Friday, February 02, 2007

A Long Time Ago, In A Jungle Far, Far Away

And it's one, two, three,
What are we fighting for ?
Don't ask me, I don't give a damn,
Next stop is Vietnam;
And it's five, six, seven,
Open up the pearly gates,
Well there ain't no time to wonder why,
Whoopee! we're all gonna die.

Country Joe and the Fish
"Fixin To Die Rag"

This past Tuesday, January 30th, was the 39th anniversary of the beginning of the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War, arguably the most famous series of battles in the Vietnam conflict, and also arguably, the turning point, both politically and militarily, of the war. Some of the most indelibly imprinted images of the war came from this period, including the breaching of the U.S. Embassy walls, the subsequent reinforcing of Embassy personnel, as well as the Pulitzer Prize winning photograph by Eddie Adams of a summary execution of a Viet Cong prisoner.

Today, we have the proposed "troop surge" in Iraq, and I'm confident that the debate going on about this is manned by men and women much more eloquent and adept than I am at this. So I'm going to talk about the American "Police Action" of the internal civil war in that other country, the one two generations ago.

Actually, that's not accurate. I'm only going to refer to Vietnam in "Big Picture" terms. The reason I was thinking about the Tet Offensive in particular, and that war in general, is tied to a memory, nearly spontaneous, that I had this week, about the man who gave me one of my earliest regular jobs - a man who was a teacher, a mentor, and a friend.

The year was 1974 or 75, I don't remember which, but I was either a sophomore or junior in high school in Chicago. About three blocks from the high school, a new ice cream parlor was opened. The guy who opened it was a hippy in his mid twenties, complete with long hair and tye dyed shirts. Barry was a childhood friend of an older cousin of mine, so when he asked about local help when he opened, I was recommended. The first interview lasted probably two hours. More precisely, the interview lasted about 5 minutes, when he offered me the job. The rest of the conversation was more... eclectic, to say the least.

We talked about the name of the new place, and its significance. He was calling it "Teth", he said, because of its Kabbalistic meaning, as a letter in the Hebrew alphabet. Much to my dismay, I can't recall many of those specifics. It sucks being old with this porous of a memory. Later I learned he was also in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive. I don't remember him telling me the name had significance to the offensive, but in retrospect, I am sure it did. We talked about ice cream (This guy was Ben AND Jerry, combined), we talked about Jimi Hendrix (he insisted that the real line was "'Scuse me, while I kiss this guy", as during both shows he saw him in, he proceeded to kiss his bass player. I've always suspected he was trying to yank my chain, but in the years I knew him, he never failed the straight face when telling me that "fact"). And we talked about just being a 'mensch' - doing right by people, regardless of who they were. Customers, vendors, staff, or people on the street.

Business started off pretty well. We were busy most of the time, although being short-staffed probably made it seem even busier than it should have. It was probably about six months later that I began to notice the first changes. The off-season wasn't going as well as he had hoped, and the bills began to get a bit bigger. As one of only two employees he had then that were with him from the beginning, I was working a lot of hours for a high school kid. Then those hours were trimmed a bit.. and a bit more... I'd be hanging out there, just talking to Barry, but not on the clock, as we didn't have much to do besides talk. There were days it resembled Floyd's Barbershop in Mayberry. Just hangin' out, talking.

Slowly, the clouds began to hover around those conversations. I'd never seen even a hint of a temper where Barry was concerned, the voice was slow, and measured, and always with a hint of a smile, way deep down. Then, a comment about a vendor that "had it in for him". I thought it was a joke, but the trademark smirk never surfaced.

Barry had always been a spiritual man, more Kabbalistic than a classically religious Jew. He'd frequently talked about ghosts, but in a benign, naturalistic way. It wasn't too long before 'they' were out to get him. Vendors who wanted to get paid became ghosts who were after him. In his defense, Barry was the kind of man who would think nothing of letting debts owed him go unpaid, until the person got back on their feet. In fact, he did this frequently with his own customers. He was just unable to understand why anyone who wasn't evil wouldn't do the same for him. A wonderful man, scary-bad businessman.

The paranoia got worse. Agents were lurking behind all doors. THEY were out to get him. Stories about Vietnam began to filter out. Early on, he wouldn't mention his time there at all. Direct questions about it were gently steered away. But the occasional story, mostly about the violence, the evils of war in the jungle, began to work their way into the conversations. He would actually look over his shoulder, seeing things he wouldn't mention, then forcibly block them from his thoughts.

But there were times when you could tell the scary stories from places like Khe Sanh and Hue were beginning to hang out in the now, for Barry. The dislocation was getting more pronounced.

To be honest, I don't remember if I left to go off to college, or if he went out of business before then. But either way, it was a short and troubled life for the Teth Ice Cream Parlor on Foster and St. Louis Avenues in Chicago.

The pseudo post-script here isn't any better. A number of years later (sometime in the mid eighties), I saw, sitting on a street corner in Uptown, with a full beard and in old camouflage fatigues, Barry, or his doppleganger. He was talking softly to himself, complete with small gestures. I didn't say a word to him, probably so I could keep the pretense in some part of me alive, that maybe it wasn't Barry. And maybe it wasn't.

There have been a wide range of reactions to the soldiers of the Vietnam War, from taunts of baby-killers to chants of hero, to everything in between. The veterans of that era have had faces from those portrayed in "Born On The Fourth Of July", to "Casualties of War" to "Once We Were Soldiers", but mostly they were kids in their teens and twenties, dropped into a place they'd never heard of, asked to do the unthinkable to people they'd never met. The casualties were absurdly high, but when I think about my friend Barry, I think those casualties were much worse than most of us realized.