As of late July, 2021, 1585 U.S. personnel were still missing from the Vietnam War, according to the latest figures from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, the arm of the Pentagon tasked with finding and returning lost but not forgotten military.
That’s the kind of information that gives a superannuated baby-boomer pause in the last quadrant of his life.
The information was contained in the August 3nd New York Times, which was also reporting on the recent recovery of a U.S. aviator lost way back in 1967.
O, the times of our lives!
I was working at Kings Canyon National Park in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains during that July which simply does not feel like 54 years ago. I was twenty years old and blessed to have that national park adventure as a congressional appointee to the trails and grounds crew and was ultimately given the relatively soft job of caring for the exhibits in the Visitor Center. I had plenty of time to spend with fellow summer employees, many of whom –especially the girls — worked for Harvey Company which operated the restaurant and gift shop.
My brother Doug was working for a California
Congressman John Tunney. Hence, the congressional appointment. Thank you, Doug.
We were listening to the Beatles “Sergeant Pepper” and “Rubber Soul” albums that summer and the Doors’s single (the long version) “Light My Fire” was on the radio often. We’d drive down the mountain now and then into “The Valley” (San Juaquin Valley) to Fresno, where it was hot and flat, for dinner or a drive-in movie, occasionally staying overnight in a downtown hotel, ( guys in one room, women in another; it was the 60s but we were not participants in the proto-hook-up culture blooming in those times.)
At night, in cars or random radios, in the Valley or in the mountains, we’d hear the howls, legendary exuberance and gravelly voice of the D.J. called “Wolfman Jack” originating from — where? That was kind of a mystery. He’d been on a “border-blasting” frequency out of Mexico early in his career and heard all over the country. Where was he now, L.A? Still in Mexico? (The 1973 movie American Graffiti, in which his radio voice was ubiquitous, had Richard Dreyfus’s character find him in a tiny studio under a huge transmitter in the middle of nowhere (though I believe the movie was shot in Modesto, California, down the mountain and not that far from our Kings Canyon perch.)
Wherever he was, we would hear Wolf Man howling in the night.
It was the “Summer of Love” to the west in San Francisco. When our Summer of Work was over at the park early that September, four of us — Dave Fanning, Melody Jones, Josie Gaitan and I — went on a lark, traveling to San Francisco (where I’d never been) in Dave Fanning’s two-tone blue 1955 Chevy Bel Air with its busted back shocks that sent the back seat bumping and bucking rhythmically up and down for a laughing period after going over a bump. It was fun, riding in that car. A nice memory. Life has not always been so much fun since then.
We drove through Height Ashbury, where the hippie phenomenon had only recently been birthed and its many counter-cultural souls come to reside. We gawked during that brief passage at the aftermath, or residue, of that “Summer of Love” among our fellow boomers. All in all, I got a faint, decidedly gray (maybe it was a cloudy day) rolling impression of desuetude and squalor . It almost struck me- the shabby storefronts and ragged foot traffic — as meeting the definition of a slum. Probably not a very “hip” thing to be thinking, then or now — and I did, and do, want to be at least “semi-hip.”
But hippiedom had its gray to dark side.
Joan Dideon was a journalist on the ground among those blocks of cultural revolutionaries that summer and wrote a famous account for the Saturday Evening Post, later anthologized as, “Slouching Toward Bethlehem.” She took the title from the famous W.B. Yeats poem in which “things fall apart, the center cannot hold” (“And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/ Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?”)
As Joan saw it, the “rough beast” of social and cultural “atomization” had roosted upon the deracinated, runaway hordes that had come to reside, like desert birds, in those blocks where the streets named Height and Ashbury intersected, a fascinating but not-altogether pretty phenomenon in one of America’s prettiest, most iconic cities. She might have intuited that it would slouch on for generations, birth an ethos of hellucinogenic transport and deliverance among self-exiled souls who had come to form disparate, semi-cohesive units in “The Height” and, thanks for the increasingly pervasive and influential mass media, that free-wheeling “hippie” ethos would march across the land and around the planet.
In Vietnam, meanwhile, just a month or so before our youthful excursion, two American B-52s had collided over the South China Sea as they approached their targets in a war that was reaching its violent apex. Bombardment from on high, visiting death down below so impersonally and so devastatingly, was a controversial aspect of the last World War ( in Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki); no less so in this war in which it was proving so difficult to gain any clear advantage by any conventional means.
Thirty-five-year-old Air Force Major Paul A. Avolese of New York was the navigator on one aircraft and was among those aviators lost and just this month found. He was older and perhaps not typical of the young men of my generation who, to name just one outfit, were serving during that same summer with the 9th Infantry Division in the Mekong Delta where they were suffering many losses at the hands of the Viet Cong Communist guerrillas. I once watched a documentary on their tour in that swampy and difficult battle ground. The whole unit had sailed out to Southeast Asia from, as it happens, San Francisco in early 1967, passing right under the Golden Gate Bridge. This was typical of World War II military troop shipments, but not so typical in 1967 and no longer typical of how U.S. division Army divisions have gone to war since (the Marines, perhaps, being Navy-affiliated, excepted). They almost always fly over now and not necessarily as an entire division; they can be fragmented units, replacements for the casualties of an ongoing conflict chewing up fellow combatants. It’s how it became in Vietnam, a sad war of attrition. It was “escalating” controversially in 1967.
But war kills — in singles and in groups. And much war lay ahead in 1967. I’d be drafted in October, 1969.
My Fort Dix Drill Sergeant wore the 9th Infantry patch and was a Vietnam Veteran. We had our conflicts as he tried to transform me into a soldier. He could be cruel and profane. I could be slow, resistant, terrified, exhausted, picked on by fellow platoon members for holding them back as a unit, wishing I’d found a way to avoid the draft.
I wish I knew where Sergeant Douglas was now, if still alive. He claimed to be 27 at the time in the fall of ’69 when, two years after my two summers in California, first in the mountains, then on the seashore, I found myself in the military. He was probably on that 9th Infantry ship out of Frisco, bound for the Delta.
I’m glad I did serve. I’m proud that I served. But I faced nothing like what many of my contemporaries faced. I was blessed. And nobody gets drafted now. You volunteer.
Yes, I’d been blessed to avoid Vietnam (I wound up far safer in Korea) and blessed to have had to summers in the west.
As for those for whom they are now searching in the South China Sea….
It had to be terrifying, that mid-air collision in July, ’67. Seven crew members escaped, six remained missing and could not be found by Air Force, Navy and Coast Guard units. For five decades, families of those missing crew members have had to live with the fact that their remains were out there somewhere, perhaps never to be found.
The search continues….
Eight days after the crash, an Air Force Colonel told Major Avolese’s parents in a letter saying the exact cause of the crash was unknown and that “every man here in the 4133 Bomber Wing shares your anxiety over your son.”
A few days later, Major Avolese was declared dead.
Recovery efforts to bring back the lost have focused for decades on land in former conflict zones, recovering soldiers and Marines from “leg units.”
Now the Pentagon is utilizing Robotic underwater and surface vehicles, long established for ocean science and exploration, locating and surveying wrecks. Land sites have been exhausted, but people are still missing. So, underwater technology has proven, in the words of one Admiral, to be a “force-multiplier” in searching for sunken objects.
But we must now and then think, what was it all about? Vietnam is a tourist destination now.
And Afghanistan. What was sit all about?
The search goes on…
But me, I can only search the murky waters of my memories of that summer of love and war that ended with a SF Giants game against the Astros in Candlestick Park which ended with an extra-innings home run by, I believe, Willy Mays who was near the end of his career. (If it wasn’t Willy’s homer, I know I saw him play that day.) We were joined by another couple — Dan Upton from New Hampshire and his girlfriend, name forgotten, sadly, both Kings Canyon employees. (I wonder if they stayed together? I never saw them again and they left in a different direction that day. Dave and Melody were married the following June in Tucson. I was one of their groomsman.)
There was a moment that September day when we feared we might all have to leave the park early as the game lingered into those extra innings — just because I had to catch a flight back to Boston.
But we got to the airport on time. In the rush, I somehow got separated in the terminal from Dave, Melody and Josie, and so boarded the flight, sorry I’d missed a chance to say goodbye.
Then, suddenly, there they were! On the plane, walking down the cabin to my seat! Something had happened that would rarely ever happen even then and, due to post-911 security, would be impossible now. The gate staff allowed them to come aboard and bid me farewell before closing up for the push-back.
I so appreciated it — and remember it.
But I’m thinking today….Major Avolese, aviator and war casualty, is finally coming home and it’s unclear, after all this time, who will be there to greet him. But I’m glad I saw that Times article, given how seldom I look at the Times these days.
Let’s go on remembering that 1585 other Americans of my baby-boomer generation , and doubtless some, like Major Avolese from a generation well before that, who were at war in the Summer of Love.
At one point in that summer in the mountains, I recall being in some government housing alone, away from my own cabin in a pine groove, waiting for the women to come and get ready for a gathering that night, maybe for a party. We had some good little parties. Yes, those were leisure times. But I recall being overtaken by a sharp sense of consciousness of the moment, as if my mental and emotional vision were focusing and I was entirely in the present moment, free but nonetheless not totally at peace; perhaps, despite every effort to ward it off, having thoughts about the future — about what might happen from there on out in my life; from that moment in that ordinary room with the table and chairs and record-player, no longer looking off at the mountains vistas, no longer a child or teenager; a little bored but a little anxious, even though these had been to that point happy times far, far away from home and college and any daily cares.
Up until then, I’d been having “the time of my life” as they say. And yet…
I started to end this at 2:04 p.m. of this Thursday. I have things to do , don’t I? Suddenly, it’s 2:45.
I’ve had a dead car battery; AAA came and I had to pay for a new one. That was morning. I ate lunch. That was afternoon….and I’m thinking….
That day in the mountains, I guess I was also thinking, ‘it’s later than I think,” even though I hoped so much life was ahead of me. And I knew I would resist, as if paralyzed, every impulse to undertake the hard work of being a writer,l which was already very much on my mind. I was fighting that cold inertia in that moment that makes a body waste time, course idly through life, incident to incident….
So now, over a half century later, I’m thinking (Oh, God!) as I thought then:
Get busy! You’ve been blest, given years and years and, I pray, more.
And I knew the military might be in my future. One hearty, burly soul who worked with us in Kings Canyon was in the reserves and was called up and seemed unconcerned, perhaps even welcomed the prospect of action. He’d trained as a paratrooper. He would take a practice jump once he was active. I have no idea what became of him, or even remember his name. I hope he survived and is, like me, a boomer in the last quadrant of a life for which we must be grateful.
I also spent the summer of 1968 in California — in Laguna Beach. After college, I took one last drive to California in September, 1969. My draft notice caught up with me where I was making a nostalgic re-visit to Laguna Beach. I was inducted in Boston on October 27 of that year, narrowly missing being inducted into the Marines, and was taken by bus to Fort Dix.
I will go on thinking about those times.
For deep in the sea — or somewhere on land — are the remains of 1584 souls whose fate it was never to come home from that drawn-out jungle war.
Eight summers of war followed that Summer of Love. You’d think we were done with war.