Jon Alexander / Saturday, May 9 @ 7 a.m. / Angels and Desperados
ANGELS and DESPERADOES: Viet Nam: Long Ago, Yet Yesterday
“Skip Murphy died this past Wednesday,” my Mom said as she turned from the stove. I saw her red eyes. All I could stammer out was a muffled “No, No, Mom…not Skip, can’t be… .”
Frank Monroe “Skip” Murphy was 6 years older than me. He lived up the street and was the “big kid” on the block. He was an Eagle Scout and a regular guy who always had time for us younger kids, whether it was advising us on everything from sports to cars to Elvis and the Beach Boys and our growing preoccupation with the fairer sex. He was a star offensive lineman at our high school which had landed him a scholarship to the Citadel Military College in Charleston, South Carolina. From there, he entered the Army which sent him to some faraway place called Viet Nam. He was the big brother I never had.
On the morning of December 7, 1966, nine soldiers of the 2/12 Recon Platoon were pinned down outside of their patrol area, just south of the Michelin Plantation, 72 km northwest of Saigon. Skip Murphy found some of them at their patrol rally point. One was wounded and four were missing. Skip loaded them up on his M113 full track vehicle and returned them to Base Camp. He then turned and reentered the jungle to find the Recon Platoon’s missing men. He found them, loaded them aboard his M113 and began to take them back to Base Camp, until a command detonated mine blew up his track. Skip Murphy died instantly, but 3 of the 4 men he returned for made it back to Base Camp and eventually back home stateside.
In November of 1969, I was sitting at the end of the dormitory hall in a rec room at Transylvania University. Founded in May of 1780, Transy was the first college west of the Allegheny Mountains in America, previously attended by alumnae Jefferson Davis and Henry Clay. Deemed last year one of the Top 10 liberal arts universities in America, I never knew whether it was being all-state in soccer or my essay on Russian literature that got me in, being the classic “underachiever” with the rotten grades to prove it, but I will forever be grateful for the education I received there. As four of us sat there on that Thursday night, playing cards, the radio announced that hundreds of thousands of people from across America were descending upon Washington D.C. to protest against the Viet Nam war and our involvement in it. One to another, the eyes left our hands, as we looked around the table, the quiet weighing heavily, until my brother Bronson broke the silence with two words, “Let’s go.” An hour later later, we piled into my car, leaving Lexington, Kentucky behind, as we struck out for D.C..
Ten hours later, we arrived at the capitol. It was bitter cold and we had no place to sleep, all of the cheap motels flashing NO VACANCY signs. Checking in to the Student Mobilization for the Moratorium headquarters, we were told that Catholic U. was putting up people. We went to Catholic University and got sent to their gymnasium and a floor completely covered by a vast array of blankets and sleeping bags. With no room left, we crawled through the skeletal steel structure under the bleachers and spread our blankets, exhausted from the drive and motel to motel hunt, feeling bone weary-until I thought of Skip Murphy, and all of his brothers and sisters, bedding down in the jungles at the mouth of a graveyard 10,000 miles away.
The following morning, before dawn, I awoke to the vibration of a toe tapping inches over my head, then the E tuning thumping of an acoustic guitar. It didn’t take rubbing the sand out of my eyes to see the great black beard and dashiki to know who was perched overhead. I crawled out, asking, “Hey man, how you doin’? Thought you were back in your city by the bay.” Richie Havens laughed, his big shoulder shaking, like a bear coming out of hibernation, responding, “We flew in from San Fran last night. You look like hell, little brother.” I told him that the room service sucked, but the muzak was tolerable. We talked about our reasons for being there , lamenting the hypocrisy of men like Kennedy and Johnson who had given us the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, who then bogged us down in the rice patties and jungles of Southeast Asia. That and the lies of Richard Nixon and a Pentagon that America was finally awakening to.
I told him I was going back into my cave to get some extra rack, shook his hand and as we hugged, told him to nail “Handsome Johnnie” when he hit the stage that afternoon. Hours later, as his voice, guitar and truth thundered over the water and across the Mall, he did.
A short time later, as we strode down Pennsylvania Avenue, at the intersection of 7th Avenue, you find the National Archives building. It holds the Charter Documents of a great country, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, all of which are on display inside. Outside is a large statue bearing the inscription, “What is Past is Prologue.” I thought to myself, how many more times to be “fooled again?” I thought of my brothers and sisters half a world away, equally as sincere in their beliefs as the people I was marching with, in their commitment to defend, uphold and protect a country we each and all loved and believed in. Then somewhere in the recesses of my mind, hearing Dr. Franklin’s September 18, 1787 reply to Mrs. Powell of Philadelphia’s question, as he walked from the Convention, “Well, Doctor, what have you given us-a republic or a monarchy?” With no hesitation, “A Republic, Madam, if you can keep it.” Indeed...
We marched, we sang, we prayed. Richard Mihous Nixon stated he would not be affected. But we’d voted with our feet and America and the world were watching.
The Greeting’s Letter
Several months later, I was home for the summer when I received what was affectionately known as the “Greetings” letter. It was from my local Draft Board letting me know I was being drafted into the Army. Given my deep seeded feelings about a conflict I abhorred, the closer the date for my induction physical came, the nights grew exponentially longer and longer as I pondered the number of choices I possessed and the validity and strength of my beliefs.
I could not run to Canada just to evade conscription which was an option I considered tantamount to cowardice. I was not a conscientious objector, because I had no problem with taking another human being’s life under the appropriate circumstances. I couldn’t shoot myself in the foot, stay up for a week on crank just to throw my entire body off or jam gobs of salt or sugar up under my fingernails to release when I provided the urine sample as some people had.
Looming in the back and forefront of my mind was the opinion of my father. Our relationship had grown increasingly distant going to contentious over the years. He was the single most honest person I’d ever known and, despite the ever increasing friction over my long hair, the volume on my guitar and the heated arguments over his white knight, Richard Nixon, I respected him.
He’d been in the Navy during WW II, serving on the Cruiser Phoenix in the South Pacific. On one occasion, Japanese kamikaze pilots had attacked the Phoenix. One of the crew was wounded and stranded on deck when my father ran through the strafing hail of gunfire to grab his shipmate and drag him to safety, being wounded himself during exchange. For that, he was awarded the pennant/commission stripe of the Phoenix at the war’s end. Year’s later, dying of cancer, he wrote to Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, asking to donate the commission stripe to the city of Phoenix. Senator Goldwater graciously flew my Dad to Phoenix where, on behalf of a grateful nation, accepted the stripe, giving speech about my father’s courage under fire and his loyalty to his comrade and country. So, on that issue of avoiding the draft, I couldn’t do it because, among other things, I gave a damn what my old man thought of me.
So, days later., I caught the bus to Newark and the Draft Board where I was scheduled for my physical. Upon arrival, I was told to take a seat on a long bench which had 7 other young guys sitting there. Gone were the beer hall cries, back slapping camaraderie and bawdy singing of jingoist songs, replaced by the heavy silence and smell of fear and dread. Eventually they came to my name which happened to be last. A nurse administered a blood pressure tourniquet, checked my pulse and then checked my vision and hearing. I was then led to another sterile white room and told the doctor would be in shortly. Moments later, the doctor knocked, then came in. The ubiquitous white smock, stethoscope with a frazzled appearance akin to Christopher Lloyd in “Back to the Future,” but what caught and held you were the eyes. These deep, blue eyes that held a solitary and weary sadness.
We went through the cough over right and left shoulders and other routine male exam regimen things, until we came to my right ear where he switched up his magnification device, then asking if I’d had any problems with my right ear. I told him “No” that I hadn’t. Upon his second inquiry, I recalled that the previous summer, while at a keg party in an open field, someone had dared me to ride a horse that was grazing there. I’d grabbed the horse’s mane, swung up as the horse bucked and took off. Galloping for a tree with which to brush me off, I swung one boot over its back and went to roll in the field, instead coming down upon a tree branch, having a dead limb puncture my right ear drum. I stood up and could hear a plane flying over, its engine sounding as if it was in an echo chamber, the first proof of a punctured ear drum. The doctor said, “It looks like you’ve had some trouble with that ear.” I replied, “No, nothing bad.” He responded, “Well, your hearing exam seems to say different.” And right at that moment, as I looked into those tired eyes, the eyes of a man who day in and day out was sending young men and women, boys and girls to him, off to that grave yard 10,000 miles away to fight and die, kill or be killed and the mileage wearing so heavy upon the conscience and soul of a man who had taken an Oath, to “do no harm,” before I could say anything more, he said, “We’re done here.” and told me to return to the nurse’s station.
Upon return to the nurse’s station, I was given some paperwork that declared me to be 4-F and unfit for military service. My immediate thought and the one that weighed on me like a ton of bricks the entire bus ride home, was my old man and how this was going to go over, which I knew was bound to be bad.
I get home around 8:00 p.m.. The house is dead quiet. Everyone’s sitting at the kitchen table, waiting for me. My Dad’s working on his 4th beer and I see that my kid sister’s got tears in her eyes as Mom gets up to take the plates out of the oven she’s been warming them in. She puts out the plates, then puts a plate of meat loaf and potatoes in the middle of the table, as my old man cracks another beer. It stays deathly still, until my Dad says, without looking up, “Well, how’d it go?” Fearful and knowing this is going south, I blurt out, “I, uhhh, I think I failed.” Seconds turn into minutes, which seem like hours, as I can feel my fists clenching and I’ve got tears in my eyes, until my Dad says, “That’s good.”
It wasn’t until a week later, during an after midnight, alcohol fueled argument with my Uncle Walter that permeated the walls of our little row house, when I could hear, “No Walt, it’s a different war than ours was and I’ll be damned if I want to see my kid die for it.”
Tin soldiers and Nixon’s comin’ We’re finally on our own This summer I hear the drummin’ Four dead in Ohio… (Neil Young)
Last, I’m in my senior year in college. It’s 1970. I was elected President of the Student Government Association. Richard Nixon was elected President of the United States in November of ’68, winning in a landslide over liberal democrat, George McGovern, among other things after promising to end the war in Viet Nam. On April 30, Mr. Nixon announces his intention to broaden the conflict by invading Cambodia. Immediately, the already skeptical public and anti-war movement ramps up its protests across the country with the University of Kentucky and our campus going on strike. Both were peaceful. For awhile.
On May 4, members of the Ohio National Guard fired 67 rounds over 13 seconds into a group of unarmed students protesting the announced Cambodian Invasion at Kent State University. Four students were killed with 9 others wounded, including one who suffered permanent paralysis. Hundreds of colleges, universities and high schools then closed due to a national student strike of over 4 million students.
Across town, UK went on strike and on May 6th, their ROTC building was arsoned and destroyed. Governor Nunn then brought in the Kentucky National Guard and a 7 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. curfew was imposed. Thousands of students, intent upon studying for finals, attempted to enter the library only to be tear gassed. As the students attempted to flee the oncoming riot geared Guard, they were heavily tear gassed, driving them into and through the story high library glass, which shattered, then raining on top of them, lacerating many of them severely.
I was in a meeting with a representative of the federal government who was seeking to understand, calm and quell the national insurrection over Viet Nam. It was early evening when a member of the SGA came running in, breathless, saying she had to tell me something-I excused myself and went to the hall where she told me that UK had just broken the curfew and was marching up Broadway, several thousand strong, coming to our campus seeking sanctuary. She concluded, telling me that an army of National Guard in riot gear with military vehicles was immediately behind them. I ran to the top steps of Mitchell Fine Arts Building in time to hear the massive chanting of “1-2-3-4, we don’t want your f---ing war.” And then, the waves of hundreds of UK students marching across our commons and up to the steps of Mitchell Fine Arts-with the Guard, in riot gear and half tracks plowing under our beautiful hedges along Broadway. I asked someone to get me a bull horn. And quick.
I met Steve Bright, UK’s SGA President at the top steps of MFA and asked for his assurance that his students were going to be cool. He told me the problem was the Guard going “over the top”after the arson occurred. I told him, I could understand that. Confusion reigned as no one from our university had arrived to make any decisions or take any action. Just then, a girl came up with the requested bull horn. To this day, I can recall the gist of what I said next:
“To my brothers and sisters from the University of Kentucky and those in the Kentucky National Guard, it’s my privilege to welcome you to our campus. As you may be aware, in response to the massacre of our fellow students at Kent State, we here have been on strike the past 3 days. That strike has been peaceful and with the support of our administration. As to all of you before me, those in uniform and those without, we are all men and women of peace. We condemn the violence that occurred at Kent State, as well as that which occurred on your campus in recent days. We condemn the ongoing violence that continues unabated half a world away and we are here tonight to continue our expression of protest against a war that must end. That expression serves no purpose if any of us, ANY of us, decides that the violence we condemn should rear its ugly head here this evening. We think none harm. We wish none harm. We do none harm and that is how it must be.
To our guests from across town and those in uniform visiting from Frankfort, you are all welcome here tonight and, it is my wish that we may take this opportunity to get to know one another; that we may try to understand one another.
Just then, the President Ervin Lunger arrived and , seeing the situation, asked my opinion. I told him, there was no problem with the UK students who were here, but the continued presence of the Guard only courted problems. Again, he asked what I thought we should do. I told him, politely -- tell the Guard they’re not needed here and they serve no positive end by their continued presence here. He asked me to go with him. We found a Captain and communicated that to him. I told him, half in jest, that the Governor’s son was a pledge in our fraternity and we could assure the Governor that no problem would be forthcoming with their departure. An hour later, after calls had been made, the Guard rolled back over the shrubs they had crushed,leaving our campus behind them. By morning, most of the UK students had left as well.
Brothers and Sisters
Viet Nam was a defining moment for my generation. Sadly, and I believe inaccurately, it was portrayed as a time and place characterized by strife and the tearing asunder by those ‘for’ and ‘against’ the war. Those that marched and stood with me against the war in Viet Nam did so from the firm conviction that peace, equality and social justice were not achievable through the support of tyranny and leaders who gave lip service to those words and ideals, tossing them about like so much loose change . Moreso, I believe the men and women who went to that faraway hell to do battle believed the same thing and were prepared, as so many did, to fight and die for it.
All of which serves to underscore something I believe we all have known in our hearts long ago. That we are One. One people. One nation. One Republic. That those who answered their country’s call as Skip Murphy responded, did so just as resolutely and with continuity of purpose and design as the 4 young men who drove from Lexington , Kentucky to our nation’s capitol 50 years ago this week. That we were all, and continue to be, of the same thread, woven of the same fabric, asking only for a lasting peace and tranquility which blankets us all in a place called America.
For too long, those that answered the call in the face of derision and disdain, devoid of a nation’s warm embrace that most surely ought be reserved for such heroes, but rather have been left in the shadows, I would offer the words of Alfred, Lord Tennyson:
Cannon to the right of them
Cannon to the left of them
Cannon behind them
Volleyed and thundered
Stormed at with shot and shell
While horse and hero fell
They that had fought so well
Came through the jaws of Death
Back from the mouth of Hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.
Where can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wondered
Honor the charge they made!
Honor the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred!
From a grateful nation and citizen, thank you for your service and welcome home.
Crescent City, Calif.
Jon can be reached at email@example.com