Friday, October 07, 2005

A letter to Bill

March 2003

Bill,
If you have a minute, let me share with you an experience I had in Vietnam in 1967 that came back to me during Saturday’s walk against the impending war in Iraq.

I dropped out of school in ‘64 and was immediately called up by Selective Service. The year before Tonkin they weren’t as aggressive in taking people, so I got a 4-F rating for health issues that might not have kept me out of service the next year.

But wanting to see what it was all about, I got seaman’s papers and shipped out to Vietnam as a civilian in the Merchant Marine.

I became friends with the chief engineer – not much older than me but a very experienced world traveler. One evening in the port of Qui Nhon, about halfway between Saigon and the DMZ, he invited me to join him and visit a local sight. We ambled through the town and out into the countryside on a beautiful summer evening. You would never know this was a war zone; it was more like a stroll by the bandstand at Lake Harriet.

We got to the place he wanted to see; a Buddhist temple. He went in, lit a joss stick and placed it before the Buddha with reverence. Then he handed me his matchbox. I was shocked. “No way! I’m not praying to a false god. Let’s get out of here before anybody sees us,” I said, concerned perhaps that Fr. Ozark might amble by with an eraser in hand.

He began to explain to me that the Buddha is not a god, but a mortal who was fully aware. “Aware of what?” I asked. “That’s what we’re here to find out,” he said.

I figured I’d have a hard time explaining this to St. Peter when my time came. As we debated, a short man with a shaved head and saffron robe came into the temple. He spoke flawless English, welcomed us and invited us to join him and his fellow monks for tea.

We followed the monk-who-spoke-English into the dining room of the multi-building complex. . As he went off to prepare the tea, the room filled with a dozen other men whose saffron robes shimmered against the pale blue wall with a hallucinogenic intensity. My friend told me these were businessmen and family men who take a year off to devote to the Buddha; none of them spoke English.

After the tea was served, the monk-who-spoke-English leaned across the table and said to my mate and me, with an intensity belying his meek demeanor, “The Christ and the Buddha teach the same thing: that all men are brothers.”

Suddenly the room was ripped with a violent wave like a combination earthquake and tornado. An enormous rush of wind, leaves and dirt blew into the room from the courtyard outside. I got up and looked out the door to see an Army helicopter emptying its machine gun into the bushes along a nearby wall. Figuring someone had seen Vietcong in the area, I turned back to the room and yelled above the downwash to the monks seated at the long table, “There’s enemy activity outside!”

The monk-who-spoke-English had a different take on what I’d just said. “Yes, there is,” he replied. “And they do this to us every night.”

“No!” I shouted at the monk. “These are Americans. We don’t do that.”

I went outside and, foolishly, stood only a few yards from the bushes that were convulsing from the fusillade they were absorbing. I looked up into the helicopter and felt a wave of nausea. I recognized the pilot. Not literally, but I knew him. He was me. An earnest, clean-cut young guy who ten years before had worn a coonskin cap, and five years before donned a white sport coat and a pink carnation. And now he felt he had an honorable mission, playing havoc with the heathens every night at teatime.

I came back into the room, and the monks looked at me as if in sympathy for what they knew I was going through. The monk-who-spoke-English got up, came over to me and touched my shoulder, “It is best if you leave now.” And he led us out a different way through the compound, down a long dark corridor to a door. He opened it and the streetlight that entered showed a face both serene and tormented. He looked at my mate and me and said again, “The Christ and the Buddha teach the same thing: we must be kind to each other.”

We stepped through the door and were back in town, with the blare of a thousand Honda scooters; the passing women in their ao dais; the men going about their business as merchants or saboteurs; who knew?

St. Paul fell off his ass on the road to Damascus. I fell on my ass on the road out of St. Paul, Minnesota.

I recalled this last Saturday, because I hope none of our children or grandchildren ever faces such violence directed at them. And I hope, too, that none of our children and grandchildren is ever in such circumstances that they rain fury like that on innocent men and women.

Our institutions are failing us – Bernie Ebbers, Bernard Law, Bill Clinton and so many other institutional leaders are badly in need of moral compass implants. More and more it seems that it’s only as individuals and small communities that we can keep alive the honorable part of the tradition we were educated in – of reason over rage; civility over salaciousness; magnanimity over mendacity.

We may not quite be Gandalf or Dumbledore, but we are becoming the greybeards of a society in deep trouble, and with the skills at our disposal we need to leverage our collective energy and be heard. We’ve all come a long way, and each in our own way paid our dues, to gain a much deeper understanding of the angel’s words we heard fifty years ago at the Christmas pageant in second grade, “Peace on Earth!”

-Tom

1 Comments:

Blogger Adam said...

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Ciao for now.

Adam

3:37 PM  

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