Posts Tagged ‘Vietnam’

“Memories of a Rotten Childhood”….Doug Craig.

October 31, 2010


English Countryside, jkohut-bartels, watercolor, 2007


Recently I started reading this collection of essays.  It has bloomed into possibly a book.   Then again, there are things so deep down in the mists of childhood, that any dragging  them up into the light seems endless.  Childhood seemed endless.

Doug Craig was a favored childhood friend.

Lady Nyo

Chapter from “Memories of a Rotten Childhood”  (Doug Craig)

We met one fall, now years ago, when we were no longer young.  I was running from a mean early marriage.  Doug was just running.

It was 3 years since the end of the Vietnam War, and Doug had plenty of ghosts to run from.  He was to be shipped out, and the night before his platoon, company, whatever it was called….was attacked.  Doug woke up to gunfire in his tent, and got shrapnel in his torso, mainly his stomach if I remember right.

Doug was a kid I grew up with in the wilds of New Jersey back in the 60’s.  His father was the large animal vet in Princeton.  It was always a chancy issue to open the two refrigerators in their 1740’s house on Stockton Road.  One held food, and the other specimens.  It was a fearful thing for a child unaware of which door held which.  I can still hear the booming voice of this Scottish man yelling at all of us.  We lived in terror of his voice, but he was one of the kindest and gentlest men we knew.  Clearly a case of his bark worse than his bite.

Doug’s mother was the picture of elegance:  two shelties on two matching settees in the sitting room, a glowering portrait of some infamous relative over the fireplace, and his mother warm and welcoming.  We all loved this family.  Doug came from good stock.  Too bad he was so crazy.

We had a bluegrass band back then, called Marrowbone Creek Vagrants, made up of neighborhood kids.  I believe this band, in some form…with different name changes, still is viable.  Sort of like a vampires convention when the kids come back to the stomping grounds of the New Jersey countryside.

Music wasn’t the only thing we had in common.  Motorcycles, and the attendant accidents, horrible, property destroying stunts,  and basically goofing off.  But music was the river that ran through us.  Today for many of these guys and gals…it still is.

I came home that fall day with two shotguns.  One a 20 gauge Mossberg, and the other one a 12 gauge Ithaca.  My father gave me a weird look when he picked me up from the airport.  He was a pacifist and wouldn’t have a gun on the property, except for a Benjamin Franklin air pistol, which shot rivets.  That he kept for shooting walnuts out of the crooks of walnut trees.  He was a marksman during WW11 and besides a bow, he would not have weapons near him.  Perhaps being in a B-24 for most of the war was deadly enough.

Doug and I decided to go hunting.  I just wanted a chance to shoot off those shotguns.  Living in urban Atlanta didn’t give me many chances.  And the woods where it was legal to shoot off guns were miles away.

We ‘hunted’ all over the back of my parent’s property.  Mostly cut down soybean fields, and what we were looking to kill, I didn’t really know.  I DID know that I was a failure when it came to birds.  We have those big pheasants up in New Jersey, the ones who come up low in front of you, and wheel into the sun so you can’t see or follow them well.  And I had the problem of automatically flipping the safety on the gun after every shot.  I never could break myself of this, and don’t know where it came from.

But hunted we did.  I should have realized Doug ‘hunted’ differently than any other person I knew. He crouched down, held the gun low and crept through the underbrush.  I didn’t realize then what I was looking at was a man who had just come back from the wars.  Apparently Doug was trained, now irreversibly, as a soldier.

He was a very brave man.  He hunted with me, a real nincompoop when it came to hunting.  We scared up a young rabbit, and I kept shooting at it as it jagged away.  Unfortunately, I was mostly shooting at Doug’s boots, and it is still a wonder that I didn’t add to his shrapnel wounds.  Doug got the rabbit.

Then we decided our luck would turn better if we trespassed on ol’ man Staats land.  Full of woods, and we were bound to find something.  Doug found a pheasant there, and bagged it on one shot.

Then we got stupid and decided to go ask Staats if we could hunt on his land.  He thought about it a moment, and said ‘no’.  Fine with us, we had bagged that pheasant on his turf, stowed it behind a tree, and besides, we were tired of hunting.  It was turning colder, and we were hungry.

We went home, Doug to his house on River Road.  He was living with other varmints and it was an old farm house, looking none the better for Doug living there.

I remember skinning the rabbit.  I had read something about this, so at least I knew what to do. Mostly.  I do remember cutting off the rabbit head, and throwing it out over the ravine.  It slowly revolved in the air, looking at me reproachfully, with every revolution.   Thirty some years later and I still remember that stare.

I cooked the rabbit for my father.  My mother wouldn’t have a thing to do with my rabbit stew.  My father said he hadn’t had rabbit in thirty years, and pronounced it ‘good’.  The pheasant was another issue.  I plucked the feathers, saving the tail for some future decoration, and draped bacon over the back of it.  Problem was this:  pheasant was full of birdshot and dried up quickly.  Eating it was a problem, so I threw it into the ravine for the raccoons.

I threw the rabbit pelt up on the copper kitchen roof.  Why, I don’t know.  I do know that my mother bitched about it for about a year until my father or someone retrieved it.  Should have been well cured by then.

Doug and I didn’t see each other again until my father lay in the hospital with a stroke twelve years later.  Doug would take me late at night to visit him, and spent hours just talking.  I was there for a week, but it took my father nine months of recovery to die.

Doug was a good friend.  We both were running from ghosts, many kinds of ghosts.  He had an old Seth Thomas clock I bought from him.  He carefully packed it up and shipped it months later.  Doug was also a very fine Kentucky rifle maker.  He was going to make me a gun. Doug, once he focused his scattered and fried, mind could excel in anything.

Two years after my father died, Doug died on the streets of Philly one night.  He was mugged and lay in the morgue until identification was possible and Dr. Craig was contacted.

I think Doug was our first childhood friend to die.  Perhaps there were others claimed by the war.  But I don’t remember.  I do remember that all of us were in shock: Doug, though living and behaving always on the edge, seemed invincible.  Didn’t he survive Vietnam?  How could something like this take him?

If it could take him, it could take the rest of us.  Life has no guarantees, obviously.

I think all of us have a Doug Craig in our lives, somewhere.  They are the people we miss the most because they have lived the fullest of lives.  We know they are part crazy, but that was also part of the times, and lots of their charm.

We live through them at times because they are braver than us.

Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted, 2010

B24s, Liberators and Childhood

May 31, 2010

B24 Bomber

This is a repost from about a year ago, but it has some resonance with Memorial Day today.  The “We” that starts off this entry was my son, who is now serving in the US Navy.

We were watching a TV program last night about the B24 Liberator, these huge,  clumsy planes coming down a runway, shaking like a dog at the water’s edge, and you are silently yelling “Get up! Get it up!” because these huge birds don’t look like they are gonna make it.  The plane bounces right towards you, and you see (or the camerman sees) the beast rumble aloft, and you see the undercarriage and you wonder what miracle allowed this to happen.

This bomber was used extensively during WWII.  It was called the “Work Horse” of the Air Force.  My father was a B24 pilot and also a sparks man….and at 22 the oldest on the plane.  I remember old photos… found in his top drawer where his metals and other stuff were kept, war mementos  we children weren’t supposed to play with, but we did, like his gyroscope.  We spent hours spinning that on polished pine floors upstairs where our mother was too busy with the day to catch us.  These photos were shot during the release of bombs, going down on some city, and how big these  bombs looked.  Huge fat sausages, but deadly ones.  The men must have been standing over the bay door, straddling the hole, taking pictures.   I remember some of the photos, the instruments, the dials the stuff on the ‘dashboard’ of the plane, and the complicated stuff that seemed to be just dials and levers, the stuff that kept this lumbersome plane in the air and delivered it’s horrific bombs.

I didn’t  know what I was looking at, although I DO remember my father, every time he got into any car he was driving.  He would run his hands over the ‘flaps’ above, the dashboard, the dials under the steering wheel, an unconscious movement like he was ‘checking the dials’ on the plane.  Even in the new black VW back in the early 60′s.

The car built by the Germans, the very same nation they were trying to defeat and stop taking over the world.  I remember there was a bit of flack about that car, but Dad bought it new anyway.  It also floated, which was good when the bridge over the causeway flooded out.

It was something we just didn’t question, Dad running his hands over the interior of the car in front of him.   It  was something so ingrained in him that there were  no questions to be asked.  At least by his three kids in the back of the car silently observing his movements.  But they never changed, until the 9 months before he died in November, 1989 when he no longer drove.

Ford, apparently, I learned last night….produced the B34 Liberator.  Actually it was Consolidated Something but later it was Ford.  They produced 1 an hour.  They needed them because they were so damn slow that 11,000 in one August were shot down over Europe. Don’t hold me to that stat because that is what I thought I heard on tv. Apparently though, 18,000 were produced from 1940-45 in a tremendous war effort.  Willow Run in Detroit was the biggest manufacturer of planes outside of Russia.

I remember some of the names I heard as a child:  “Flying Fortress”, “Flying Boxcar”,  “Flying Coffin”, but I think the “Flying Fortress” was the B29.  I could be very wrong here.   This last (“Flying Coffin”) was the most ominous.  It’s because B24′s caught fire easily, something to do with the fuel tanks being positioned somewhere bad.  There were two bomb bays apparently, and a cat walk between  the soldiers had to navigate.  I understand  the only way they could enter and exit the plane was from the rear.  That made it hard to evacuate, especially with parachutes.  They also were almost paper thin, a design nod to flight, light planes, just chunky and weird looking.  Like pelicans a bit.

I remember my father saying it wasn’t an easy plane to fly…big, clumsy, and hard to steer.  But in the air?  My father was a joker, a very quiet man, but had a great sense of humor.  He also carried his German silver French Horn aloft and I can’t think of that without thinking of my father playing his beloved Mahler and Mozart in the clouds.  Celestial music, indeed.

The B24 flew higher than most bombers, cruising at 20,000 feet.  They also had a large payload…bombs….and were bristling with machine guns on the front, sides, belly, tail.  They are strange looking birds to us now, because they were very lightly constructed, rivets all over on small plates.  The cockpit is cramped and I can’t see how they could see out of those windows.  I can’t see how you could get those planes up in the air, period.  Filled with 8,000 pounds of explosives it must have been tricky.  The wings were designed differently, a new attempt for speed.

I looked at the photos and film of the men during WWII, the crews of the B24′s and they looked so young, (and they were) but they carried a burden on their shoulders  today that is hard to understand.  There were no therapies, no real counseling units, no real understanding of what these men saw and did during war.  They had radio for the only immediacy and film footage shown in theaters before the movie.

Then, only the understanding of others who had gone through the same.  Back then they were expected to shoulder the task and buck up.  They were supposed to act and be men.  Their bodies were patched up and either they were sent back in or home, depending upon the damage.  The causalities were horrific in these planes.  Somewhere I read the percentage of returning from a mission was less than 45%.  There are hard stats to grasp.

My father was stationed in the Pacific, mostly the Philipines  and Australia.  He was a runner and held the Army record for a mile for a while.  Something like 4.11 minutes.  He ran in the outback, and there was a native Australian, named “John” who would meet him at a big rock and run with him for miles.   They never said a word to each other, speaking different languages, but John could chase birds out of the air.  My father saw him do this.  They would run back to the rock, shake hands and part.  The next day the same routine.

My father came out of WWII a pacifist.  He would not tolerate a gun around the property, and we lived in the country where pheasants, rabbits and deer were there for the taking.  I remember Uncle George, a favorite uncle, who shot a brace of rabbits on our property, hung them up by a nail by the door and my father got it from my mother.  We had come home from school, off the school bus, and saw the dead bunnies.  She found the chorus of mourners around the door, with rabbit blood dripping down the white paint to the brickwork.

Uncle George was told not to bring a gun on the property again.

My father did have a Benjamin Franklin air pistol…..something you had to pump up with a long metal thing out the snout, and he could shoot a walnut out of a crook of a tree.  That was the only gun allowed because I think it shot rivets.  Those weren’t proper bullets.

He did have a Ivanhoe Reversible Long Bow….45 lb pull.  And we learned to ‘shoot’ with that, plus the deer arrows.  My father thought it gave the wildlife a fighting chance.  But I never saw him kill anything.  He was an excellent baker, and would go out in the misty mornings, early fall and pick the blackberries in the fields, along the hedgerows, and make up three pies by 9am.  He would put them on the box freezer in the cooling room (this was a pre-Revolutionary War house, and there were many strange rooms for different purposes) and we would sneak in and eat the crusts off  the pies before he caught us.  He never really minded us because he knew about hungry children.

Many years later, when I had run back home, avoiding a first marriage,…I brought two shotguns home and a guy I grew up with, Doug Craig and I went looking for rabbits and pheasants.  I had never shot anything, but thought we would supply a country dinner.  Doug had returned from Vietnam with shrapnel in his stomach area, and Doug was a little weird BEFORE Nam.  But he was a wonderful friend,  one of the best banjo players around, and somehow lived through me trying to shoot a rabbit we spooked in the back fields.  I kept shooting at his foot, because that’s where the damn rabbit showed himself, and Doug kept hopping around.  I guess after Vietnam a girl shooting a shotgun wasn’t so terrible.  Doug did shoot the rabbit and a pheasant that day, and I did all the cleaning. We shot that pheasant on old man Staats’ property, hid it in the bushes, walked up to  Staats, asked him (which was proper) if we could hunt bird on his land, he said no, and we left.  My mother was angry, not that we had shot the bird on his property, but because his passel of boys had been poaching our land for years.

I do remember tossing the rabbit head out into the ravine between woods, and that rabbit’s head slowly rotating around in the air.   I remember it’s slightly accusatory face turning around and around. Funny what you remember.

I overcooked the (young) pheasant and stewed the rabbit.  My father said it was the first time he had tasted rabbit in 30 years.  I guess my mother wasn’t big on cleaning and cooking rabbit.

Doug and I threw the rabbit pelt up on the copper roof.  It stayed up there for a long time until my father retrieved it.

Doug died around 1991, mugged in Philly, and lay in the cooler for three weeks until his father, Dr. Craig identified him.  Dr. Craig was the big animal vet in Princeton, and a general terror to our teen years.  He was all bark and no bite, but I can still hear him and his booming Scottish voice.

Another story.

Lady Nyo

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