Monday, July 16, 2012

From The Pen Of Joshua Lawrence Breslin – From The “Brothers Under The Bridge” Series- Kenneth Edward Jackson’s “Masters Of War”

Click on the headline to link to a YouTube film clip of Bob Dylan performing his classic anti-war song, “Masters of War.”

Masters Of War-Bob Dylan

Come you masters of war
You that build all the guns
You that build the death planes
You that build the big bombs
You that hide behind walls
You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know
I can see through your masks

You that never done nothin’
But build to destroy
You play with my world
Like it’s your little toy
You put a gun in my hand
And you hide from my eyes
And you turn and run farther
When the fast bullets fly

Like Judas of old
You lie and deceive
A world war can be won
You want me to believe
But I see through your eyes
And I see through your brain
Like I see through the water
That runs down my drain

You fasten the triggers
For the others to fire
Then you set back and watch
When the death count gets higher
You hide in your mansion
As young people’s blood
Flows out of their bodies
And is buried in the mud

You’ve thrown the worst fear
That can ever be hurled
Fear to bring children
Into the world
For threatening my baby
Unborn and unnamed
You ain’t worth the blood
That runs in your veins

How much do I know
To talk out of turn
You might say that I’m young
You might say I’m unlearned
But there’s one thing I know
Though I’m younger than you
Even Jesus would never
Forgive what you do

Let me ask you one question
Is your money that good
Will it buy you forgiveness
Do you think that it could
I think you will find
When your death takes its toll
All the money you made
Will never buy back your soul

And I hope that you die
And your death’ll come soon
I will follow your casket
In the pale afternoon
And I’ll watch while you’re lowered
Down to your deathbed
And I’ll stand o’er your grave
’Til I’m sure that you’re dead

Copyright © 1963 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1991 by Special Rider Music

Joshua Lawrence Breslin comment:

As I mentioned in an earlier entry in this space, courtesy of my old yellow brick road magical mystery tour merry prankster fellow traveler, Peter Paul Markin, who seems to think I still have a few things to say about this wicked old world, recently, in grabbing an old Bruce Springsteen CD compilation from 1998 to download into my iPod I came across a song that stopped me in my tracks, Brothers Under The Bridge. I had not listened to or thought about that song for a long time but it brought back many memories from the late 1970s when I did a series of articles for the now defunct East Bay Eye (California, naturally) on the fate of some troubled Vietnam veterans who, for one reason or another, could not come to grips with “going back to the real world” and took, like those a great depression generation or two before them, to the “jungle”-the hobo, bum, tramps camps located along the abandoned railroad sidings, the ravines and crevices, and under the bridges of California, mainly down in Los Angeles, and created their own “society.”

Not every guy I interviewed, came across, swapped lies with, or just snatched some midnight phrase out of the air from was from hunger, most were, yes, in one way or another but some, and the one I am recalling in this sketch had a nuanced story that brought him down to the ravines. The story that accompanies the song to this little piece, Bob Dylan’s Masters of War, is written under that same sign as the earlier pieces.

I should note again since these sketches are done on an ad hoc basis, that the genesis of this story follows that of the “Brothers Under The Bridge” previously posted (and now is developing into a series).The editor of the East Bay Eye, Owen Anderson, gave me that long ago assignment after I had done a smaller series for the paper on the treatment, the poor treatment, of Vietnam veterans by the Veterans Administration in San Francisco and in the course of that series had found out about this band of brothers roaming the countryside trying to do the best they could, but mainly trying to keep themselves in one piece. My qualifications for the assignment other than empathy, since I had not been in the military during the Vietnam War period, were based simply on the fact that back East I had been involved, along with several other radicals, in running an anti-war GI coffeehouse near Fort Devens in Massachusetts and down near Fort Dix in New Jersey. During that period I had run into many soldiers of my 1960s generation who had clued me on the psychic cost of the war so I had a running start.

After making connections with some Vietnam Veterans Against The War (VVAW) guys down in L.A. who knew where to point me I was on my way. I gathered many stories, published some of them in the Eye, and put the rest in my helter-skelter files. A couple of weeks ago, after having no success in retrieving the old Eye archives, I went up into my attic and rummaged through what was left of those early files. I could find no newsprint articles that I had written but I did find a batch of notes, specifically notes from stories that I didn’t file because the Eye went under before I could round them into shape.

The format of those long ago stories was that I would basically let the guy I was talking to give his spiel, spill what he wanted the world to heard, and I would write it up without too much editing (mainly for foul language). I have reconstructed this story here as best I can although at this far remove it is hard to get the feel of the voice and how things were said. This is Kenneth Edward Jackson’s short, poignant, and hell for once, half-hopeful story, a soldier born under the thumb of the masters of war:

Hell, you know I didn’t have to go to Vietnam, no way. Ya, my parents, when I got drafted, put some pressure on me to “do my duty” like a lot of the neighborhood guys in my half-Irish, half- French- Canadian up the old New Hampshire mill town of Nashua. Maybe, you’ve heard of that town since you said you were from up there in Olde Saco, Maine. Hell, they were the same kind of towns. Graduate from high school, go to work in the mills if they were still open, go in the service if you liked, or got drafted, come home, get married, have kids and let the I Ching cycle run its course over and over again. You laughed so you know what I mean. Ya, that kind of town, and tight so if you went off the rails, well it might not be in the Nashua Telegraph but it sure as hell got on the Emma Jackson grapevine fast enough, except if it was about her three boys. Then the “shames” silence of the grave. Nothing, not a peep, no dirty linen aired in public.

See though I was a little different. I went to college at the University Of New Hampshire over in Durham, studied political science, and figured to become either a lawyer or teacher, maybe both if things worked out. So Emma and Hank (my father) were proud as peacocks when I graduated from there in 1967 and then announced I was going to Boston University to pick up a Master’s degree in Education and be on my way. That’s where I met Bettina, my ex-wife, who was studying for her Master’s in Government at the time but was mainly holding up a big share of the left-wing anti-war universe that was brewing at that time, especially as all hell broke loose in Vietnam when in early 1968 the North Vietnamese and their southern supporters ran rampaging through the south. That’s around the time that LBJ (Lyndon Baines Johnson, President of the United States at the time) got cold feet and decided to call it quits and retire to some podunk Texas place.

Bettina, a girl from New York City, and not just New York City but Manhattan and who went to Hunter College High School there before embarking on her radical career , first at the University of Wisconsin and then at B.U. was the one who got me “hip,” or maybe better “half-hip” to the murderous American foreign policy in Vietnam. Remind me to tell you how we met and stuff like that sometime but for now let’s just say she was so smart, so different, did I tell you she was Jewish, so full of life and dreams, big dreams about a better world that I went head over heels for her and her dreams carried me (and us) us along for a while. [Brother Jackson did tell me later the funny details of their relationship but, as I always used to say closing many of my columns, that is a story for another day-JLB.]

Bettina was strictly SDS, big-time SDS (Students for a Democratic Society, 1960s version. Look it up on Wikipedia for more background-JLB), and not just some pacifist objector to the war, she really thought she was helping to build “the second front” in aid of the Vietnamese here in America, or as it was put at the time Amerikkka, and I went along with her, or half-way along really in her various actions, marches, and rallies. Later, 1969 later when SDS blew up into three separate and warring factions she went with the Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM) the group most committed to that idea of the second front. But that is all inside stuff and not really what was important in 1968. The summer of 1968 when I got, via my parents, notice that my friends and neighbors at the Nashua Draft Board had called my name. And me with no excuses, no draft excuses, none.

So that is when things got dicey, my parents pulling me to do my family, my Nashua, my New Hampshire, my United States, hell, my mother pulled out even my Catholic duty (my father, a deeply patriotic man, in the good sense, and a proud Marine who saw plenty of action in the Pacific in World War II, but kept quiet about it, just rolled his eyes on that one). Bettina, and her friends, and really, some of them my friends too, were pulling me to run away to Canada (she would follow), refuse to be inducted (and thus subject to arrest and jail time), or head underground (obviously here with connections that may have rivaled, may have I say, my mother’s neighborhood grapevine). In the end though I let myself be drafted and was inducted in the fall of 1968.

Bettina was mad, mad as hell, but not as much for the political embarrassment as you would think, but because she, well, as she put it, the first time she said it “had grown very fond of me,” and more than that she had her own self-worth needs, so we were secretly married (actually not so much secretly as privately, very privately, her parents, proudly Jewish and heavily committed Zionists and my parents, rosary-heavy Catholics who were a little slow, Vatican Council II slow, on the news that Jews were not Christ-killers and the like would not have approved ) just before I was inducted.

I will spare the Vietnam details, except to say I did my thirteen month tour (including a month for R&R, rest and recreation) from early 1969 to early 1970, a period when the talk of draw-down of the American troop commitment was beginning to echo through the camps and bases in Vietnam and guys were starting to take no chances, no overt chances of getting KIA (killed in action) or anything like that. I, actually saw very little fighting since as a college grad, and lucky, and they needed someone, I was a company clerk and stayed mainly at the base camp. But every night I fired many rounds any time I heard a twig break on guard duty or in perimeter defense. And more than a few times we had bullets and other ammo flying into our position. So no I was no hero, didn’t want to be, I just wanted to get back home to Bettina in one piece. And I did.

But something snapped in Vietnam, sometime in having had to confront my own demons, my own deep-seeded fears and coming out not too badly, and to confront through my own sights the way my government was savagely conducting itself in Vietnam (and later in other parts of the world) that made me snap when I came back to the “real world.” I had only a few months left and so I was assigned to a holding company down at Fort Dix in New Jersey. And all I had to do was stay quiet, do some light silly busy work paper work duty b.s., have a few beers at the PX and watch a few movies. Nada.

I guess Bettina really did win out in the end, the stuff she said about war, about American imperialism being some two-headed vulture, about class struggle and guys like me being cannon fodder was kind of abstract when she said it at some meeting at B.U., or shouted herself silly a t some rally on Boston Common or got herself arrested a few times at draft boards (ironic, huh).But after ‘Nam I knew she was on to something. Better, I was on to something. So, without telling Bettina, my parents, or anybody, the day I was to report to that holding company at Fort Dix I did. But at that morning formation, I can still see the tears rolling down my face, I reported in civilian clothes with a big peace button on my shirts and yelling for all to hear-“Bring The Troops Home.” I was tackled by a couple of soldiers, lifer-sergeants I found out later, handcuffed and brought to the Fort Dix stockade.

A couple of days later my name was called to go the visitors’ room and there to my surprise were my parents, my mother crying, my father stoic as usual but not mad, and Bettina. The Army had contacted my parents after my arrest to inform them of my situation. And Bettina, in that strange underground grapevine magic that always amazed me, found out in that way, had called them in Nashua to say who she was (no, not about us being married, just friends, they never did know). They had offered to bring her down to Fort Dix and they had come down together. What a day though. My parents, for one of very few times that I can remember said, while they didn’t agree with me fully, that they were proud and Nashua be damned. They were raising money on their home to get me the best civilian lawyer they could. And they did.

Of course for Bettina a soldier- resister case was just the kind of activity that was gaining currency in the anti-war movement in 1969 and 1970 and she was crazy to raise heaven and hell for my defense(including money, and money from her parents too although they also did not know we were married, and maybe they still don’t). She moved to hard town Trenton not too far from Fort Dix to be closer to the action as my court-martial was set. She put together several vigils, marches, rallies and fundraisers (including one where my father, a father defending his own, spoke and made the crowd weep in his halting New England stoic way).

The court-martial, a general court martial so I faced some serious time, was held in early 1970. As any court proceedings will do, military or civilian, they ran their typical course, which I don’t want to go into except to say that I was convicted of the several charges brought against me (basically, as I told the guys at VVAW later, for being ugly in the military without a uniform-while on duty) , sentenced to a year of hard labor at Fort Leavenworth out in Kansas, reduced in rank to private ( I was a specialist, E-4), forfeited most of my pay, and was to be given an undesirable discharge (not dishonorable).

I guess I do want to say one last thing about the trial thought. As any defendant has the right to do at trial, he or she can speak in their own defense. I did so. What I did, turning my back to the court-martial judges and facing the audience, including that day my parents and Bettina was recite from memory Bob Dylan’s Masters of War. I did so in my best stoic (thanks, dad) Nashua, New Hampshire voice. The crowd either heckled me or cheered (before being ordered to keep quiet) but I had my say. So when you write this story put that part in. Okay? [See lyrics above-JLB]

So how come I am down here in some Los Angeles hobo jungle just waiting around to be waiting around. Well I did my time, all of it except good time, and went back home, first to Nashua but I couldn’t really stay there ( a constant “sore” in the community and worry to my parents) and then to Boston where I fit in better. Bettina? Well, my last letter from her in Leavenworth was that she was getting ready to go underground, things with her group (a group later associated with the Weather Underground) had gotten into some stuff a little dicey and she would not be able to communicate for a while. That was the last I heard from her; it has been a few years now.

I understand, and I feel happy for her. We were fond of each other but I was thinking in the stockade that a “war marriage” was not made to last, not between us anyway. Then after a few months in Boston, doing a little or this and a little of that, I drifted out here were things might pop up a little (it’s tough even with millions of people hating the war, hating it until it finally got over a couple of years ago to have an undesirable discharge hanging around your neck. I’m not sorry though, no way, and if I do get blue sometime I just recite that Masters Of War thing and I get all welled up inside).

I hear the new president, Jimmy Carter, is talking about amnesty for Vietnam guys with bad discharges and maybe I will check into it if it happens. Then maybe I will go to law school and pick up my life up again. Until then though I feel like I have got to stick with my “band of brothers” who got broken up, broken up bad by that damn war. Hey, sometimes they ask me to recite that Masters Of War thing over some night fire.

[The last connection I had with Kenneth Edward Jackson was in late 1979 when he sent a short note to me saying he had gotten his discharge upgraded, was getting ready to start law school and that he was publicly getting re-married to some non-political gal from upstate New York . Still no word from Bettina though.-JLB]

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