Barbara and Toni, 1978
About the Vietnam War, Clifford and I believed the government was feeding us lies. President Johnson had claimed we adhered to the provisions of the Geneva Accords, which forbade us from sending fighting troops to Southeast Asia. So we sent “advisors” like my friend Don, an Army Ranger who fought guerrillas in Cambodia in 1962.
When Cliff dropped out of San Diego State and lost his deferment, he considered refusing the draft, moving to Canada, or convincing an orthodontist to brace his teeth, as suggested by an attorney who gave volunteer draft-evasion counseling at the college.
But Evelyn, Cliff s mother whom we both loved and respected in spite of her stern Catholic ways, sat him down and admitted her concern that if any son of Cliff s father, particularly the first-born, were to run from his patriotic duty, Dad would take his “disgrace” out on the rest of them.
The army assigned Cliff to an infantry company. After basic training at Fort Ord near Monterey and Advanced Individual Training in Fort Polk, Louisiana, he visited home before his journey to Vietnam. One of those days, on the drive to Ocean Beach, we each swallowed a tab of LSD. It was May already, yet cold and foggy. A few surfers were out. Retired people paced the sand using metal detectors. We sat on the pier tossing peanut shells into the choppy waves, and Cliff described the reception he expected in Vietnam. According to lectures, films, and rumor, along the jungle trails, his every step might detonate a mine, trip a wire, alert a platoon of snipers, or land him in a pit of venomous snakes or sharpened javelin-sticks doused with poison.
Using my drug-magnified imagination, I watched him die repeatedly, while he spoke with such bizarre calm, I concluded the army must have muted a part of his mind.
October 31, 1967
This is a short note to inform you that due to a previous engagement I will be unable to attend your reception on the 29th, mainly because that was two days ago.
Please accept my sincere apology and let me express my joyous congratulations. I never thought the army would get me, and I never thought I’d see old Kuhlken married. Now they both happen at the same time! Whoa! I hope your marriage lifts you up as much as the army brings me down. You’ll be very happy.
Hey listen, I’m higher than Mars, been this way all day. Let me tell you what happened. This morning I was put out on this road to catch anybody that tried to evade a roadblock. Well, I figured it would be quite a while out there, so I brought my writing paper along to write you a letter. So I’m out there getting ripped, and I start to write, but words don’t seem to be able to say it, so I start tripping and remember the old adage about a picture is worth 1000 words — so look and see for yourself. I drew my shadow — it’s bad to cast a shadow like that.
I was tripping away on the picture, just telling you everything, and I reached for another joint, and the next thing I know bullets are flying everywhere — what a bring-down. I left the picture where I was when I got interrupted.
Just got back from patrol. We went after the cats that were shooting at the roadblock, and as soon as it gets dark, we have to go out on a night ambush, and every night Charlie attacks the bridge, and then we have to pull back under fire. You see, we are guarding a bridge. Ten men. Seven men go on the ambush patrol, three men guard the bridge. Charlie can add and subtract too. So he attacks.
You probably heard about my lieutenant, the one that kicks kids. He beat up a woman the other day, drew blood. He’s fucked up, this whole place is — I quit!
December 5, 1967
If you really want me to fill you in on anything worth filling you in on, it won’t take long.
I’m still alive. 2. I hate the army. 3. If I die, bury me face down so the world can kiss my ass.
Those are my most profound thoughts. Not really, but.... I was in the hospital for ten days. Had grenade fragments in my eye. Too bad it healed up okay. I was hoping I’d lose my eye so I could come home. The way it is now, I’m getting ready to go back to the field.
You’ll be graduating soon, and the army will come snooping around, so plan your course of action. Whatever you do, don’t, I repeat don’t let the army get you. If you refuse the draft, more power to you; you have more courage than I do.
When I get back from Vietnam, I’ll have 45 days leave, and I’ll use that spare room of yours. Then I have five months left in the army — a breeze, Fort Ord probably. After that, who knows? I’ve been thinking of living down in Mexico for a while. But it’s too far away to think about.
My R&R comes up in February. Going to Hawaii sounds good except that if I got that close, I’d probably just hop a plane and fly home — and if I flew home, I’d never make it back here, and the Torrey family would be covered with disgrace because of a deserter!
May 3, 1968
I got your post cards from Mexico. Wish I was there. I’m in the hospital. Got another purple shaft. I’m really glad to be out of the field too. They are sending me down to Cam Rahn Bay for recuperation. Cam Rahn is more secure than Detroit; even LBJ stops there. I figure a month more of sham time, then my R&R comes up finally, and afterward I’ll be pretty short. The hospital life is nice. I’ve got me a supply of grass and have been getting high twice a day. There is a groovy spot right outside the ward, plenty of fresh air blowing around, and there I sit, sweetly polluting the air. And then there are a million things to trip on, like your letter. That’s sharp, Kenny, a college graduate delivering eggs...
June 15, 1968
Sorry I didn’t answer your last letter, but I had just gotten back from Australia and I was physically sick, because I hated so much coming back here.
It was late fall in Sydney and cold, but that didn’t stop the beautiful girls from wearing their miniskirts.... Of course, I fell in love, with a big beautiful blonde...alas, she is frigid... But I dig Australia, the people are groovy; more independent, less phoney. Didn’t take any grass with me, the Aussies are too hard on it, but I drank the whole time and could hardly get a buzz.
I’ll be back in 38 days. My arm is o.k., just a little scar. Please greet me with drugs, liquor, and a friendly, loving, turned-on female companion. I’ll buy the peanuts. Seriously, we’ll get high together in 38 days, Kenny.
Cliff made himself a home in the storeroom off our shed, rigging it with a toilet and bathtub. He found a job refinishing tennis courts and changed his drug of choice from marijuana to Colt 45 Malt Liquor. “Grass was okay over there,” he told me. “Here, it just makes me think about over there, and it makes me shy. If I’m going to talk to anybody, I’d better be drinking, otherwise I don’t know what the hell to say.”
Yet even while drinking, he chose not to talk about anything earnest. If I mentioned the past or future, he’d excuse himself and go to the kitchen for a Colt 45. He drank at least one tall can every waking hour. At bedtime, he’d set two frozen Colts on his nightstand, so they’d be thawed but chilled when he woke. He launched every day with a Camel straight and a quart of malt liquor.
Billy, Cliff’s younger brother, was studying architecture. When he left for Cal Poly San Luis Obispo with his wife and three kids, Cliff joined them and used his military savings for a down payment on a roomy old house in Atascadero. Billy’s wife Sue had five sisters, Toni was the youngest. At 17, she acted timid and looked plainer than the girl I would’ve picked for Clifford. When they married, I hadn’t a clue that she would become a great beauty.
Over the next decade, on weekend visits, I watched their daughters Jesse and Barbara grow up bright and strong under Toni’s nurturing, while Clifford stayed busy supporting them on whatever job didn’t call for too much sobriety. He worked on a mushroom farm, in gas stations, and as a draftsman, which allowed him to stay home and drink all day. I marveled at his consistency— two six-packs of Colt 45 every day for 20 years. I learned to count on his cycles. Sober or buzzed, though, he could skunk me in Ping-Pong. I regularly became the weekend’s champion by postponing the championship game until after 10 p.m. when he might as easily whiff the ball and fall down.
The summer of 1986, the year of my divorce, I spent two weeks at Cliff s place. By now, he was sinking. Once he got so drunkenly mean, he pitched a full tall can at the TV screen, shattering a presidential candidate. Later he groaned, “Kenny, I was sure I could drink myself to death before I reached 40. It didn’t work. I can’t keep doing this.”
An independent producer had invited me to help write a script and act in his film about a Vietnam vet recovering from alcoholism. As my consultant, Clifford opened his heart for the first time about Vietnam. He told me about a raid on a village. His platoon split in half, and he was searching for VC when the noise of rapid-firing issued from the other side of the village. Then his buddy came running and grabbed him, shouting the news that guys had flipped and were killing everything. Kids. Women. Pigs and dogs.
Cliff glowered as though I were his buddy delivering the news and shouted, “I said, ‘What can I do? What can I do?’ I had no authority. What could I do, huh? What could I do, Kenny? Huh? Tell me that, will you?!” He passed out, still muttering, “What could I do?”
For the film, I wrote a story based on one of Clifford’s.
“We were a three-man team. We took turns out front, one of us on point each day. At nights we rotated keeping watch. There was Austin, a hick from Colorado, harmless except when he lost his head. And Roy, a guy I first appreciated because he was always holding, and I needed smokes in those days. If you could stay loaded enough, sometimes hell came closer to making sense. Or unsense, like a mad tea party.
“Roy sang all the time. Usually Motown stuff. I’d wake up by him wailing, ‘Sunshine, blue skies, please go away, my love has found another....’ He sang lousy, but I got used to his scratchy voice. Besides, I knew the singing was his way to space out of there, transport himself back to the world. Once we were trapped, surrounded. It looked like we were all going down. Austin, Roy, another guy, and I landed together in a culvert. Austin was screaming in a rage, and it was all I could do to breathe around the rock in my throat. But Roy was chanting a loud gospel song while appearing to fire all we had at once — M-16, grenades, gas canisters — and he never quit grinning.
“We stayed most always out on patrol, hardly ever seeing a base camp. For weeks I’d be around Roy nearly every minute. My mom used to say there were two kinds of people — givers and takers. Roy was a giver who’d sit with any wounded until the medics showed. At times when it seemed I’d never let go of being spooked long enough to sleep, or if I jerked awake out of a nightmare, Roy would be there to talk low until the terrors dispersed. He didn’t waste his strength hating Charlie or bitching about rations, the heat, or when blinding mists came down from the hills, or about leeches and snakes. Guys like me, when the fear lifted, we’d sink into gloom and self-pity. Other guys turned into death-junkies and got freaked if we lasted too long without action, since making hell into a killing party was the only honest reason they could find for being there. Not Roy.
“One morning, the first bright, clear sunrise in a while, we started right off, crossed a hill, and looked down on some rice paddies and, south of them, a clearing with about 50 thatched huts set up against the far hillside. We thought it was only a village. But our lieutenant, the baby kicker, looked close with his glasses. Austin came over and pulled out a joint and lit up, but he could hardly pass the thing, the way his hand was shaking. The lieutenant called us over and pointed out a tunnel opening in the far hillside. Little men in black pajamas—they looked like ants from up where we stood—cut across the clearing, carrying bundles from the hooches to the tunnel. The lieutenant decided it was an NVA base camp, which they were vacating. He said we were going in. Catch them off-guard.
“Austin was on point that day. Half of us followed, bunched around Roy. Lately, because of him always smiling, a rumor got started that he was charmed.
“Those of us in front watched ahead for pits, and the rest gazed around or up in the trees for snipers. There was a field and a path that could’ve been mined, so we tried to stay in Austin’s footprints. About when we reached the first hooches, we started hearing the bursts from automatics and the maniac whoops guys make when they cut loose on everything in sight and screams so anguished you couldn’t know if they were ours or theirs or a man or a girl. But all that was happening down on the other flank. Our side was quiet. Empty hooches. The ones with doors, we fired into. Where there weren’t doors, we’d toss in grenades. The third grenade I used tripped a mine beneath the hooch’s dirt floor. The mine blew with a roar and flash, before I’d ditched back far enough. Something hit my flak vest, and I went crashing down. Then I was blind.
“At first, I thought it was from the light, but slowly I figured that though I’d been mostly protected from shrapnel by the wall of the hooch, particles had blown through and hit my eyes. They scorched hotter and hotter. Still, I heard the fighting on the other flank die out. Then Roy was beside me. He said none of us got wasted, and he sang, ‘I Got a Woman,’ trying to sound like Ray Charles. Meaning it was okay to be blind.
“After a while, my sight came back, though everything was gray and dim. Seven of us had been wounded, and we’d snuffed all ten or so of the NVA who hadn’t escaped to the tunnels. The lieutenant was sending for rabbits to invade the tunnels, and a Medevac was on its way. I sat there feeling painless and high just to think about a real white bed, nurses, morphine, the chance to sleep all the way under, in safety. Oscar the chief medic had looked at my eyes and was sending me away. But the baby kicker was prowling, making rounds of the casualties. He pointed to things and asked what I could see. Like a moron, I told him, and he finally said that the next couple days we needed everybody who could stand and shoot. Then Oscar and the lieutenant were screeching at each other, and Alex and Austin were carrying me to the Medevac. The last I heard, before the chopper started whupping, was from Roy. He was trying to sing high like Smokey Robinson.
“Those were two plush weeks for me, at the hospital. Morphine loosened me up, so I could jive with a nurse called Melinda. She smelled so clean, and she read to me from Life magazines and a Beatles’ fan book. The doctor kept putting on new bandages, and I kept shoving them aside enough so I could watch Melinda swishing by. As they weaned me off morphine, I replaced it with beer, which they let us drink outside on the deck, where I also collected dozens of jokes to take back. I wanted to tell them to Roy. Only he’d gotten blasted the day after I flew out. On my day to walk point.
“Usually the point man won’t get ambushed, because that would clue the rest to find cover. But Charlie hit him with 50 bullets. Afterward, Austin went nuts and counted the holes in Roy's body.
“I had met the unit back at the base camp. It was dusk when I heard the story. For a long time I walked around blaming the lieutenant, swearing I’d waste him. I tried lying still on the ground, curled up tightly. Nothing helped, until Austin and I pestered Oscar into giving us shots of morphine. We smoked another hour or so, then I saw these pale shadows gliding across the field between us and a hill. They looked a hundred yards or so away. About a dozen of them floated along, dull gray shapes. I kept pointing until Austin saw them too. I surmised that they were angels, on a mission to carry spirits to a different hell. We put our M-16s on single shot and started picking them off. Nobody tried to stop us. Maybe they thought we were dangerously flipped. I laughed, feeling immortal, like nothing was more powerful than me. Before long, the field was a mess of fallen angels.”
Toni’s patience and devotion to Cliff astonished me. The few times she sent him packing, she still acted out of love for him and the girls and wouldn’t let him return without improvement and sincere promises. At last, when she left him for good, she must have known it was the only move that could save him. Without her to buoy him, Clifford sank. Ten sober years ago, he landed in Fresno at a VA rehabilitation center.
He and Toni have two younger children, nine and seven, besides grownup Jesse and Barbara, who wrote this story:
“My father is a Vietnam veteran. He was drafted two days after Christmas of 1966, on his 21st birthday. His father, a veteran of World War II, urged him to serve his country. In the tradition of his family, my father joined the army and was sent to Vietnam. This all happened long before I was born, long before my parents ever met.
“As I grew up, I witnessed after-effects of my father’s decision. I would find him late at night at the kitchen table, crying, talking to my mom. At the time, I was too young to understand what it was: all I knew was that my hero, my daddy, was crying. Something had hurt him, scared him, bad enough to evoke tears.
“Of course, later on, I was told why. I knew many people had died, been killed, for something I didn’t understand then and still don’t fully comprehend. All I knew was my daddy had been there, had seen it, and somehow, had come out of it, not only alive, but with his body and mind still intact. The only visible scar is a bullet wound on his shoulder, although I am sure there are many no one can see.
“To me the Vietnam War was unreal, far away. I had watched movies and read books but never really understood until the summer of 1991. I went to Michigan to visit my aunt Dorothy and uncle Doug and my cousin Ian. They were planning on giving me a tour of the East Coast, as much as three weeks would allow, anyway. This was to include a day in Washington, D.C., which meant I was to visit the memorial.
“My dad had never been to see the Wall, only a replica of it once in Fresno. He asked me to get a rubbing of the name Roy Yoder. I had heard of Roy before; my brother was named Austin Roy after two men my father knew in the war. Austin had lived, as far as my dad knew. Roy hadn’t.
“During my father’s tour of duty, a grenade had blown up in front of him, and he needed immediate surgery to remove the pieces of shrapnel that were lodged in his eyes. He was supposed to walk point the next day. Roy was placed there instead, and he was killed. I don’t know whether my dad feels guilt, as though it should have been him out there, but it scares me to think it could have been.
“For days before we reached D.C., I was plagued with the worry that I might not feel a thing when I saw the memorial. I was afraid it would not affect me at all. I was very wrong.
“On July 11, my 15th birthday, Dorothy, Doug, Ian, and I went to see the Wall. Words fail to express the feelings that filled me at that moment. It made me seem very small. From a distance all I could see was a huge black wall and people. We walked closer and waited in line to use the index. I kept staring at the memorial. It was overpowering. Thousands of names, row by row, of people killed in combat. My daddy’s name could have been up there. I started to cry. My tears were not only for my father, but for the lives which these names represented. The lives lost for something so confusing to me. As I stared at the Wall I thanked the creator of this massive monument. I knew the feelings brought forth in me were similar to those experienced by every person who viewed this wall.
“I knew everything I needed to know to find Roy’s name. Roy Yoder, 4th Infantry Division, ’68-’69.1 couldn’t find it in the index. There were three Yoders. One, James S. Yoder, was from the 4th Infantry Division, but the date was ’67-’68.
“My aunt helped me to find a pay phone, and I called my dad at work. When I heard his voice, all I could say was, ‘Daddy,’ before I started crying too hard to speak. I handed the phone to Dorothy and she explained. When I took the phone back, my dad told me Roy’s full name was James Roy Strong Yoder, and it was ’67-’68, not ’68-’69. He was silent and I asked him if he remembered what day it was. He said, ‘Oh Barb, I’m sorry, Happy Birthday. I hadn’t forgot, it was just kind of emotional for me.’ In those few moments, although I was 3000 miles away, I felt closer to my dad than ever before.
“I went back to the wall and got a rubbing of Roy’s name. I felt the need to cry. I wasn’t the only one. I still remember many faces, crumpled in sorrow; they are photographs that will stay in my mind forever.
“I had heard about people bringing gifts and leaving letters at the wall, but never understood why; after all, the people were dead. It’s unexplainable the feeling I got that day, but I sat down and wrote a letter to Roy, telling him about myself, my family, and my dad. I left that letter there, under Roy’s name, for him and anyone else who happened to read it.”
Clifford’s dad invited me to dinner. Over dessert, prompted by a second glass of wine, he said, “I have to tell you, the way I treated my son, pushed Cliff into that war, I wouldn’t blame him if he accused me of intentionally wrecking his life. But Toni — I can’t tell you how dearly I love that girl or how grateful to her I am — she came along and saved him. As if God sent her.” A few days later, I asked my best friend to marry me, and she accepted. That weekend, I was driving and listening to Garrison Keillor—who reminds me of Cliff because their accents are similar, as Cliff spent his childhood in North Dakota. Keillor’s Hopeful Gospel Quartet performed a song whose chorus runs, “Redeeming love has been my theme, and shall be till I die.”
“Yes! Yes!” I declared. “That’s my theme too.”