Jane Fonda was a traitor to the entire free world who ought to be in prison. She was a propaganda agent of the Hanoi war machine and a loyal friend of its genocidal leaders who never repudiated them. If she had, more people may have taken notice of what they were doing in Indochina after her friends in the media declared "an end to the agony" in 1975.
Dennis Hammond was a United States Marine. He was also a prisoner of war who never repudiated the United States. If he had, he may not have been listed as missing in action while Janes friends in Hanoi knew he was a prisoner. Dennis had friends too, but none in high places in Vietnam or at home.
Few people could associate the name of a famous actress with the name of a not so famous marine. You would have to be familiar with both to make the connection which is automatic with me. Most people know Jane Fonda from memorable experiences they shared with her in the movies. I knew Dennis Hammond from memorable experiences I shared with him in person, some of which were defining moments of my life....
Our third-grade class was the first to file into the huge auditorium. When I say huge, I mean spacious enough to fit Hannamans auditorium into forty-times over. We were accustomed to thinking of the word, auditorium, as a classroom we went to inside of a school building with many other classrooms. This place was all auditorium. Sitting there on the far left in the middle section of seats, feeling small and frightened, we took strength from the close proximity of our friends.
We were on a field trip to Ford Auditorium in downtown Detroit where we were going to be part of a live radio audience. As I read the grim faces of my friends Leonard Gary, Richard Dekarske and Dennis Hammond, it was hard to remember that we were also supposed to be having fun.
We knew there were other schools, where other kids just like us were in the same grade, but we had never seen as many of our peers in one place as we knew we were about to. Before the field trip, we could not have conceived of a place big enough to hold all of us. As we looked around, though, at all the empty seats, it was hard to believe that enough eight-year-olds existed in the world to fill them. With the lone exception of Rosemary Costello, who didnt stop talking to her friends for a minute, we boys who were normally as chatty as she was, couldnt find the courage to speak. But our bodies were in constant motion, our heads swinging up, right, forward and back, not wanting to miss any danger that our teachers might have overlooked.
Then the other classes started filing in and our formless apprehension began to take shape. How did we compare to the other kids? Were they better looking? Did they have nicer clothes? Would we have to sit through the program with a bunch of rich kids snickering at us? Even Rosemary stopped talking to look at them as they looked at us.
Nearly every student in the first class to come down the aisle next to us was startled by our appearance. One by one they would troop past, looking us over as curiously as we were looking at them. One by one their faces would open in shock as though all of us had grown an extra head or two that we werent aware of.
I looked at Richard on my right, who looked normal enough to me. I could tell by his quick inspection of me that I looked all right to him. Lonnie, on my left, was ok. Dennis, on the left of him was ok. Seated next to the wall was Homer Robinson, a newcomer to Hannaman who lived across the alley from me. He was a little raggedy, but no more so than some of the kids coming in. The girls behind us appeared to be as neat and clean as we were and I couldnt see how the girls from the other schools were any better dressed. Why then were we getting all those funny looks?
Something was funny about them too, something definitely but indefinably unnatural. The same was true of the next class and the class after that. I could see my puzzlement reflected in the eyes of my classmates nearest to me. They too noticed something abnormal about those boys and girls, something they all had in common.
The puzzle went unsolved until some third-graders came in who put the same look of shock on our faces that we had seen on the others. They had it too, as they moved in wordlessly across the aisle from us, most of them trying hard not to stare. Suddenly, we all knew what was so different about us and so strange about all of the others. We knew, in a way we could not have explained, why most of the children were pretending not to have noticed what they had about our class following the initial jolt.
Rosemary Costello drew in her breath and said the unspeakable words in her normal speaking voice that all of us must have thought when we saw those kids. As was her custom back then when a startling thought appeared in her mind, she immediately let everybody in on it.
"Theyre all black!" she exclaimed.
Remember now, this was 1954, over a decade before black became beautiful. Only on the rarest of occasions was it permissible for white people to call black people black in public. This was no occasion to mention color at all. Poor Rosemary realized she had said the wrong thing, as she usually did, right after she said it although she had used the term inoffensively, as a simple description of a stark contrast. It was clear to all of us only after wed seen the solid block of thirty-five or forty black kids what was odd about the others. They were all white.
Though each of us within earshot of Rosemarys belated observationand who wasntwas embarrassed, nobody even thought of chastising her. She had spoken the truth, which she would have kept to herself if it hadnt smacked her in the face so unexpectedly.
Hannaman was roughly 85% white, so it wasnt unusual for us to see white school children in large groups. But to see so many black ones together in one group and so many whites together in a dozen others, did not seem to be in the natural order of things. It did not seem that way to me or Lonnie or Dennis or Richard or Rosemary. It clearly did not seem that way to any of the people I started kindergarten with.
I remember thinking at first that the black children must have been the criminals from Samson. But the girls were as normal looking as my many female cousins and the girls I knew in church, and none of the boys looked like hoods. Why then, were those children set apart from everybody else? Because they were black? If that was the reason, what of me and Lonnie and Homer and Patricia Hodge, the black kids in our group of representatives from Hannaman Elementary.
The question stayed with me through the show, of which I remember damn little, despite the fact that I was one of the few children called upon to perform on stage.
The only thing I remember about that was singing "Happy Birthday" to an eight-year-old girl pretending to be a hundred. I remember the guilt of beating out Homer Robinson, who was a real singer, and the humiliation of not realizing until halfway through the song that the girl was only pretending. I remember thinking that it had been a big mistake not to keep that in the forefront of my mind when I volunteered to sing. If she did anything wrong she would be an embarrassment only to herself, her family and her friends. The wrong move on my part could bring disgrace on every black person in the building, not to mention everybody in Radio Land who could tell by my voice what color I was.
Going back to my seat without having once cracked a smile, I avoided the black faces across the aisle. I couldnt bear to look at Homer either. But sitting between Homer and Lonnie was Dennis Hammond, who forced me to look at him before I reached my seat and to be glad I did. He grinned. I grinned. And I knew I was back among friends.
The first time I saw Dennis was in kindergarten. The first time I saw him smile, I knew he was ok. He had a big gap between his two front teeth just like mine. When youre five-years-old, things like that mean a lot. You are at a point in your social development where its terribly important to conform to group standard and the standard reaction to the gap in my teeth was teasing. That was also the standard reaction to my name which got me into numerous fights before I learned that fighting was cool only if done in a clearly justifiable cause. Punching out a white kid who called you a nigger, for example, was not only cool but expected. You were cheered all around when you did it, so it rarely happened. For me and Dennis and the rest of "the boys" at Hannaman, learning to be cool is what school was all about.
It wasnt cool for boys to be too smart in school, so we werent. That is, it wasnt cool until we found out in the seventh or eighth grade how we could do it without becoming social outcastslike Steve Klonowski.
Steve was always well behaved in class; strike one against him. He always got good marks; strike two. And he was constantly being held up to the rest of the boys as an example of what we should be; strike three. Since the currency of the realm was popularity, it was better to be a class clown like Larry Matlock, the exact opposite of Steve. Larry was a natural, a born entertainer.
For Dennis and me, the discovery that we could entertain our friends with the written word made a big difference in our attitudes toward academic success. That is not to say we strove any harder to master subjects that didnt interest us. We didnt. But we did become more tolerant of people like Steve, whose interest in academic success drove them to master whatever subjects they had to.
Steve had something else in his favor that Dennis recognized long before I did: He had instant credibility and respectability in the eyes of our teachers. For that reason, Dennis invited Steve to join a three-member group of writers and performers consisting of him and me and Larry. Steve was not a creative writer, nor was he much of an actor, but Dennis was right in bringing him into the group because of the status his name conferred upon us all.
"And what do you call your group?" the Auditorium teacher asked before we were granted permission to put on an original radio play for Halloween.
Dennis told her the name, which came as a surprise to the rest of us. With a bold grin that bordered on insolence, he looked her in the eye and said, "The Smart Fellows."
The plan for our presentation to the class had been to simulate a radio broadcast by performing on the auditorium stage behind closed curtains. Since Dennis and I did all of the writing, we gave ourselves the leading roles. But Larry literally ended the show with a bang. Following the script, he pretended to faint at the sight of someone walking through a wall and, on his own, he crashed to the floor like a fallen timber.
Afterward, we were all treated to wild applause and the highly conditional praise of our shaken Auditorium teacher. Larrys fall may not have hurt him but, considering the heart attack it nearly gave the teacher, it did hurt us. We could never again expect to have the freedom we were given on our maiden voyage into show business.
Another sour note was the appalling number of boys and girls who liked the play but thought the curtain was a bad idea. They didnt care that it was supposed to stand for radio. It didnt look anything like a radio and they didnt care for radio anyway as a dramatic medium. It wasnt cool anymore. Radio was for music. For stories, these first generation children of the television age didnt want to imagine what was going on; they wanted somebody to show them.
There was no explaining to them what we were trying to do and how we couldnt have created the same images their imaginations could, no matter what we showed them. There was no explaining that we couldnt have shown them our play without a much bigger stage, some elaborate props and much more time to prepare. To some of them, the sound without pictures was more annoying than entertaining. It was hard to tell how many of them there were. Whatever the number, it was enough to discourage us from doing any more radio plays, because it was a number that included Homer Robinson and Rosemary Costello, two of our friends.
Friendship always makes the difference.
The friends I made in kindergarten and went on to high school with will be my friends forever, even if we never see each other again. For a big part of each weekday from our fifth to our thirteenth year of life, we lived together and played together. And we learned together.
We were taught many useful skills, including how to hide from a nuclear attack by ducking under our desks. As you might expect, that did not do much for our sense of security. But it taught us that the communists were mean enough to nuke little children. That made us really appreciate the patriotic songs we sang in music class, like "America The Beautiful" and, a favorite of Dennis Hammond, "The Marine Corps Hymn."
Although Dennis could never convince me that marines were cooler than paratroopers, and vice versa, the essential point of agreement was, they were both cool. They were both impressive symbols of courage and honor who fought against the enemies of freedom in WWII and Korea. Courage, honor and freedom meant something to us. They werent just words, they were values and ideals we took to heart. One day, we realized, we might have to fight the communists, who were to us what the Nazis were to our fathers. If we did, we knew which uniforms we were going to wear with pride.
You could not have convinced us that, in our war for freedom, it wasnt going to be cool to wear any uniform of the United States Armed Forces with pride. We would not have believed that it would be cool to burn draft cards and shout, "Hell no, we wont go!"
I didnt see much of Dennis after we went on to Chadsey High. The only room we were ever in at the same time was Study Hall in the 9th grade. There, we sat together, read each others unfinished stories and encouraged each other in the fabulous writing careers we were going to have when we got out of school. We had big fun while we were togethertoo much fun to stay together for long.
The thing that split us up for good was an untimely observation of how the Study Hall teacher talked to us. On our way in he had said, "Will you please take your seats. Will you please take your seats." Later, when someone made too much noise, he said, "Will you please be quiet. Will you please be quiet." Dennis, never one to be impressed with people in authority simply because they were in authority, leaned over and whispered, "Listen to this guy; he sounds like a broken record."
I hadnt been paying close enough attention to pick up the pattern but as soon as Dennis mentioned it, the teacher said, "Will you please be quiet," whereupon Dennis cut his eye at me, lifted his eyebrows expectantly and grinned as the man repeated, exactly like a broken record, "Will you please be quiet."
It was like the punch line of a joke. Laughter gushed out of us like water from a ruptured fire hose.
Naturally, the man asked, "Whats so funny? Whats so funny?" We laughed so hard we couldnt see straight. In the midst of our laughing fit the teacher threatened to make us stand in a corner with our faces to the wall like little kids. That had a minor quieting effect on us, but when he repeated the last sentence, Dennis and I looked at each other and roared, literally falling out of our seats with laughter. We knew we were in trouble but we were at the mercy of our funny bones; there was nothing we could do to save ourselves.
And so it was that friends since kindergarten, a white marine who should have survived his tour in Vietnam but didnt, and a black paratrooper who shouldnt have survived his but did, shared their last laugh together in the fall of 1960.
When I heard, 13 years later how he died, the pain could not have been worse if we had been brothers. The reason we lost touch troubled me as much as the mysterious circumstances of his death. Friends come into and go out of our lives all the time, but our drift away from each other began at a time when our mutual interests should have brought us closer together. Our separate neighborhoods should not have stopped us from visiting each others homes. But it did. Before we left high school we should have exchanged phone numbers. But we didnt. When he was reported missing in action in 1968, I should have known it then instead of two years later. I didnt even know he had joined the Marines. He enlisted because he started to get into trouble at homebecause of his friends.
It took me a considerable amount of backtracking to see what happened to put us in different social orbits. I would have seen it much sooner if I had begun my search with our trip to Ford Auditorium in the third grade where so many things were graphically illustrated in black and white. From there, I could have leaped straight into the seventh grade where girls were starting to show off the bumps on their chests and boys were trying to hide the bulge in their pants. Thats where the problem began. In the eight grade the problems got bigger, along with the bumps and the bulges. Nobody talked about it but everyone knew what it was. It was the color of skin beneath those bumps and bulges. We were growing up, filling out, and learning to think like mainstream American adults.
High school was the place where we began to act like mainstream American adults, taking our cue on how to behave with the opposite sex from new friends of the same color. It was as though all of us on that field trip to Ford Auditorium had been possessed by a sudden urge to change seats to be with strangers of "our own kind." With all the ease of lifelong preparation for this time in our physical development, we tacitly agreed to split our amorous attention along racial linesand with it, our supporting cast of friends.
It seemed so natural that the unnatural ramifications went unnoticed. We were being absorbed without protest into an alien society, where friendships based on shared values and more than half a lifetime of intimate personal knowledge played second fiddle to color.
The great wall of color on the American landscape of history seems to be at every turn along the route of my journey with you in time to the Vietnam War. That is not what I planned. Its what I kept running into when I could not go from one key point to the next without having to think long and hard about where I was. Its the barrier I had to surmount, to circumnavigate or to demolish over and over again to get to where I wanted to go next and to show how I got there.
I am not just another Vietnam vet; I am a black one. But I am not just another black Vietnam vet; I am one of very few whose earliest childhood friends were black and white and precious to me for what they were inside. Like it or not, that makes a crucial difference in my perspective on the war because it made a crucial difference in how I experienced it in terms of concepts like "them" and "us."
Linkage between the peace movement and the civil rights movement was a PR device, invented by Tom Hayden and associates to capitalize on Martin Luther Kings Nobel Peace Prize and his conflict with LBJ. Before their success in Vietnam robbed America of the values and ideals we needed to become more than we were in our respect for a common humanity, we did become more by striving to live up to them. Courage and honor in defense of life and liberty in principle, means fighting in practice for the lives and liberties of those at risk of losing them; those with whom we share little else than our humanity. Without those ideals articulated in the Adams and Jefferson Declaration of Independence and Lincolns Gettysburg address, we are only what we are and what we have always been at our worst.
To paraphrase one of those patriotic songs I learned in Hannaman: My country is, I see, a land of bigotry. Of this I sing.
You could not have grown up in any part of the United States in the `50s and 60s without being conscious of the civil rights movement and why it was necessary. The day that Martin Luther King, Jr. and Walter Reuther marched past me down Woodward Ave. in Detroit, I knew that history was being made. Thats why I made a point of being there, to witness it firsthand and to join the crowd of 250,000 people behind the two great men.
We wound up in Cobo Hall where I was lucky to find a place to stand. I watched speaker after speaker come to the podium, say a few words and retire with enthusiastic applause. But the most enthusiastic applause was reserved for the last speaker, Martin Luther King, Jr. When he addressed the crowd, it was almost as though God, Himself, was standing beside him whispering the words in his ear.
Among other things, Dr. Kings speech challenged the primacy of race in rational civilized thought. It was a masterful presentation when he gave it in Detroit. It was to become a famous landmark in Americas struggle for racial equality when he gave it again in Washington, before a nationally televised audience.
He said, "I have a dream...."
In his dream, people were judged "not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." In neither the local nor the national audience was there anyone who could have honestly questioned that he was indeed dreaming. Americans were in the habit of putting color first in their assessments of people on any number of scores. If they didnt know up front, or couldnt safely assume what color a person was, they were as frustrated as certain members of an eighth grade Auditorium class trying to see a radio play through drawn curtains. The question was not whether color was considered by most Americans to be all important but whether it should be.
Between 1956 and 1965, growing numbers of white people were forced by the medias coverage of the civil rights movement to ask themselves that question. The more they saw nonviolent black victims and violent white oppressors, the more they said, no; color is not a very good guide to peoples intrinsic worth. But, in 1966 the revolutionary idea that "black is beautiful," as opposed to black can be beautiful or, black is not necessarily ugly, turned the tide on that way of thinking almost overnight.
It had the positive effect of feeding the 300-year-old hunger of black people to feel good about the bodies they were given to live in. At the same time, it had the negative effect of reinforcing the racist notion that color should be given priority in our thinking about valued human traits. It brought black bigotry out into the open and made it fashionable.
Nevertheless, foreign and domestic appeals to blacks to put color ahead of country in the Vietnam war met with limited initial success. But the concept that black patriotism was the same thing as racial treason could not be ignored. Only in a racially segregated society where blacks were historically subservient to whites could such a concept have made sense to anyone. In America, it made a lot of sense to a lot of people. The worst of it was the nagging belief held by most blacks and whites that blacks were indeed inferior people.
That belief in the racial superiority of whites over blacks was a throwback to the institution of slavery, to the ideas needed by utterly powerless blacks to cope with it and by influential Southern whites to profit by it. Northern whites needed to believe that blacks were genetically inferior to avoid a war between the states over principle. The United States of Americaland of the free and home of the bravelived with slavery from its inception in 1776 to 1861 as the price it was willing to pay for peace.
We know that the decision of our government to finally put its foot down against the expansion of slavery by force of arms was generally supported by Northern whites. We also know that it wasnt because they were less prejudiced against blacks than their Southern cousins. They werent. They were more loyal to the United States, to the principle of freedom for which their star spangled banner yet waved. Therefore, when the elected representatives of their government called upon them to do their duty in its defense, they were compelled by feelings stronger and broader than their baser feelings about color to fight. It seemed like the patriotic thing to do.
Just as those loyal Americans were driven in the 1860s to fight for a free America, we were driven in the 1940s, `50s and `60s to do the same thing for a free world. We were driven by a sense of patriotic duty to defend the principle of freedom without which there could be no practice of freedom. Unlike our Civil War where the principle being contested wasnt clearly articulated until after the bloody battle of Antitem, we knew going in what we were fighting for in Vietnam.
Our duty, as we once understood it was a matter of power and the responsibility that comes with it to oppose the forces of human domination over other humans that could enslave all of us if left unchecked. Even as children uncertain of where WWII left off and the Korean war began, a couple of boys destined to fight in Vietnam knew that much about what it meant to be Americans.
Dennis was captured by the Viet Cong during the `68 Tet offensive, so all of the information he received from Americans on what happened next was filtered through their media. In the four years before his death in 1972, our medias representation of the peace movement was thoroughly entwined with the social justice issues of African-Americans in the phrase, "people of conscience." Our anti-war news was Hanois war propaganda. Racially divisive phrases like, people of conscience, coming from us had to have been potent psychological weapons for them against POWs like Dennis.
Dennis may have heard Dr. Kings 1967 speech denouncing US involvement in Vietnam many times, but having heard it before his capture, he would have known many black marines who didnt agree. Its almost certain that he heard Jane Fondas 1972 FTA show over Radio Hanoi, with black comedian and social commentator Dick Gregory. I wonder what he thought of it. I wonder what he thought of me.
He had no way of knowing that I had been in Vietnam, that I would have done anything short of treason to bring him home. He had no way of knowing that a bunch of soldiers who didnt know him from Adam would have done likewise....
Most of my time in Vietnam was spent in the field, beating bushes, feeding mosquitoes, ducking bullets and causing others to duck bullets. But there were occasions when I rejoined the 173rd Engineer Company back at LZ English or cooled my heels on an artillery fire base with Charley Company, 4th Battalion of the old 503rd Infantry Regiment. I was doing the latter when word came down that a Viet Cong POW camp had been spotted.
The officer in charge of the platoon I was attached to, gathered us together and asked for volunteersas ominous a request as is ever heard in a combat zone. We had all smelled the blood of our fallen friends and enemies by then, so the request was not greeted as an abstract romantic notion. It was as serious as an imminent plain crash and thats how we took it.
We didnt know what the camp looked like, how big it was, how well it was defended or how many Americans, if any, we would find when we got there. If, by some miracle, we managed to pull it off, we would be the only American heroes in uniform since 1968 who werent on television saying, "peace now!" But we didnt even have a rescue plan. We had only the urgent need to act while the camp was still in the same place. Choppers swooping in, troopers leaping, yelling like maniacs and blasting away at anything that might look like a bad-guy. Im talking a real mess. We could all get killed or end up killing the prisoners we were going there to save.
I didnt want to think about that. I thought, instead, about a fantasy, originating back in The World, of getting in on a rescue mission in Vietnam and coming home with Dennis. It was, with minor variations, the same daydream I had every day I was in country, and it was more than a little eerie that I would get this opportunity. It was as though there really was a Supreme Being who cared about such things, who read the story written in my brain and granted the original Smart Fellows permission to star in it. It was going to be our second smashing success. This one with no criticism from anybody:
Dennis and I would see each other at the same time. We would recognize each other immediately through the haze of battle and the whiskers and grime on our adult faces as the well scrubbed little children we were when we first met. He would flash me his big, gapped-tooth grin and my gapped-tooth grin would be just as big. I could see us hugging and crying and laughing and leaping with joy while grenades exploded and bullets zipped all over the place. I could see bold headlines in the Free Press trumpeting our return: Black Soldier Rescues White Childhood Chum From VC Prison....
Thats where the fantasy evaporated, as it usually did, in the black and white world of news media reality. It was hard to picture the rescue without seeing it in the end through the eyes of the press. No matter how I tried to edit the headlines in my head, they always came out much the same. Dennis would become little more than a white prop for making a 24-hour hero out of me, the faithful black friend. The great issues behind the war and our part in it would become immaterial. And the long-term significance of a long-held MIA being discovered in a Viet Cong POW camp would be buried under an ephemeral, color conscious, two bit human interest story.
In any event, the question before me was whether to go on that mission. Maybe Dennis wasnt a prisoner. Whether he was or not, the chances of me finding him alive or dead were too remote to seriously contemplate. But, if there was any chance, no matter how remote, there was nothing to think about. I was going.
Considering the likelihood of disaster in the hastily-conceived operation for which none of us had been trained, I didnt think there would be many volunteers. To my astonishment, only one man did not volunteer. He had less than a week to go on his 12-month tour, so his decision was as understandable to me as my own. I decided that the rest of the men were crazy. I did not think at the time that some of them, if not most, might have been true American heroes, willing to risk all for the same reason they came to Vietnamfor the freedom of others, people they didnt even know.
The adrenalin pumping us up for the mission turned to sap when we were told that the initial intelligence on the camp could not be substantiated. The operation was canceled and the war went on the way it always had, in the living rooms of America.
Unlike other wars in which our media and our government were on the same side, our media in Vietnam were openly backing the peace movement, of which the Indochinese communists were members in good standing. Since the war was thought to be synonymous with the American involvement, the idea was to end it by ending the American-sponsored portion of it; to get our prisoners of war back by turning our backs on our allies.
You could say that the strategy worked, if you dont want to be picky about it. With the quickly forgotten exceptions of men like Dennis Hammond, we did get most of our people back and we did allow our allies to go down the tubes. What we didnt get for ourselves was an accounting of at least 56 Americans known to have been prisoners of war. What we didnt get for Indochina was peace.
Copyright © 1994 by Jasper Garrison
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