Frank Gutch Jr: The War I Did Not Fight (and the One I Fought In My Head) Plus Notes…..
I got a haircut the other day and the guy before me asked for white sidewalls. For those who don’t know, white sidewalls is a euphemism for a buzzcut which pretty much eliminates hair from neck to crown. Marines are poster boys for the style and I jerked my mental knee and mentioned The Marines. Yes, he said, I was a Marine. I looked closely at him and I could see a hard life written on his face, the cracks deep and ancient. His life hadn’t been easy.
He had enlisted in ’68, barely missing the Tet Offensive, a major point in the Viet Nam War (Look it up, people, I’m not going to do all the work for you). He was infantry, or should I say that he was assigned to an infantry unit as a radio man. His MOS (military occupation status) was in communications as a radiotelegraph operator (at least, I think that was what those guys who specialized in Morse Code were called) but was going crazy with all the dits and dahs and begged to be reassigned. They warned him that the only slots were as radio men and that would increase his odds of combat tremendously. He didn’t even blink. Next thing he knew he was running recon missions in the mountains and jungles and counting the days. At some point, he said, he stopped counting. It seemed like it would go on forever.
He saw action more than he would have liked, was seriously wounded in the leg and worked his way back to his old unit after a short period of rehabilitation. The Viet Cong ambushed them shortly after he returned and he survived but his best friend died in his arms. I expected him to stop, the conversation taking an obvious toll, but he continued. After his friend died, he lost interest. He just didn’t care anymore. His CO recognized it and had him processed out of the unit and back to The States because, according to this guy, he was a time bomb. He begged to be allowed to stay because he knew he wasn’t ready for civilian life but the CO eventually convinced him. He was handed a ticket to San Francisco where he was to be debriefed and processed. Which means that they ran pysch evaluations on him until they were fairly certain he was not a real danger to society.
He asked me about my time in and I told him what I thought he wanted to know in the short time we had. When he got out of the chair, he had to wait for a ride so we talked while I sat down for my go-’round. With the sound of the clippers in my ear, I talked a bit and listened more, for he was not done. He had been fighting the VA for years. He had been diagnosed with what later became known as PTSD and had struggled readjusting to life and had trouble holding a job. His leg had given him trouble since the wound and it was a struggle to walk long distances. He married and divorced. He drank. Luckily, he said, he had no use for drugs other than painkillers. Unfortunately, the painkillers took away a small portion of his life. He got a prescription but it was not enough. Soon, he was buying on the street. The choice soon became obvious— kick the drugs or die. He wasn’t a junkie, he explained, he was just dependent upon pills. Without them, he was more than a few cards short of a full deck. With them, he was maybe one card short.
He lived decades that way— wondering if he was going to make it. It seemed he still lived that way. Like he was expecting that maybe tomorrow would be the day it all ended. Which was the statement he was making when his ride showed up. He handed the barber a good tip and wished us all well as he limped out of the shop. I could not help noticing the limp. He leaned way to the right when he used his right leg and almost righted himself with the left, but he was never upright. It had to hurt. But my father, who suffered with back pain due to a tree limb which caught him square in the back while felling a widowmaker (google logging and widowmaker— I have neither the time nor energy to explain everything), after awhile, you adjust to the pain or get lost in it.
I was close to going to Canada. I was finishing college at the University of Oregon and knew my time was up and was doing my diligence as a war protester and was an inch away from the trip to Vancouver when a very strange thing happened. My father the logger (as opposed to my father the soldier) came within a breath of dying. The logging crew was coming down the mountain when the brakes gave out on the crummy (again, google it) and it began careening down a steep logging road. The driver, luckily, had driven such roads enough to know that he had only a few seconds to stop the vehicle or they were going over the edge. He found an embankment with a small outgrowth of small firs and plowed directly into it. The men all suffered bumps and bruises, but it averted certain disaster. My father and I had not been seeing eye-to-eye for some time, thanks to the war, and I had had no contact with him for a bit of time. My mother called me and told me about the accident and berated me for my obstinacy and told me to come home and make things right with Dad. One thing Dad and I always shared— we hated to see women cry. I think Momma sometimes used that against us and in this instance I caved and went home. Dad and I didn’t really bury the hatchet but we did agree to disagree. And it kept Momma happy. I think she felt that as long as we were talking, there was hope.
Dad was a WWII vet. That might not mean a lot these days but back then it meant that you loved and supported your country. When I began questioning our involvement in Viet Nam, he didn’t say much, but when I began making statements against the country’s involvement I think he began to get concerned. Our town, Sweet Home, was a bastion of conservatism though you could find few outside the educational system who could even tell you what it was. Basically, it meant that they believed that what the government was doing was for the good of the people and the country. Say something against that and you could easily be labeled a Commie. I don’t think anyone ever thought that way about me but I would not be surprised. I was loud and adamant. I was antiwar. I was also young and idealistic. To Dad, that was recipe for disaster.
When it came time to face the draft, I was there. Momma and Dad drove me over to the Greyhound station in Albany and I shook hands with Dad and said I would see him soon. He said he doubted it. I knew it was a reference to my attitude. I am sure that he thought I had a very good chance to end up in the stockade. I fooled him. I came back after basic right around Christmas time thinking that maybe things would not be as bad. It was worse. My sister and brother-in-law were there with his mother and even with all those people around Dad and I started it all over again. My sister clocked me a good one when I called her a name I was surprised to hear come out of my mouth (my ears rang for awhile, let me tell you) and Dad and I were close to coming to blows when I went into my room and closed the door. I stayed there except to use the bathroom and when one of my old schoolmates called to say he was heading up to Lake Oswego, I asked if I could come and he said okay. A couple of hours later, he drove into the driveway and I grabbed my duffle bag and headed out the door. Momma later told me that I ruined everyone’s Christmas. I told her it was already ruined and I was only trying to keep things from escalating.
I didn’t go home again until I got out. Momma came up to visit not long before I was being released and we made plans for my coming home and shortly after, returning to college.
Basic had been a disaster. One of the guys in our company attempted suicide by slitting his wrist and we were kept out of the barracks for most of an evening while the latrine was being cleaned. Another went AWOL after a bunch of us tried to talk him out of it. One went half crazy when his wife sent him a letter that she was filing for divorce. One of the guys in a platoon in the barracks right next to ours was being starved by his drill sergeant who marched him through the mess hall line screaming at him to eat and made him drop what was left, which was almost everything, into the garbage can at the end of the line. He wrote home and his father contacted his congressman who scheduled a visit to the company through the Department of the Army. The drill sergeant’s only comment was that he didn’t want a fat ass next to him in combat because he would get him killed. I knew the fat ass. He may have been overweight but he was a nice guy and did not deserve such treatment. I would see things like this for a year and nine months and never got used to it. The thing that really bugged me was that there was nothing I could do— none of us could do. No matter the situation, everything was stacked against us. We were recruits and nothing more. And if we didn’t follow the chain of command, our complaints went unheard.
We had this second lieutenant in basic who was awaiting some sort of court-martial action. He, too, was antiwar and made no apologies for it. In the evenings, he would stop by the barracks and while we were spit-polishing boots or buffing floors would talk about various things we needed to know— or things he thought we needed to know. Like where to go for legal advice, which turned out to be The Shelter Half in Tacoma. It was a small coffeehouse which disbursed information, mostly against the war. He worked there on occasion and invited us down when we got out of basic. I went once. Had it been easier to get there I would have visited more often, but the bus system sucked and I rarely had enough change in my pocket anyway. One thing he did tell me which I took to heart. He told me that if I ever found myself in a situation where I was defending my rights or making any statements against the military to make sure I had people with me. In such situations, without corroboration, my statements would mean little if anything. Three times I placed myself in jeopardy— twice by confronting NCOs when ordered to do something, once for decking an NCO when goaded. The only thing that saved my ass were the eyewitnesses. Even in the military, the laws were many times adapted to the circumstances. I was very fortunate that the people involved were willing to put their own interests aside for the truth as they saw it.
My biggest problem, according to the military, was that I was a security risk. I made the simple mistake of answering the questions on my DD forms truthfully. They asked something like “has there ever been or would there ever be an instance in which loyalty to your country would be in question.” I raised my hand and asked the clerk what it meant and he told me it meant whatever I thought it meant, so I checked yes and explained with the statement that my family and friends came first and if there was a conflict, I would side with them. I think all of Willy Wonka’s bells and whistles went off in Washington and the next thing you know I am billeted at the YMCA in Portland awaiting the okay from the Pentagon. I found out later that they ran my name through their lists of people known to have some sort of affiliation with groups which then were considered anti-American or even “terrorist.” I came up clean but they red-flagged my file. When I got out of basic, I had to report to G-2 (Military Intelligence) once a month to answer questions and justify my existence. My first visit was a party, of sorts. The officer questioning me saw that I had graduated from the U of O, as had he, and after the first question (you aren’t a risk, are you? to which I said no) sent out for donuts and coffee and we spent the better part of an hour talking about our experiences at the University and their chances that year in football, which back then were none too good. For another year and a half, I would have people following me with cameras, taking pictures of me coming out of head shops and taverns and movie theaters. I got to know some of them well enough that we waved whenever we saw one another. The NCO I decked? He was G-2 also. He walked into the Training Room (I was training clerk) and told me if he had his way he would line all the sonsabitches up and shoot them all. The next thing I knew, I was having coffee in the mess hall. They told me I vaulted the desk and knocked him down but all I remember was red. Must have been the adrenaline.
I was torn about the war. We were already there so there was nothing I could do about that except claim that we should not be there— a bit of vitriol after the fact. The thing is, after I got to know people, I developed a personal attachment to the situation. We were all there whether we wanted to be or not kind of a thing. I watched people pass through the company on the way to or on the way back from the war and worried about the damage done and the damage to be done. I had no interest in the military situation. I had interest in the people.
Of the ones going overseas, I could only hope for the best for them. To be safe. To return unharmed. To survive. In the end, it all came down to survival. I never heard one word about “the cause” from those returning. Few talked details. I heard many references to survival. Contrary to what Hollywood would have us believe, war is evidently not fun.
Not all of the returnees came through our offices at Headquarters Company but enough did that I saw clearly the failed policies of the military and the government. Many were processed through Madigan and the other hospitals up and down the West Coast— the ones who were physically in need or who needed help to cope. Others were tossed back into the structure they had left behind when sent overseas with little more than a by-your-leave. I got to know a few of them well.
One was a sergeant who had spent a year and a half on recon patrol and, in spite of his request to remain “in country” until he could be released after the six months he had left, they sent him Stateside to finish out his time. Plopping him in a system which was as much for military regulations as it was for the war was the worst thing they could have done. This guy had seen combat. This guy had been wounded and had seen people die. This guy had paid dues he should never have had to pay. And while they didn’t hound him, the system did. The system which said that you had to salute a general’s car when it passed. Which said you had to blouse your fatigues. Which said you had to shave and polish your boots and stand at attention when some clown who barely made it through Officers Training School and would probably never see combat decided you needed discipline. Even I could see the lack of fairness there.
A number of us did. We all had stories about this guy or that and we shared them as the situations evolved. Rather than watch, though, we acted. For the real unfair situations. For the good men. Like the sergeant out at Gray Army Airfield who had hurt his back parachuting during the Korean War but was expected to spend a second tour in Viet Nam. Like the sergeant at the rifle range who had just received orders for Nam but who had a wife facing serious health problems. Like the PFC who was threatening to go AWOL rather than board a plane for SE Asia. The sergeants at the airfield were lucky. Orders were cut sending each of them to Germany which transcended the orders for Nam. The PFC found a counselor at The Shelter Half who walked him through the process of getting a hardship discharge. Don’t ask me how. They just happened.
For the first year of my “tour,” I smoked dope. It was during the great Pacific Northwest drought of whatever year that was. No one had weed. No one. Except the military. Fort Lewis and McChord were swimming in it. I cannot say that it helped having all of that weed around but it did make time pass faster. And it kept my spirits up, as down as I was. The first sergeant walked in on us one day while we passed around a bong. As luck would have it, the youngest of us, a kid we had named Drill Kid because of his penchant for starched fatigues and spit-polished boots, was taking a huge hit and I am sure was stunned— no, I mean really stunned— to see Top standing there. He meekly walked to one of the large bay windows and placed the bong on the sill before sliding over to where the rest of us were standing at ease. I have no idea what the others were thinking but I was wondering what the inside of the stockade looked like because I figured we were all going to find out. Top looked each one of us directly in the eyes when he walked by to grab the nefarious instrument on the sill, turned around and walked away. We looked at each other and started laughing, not because it was funny but because the weed was that good. The next morning at reveille, Top stood in front of the company and announced that he had found an instrument used for the specific purpose of smoking marijuana, an illegal substance (emphasis on illegal) and that the person who owned it could claim it in his office right after we were dismissed. No one claimed it and it was never mentioned again. One day, though, I had a run-in with Thai Stick and my smoking days were pretty much over. It put me out of commission. I lay on the couch in a buddy’s apartment and realized that I could not get up if I had to. I was totally numb. A couple of days later it had worked its way out of my system but I never took more than a small toke after that. Mostly, I just passed the joint on. I found that it was more fun to be sober around my friends who were smoking, not to mention the fact that I could drive. Some of those guys I wouldn’t have trusted standing next to a car let alone driving it.
After the Thai Stick episode, I began spending more time alone. I had found the library and was slowly reading my way through the stacks. Mostly fiction. William Borden’s Superstoe. Michael Frayn’s A Very Private Life. Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics. Anything and everything was fair game. I read geography books about the Pac Northwest region, science fiction, biographies, humor. I discovered a string of authors I had never heard of and most readers would never find. And I bought records. I still had my two albums from basic— Spooky Tooth‘s Spooky Two and the first album by Rockin’ Foo, who I had seen play at the Eugene Pop Festival just before I was drafted. I added Grand Funk‘s Grand Funk and Captain Beefheart‘s Trout Mask Replica and Uriah Heep‘s first. I worked my way through Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and The Faces‘ First Step and Brinsley Schwarz‘s first album and began to build a record collection to rival those of my music fanatic friends’. I had no idea but I was readying myself for a lifelong interest in music and, oddly enough, an actual career in records. During my Army phase, though, the music was survival.
One time I went down to Lake Oswego to visit my friends and we headed to downtown Portland for an antiwar parade. We were standing on the sidewalk watching thousands of people pass by when an older lady walked up to me and grabbed my arm. “C’mon,” she said. “Let’s march.” I tried to beg off, pointing to my friends, and she yelled at them to come along to. “After all, we are doing this for you,” she said. “The least you could do is march with us a little.” We marched. When we reached the end, she pulled me down so she could give me a kiss on the cheek, saying “that wasn’t so bad, was it?” She’s old enough to be my grandmother, I thought, as she weaved her way through the crowd away from me. Funny how the only people who seem to get it right are the old and the young. Maybe it’s because those in the middle are involved in surviving.
I visited this tree every weekend of that last last spring. I would walk across I-5 toward the Sound with a book under my arm, find the railroad tracks which led to the ammo dump and follow them to almost the end. Just off to the right, there was this tree which looked as if it was a throne, two roots branching out from the bottom between which one could sit and read or just contemplate. I did a lot of each. I had been skating. My decisions were my own only insofar as my situation dictated and they pretty much dictated where I had to be most of the time. In a few months time, I would hopefully be in Eugene, back on campus enjoying life as a civilian. As much as I tried, I could not get myself organized, though. I had been fighting the idea of war and the structure of the Army for too long to just push it behind me. Little did I know that it would stay with me this long.
I mentioned a few of these things to the Marine as we talked. He seemed as curious about my time in as I was about his. I told him that when I had my physical, they had separated us into a room. We were in our underwear and holding our files. A clerk made the announcement that the government was ten percent short on their quota of Marines that month and that, when we heard our names, we were to fall out against the wall. I was ready. Had they called my name for the Marines, I was going to toss my file into the middle of the room and say “my address is in the file, you can come get me when you’re ready,” meaning to send me to jail. No way was I going into the Marines. Those guys were bona-fide crazy. The Marine laughed. He said they did the same thing when he joined but that he was already standing against that wall. He also told me something I had never heard from another person. He had been spit on when he returned. He was sitting in a bar in his Class A’s and this older lady walked up to him and asked if he had been in Viet Nam. He said yes and she spit on his ribbons. Now, I have read about such situations but never really believed. It certainly never happened to me. It happened to him, though, and he told us with a kind of broken voice, as if he had wished it just hadn’t happened. He said something to the effect that he hadn’t wanted a parade, he just wanted to go home.
If I have learned one thing it is that war is never just war. It invades everything you do and think and react to and even want. For us humans, it is ever present, at least in the good ol’ US of A, and I have come to accept though hate it. Right now I am still fighting the war only it has blurred into all war. I wish we could somehow find a way to stop but it seems to be part and parcel of our DNA. I hope I am gone before the planet blows. As a species, if there is a way to do it, we’ll find it.
Brian Cullman….. The videos
I have my favorites, for sure, and Brian Cullman is toward the top of the list. Here are four vids he told me I could use, so I will.
You have to understand that I am showing full restraint here. I write about Cullman all the time and I sometimes think I overdo it, but what the hell. Giving you the music without the hype is okay, isn’t it? Be sure and check out his albums— The Opposite of Time and All Fires the Fire. Really good stuff.
Notes….. Boo Ray? What the…? I need me some time to absorb this but it does not sound country to me, but then I have never considered what comes out of Nashville these days country, anyway. I’m pretty sure, though, that good music is good music no matter where it comes from. Love the slide guitar.
I just found out why the band is called Nocona. I am presently reading a book about Comancheria, a huge expanse of land in the Midwest, which was home to many Native American tribes back in the late-1870s and before. It speaks in detail of the decimation of Native Americans and the life and times of Quanah Parker, whose mother was a white woman kidnapped by one of the tribes and whose father was Peta Nocona, a legendary warrior and chief of the Nokoni band. Here is what Wiki has to say about him:
Peta Nocona (dead ca. 1864) was a chief of the Comanche Quahadi band.
Peta Nocona was strictly linked to the Nokoni band, having taken his wife in this band. He led his tribe during the extensive Indian Wars in Texas since the late 1840s until the 1860s. He was the son of the Quahadi Comanche chief Pohebits-quasho (“Iron Jacket“) and father of chief Quanah Parker. He became so renowned that a diffuse but erroneus belief asserts that the Nokoni (or Wanderers, or Travellers) band, which long predated his birth, was named after him. The city of Nocona,Texas is named after the Quahadi leader.
The band has if not a connection a fascination for the history behind the man and the tribe, thus the name. And the book, which is fascinating (though one has to take into account the various sources of material which many times were hardly objective), is by S.C. Gwynne and is titled Empire of the Summer Moon.
While this video has nothing really to do with the statements above, here is the latest from Nocona. Needless to say, I would love to see these guys live.
In my estimation, Dan Phelps is a musician whose music and life will become part of music history. He is talented as hell, knows few boundaries (if any), and is very giving with his time and talent. Without him, it is doubtful I would have heard Claire Holley, whose Time In the Middle album has gotten steady airplay here at Casa Gutchola. This is one reason why:
That’s only one song of many worth hearing on the album. And here is something cool you should take time to hear and see— Holley herself talking about the making of the album.
I’m not really sure what my reaction to this video is yet. I like the music and the arrangement. If it doesn’t wear itself out, I think this could be big. Sophia Danai.
Holy Jesus! I swear Ryley Walker is the embodiment of every outstanding folkie from the seventies. After his last album, last year’s truly outstanding Primrose Green, he hands us a preview of the new one with a track titled The Roundabout, a song which overwhelms me with its seventies values and its present day sound. This, my friends, only happens once in awhile. Don’t pass up a chance to hear it now.
Floods? Floods? People in Winnipeg know all about ’em. Some incredible footage and a pretty damn good song to back it up. The Lost Chords!
Another arranging triumph. Bon Iver with The Staves.
Because beautiful is hard to beat. The Silver Lake Chorus. I love these guys!!!
And to cap it all off, a little Notary Sojac. These guys could play anything!
Frank’s column appears every Tuesday
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“Frank Gutch Jr. looks like Cary Grant, writes like Hemingway and smells like Pepe Le Pew. He has been thrown out of more hotels than Keith Moon, is only slightly less pompous than Garth Brooks and at one time got laid at least once a year (one year in a row). He has written for various publications, all of which have threatened to sue if mentioned in any of his columns, and takes pride in the fact that he has never been quoted. Read at your own peril.”