The terrible costs of war are almost impossible to calculate. However, let me try to give just a little perspective.
At first glance, this may appear to be a humorous column. It’s not.
I’m building a cement wall in my backyard. Yesterday, I unloaded 120 cinder blocks off a rental truck weighing 28 pounds each, plus ten bags of mortar. Then, I carried everything into the back, two bricks at a time, which took me almost three hours. In a few days, I’ll mix the cement, lift each block into place, make a huge mess, and slowly begin building my wall.
Total Cost: $220.
Time: 16 hours (estimated)
Construction is hard work. It’s brutal on the 56-year-old body, especially if you’re doing things manually (without machines and tools). The weather is cool now here in Las Vegas, but it must be excruciating to do construction work full-time in the summer when temperatures soar to 116 degrees and everything gets so hot to the touch, your hand can get scorched.
I don’t like construction work. I’d much rather be drinking wine and wasting time arguing politics on Facebook.
Construction work sucks.
You’re looking at a photograph of someplace in Syria.
I don’t know the name of the city. It doesn’t matter.
Take a closer look at all those buildings, all the walls, all the cement dust, all the destruction. Then, multiply what you see in this photograph by 100,000 or 1,000,000 or 10,000,000. I have no idea how massive the destruction is in that country. It’s probably incalculable.
Think of how many walls in Syria and other parts of the world plagued by war need to be torn down. Then, removed. Then, new bricks and cement need to be trucked in. Finally, each brick must be set into place.
Think of the cost. Think of the time needed. Think of the labor.
It’s almost unfathomable to contemplate.
But the work must be done. One brick at a time.
I’m building a wall which takes me two full days. In some ways, I have it easy. There’s nothing to tear down or remove. No bombs are falling on me from the sky while I work. No walls will collapse and kill me. It’s a simple job.
I have the luxury of taking breaks. I can grab a drink anytime. I have my music playing in the background. There’s a toilet just a few steps away. I will enjoy a nice lunch and an even better dinner. I will sleep in a comfortable bed at night.
Sure, it’s a tough job. I will have body aches afterward. But it’s a hell of a lot easier than what some people are faced with in another part of the world.
I’m not going to complain that my back aches. Some people have it a lot tougher.
As I was carrying all those bricks yesterday I thought of the people in Syria and other places in the world suffering the cruel fate of war — people I do not now and likely will never meet. It’s always the innocent who suffer most, often women and children.
Most of those people who will end up doing all the heavy lifting and trying to rebuild their walls and lives did no wrong. They committed no crimes. They had nothing to do with the brutal hostilities which led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands and the current refugee crisis resulting from millions fleeing the terror. Yet those still in Syria and other places are the ones who will be forced to lift the bricks, mix the mortar, and construct a new society hopefully with a better future than the past.
My aches and pains will be multiplied a hundred-million times over by people who likely are not as healthy or well fed or safe.
Worst of all for those willing to work and build new walls is not knowing what will happen ahead. I’m confident that my wall will stand. Nothing poses any threat to its construction. But what about those new walls built in that devastated faraway place? Will they last? If so, for how long? Will another bomb fall? Will there be a new war?
Building my wall gives me some perspective about the horrific costs of war. Those who pay the highest cost of the destruction are often those who least deserve to bear the burdens, but always end up paying for the sins of the wicked.
If you think Donald Trump and Archie Bunker are very much alike, wait until you read about the differences. Fact is, the President doesn’t have any of Archie’s virtues.
America elected Donald Trump. We ended up with Archie Bunker.
So it seems.
Last week, the president blurted out yet another incendiary comment. He said nations filled with lots of brown-skinned people are “shitholes.” That sure sounded just like something Archie Bunker might have said back in his heyday. For those who don’t recall, a little over a generation ago Archie starred in the most popular television show in the country, which was called All in the Family. Chances are, if you were born anytime prior to the 1970’s, you tuned-in each and every Saturday night to the Norman Lear-produced sitcom which aired weekly on CBS.
All in the Family wasn’t just a television comedy. It was one of the most significant and influential television programs in history. The sit-com was a cultural breakthrough and for its day — a bold political statement that often generated controversy. Subjects thought to be taboo — including abortion, gay rights, race relations, breast cancer, divorce, infidelity, terrorism, and death — nothing was off the table. What was most amazing was the show took on so many politically divisive issues, but somehow managed to remain consistently funny, at least during the years 1971-1975, when it steadily ranked as the Number 1 television program. Just about everyone in America talked about All in the Family the following week. It was that popular.
Archie Bunker was played by Carroll O’Connor. Up until then, he’d been a little-known character actor mostly known for small bit parts in war films and instantly-forgettable made-for-TV movies. O’Connor fit the unprecedented role of a lifetime perfectly as the portly, balding, boorish working-class simpleton.
The show’s political slant was indisputable. Archie was a flag-waving patriot, a proud veteran, and an unabashed Republican. He loathed Democrats and hated liberals. But Archie, always one for malapropisms, also loved President “Richard E. Nixon,” who in a lucky strike of perfect timing igniting the show’s mass popularity, was about to get get caught up in the Watergate scandal. As it increasingly became apparent that Nixon was a crook, willfully ignorant Archie never lost faith. Turns out, the affection between the White House and CBS’ Television City where All in the Family episodes were filmed in front of a live studio audience, wasn’t mutual.
Many controversial topics brought up in episodes of All in the Family wouldn’t be touched by mainstream television networks today. Punch lines about Blacks, Jews, gays, women, hippies, and Archie’s other liberal targets wouldn’t just be considered too risky or politically incorrect. Such subject matter would likely be scandalous and might even lead to boycotts. Some activists, even those well-intended, would likely blast the show and call for its cancellation. That’s a deeply sad commentary on the sorry state of the limitations on artistic expression in entertainment today.
The wonderful irony of Archie’s pathological narrow-minded bigotry is that in real life the actor Carroll O’Connor wasn’t at all like the character he played. In fact, they were polar opposites. Like Lear, the show’s progressive creator and lead writer, O’Connor sympathized passionately with Leftist causes. Some years later, O’Connor even shocked most of America when he openly endorsed and campaigned for Jesse Jackson (who’s Black) when he ran for president.
O’Connor and Lear weren’t alone. Archie’s son-in-law, Mike Stivic, was played by Rob Reiner. He later became the famed movie director (This is Spinal Tap, When Harry Met Sally, A Few Good Men, etc.) and an outspoken champion of liberal causes.
The show eventually declined in quality and tailed off in popularity. All in the Family finally ended with barely a whimper in 1979. Nonetheless, Archie Bunker has since become the embodiment traditional (White) working-class views in mainstream America. He was loud. He was bigoted. He was sexist. He was intolerant. But he was also lovable — even to the millions of viewers who vehemently disagreed with his bullheaded opinions. Perhaps that’s because so many of us saw our own families living inside the household at 704 Hauser Street, in Queens. Everyone knew an Archie, somewhere. We worked with Archie. We drank beer with Archie. Archie was our father.
What’s the point of all this and what makes Archie still relevant today? Well, the similarities between Archie and Donald Trump are striking. But then, so too are the differences.
First, the similarities:
Archie Bunker and Donald Trump were both from the borough of Queens, in New York City. They were born as outsiders of the establishment and lived their early years in the shadows of New York’s powerful elite over in Manhattan.
Archie Bunker and Donald Trump were both White Anglo-Saxon Protestants — otherwise known as WASPs. They shared common advantages as the final generation of those born into privileged ethnic and religious backgrounds before America began undergoing significant cultural diversity. Later, both came to rebel against these demographic trends.
Archie Bunker and Donald Trump exhibited unflappable working-class personalities and tell-it-like it-is attitudes. They told you exactly what they thought, at all times. Their comments were unfiltered and often embarrassed those around them.
Archie Bunker and Donald Trump were both uncomfortable around people considered to be different. Excluded groups included minorities, gays, nonconformists, radicals, and anyone that didn’t share their traditional values. Archie was horrified when a Black family moved in next door. Trump was guilty of racial discrimination against Blacks when he served as president of his real estate company and paid a hefty fine.
Archie Bunker and Donald Trump were both deeply mistrustful of the mainstream media, academics, intellectuals, and cultural elites.
Archie Bunker and Donald Trump were both stubbornly irreligious. They professed to be Christians, occasionally even misquoting The Holy Bible, but almost never attended religious services nor observed the typical rituals of faith. In fact, both often openly violated religious teachings.
Archie Bunker and Donald Trump were both plainspoken. They weren’t readers. They spoke in common language. They didn’t know much about history or the rest of the world, nor were they particularly curious to learn about it. Both held the belief that most problems could be solved using good, old-fashioned common sense.
Now, the differences:
Archie Bunker paid his bills. Donald Trump often lied, cheated, skipped out on paying taxes, and bankrupted himself and his investors, many times over. Those who trusted Trump became his victims.
Archie Bunker was a proud military veteran who served in World War II. Donald Trump dodged military service five times, feigning a minor injury (bone spurs in his foot) which he claimed kept him from enlisting. Archie was brave. Trump was and is, a coward.
Archie Bunker loved his wife Edith, his devoted companion of many years. From all outward appearances, Archie always remained faithful to her. Meanwhile, Donald Trump engaged in multiple elicit affairs and bragged about his sexual conquests. He went through two bitter divorces. He paid off at least one porn star to buy her silence. Trump even boasted he could touch women’s private parts and get away with it — something Archie would never do.
Archie Bunker always told the truth. We might not have liked the things he said and what we we hearing. But Archie didn’t lie. Trump has lied so many times, he can’t be believed anymore — on anything. Trump is a pathological liar.
Archie Bunker enjoyed the camaraderie of many close friends who were featured regularly on the show as repeat guests, and he stayed loyal to them through thick and thin. Archie never betrayed those around him. By contrast, Trump appears to have no real close friends, nor does he show any loyalty to those around him. He’s turned against just about everyone who’s departed his inner circle. Even with all his imperfections, Archie was beloved by just about everyone. Trump, far less so.
Archie Bunker was a lower-middle-class working man who often struggled financially, but always somehow found a way to make ends meet. Donald Trump was born into great wealth, blew his vast fortune multiple times on idiotic business deals, and in the end was finally left with no other option than to hawk his name to try and sell products.
Archie Bunker held onto many outdated opinions. But he also revealed tremendous empathy for everyone, even those he viewed with suspicion. Many episodes of All in the Family showed Archie’s softer side, usually after he was taught a lesson about the wrongs of bigotry and sexism. Meanwhile, Trump hasn’t learned any lessons at all. He appears to have no empathy for others, particularly those he views as his adversaries. Archie had and often showed compassion. Trump shows no compassion, especially towards those he considers weak.
My conclusion is as follows: While Archie Bunker and Donald Trump possess a number of similarities, there are just many stark differences. It’s an astonishing indictment of the President to say, but Trump lacks all of Archie virtues.
Indeed, Donald Trump can only wish he was more like Archie Bunker, who is a much better man.
“All the Money in the World” is based on the real-life 1973 kidnapping and ransom of John Paul Getty III, then the grandson of the world’s richest man.
I had no prior knowledge of what actually happened when kidnappers presumed to be Italian terrorists snatched the 16-year-old prized golden ticket off a dark Roman street and proceeded to demand $17 million in ransom money for his safe return to an emotionally ruptured, hideously-dysfunctional family.
Come to find out later after reading historical accounts of the caper, “All the Money in the World” gets most of the facts right. Unlike many other historical docudramas scripted into a Hollywood screenplay, the film doesn’t overly dramatize these events because — it doesn’t have to. The real story is quite compelling enough.
Credit master filmmaker Ridley Scott, who has given us a motley kaleidoscope of memorable movie silhouettes in the past, including “Alien” (1979), “Blade Runner” (1982), “Thelma and Louise” (1991), “Gladiator” (2000), and “The Martian” (2015). Based on John Pearson’s book “Painfully Rich: The Outrageous Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Heirs of J. Paul Getty” published in 1995, Scott delivers yet another thoroughly-engaging saga that’s sure to spark a range of viewer emotions and leave audiences on the edge of their seats.
For Scott and all those who worked on “All the Money in the World,” the finished product which hit theaters on Christmas Day wasn’t just a conventional movie unfolding along a linear timeline. It also included an unexpected last-second crisis beset with controversy testing the very patience of a studio and its financial resources. The studio had to pony up its own sort of payoff to salvage a movie that ultimately would still be marketable to audiences largely turned off by the recent scandals in the news. Film production had wrapped up and the movie was set for release by early Fall (2017). Actor Kevin Spacey had originally been cast in the iconic role-playing the tightfisted J. Paul Getty. However, the revelation of Spacey’s personal sexual harassment escapades posed potential box office catastrophe. So, filmmakers had to scrap nearly one-third of an already finished film and re-shoot all the scenes on the fly at an additional expense of $10 million in production costs. Key actors were brought back to various locations around Italy and England and scenes were re-staged and filmed in only a few week’s time — something of a miracle. Someday perhaps we’ll see and hear the real backstory of how a major motion picture was ultimately rescued from almost certain oblivion by gritty resilience. If Scott isn’t nominated for a “Best Director” Oscar for overcoming this ordeal alone, there is no justice.
We may not ever see Spacey’s discarded scenes playing Getty, but the recasting of stately Christopher Plummer in the role of the avaricious financial baron turns out to be a marvelous stroke of grand fortune. Plummer is absolutely riveting in this role, arguably his best performance ever in a long career spanning six decades on film. Plummer chews every scene he’s in, and spits out anyone who stands in his way, not so much by overplaying his role, but by underselling it with the hint of suggestion. His steely look, his lonely eyes, his dismissive hand gestures, and his intimidating presence alone makes a decisive statement and does much of the talking. Words aren’t necessary to win battles when a slight frown or wave of the hand will suffice. In Plummer as Getty, we see a puzzle of man with many missing pieces. This is a man who possesses everything and yet really has nothing — aside from about $8 billion (in today’s dollars) and a prized collection of rare artworks and priceless antiquities that would later define but a fraction of his vast and complex legacy. “I love collecting objects because objects they are real and they are what they seem,” he says. “People are not what they seem. They disappointment me.”
Upstaging Plummer would seem next to impossible, but Michelle Williams who plays the kidnapped teen heir’s tenacious but emotionally-devastated mother is every bit the miser’s match in each scene, and then some. She married John Paul Getty, Jr., who turned out had none of the business savvy (nor ruthlessness) of his famous rapacious father. Getty, Jr. (in both the movie and in real life) eventually became a hopeless drug addict. An absentee father every bit as negligent as his hard-nosed father, Getty, Jr. played virtually no role in the teen’s upbringing and ransom negotiations. That left the kidnapped boy’s mother isolated, vulnerable, broke, and essentially powerless to do much of anything to free her hostage-son. Proving the most essential human resources aren’t tangible nor valued in dollars, Williams carries the movie from start to finish. In her, we see the heroic counterweight to elder Getty’s mangled priorities. Money doesn’t matter. Only her son and his safe return matters. Billions in assets are trivial.
Getty stubbornly refused to pay the full $17 million in ransom for reasons which are far more complex (and perhaps even justifiable) than one may expect. This is far from an easy and automatic decision as to what exactly to do. Sure, $17 million represents a paltry day’s pay for Getty, a mere crumb in his vast financial empire. However, Getty won’t budge. This steady crescendo of mounting suspense, heightened when the boy’s severed ear is mailed in by kidnappers, leads to an inevitable face-to-face confrontation, the details of which will not be revealed here. In what otherwise is an intriguing film most certainly worthy of seeing, this zenith of steely personalities and clash of beliefs near the film’s climax is both messy and unsatisfying. I was left with a lingering curiosity that was not answered. [SEE FOOTNOTE FOR SPOILER]
My only other criticism of “All the Money in the World” is the cringe worthy miscasting of Mark Wahlberg, the beefcake actor who doesn’t seem right at all for the nuanced role as Getty’s security confidant and eventual accessory to Michelle Williams during the kidnapping ordeal. Wahlberg’s character appears to be mostly useless, providing little tactical nor emotional support to Williams nor anyone else involved in solving the crime. I was surprised to learn afterward that Getty did indeed dispatch a former American intelligence operative to assist with the investigation. His character and scenes add nothing to the story and film. But in fairness, no one could outshine Plummer and Williams in their respective roles.
Also worthy of note is the outstanding supporting performance of Romain Duris, a well-known French actor who plays the role of Cinquinta, a sympathetic Italian kidnapper. Usually, criminals are portrayed as one-dimensional villains. However, Duris manages to go far beyond the typical shallowness and becomes a compassionate steward of the prized boy treasure, with startling similarities to the boy’s own mother. Both are steamrolled by more powerful personalities and forces beyond their control.
“All the Money in the World” receives a very high recommendation. Though slightly flawed, the caper based on a true crime story sustains our suspense for slightly more than two hours. Actors Plummer and Williams are certain to receive the usual accolades for their portrayals of real people. Plummer, in particular, deserves high praise for essentially performing all of his scenes which were re-shot within the time frame it usually takes to film a television commercial.
Ridley Scott has given us an authentic likeness of the people, places, and circumstances which comprised one of the most intriguing kidnapping cases in history. Ultimately, and fortuitously due to real-life scandal and controversy, he’s also created one of the top five movies of the year.
[SPOILER ALERT: SOME DETAILS OF THE PLOT WILL BE REVEALED BELOW]
The film’s tension stems from the escalating conflict between Getty (Plummer) and the heir’s mother (Williams) over whether or not to pay $17 million ransom. Getty has his reasons for not paying — some valid. He’s spent an entire lifetime negotiating with rivals and breaking adversaries in the business world. Nothing, it seems, will change his mind on surrendering to blackmail (which is also a standard policy of some governments when faced with acts of terrorism) — not even the threat of his grandson being murdered by kidnappers. However, very late in the film in the anticipated climactic showdown, the character played by Mark Wahlberg storms onto Getty’s lavish estate and confronts his boss with a tirade of insults. Uncaring and unfeeling, Getty had never budged in any negotiations before. He had no regard for the feelings or opinions of his family (he was married five times). Yet for reasons unexplained — and grossly inconsistent with the persona and actions of Getty to that point — he decides to give in an pay a smaller part of the ransom. Given the nuanced complexities of the dilemma, the audience deserved to know why Getty changed his mind and gave in. Why would Getty do this? Because he was insulted by an employee? This is implausible and mars what is otherwise a very good movie.
Does sin have an expiration date? Should the statute of limitations apply differently to sexual misconduct versus crimes against humanity? Does justice hold a ticking stopwatch?
A candidate for the United States Senate is alleged to have committed multiple offenses of sexual assault nearly four decades ago. Should his misdeeds from many years earlier be relevant today?
A middle-aged man committed a brutal murder 25 years ago. He was convicted and served a long prison sentence. He’s now free and hopes to rejoin society as a productive citizen. Should we continue to hold his criminal record against him?
A 92-year-old senior citizen now living in Chile is identified as a notorious former Nazi, who actively participated in what’s known as The Final Solution. Should the elderly man be arrested and tried for his participation in crimes against humanity?
From these real-life quandaries, we recognize that morality isn’t so much a line, but a matrix.
The common defense for Roy Moore, the current frontrunner in the U.S. Senate race in Alabama is that all five of his alleged incidents of sexual and personal misconduct (two against minors) happened so long ago that they’re no longer relevant. Moore is 70 now and married. When he was in his mid-30s and single, Moore liked the company of young girls, make that — very young girls. However, there’s no record — at least not yet — of any recent transgressions. Whether deserved or not, if we give Moore the benefit of the doubt that he’s led a scandal-free life since the early 1980s, should his clean record later override suspected crimes as a much younger man?
The floodgates have now opened up on a cultural epidemic of sexual misconduct in America. Many men in positions of power — from movie stars to business executives to politicians — are now shuddering in the shadows at the prospect of things they did and said to subordinates, years ago. The sexual misconduct dragnet has even dredged up tawdry accusations against Tom Hanks and George H.W. Bush, two public figures most of us agree would seem to be the least likely of sexual conquistadors.
It’s pretty clear Harvey Weinstein, Anthony Wiener, Bill O’Reilly, and others exposed as sexual predators weren’t just scumbags before who eventually grew out of a sick phase. They’re scumbags now. Their misdeeds happened recently and thus reflect poorly on the quality of their character today. Perhaps these powerful men are morally redeemable and can make proper amends someday. That remains to be seen. However, our judgment must apply to what we know now, not what’s presumed might happen in the future.
Consider the case of Kevin Spacey. He might have posed an excruciating predicament had his scandalous behavior been confined to a single drunken incident three decades earlier. Some might have forgiven or at least been willing to forget one misdeed (Spacey allegedly hit on an underage boy in 1986). Our mass indignation became far easier once we learned that Spacey has committed similar acts over the course of a lifetime.
While Spacey and others present no moral ambiguity, Hollywood has a disturbingly short memory when it comes to rectitude. It holds grudges for less a time than most people elsewhere. If anyone other than a supremely-talented film director had raped a 13-year-old girl, he would have been an eternal outcast. But not Roman Polanski, who fled the United States, dodged justice, and continues to live unpunished as a fugitive. Years after the statutory rape occurred, Polanski continues making movies to this day. He was even awarded an Oscar in 2002. Apparently, in Hollywood, the statute of limitations may as well be a parking meter.
Central to the question of forgiveness is accepting responsibility for one’s actions. Several abusers who were called out by their victims have publicly apologized. Whether sincere or merely the clever crafting of public relations spin (call me cynical — most of these apologies are nothing but the contrivances of sycophantic handlers working for powerful people who were caught), those who admit their wrongdoing are taking the right first step. Time will probably heal most wounds. Roman Polanski clearly shows, they will work again eventually.
I’ve had some interesting discussions with Facebook friends about crime and punishment. At least one of these friends is a convicted felon (his identity won’t be revealed here). He committed a serious crime when he was 20, and later served ten years in a state penitentiary. Today, he’s a free man. He’s working in an honest job and has even started a family. But he continues to be stigmatized by his actions from many years ago. To what extent should he be judged, if at all?
I think most of us will agree that a felon who has paid for his crime and has demonstrated genuine repentance for the suffering he caused deserves another chance. In fact, someone who successfully overcomes a bad childhood, addiction, and a criminal past is even more worthy of our admiration for having conquered their personal demons. Most of us were born lucky, with good parents and enjoyed a proper upbringing. Those who change from bad people into good people merit an extra level of commendation.
But what about the most terrible crimes in history, most of which have gone unpunished? Only a small fraction of those who carried out of the most brutal barbarism of the Third Reich have been tried and convicted. Most escaped justice. Many fled to safe havens, like counties in South America where their criminal pasts were either ignored or forgotten.
Only a small number of Nazi war criminals are still living, most aged in their 90s. Is there really any point to hunting them down, rounding them up, and shaming old men hobbling on canes or puttied to wheelchairs? What end is served?
This one is easy. Criminals who escape justice must be pursued until the end of their miserable lives, and even beyond (dig up the bodies and remove them from privileged resting places, if necessary). They should never be comfortable enough to feel they’ve gotten away with villainy. Not only do the ghosts of their victims absolutely demand this. Modern would-be despots must be dissuaded from carrying out similar misdeeds. One of the most effective deterrents to another holocaust is the grisly image of the guilty hanging from a rope.
Justice must never be subject to any stopwatch. There is no statute of limitations when it comes to sinners and sin. However, we must also accept that those who genuinely seek redemption must be entitled to change into better people. In fact, they must be encouraged to do so. This decree has no religious overtone. Justice and the opportunity for redemption, when deserved, are the fundamental covenants of humanism.
Take a look at this photo (above). Tell me where you think it’s from. No cheating. I’ll provide the answer at the conclusion of the column.
Earlier tonight, Marieta and I had the great pleasure of attending a special four-course wine dinner at a local restaurant here in Las Vegas. But this wasn’t a wine dinner like all the rest. We were seated with a couple, aged in their late 60s.
The gentleman and I got to chatting. Somehow, the topic of the Vietnam War came up. We engaged in a spirited conversation about the masterful Vietnam War television series, produced by Ken Burns, on PBS. By the way, this is must-see television for anyone who has not seen it yet.
During the course of our friendly conversation, the man revealed that he served two tours of duty in Vietnam. He was stationed at Da Nang in 1968 and returned again in 1971. He was assigned to a U.S. Air Force unit that provided routine maintenance on fighter jets.
Initially, the man was somewhat reluctant to talk about his memories of the war. But inquisitive (nosy) as I am, I was riveted by this moment — what amounted to a front-row, first-person account of one of the most transformative events in all of American history. How fortunate I was to have this rare opportunity. I wasn’t about to let this chance to learn more pass me by. And so, I pressed on.
The man stated that he arrived in Da Nang in early 1968 at the tender age of 18. He had lied about his age and joined the Air Force at age 17. His very first night in Vietnam was the Tet Offensive. For those unfamiliar with Vietnam War history, the Tet Offensive was a surprise attack that caught the American military totally off-guard and was arguably the shocking turning point of the war.
I listened intently over the next two hours, privileged to be given this, such a rare gift. As we talked, or I should say — as he talked and I listened — the man became increasingly more open and willing to talk about the many experiences that had haunted him for nearly half a century. It will take me some time to digest all the perspectives he shared with me, some of which were very troubling to hear. Perhaps I shall write about them later, if appropriate. I don’t know. Perhaps some things are best left unsaid.
But what really struck me at one point during our conversation was when I sought to give the man an “out,” allowing him to escape my inquisitive and perhaps annoying curiosity and enjoy the evening with the rest of the 30 or people assembled in the room sipping on Pinot, Zinfandel, Cabernet, and Sangiovese. Indeed, I casually tried to change the subject at this point, thinking my captive might leap at the chance to leave those painful memories of Vietnam behind. But instead of taking the easy bait, the man wanted to talk — more.
I have a tear in my eye and a tremble in my wrists as I write this now, a few hours later thinking about the next thing the man revealed to me.
“No one ever asks me about my time over there. It feels good to talk about it.”
Wow. Just, fucking wow.
Here I was, thinking I was blessed to be able to gain a new perspective from his insight, and yet he was on the opposite side of the table, convinced that my empathy was in some small manner — therapeutic. He thought I was doing him the favor. I’m having trouble writing now.
For another 90 minutes or so, I heard stories and memories and events and perspectives that opened my eyes and broadened my knowledge about what thousands of good men (and women) went through — both over there then and back here later.
I won’t give the man’s name because he insists he’s a private person. But I suspect there are many, many more veterans like him harboring memories that deserve and must and demand to be shared, real pain and emotional conflict that merits the soothing salve of a kindly ear, a gentle nod at the right instant, and a genuine but simple expression of gratitude.
I wonder how many others are out there now, tight-lipped, sitting in silence. How many others of this war and that war and all the wars we’ve fought and continue to fight didn’t get the chance to sit down at a wine dinner and speak about what they saw and what they endured and how they survived the madness. Hundreds? Thousands? Tens of thousands? Why don’t we ask questions and why aren’t we listening?
Yes, the wine dinner was exceptional, but then most of my wine dinners are great. But this one was of Grand Cru of an exceptional vintage, two souls de-cantered into one.
How blessed I was to have the opportunity to share a dinner with a Vietnam vet, and listen and learn.
Finally, the answer to the question posed in the opening paragraph is — the photograph shows Da Nang, Vietnam. This is a photograph of Da Nang, formally one of the largest American military installations in South Vietnam, as it looks today.
Times do change. Places change also. What should not and must not ever change is our curiosity for history and insatiable compassion for others, even strangers.