Thursday, July 26, 2007

South Vietnam, The American Waterloo: Back Home And Back To The Office

November 8, 1966

I awakened and looked at the clock. It was 5 a.m. I'd slept only three hours. Seated on the edge of the bed, I looked around in the dim light. I wasn't in a small, damp, hot tent at Dong Ha or Khe Sanh, or in the dank, steamy room at the Des Nations Hotel in Saigon. I was home. The only sounds were those of my wife's soft breathing and the almost hypnotic hum of the furnace motor. No howitzer batteries shattered the night with fire missions requested by our troops who were in trouble in the bush.

No thunderous, snarling jets, laden with bombs, rockets, and napalm, clawed the sky for altitude as they whipped over head. There were none of the unmistakable sounds of the Huey helicopters shuttling to and roar of traffic, no cackling, shrieking or clamoring street vendors...nothing but silence. I was really home.

I dressed and went to the kitchen to make coffee...real coffee. The freshly ground coffee smelled so good I wanted to taste a spoonful while measuring it from the can. The scrapbook was open on the dining room table. After glancing at a few of the articles, I closed the book and told's going to take some time to get used to this.

Soon, I heard our paper being delivered, and went out to pick it up. Breathing the chilly air was almost like a sniff of ammonia. I believed I was wide awake when I went outside, but the snappy, cold air really brought me to. For a minute or so I stood on the steps and looked up then down the dimly lit street. There were no lights visible in the other homes. Only the paper boy and myself were awake in the un-fouled, almost soundless pre-dawn air. There were no shacks, no evidence of poverty, no huddled forms of people asleep in doorways, no mesh gratings protected windows and doors from bombs.

Yep...this was home. Speedway, Indiana. A quiet, almost sleepy little town for 11 months a year. Then, during May, especially on Pole Position Day and the day of the 500-Mile Race, enough noise, confusion, and traffic jams are generated to last an entire year.

Inside, I poured a cup of coffee and sat down to read the paper. I'm unable to recall any other news item The Indianapolis Star published that day, except my column. When I saw it, I was stunned. It's hard to say how long I sat transfixed staring at the page. The November 8, article included my picture with a five column headline. It had been written at Dong Ha October 24, more than half a world away. It dealt with the miserable living conditions and the bitter irony of war in the lives of two Marines.

There had been many previous occasions when I saw published work in the paper at home. It always gave me a feeling of pride and accomplishment. On this day, those feelings were heightened, and I experienced other sensations. Some I could identify...some I couldn't. I felt grief and sorrow for the men I'd met who were still there. Were all of them alive? Were they still where I last saw them? How many more Americans had died? It seemed impossible that I had interviewed these two men and written the story at Dong Ha, and was now reading it at my dining room table...thousands of miles away. A desperate urge to return to Vietnam stirred within me.

I gave myself a shake in an effort to return to reality. Looking around at my home, considering my wife and family, I realized only through some extraordinary event would I be able to return to Vietnam. Curious happenstance had permitted me to to go. I'd gone, done the best job I knew how, and now it was over.

I believed there were things to do, through my job, which would help the situation and the men I'd met in Vietnam and those who would come later.

For a long while, I pondered the conversation of the previous evening. My remarks constituted a damaging analysis of the complicated situation in Vietnam. I could not single out a statement or an issue I believed was in error or unsupportable. A feeling of agitation persisted I was unable to diagnose. I began to question my standing, as a mere reporter, to dispute the political, diplomatic, and military will and intentions of our leaders on such an important issue. What would it take to push that enormous weight aside? Would I have the support of my newspaper to make the attempt? Had the rashly blurted statement to Michael Padev at Saigon beaten me back to the states? If so, how would I combat it? Would my editors slice all anti-war statements from the columns and totally discard some dispatches?

Though I had no answers to some crucial questions, perhaps, with effort, those answers could be found. A powerful compelling professional challenge had been fashioned from my experiences.

In a short while, it became clear that the proper name for one unusual sensation I was experiencing, in relation to the tangled weave of Vietnam, family, job, and the task before me was...awe.

Nonetheless, my decision was to proceed in presenting the conclusions and assessments I'd formed regarding Vietnam to Star management. After all, the sum of my information was generated from facts, personal observations, and the statements of persons interviewed. In every other news gathering and reporting situation those criteria were enough.

I decided to be reticent in making my views known generally. It was no time to telegraph a punch, and I didn't believe the labels "dove" or "radical" suited me. Comments to my colleagues, I decided, would be measured just as carefully as those to acquaintances.

Something else became clear to me. Hereafter, day-to-day newspapering, which had been my life, would be a hum-drum existence. It had taken a distant second place to my Vietnam experience.

My first sip of coffee was cold. It seemed impossible I'd sat mentally churning long enough for a cup of coffee to get cold. I poured the cold coffee out and got a fresh cup. Phyllis awakened and began preparing breakfast. The aroma of freshly brewed coffee, bacon frying, bread being toasted, filled the air. Real food, home cooked food it would be a pleasure to eat, was being prepared. The youngsters began to get up. Soon, all four tykes were clustered around daddy or on his lap, catching up on many missed hugs and kisses. All thoughts of job, Vietnam, and problems, were pushed to a distant corner of my mind.

It was a couple of days before I could stay awake long enough to even considering going back to work. Jet lag, coupled with the hours worked while in Vietnam, and all the mental wrestling I'd done, gripped me with an exhaustion I'd never experienced.

Each time I sat down a few moments, I'd go to sleep. Thankfully that groggy condition didn't last too long. I checked in with the Star City Desk, but the city editor was not in.

I told Isabel Boyer, our receptionist, "tell the boss and everyone I'm back and I'll be in as soon as I can stay awake all day."

"It's really a mess over there isn't it?" Isabel said. "I enjoy your columns. Makes me feel good to say, I know that guy."

Kind hearted Isabel, my pal, every one's pal in the city room, had made me feel very good.

Late in the week, I decided to go to the office to check my mail and perhaps get a chance to talk to the city editor.

As I approached the office on North Pennsylvania Street, the first person I met was Eugene S. Pulliam, the assistant publisher of the Indianapolis Star and the Indianapolis News, and son of publisher/owner, Eugene C. Pulliam.

He smiled and greeted me warmly with a firm hand shake as we approached the New York Street entrance. "Glad to see you made it back safely."

I thanked him.

"You sent us some very good work. I don't know if you've had a chance to check the paper, but most of your columns have gone outside." (newspaper parlance meaning they were published on page one or on the front page of a section.)

We chatted a few moments regarding general conditions in Vietnam, and I said. "Gene, it's a terrible situation over there. I have a couple of ideas for other articles, focusing on the issues, I believe should be done."

"I gather it's quite a mess," he said with a serious expression. Breaking into another smile he said, "Welcome back again," and broke off the conversation.

He went to his office. I went to the city room, wishing desperately I had the ability to read minds. Did he know what I told Padev? Am I going to fight a stacked deck? With those questions gnawing at me, I began receiving the greetings of several co-workers from other departments.

My group of cronies were on their beats, so I did not see them. Isabel was at the city desk and the city editor, Larry Connor, as usual, had the telephone bolted to his ear. We exchanged waves. I picked up my mail and sat down. As I opened the letters he came to my desk. I rose and we shook hands.

"Good to see you. Welcome back. You sent us some really great stuff. Have you had a chance to see it?"

I told him Phyllis was keeping a scrap book, and, from what I'd been able to read, it didn't look like they had to make many changes.

"Oh, no. It's really good."

Thanking him, I asked if everything I'd sent back had been set into type. "I think all of it has. I haven't read every piece but the assistants have, (assistant city editors) and they say it's all good."

Larry sat down. Sensing an opportunity to lay a bit of groundwork, I said, "This country is in an absolutely unbelievable situation in Vietnam. Once you've had the chance to read all the dispatches you'll have a more complete picture."

He nodded with interest and understanding.

I decided not to roll all my marbles at that moment, realizing Larry did not have time presently to listen to analysis or opinion as extensive as that presented at the Johnson round table.

Instead I said, "I've got ideas for some analysis and commentary pieces I want to do."

Nodding again he said, "I think we ought to wait until the columns have finished. We don't want to detract from them. We'll talk later and see. OK?"

He had a phone call waiting and returned to the city desk. His greeting and interest pleased me. His reason for delaying analysis and commentary articles was plausible and acceptable.

Still, I wished I could read minds

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