Vietnam War

Gimme Shelter!

A troubling realization that came out of the discussion ignited by my 1992 novel Centre/Center, at my most recent Travelling Book Café, was how Canada has changed since the 1970's when war objectors and even deserters from the U.S. armed forces were welcomed with kindness by the government and any number of open-hearted individuals who provided shelter, offered jobs, donated food and clothes, extended friendship.
     It was standing room only at the Gibsons Public Library late Saturday afternoon. I had invited three former U. S. War Objectors to join me at the front, and after introducing "the times" with a short reading from Centre/Center, which deals with the migration to Canada during the Vietnam war years, the men described their experiences. Dan Bouman, a former town councillor and head of the district conservation society, talked about how his decision to cross the border influenced his family in Michigan; how, despite criticism from a local church minister and a threatening call from the FBI, his army veteran father began to understand that Dan had made the right decision. He was welcomed and aided by the Quakers in Vancouver. He thought then and still thinks of Canada as a place of refuge. Ken Dalgleish, a popular piano player, remembered the various people who helped him along, from a California Induction Center doctor willing to believe that Ken had been suffering chronic headaches, to an immigration officer who told him: If you want to stay we'd like to welcome you. Dr. Michael Klein detailed his Ionesco-like exchanges with the military board and showed a film now mounted at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.  In the film Klein describes how he and his wife were advised to cross from New York to Montreal at night when French Canadian border guards would be on duty, French Canadians having been historically opposed to conscription. There is also a sequence about the difficulty Iraq war resisters have experienced because nowadays, instead of welcoming immigrants for humanitarian reasons, the present government gives preferential treatment to entrepreneurs promising to invest in other businesses or open their own.  Meantime, war objectors like Rodney Watson have to seek sanctuary in churches to avoid being sent back to the U.S.  All three speakers had commented on Canada's traditional place in the world as a haven. Acknowledging the new reality produced a mixture of emotions and shame was a major component. So it wasn't just about nostalgia, all the talk, but living history that gives us an opportunity to consider how Canadian society has evolved.
     This Travelling Book Café confirmed that the Vietnam War era remains unfinished business for many who were touched by it. The time was too limited to allow all the audience members who had been involved as war objectors, or soldiers then veterans (as is one of the characters in C/C) to tell their stories. Those who did, including Dan Bouman, were grateful. "It's the first time I have ever talked about my experience in public and the first time anyone asked me to."
     There are clearly more to speak and to be heard. The Centre/Center Travelling Book Café hits the road in mid-February, willing to stop in interested communities along the way. Quebec and Ontario in late February, early March.

Soldiers and wars

Remembrance day in Canada, Veteran's day in the U.S., Armistice day in Britain. Soldiers are being honoured today in many countries as they are every November 11, at the 11th hour, when an end came to the war that was supposed to end all wars. We know how that turned out.  My feelings have been uneasy about this day. Not about the willingness of the men and women who actually went to war, not about bravery I can't even contemplate duplicating, not about the losses families suffered and continue to suffer when fathers, brothers and sons, mothers, wives and daughters go to war and don't come home, or come home vastly changed, body and soul. No, instead I feel uneasy because while honouring soldiers, November 11 also seems to glorify war. It's a mixed message and my feelings match it.
Rising black wall of Vietnam Memorial with the names of the
58,209 who died
     One of my brothers, a former U.S. Marine, rides with the Patriot Guard in Arizona, a group that provides motorcycle escorts for military funerals. Through this activity he has learned some fascinating details about former soldiers, including the Navajo code talkers, whose job in both world wars was to transmit coded messages based on their own languages. He and his mates perform a kind service for the families of veterans. Another brother, also a former Marine, served in Vietnam. I know and love these two particular former soldiers and still I feel uneasy, because the problem is separating the soldier from the war.  Nearly 60,000 U.S. personnel died in Vietnam, a war that was widely declared unwinnable long before the U.S. scooted out of Saigon; that the Secretary of Defence of the time admitted was a mistake. Yet men and women, including my brother, were drafted to fight in this battle over political ideologies and criticized when they shipped out. Peace marchers used slogans such as, "what if they gave a war and nobody came?" A sweet, flower-child thought but erring on the side of oversimplification. It wasn't the soldiers' fault, one could say; they were serving their country, stopping the spread of communism, keeping America free. Choose your sound bite. However, some highly ignorant types actually engaged in name calling if not perhaps worse in the presence of those who returned from Vietnam intact and badly not intact.
     The thing is, politicians and dignitaries gather to honour sacrifices made in the name of "freedom," while freedoms are being cut left and right. Governments spy on their own citizens, arrests are made and people imprisoned as a way of stopping terror, whether or not there is any evidence for the accusation. Hmm. And what's worse is that while November 11 is a special day for veterans, the rest of the year they struggle to make a living, struggle to keep the demons away, to deal with injuries that changed their lives forever. The man on the streets of Atlanta on a cold Thanksgiving Eve. Neatly dressed, but hoping for a handout because, as he said, "you might have heard that the U.S. doesn't treat its veterans very well." Same in Canada, where there was renewed spirit and emotion at the National War Memorial in Ottawa this year because a young soldier guarding the cenotaph was shot to death mere weeks ago by a mentally ill man who had used jihad as justification. So, there was more recognition of what soldiers lay on the line, and that's important. But any more money in their pockets, any more help for the mentally and physically ill? That hallelujah day seems nowhere near imminent.
     More than hypocritical, bordering on criminal, is that to manage war these days, at least in the U.S. and infamously during the Iraq War, the government engages private security firms whose corporate directors have been involved in government decisions to go to war in the first place. War generates profits for them. Some of these same people might even attend Veteran's, Armistice, Remembrance Day ceremonies. I hope not.
     I like to watch veterans, generally quite old folks sporting vivid red poppies, gathering in rainy November weather, standing at attention, or marching. I like to think of what their lives may have been like; what mark their wars made on them, if they feel they fought in a just cause. Maybe one day I will be able to do this without also feeling anger at some of the people who stand in the grandstand, grandstanding as usual.

Oh say, can you see?

Stars and stripes everywhere, of course, and white pillars, like those identifying the big white house that is impossible to approach, even to reach the stipulated distance.

Monuments, memorials. Grand Lincoln on his marble throne taking me back to grade school where I had to memorize the Gettysburg Address. The sound of the words returns to me as I stand reading the text here, and the next day at the stunning Library of Congress, the Jefferson Building, where Lincoln's neat handwriting is on display, behind glass.
Heading south, this is a good start. "Now we are engaged in a great civil war." It is a war identified by many names. Most commonly known as the civil war, the further south I get, it is called the War between the States (Fort Macon), or the war of Northern Aggression (Savannah). Here in the capital of the nation, however, the emphasis is on the triumph of having kept the states under one flag, and what a splendid capital it is. The looming neo-classical buildings, the hum of argument that must be going on inside the hotels, and the office buildings as people try to persuade one other to cooperate or resist. Still a kind of civil war. In the news I hear about a broken congress, or broken government, but outside everything is beautiful; bright sunny days, brisk autumn winds, wonderful fall colours, red and gold being the coin of the season. With my personal guide to steer me to the best places, including the brilliant café at the Museum of the American Indian, which offers such native foods as alligator and blue corn bread, I pass through Washington without having been touched much. Only security everywhere and the bollards that go up, preventing access to any kind of close up view of the White House, only those things rouse the anger I used to feel at policies that seemed a joke in this so-called land of liberty.

I left the country to protest all that transpired during the Vietnam War and the inspired design of the memorial to that war amazes me for how it evokes the darkness of that time. We walk along the path beside the black marble bearing the names of all those poor soldiers sacrificed for something abstract and absurd as the domino theory and are literally overwhelmed by its shadow, even my tall friend Jimmy.

On my last morning I try once again to glimpse the White House, and it is a perfect day to walk the length of Pennsylvania Avenue, but no luck. I am stopped a block away, and so head back to Union Station, but by a side street that takes me to Ford's Theatre and the house where Lincoln died. Relics of history everywhere, and of conflicts that have morphed into different forms. Beneath its gleaming white beauty, the bones of Washington rattle.

Confederates, faceless men, draft dodgers...old wars reconsidered

Reading a paper book, and  an ebook, both concerned with the lingering effect of old armed conflicts. Civil wars, if wars can ever be considered civil. Confederates in the Attic is the ebook, and I am reading it in preparation for my southern odyssey in November.  I finished the first few chapters on the train from Toronto back to Quebec City, between glances out the window at sumacs dripping scarlet alongside the tracks, and white birch trunks composing a warp behind the turning maples.
Tony Horwitz writes about his boyhood obsession with the the war between the states, as it was called, his experience as a hardcore reenactor of life as a confederate soldier, and the southern loyalists he met in Salisbury, North Carolina. As the Via train rolled east, after a switch at the Montreal train station, (where I picked up a felafel sandwich from my favorite Libainaise food kiosk) I learned of the commitments people make to keep memories alive. There is even a group called Children of the Confederacy. Horwitz examines the South through a lens ground to a single focus. My aim is to get a general first  impression. Instead of following the trail bloodied by combatants in the 1860's, a subject that never really compelled me, except when I was in school and I had to memorize the Gettysburg Address, I plan to make my first trip to the southern U.S. a bit of a literary pilgrimage. I want to visit Asheville and think of the wordy romanticism of Thomas Wolfe; You Can't Go Home Again waits on my ereader too.

But here, chez moi, it is a novel en français, L'ombre du vent, or The Shadow of the Wind, that absorbs me. Even though I am not yet, nor may ever be, fluent in French, I can read well enough to savour the language, the style of Zafon, the compelling voice of his narrator, who, as a child, is taken by his father to a cemetery for forgotten books. That sequence begins a story haunted both by a man with a face burned so that he has no features, and, more intrinsically, by the Spanish civil war. But a cemetery for forgotten books! How wonderful! All we authors must wish for a kind of Graveyard day (I remember the Bobby Ann Mason story), when people would come visit our neglected books

That has happened to some extent recently with my novel, Centre/Center (Talon, 1992) which, coincidentally, also concerns war, the Vietnam war in this case, and consequent migration to Canada of draft dodgers and war protestors. A few messages from readers who discovered the book (in the kind of cemetery that now exists on-line), and a book club discussion have convinced me that the divisions created by that war also still exist, here in Canada and in the United States. It was a different kind of civil, rather, uncivil war.

Ma vie en français

J'adore la ville de Québec! Here I am, back after a six month absence, and so comfortable now. Just bought trois tournesols pour célébrer! Personne m'a repondu en anglais. I have made progress enough to understand and be understood en français.

This is the fifth time I have arrived for a stay of several months in this beautiful  City founded four centuries ago. J'adore le son de la langue française on the streets, des pierres partout, stone buildings with wooden window and door sashes in French blue, a rusty or bright red, ochre, light or deep greens. This time I live just off rue St Paul, on a small côte of cobblestone, in a 200 year old building with wooden posts at least a foot thick. Formidable! At this time of year the city is full of tourists whose faces are hidden behind cameras pointed up at mansard roofs, cupolas, spires. Bells peal from scores of church towers, a joyous sound no matter your religion.

The papers are full of opinion about Madame la Première's proposed charter of Québec values, the one that contains the contentious prohibition of religious garb in government workplaces. She was born feisty, Pauline Marois. In this age of multiculturalism, she must have known the furor this proposal would incite. Is it simply a matter of separating church and state, right down to dress codes for government workers, or is she trying to appeal to the worst in an electorate that has been under the threat of non-French invasions since the battle of the Plains of Abraham? Qui sait, mais c'est un commencemant intéressant.

As for la vie littéraire, my second night here I met with members of the book club who had  read Centre/Center, my third book. Pleased that they thought it a "true" representation of the 60's, that one woman in particular was sad when the book ended ( a real compliment; I have had that feeling about my favourite books), and surprised that the book evoked a spirited discussion about the Vietnam war. That old wound seems to fester still, and not very far below the surface.

Thinking about Dos Passos

Re-reading the USA Trilogy again. The copy I have is one I gave to my brother Tim in 1968, back when we were fighting about the Vietnam War. The cover price for this two-inch thick illustrated softback, its cloth cover losing threads by now, is $2.85. I remember buying it in a bookstore in either San Francisco or Santa Rosa. Probably the former.
     Dos Passos had a grand vision for content and style. In my view, he wanted to present the sweep of events and characters that would create the U.S.A. of the 20th century. A big theme, and one that influenced me in the 60's, is the tension between labor and capital. He began pre-WWI in the first book of the trilogy, The 49th Parallel, and continued through the war until a few years after it. The result is a mosaic of news events, popular songs, short biographies of characters who shaped the times, like Eugene Debs, Robert Follett, Thomas Edison, a continuing stream of consciousness autobiography, and the developing stories of various characters, working men and women, businessmen, politicians, journalists.
     The period he writes about is the same in which my new novel Presto!
is set. The difference is that while DP's canvas is huge and crammed with content that gives a thorough sense of the times, I have restricted myself to the point of view of a single character and events that occur through a single ten day stretch. Yet I see that my character is affected by the many of the same events and the consciousness of the time DP so thoroughly depicts. I am inspired by his use of different styles of narrative, including the newspaper headlines. To think that even before radio, the many newspapers with their many daily editions were able to keep people, if not instantly informed, like now, at least current! As I work on either the last or next to last draft of Presto, I am thinking too of graphics within novels. How they can open and enhance the text.