In some government jobs, you inherit people and a raft of problems that goes with them. I had a temporary assignment at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, with a battalion that had just come back off “the float.” This was a part of a Marine Expeditionary Brigade that keeps a sizable strike force near distant trouble spots. “The float” was also a lot of very young men to keep cooped up at sea for a year with a few raucous stops in some various dubious port cities. In a day or so they had to store up all the girls and drinks and drugs and general trouble that would ordinarily come at a slower pace.
Most of the young men came back as older men who could say they “saw the world.” However, occasionally the world saw them first. At best, there would be casualties: broken arms and fingers from fights, and some diseases that have yet to be classified, and at worst, very occasionally, a truly broken spirit like that of Private Bird. Bird had fallen in with the most curious men who visited the darkest dens and swallowed the most potent of hallucinogens they could find. A very few died in some alley, stripped of money and clothing, but most stayed together and watched out for each other in this very different kind of combat. Most made it back to the ship, though often not without consequence.
When I checked in to my new communications shop, I learned about Private Bird. They had confined him to quarters with his wrists wrapped in gauze after two suicide attempts. No one knew what to do with him. Eventually they could give him a section 8 dishonorable discharge, but I thought we should look into it more, and maybe get him some help. I was that first line of help.
A number of these Marines knew a Vietnam tour of duty (, often a second one) would soon materialize. Many – especially but not exclusively the draftees — were not pleased with this. Some who could were running for the exits, and one of the only ways to keep someone who knew how to do a critical job was to promote them. They even offered me the Major rank, shortly after they’d dropped Captain on me. In the old days, it took 10 or 15 years to make Captain. I was anointed in three, but there was a rub: You can’t hide the rank once you’ve got it. You just have to learn to play that role. There was no one else to do it.
Bird, by his description, was “fighting for his soul at the center of the universe.” He told me things, and I listened. His father had beaten him a lot and berated him even more, but was pleased when his son chose to be a Marine. They put the smart ones in communications, and though he was only a wireman, he made lance corporal before the “float.” However, then he began wallowing shipboard in the drugs and depression. He lost his lance corporal rank when he returned to the States. Largely Bird stayed in bed, staring up at the upper bunk springs, at first missing several musters and finally unsuccessful at suicide.
I thought it would be best to check Bird in to the mental ward at the base hospital, but that was not as easy as it looked at first. It would require the signature of the commanding officer, Lt. Col. Thibodaux, to effect that requested temporary transfer. To talk to the commanding officer you had to go through the executive officer, Major Marlind. Turns out Marlind had his mind made up about Bird before I came. He had turned down similar requests before they could even get to Lt. Col Thibodaux. Major Marlind felt Bird embarrassed the Marine Corps and wanted to give him a dishonorable discharge as quickly as he could push it through.
I counseled with Major Jack Mendez, the operations officer, outside the battalion offices, as to whether I could walk right past Marlind’s adjoining office and knock directly on Thibodaux’s door, a stark breach of etiquette. (Not too much later, in Vietnam, Mendez had been given a tank company, and in my stopover in DaNang he would offer me the communications job. It was tempting, but tanks sounded at worst like a creeping kind of claustrophobia, so I declined.) To my surprise, Mendez said Thibodaux probably knew of the situation, and would kick my ass if I didn’t do it. So I marched right past Marlind’s open door and knocked on Lt. Col Thibodaux’s. He said to come in and I related the situation and my recommendation. He was a kindly Southern gentleman who had been through Korea and affectionately called men in his command “peckerwoods.” I could feel Marlind’s ear on the adjoining door between their offices as I laid out my case for Bird. All that time when Thibodaux was listening to, and agreeing to, my recommendation, I knew I would never make it nonchalantly back past Marlind’s door. I did not.
Upon leaving Thibodaux, I started to edge past Marlind’s open hallway door. He was waiting. He spoke out to me. “Hon,” he said, “You’ll need to come in here and close the door.” I did, and he chewed me out for 10 minutes straight, and all I said was “Yes, sir” and “No, sir” He immediately rose from his desk to where I was standing at attention, and he began a cool but vicious rage — his face inches from mine with bad, bad breath. For 10 long minutes Marlind seemed to need no explanation from me for my many character flaws and what seemed to him a flagrant betrayal of the chain of command. He knew he could not penalize me in any way, but he made it abundantly clear with colorful – and somewhat devastating – language that I was on his eternal shit list. Now that I am older I wonder if old Thibodaux’s ear was pressed to the other side the adjoining door, and smiling away at this education of a young officer.
So I was allowed to transfer Bird out of his confinement to quarters and in to the hospital. I took him and his gear in my car, and detoured out to my fisherman’s cottage on the stream that led to the beaches. My girlfriend was there, and made him lunch. Giving him that short respite was a mistake. I was in more of a spotlight than I knew for my defense of Bird, and I suspect now that it would have hurt him later.
I visited Bird in the hospital after about 10 days. He said it was OK here, but there were a lot of weird people and one, named Kohler, was a supremely intelligent patient who had been there some time, and he continually “worked on people’s minds.” Bird said Kohler convinced people of their low worth, and suggested that suicide in many cases to be the only solution. If there was any redemptive value to the psychiatric ward, Kohler was its evil antithesis, the devil within who unsettled those who came for refuge, and further confused those who came already lost in themselves. He showed me Kohler when he passed by, and even in his mannerisms I could see the almost psychopathic intensity Bird told me about.
I brought Bird a book I liked, The Plague by Albert Camus, which was sickening in its descriptions of the Black Death taking over a Middle Eastern port city, but finally redemptive of the human condition in a way I thought would help Bird. He kept it and returned it before I was shipped out to Vietnam. I left the book with some other possessions to be picked up when, and if, I returned. About six months later, in Vietnam, I dived into a deep ditch outside An Hoa to avoid what seemed to be a full afternoon of incoming rockets from near Cambodia. I recognized a gunnery sergeant from that “float” battalion, who was now with another infantry unit.
“You know your buddy Bird?” he said, opening a Snickers bar that had somehow escaped the penetrating Vietnam heat.
“Right…” I said, feeling remiss that I’d never checked back. I was now keenly interested. “Did he get back to the battalion?”
“Naw, did himself in. Was with some of the crazies who got to work in the garden, and cut his wrists with a rusty hoe. Bled out in some flower bed.” There was an air of righteousness to this sergeant, as if Bird had put the sergeant’s universe straight once again. It shook me until the next rocket, which hit very close and left curled bits of shrapnel in a post above our heads.
Vietnam informed me of other things of course, and sometimes messages came from other odd places. My peacenik girlfriend who gingerly chastised the war had run off with a soldier. (Go figure.) Also, back in 1967 at Quantico, I had demonstrated an experimental method of riot-busting — playing music favorites of the crowd so loudly in the streets that they could not communicate and organize — a win-win kind of protest-quelling not at all unlike a rock festival. Flushed with its success and dreaming of a kinder world, I had written the demonstration up and sent through channels to the top communications folks in the Pentagon. I learned from someone, who was later transferred to Vietnam from that office, that my work had been very favorably received, but with some slight modifications they would use. Turned out they all thought it was a great idea to blow out protesters eardrums…Not quite my intention.
Waiting to go back in Camp Hanson, Okinawa, I was given a company for a few weeks as they transferred troops fresh from the States to postings with units in Vietnam. Basically I watched over where they slept and ate. I had no idea where they came from or where they were going, but I had a small staff to keep track of their orders and get them to where they needed to go every day. And then I saw Kohler – the evil spirit in Bird’s mental ward – there in my squad bay…and he saw me at the same time. He tried to turn away, but I got the duty sergeant and we went over to him. Kohler did not have orders with him to show he was attached to anywhere. He had somehow made it into the mainstream of troops headed toward Vietnam, and then in Camp Hansen managed to disappear from the group he was with, and totally unfortuitously nested in my facilities. Bad mistake, Kohler.
“Looks like AWOL to me, sir” said the duty sergeant. Kohler had that cool evil look as if he was sure of his next move. “Please take your weapon, Sergeant. This man may be dangerous.” I went and got a couple of MPs quickly, and sent Kohler to the Marine Brig on Okinawa for safekeeping. I was shipped home a few days later myself. I never heard what happened to Kohler. I’m sure he was partly responsible for Bird’s suicide at the Lejeune Hospital back in North Carolina, but what I did was official duty. It was not revenge. At least I tell myself that.
I boxed up my stuff when I got back to the States and they mustered me out within a few months. Some months later, after some adventures in a sailboat (including falling in love), I came back to L.A. and moved in with my friend Dale a block off Venice beach. I was trying to grow longer hair as quickly as possible to match the crowd in Hollywood and the Venice beaches. I went down weekly to stand in the most entertaining unemployment line in the world. Dale gave me a high row on his bookshelf for my books, which I had boxed before I left for Vietnam and never taken out until now. One of the books was Camus’ The Plague, which was returned to me before I left for Vietnam.
As I reached up high to put the book in place, something fell from between its pages. Something metal. It clanked on the floor. I picked it up. It was a military “dog tag.” In the dim light as I picked it up, I could read the word “Bird” impressed into the face of it. What that was saying to me I cannot quite understand to this day, but Bird was there, and he was saying something. Maybe “thanks” or maybe “didn’t finish this.” I guess some profound secrets of the universe must remain always just out of reach, even when they fall right into your hand.