Perhaps that is too personal for you to become involved with it? But we all have our own imprint of what constitutes home. When I wanted to work this idea into something which in a caring but uncompromising way would be meaningful to somebody else, it became this poem.
No One Recognizes Robert
Mitchum in Vietnam
“I always thought I could do better.
But you don’t get to do better. If
you’re lucky, you get to do more.”
—Robert Mitchum, People Weekly
I spotted him wandering among
the rubber trees. Scheduled for
ten a.m., he didn’t show and we—
who had volunteered, from hand-
clearing roads through brush, to
don clean fatigues and have this
guy who hadn’t been in a film in
years help us feel better about
our being there—decided to slip
away for an early lunch.
And there he was, by himself,
looking lost, behind the sagging
mess hall tent—a tough guy, but
neither broad nor tall. I stepped
out, around back, and sauntered
up to say, “Hello,” thinking even
then, wasn’t Vietnam a curious
choice for either of us”? “Why,
so little fanfare?” I asked. He just
slowly shook his head.
People died that year. I neither
shot nor saved them. I sweated,
slept, swore and stank, drinking
bottles of warm beer, pretended
to some greater cause, but like
Mitchum, we all were lost with
no idea why the fuck we were
there. That was it. Caked in mud
we dreamt of home, and living to
be here…living to get here.
When the plane touched down
our hearts leapt and we began
to cry, only to be met with spit by
protesters who thought we were
Robert Mitchum-World War Two
GIs. I didn’t hate them, but I do all
of you who went about your lives
who will only know once or twice
what we felt every minute of that
To not play a banjo all night long
when my son was born, applaud
my daughter, off-Broadway, in a
play or say good-bye to my mom.
Thirty years have passed. Robert
Mitchum, the war and my youth
are forever gone. Except, in that
time I have kept my sacred vow,
never to salute that stupid Stars
and Stripes again.
OK, OK, I’ll admit that some stories belong to other people and that the best ones are those the audience can relate to, but we could go in circles if those were the only two criteria. Let me throw in a third characteristic of a meaningful story: It has direction. Now in the next piece, that’s rather subtle. It’s more of a sense of awareness that things aren’t always what they seem, but in the two following that I push the envelope by envisioning what would happen if the imagined became real. Plot is a verb. Here’s what I mean.
How I Became an Olympic Coach
It had been more than ten years since I’d participated in my last race. Now here I was at the Badger State Games in Madison. I had just turned 60.
I knew I was in trouble as soon as I looked around. First of all, everyone had on real running gear. Second, they were stretching and doing little warm up sprints. I was used to “fun runs” where before the event everybody pretty much just stood there and joked with each other. Another thing, this was a 10 kilometer run and though I had done a bit of running every night for the last week I had never made it up to that distance, or half that distance, or one forth that distance.
I was counting on adrenaline and age. My theory was that the older runners would be, well, older—get tired, need little breaks along the way.
I won’t relive the entire drawn-out ordeal. There were a few children and people in wheelchairs who finished after me. But the biggest surprise was when they posted the finishes by age group. It seems that running is something like Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. The weak and the slow die off. The resultant, over- sixty, sinewy, set-a-good-pace-and-stick-with-it types were proof of the survival of the fittest. And me? Of that group I was dead last. What I needed, I realized at that moment, was a Gueroult. Not a guru, but an Ed Gueroult, the only kid on the high school, freshman cross-country team who was worse than me.
I had shown up for a meeting announced on the high school PA system the first week in school, not exactly knowing what cross-country was. It sounded exotic, like we’d be going from New York to San Francisco. I was surprised that there were only a small number who came to this initial gathering. It was a cozy group and since as a new freshman I didn’t know a single student at this all boy’s school, for the first time, I felt comfortable. It was almost as if, after days of wandering around from class to class lost, I’d found a home. The coach was a graduate student whose glasses made him look like a young Dave Garoway. He talked in generalities but with a lot of enthusiasm. Later we all trudged over to the gym to get lockers. At that point I turned to one of the friendlier looking older classman and asked, “What is it we actually do, when we’re playing cross-country?” He said, “We run our brains out, asshole!”
* * *
I don’t know why Lieutenant Lauren Hagen had such a bad attitude (maybe it was his name “Lauren”). He had been a PE major in college and now every time an athletic intramural event came along he was pegged as coach and organizer. There did seem to be a lot of these at Fort Riley, which is smack in the middle of Kansas where there was little to do. But isn’t that why he took PE in school? Anyway he bellyached enough to the battalion commander that when the next athletic activity presented itself—preparing division athletes for the Olympic trials—someone looked through the personnel records and there I was, a high school cross-county star. (I’ll admit I’d exaggerated my lowly running experiences a bit when signing up for the army—maybe I thought I’d be chosen as a messenger to run secret information behind enemy lines.)
We had two weeks—Tuesday through Friday afternoons. When I arrived there were athletes all around the track area doing those same little sprints and warm up stretches I was to later see with trepidation at the Badger State Games. For some reason only seven potential Olympians were assigned to me. Well, I had a book on track events under my arm from Lt. Hagen and was ready to go. The first problem was that three of the people hadn’t shown up. I called their units and was told by three different, rude individuals, that each was “not going to be released from duty for such nonsense.” Nonsense? This was the World Olympics. But I supposed they were busy polishing forty-year-old Army vehicles in case we ever fought World War II again.
The second problem was that Private Polk, a huge black guy sitting in a small two door Chevy, wouldn’t get out of his car. “Let me take a bit of time,” he said in a very slow black voice, “to prepare myself ‘mentally’ for this event.” My third problem was the javelin thrower (boy, you don’t get any more Olympian than that, do you?). He came up to me, javelin at his side and explained that: a) he was an Irish citizen—Why was he in the US Army in Kansas?—and b) he already knew everything he needed to know about javelin throwing, he just wanted the opportunity to practice on his own. Well, I hadn’t found “javelin” in the index at the back of the track book yet, so I agreed that, for the time being, this might be a pretty good idea. The other two listened to my “let’s win a gold medal” pep talk and jogged slowly around the track one time. That was the end of day one, except, Polk did wave at me from his car when practice was over.
The second day I was pretty much out of the picture. It seems I had failed to register my men “per instructions” and had to beg a sergeant for over an hour to bend the rules. Polk was still sitting in his car like a huge toad stuffed into a jar. The javelin guy was skipping and dancing around in circles without a javelin and there was no sign of the other two team members from the day before. Only Polk was there the next day, smoking away in his Chevy. I begged him to at least get out. He painstakingly explained to me why shot put was not like other events. “You need weight, which I got,” he said to me in what I thought was a condescending tone, “and plenty of rest, which I don’t got.” He continued, “This infantry shit just wears me out. So, ‘Coach,’ just leave me be. I’ll come through for you, just you wait and see.” Like I had much choice. But he had called me “coach.”
No one showed up Friday. I checked back for practice Tuesday and it was the same story. I missed Polk’s wink and a wave, but decided my coaching career was over. Imagine my surprise a couple of weeks later when I heard that Polk had made the Olympic team. And guess who actually ended up getting an Olympic medal that year? Not Polk. I don’t know what ever happened with him, but the Irish guy with the javelin. I saw him on a television news program one night. He didn’t mention my coaching, but Lt. Hagen did. He told everyone in the battalion newsletter, “See what happens if we get people to contribute in areas where they have talent and ability.” I smiled to myself as I read the article and decided, I’d let the record speak for itself.