Friday, October 14, 2016

The Wall (no, not THAT wall, this post is apolitical)

Doug Coleman (Vietnam) and his father, Cleo Coleman (World War II)
   Just a side note, the title of this post has nothing to do with the presidential race. Rather it is about the wall that sometimes exists between a father and a son, that did exist between my father and me. I learned many years after his death that when I ran away from home at the age of six (I only made it as far as the corner grocery store, where I unraveled my hobo stick and spent my life savings on a Pepsi before my grandmother came looking for me and brought me home), he discussed getting some kind of counseling for me, and even though I never got the counseling, I realized only then that he was more sensitive than I knew him to be growing up.
   When I got my deferment from the Vietnam War, he said he opposed the war on strategic grounds -- that was circa 1970 -- because he didn't think it was winnable, but then he had second thoughts and hinted that he thought the Army might have made more of a man out of me.
   I never knew him very well, and that's something I regret. We never bonded the way fathers and sons often do. His father was an excellent chess player and so was he, but I could never get him to play chess with me and soon lost interest in the game. We never went to a baseball game. In retrospect, I remember him once saying that he wished he could have gone out for a beer with his father-in-law, my maternal grandfather. I never went out for a beer with my father. But before I start crying in my nonexistent beer, I used to say the only thing I inherited from my father was his sense of humor -- he had a great sense of humor and was a wonderful storyteller when I was a child -- and for that I'm eternally grateful.
   Now, getting back to this post before I get any more maudlin, it is about fathers and sons. A few years back I read online that a book was coming out that was an oral history of fathers who served in World War II and their sons who were in Vietnam. I thought damn, that's a good idea, and in fact it's an idea I had at a reunion of my father's 712th Tank Battalion when I learned that Cleo Coleman, a B Company veteran from Phelps, Kentucky, had brought several family members to the reunion including his son Doug, who was a veteran of the Vietnam War. I thought I'll bet they never sat down and compared wars, and it turned out I was right, so I got them to sit down together with the tape recorder running. Dale Albee, another World War II veteran, joined us. Dale was mostly quiet, listening, during the interview, but when the subject of movies came up, Dale, the World War II veteran, remarked that one of the most realistic scenes he ever saw in a movie was in "Platoon," Oliver Stone's movie about Vietnam, when a Vietcong soldier is shot and a puff of dirt comes out of the back of his jacket. Doug said he saw that too, and that's what it was really like.
   I didn't buy the book about fathers and sons, "Brave Men, Gentle Heroes," when it came out. But a couple of months ago I saw a notice that the author, Michael Takiff, was going to speak at the New Britain Museum of American Art. As I work part time in New Britain and occasionally stay there, I thought I'd like to go hear him talk, even if it meant I'd probably have to buy his book.
   Not that I didn't want to buy his book. As an author, I love selling books and collecting the occasional royalty, but as a reader I hate paying full price for a book, especially when I'm not likely to read it and I could buy it used for a few cents plus $3.99 shipping, and in many cases used on amazon means practically new.
   The talk was interesting. Virtually everything he said about the World War II veterans I had heard a dozen times over straight from the source, albeit from different veterans, and the audience was very moved. Afterward I bought his book, paperback, for $15 and he signed it, but I still haven't read it. But I asked him a question at the end of his talk.
   The whole 45 minutes that he spoke, there was no humor. The few Vietnam veterans I've spoken with at length often mentioned humor, and humor was essential to both Vietnam and World War II veterans. Look at all the humorous blogs like "Duffel Blog" from Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, and all the funny videos of terrorists accidentally blowing themselves up. And the introduction of the talk noted that the author, Takiff, was a comedian early in his career. So I asked him if he had heard any humorous stories from the veterans of either war. He said he couldn't think of any offhand.
   Of the 20 reviews his book got on, most are of the five-star variety, but the one two-star review he got pointed out how all the stories in the book are grim. Reading that, I didn't regret not yet having read the book.
   On the other hand, there isn't much, if any, humor in my interview with Cleo and Doug Coleman. The interview is 29 pages single spaced. I just did searches on the words "laugh," "funny" and "humor" and the only thing that came up was a comment in which Doug was talking about his life after the war:

Doug Coleman: I=ll tell you, the life I live right now, believe it or not, and he can tell you that, I mean I laugh and joke about it, and my wife laughs and jokes about it, my kids even laugh and joke about it, and you might think it=s dumb and stupid, and he can tell you, I live that kind of life, I live like Forrest Gump, don=t I? I mow grass for how many hours, I live out in the country, I don=t hardly never see nobody, and that=s the way I live.

Cleo Coleman: Just like me, I want to be by myself a lot of times. I just don=t know, if the war did anything to me or what.
   And here's the part about "Platoon":

Doug Coleman: I seen things in movies that I relate to...

Aaron Elson: Because movies, they go for the grotesque and the really bizarre, do the things that they show in movies about Vietnam, do they approximate what you saw yourself?

Doug Coleman: Yeah, a lot of it is, it=s just like the guy that made Platoon, that=s the way I lived. The guy that made the movie, he was there. He lived that life. Now that=s exactly almost identical to the way, I know this was a movie, but that=s the way I lived. And that=s how it was.

Dale Albee: May I say something? The same thing I was gonna say of APlatoon.@ Do you remember when that Vietnamese ran, and the guy shot him, did you see that puff of dirt come out of his back?

Aaron Elson: I don=t remember, but yes...

Dale Albee: Did you remember that? He shot him, and you saw that puff of dirt.

Doug Coleman: Yeah.

Dale Albee: That=s exactly what you get when you hit a guy. When you see a guy running and you shoot him that=s exactly what you get is that little puff. And that was one of the things that I remember about APlatoon.@ Because that=s actually the way it happened.
The full interview with Cleo and Doug Coleman is at It is also included in my collection of a dozen fascinating edited transcripts, "A Mile in Their Shoes: Conversations With Veterans of World War II."