Friday, May 27, 2011

"The Truth As It Seemed"

Since we are finishing up our 2011 Gadsden Reads, I decided last week that I would go ahead and get a jump on next year’s community read by skimming through the text of the book we chose for 2012. I was unable to skim. I read the entire book, because I couldn’t put it down. But I’m not sure that I was prepared to read Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. I had heard amazing things about the book. That it was one of the most important pieces of fiction written about the Vietnam War. That it was a powerful account of what actually happened during the war. And that it was a statement to the nightmare of war.

While The Things They Carried is all those things, it is far more. O’Brian’s collection of short stories is possibly one of the truest statements to the chaos of the Vietnam War, the psychological struggles that our soldiers went through during the war, the psychological AND social struggles that they went through when they returned stateside. These soldiers had their morals and their lives jeopardized, hourly. It was a torturous existence they lived while fighting in Vietnam. Fighting an enemy that they could not accurately identify (How do you tell a North Vietnamese person from a South Vietnamese person? It would be like trying to identify a north Alabamian from a south Alabamian based upon looks…it is impossible to tell the differences in a split second, and through appearances alone), on a front that may or may not have really existed (guess it depends upon who you ask). I’m not saying that soldiers in other wars didn’t suffer the same kinds of atrocities during combat. They did. And they still do. But, I’ve just always felt that the Vietnam War was such a stinking unpopular war, such a stinking long war, such a stinking un-winnable war, that the veterans from that particular war got blamed for all of the badness, badness that they couldn’t really control. And that’s no way to treat somebody who fought for our country. But that’s just my opinion.

O’Brian’s style is approachable. He uses lists in the title story, something that reminds me of Whitman, and he uses a poetic style of repetition that keeps you from forgetting small details, details that make the stories more believable (or maybe the repetition is from the shock that he perhaps still suffers from all these years later). But O’Brian also employs the technique of the unreliable narrator. He reminds us over and over to be skeptical of war stories, thereby reminding us that he, the author, is not to be trusted either.
“In any war story, but especially a true one, it’s difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen. What seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way…The picture gets jumbled; you tend to miss a lot. And then afterward, when you go to tell about it, there is always that surreal seemingness, which makes the story seem untrue, but which in fact represents the hard and exact truth as it seemed.” (pg. 78 from the Penguin Books paperback version). “In many cases a true war story cannot be believed.”

The book is labeled fiction, but one cannot help but get the sense that it is not. The Things They Carried is similar to, but different from my other all-time-favorite, gut-wrenching war books (Johnny Got His Gun, All Quiet on the Western Front, and Song for Night). The details are a little more raw in Things, a little too real. O’Brian sets us up, and then rips the rug out from underneath us. Not that we didn’t expect it, ‘cause we did. Who wouldn’t expect something like that from a war novel? We find ourselves lying on the floor with the wind knocked out of us, feeling a little sick to our stomachs, wondering if the passage we have just read is real, or if it is an altered version of what happened somewhere. Doesn’t matter. O’Brien got it right. So we find ourselves staring at the blurb on the back of the book, a statement from the Milwaukee Journal stating, “This writing is so powerful that it steals your breath.” Damn straight, it does.

One of my dearest friends was a Vietnam Vet. A hell of a guy by the name of Randy Dover. He was a friend of my Daddy’s through the VFW Post 8600, so I met him when I was tagging along with dad one night. Once I turned twenty-one, I became a Ladies Auxiliary member, and although I didn’t have to tag along with Dad anymore, I still did ‘cause he had a knack for attracting storytellers. Randy was just one of many storytellers there. Daddy had warned me to not believe all the stories I heard there at the VFW, and for the most part, I heeded his warning. But still, I enjoyed listening. Just as long as the story was good, I didn’t care if it was true or not.

Randy had some stories. And they were good, too. He possessed a voice that was soft and Southern, that drew you in. He also possessed an astounding ability to talk a blue streak. Told stories all the time. Simple stories with the sort of exact and crucial details that made you lean closer, so you wouldn’t miss any of them. Some of the stories were real believable, like his story about the one time he flew a small private plane under the Broad Street Bridge without being found out by the police. Other stories were maybe a little less believable (but I suppose believable nonetheless, cause with Randy, there was always the possibility that it could’ve happened), like the story he told about the song he said he wrote while he was over in Nam, a song that he said he tried to sell back in the States, but lost the rights to through his own naiveté and through an unscrupulous music industry. The song, Without You (credited to Pete Ham and Tom Evans, and made into a huge Grammy-winning hit in 1971 by Harry Nilsson), was something that Randy would on occasion play at the VFW. To this day, I can’t hear that song without thinking of Randy strumming on his acoustic guitar, singing with his eyes closed (maybe because he didn’t want us to see how everything about that song hurt him)…

Then there were the times when Randy didn’t have a lot to say, but he spoke in volumes. I remember the one night I arrived at the 8600 a little later than I usually did. The place was buzzing about a fight that had just been broken up out in the parking lot. See, a fella and his date had shared some heated words in the bar, and once they stepped outside, the fella took a swing at the lady. Now, being the gentleman that he was, Randy evidently stepped in to defend the woman’s honor. Some more punches were thrown, as well as some fine words of negotiation on Randy’s part, and then the fight ended with all parties agreeing to not hit anybody anymore (at least for that night, and in that parking lot). I went looking for Randy to congratulate him on his persuasive mediating skills, and I found him shaken-up and pale, with blood on his white shirt.

“Where’re you hurt?!” I demanded, getting up in his business. “Nowhere,” he responded. “At least not nowhere physical.” His hands shook so bad, I ordered him a liquor drink from the bar to steady them. He was not hurt at all, he claimed. He was just having a hard time with the sight of the blood. Sometimes, he said, seeing blood would take him back to Nam, and that just wasn’t a place he really wanted to go to ever again. Not wanting to pry, I didn’t question him any further. His hands kept shaking, and after awhile of things not improving for him, he asked me if I would just go on and drive him home. I wasn’t quite comfortable with the idea of leaving him alone for the night, and he didn’t seem quite comfortable with the idea either. So, we sat in the car in his driveway for the longest time, talking about the kind of stuff you talk about when you’re trying to avoid talking about tough stuff. He never did talk about the war that night, but he did eventually tell me about how he would sometimes sleep walk and dream that he was back in the jungle fighting. That was the reason why one of his wives had left him. Evidently she had her fill of him late one night when the neighbors woke her out of a dead sleep to come and get Randy out of the backyard. He had been sleepwalking, and dreaming that he was fighting. The problem for the neighbors was that Randy was naked as the day he was born, and was brandishing a broom like an M-16 assault rifle. It seemed that the good folks of downtown Gadsden, including Randy’s wife, did not appreciate the situation for what it was: a soldier suffering from PTSD (even after all those years). All they saw was a buck-naked man with an assault broom within city limits…

Eventually Randy got settled down enough that night for me to feel okay to leave him alone. When next I saw him, which was about a week later, he was back to his old easy-going self. I don’t recall ever having another opportunity to talk with him about his personal experiences in the war, nor to question him for more details about the other stories he shared with us. I did get to see him months later at a VFW dance function they had over at Post 2760, but we didn’t get to talk much cause Randy made the mistake of asking me to swing dance that night. He spent half of the night fussing at me because I wouldn’t let him lead (I fussed back, explaining to him that my momma taught me to dance that way, and that if he wanted to dance with me bad enough, then he was just going to have to get used to being led…and that maybe, if he REALLY didn’t like the way I danced, he could just take it up with my momma), and spent the rest of the night trying to avoid dancing with me. Even eleven years later, when I settled back into Gadsden after living in a bunch of different places, and I looked Randy back up to help me with a music program I was working on for the library, I still didn’t ask him about his past. His health wasn’t great by that time, but he assured me with a squeeze on my arm that he was doing well and could help me out. I wish I had asked him then about the time he spent in Vietnam instead of talking to him about library programming and his new Harley. And now, well it’s too late, because Randy passed away a couple of years ago. But I’ll tell you something, we wouldn’t have had the prizes that we had for our School of Rock finale that year if it hadn’t been for Randy. See, he used his persuasive skills on a Washburn rep to score us a beautiful new guitar to give away…

Human memory is a strange thing. I’m inclined to agree somewhat with Tim O’Brian in the truth of a story being the “truth as it seemed.” I’ve had many a conversation about storytelling, and how everyone’s perceptions and recollections are different. Even as an adult, I’ve written journal entries about things that I somehow have ended up altering somewhat in my mind later down the road. I have to go back and check my facts sometimes. Sometimes I just stick with the way I remember it happening. Perhaps it is a bit of the collective memory of which poet Natasha Trethewey has spoken. We, along with others, witness something. We recount our stories to each other, and we end up sharing and meshing our memories, but they become our own. My memory of incidents from my childhood are made up not only of what I remember, but also of bits and pieces of recollections given to me from my mother, father, sister, grandmother, grandfather…you get the picture. It all gets mixed up in the brain, and then it becomes one…

So, even though this post has been terribly long, I have one more thing to say. Although the song Without You is credited to Ham and Evans, I prefer to believe that my friend Randy Dover wrote it. Nobody will ever know the truth of whether or not it was swiped from a young soldier from Alabama who fought in the Vietnam War…And, as I’ve stated on more than one occasion, and about many different things, I prefer the not knowing to the knowing.

1 comment:

LBC said...

The "truth as it seemed" is one of my hang-ups about watching crime shows. Everybody always takes the witnesses at their word. People have shoddy memories.