Coming of Age in the Shadow of Vietnam

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

Memoir writers are forensic historians, attempting to reconstruct the stories buried in the past. Take for example, Sandy Hanna, a marketing executive and artist, looking forward to retirement, Her childhood must have seemed like a distant dream.

But the mystery of those times called to her, begging to be told. In fact, her military father “The Colonel” ordered her to tell the story. He wanted to let others know that just Ignorance of Bliss Sandy Hannabefore the Vietnam war started, there were levers of choice and power that could have averted the catastrophe. If only we had applied wisdom instead of force.

Her adventure began in 1960 when her family lived in Saigon. While her father investigated the feasibility of the United States military involvement in that remote part of the world, this ten year old girl had to figure out how to grow up.

Thanks to the less protective parenting style of those times, and the hyper-resourceful instincts of kids who grew up in the military, Sandy’s older brother figured out how to start a small black-market business. The little girl discovered her brother’s scheme and threatened to expose him unless he cut her in on the action. She didn’t need the money. She just had a thirst for adventure.

If she had been in the States, she might have been playing jacks or hopscotch. In Saigon, she entertained herself by selling baby powder and chocolate at a street market among the locals. She came home looking all innocent to her unsuspecting military parents. Her precocious business venture provides a fascinating variation on the resourceful way kids everywhere can get themselves into trouble.

But when you take into account that her coming of age occurred in the epicenter of the coming war, the story takes on a deeper meaning, shrouding the innocence of her childhood in the shadows of one of the great conflagrations of modern times.

A few years after her escapades, college campuses would explode with screams to stop the war, and the verdant jungles of Vietnam would explode with the screams of those who were participating in it. Protesters, police, soldiers, displaced civilians, and the many millions touched by the counter culture were all swept up in the chaos.

After the waves receded, Sandy Hanna, like the rest of us tried to get back to the hard work of becoming an adult. But as she approached retirement she thought, “If not now, when?”

Now, at last, almost 60 years later Hanna offers Ignorance of Bliss, one of the gutsiest, quirkiest tales of coming of age I have read, complete with mystery, with a brilliant, cunning child-hero, a colorful cast of characters (including a pet monkey), and a feel-good ending too cool for me to risk spoiling.

A little girl’s view of Saigon, from inside the home of a top military attache, bursts with insight into the delicate balance that holds civilization together, shows how small actions can create large results, and how coming of age in a crazy world often requires a bit of craziness in response. The whole thing would look terrific on the big screen.

Many boomers who saw such a movie might walk out of the theater with a nagging need to reconstruct their own stories about growing up during that era.

At first, you might recoil from such a desire. Our culture is saturated with evocative symbols of that era such as Woodstock, the Beatles and Cheech and Chong on the fun side and all the hellish images of foot soldiers in jungles on the bad side. But in reality, we have far less understanding of the introspective experience of the individuals who had to make sense of their own lives during that period..

For most of the hippies, soldiers, Jesus freaks, Hari Krishnas, stoners, groupies, Hell’s Angels, dropouts, and any of the other menagerie of counter-cultural extremes, those years have always seemed better left buried. The whole thing was so embarrassing and confusing, that in order to return to a normal life, our whole generation allowed itself to hide behind the clichés..

As boomers take stock of where we’ve been, our first memories often reinforce the clichés and embarrassment. Such first-glances are far too simplistic to do justice to our intricate passage tinto adulthood. A book length memoir is the only medium rich and deep enough to convey those inner journeys.

If you accept the challenge posed by Sandy Hanna’s memoir, you will find yourself immersed in one of the most important activities in civilization. Civilization requires the steadying influence of the longer view of history, which can only be seen through the eyes of elders.

From the stories of people who grew up in the midst of those changes, we learn so much from each other about the way humans respond to the forces of history. And by sharing these psychologically rich narratives, you will be offering your life to increase our collective wisdom, one story at a time.

Developing your story in a readable form might sound scary or hard. But I have watched many writers go from disbelief, to hard work, to completed publication. I know it can be done. (For more insight into this process, read my book Memoir Revolution.)

Here are a few other memoirs of the Vietnam War and Counterculture era I’ve read and one that I’ve written. I’m sure there will be many more as boomers retire and try to find the story of those complex times:

Thinking my Way to the End of the World by Jerry Waxler
An Incredible Talent for Existing by Pamela Jane
Hippie Chick: Coming of Age in the ’60s by Ilene English

Times They were a Changing — a book of short stories by women about that time edited by Amber Lea Starfire and Linda Joy Myers

A Temporary Sort of Peace by Jim McGarrah
A soldier in the thick of combat, horrifies himself. A great look at the horror of being a soldier, and a great prelude to the return to sanity memoir Offtrack.

Offtrack by Jim McGarrah
After the crushing psychological trauma of combat in Vietnam, McGarrah uses the horse people who run race tracks as a sort of half way house to return to society.

Click here. for brief descriptions and links to other posts on this blog.

Read about the social trend that is providing us with insights into our shared experience, one story at a time. Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

Veterans seek healing by cycling through Vietnam

by Jerry Waxler

(You can listen to the podcast version by clicking the player control at the bottom of this post or download it from iTunes.)

In 1998 a group of American veterans joined their former Vietnamese enemies on a bicycle ride from Hanoi to Saigon. They rode through villages and countryside, much of it unchanged since the war. The venture was documented in a recently released video, “Vietnam: Long Time Coming,” from Kartemquin Films. Villagers waved and children, who had been playing in the paddy fields, ran shouting and laughing towards the stream of brightly clad cyclists. These idyllic scenes highlighted the enormous shift in perspective between the past and the present.

Outside, in the world around them, the world seemed peaceful, while much of the real drama was taking place inside their minds, where memories boiled and occasionally erupted into tears. I empathized with the courage it must have taken to face the country where deep scars were burned into their psyche, and several times I cried along with them.

I first learned about this movie because of my interest in a memoir by one of the participants, George Brummell. In “Shades of Darkness,” George wrote about growing up black in the segregated south, coming of age in Korea, and being blinded by a land mine in Vietnam. Back in the states he learned how to navigate without sight, earned a college degree, and eventually became a director of the blinded veterans association. (Click here to read the essay I wrote about George Brummell’s book Shades of Darkness.)

George and the others who returned to Vietnam for this ride were reaching out towards a new relationship with this place where their lives had been changed forever. Through the documentary movie “The Long Time Coming” I was able to witness that experience and gain a deeper understanding of the psychological aftermath of war. This may seem like a highly specialized concern, but the pain spills out to family, friends, and the community. People are affected for decades when combat veterans feel that they have crossed over a chasm that can only be traversed in one direction, and once on the other side, they cannot find their way back. The existence of that pain in my fellow human beings stirs my desire to understand more.

The movie “Long Time Coming” illustrates that revisiting the past is one of the tools that can help heal in the present. Even though you can’t always return to the scene physically, you can create some of the same effects by writing. Visiting the past through writing can enable you not only to recreate the situation, but also to apply to those memories some of the wisdom you have gained in the intervening years. In some cases, building bridges backwards through time can create a pathway from pain back into hope.

While the most obvious healing strategy of the movie was simply revisiting the scene, there were other strategies being employed. One of the American veterans was a psychologist who conducted meetings and spoke individually with the American vets who were trying to cope with their emotional wounds. The discussions with each other and with a therapist helped them reorganize the thoughts and feelings awakened by this experience. And their connections, friendships, and warmth with former enemies soothed some of the war wounds, as well.

I’ve heard the claim that war is one of the greatest expressions of love, because soldiers must risk their lives for each other. The problem of course is that war requires a common enemy, and so it turns bloody and leaves lingering effects that are not loving at all. Team sports also have the ability to draw people together in a common goal, and that’s what the TEAM bicycle ride in Vietnam was about. These riders, instead of fighting against each other, were joining together to fight the common “enemy” – moving their bicycles towards Saigon. As their focus shifts from danger and betrayal to beauty and friendship, one of the American veterans says, “I feel like this happiness now, riding this bike in Vietnam, is pushing out some of the hatred that had been filling my cup.”

The camera followed bikers up a long mountain road in 100 degree heat. The hand cyclists struggled most because the arm levers did not provide the same mechanical advantage as the foot powered ones. As these slower riders reached the top, those who had already gathered there rushed forward to offer hugs and celebratory whoops. After this outpouring of affection, one of the Vietnamese hand cyclists said, his voice filled with excitement, “This is something both disabled and able bodied people dream of. This experience, though exhausting, is what gives meaning to life.”

He didn’t mean just climbing a mountain on a hot day in a bicycle built for someone without legs. He was surrounded by loving new friends, the honor of being part of a team, the rapprochement of former enemies reaching out to each other. It was a healing moment for him, and for me.

Podcast version click the player control below: [display_podcast]

Writing Prompt: Write about a time when working together towards a common goal made you feel closer to someone.

Writing Prompt: Select a memory that you have bad feelings about, and pretend you are writing fiction. Applying your wisdom and imagination, reorganize the events so that this character learns some powerful lesson, or accomplishes or triumphs in some way.

Note, links and resources
The ride was organized by a non-profit group called World TEAM Sports –http://www.worldteamsports.org/. The documentary was produced by another non-profit, Kartemquin Films, best known for the award winning documentary Hoop Dreams about inner city youth looking to basketball to elevate their prospects in life. You can help the organization by shopping at: http://www.kartemquin.com/

An excellent book for understanding more about PTSD is “Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character” by Jonathan Shay. Because of the profound effects of PTSD, neurologically and on the very foundation of character, many of the methods in psychology are not sufficient to unravel the damage wrought by combat. And yet, there is much research and compassionate work that has helped veterans suffering from PTSD. In addition to helping them cope with their specialized needs, I believe these therapies and strategies can help other people who suffer with an irreconcilable relationships with painful memories.

For an example of one person’s successful strategy to channel inner directed shame into bicycle racing read the moving memoir “Ten Points” by Bill Strickland. Another memoir in which a soldier seeks healing by revisiting the past is William Manchester’s “Goodbye Darkness.”

For more about revisiting the past, see my essay about the movie Pursuit of Happyness, which portrayed Chris Gardner’s life. For him, it was a return to the trauma and triumph of his youth.

To learn more about how two groups can join to become one by sharing a common task, see the famous sociology experiment by Muzafer Sherif et al (1954) The Robbers Cave experiment. For example, see the Wikipedia entry here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muzafer_Sherif

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here

Blind veteran finds his voice by writing

 by Jerry Waxler

After finishing the memoir, Shades of Darkness, I felt I had learned a lot about the author, George Brummell, as a person, his cultural experience growing up in the segregated south. His ticket out to the larger world was the United States Army. I could feel him growing up in Korea. It was a nicely told coming of age story, and then, just when it looked like he was turning into a real adult, his life exploded in a landmine in Vietnam. He was blinded and maimed, and then when he returned, he had to invent himself again. Through the magic of memoir he took me on his journey, as he kept growing. He graduated from college, became director of the Blinded Veterans Association, and wrote this memoir.

I knew he was lecturing and outreach to encourage others to tell their story. To find out more about his experience writing the memoir I set up an interview. He has a melodic voice, and as he was speaking each sentence, I could almost hear him lining up the next, so his thoughts flowed together in a lovely, somewhat unusual sort of continuum. Here is what he said when I asked him to tell me about writing his memoir.

GB: “When I came back from Vietnam I wasn’t doing too well, and writing the memoir helped me organize my thoughts. Putting my thoughts on paper was elevating for me. It was quite therapeutic. I needed it at the time, especially those times that were not the best for me. When I began to write it had a tendency to take away my thoughts, and I could drift back to my childhood days and think of things that I could probably have done a little bit better. It was just exciting to be able to see what I have accomplished in writing.

When I first started writing I often thought how difficult it would be to organize my thoughts and not repeat myself. I thought that would be a real challenge. I like challenges, and that was a challenge to me to do that. I was in college at the time, I felt it was a way to improve my life. Writing is like driving or a lot of other things that we do. In most cases, the more you do it, the better you get at it. Writing the book prepared me for the career that I had with the Blinded veterans association which required me to do a lot of writing.

After so much practice I found myself in a position to be able to write a little bit better than a lot of my peers. It also helped me in terms of promotion, because a couple of times they asked the applicants to write what they could do for the organization, and I was able to express myself fairly well.

I knew as a blind person a lot of what I was going to do in my life would require me to speak, because as a blind person a lot of things you cannot do with your hands, other than a lot of manual labor, and I wasn’t interested in that. I found that in order for me to improve my speech, I had to read. And of course writing was an adjunct to that. The more I wrote, the more I was able to organize my thoughts and to be able to speak.

JW: “Did you get much training in story writing?”

GB: Not really. As a youngster, living with my grandmother, she was illiterate, and I wrote letters to her daughter and sisters. They were in Philadelphia and she didn’t have a telephone. Otherwise, my only writing class was a remedial writing course, which I took because I was a high school dropout and then in college I took English 101 and 102.

When I took the remedial writing course, I was recording my memoirs at the time, and I asked the instructor to let me use those recordings as my English assignment. My instructor thought my writing was quite interesting. Then in English 101 and 102, the instructor let me use recordings as well.

After that, I took a non-credit course in creative writing. Again, I was able to submit papers for that class from my own material. By that time I was hooked. And as a social work major, I had to do a lot of writing, and a lot of editing. I really enjoyed editing. I worked with my writing person to get my coursework on paper. I went through it with her, and she retyped it, and I edited and she retyped it. So I had a lot of editing experience while I was in school.

And again while I was at work, we did a brochure. And I went along with the person who was writing the brochure, and she would read and ask the directors what changes we wanted to make, and I saw that I stood a little bit taller than my peers in terms of editing. All of them had more education than I did, their vocabulary was greater, but once it was put on paper, I could make it sound better.

JW: And that skill shows in your book.

GB: That’s the only training I had, other than what I got from my own experience. I thought I could write a book better than the ones I had read, such as, “If you can see what I hear” – hell, I could write my own experiences. Why not do it from the point of view of an African American?

See www.georgebrummell.com for more information and excerpts from his book.