who wanted for little, Jeff’s bright near-future suddenly darkened. He plunged into an academic tailspin. From Cum Laude  among the top ten of a class of 50, by spring term Jeff had spiraled down to 36th in class rank, hardly competitive for selective Dartmouth or for any comparable college, even if the funds had been available.

Discouraged by the changed family circumstances, Jeff took no steps to apply to college. He seemed not to care, but the parents prevailed upon him to follow me to grad school. I was headed to a Big Ten research university, and Jeff was coming along as a freshman.

A friend, remembering Jeff from their last days together before the Academy’s commencement ceremony, recalled the two of them sitting in a convertible on a warm June evening ‘under a Rembrandt blue sky’ happy to be putting their formative years behind them.

For me graduate school was a heady experience, but Jeff was lost at that large university of some 30,000 students. Far from home and his friends, all of whom had gone on to the Ivy League back East, Jeff knew no one. He was not a happy trooper.

Jeff dropped out at the end of fall semester, drifting for several months through part-time jobs in the small university town. However, no longer covered by a college deferment, the draft and two years of Army life beckoned. Facing the inevitable, Jeff enlisted for three years with the promise of a year of language study.

Thus began a journey which set him on a trajectory quite different from his peers. The experience and reverberations would shape the rest of Jeff’s short but interesting life. Though serious things lay ahead and Jeff’s personal story would end sadly, there’d also be good times and lighter moments along the way.

                                           Out to the coast …

Nepenthe’s at Big Sur, California coast

Jeff got through Basic Training at Fort Dix uneventfully. All the marching, drilling, and manual of arms of the Albany Academy years gave him an edge – top sergeant made him a squad leader. That meant a more comfortable billet in the barracks and a few privileges.

He had joined an autonomous intelligence outfit within the Army, and as promised, they sent him to language school for a year of study.  The school was perched on a hill along a particularly beautiful stretch of California coast. Though uniforms were the order of the day during classes, academic life took priority over military life on the base high above Monterey Bay.

There was a lot of free time and just a minimum of duties typically expected of GIs in garrison. After classes and on weekends, the military ‘students’ were off duty and could don their civvies and go where they pleased.

Jeff had a gung ho roommate and got stuck with a starchy Marine NCO as barracks chief. Still, it was great duty only slightly removed from the collegiate ambiance from which Jeff and his classmates had arrived at the school.

There was much to do after hours. Jeff had an old motorcycle, and he and a buddy would ride across the peninsula to the charming village of Carmel-by-the-Sea or roar up the coast highway to San Francisco. Sometimes they’d head off to a race track for a day with the ponies.

By far though, Jeff’s favorite weekend hangout was Nepenthe, a dazzling restaurant built from redwood harvested from the surrounding forest. It was located on a breathtaking strip of coast called Big Sur south of the language school. There Nepenthe extended over a cliff high above the Pacific.

The patios, candle-lit as dusk fell, afforded magnificent views up and down the wild and rocky coast. Food was delicious, but above all Nepenthe was a marvelous place to drink, linger, and talk into the night. It was an easy place to forget one was serving in the armed forces.

Late ’62 Jeff graduated as a Vietnamese linguist, or lingy in the outfit's slang. Originally he’d hoped to go to Europe on the Army’s nickel, but on arrival at the school he’d had been bumped from a Slavic language program, so it was westward ho to Southeast Asia. 

Life in the tropics …

Enjoying good times in the Philippines

Flying with stops in Honolulu and on Guam, Jeff found himself at a vast military airfield in the Philippine Islands (PI), a major US base in the global Cold War. In a far flung corner of the base – far from flight lines where fighters and bombers constantly took off and landed – Jeff worked the graveyard shift in a flood-lit, windowless, heavily guarded building. In effect, he was in the rear area of the low key war underway across the South China Sea in Vietnam.

Again, military life in Jeff’s outfit was at a minimum, and when he wasn’t at his classified tasks, life was very good in the PI. The billets were as comfortable as good college dorms. There was an enlisted men’s club where drinks were beyond cheap, and for the endless sunny days of the subtropics, a large outdoor swimming pool.

Evenings Jeff and buddies would often gather in the pubs and cafes of Angeles City, a honky tonk GI town not far from the gates of Clark Airbase. Jeff joined the glee club, which meant invitations to sing at other American bases in the islands, usually followed by excellent dinners. At one point he considered going out for the Clark football team, which would have meant away games all over the US network of bases in Asia.

There were also trains to Manila, the capital, and bus trips up into the cool mountains as well as excursions to white sand and palm-fringed beaches of the South China Sea.

Travel to other cities of Asia was available. On one occasion when Jeff had leave, he flew military transport gratis to exotic Tokyo, while another time he caught the 4x-a year leave-ship to British Hong Kong. Judging by his letters home, he found those two great cities fascinating.

As the saying goes, all good things come to an end, and Jeff was ordered one evening, late summer ’63 to pack his gear and report to the flight line in the morning. He was shipping out to Vietnam.

To the Paris of the Orient

A Saigon street scene, 1963

It was a deadly serious matter that rushed Jeff and fellow lingys to Tan Son Nhut, the capital’s airport. A coup was in the air. South Vietnam’s president was mismanaging the country and botching the war against the Communist insurgency. The general staff was thoroughly fed up, and President Kennedy (JFK) had lost patience with America’s Southeast Asian client.

With JFK’s secret blessings, behind the scenes the generals had begun plotting a coup. The US ambassador had a liaison with the plotters, but Washington wanted to be sure what it was getting involved in and dispatched Jeff and his team to clandestinely monitor the electronic communications among the conspirators.

The mission was Top Secret lest the South Vietnamese government find out what we were up to. The lingys were billeted in the capital and transported to their operational site in a remote corner of a US base outside Saigon. They worked around the clock. Each day’s ‘product’ – the intercepts – was sent down to their parent outfit in the capital to be closely analyzed.

So sensitive was the operation that the daily product was packed with incendiary explosives to be detonated should there occur any chance of interception by troops loyal to the South Vietnamese president.

Despite this grim routine, Jeff and buddies had unforgettable times in Saigon, then still regarded as the ‘Paris of the Orient’. The American presence was not yet overwhelming, and it was still a lovely city with broad avenues and a French flavor.

The young Vietnamese women wearing the white silk ao dai – long tunics slit down both sides and worn over long pants – seemed universally attractive. Fine European-style hotels served indigenous dishes and continental cuisine. A popular dining place was a floating restaurant moored to a bank of the Saigon River.

Off-duty, Jeff and his pals were fond of pub crawling through the town’s many attractive bars and outdoor cafes. But – as depicted in the film Good Morning, Vietnam – all was not quiet. An insurgency had been underway in the mountains and jungles for several years, and its impact was beginning to be felt in the country’s capital where the American military advisors were concentrated.

The insurgents – called the Viet Cong (VC) – not only conducted hit and run attacks on the South Vietnamese Army in rural areas, but carried out terrorist activities against places where Americans gathered in Saigon.

A VC attack hit a movie theater frequented by US advisers and their dependents, but more often a VC action was no more than two young men on a motor scooter racing down a busy street and rolling a live grenade into an open air bistro.

That happened one evening as Jeff and friends were walking along a major avenue toward one of their favorite Vietnamese-French places. Maybe a hundred feet ahead of them, a couple of VC cowboys sped by and the café exploded. The place was wrecked, but miraculously no one was killed in that incident.

VC terror was such a part of the urban scene in a city at war that GIs had grown accustomed to it. Jeff and the guys glanced at the damage to the cafe, stepped around it, and continued the night’s outing.

A few days later when the café had been repaired, Jeff and the GIs went back to enjoy the good food and pleasant ambiance. Their favorite waiters were decked out in red sneakers instead of the customary sandals. When Jeff asked why, they replied, “To run faster next time.”

After nearly seven weeks on the secret op, Jeff and the initial team were pulled out and flown back to the Philippines. Replacements continued the operation up to the eve of the successful coup on November 1st..

High above the heat and dust of the plains

The road to the hill station at Baguio

Returning to his duties at the 9th ASA Field Station in the PI, Jeff resumed the languorous life of the islands. Nearby Angeles City, however, was a come-down after Saigon with its lovely girls in the flowing ao dai, flower vendors along the sidewalks, and, despite VC interruptions – the night life of a romantic Oriental city edged with a frisson of danger.

But the Philippines still had its charms for a young college boy GI with money in his pocket and plenty of downtime. It was back to the sunny beaches, catching the train again to the bright lights of Manila, as well as occasional free-swinging dinner parties with fellow lingys and crypts, or cryptographers. It felt once again like extended spring break.

As relief from the tropical heat of the lowlands, Jeff and friends would make the harrowing bus trip up to the refreshing air of Baguio along narrow, tortuous mountain roads with sheer drops of 1000s of feet. In British India Baguio was the kind of place they called a hill station, high above the dust and heat of the plains far below.

The only break in the daily routine from the night shift in the windowless building and days of beer and bar girls was a tragic one, the assassination of JFK in Dallas. Profound shock was felt by Jeff and his buddies so far from home at a terrible moment in the life of the nation.

By early ’64, Jeff had had it with military life. He’d been in the forces for two and a half years with just six months to go, and was thinking ‘short’ – shorthand for combat GIs counting the days until they were out of harm’s way.

Jeff’s most urgent concerns became getting his driver’s license renewed back in the States, arranging to return to college, and generally transitioning back to civilian ways.

But then political conditions in Saigon became unstable, the post-coup junta proved inept, and rumors of another upheaval were rife. Once more on short notice, Jeff found himself transferred to Vietnam, but this time in different circumstances, absent the creature comforts and good times of his first tour.

As we shall see in the next posting, he was about to come face to face with the realities of the smoldering, low intensity war in the bush.