Sunday, February 28, 2010



Angie Kahler's Response
Chapter One--Called Home

(These notes and the commentaries that follow are a Facebook project based on Barbara Kingsolver's book "ANIMAL, VEGETABLE, MIRACLE A Year of Food Life." Each week a project member writes a response or prompt based on one chapter of the book. Together we read and talk our way through a year in the life of Kingsolver and her family. The first response is authored by Angie Kahler and sent to us from her home in rural Australia. Angie, born in the United States, has dual American/Australian citizenship.)

What interested me (a historian-in-training) in ‘Called Home’ was thinking about our nation’s transition from rural to urban and the loss of knowledge from one generation to the next, resulting in an ignorance- even disdain – that allows the health problems and environmental problems that have run amuck in the American (and increasingly globalised) system. How do we prioritise time and spaces for learning from our elders, or at least learning old knowledge? How do we elevate old knowledge to a level where it influences our choices and is not merely nostalgia or anachronism? How that ignorance and our lack of a deep (other than deep-dish) ‘food culture’ has manifested in such low standards is also intriguing. How did we let it get so BAD?

Living abroad, I often meet potential travellers leery of visiting the US for fear of food quality. Sometimes, on their return, they report that the food wasn’t as bad as they had expected, but all remark on the heavy amount of cheese in restaurant meals, the fact that it is ORANGE (Australia’s cheeses are white), and the abysmal coffee.

Kingsolver points to nations with strong ‘food cultures’ – Italy, Japan, Thailand, etc. The problems are there too – when I lived in Japan a decade ago, society was concerned by rising rates of childhood obesity – but not as bad or as rapid as in the US. In Japan, as in other Asian nations “Gosh, you’re fat!” was still only as impolite as “Hey, you’re blonde!” a statement of obvious fact. For Tibetans, “You’ve put on some weight!” is a compliment – you must be doing well if you’ve had plenty to eat since last we met, and you’ve not been worked to the bone.

America’s fat poor are unique in a hungry world, and it’s those gruesome, sneaky additives, the tax-subsidized “commodity-crops” pushing soy and corn into us in unrecognisable forms. This is scary and infuriating, but I feel I need to know more before I get on a soapbox. Lookout, Washington, I’m reading up.

I am over-prompting, and yet I’ve skipped that whole, main point of oil consumption… somebody wanna pick it up?


Sunday, February 21, 2010



The Local Seasonal Sustainable Tribal Food Project

Your comments on my Facebook post “Could you eat locally for one year?” indicate that there may be genuine interest in this question among our sprawling, unruly tribe of Facebook friends. I have in mind a project lasting about 3 months so that a rowdy group of us can play with this idea.

Barbara Kingsolver, the noted writer, and her family attempted to live out the challenge posed by our question. Packing up the car and leaving their home in the Southwest, Kingsolver, her partner and their two daughters moved to a run-down farm in Virginia. For one year the family lived only on food that could be grown or raised within a hundred miles. (Yes, each family member was allowed to choose one favorite food that could be imported from a further distance!) The month-to-month failures and successes of the family experiment were recorded in her delightful book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

The book is divided into Monthly chapters and includes technical commentary by Kingsolver’s partner, Steve Hopp, and recipes by her elder daughter, Camille. (One evening a couple of years ago I prepared dinner for CJ and her book club using only Camille’s recipes and locally grown organic food. Did I score serious hubby-points or what?)

Here’s the “game” I propose:

Get your hands on the book by March 1st, 2010. You can get a used copy for about $4.

We’ll read a chapter a week.

Each week a different one of us (I’ll set up a calendar) will write the main prompt and send it to me. I’ll publish this weekly prompt in my blog and tag everybody so the prompt doesn’t get lost in the Facebook daily deluge. The prompt can be a question, opinion, whatever you want.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle was one of the most personal books I read in the past five years. It’s light, breezy reading. Overwhelming issues such as sustainability, organic farming, vegetarianism, and making cheese (not cutting it!) are brought down to the intimate, often hilarious, level of a family struggling to find yet another way to cook squash. The Kingsolver year of local survival was tough and demanding and courageous and delicious.

I suspect that many of you have already read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (as I have). It feels good to me to go back for a closer look. If you haven’t read it, you are in for a treat. Kingsolver writes with intelligence and humanity.

So, do you wanna play? Let me know in your comment to this Note or in a private message if you prefer.

You in?


Tuesday, February 16, 2010



Our most usable energy is the conversion of sunlight into calories through photosynthesis by plants. This transformation of energy approaches true sustainability (it’s not, but it’s very, very close). Can we also capture and use solar energy through a sustainable technology over the long haul (forever) and without reliance on fossil fuel inputs, that is, without petroleum?

One solar panel drives a pump that brings drinking water up from a deep well. Take it from one who knows about these things, we are having to drill deeper and deeper wells, and the only way to get the water up is with an electric pump. Once the solar-powered system is working, the water is practically free and does not rely on petrochemicals. It leaves no carbon footprint. It is about as safe, environmentally friendly, and sustainable as you can make a system for retrieving deep water.

Until the solar panels wear out.

A good panel may last twenty or twenty five years, maybe longer, though they begin to degrade as soon as they’re installed. Doesn’t everything? Every human generation, then, is going to have to replace its solar panels. Where do the panels come from, most of them?


How do we get solar panels from a factory in China to our home or farm? On a boat or a plane or a truck or some combination, all powered by petroleum, dragging along a huge carbon contrail. If we are going to have solar panels in a post-petroleum world, we are going to have to learn how to manufacture them locally. Can you imagine a world in which the “panel maker” is as important to the community as the blacksmith or the doctor?

If solar panel fabrication can be localized, other possibilities for the future open up, because electricity can be used for lots of swell things besides driving well pumps.

Well pumps?

Well pumps wear out even faster than solar panels. With luck and decent water (not too much iron and other minerals), we might get twenty years out of a pump, though most of them are rated for ten to twelve years. For a generation or two we might be able to repair pumps with parts from other pumps. Then what? Do we have to manufacture well pumps locally? Yes.

I am trying to get my head around the idea that there will be no trucks on the freeways delivering the stuff we need. None. No trucks at all. When will that happen? When will the trucks stop rolling for good? Sometime this century.

Trucks and petroleum.

We usually think about trucks blasting down the interstate consuming vast amounts of petroleum fuel. But that’s a tiny part of the story. Think deeper. The truck is also using petrochemicals as engine oil, brake fluid, lubrication and other direct applications. Acknowledge the fossil fuels in the tires, the plastics, the synthetics. How about the steel? The steel? With what kind of energy is the steel mined, transported, forged, transported again, processed, fabricated, transported again, assembled, and transported again. More fossil fuels. It ain’t just the gas in the tank. It’s everything.

Every damn thing.

Our world floats on an evaporating reservoir of petroleum. When it dries up at last, finally, completely, zilch, kaput, sometime in this century, what the fuck are our kids and grandkids going to do? This question even our most noble leaders can not face. Obama plays Nero, fiddling with Congress while Rome burns.

Only a few, the poets, philosophers and lumbermen, have the guts to look down the line, way, way down the line, five hundred years, a thousand years, ten thousand years, and make plans. Ten thousand years! Can we still be here in ten thousand years?

OK. Let me get back to our grandkids. If they are going to have safe water to drink, light to read by (Light bulbs! Shit, forgot about light bulbs.), and the other swell uses of electricity, we are going to have to learn how to manufacture well pumps and solar panels locally.


(Poets and lumbermen. Lumbermen?)


Saturday, February 13, 2010



Cunningham. Gunnery Sergeant, USMC. I don’t remember, or I never knew, his first name, but Erwin or Walter, or something like that is stuck in my mind. If I featured him as a character in the film of my memory, I’d cast a big man, James Gandolfini, Tony Soprano, in the role. I’ll tell Gandolfini he has to lose 50 pounds and transform himself into a lean, mean, fighting slab of quick-twitch muscle if he wants to be my Gunny.

Cunningham was the original and, until my arrival, the only member of the newly-formed Delta Battery, 3rd LAAM (Light Anti Aircraft Missile) Battalion. My orders were to report to Delta Battery, my first duty assignment, at MCAS (Marine Corps Air Station) Cherry point, North Carolina. I arrived at the main gate and gave over my orders. The OD (Officer on Duty) made a phone call and told me to cool my heels. In a few minutes a jeep roared up, screeched angrily to a halt. Can jeeps screech angrily? This one did. The jeep’s only occupant sat there for a minute shaking his head and muttering to himself, then swung out of the driver’s seat and looked around.

I got a first look at the man who would become my private tormentor. Cunningham was a spit and polish Marine, every inch of his 6’2” frame shined and glittered. The creases in his uniform were so sharp you could shave with them. There were enough colorful campaign ribbons on his blouse to make a tropical salad. His eyes were piggy and mean, his face pock-marked and scarred from some childhood malady. He was terrifying.

His eyes landed on me. His jaw jutted out as he scowled. And from that moment, all of Cunningham’s elegant malice was concentrated on me. There was nothing about me, absolutely nothing, that Cunningham liked, not my hair cut, my uniform, my college boy vocabulary, or my face. He was Old Corps Infantry, transferred unwillingly to the Air Wing. He hated everything about his re-assignment, particularly me, Jenkins, Private (not even PFC Private First Class), lowest of the low.

His first words of greeting:

“Looking at you makes me want to puke. If I had to be around you for more than a day, I’d shoot myself in the head. But don't worry, Private Shitpie, I’ve got big plans for you.”

That’s how, the next day, I found myself on mess duty for one interminable, miserable month, a tour of frustration that climaxed when I dumped a full pan of hot pork-chops-in-gravy across the legs of four high-ranking BAMs (women Marines) who declared, for all to hear, that they would have my balls nailed to the door of the mass hall. Well, I still have them, my balls I mean, so somebody must have interceded on my behalf. Certainly not Cunningham. He would have watched the castration and cheered.

As the other members of Delta Battery began to arrive, I hoped Cunningham’s gaze would move along to some new sacrificial sap. Not a chance. Cunningham still had his “prize pupil” to pick on. Me. Every disgusting detail, arduous, spine-cracking, footsore humping, motherfucking, pissant crap job landed on yours truly.

Cunningham reserved his Special Jenkins Show for the PRT, the Marine Corps Physical Readiness Test, the highlight of which was Jenkins’ Fireman Carry. Step right up and pay your nickel, you won’t want to miss this.

Strolling to the other end of the field, Gunny would wail:

“Jenkins, Oh Jenkins, stinking shitpie, your beloved Gunnery Sergeant is sorely wounded. Would you be so kind as to come and save his beautiful Marine Corps body from grievous harm?”

He would then drop to the ground in a slow motion, melodramatic display, clutching his chest and screaming. The other men would laugh. Gunny was just SO funny. When he was picking on someone else.

I would race down the field where Cunningham was sprawled on his stomach, chewing a piece of grass, “grievous wounded,” and I would attempt to hoist him up on my shoulders and race back down the “battlefield” to deliver him into the loving care of the medics.

Or try. I weighed about 170 pounds. Like I inferred, Gunny was a big man, probably 225 pounds. He was also floppy (goddamn you Cunningham) dead weight which is the heaviest weight there is. The correct Fireman Carry technique is to roll the “wounded” on to his back, grab him by the front of his shirt, and smoothly lift him up and across your shoulders, get him balanced, and then run like hell. Or waddle. Or stagger. But, YOU WILL NOT LEAVE HIM BEHIND.

I pulled Cunningham up to his waist.

“Oh, oh it hurts.”

I got him up to his knees, him melting and limp.

“Save me, Jenkins, I don’t want to die.”

I squatted and wrapped my arms around his chest, we were cheek to cheek.

“Are you going to kiss me?”

I stood up, hugging him, his knees were buckling. Now I had most of his weight. What now?

“Are you going to carry me or fuck me?”

I tried to get under him, my right arm between his legs, but I lost control and he flopped back onto the ground.

“You’re killing me? Why is Jenkins trying to kill his Good ol’ Gunny?

I tried again and again and again, getting tired and more tired, exhausted. I could not get him on my shoulders. I was bent over, hands on my knees, panting. Gunny got up and bellowed at me.

“You fail, Jenkins! You fail the fucking PRT! You will take it again tomorrow and every day after that for the rest of your fucking life until you pass it!”

“Yes, Gunny, but . . .”

“You have something useful to say?”

“I passed the PRT in boot camp.”

“How the fuck did you do that?”

“The guy I had to carry was my own size.”

“Oh, well then, that explains everything. I am so sorry I ever doubted you.”

(Shit. Me and my big mouth.)

“You are saying that everything will be A-OK as long as the other Marines are just your size, but if some Marine bigger than you gets hurt, you will just leave him on the fucking ground? YOU WILL LEAVE THAT MARINE BEHIND?”

(What can you say to that?)

“I’ll do better next time, Gunny.”

He gave me a look of utter distain, and turned to the other men.

“Tomorrow, Jenkins here, and these other three shitpies will take the PRT all over again, while you . . . real Marines will stand at attention in this beautiful North Carolina sunshine until they get it right. Dismissed.”

“Except you, Jenkins, I’m not through with you.”

The rest of the Battery walked away shooting me dirty looks. Cunningham turned to me.

“Come here.”

I followed him back down the field.

“There’s a technique to the Fireman Carry that you got to get down if you have to lift somebody a lot bigger than you are. Lay down.”

I got down on the ground.

(What the hell was he doing?)

“Pull your man up to the waist. You did that part fine. Then, get him up to the knees. OK, so far, but that’s where you lost it. He’s nothing but floppy meat, he’s going to sag at the waist, and he’s not going to stay upright while you get ready for the next step. Understand?”

“Yes, Gunny.”

“So, first, your feet can’t be spread apart parallel to you shoulders, they have to be angled with your strong leg slightly in front, and in between his feet.”

He demonstrated.

“Now here’s the secret. You can take a second to rest after you pull him up to his waist, take a deep breath, and then you CAN NOT STOP AGAIN until he his across your shoulders. You pull him up, you squat low, you twist your strong side into him, get your shoulder under his center of gravity, and push up with your strong leg, ALL IN ONE MOTION. If you hesitate, you will lose him.”

Gunny squatted down over me, jerked me up to sitting position, then pulled me up to the knees and kept going. In a second I was across his shoulders, my upper torso and head hanging down behind him.”

“Take a moment to bounce him into balance.”

He bounced me.

“Get your Marine to safety.”

He ran a few steps, then dumped me, hard, on to the ground.

“Now, you do it.”

I tried. I tried. I was getting him a little higher, but I was also getting tired and frazzled.

“This time, I’m going to help you a little bit with my legs, so you can get a feel for it.”

I tried again. I could feel him give a last little shove off with his legs, just a tad, but enough for me to get him up and over my shoulders. Whew.

“OK, you got the feeling. Do it again. This time, no help. DO NOT HESITATE!”

Suck it up, Marine. He got on the ground. I pulled him up to the waist. Squatted low. Took a deep breath (OK you sonofabitch), ducked down, twisted, pushed up with my legs, and smoothly he was across my shoulders. I bounced him into balance and took off running.

“That’s enough. Put me down.”

I shrugged him off my shoulder and dropped him on his back. Not a sound. Not a smile. Not a word of encouragement or congratulations.


The next morning Gunny ordered me and the other three failures out to formation 30 minutes early.

“Private Jenkins will teach you fuckwads the correct technique for the Fireman Carry. You better not screw it up.”

For a half hour I taught the tricks and secrets of the Fireman Carry, and by the time the rest of the Battery formed up, the Sad Sack Trio were prepared. Gunny announced that we losers were going to forego the early elements of the PRT and go directly to the Fireman Carry.

“Delta Battery, TEN HUT!” (Attention!)

The men snapped to attention.

“At Ease!”

The Marines relaxed but stayed in position in formation. Gunny must have got laid last night, he was in a “kindly” mood, or else he wanted the men to be able to watch and enjoy the show.

We four “performers” paired up. One rescuer, one wounded. The rescuer picked up the wounded, delivered him across the field, then switched roles, and the same pair executed the carry and run back across the field. All four of us were successful, we had passed the PRT. Thank God, that’s over.

No, it’s not.

Gunny trotted down the field, way down the field.

“Jenkins, Oh Jenkins, your beloved Gunnery Sergeant is hurt and bleeding.”

(Please, dear Lord, let it be true, bleed to death.)

“If it’s not too much trouble, would you run down here and save my sweet young self?”

Now I was pissed. I ran down that field, jerked him to his waist, then ducked, twisted, lifted, bounced, and ran back toward the men of Delta Battery with Cunningham on my shoulder. When I got back to the formation, I didn’t stop, I ran right through the formation, Cunningham bouncing up and down. Let me tell you that performing the Fireman Carry is tough, but being the wounded man banging around on that carnival ride is no fun either. Cunningham didn’t make a sound. He could have pushed himself off my shoulder at any time, but he endured the punishment as I ran beyond the parade deck, across the street to the unit barracks, to a little patch of grass, where I finally stopped, and dropped him on his ass.

The Marines whistled and cheered. Gunny didn’t even look at me. He just walked back to his place in front of the formation and took control. I knew I was probably going to be in some kind of fix for the “extra effort” I put in to my little demonstration. But I didn’t get in trouble. In fact, a few days later I got my promotion to PFC, and, glory, glory, Cunningham found new recruits to torture.

A year later, you can imagine my unease finding myself, once again, the NFG, this time in actual combat. I had arrived, early and unexpected, at Bravo battery, Chu Lai, Viet Nam, to find waiting for me, once again, Cunningham. Last night, at the E Club he gave me that nasty smirk.

What was Gunny up to this time?

At morning formation, my first formation in my new unit, I was mildly hung over, but looked more or less presentable, thanks to the generosity my hooch mates. Cunningham slammed out of headquarters hooch. A squad leader yelled, “Ten Hut!”

Gunny was adorned in a T-Shirt, cut-offs, combat boots, his salty, weathered fatigue cap, and a stub of a cigar clenched in his teeth.

He spoke about the soiled reputation of the unit and how he was going to clean us up or kill us. He announced that we were going to devote the first two hours of this sweltering, humid, steaming day in beautiful Chu Lai, VET Nam (that’s VET Nam not VIET Nam) to one of our favorite Marine Corps entertainments . . . the Physical Readiness Test.

Oh, Sweet Jesus. I knew what was coming.

We worked through the early events, the push ups, pull ups, and sit ups. Now for the moment we’ve all been waiting for, you got it, the Fireman Carry. I already knew the script, so I just waited in the rear of the formation until everybody else had their turn. Cunningham walked down to the far end of the encampment.


“I’m coming, Gunny”

I ran down to him and stood over him.

“Are you wounded, Gunny?”


“Would you like my assistance?”

“If it wouldn’t be too much inconvenience.”

“Not at all.”

I hoisted him up into the Carry in one clean motion, settled his balance, and ran back down to the men. I rolled him carefully, precisely, to his feet in the exact spot where he gave orders in front of the formation. Again, he didn’t look at me or say a word.

“Get your weapons, and fall out for the run.”

At that time, the standard rifle for the Marine Corps was the M-14, a beautiful, reliable, and robust piece of ordinance. If you ever ran out of ammunition, you could beat somebody to death with it. But you really don’t want to run long distances with the M-14, long distances such as the 3 mile Physical Readiness Test run, under the tropical sun.

We formed up, rifles across our chests, and launched the PRT run, the entire battery, about one hundred Marines, in step, down the red dust road, out the gate, and into VET Nam.

“I don’t know but I’ve been told”


“Russian pussy is mighty cold.”


Everybody we passed looked at us like we were out of our minds, running, chanting, with rifles, in the heat and dust. But you know what? It was fun, really a kick in the pants, the raw sound of a Marine unit running, two hundred boots, slamming down in perfect unison. It always gave me a thrill, and it still does.

We finished our run and returned to the camp, our rifles filthy, ourselves, golems of red dirt and sweat, each of us about two swaggering inches taller.

Gunny wasn’t quite through.

“We are ordered to provide one Marine for a temporary assignment to Vietnamese language school at Camp Sukiran. They want someone who still has a full tour in front of him, and they want a volunteer. Jenkins!”


“You’re going to volunteer for this assignment.”

“But Gunny . . .”

“Did you hear what I said, you are going to FUCKINGVOLUNTEER! The rest of you, take what’s left of the morning to clean up. After chow, report to your section leaders at thirteen hundred hours (1 o’clock in the afternoon). Sergeant, dismiss the men.”


I followed Gunny back to his hooch.

“You got something on your mind?”

“Gunny, what the fuck is going on? I just got here yesterday. I haven’t even unpacked or washed my clothes. Why are you still on my ass? Why are you sending me away?”

He looked at me for a moment, figuring how to respond.

“For the next month, maybe more, this place is going to be crawling with every JAG investigator, every Colonel’s flunky, for all I know the God Almighty IG (Inspector General) himself. You don’t want to be caught up in this pile of vomit, and some how, Jenkins, you will manage to get the stink of this fragging thing on you. I know you. Your big mouth always leads you into the exact middle of every shit storm that blows in. But, you don’t need this. You don’t deserve to be a part of it. I’m putting you out of sight where you may, I say “may,” be able to keep your nose clean. And if you do keep your head down and stay out of sight, I’ll have use for you when you get back. You get me?”

“I guess so.”


“How long is the assignment?”

“Five or six weeks.”

“Where is the school?”


“OKINAWA! I just left Okinawa a few days ago. I hate Okinawa.”

“Oh, Boo Hoo. Need a hankie?”


“When do I leave?”

“This afternoon. Get your gear together. See Crisp for your orders. He’ll take you to the strip to get your flight.”

(deep breath)

“Aye, Aye, Gunny.”

As I walked back to my hooch to clean up and pack, it started coming together. I had completely misinterpreted Gunny’s plan for me, the tough assignments, the glare of his spotlight, the endless ass-busting. I actually was one of his “prize pupils.” Saving my balls from the wrath of the BAMs? The promotion to PFC that followed so closely my triumph with the Fireman Carry? All of it, Gunny! It had to be. Even this morning’s reprise of the Jenkins PRT was Gunny’s way of showing me off in a way that established my credibility with the other Marines.

“Did you see Jenkins snatch that bastard right off his hard ass and trot him back down the hill?”

Now, Gunny was putting me out of harm’s way, protecting me from the stench of the impending investigation. His whole strategy came into focus, it all fit together. I understood something, something I have carried with me for the rest of my life.

You have to be toughest on the ones you love most.

That’s the way it works.


Tuesday, February 2, 2010




Crisp walked me over to the hooch where I’d be living. He told me to take the unoccupied rack (cot) in the middle, along the back row, the least desirable location as befitting a newly-arrived FNG (you already know what that means). My hooch mates were still at work, so I had the place to myself for a while.

Hooch. These temporary quarters, also called “hardbacks,” had been built for us by the Seabees (Navy Construction Battalions). More like Jarheads than Squids, the Seabees can also fight on foot when necessary, so we Marines respected them. Military lore holds that Seabees, in timed contests, can build a hardback hooch from start-to-done in less than forty minutes. Snappy salute to those guys who can put it together fast and get it right the first time.

Our hardbacks were 16 by 32 feet with raised plywood floors and screen doors at both ends. Plywood walls about waist high provided the rigidity. These solid walls were topped by screen all the way up to the roof plate. The roof itself was a waterproofed (mostly) tent with the sides rolled up and tied so that whatever confused breeze might accidentally wander by could blow right through the screen walls. If it rained hard enough, the tent sides could be rolled down. The brick barracks at Cherry Point alternated between equatorial swelter and tundral permafrost. Let me tell you, Seabee hooches are a lot more comfortable.

The guys in my hooch had decorated their personal spaces with lamps, hooks, end tables, footlockers, closet poles, souvenirs, and posters of women. One Marine had an enormous lizard on a string that watched me unblinkingly from its perch up on a rafter. The hooch had a homey feeling about it. Cool.

As I started unpacking my sea bag a stench wafted upward, rank and fetid, like the gasses that seep out when grave robbers open an ancient tomb. I felt like I was on an archeological dig. “What the hell is this,” I queried, unearthing the first repulsive artifact. “Ah. Primitive humans of the Twentieth Century called these objects . . . socks!”

The guys started drifting in and introduced themselves. I knew a couple of them from Delta Battery. They advised me to get my shit together before the next morning’s formation and then pitched in to help me.

“We have a new Gunny.”

“You do NOT want him on your case.”

One of the Delta Marines added, “Cunningham.”

“Yeah. He already knows I’m here.”


Another Marine asked, “You know Cunningham?”

“Like Janet Leigh knows Norman Bates.”

It went right over their heads.

“Who’s Janet Leigh?”

“Just a girl I left behind.”

“Well she’s probably already fucking your brother.”

Marines. Always ready with a kind word. But I laughed, acknowledging that he had won this small verbal engagement. The same Marine told me to give him my belt. What? Shrugging, I took off my belt and gave it to him. He procured a can of paint, took my belt outside and sprayed the buckle and tip black. No reflective brass. Right.

One of the benefits of membership in the Corps is the help freely given by your brothers. Everything I owned was either on me or stuffed into my sea bag, wrinkled and filthy, so one guy loaned me a clean T shirt, another guy loaned me an iron so I could get my least dirty pair of trousers into presentable shape. I washed my cover (fatigue cap) by hand, borrowed a cover block (imagine a four-inch length of stovepipe) and starched my cover into the personal style I had artistically evolved back in “the world.” The blocking process required the sheet metal block, spray starch, and several clothes pins, all of which I borrowed. My personal style featured hard, straight sides terminating in a sharp rim that encircled the crown of the cap, creating a small crater on top, a shallow declivity into which a mother sea bird might construct her sturdy nest. Every Marine had his own cover fashion, the goal of which was to make the starched cap as outlandish as possible without forcing one of the officers to call you on it.

I also noticed that most of the Marines possessed sexy, canvas-topped “jungle boots.” I sinfully coveted a pair for myself so that I could launch my style journey from FNG to “salty.” But that would have to wait.

Supply guys are good to know. Every hooch should have it’s own Supply Buddy. Our “procurement specialist” arrived with a blanket, a canteen cup and a few other odds and ends for me to begin building my kit.

In quick time my hooch had me sorted out enough to survive the morning formation without you-know-who embellishing my rear end with a new asshole.

The guys started getting out of their fatigues and into swim suits, flip flops and Hawaiian shirts.

“He can’t go like that,” complained Newcomb, a Motor T ape. Bert Newcomb and I would later collaborate on several enjoyable, if stupid, excursions out in the boonies.

John Boocher, on whom I would eventually hang the nickname, John-The-Baptist-Boocher ordered me to give him my worst pair of trousers. Well, OK. I tossed over a pair of fatigues.

“Nurse Davis, scissors!”

Private Roger-Dale-Davis-from-West-By-God-Virginia moued like Betty Boop and obeyed with a falsetto giggle.”

“Yes, DOCTOR Boocher.”

Taking the scissors like a melodramatic surgeon, Boocher cut the legs off my trousers and proudly presented me with a rather uneven pair of cut-off shorts.

“OK. Let’s hit it!”

“Hit what?”

“The fucking Club, Jenx! The drinking lamp is lit!”


I followed the guys out of the hooch, down a path heading south, around a little hill to a ramshackle open-air shack fondly known as the E Club. Some one (not a Seabee!) had whacked together a bar of sorts and a few benches. Up-ended cable spools served as tables. A few bare light bulbs, assorted posters of women, and a South Vietnamese flag completed the d├ęcor. That was it except for . . . the view.

Bravo Battery occupied a point that jutted out into the South China Sea. Stretched out below us was all of Chu Lai, a James Michener wet dream vision of Old Hawaii. Miles, I mean MILES of sandy beach, palm trees, and surf. As I was taking it in, a mellow tropical breeze blew across my face. I took a deep breath. One of my new buddies walked up and handed me a cold (cold!) Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Bravo. Breeze. Beer. Beauty. Buddies. Bobby.

I’m starting to like this war.

The E Club filled up with all the lower-ranking Marines, everyone who was not on duty. One guy showed up with a guitar and began to play (appallingly). We joined in, singing along with the few songs he almost knew. The beer was cheap, but not free, and you could run a tab. The proceeds were designated for club “improvements,” the specific details of which were a closely guarded secret of the Club Committee. We started drinking, seriously drinking, to support the Club improvements, of course. We drank, and sang, and told stories, stories about Nutcase fragging the CO, stories about Cunningham, the baddest of all bad-asses in the Corps, stories about the women we left behind, and the women were going to meet on R and R (Rest and Relaxation) in Hong Kong, or Tai Pei, or Kuala Lumpur, or . . . Bangkok. Bang. . . cock! Just the name, Bangkok, brought a smile to every face.

Eventually the noise died down. We told stories of home. Some of the guys were homesick.

Not me.

I asked the “musician” if I could borrow his guitar. He passed it over. What a piece of shit, a no-name junker from Da Nang or Saigon. It was de-laminating and buzzy. The keys were corroded, but they worked, after a fashion. I was able to tune it, more or less. The strings were so rusty they left brown lines on my fingers. I ran through a couple of fast scales and a few chord progressions. The club was dead quiet. Everyone was starring at the FNG.

Show time.

At Cherry Point I had perfected a couple of recent tunes that the guys seemed to like. I hit the opening chords of “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.”

Bump bum . . . ba da bum . . . ba dum bum
Bump bum . . . ba da bum . . . ba dum bum
Bump bum . . . ba da bum . . . ba dum bum
Bump bum . . . ba da bum . . . ba dum bum

I can’t get no . . . o . . . satisfaction . . .

The Club went nuts. Every swinging dick was on his feet or on the benches or on the tables screaming the song at the top his lungs. When the song was finished, after many repeats of the chorus, the Marines yelled and clapped, howled and stomped.

“More! More! More!”

This was 1966, and most of the songs I knew, the ones that could actually be played on a single de-laminating Vietnamese guitar, were folk songs, and that was just fine with these brothers. I plowed through my Peter, Paul, and Mary (Lemon Tree) repertoire, and slid over to The Kingston Trio (Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley) canon. Bob Dylan tunes were a big hit, especially Like a Rolling Stone and Mr. Tambourine Man for which I knew all the lyrics (and still do). I finished the first set with Wake Up Little Susie by the Brothers, the Everly Brothers. You may not know this, but the Everly Brothers were Marines from 1961 to 1963, and they are, as you can imagine, beloved of the Corps.

I had a couple more beers. By this time higher ranking enlisted men, Corporals, Sergeants and above, who had their own quiet little club somewhere else in camp, began to drift in and were welcomed with beers on the house. The great event was the arrival of, you guessed it, Gunny Cunningham who shot me a self-satisified little smirk that only I could see, (What is he up to?)

The guys were begging me for more contemporary stuff. Gunny Cunningham gave me a small public nod of encouragement (what is he up to?). I assayed California Girls, Wooly Booly, Hang on Sloopy, My Girl, and Mrs. Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter. It all worked. Another get-up-on-the-table destroyer was We Gotta Get Outta This Place. Can you imagine how loud we screamed that sucker? By this point I was beyond the songs I had mastered, the guitar work was horrible, but nobody cared, and if I couldn’t hack a guitar bridge, we’d just sing it.

We gotta get outta this place
(singing) Ba da da DUM!
If it's the last thing we EVER do
(singing) Ba da da DUM!

More beers.

My finger tips were killing me so I slowed down and dropped us into the depths of melancholy with two of the best tunes by the other Brothers, the Righteous Brothers, Unchained Melody and You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling.

I had reached the point where I could no longer even feel my finger tips. I thought I could squeeze one more out of those rusty strings with a simple first position C, A minor, F and G chording. I chose an oldy-but-goodie, the tune Judy Vance and I most loved for our slow dances at Florida High . . .

Moon River.

Everybody joined in, and we sung that sentimental lullaby so sweetly, with such sincerity. So beautiful. So drunk. When the last chord died away, we sat there together, silently looking out at the stars above an alien sea, so very far away from home.

I won’t speak for anybody else, but I was happier in that moment than . . . well . . . happier than I could ever remember being. I was doing something I thought was noble, in the company of my brothers, in this spectacular place. I had been fully accepted by these Marines and was already one of them. I even had a new nickname, Jenx, and a reputation. They loved me, and I loved them.

Well, maybe not Cunningham. What did he mean with that secret little smirk?