Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Veterans Day Elegy

Michael Sedano
Every Veterans Day brings me a few moments of quiet reflection, a scattering of tears, and more than a few hearty laughs remembering the guys I went through the Army with, Basic, AIT, Korea.

When news of Rumsfeld's firing reached me I was bitterly elated. I suppose every veteran feels a kinship with those who serve today. Witnessing their loss of family, health, limbs, and lives, Rumsfeld's lost job is so small a price for so unmeasurable a debt.

The same week, the New York Times published a story about a squad of Marines interviewed on an Iraqi rooftop. When told Rumsfeld had been dumped, one Marine asked, "Who's he?" I understand his lack of interest. As the Marine said, "They point at you and you go where they point." I smiled at the line, remembering CBR-- Chemical, Biological, Radiological warfare–training. The lecturer came to the "R" part. "If you see a mushroom cloud on the horizon," he told us, "put on your waterproof parka and march toward the smoke." Absochingaolutely, Sir!

What made me laugh then, and still today, is the fact I would have done so. As that Marine says, they point at you and away you go.

I'm sure all you ex-GIs have memories of similarly outlandish experiences. Today, in recognition of Veterans Day, I'm sharing one of those nostalgic memories, about the day “The Green Berets” starring John Wayne played at Ft. Ord, Springtime 1969. I was in Advanced Individual Training learning morse code and radio communications. Talk about buzz. All week excitement built toward the weekend premiere. Come Saturday afternoon, guys on their way home from Vietnam, and trainees like me wrapping things up in preparation for overseas movement, we all lined up for the movie; it was about us, don’t you see?

Basic Training puts the hapless trainee through exciting physical exertion combined with wondrous psychological games with big-time dramatic flair. Like the time we learned how to crawl under machine gun fire. Just before dusk over a hundred of us-- the entire training company-- march to an unfamiliar spot where we fill wooden bleachers.

The bleachers face a flat dirt lot about 30 yards long criss-crossed with barbed wire. To our left, where we would begin the exercise, a gentle hillside rises, surrounded by the California Live Oaks that make this part of the Salinas Valley so serenely picturesque. The orientation lecture comes at us over a tinny PA system. A year later, Robert Altman will release MASH and that loudspeaker system will become a familiar icon of military announcing.

The speech climaxes in a loudly spectacular demonstration of an M60 machine gun. To our right, an M60 opens up. Ribbons of red and green tracer rounds track the trajectory of 7.62mm slugs slamming into the hillside on our left at 500 rounds per minute traveling 2800 feet per second. Tut-tut-tut-tut-tut and the hillside disappears in a swirling cloud of light brown Salinas Valley dust.

We're like Xenophon's soldiers racing up the hill at the first scent of the sea after years of marching. Thalatta! Thalatta! As if on command, we rise as one mindlessly screaming entity.The bleachers explode in wild cheers, whistles, catcalls in our eager stupidity. We are raring to get out there and crawl under those ribbons of fire!

A few weeks later comes that night at the Ft. Ord movie house. “The Green Berets” plods along event to event, character to character, breaking its monotony with increasingly lethal confrontations with Charlie Cong.

Finally, our boys are up against it. Holding out on a hilltop redoubt, VC sappers have begun to penetrate the wires. Characters we recognize are getting shot up. It looks bad for our side. Then John Wayne calls in “Puff, the Magic Dragon”, a propeller-driven airplane mounted with three 7.62mm Gatling Guns on one side. The driver tilts the airplane so the gun side points in an appropriate direction. 18,000 rounds per minute pelt the earth when Puff does its stuff.

On screen-- as in real death-- red and green tracers ribbon down onto Viet Cong dropping like flies. The load is four unseen rounds for every tracer. The camera pans actors in throes of screaming agonized run-but-it-don’t-do-you-no-good horrible meat grinding fantasy death.

And we soldiers?

The Ft. Ord movie house explodes in wild cheers, laughter, a bedlam of piercing whistles and catcalls. Guys stand on their seats cheering, others stomp the wooden floor with a fevered intensity that raises a cloud of light brown Salinas Valley dust deposited by the boots of the thousands of souls who have come before me to this theatre. I feel their spirits all around me in that one surreal moment of John Wayne Donald Rumsfeld George Bush Dick Cheney silver screen fantasy heroism.

Ave atque vale, brothers.



Anonymous said...

That's a hell of an article, Sedano. Fitting.

Anonymous said...

Sedano: great recollection of our mutual military experiences. As I Viet veterano I recall the SNAFU type of BS that we had to endure - "abchingasolutely".

One quibble: you state that "The orientation lecture comes at us over a tinny PA system. A year later, Robert Altman will release MASH and that loudspeaker system will become a familiar icon of military announcing."

Well, not quite. The loudspeaker system was used earlier to great effect in John Ford's MISTER ROBERTS (1955). James Cagney was the skipper ranting and raving over the loudspeaker system.

Gregg Barrios