28. Journal: At home (Dec. 71)

Journal entries – At home in Ga…. and back to England

13 Dec 1971

Well, I’ve been home on leave about a month now. A real good month with the folks and the kids and SB. She and I have gotten to know each other better, and it still looks almost hopeless. Stewart and I also got to know each other better. He’s become my best friend.

Three more days and I leave for England AFB and an appointment with destiny. My first request for discharge having been turned down by the Wing Commander, Rodney H. Newbold, 483rd TAW, I am going to attempt to re-submit it at England. I also am going to turn in my wings or whatever you have to do to go off flying status, and do whatever else is necessary to convince them that I am serious about this whole thing.

And so, I am slowly going positively insane, with so many variables all depending on each other that nothing really seems real to me. To but sit and wait would be easiest, and possibly would achieve as much from some points of view. But to free my conscience, to purge my guilt, I must take positive action. Why must it be now, Christmas, everything topsy turvy, blowing by, turning in, seething with agony at the ageless ritual of man and machine in constant struggle to serve the ends of powers unknown or to blot from memory’s dark shore the visions of the apocalypse? Nothing can be meaningful in life without death, so is it possible that death is the supreme act of a living being? Thus perhaps death is the supreme act of faith as well as the result of utter despair. But death is an unknown and unknowable, for it may lead to far greater despair from which there is no such easy escape. Fear of death for me is not fear of losing this life but fear that it may not be the end – and that knowledge would be unbearable. Eternal existence is a frightening thing, for it may just keep getting worse. The circle of life may include death as its perpetrator….

************

Telling Mother

During the five or so weeks I was home on leave, I felt increasingly alienated from everyone and disconnected from reality. There are few clear moments in my memory from this time.

One of these moments is a conversation with my mother about what I planned to do when I reported in to England Air Force Base. I think the reason I remember it clearly is because it took place in the living room in front of the mirrored mantle, and I took a photograph of her, dressed in Christmas best, in front of that mantle so that you could see her reflection in the mirror behind the Christmas decorations on the mantle. Although I don’t think I took the picture at the time of the conversation – maybe not even the same Christmas! – the two are welded in my mind, so the clear visual image helps me remember the conversation.

We were standing in front of the mantle, Mother on my left. Everyone else was back in the kitchen and den. It was very quiet.

“Mama,” I said, my voice low and serious. “I need to tell you what I’m gonna do when I report in at England.”

“Well, I have been wondering what’s going on with you,” she said, turning to look at me. Her face was calm, but her voice reflected her tension and concern.

“I’m going to tell the Colonel that I applied for discharge while I was in Vietnam – I’ll probably give him the whole pile of documents – and they turned me down, but that I haven’t changed my mind.” Mom’s face got more serious, but she didn’t flinch.

“Then I’m gonna tell him that I’m not going to do anything else for the Air Force. That I’m not going to fly or be an IP or anything. And they can figure out what to do with me.”

“What do you think they’ll do?” she asked. She was very quiet.

“I think they’ll probably court-martial me and I’ll get seven years at Leavenworth.”

“Seven years…” her voice faltered.

“That’s what it says in the regs. I looked it all up.” I swallowed to stop the quiver in my throat. “Disobeying direct orders, whatever, is a seven year sentence.”

“That’s a long time, son,” she said. Her face was grave.

“It’s better than this,” I said, trying to stay calm. “It’s better than staying in, being part of the war and feeling so guilty for what I’m doing.” I looked down, then back at her. “I’d rather go to Leavenworth.” My eyes were tearing up now.

“Well, I hope it doesn’t come to that, but I understand. I know you have to do what you feel is right. I know how hard all this has been on you. I just don’t know how you’re going to tell your Daddy about it….” Her voice trailed off and she put her fingertips to her lowered forehead.

“I can’t Mama… I can’t talk to him about it. I – I just don’t know what I’d say.”

“Well… it would be hard. It will be hard on him. You know that. I’ll try to explain it to him. It would be good if you could talk to him about it, but I know it’s hard.”

We hugged, and slowly walked out of the living room and through the dark dining room, not speaking. Mom pushed the swinging door into the kitchen open and the sounds of the rest of the family washed over us.

***

I was never able to talk to Daddy about what I was doing or why, even later on. The subject just never came up. Mother explained it to him, and years later, she told me that he finally came to understand and accept it. Mother was aways supportive and understanding. I don’t think we talked about it much more, and she never tried to intervene or suggest I not take these momentous steps. I could tell her heart was heavy, but she bore the burden with grace and fortitude.

Looking back, I realize it was harder to tell Mom than it was to tell Col. Cullen. This was a critical juncture in the unfolding of these events, for once I voiced my intentions to Mom, I had to follow through.

*********

20 Dec 1971

Monday morning, 1:02, Dec. 20, 1971 and once again I find myself in a motel in deep dark Alabama, in the middle of a deep dark evil night, on the way to England AFB, once again having just left SB. – This time, I’m in Selma, and in a better, and worse, frame of mind.

It’s raining outside and there’s a Texas country music station on the radio. A little vintage Hank Williams and I think I’ll go to sleep…

Dec. 21 again, 1971 this time. [EnglandAFB]

Again it doesn’t seem much like Christmas –  warm, strange, sad, and lonely here in Louisiana. But I should be back home for Christmas one way or the other. And things are finally in the works, I have made my stand, taken the hardest step, that second one, after being slapped for the first one. Col. Cullen did not react to my statement. He almost did, asking what do you want to do? but I couldn’t tell him, he wouldn’t understand. He took a neutral position, called up the JAG and the flight surgeon, and told me to zip up my jacket, get a haircut, and trim my mustache, then come back. Not his words but his tone and  face pleading: cooperate with me and I’ll help you – just don’t defy my authority or embarrass me among my peers and my squadron. Deal, sir.

I got my haircut and mustache-trim, now you do your part. Tomorrow I in-process and talk to the Doctor, Dr. King, flight surgeon. Don’t know what I’ll say to him, nor much care…. I feel good to be doing something. I guess the Col. thinks I’m crazy or something. Asked if I had talked to a flight surgeon about the “mental agony or whatever” I had been experiencing! I may hit the doc psychologically while trying to say to him that it’s a matter of conscience. How simple and warped their minds are! To think that just because a person feels guilt for killing and refuses to kill any more, he’s mentally infirm! Too much! “What’s the matter with you kid? Whaddya mean you won’t kill? You crazy or somethin’ kid? Just don’t think about it, don’t dwell on it too much, like the B-52 pilot on Walter Cronkite said tonight, and it ain’t so bad. Don’t let your conscience enter in, this is just a job. And we all know jobs have to be done. So just keep killin’ and we’ll keep payin’ you blood money – we call it flight pay and hazardous duty pay so nobody will know. You can tell everybody you didn’t really do it, somebody else did. Nuremburg what? Oh, that stuff. Well, it’s difficult. These are communists, dirty commies, not helpless jews….

And the Nine O’Clock News from ABC reports that the Atlantic Ocean rose three inches in the last eight years. And Bob Hart says that’s fast. “Sometimes a Great Notion” is becoming a reality!

22 Dec 1971

This whole crappy mess will either get me out or not, that’s all I can see now. I’m wondering if I said anything I shouldn’t have to the Dr. today… a little paranoia in that wondering, I guess. How did he take it? He’s sending me to the psychiatrist to back up his assessment that I’m sane, or so he said… That’s my fear talking.

Why is it I’m always planning to get my shit together “tomorrow” or “next time I’m home” or sometime “when I get though this?” Got to get out of that rut, get out of the AF first, and then I have to be careful about that. Why do I need a place to get my shit together in? When I can exist anywhere, with my shit together permanently in my mind, then I’ll be okay.

And why do I always, still, wish I could be insane? But I never will be because I know all the right answers to the questions they ask you to see if you’re sane or not.