Come senators, congressmen, Please heed the call,
Don't stand in the doorway, Don't block up the hall ...
For the times they are a-changin'.
Bob Dylan The Times They Are A-Changin'.
A friend came by the other day.
His name is Don Smith, known to his pals in the Pacific fishing fleet and around Half Moon Bay, California, as Ooga. He will always be Smitty to me.
Smitty left Half Moon Bay last month and since then has been on a tour of the continent, or as he and Simon and Garfunkle put it, "to look for America." He has found it, and has discovered that Americans are at once proud of their country and sick to death of their politicians and media, and are just about to the breaking point of doing something about both.
I will go into that a bit deeper in a minute.
We met in New River, North Carolina when we both were helicopter electronics technicians assigned to Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron (HMM)161. In Vietnam we both flew as gunners, but Smitty always had a kind and gentle streak so he spent a lot of his off duty time out in the villes helping the docs, the chaplains and the Combined Action companies win hearts and minds. He was good at it.
Afterward he joined the squadron recovery crew, an unsung group of Marine heroes if ever there was one. Their job was to go the sites where our helicopters had been shot down or crashed, and retrieve whatever equipment was salvageable, smash what wasn't, retrieve or disable the machine guns, and last, but certainly not least, bring back the bodies - or what was left of them.
It was a tough job. We'll get back to that in a minute too.
Smitty spent a lot of years after the Marines fishing in the Bering Sea, working the fleets that once were a mainstay of the port at Half Moon Bay, and even tried his hand in the retail fish business. He is somewhat retired now, hence his cross-country trip. (I say somewhat because he has worked for himself, as opposed to corporate America, nearly 100 percent of the time since we came home from Vietnam in 1969. So, if he decides to do something else he will, and if not, he won't.)
Back in the 60s Smitty was considered a liberal, although that label wasn't thrown around much. He didn't want to kill people, but he would risk his life to save or help people. Back then I thought that was an admirable trait, and I still do.
Along the way Smitty became a conservative. His change in political point of view isn't remarkable. He has lived and seen life and death up close, and he knows reality versus theory. He still cares very much for people, and still will go out of his way for someone who needs a boost, although he has lost patience with loafers and manipulators.
He has no use at all for liberal celebrities who shoot their mouths off about the environment or government or war without having any real knowledge of either. People who earn millions posing as someone else, and quite often have neither life nor educational qualifications, usually end up costing working people their jobs, he maintains, and he has seen the results of their bombast up close.
Smitty had driven 7002 miles on his quest to find America when he parked in my driveway for the last time this morning, just before he headed east to photograph the Rhode Island coast. He left California, went up the northern route to just below the Canadian border then drove east, through the mountains and the prairies to the Great Lakes, the Amish country, then here.
He met a lot of people along the way, and occasionally stopped to visit one or another of the Marines who had served with us in Vietnam. I thought to myself that as much as Smitty is looking for America, he also is looking for 161, at least what remains from the squadron as it existed nearly 40 years ago.
Maybe he's searching for himself as well, that part of him that made for one of the most incredible paradoxes of personality I have ever encountered - a loving, caring, gentle United States Marine who knew the guitar chords to a host of Peter, Paul and Mary songs as well as he knew the parts to a Browning M-2, fifty-caliber machine gun.
On the second day of his visit I got enough breathing room from my various money-earning occupations to take him to the local veterans' post to quaff a few root beers and reminisce. After a couple of drinks - he favors Tanqueray Sterling vodka flavored root beer, but the post only had Popov Red Label so that sufficed - we got talking a bit about some of our friends who were lost in Vietnam.
Most of us didn't see what Smitty saw - how they died, the condition their bodies were in when the recovery team finally reached the site where they went down. There are things that are done and said, or not done and said, to save the families and loved ones back home from the specifics of combat deaths. It is enough that they have lost the person they loved so much, they don't need their grief compounded by that much detail about how it all ended.
But Smitty and the other members of the recovery crew weren't spared. He related how they had once spent three days and nights in the jungle to recover an entire crew of our friends who all died together on one especially horrible day in that war. The recovery crew was freezing in the high jungle land, soaked from the near constant monsoon rains, ever fearful that communist troops would reach them before the Marine infantry would. The cloud cover was too thick for a quick extraction once they had made it to the ground.
Smitty was the first one down the hoist when the helicopter wreckage was found that day, and as he told his story it was obvious that the condition of the bodies has forever been etched into his memory. He was the first to see them, friends of ours one and all, and I could tell that those images will go to the grave with him.
Each time he got to describing how he found a body, he would look down and chuckle, as if he was retelling a funny story about an old friend with whom we had shared many good times. In fact they all were old friends, and we had shared many good times with them, but this wasn't a funny story, and he really wasn't laughing.
I think he chuckled when he got to the hard parts to keep from crying. We do that you know. We meaning Marines. Even all these years later, we keep these things to ourselves and it takes an experienced eye to see when a door to the inner soul has been opened, even if only a crack. It goes with the territory.
But it hurt him then and it hurts him now, and all of his friends hurt for him too, because we know of the burden he has been carrying all this time.
Smitty always looked younger than his years back then, and he still has a bit of the old boyishness about him. But while the families and the loved ones were spared the specifics, I think every memory left its mark etched on his face. And behind the self-effacing humor there is a hardness in his eyes that I didn't remember from long ago, before he spent a lifetime working the fishing boats and crewing combat helicopters.
Such is the price young men pay when they go to war - a price that so many Americans know nothing of and seem not to care too much about either.
Speaking of America, Smitty told me two things that my readers in Washington should heed.
He said he met people from all walks of life, ranchers and farmers in the western mountains and plains, factory workers from the once-strong auto industry in Michigan, Amish farmers, the lady at the bakery one town over from here who charmed him, and burly carpenters who shared breakfasts at one of our local eateries and then stood in a circle out in the parking lot to say a morning prayer before starting the day's tasks.
What he didn't see, or hasn't thus far, was illegal immigrants doing the work that "Americans won't do," as the politicians are so fond of saying. It didn't matter whether he was talking to skilled blue collar workers, white collar professionals, or folks just doing the menial tasks that must be done and all too often are taken for granted by the rest of us. They were all legal Americans, some immigrants, most native-born, who were doing the jobs that needed doing, and for which they received a day's wage.
The were from all races, creeds, colors, religions, and both genders, and they universally don't like what is going on in Washington, D.C., with all this immigration business and the incessant drive to let people into America with no regard to the laws that are supposed to protect us.
Beyond the immigration issue, the Americans Smitty met are sick to death of the divisiveness that goes on in Washington and in the media. They want to know the truth about our country because they want to rejoice in the good and they have total faith in our collective ability to fix the bad.
They understand that there is a toll on our military from the War on Terror, but they want to know about our victories as well, and they are damn well aware that by withholding the good news the media and anti-war politicians are trying to manipulate our votes.
They don't like the attack dog mentality from the Political Action Committees that have been non-stop in their criticism of all things Bush and Cheney. Even people who voted for someone else want to see Congress united when we are faced with so many difficult problems.
Smitty said it didn't matter where he went, he heard the same issues being discussed, and the same level of frustration and growing anger from the public. Washington would do well to heed his informal polling of the body politic. I believe Smitty's travels have revealed far more of the real mood of America than any pre-arranged professional telephone poll ever could.
It took a long time for Smitty to hit the road this morning. I had the feeling that he was anxious to get on with his journey, but not that anxious and he was torn about leaving. After a while it reminded me of the series of "final" scenes in the last movie in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
When his car turned out of the driveway and headed off to find Route 2 and the road to the Rhode Island beaches it was like the moment when the Elfin ship finally pulled away bearing Bilbo and Frodo to another life. I didn't want to spoil the moment though, so I didn't tell him that I wasn't going to start this column until he was gone.
It is a bit too personal and when I write about matters that are this close to the heart I prefer to do it alone.
Smitty is probably in Rhode Island now, and I'm sure he will meet some more great people and take some great pictures. Then he is heading north to New Hampshire to meet the changing leaf colors coming down. From there it may be to the interior of New York State, then down the Appalachians to see the great Smoky Mountains.
Ultimately he'll meander across the southern route heading back home. Members of 161 who live in the general area, be alerted, and make sure you have some of that special root beer on hand. Smitty will appreciate it.
I had the feeling that Smitty took his time getting back to his journey because he may fear that this is the last time we'll see each other. The years have been creeping along and the truth is, many of those tough young Marines we served with now have health problems, some of which are serious.
But hey, I just took one of those Internet life expectancy tests and it says that barring unforeseen circumstances I should live until I'm 99.8 years old. That gives me enough time to save up a few bucks and make my own journey west. There is plenty of America that I would like to revisit and plenty I haven't seen yet.
Who knows, maybe in the not too distant future, if Smitty takes it easy with his Tanqueray flavored root beer, and I take it easy on the Glen Morangie flavored root beer, I'll show up in Half Moon Bay and he can take me fishing.
We could go down the coast to the Los Angeles area and see if we can hook an exotic species, like the big-mouthed celebrity blowhard that once was rare but lately has been making a comeback. I think I'd like that.
Do you think Boone & Crockett would consider adding a new category for records in that species?
Friday, September 21, 2007