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Thursday, March 17, 2016

Obscured American: Vern the Vietnam Vet

As published at Smirking Chimp, OpEd News, CounterCurrents and Unz Review, 3/17/16:

Looking for Vern for over a week, I finally found him in the Friendly Lounge. Vivacious Kelly was bartending. Overhearing Vern say how he had to take his helmet off because of the letters “VC,” Kelly looked perplexed, “Why?”

“Because VC stands for Viet Cong,” Vern clarified.

“Viet Com?”

When you’re young and beautiful, you can say just about anything and people will find it delightful, but perhaps I’m just revealing my old fart mind set. Yes, Kelly, VC stands for Viet dot com. Actually, it means venereal coconut.

Down the bar, ex roofer Angelo jumped in a few times to thank Vern for his service, while Tony the cook stewed over his boss while scratching lottery tickets.

Italian Felix sometimes refers to Vern as “the angry black man,” but I’ve seen no evidence of it. Sipping his red wine, he’s always soft spoken and smiling. What’s even more ironic is Felix was known in his younger days for getting into fights. Vern and Felix live in the same old folks' home, where the sex life is much less dormant than you’d think. “Women there don’t have to worry about getting pregnant,” Felix explained. “You should go down there and get some action.”

Vern had a different take, “Older women need to regain dignity and understand where the limits are.” OK, then, let’s hear more from the 70-year-old:

My father was a grease monkey. He got up in the wee hours of the morning and I had to cook his breakfast. When my father died in 1970, they replaced him with three men.

My mother came from a farm. She wanted to be a dietitian, but she was fortunate enough to become a wire technician for GE.

My mother converted us to Catholicism, so I’ve been a Catholic for most of my life.

I have five siblings, but one died at birth.

I’d go online and look at the house where I was born and raised, and it’s all boarded up!

I was blessed with good neighbors. The Taylors and Caseys would have us over. I mean, my family couldn’t afford a record player or TV, but the Caseys would invite us over to watch television, and we would go in our underwear or whatever. It was nice. Their house is boarded up too. They’re dead now.

They educated us on how to be above what most people thought what African Americans were, or are, in society. I had a good upbringing. My aunt taught me how to set a table, and what fork, what knife and what spoon to use.

I was drafted. I just turned twenty. Women always bring me the bad news. My sister grabbed the mail that day and she came to me. This was in August. I had enrolled at Penn State and wanted to be an architect. I only had a month to go before I’d be in school.

They drafted a lot of African Americans from Philadelphia. You had to fill out all of these crazy papers and whatnot. They examined you and so forth. So yes, you’re inducted! Ha ha!

It was a shock because I didn’t know what it meant to have that happen to you.

At that time we were still involved in the Korean conflict, and there were other world conflicts, so it was very difficult to understand the significance of what I was being caught up in.

I needed to get a letter of deferment, so I got a letter to say that I had already been accepted at Penn State, but the draft board said, No, no! You got your draft notice. You’re in!

I missed it by a month, but I don’t regret it. It was a lesson. I had never been exposed to discrimination, so I didn’t know what it was. We needed jungle training, so they sent us to Fort Polk, Louisiana, and it was an experience I would really like to forget, because Fort Polk, Louisiana was one of the dirtiest, most ignorant places I’ve ever experienced.

There was a town not far away called Leesville, Louisiana, and I remember taking a bus into town, and there was a guy named Vernon Castle. He was a businessman and he owned everything in town, the motion picture theater, the grocery store, his name was everywhere, and that was the first time ever in my life I saw “WHITE,” and then an arrow pointing, with “COLOURED.” I thought, Kiss my ass, you all can stick this town up your ass. I got back on the bus and never went back into town. I was thinking, I’m going to fight for fuckin’ America and you bastards want to talk this shit?!

I never went back into town, never spent another dollar in Louisiana. That night, they gave us our orders on where we would be transferred, Korea or Vietnam. I got my orders. It was around Christmas time. Mine said Vietnam.

We were flown to Oakland, California, then Braniff Airlines flew us over. Coming into Saigon at night, I remember the fox holes, and the bunkers with the gunners, along the runway, protecting the aircraft. I was assigned to the 25th Infantry Division, 3rd Brigade, in Pleiku.

The 3rd Brigade had already established a base camp in Pleiku. It was called Titty Mountain.

Later a general came and said to us, “You can’t call this Titty Mountain. From now on, we’re going to call it Dragon Mountain!” He didn’t want to say that over the radio. He was a pussy.

I was assigned to intelligence. My responsibility was to draw maps and overlays so people in the field understand where they are and where they need to go and whatnot.

I had a radio there, which was unusual, ha ha! It was for my own personal use. I listened to whatever they had in Vietnam. It wasn’t music. I listened to… what was her name? Hanoi? Hanoi? Yes, Hanoi Hanah!

My name is Vernon, and my last name is Cothran, so I put VC on my helmet. Everybody else had their initials on their helmets. Colonel Shanahan came down and said, “Take that helmet off! You can’t have VC on your helmet!”

There was a cook that got mad at the Colonel and cussed him out, so the old man told his staff, I want that guy to be sent to the front line, immediately. He was talking all that crap, so the old man went, “No, uh uh. Off you go!”

The first thing you learn is to keep your mouth shut, but the cook was drunk. I don’t know what happened to him. I never saw him again.

Being in Vietnam, I thought about my father and my mother, because I’m here, they’re there. If something happens to me, who’s going to take care of them?

I had a friend who wanted to be engaged to me. Maria, Maria Stuckey, bless her soul. Her family lived up the street from us. We had a big house on the corner, and they lived at 4828 Olive Street. Those were good days. I have a picture of her sitting in our living room. That’s just before I was about to leave. She was very concerned, and I appreciated that from her.

I couldn’t make a commitment because I didn’t know if I was going to live or die. My priority was I wanted to deal with my mom and dad. That was my priority.

In Pleiku, I had a friend who was very articulate, and I liked that. She was able to, ah, comfort me, to give me a feeling of comfort.

My friend Bee in Philly always teases me, “There’s your son! There’s your son!” I’d say, “Don’t start any crap! Next thing, you’ll have me getting sued, because somebody wants to say, ‘He’s the father!’” I don’t want to hear about it. It may cost me money.

My dad said he was sorry he never served, and that’s why I was proud to go in. My brother went into the Air Force, and I was drafted into the Army. It worked out, you know. The whole experience matured me.

When I came home, instead of me being an architect, I became a humanitarian. I started to work for non-profits to develop issues to save… humanity. I became the Executive Director of the Public Housing Agency in Chester County. I managed over 12 hundred units. That was an interesting experience. My board member, Paul Rie, used to tease me. Our office was not far from the YMCA. Paul said, “You know, they hung a black guy in front of that Y.” I thought, Wow, but he and his wife were very good to me. I miss him.

There was an orphanage outside of Pleiku. I never experienced hunger, but when I went to the orphanage, a little kid ran up to me and grabbed my leg. It touched my heart, so, how should I say this… we stole these C-rations. They were just sitting there, getting wet in the rain, so we’d take four or five boxes, as many as we could. We’d put them in a jeep, said we were going to town to get a haircut, get something to eat or do the laundry, whatever, and we’d take them to the orphanage.

That was a good feeling. When I came home, I brought that attitude back. When I got here, I looked at people and understood. This is home, man, this shouldn’t be happening here, so I set about trying to correct some of the things and whatnot, so it was all good.

We’re all brothers, regardless of the color of our skin. You and I are brothers. Religions and politics cannot change that. We’ll always be brothers because that’s the dynamics of life.

Some bastards were such racists. They would come to town and rub their Caucasian skin and say “no same same” to the Vietnamese while pointing to the African American soldiers. They expected different treatment. They were very cocky and arrogant and felt superior even to the population that was there.

God is going to straighten all this out. It’s going to be good. I don’t know when because I can’t tell you what his schedule is. He tells me what his schedule is. He’s going to straighten it out here on earth because, like I said, we’re all brothers.

If you were in a foxhole, ten, fifteen feet away from me and you ran out of ammo, you’re not going to say, I’m not asking that N person for his rolls. I made some of my best friends in Vietnam.

There was an aristocratic clothing store at 17th and Chesnut. Jackson and Moyer. His grandson was in my unit. Best friends! The Biddle family, his grandson was there. We became good friends. Nigel Virgil Temple West was in my platoon. I met a lot of people, and came home with a lot of friends. My best friend, Frank Norquist, got me home early. He married a diplomat’s daughter. During that time, if you were drafted, you went. Many of the rich kids didn’t wiggle out. A lot of them volunteered. They went in. That changed my whole concept. Those guys were great.

I’m careful walking on soft ground now, because I remember the punji stick pits, where they’d defecate on the bamboo ends to infect the wounds of whoever stepped on them. I don’t want to say primitive, you know, but they had weapons that were used centuries ago.

I wasn’t a tunnel rat. I was too big to be a tunnel rat.

A lot of the women were spies, and they would be mutilated for being spies, and I mean mutilated.

When we went up Route 14, the women would follow us on those, ha ha!, Lambrettas that they could fit four or five people. The prostitutes had to go where the money was.

If I watch Hamburger Hill, it’s so realistic, it hurts. I don’t need to see movies. The best Vietnam movie is Platoon.

I’d go back. It was a great nation, with friendly people.

When I was taken out, thank you, Jesus, it was three or four days before the Tet Offensive, when all kinds of hell broke loose. They took me to base camp to grab my things, and then from there, they took me to Saigon. That night, everything got bombed. All hell broke loose. They attacked Saigon too, and three of the guys who had gotten there before me were killed, and didn’t make it home. They died on their last day.

As the Tet Offensive started, I was on a plane, Braniff Airlines, going to Oakland, and when I got there, I kissed the ground. Thank you, Jesus! I was never so glad to see America.

You go somewhere where you don’t have any rights or privileges, where it’s “Yes, sir! No, sir!” I was so glad to be out of there. I wanted to get out of my stinking clothes, out of my uniform, turn all of that crap in.

My friend Frank called me and said, “I don’t want you to go home for a couple of weeks. I want you to come to West Covina and stay with us.” His brother was a realtor out there. Frank said, “Listen, my brother has a house, but nobody has bought it yet, so you can stay there. We’ll hook up for breakfast and dinner and, you know, check out some things in West Covina.” Frank took me to this house looking out over L.A., and I was thinking, Damn, these people are living large! Ha, ha!

That was my first experience of L.A., and my first experience of dealing with people on that level. I understand what money means now, and I want to have money.

Frank said, “There’s a sickness in your mind that you need to let rest before you go home.” I tell you, I could have gone back and kill everybody in my family. Sat down, had a meal then gone out to do what I had to do. That’s why I tell people, “You have to understand. When someone teaches you how to kill, it doesn’t go away.” So, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!!!!

I went to Frank’s wedding in Omaha. Everyone was as white as snow. I was the only black person.

I’ve never been married. I proposed to a girl, but she thought it was a joke. We were working together. I had a Corvette, and she had this chiffon dress on, with all the pleats. The Corvette had leather seats, so she kept saying, “I’m going to get all sweaty.”

My old neighborhood was African American, and it was respectable. People had jobs and could afford their houses. When we moved out of North Philly, my parents were paying $75 a month for mortgage on a four bedroom house. Now, I wouldn’t even drive down 52nd Street.

The economy changed. People lost jobs. Everything changed.

The system screwed everything up.

We need more jobs. Jobs and education are the solutions, especially education.

People don’t value composure. When they passed the law that you couldn’t beat your child, the little bastards got cocky and became who they are today. Like my brother said to his 14-year-old son, “I’m going to kick your ass and whoop it to the max, and I’m gonna put the phone in front of you, so if you want to call the police, call them, but you better make sure you have a place to live because you won’t stay the fuck here.”

I’ve always voted, but I’m not voting this time. I’m not happy with any of the people on the table at this time. Not the Republicans, not the Democrats, I’m not happy with any of them.

Hillary is 68-years-old. Marco Rubio would have been a good choice, but he’s too young and he already quit. Donald Trump is an asshole. Ted Cruz is a racist bastard, I don’t care for his shit. He shuts down the country for stupid shit, I don’t want him in. Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House, I don’t want him in. To put it bluntly, Yes, I’m anti-Republican. I like Bernie Sanders, because he says it like it is, like it should be…

I have a funny feeling that this is going to be the worst election in the history of America. There are going to be riots. There are already riots.

Obama had a Republican Senate and a Republican House. They haven’t given him a chance. He’s still discriminated against, from when he was running for President to the present day. Hillary Clinton had to have a private email service because she didn’t want him in her business. I will not vote for her.

Obama got rid of a terrorist. He’s going to elect a Supreme Court representative. He improved the economy and employment for everyone. He has been a cohesive personality, uniting ethnicities of our nation, but it is those ignorant individuals who still live in the age of Hitler and all these other assholes that pulled him down and prevented Obama from accomplishing more.

The economy has improved since Obama’s been in.

A Republican better raise somebody from the dead, cure somebody of leprosy and walk on water to get my vote. I’ve always voted Democratic. I’m a liberal.

I believe in unifying and helping.

I just don’t feel that America needs to be the policeman of the world. You saw what happened with the Iraq War. It was bad information. We’re here in the middle of the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean. All that crap that comes out of the East and Far East… pick up your shit and do something for yourself!

I’ll be so glad when the good Lord comes and brings everything back to normal.



Chuck Olroski said...

Linh: I enjoyed this very much. But the very likable & intelligent Vern said, "we're all brothers... religion and politics can not change that." Respectfully, I believe the latter two, especially in their extreme forms, have a stranglehold on human impulses for brotherhood.

Starting Fall 1970, like Vern, I was at Fort Polk, Louisiana for Basic Training and A.I.T. When the time came to allow "Freshmeat" out on pass for a weekend, the Army gathered each Company and showed a film on the post's nearest town, Leesville. This is the town Vern mentioned, "the asshole of the world," and during my stint, recruits called it "Diseaseville."

The Army film on Leesville was quite a blockbuster. It showed the town's police station, diner, laundromat, church, grocery store, Post Office, and a small theater. Looked like a run down Mayberry! In the end, we watched a passing clip of a notorious cat house, known for romance and venereal disease, and specifically warned soldiers to stay clear of the place.

Come first "pass" off base, I walked Leesvile with a couple friends, and one in particular was quite horny, and pleaded with me and another guy to go into the cat house with him. Still dressed in my "dress greens," no civvies, I stepped inside the door, looked inside, and saw a scene which looked like Gone With The Sodom & Gomorrah Wind! Took one step inside, and saw a large parlor setting, many soldiers and skimpily clad girls in embraces. Instantly, a rather corpulent black girl approached, smiled, and with considerable applied pressure, she grabbed my balls, and squeezed! Terrified, and as fast as Bruce Jenner, I ran through the plush parlor for the rear exit door, got the hell out of there.

I recall telling this crazy (non-Johnny Wad story) to wife Carol while we were dating. Street smart, Carol sweetly replied, "You're one of the few guys I know who'd admit to having run away, Chuck."

Linh, if you see Vern soon, please ask ask him about his earlier Leesville stint, and whether or not the cat house was in business? When our first weekend "pass" was over, 1970, I went into the Fort Polk basement latrine, and standing at urinals, I saw a couple guys scream in pain, one cried, "Augh... my dick turned green!"

Thank you for "Vern the 'Nam Vet," indeed, it made me stand at attention. . '

Linh Dinh said...

Yo Chuck,

I just sent your comment to Vern. I'm sure he'll appreciate it.


Chuck Olroski said...

Thanks, Linh. There's not much guile in Vern as far as I can tell, & at least one knows where he stands. Having a preference, I'd rather share either a foxhole (under-fire) or a cell with Vern Castle, rather than a Golf Course president, Congressman, or Supreme Court Justice.

Please ask Vern him if he remembers the following Fort Polk Basic Training (non-P.C.) marching song? "I don't know but I've been told, Eskimo pussy's mighty cold... hup-two-three-four, hup two!"

LJansen said...

In 1970, I was draft age, but I was a woman. There was lots of drama because all the guys I knew were trying to figure out how not to go, some more discreetly than others. I only know one acquaintance from my high school who was killed. It was a pretty small rural school, though.

Now women are okayed for combat. We've come a long way, baby. But it's too late, gals. The drones have taken over for us all. Except the brown people at the other end of our hellfires. They're still human.


Linh Dinh said...

Hi Linda,

Speaking of endless war, here's Thomas H. Naylor from his "The Myth of Bernie Sanders":

"Although Sanders may have once been a socialist back in the 80s when he was Mayor of Burlington, today, a socialist he is not. Rather he behaves more like a technofascist disguised as a liberal, who backs all of President Obama’s nasty little wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. Since he always “supports the troops,” Sanders never opposes any defense spending bill. He stands behind all military contractors who bring much-needed jobs to Vermont.

Senator Sanders rarely misses a photo opportunity with Vermont National Guard troops when they are being deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq. He’s always at the Burlington International Airport when they return. If Sanders truly supported the Vermont troops, he would vote to end all of the wars posthaste."


LJansen said...

Hi, Linh.

Exactly! And now even though the headlines say Bernie didn't go speak to AIPAC, he is sending his love in a letter. Or at least offered.

Some Socialists are trying to invade Bernie's campaign opportunistically because of his self-labeling as a socialist. Boy are they barking up the wrong tree. I'm thinking this mischaracterization will be a stumbling block for real socialist ideas, not a surge forward.

Cheers, Linda

Mark and Jolee said...

Linh, I really liked this interview - really projected Vern's humanity. To me, it's amazing how people keep their humanity with experiences like his, especially racism. Back then, I remember very well when Muhammud Ali said "No Vietnamese ever called me nigger." He said it all. That really packed a punch like nothing else. Best, J and M


About Me

Born in Vietnam in 1963, I came to the US in 1975, and have also lived in Italy, England and Germany. I'm the author of two books of stories, Fake House (2000) and Blood and Soap (2004), five of poems, All Around What Empties Out (2003), American Tatts (2005), Borderless Bodies (2006), Jam Alerts (2007) and Some Kind of Cheese Orgy (2009), and a novel, Love Like Hate (2010). I've been anthologized in Best American Poetry 2000, 2004, 2007, Great American Prose Poems from Poe to the Present, Postmodern American Poetry: a Norton Anthology (vol. 2) and Flash Fiction International: Very Short Stories From Around the World, etc. I'm also editor of Night, Again: Contemporary Fiction from Vietnam (1996) and The Deluge: New Vietnamese Poetry (2013). Blood and Soap was chosen by Village Voice as one of the best books of 2004. My writing has been translated into Italian, Spanish, French, Dutch, German, Portuguese, Japanese, Korean, Arabic, Icelandic and Finnish, and I've been invited to read in London, Cambridge, Brighton, Paris, Berlin, Leipzig, Halle, Reykjavik, Toronto, Singapore and all over the US. I've also published widely in Vietnamese.