Thursday, June 21, 2012
Lou Pumphery's Witness During Marine Week
Thanks to Louis Pumphery for his brave witness for peace in Cleveland, and taking the time to write of his experience "in the belly of the beast."
Into the Belly of the Beast
Diary entries on my 3 visits to Cleveland Marine week - by Lou Pumphery, Vietnam Veteran
Tuesday, June 12, 2012
I don't know about you folks, but I was absolutely incensed, infuriated, outraged and otherwise hugely pissed off when I saw today's Plain Dealer with its over-the-top puff pieces and photos covering the opening day of Marine Week in Cleveland. As Mary Powell, Jim Minnery, Lauren Sammon and others of Irish persuasion might say, I got "my Irish up," and as Peter Finch said in the movie "Network," I got "mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore!"
Luckily, I was off work today, so after doing a bit of housepainting and having lunch with daughter Bridget and my sister, Margee, at Shaker Square's Yours Truly restaurant al fresco, I donned my extremely tight--wait, scratch that--"form-fitting"--dress green 44-year-old U.S. Army uniform, grabbed my furled peace flag and headed for the Van Aken-Avalon Road rapid stop, a mere hundred yards from my house in Shaker Heights.
I got downtown about 3:30 and walked through Public Square with my furled peace flag, noting various military land vehicles and two helicopters---one being a pristine "Huey" which I flew in on several occasions in Vietnam. My objective was to visit the replica of the Vietnam Wall Memorial laden with the names of more than 58,000 men and women killed in Vietnam. I was friends with three of the names on that wall, which was erected near the tip of Voinovich Park at the end of East Ninth Street, next to Lake Erie.
As I walked away from the exhibit, still with my flag furled, a man wearing a U.S.S. Cod embroidered baseball cap approached me and we struck up a friendly conversation. He was wearing an ID tag around his neck with the name "Hungarian Bob." Turns out he is one of several "Bobs" who work as tour guides on the USS Cod submarine, docked near Voinovich Park. (One of the other "Bobs" working on the USS Cod with him has a name tag at the end of his lanyard that says "Plumber Bob.")
Turns out Hungarian Bob was an Army veteran and Air Force veteran who served in Korea. We talked about how war is a business, with Bob saying there is evidence FDR made moves to provoke Japan into attacking the United States Navy at Pearl Harbor, thereby ending the Great Depression. Bob also said that JFK wanted to wind down our presence in Vietnam but that after LBJ became president, the war escalated. Bob said relatives of LBJ's wife, Lady Bird, were defense contractors making ammunition, among other war-related materiel. Bob and I agreed it always comes down to money and that war is good for business.
Sensing Hungarian Bob and I were very much "on the same page," I thought it safe to unfurl my peace flag, prefacing that action with this anecdote: "A few years ago, a Marine spoke to me after I had walked with my peace flag in the Shaker Heights Memorial Day Parade. He objected to the combination of my military uniform and peace flag, saying to me, 'No one wants peace more than I do.' I said, 'If that's true, then why do you have a problem with my peace flag?' The Marine said nothing and walked away."
I then unfurled my peace flag, which probably surprised Bob, but he smiled and I extended my hand to shake his, and he extended his hand. I said in my goodbye to him, "Take care. Life is fragile." He said, "You're right. I'm 73." I said, "I'll be 70 in September."
About a minute later, now with my flag unfurled, I was pleasantly surprised to get a very friendly greeting from a Marine Staff Sergeant wearing his summer dress-blue uniform (short sleeve khaki shirt, dark blue slacks and white dress cap.) He spoke to me first, saying, "Good afternoon, sir. How are you?" I replied, noting the insignia on his shirt sleeve, "I'm fine, sergeant. How are you?" He said, "good".
However, a couple of minutes later, a man wearing a Marines tee shirt who could stand to lose more than a few pounds, yelled at me, saying my flag ought to be thrown in the lake. (At least that's what I think he said. Or maybe he told me to go jump in the lake. I dunno.) At any rate, I said, "Thank you. That's very kind of you." He turned away and kept walking.
Old friend Tim Musser, active in the Catholic Worker and Pax Christi organizations, had hailed me as I walked toward East Ninth Street and was standing with me when he heard my exchange with the apparent ex-Marine . I said to Tim, "I don't think I want to be walking down a dark alley with a bunch of Marines behind me. My goal is to be home before dark."
I then walked up East Ninth Street, eventually making it to the broad sidewalk in front of the Terminal Tower. I wanted as many people as possible to see the combination of my military service and peace flag. As you might imagine, while standing for about 45 minutes, a few people stopped to chat. No one stopped to complain. The Marines walking by who did not like what they saw said nothing. If they did not like the flag, I suspect they at least respected the uniform and the service it represented. So they kept their, well, peace. A bald businessman in a dark suit, red tie and white shirt--probably in his 70s--stopped to shake my hand and thank me for my service. I gave him my stock answer, "You're welcome. I wish I could say it was my pleasure, but it really wasn't." I told him one of my lieutenants was killed three days after his 23rd birthday during the Tet Offensive, one of my classmates from Miami University was killed when his Navy jet went down over North Vietnam and the husband of one of my cousins was killed in an ambush in Vietnam when he was with the 101st Airborne Division. What a waste. Their whole lives ahead of them, gone in a flash. None of those guys got to see their 25th birthday. War is the most insane invention of man."
Another supportive man, a civilian worker for the Department of Defense, said to me, "You've got courage to be out here like this. Have the Marines been a problem?" I said, "Not at all."
During my time standing in front of the Terminal Tower, a Marine in his desert camouflage uniform took my picture with his cell phone and gave me a thumbs up. That probably was the highlight of my day. Or was it when the ex-Marine indicated he would like to see my flag--and perhaps me--soaking in Lake Erie? I dunno.
Thursday, June 14, 2012
I had to postpone a dental appointment for this afternoon (boo hoo) at the Case School of Dental Medicine to take part in a peace event in downtown Cleveland that involved a public reading of Marine Major General Smedley Butler's "War is a Racket" critique of war and its corporate underpinnings.
Butler, born in 1881 and who died at the Naval Hospital in Philadelphia in 1940, had some pretty impressive street creds, not the least of which was being awarded two Congressional Medals of Honor. A year after retiring from the Marines in 1931, General Butler was a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate.
About 20 of my fellow peaceniks showed up to take turns reading the five chapters of the late general's war critique. I did not read as I had my hands full wrestling with my peace flag that the wind thought was a spinnaker.
Here are initial thoughts of General Butler's acerbic, insightful observations:
"War is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives."
Referring to World War I, Butler noted "at least 21,000 new millionaires and billionaires were made in the United States during the World War."
"How many of these war millionaires shouldered a rifle? How many of them dug a trench? How many of them knew what it meant to go hungry in a rat-infested dug-out (foxhole)? How many of them spent sleepless, frightened nights, ducking shells and shrapnel and machine gun bullets? How many of them parried a bayonet thrust of an enemy? How many of them were wounded or killed in battle?"
The public shoulders the bill of the war profiteers, General Butler noted, adding, "This bill renders a horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all its attendant miseries."
"For a great many years, as a soldier, I had a suspicion that war was a racket," wrote General Butler, "not until I retired to civil life did I fully realize it."
Since I was off work today at Funny Times, I left home early to catch a concert performed by the Quantico Marine Band on the southwest quadrant of Public Square before the General Butler reading. I would guess there were around 200 spectators on this gorgeously sunny day. I spent a few minutes ahead of time thinking about just when to unfurl my peace flag. If I had done it immediately upon arriving at the quadrant, my message would have boomeranged enormously, totally disrupting and ruining the event for spectators and possibly resulting in resounding boos, name-calling, me being beaten senseless, castration and tarring and feathering. Well, maybe not the last two possibilities. Maybe.
Desiring to witness at least one more sunrise replete with the family jewels, I opted, instead, to chat up a Marine sergeant before the concert started. He hailed from Owensboro, KY. I asked if he had been overseas and he said he served in Hawaii. I said, "Good for you. Not too many battles there." He said he took part in Marine public relations events in far eastern countries, including Thailand, but has not had any combat deployments.
I told him I enjoyed talking with him and shook his hand. I then walked to a place on the quadrant's sun-drenched plaza, a roughly-circular area surrounded by the spectators and the Marine band. I talked for a few minutes with a friendly Marine veteran closer to my age. The concert began at 11:30 and was to last until a little after noon.
The bandleader asked veterans in the audience to stand as the band played each march associated with all the branches of the military: Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard and Marines. The bandleader looked toward the uniformed yours truly and I raised my hand in thanks for the band playing the Army's "theme song", "The Caissons Go Rolling Along." I was the only veteran in the crowd in full uniform.
I kept checking my watch throughout the concert, since I wanted to leave shortly after noon to make the General Butler reading by 12:30, a few blocks away. As High Noon approached, I admit getting rather nervous--sorta like Gary Cooper, in, well "High Noon." Here I was surrounded by folks who likely would consider a peace flag as appealing as Jane Fonda. I started to identify myself with Christians centuries ago in the Roman Colosseum's arena who were about to experience a rather rude introduction to lions.
I missed the band's final song. After the bandleader announced that song and turned toward the band, I turned around, unfurled my peace flag and said to the small group of folks I had to walk through, "Take care everyone. Life is fragile."
No one said a word. I think they were in shock, including a Cleveland policeman standing nearby.
End of Part Deux.
Saturday, June 16, 2012
Well, the day started out friendly enough. Just seconds after crossing the street in front of Cleveland's Terminal Tower, and after passing the Soldiers and Sailors Monument on Public Square with its huge bronze figures depicting Civil War soldiers and sailors in intense, horrific battle scenes, with some facial expressions indicating great agony, a stranger walking by my unfurled peace flag carried by yours truly in uniform, said, "I love your flag, buddy." I said, "Thank you. I appreciate that."
After about a 10-minute walk north, I staked out the most advantageous spot for being seen by the most number of people who were walking and driving to see a number of various Marine exhibits being staged today at Burke Lakefront Airport as Marine Week winds down, the most significant being a demonstration of an air, land and sea combat operation. I am at the northwest corner of E. 9th Street and North Marginal Drive, across the street from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, for those of you familiar with Cleveland. I simply wanted to give people something to think about...that not all war veterans are war mongers.
I'm there not five minutes when a tall, middle-aged man walked by and said, "You're at the wrong party, buddy."
I said, "Gotta have a different message!"
He said, "Bahh!!"
I said, "Equal time!!"
Fast forward a couple of hours.
I'm having a pleasant conversation with a man sympathetic with my peace position when a young woman approaches, looking me over from head to toe, incredulous at what she sees. She wonders what I am all about and I clearly and strongly state my case: "There needs to be a voice for peace to serve as a counterweight to all the macho, militaristic swagger we see here."
She did not like what I had to say and couldn't leave fast enough.
On the other hand, I cannot say enough good things about the Marines. The ones I engaged were unfailingly polite, courteous and pleasant, as we wished one another well. My common comment after greeting them was: "Take care gentlemen. Life is fragile." One Marine said, "You look good. Your uniform still fits."
I said, "I had to lose 25 pounds to fit into it."
He and a fellow Marine laughed.
I had interesting conversations with supporters and with a couple of people familiar with my army division, the "Big Red One," the nickname for the First Infantry Division.
One young man wearing a Marines baseball camp recognized the division patch on the left shoulder of my uniform, saying his grandfather had been a medic with the "Big Red One" in Vietnam but was enormously frustrated for not being able to save as many GIs as he wanted to, feeling overwhelmed by the tasks at hand.
A few women stopped by to shake my hand and said "God bless you." One was a woman who said she sees me every Saturday morning walking to the weekly peace vigil behind Cleveland's West Side Market with my flag and uniform, as she lives in that neighborhood. Several people took photos, one being a young mother of two-year-old fraternal twins who said she would e-mail me the pictures.
Another woman who appreciated my effort prompted me to say that I felt "like a voice crying in the wilderness." She said, "You're not alone."
One man who stopped by to chat said he had walked through Public Square where there is a display of Marine tanks, an attack helicopter and other weaponry. He said that equipment "tears bodies to pieces" and I said "and kids are climbing all over them as if they are toys."
A disabled Navy SEAL, angry about war, said to me, "You don't see any Marines on Public Square with amputated arms or legs. People don't see how effed-up (except he didn't say effed) soldiers are when they come home. On the average, there is one suicide every day in the military."
The most interesting conversation, over about an hour period, was with a man waiting for his wife and grandson to arrive. His black tee shirt depicted a map of Vietnam, circled by the words, "I know I'll go to heaven when I die because I've already been to hell." He had served in the Air Force in Vietnam, largely in a desk job, except on a couple of occasions when Air Force jets crashed at his base.
"I had to get the body of a dead pilot out of the plane and had to be real careful because the metal in the plane was all twisted and wrapped around the body, which was dismembered," he said. "I had to do that job a second time after another pilot had been killed in a crash, but said I wouldn't do it again."
The man said his young teenage grandson, a student at the John Paul II Academy in Garfield Heights, was interested in joining the military but my friend was trying mightily to talk him out of it or at least to select a branch where his life would not be at serious risk, such as the Air Force or Coast Guard. I told him I would say a "Hail Mary" that he would be successful in getting through to his grandson.
My new friend said he grew up in a small Indiana town (pop. 68) where farmers raised wheat, corn, soy and tobacco, but had to limit the size of their tobacco fields in order to receive federal subsidies.
One of the farm families he was friends with had a boy who was five years older than my friend.
"The son was a real character," he said. "I would help him and his dad by throwing bales of hay onto a wagon, and doing other jobs."
His friend went into the service. He was killed in Vietnam.
"Friendly fire," said my friend.
"Oh my God!!!" I said.
"He was walking with a buddy through a rice paddy and fell. His buddy reached down with his left hand to pull him up, holding his M-16 rifle in his right hand. His index finger was curled around the trigger, rather than pointed straight and resting next to the trigger guard. His finger accidentally pulled the trigger, firing one bullet into his buddy's head, killing him."
Another horrific "OH MY GOD!!" from me.
My friend said, "When his mother saw the military car come to their house, she knew right away what they were there for and fell apart. The father was more stoic when other people were around. But he had his moments. He would go into the barn and cry."