Sunday, February 27, 2011

Agent Orange: An Unending Nightmare, 1983

With the publication of Friendly Fire, Dad became one of the go-to journalists for magazines wanting to do stories on Vietnam. In 1983,The New Republic asked Dad to review a new book, Waiting for an Army to Die: The Tragedy of Agent Orange by Fred A Wilcox.
In the review he remembers meeting Paul Reutershan five years earlier at a sparsely attended Memorial Day Ceremony honoring Vietnam veterans in Hartford,CT. The young Vietnam vet, who flew helicopter missions through herbicidal mists, was dying of cancer of the colon, liver and abdomen. "I died in Vietnam." he said, "but I didn't even know it."

Not quite seven months later, Reutershan would pass away
During the war it is estimated that eleven million gallons of Agent Orange had been sprayed on Vietnam and 4,119,960 acres has been defoliated. The idea was to deny the enemy cover by destroying jungle growth in Vietnam.
However, Dow Chemical's own documents reveal the company knew as early as 1957 that the process used to synthesize Agent Orange also produced trace amounts of dioxin.
Perhaps 370 pounds of dioxin in all fell upon Vietnam.--an insignificant amount, one would think, were it not known that one part oer 20-billion dose of dioxin ingested by a young male rhesus monkey killed it in twelve days.
Vietnam vets who crawled through sprayed areas, and drank and bathed from water there, had been exposed to dioxin. They suffered from kidney, bladder, colonic and testicular cancers; chloracne rashes, migraine headaches, nausea, violent rages, mood swings, premature aging.
The Vietnamese also suffered of course: children were born without eyes, shortened limbs, abnormally small heads, with parts of their brain missing--at rates 100 times normal.

In the early 80's, The Veteran's Administration was still denying disability checks to Vietnam vets exposed to Agent Orange, asking for patience until further studies were concluded.
One vet responded "Five years, five more years. I think I have got it now. I think we've all got it now. They are just waiting. They are waiting for us all, every fucking one of us, to die".
Dad ends his article with this plea on behalf of veterans:

Let there be an act of Congress immediately authorizing the V.A. and the government to assume the cost of the medical care of these families. They need the money now; they can't wait until long-range studies and drawn-out lawsuits are completed. There is adequate reason to believe that Agent Orange might be responsible for many of the veterans' and their families' problems. Even if we don't know yet for sure, even if we doubt that Agent Orange has anything to do with the veteran's illnesses and their children's deformities, we have to take care of them. We should be generous in our compassion and in our willingness to provide these veterans and their families with the medical care they need.
The government should replicate the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission Study for Vietnam verterans in order to give them the answers they need about what is happening to them, so that they can plan the rest of their lives, help their children make decision about marriage and childbearing and allow the rest of the world to evaluate the full impact of the dioxin problem.
This is not too much to ask.
Two and a half million healthy young Americans went to Southeast Asia at their country's call. They did their patriotic duty. Regardless of our feelings about the merits of that war, we owe them honor. We owe them and their families care.

In 1984, a class action lawsuit against Dow, Monsanto and other chemical companies was settled out of court for $180 million, outraging many veterans who. at most, would receive checks amounting to $12,000 spread over ten years.

In 1991, Congress enacted the Agent Orange Act which gave the VA authority to treat and compensate veterans exposed to dioxin as long as the veterans suffered from a one of the wretched diseases on their list.

As for Vietnamese victims,their lawsuit against the chemical companies was thrown out in US District Court because the judge ruled Agent Orange wasn't designed to harm people. He ruled the chemical companies shared the same sovereign immunity as the government for which they worked.

In the past year hairy cell leukemia, Parkinson's disease and ischemic heart disease have been added to the VA's laundry list of illnesses associated with dioxin.
Last year, U.S. veterans of Vietnam received nearly $2 billion in disability payments related to Agent Orange.But Agent Orange is still killing veterans ten , fifteen, twenty years before their time. It truly is an unending nightmare

For more information on the cancers connected to Agent Orange exposure:

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Aircraft Carrier, March 18, 1945

"This is one of the best stories of the human side of shipboard life during war conditions that has been published, Every good American should read it. To the wartime sailor it will bring back vivid memories. To those who know little about shipboard life, it will afford a chance to renew their faith and pride in the U.S. Navy".--Admiral William F. Halsey

My grandfather's book, Aircraft Carrier, published in 1954, is based on a diary he kept on board "The Fighting Lady"--the U.S.S. Yorktown. Through four months of action in the Pacific in 1945, he sailed on the Essex Class aircraft carrier as it moved out on an enormous strike against the Japanese homeland.

The Japanese , of course, tried to strike back.
On March 18th three "judy" dive bombers launched attacks on the carrier. Two were shot down, but the third planted his bomb on the signal bridge. It passed through the first deck and exploded near the ship's hull, puncturing the ship's side with two large holes, killing five men and wounding another 26.

>In Grandpa Joe's words:

"The bomb burst directly below (chaplian) Joe Moody's battle station--Repair 3, a small shop at the after end of the island. As soon as Joe heard the explosion, he dashed out onto the flight deck. A Marine in the 20mm gallery around the corner was rubbing his bloody eyes and screaming. Nest to him, another Marine was trying to stanch a jet of blood from his leg. Joe grabbed a stretcher, commandeered three corpsmen, and rushed the blind man toward Battle Dressing 1, at the forward end of the island. On the way, they passed a sailor who pointed to the clipping room and shouted, "Bad ones up there, Father! A lot of 'em!"

(Among the wounded was a radio technician whose body was riddled with bomb fragments.)

Joe began to wash him down. Presently the man asked, "Father, what are you spending so much time with me for?"
Joe asked, "Are you a Catholic?"
"Not too good a one."
"Well, " Joe said, "we won't worry about that now."
A little later the man said, "I'll tell you a funny thing, Father: I'm glad this happened to me. I'm completely at peace with God for the first time in my life."
Shortly after midnight he repeated it: "I'm glad this happened to me. It's made it easy for me to do what I've been wanting to do for a long time--be a part of the Church."
Those were his last words.

It made me think of a stanza from a Scottish ballad I once read:

"Fight on my men!" Sir Andrew said.
"A little I'm hurt but not yet slain.
"I'll but lie down and bleed awhile,
"And then rise up and fight again."

The Yorktown remained fully operational. Her anti aircraft guns shot down the third plane.

At wartime, there were official regulations against naval diaries, but Grandpa Joe was given special permission for a diary. In fact he was instructed to keep one, for a reason "no longer of interest" as he put it. The fact that nobody but Grandpa Joe could read his scrawl must have provided comfort to the High Command. At the time J Bryan lll was 40 years old and a lieutenant commander in the Naval Reserve.

Today The U.S.S. Yorktown is a museum ship, anchored at Patriot's Point in Mount Pleasant, SC. I've visited the ship a few times for pleasure and business. Just a mile from the Yorktown, I had a job at my first television station, WCBD-TV.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Pearl of the Laramie Plains, 1975

It is the dead winter of early 1975 in Laramie, Wyoming and the author of the recently published Pilgrim of Tinker Creek , Annie Dillard, has written Dad that she's interested in moving there and wanted to know what Laramie was like. At the time Dad was earning $12,000 a semester to teach and give lectures there and, in his small apartment, he tried to finish off Friendly Fire "so that I can afford to feed my family for another year". We were back in Connecticut and some of us were driving my stepmother crazy.
Anyway, here are some of his lines about "The Pearl of the Laramie Pains".

I don't have a car here, so I go everywhere on foot. And the whole town can be covered in a day. Laramie wasn't even here until the 1880's, it is a railroad town, cattle ranches with small herds on huge acreage because there is no water. The Laramie River, for example, a small boy could jump across and, failing that, walk across without being greeted as a Messiah...

The town, itself, is filled with one-floor, white frame, semi-ranch houses with picture windows looking out on picture windows. The streets are named after Lewis and Clark and Fremont and Sheridan...and a marvelous one called Sublette after the French explorer who discovered the fiscal advantages of student housing. There are vast numbers of cottonwood trees around here, but few birds. That may be because it's winter. Or it may be because of the altitude (7200'+) which brings me to my knees. Or it may be they are trying to tell me something.

Dad wrote his friend Peter Neill he discovered a Park Avenue in Laramie:

Park Avenue here deadends into a drainage ditch followed by miles of gently rising plains broken only bu high tension lines, US 80 and three fuel storage tanks.

Well, I for one, would have been scared away. Annie Dillard would win the Pulitzer Prize for Pilgrim that year and wound up teaching the next four years at Western Washington University in the book loving city of Bellingham.

Annie Dillard

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

On Being "Joan", 1983

Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises.
Hunter S Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
and dad's Beautiful Women, Ugly Scenes.
What do these three novels have in common? They are all examples of what the french literary types call Roman A Clef ( "Novel With a Key").
Most novels are based, at least in some parts, on an author's experiences.
The difference here is that, while all characters are fictitious, with "a key" the reader could match each characters to someone real.
I'm not about to reveal this so called key to Beautiful Women, Ugly Scenes except for one. The sullen teenage daughter Joan is a composite of my sister, Lansing, and me. And it's not brotherly love but honesty which compels me to admit Joan is a lot more me than she.
In this passage the narrator is driving his daughter to her first day of boarding school. She has left her raincoat somewhere and just called her friend's house.

"Did she have your raincoat?"
"Unk!" Joan said and her face flushed. "I forgot to ask her."
"Call Annie again, " I said. "Now watch my lips: ask about your raincoat".

The raincoat was not there; it never has been found. Nor have the countless sweaters, gloves, scarves, her bicycle lock, my bicycle lock, her bicycle itself, two Timex watches, library books. If I did not know that I had been mindless at her age, too, I would have savaged her. Instead, I sat quietly in the car next to her as we drove up to St Matthew's and kept my worries to myself. She was so young. At thirteen could I have been as immature? She is still such an unformed cloud of astral gases that I have never satisfactorily resolved for myself how much of it is my fault

The Roman a Clef format allows the author to play God with the people he knows. He can change what people say and what people do. He can settle scores. He can make fun. He can even manufacture a happy ending. I don't think this is what Dad set out to do. In a confessional tone, I think he set out honestly explain his relationships with the women in his life.

For so many reasons this book is a difficult read for me personally. I wasn't much of a prize at thirteen ( through eighteen), but the years Dad describes in this book are among the most painful of my life. I don't need to revisit them again.

Some critics thought better of the book.

The New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani called it "unwieldy,opaque, but (as a) portrait of a man and his collapsing marriage also powerful and disturbing".

Tom Wolfe said Beautiful Women, Ugly Scenes is "the most exquisitely detailed picture of the psychological water polo that passes for modern marriage that I've ever read. A brilliant piece of work".

People Magazine said it was "so vivid it almost gives off sparks"

But they weren't all kind

The Washington Post's Jonathan Yardley called the book "silly" and added "Every page aches with confession and throbs with sincerity; there's more caring, loving, openness and warmth here than could be found in a convention of Southern California interpersonal-relationship counselors."

The nail in the coffin came in the New York Times Book Review where novelist Alice Adams wrote how Dad seemed obsessed with breasts and added ''this is a very confused long book.''

Beautiful Women Ugly Scenes failed to take off. Dad gave up writing novels and moved on to non-fiction exclusively, beginning with The National Geographic Society: 100 Years of Adventure and Discovery.

Thank God Hollywood didn't come calling again!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Midnight Cowboy, 1969

When film composer John Barry died January 30th I heard this melancholy instrumental for the first time in decades.
It took me right back to 56 Union Street in the mid-70's, raking leaves under the chestnut trees, shooting baskets on the dirt driveway, to bowls full of shelled walnuts and tins full of Pennsylvania pretzels.
Dad and Sam kept their record collection in the old saltbox's borning room. A tiny space with slanted wood floors built for women to give birth. We used it as a place to toss our coats, gloves and boots.
Barry won a Grammy for this record. It had already made its imprint on my soul long before I ever saw Midnight Cowboy in college.