Viet Nam at Home

[F]irst, let me say right away that I was never in Viet Nam. To do that, I would have had to be Vietnamese, because I was too young even to be a Marine in that war. In fact, I have never been in the military. But during the very last years of the war, when almost all American soldiers had come home from Southeast Asia, I worked for a unit of city government that was funded by the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, a kind of WPA for returning vets.

I had turned 13 years old the week before I started working there, and it was a summer job that would turn into a volunteer position and eventually a year-round job. During this time, as was the case before and since, music was not really especially important to me, and I continued to have a very passive relationship with that particular fine art. But there were individuals who influenced my tastes. New people, whom you have yet to meet.

Since I came from a good Democratic family in a Democratic city, I was eligible to go down to City Hall that June to get a summer job. I remember going into this big room with lots of people. This guy who I later got to know pretty well, State Representative Jack McEneny (this was before he had run for any office), got up in front of the group and demanded the attention of the hundreds of 13-year-olds who were in the room.

“OK, folks. Who wants to paint fences this summer! We’ve got a lot of fences to paint.”

About half the kids raised their hands. Those who raised their hands were escorted out of the room, I suppose to go and join the fence-painting crews.

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“OK, kids, now let’s see a show of hands again. Who wants to paint curbs!!! We’ve got a lot of fine curbs that need paining!” And half the remaining kids raised their hands, and were duly escorted off somewhere.

“Kids…listen! Who among you wants to paint fire plugs! We need some really good painters to paint fire plugs!” and most of the remaining 13-year-olds, figuring that they had held out for the good job, raised their hands and were taken away.

And there were six of us left. We had been herded to one corner of the room, where we sat on gray folding chairs at a tattered oblong table and stared at each other. Mike. Jane. Jack. Some other kids I don’t remember. Mike was a funny-looking kid with a strange bone disease, and he would tell everyone he met that he had only a few years to live. We were to hit it off really well. He was very short and a photographer and specialized in what he called “nostril shots.” Jane was very smart and nerdy. I totally got a crush on her. We would later do some nerdy stuff together, like hiking in the Adirondacks and going to used bookstores. I don’t really remember the other three kids very well.

As we sat there, a large, imposing, dashing but scary man…large-framed, trim and muscular, long hair tied back and a huge mustache, a loping gait and a dueling scar…came over to us. He put one foot up on a chair and stared menacingly at us, dour-mouthed and severe in countenance. I was eventually to get to know this man as well as I know anybody, and I would learn that this stance of his … the dour chair stance … always came just before a joke. Usually, the joke was entirely for his own benefit, and only rarely did anyone else get the joke.

(Indeed, as I think of it, I may have learned my own brand of obtuse humor from this man. But I digress.)

So this man, named Bob, stared at each of us kids–as we realized one by one that we had been left alone in this cavernous, now nearly empty room with this guy who looked a lot like a pirate.

And he said:

“You six. Painting fences wasn’t good enough for you? Are fireplugs beneath you?”

We all kind of looked at each other and nodded. We might have been scared of him, but this trimming down process had left him with a half dozen 13-year-olds with attitude.

“Good,” he responded. “As of right now, you’re archaeologists.”

And that was the start of my career.

And a new phase in my appreciation of music. But I’ve taken up too much of your time already. I’ll pick this thread up at a later time.

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