The Watch They Keep

neither out far nor in deep

George Hoffman

George Hoffman
Stow, Ohio, USA
November 27
Chock Full Of Nuts
"They cannot look out far, They cannot look in deep. But when was that a bar, From the watch they keep?" Neither Out Far Nor In Too Deep by Robert Frost Since my return to the big PX, I have lived in this parallel universe: a war veteran in a nation of civilians. It's like being in a fun house at a carnival. Only I'm on the other side of the distorting mirrors. That's why I have quoted the last stanza of that poem by Robert Frost and decided to change the name of my blog to The Watch They Keep. So my blog is a work in progress, much as I am also evolving and changing and coming to terms with my life and the world around me. I'm on the yellow brick road to The Emerald City. With one slight detour during my tour of duty in Vietnam. "Lions and tigers and bears. Oh my!"


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MAY 10, 2011 10:37PM

Is that you, John Wayne?

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With the daring raid into Pakistan and the killing of Osama bin Laden in his McMansion, President Barack Obama has finally shown Republican critics he has the real brass cajones to be the Commander-In-Chief.

But what really intrigued me was his answer to a question on 60 Minutes last Sunday. Were the forty minutes in The Situation Room, watching the operation as it unfolded in real time, the most anxious moments in his life? He said the only other time he had known such anxiety was when he waited for the doctor treating his then three-month-old daughter, Sasha, for meningitis and wondered if he would be told she would recover.  It was a touching moment because he revealed himself as a man.

In Full Metal Jacket there is a scene in the barracks which I remember well as a Vietnam veteran. Gunny Hartman, the cruel and sadistic DI, is berating with colorful, military slang the "ladies" he has to turn into hardcore killers for their tour of duty. Joker asks rhetorically, "Is that you, John Wayne?" 

What does it really mean to be a man in our society? That question has followed me through my life both as a boy growing up in a repressive, alcoholic and working class family in what is now called The Rust Belt and as a young and naive man venturing forth to confront my destiny much like Isabel Archer does in The Portrait of a Lady. Unfortunately, Isabel finds her own sense of personal integrity at the end of the novel while I still seem to be on the quest for mine.

I was raised as a Roman Catholic and attended a Roman Catholic elementary school until I decided to go to public school in seventh grade. But I still bare the mark of all those years being taught how a good little Catholic boy should conduct himself in the real world.

Since I knew I wasn't a conscientious object believing in the sanctity of all human life, especially some of the family members who like to punch my clock into the middle of nest week,  I enlisted and luckily became a medical corpsman in the Air Force. I thought at the time I had made a wise choice. Now I realize it was only an acceptable compromise which I have learned to live with after many years of practice.

I began my tour of duty eight months before the decisive Tet Offense of 1968. I became acquainted with the night and the heart of darkness in the war. I saw ordinary young men thrust into the extraordinary crucible of life and death and the moral choices versus their survival in those situations.

Most of the wounded grunts in the hospital recovering from their injuries had absolute scorn for the prancing bravado John Wayne perfected in his long career as the premier man's man in the celluloid dream factory. It is easy to act the brave soldier on a Hollywood sound stage. Just remember your lines and don't bump into the furniture,  Spencer Tracy replied when he was asked the secret to his acting career.

All I saw the entire year was victims: the American grunts, the Vietnamese nationals caught in the crossfire and a few captured VC guerillas. War is a beast with an insatiable appetite for human flesh.  Once a wounded Marine grunt told me while I was changing his dressing, "I hope the last guy leaving Vietnam remembers to turn out the lights."

In Paul Fussell's The Great War and Moderm Memory, he states that all wars are ironic. Your expectations of what war is, how it will be prosecuted and how you will act in the conflict are merely illusions you cling to while you watch them crumble like so many sand castles in the crashing waves. Although his book is a literary history of the English soldiers in the trenches, I was immediately drawn to their disillusionment, world-weariness and shell shock in their letters home, in their memoirs and especially in their poetry.  For Fussell in the modern consciousness which it gave birth to in the war to end all war, war is now only "the abridgement of hope." And it still is in my mind and soul.

When I lived in the Bay area in the late 90s, I took a creative writing workshop. The instructor told me once after class, although I served as a medical corpsman, I "was still part of the war machine."  She had a point. And I merely nodded yes and walked away from her. And when I think about that incident, I am not really angry with her. Nor am I angry anymore with the three longhairs walking past me in the concourse at the Seattle Airport who have me the Nazi salute and shouted," Seig Heil!" The they started to laugh. I went after them and unfortunately I blacked out. I regained consciousness leaning against a wall. A little boy was looking up at me asked with true concern, "Are you OK, Mister?" It was not the expected welcome I thought I deserved upon return to the Big PX. But I've been in recovery for three and half years, and I've grown. I'm learning how to forgive myself and finally other people.

After being homeless twice at 58 and again at 60, I have lived in two homeless shelters and in three sober houses. I was temporarily the house manager of my last sober house on the west side of Akron. As soon as I had paid off all the arrearage on my child support. I got out of that last house as quickily as I could. The only thing sober about a sober house, I have found out, is the adjective 'sober.' I have my own apartment in Stow, Ohio. It's public housing, but it feels like a penthouse to me. It is my first apartment in sobriety, and last winter it was so nice to watch a late winter storm howling from inside the window panes of my living room. 

I qualify for the Senior Guest Program at Kent State University. I can audit, free of charge up to three classes that don't fill up with regular, paying student. And one of the courses offered this summer semester is a history of the Vietnam War. I e-mailed the professor. He is a Vietnam veteran. But I am just thinking about it now. Another course may interest me. One is the the Female Image in Popular Culture offered through the Women's Studies department.

But I'm ready to move on into the golden autumn of my life.  And may I tell you gratefully I can move on without the aid of a walker, though  I finally received my disabiltiy pension from the VA due to my exposure to Agent Orange. And I took an early retirement after two minor heart attacks caused in part from my exposure to Agent Orange.  I know. It's that adjective 'minor.' It's just how I feel about my life. Rather optimistic for some reason. I think sobriety has a great deal to do with my attitude toward life.

Several weeks ago near dusk I was waiting for the Portage County bus to go home. The transit center is located near the red-brick ROTC building on the campus of KSU. From the glass-enclosed bus shelter, I watched four ROTC students. Two were teaching the other two on the proper procedure to take down the flag and fold it into a neat and compact triangle.

I've never been much of a flag waver nor a flag burner. That's why the subtitle of my blog reads: "neither out far nor in deep." It's a line taken from a poem by Robert Frost called Neither Out Far Nor In Deep. It's about how people burdened and weary with their concerns and troubles are instinctively drawn to the sea. They want some answers out there. But the answers are back there behind them on the land. The last stanza is: "They cannot look out far/They cannot look in deep./But when was that a bar/From the watch they keep?"

So I watched these young ROTC students perform the time-honored ritual of the taking down of the flag. In my mind's eye I wanted to rush up to me, shake each other on their shoulders and shout: "You're all too young, drop out of ROTC, you have your whole life ahead of you!" But I didn't what would have been a bad imitation of Howard Beal in Network. I just stood there and became quite sad. I didn't beat myself up. I have a great deal to be sad about. And as long as it is a temporary emotional state, a recollection of my youth, I will trudge on and continue the work necessary for my recovery. 










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interesting. well written. you're eloquent for a soldier. this stuff is very apropos given that we're still in the longest war in US history.
what I wonder is when you went after the longhairs-- did you faint? why did you faint? medical condition? alcoholism? ... I fainted once as a teenager from anguish, so I do know its possible.....
"War is a beast with an insatiable appetite for human flesh. "