Remembering, Memorial Day

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04/17/2015

Neighborhood: Queens

Remembering, Memorial Day

On weekends it’s a tossup, either my wife or I go on expedition for our Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and this was my turn. Because I knew the usual place on Queens Boulevard was closed for repairs I had to head down to the one on 61st in the Woodside valley. On the way back I noticed a modest Vietnam memorial at 57th and Woodside Ave. 

What’s up with that, I thought. I’d passed it many times before and didn’t notice it. But this was Memorial Day. And suddenly I see it? Was some subconscious part of me on the alert for memorials or was it just chance? The first of several questions to ask myself.

I stood in front of it. I read all the names to myself, and figured where my name might have been inserted.

I’d be the odd man out, upsetting the even-numbered columns, inserted either at the bottom of the first column or the top of the second, between James McIntosh and Maurice Noel.

I had to think how grateful I am because if certain factors had been altered, I might have gone to war and my name might be chiseled here, or somewhere similar. Say, if I hadn’t come of age in Berkeley, California, or if my parents hadn’t had the orientation to allow me to understand that the U.S. war in Vietnam was a disaster, a lie, a horrible disgrace from beginning to end, much like Iraq for the more current generation.

I participated in ‘Nam in a narrow way, in that I protested against it, joining in marches, going to rallies. At one rally in lower Sproul we got CS-gassed and chased by “Blue Meanies,” the Oakland cops, who poured out of Harmon gym with batons waving, just as I and some others turned down a path, the helicopters letting out the gas over our heads, tumbling and choking. But this was nothing compared to real world war overseas.

In my teens I became a member of a Sufi Order in San Francisco, based on the teachings of an Indian guru, Meher Baba. That’s another story, but I was the test case in the Order to see if our beliefs could allow me to be a c/o (conscientious objector), and I did a lot of work on that, trying to make my case to my Preceptor and the Murshida, but that was denied. Meher Baba believed that war was divinely intentioned, and that a Sufi should obey the laws of the country in which he or she lived.

The following year the government instituted a lottery system of conscription, some said because the 2S college deferments were just too obviously biased toward the middle and upper classes.

Because I couldn’t be a c/o, and therefore would have to go if called to fight in a war I opposed, I was totally fucked-up anxious the night they posted the results in the Student Union on the Berkeley campus. As it turned out, my number was 210. I was relieved ‒ nothing was guaranteed but I thought I had a good chance. My pal Rob drew down a 50, and he was a Sufi too and scared shitless. In the end Berkeley/Oakland easily made its quota because of all the enlistment from the poor, black and Hispanic, kids with no future. Even Rob was spared at number 50. That game was still rigged: economics, Mr Stupid.

Economics and war, I remember reading broadsides on these issues. I would sincerely attest that we wanted to redefine what patriotism could be about in the new world. War always seemed to be the fulcrum issue of patriotism, because it makes it so awfully real, it makes it life and death. Death, lots of death! But must we measure our love for country by allegiance to war with all its terrible consequence? There is definitely patriotism in “defending one’s country” but does it end there? What about the other side of that, committing offenses for one’s country? How much of patriotism can just be a breezy feeling of fealty and fondness toward the country itself? Some of these hot potato questions feel like they might burn my fingers still, decades on.

Well, look, there are different levels of understanding. Some people understand their local circle, and everything outside that is their enemy. Some extend the borders to their region, or their state, or the state in which they find themselves. Many folks are stuck in their regions and their era, time and place. Many are stuck in their dogma and can’t see the people in front of them, or even over the next virtual hill.

It’s possible to envision a larger parade, a wider humanity. How expand understanding past provinciality, how to embrace the confusions of the world and still be a patriot, in one’s heart? Most kinds of patriotism are rooted in a false sense of community, a phantom community that doesn’t exist, whose symbols are bankrupt. When you say you’re fighting for America, what are you fighting for? Mom and apple pie? The Grand Tetons? Watts? Taylor Swift? There is a patriotism that seeks to narrow our ideas of state and place, because we don’t want confusion. Some soldiers find out they’re fighting like pawns in a game they didn’t create, whose values do not truly reflect their own, that they are dying to line the pockets of the rich, or the powerful, or the charismatic.

Don’t get me wrong, blind love and loyalty can be lovely. But when it turns xenophobic and hugs close that which is total bullshit, that’s when it’s ugly, that’s when the air gets tight and tolerance seems like a vulnerability.

When I was reading and contemplating the earlier days of this “country” and the wars against the indigenous people, I thought, if I were Lakota, I would fight, I would fight for my country then. If other tribes, in this case the European invaders, were come to take my land and kill my people, I would fight them.

Vietnam wasn’t about any clear and present danger, it was more nefarious. Some might call me a traitor for not loving everything we have done around the world in the name of the “United States of America.” But we have to look at things directly to find the truth, isn’t that our dharma in this out-of-balance life?

In the early Seventies I was doing some crazy shit sometimes. I lived in L. A. for a time, and at that time I was into performance art and poetry. I made some copybooks of poems and set up a table on the UCLA to sell my books for a buck, and when things finally got boring I took out a container of head cheese, and dumped it on the paved path, poured gasoline on the pile and lit it, and began shouting, “My brains are on fire! My brains are on fire!” Definitely one of the weirder things I ever did. In my heart I was referencing Artaud. Anyway this guy comes up to me afterward, a little older than me, shorter, dirty blond hair and a beard, and he said, “I like that. That was great man. I was in ‘Nam. Were you in ‘Nam? You’re like someone who’s been over there, who’s been real. I like that.” He went on about what I’d done. I felt pretty good that I’d connected with one person, at least, although he was obviously unhinged. After a while he drifted off and I went to back my Hollywood hovel, thinking a lot about war, the wars that were going on.

In a recent piece about his investigations into atrocities in Vietnam, Seymour Hersh goes to visit one of the Charlie Company soldiers who participated in the My Lai massacre, Paul Meadlo, who is living with his mother, Myrtle. “When I pulled up in my rental car, Myrtle came out to greet me and said that Paul was inside, though she had no idea whether he would talk or what he might say… Then Myrtle said something that summed up a war that I had grown to hate: ‘I sent them a good boy and they made him a murderer.’”

Standing in front of this memorial in Woodside, in Queens, I know I could’ve been there myself. In what shape would I have come back? Would I be standing here today, and in what mental state, if I’d been there?

Americans do so much good, so much around the world, good God Almighty, we have helped so many people. And yet ‘we’ do so much damage around the world, too. This is the confusion. Standing in front of this memorial, I know I love this fucking country, this land, this soil, all, all, all of its crazy people! (See Walt Whitman for a fuller catalog.) I love this country. I’ve had the privilege of being alive, and free, and solvent enough, that I’ve been able to cross and crisscross it so many times, in cars, buses, trains, planes. I took the Green Turtle hippie bus across the States; I’ve hitchhiked innumerable miles too. I’m an American, whatever the hell that means. Of course I’m not alone in this, but I’ve got all kinds of country specific identities. I’m a New Yorker, I’m an east villager at heart, I’m a California boy, I’m a Berkeley guy, I once lived by Venice Beach for a few months unemployed so I’ve been a beach bum, I’ve been a Hoboken dude and dad, I’m a yoga teacher in Queens. Zadie Smith put it like this: “Most of us have complicated backstories, messy histories, multiple narratives.” I’ve slept on a fine number of beaches and under bridges, I’ve spent hours on the on-ramps to the interstates, I’ve slept beside women I barely knew in village apartments, I spotted an osprey taking flight on Sanibel Island, and sparrow hawks on telephone wires in El Cerrito, I’ve seen the red mountains and walked all around Echo Lake. I’ve walked down Wall Street with my tie blowing over my shoulder, I’ve played onstage at Mabuhay Gardens and CBGB. I’ve kissed my wife on my long-beloved Mendocino headlands, the surf crashing against the rocks, our lips locked, oblivious. If California was under the rule of Mexico, I would still love it. I believe I know what Woody Guthrie loved about this land, my land, your land. I’ve gone from job to job and identity to identity (so many I’m fed up with it), I’ve seen this country through a jumble of on- and off-the-road kaleidoscopic impressions. I’ve met people who make my adventures seem like kindergarten, and I’ve met people, Americans, whose wisdom transcended mere adventure.

Something I contemplated and in the end questioned, as did many others, in the years after Vietnam and Cambodia, was that the anti-Vietnam movement was so anti that everyone who took part in the military was reviled. That led to a generational divide, and a lot of bad karma. Heroic people were hated for what they’d done.

The only memory I have of direct participation in that divide was standing by the railroad tracks with fellow protestors, as the trains carrying boys to Vietnam rolled through Berkeley. And we were adversarial! Shit yeah! It’s not the clearest image, but I see those boys hanging out the windows shouting at us and we shouted back. I would’ve been about 17. And I recall thinking that those boys are going off probably to be killed.

(I saw a similar tragic situation years later when I walked past a staging area for rescue teams heading for the World Trade Centers, both on fire, we could see that, and watched them for a moment, watched them speeding off toward their fate, and then some ten minutes later that whole first building coming down, collapsing, and wondering if those guys had reached their terrible destination. But that’s another story, another even more insidious, complicated war, other, different heroes and villains…)

I knew ever more consciously as the decades passed that we shouldn’t have been protesting directly against these poor fuckers, those kids, young men and women, who volunteered or were conscripted to be sent off, so many of whom were destroyed and maimed in so many ways, and in some cases, too many of them sent off as good boys who came back as murderers. I ease my conscience about shouting at them with the thought that in my heart we were just trying to stop the trains, we didn’t want them to die for our trade routes and dubious strategems in Asia.

2

So much loss and pain, standing in front of this memorial. “Bussoftlhee, mememormee! Till thousendsthee,” writes Joyce at the very end of Finnegan’s Wake; in that one word, mememormee, conflating remembrance and memory and death and more and me. All of us would hope to be remembered in some manner. I honor these dead boys as I can, in remembering them, and conjuring thoughts of the current crop of soldiers in so many quagmire wars around the world, on this glorious and terrible day. The memorial says, aggressively perhaps, the dead are with God. Ah James McIntosh and Maurice Noel, where are you now? How would I stand in between you?

Ivan Nahem has written one book of poetry, Raw Scorpions (Stone Soup Press); he is best known as lead singer of artcore 80’s NY band Ritual Tension. He teaches yoga at Zen & Yoga in Forest Hills, Queens, and is Founder/Editor-in-Chief of Yoga Teacher Magazine.

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