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.