I’d rather you come home in a casket draped in an American flag than be a coward who refused to fight for his country. These sentiments could have been spoken by the local Marine recruiter who leaped over the trashcan while reaching for my throat or maybe by the secretary of my draft board who was doing her patriotic duty to rope and hogtie another “red-blooded American” to go fight for the Red White and Blue in Vietnam. Like hot tar on exposed skin those words were given a life of their own one cold winter day in the Year of Our Lord 1968, by Sam Stovall, expressed out of anger and frustration to be sure, biblically speaking to the fruit of his loins and eldest son — that’d be me. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back in what had heretofore been a warm, loving relationship. Vietnam had come home to roost, as if Agent Orange itself had taken up residence.
Should you perchance be tempted to be overly harsh on Sam Stovall for expressing his druthers, it should not be overlooked that I was far from innocent during those days of heated exchanges. I gave as good as I got, throwing to the wind unforgivable vileness in his direction not to mention a son’s need to hold back a disrespectful tongue when speaking to his father. Whenever Mount Vesuvius and his son rumbled into the same room other family members present were predisposed to head for the hills before the coming eruption covered them with spewing lava. According to an ancient Proverb, “He who brings strife in his own household shall inherit the wind…,” which for the Stovall family household proved to be right as rain, there being found “little peace in the valley.” On his death bed my dad apologized for letting his tongue get out in front of his heart years earlier when he intimated that it “preferable to have a dead hero than a live coward for a son.” I was slower to get out the gate making apologies, done only years later in absentia…
America’s effort to prevent the spread of Communism still had seven bloody years of killing yet to go. The “Silent Majority” was just beginning to awaken from its slumber, their young’ins taking to the streets in national protests against the draft and an end to the war; from the Halls of Montezuma to the Shores of Tripoli they shouted, Hey, Hey LBJ, How Many Kids Did you Kill Today? and Hell, No, We Won’t Go! Then on a special episode of My Fellow Merkins, as he liked to express it on special occasions to address his “Fellow Americans,” Lyndon Baines Johnson said in a surprise announcement on national television that he would not be seeking re-election. Like millions of others I was elated to see this son of a biscuit eater give up the political ghost, hopefully making room for someone who would truly give peace a chance, for the nation and the people of Vietnam. Unfortunately that was a wasted hope.
It would be fair to say ’68 was a topsy-turvy year, a wild roller-coaster ride with little or no brakes to keep the parts from flying every which way but loose – in addition to the war in Indochina the Civil Rights Movement was still running on a full head of steam, including the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Senator Robert Kennedy. If these events were insufficient to overturn the apple cart, the take-no-prisoners, Katie-bar-the-door sexual revolution was, pardon the pun, in full swing. Just between you, me, Tiny Tim and his rendition of “Tiptoe Through the Tulips,” it was not till the next year or a tad later that I would be introduced to the titillating temptations of the day.
You could say the Stovalls were the antithesis of pacifist Quakers, from the top of the noggin to the tippy toes we were God-fearing Better Dead than Red, Kill a Commie for Mommy Southern Baptist. Be it Wrangler, Levi’s or hereditary DNA, it was in our genes to volunteer for any ruckus coming our way. We seldom ever found a fight that wasn’t inviting, especially when it was promoted and egged on by our government… In general the men folk took literally Jesus’ suggestion that we should render unto Caesar. It mattered not a hill of beans if our Country was right or wrong but even in the most remotest of possibilities, even if wrong, “My Country ’tis of Thee” never could be so wrong that the fish smelled so God-awful bad you couldn’t swallow whatever was put on your plate, hook, line or stinker. Daddy Stovall didn’t serve in WWII but it wasn’t for a lack of trying. He attempted to enlist in the army after Pearl Harbor but a bad back kept him on the sidelines. To his way of thinking it was now my time to step up to the plate. At this early stage in life I was chomping at the bit to comply. I attended Allen Military Academy my senior year in high school, figuring West Point or the Naval Academy might be in the cards after graduating from the military prep school, either that or enlisting in the military, go to Vietnam – find me a Gook to kill for Jesus and the USofA.
What a cockeyed world it proved to be, how with the blessings of my daddy, God and Country, I was ready, willing and able to go kill my fellow humans beings at the drop of a hat while I refused to go hunting ’cause I would have to kill a bird or Bambi’s mamma. Of course my squeamishness killing animals didn’t prevent me from enjoying gnawing on a juicy steak my mamma paid a butcher an arm and a leg to hack the poor creature to death. I guess it wasn’t all that different if I chose not to put on a military uniform to go kill me a Cong but I supported with my taxes and hip hip hurrahs for my country to send others to go do the killing. Me doing the killing or paying someone else to do so probably doesn’t mean I should forego receiving some of the credit for my more passive endeavor. It’s probably a stretch of credulity to think time is coming when the one who kills you will think he’s serving God and Country. Oh well, as I said earlier, a cockeyed topsy-turvy world…
All my highfalutin plans, however, were set aside and put on the back burner when I received the call to preach. Being called to preach was for a Southern Baptist like getting a long distance phone call from God himself. Daddy was of a mixed mind over the change of events but Mamma Stovall overruled any possible protest from her husband. You don’t hang up on a call from Jesus, she reminded him. Sam Stovall had been known to argue with a fencepost but only when he thought he had a fair to middling chance of winning. He knew it was a complete waste of time and energy to argue with mamma. “Mamma’s Reality” he called it. – A person be better off French kissing a rattlesnake than mess with mamma’s faith, he said to anybody listening, especially when it was her son that was about to follow in the footsteps of the Saul of Tarsus, aka, the Apostle Paul. The Selective Service System, or simply “The Draft Board” as it was known to most folks, automatically handed out 4-D draft deferments to Ministers of Religion or those preparing to become a member of that profession, meaning there was a greater chance of drafting Mary, mother of Jesus, than yours truly. Little did that seem to matter at the time, given I was more than willing to do Uncle Sam’s bidding if that was what my country had in mind, if that’s the way the cookie crumbled.
I hoped to acquire the necessary credentials to become a certified, bona fide Southern Baptist preacher while studying at OBC, a small Arkansas Baptist college located in the foothills of the Ouachita Mountains and overlooking the banks of the Ouachita River. For what it’s worth, OBC was the same college Mike Huckabee attended, who you may recall was later to have a varied career as governor of Arkansas, presidential candidate and political commentator. Hopefully my aspirations of becoming a preacher-man were set to a tad higher standard than what was required to become a politician, or as Mark Twain put it, “Politicians and diapers must be changed often, and for the same reason.”
Pastor Gibbons sat me down for a little chat prior to my leaving for college. He shared a quote by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. “Every now and then a man’s mind is stretched by a new idea or sensation, and never shrinks back to its former dimensions.” Had I a crystal ball, which I didn’t, I would have known aforehand just how much my inquisitive mind would stretch my brain to its outer limits, never to return to its earlier self! “Your beliefs will be challenged while at OBC in just about every area of life, including your faith,” the good pastor said, “and that’s a good thing, that’s how you grow, so long as you are a seeker of the truth… Don’t fear new ideas but be careful not to throw out the old and replace it with the new just because new is fashionable.” He finished up with a smile that would do a Cheshire Cat proud, letting his words sink in before concluding with the following whimsicality: “By all means we should be open-minded, but not so open-minded that our brains drop out.”
While a few sacred and not so sacred cows would be thrown under the bus I took special care not to throw the baby out with the bath water. A smattering of long held cherished beliefs actually grew stronger after withstanding the scrutiny of being held up under the sunlight to a critical view. At the speed of a slippy siding tortoise traveling uphill it finally dawned on me that faith, hope, reason and intellect could co-exist, while not always under clear blue skies. On occasion you might even find yourself having to tippy-toe through landmines to reach your destination but it was doable.
Things weren’t always True-Blue or Patently-Untrue, Good or Bad just “cause someone said it to be one or t’other, even if the person(s) doing the telling was someone I might otherwise trust. My thinking evolved, like the wind, almost never in a straight line, sometimes stuck in the No-Go-Zone, going-no-place Sargasso seaweed, other times left hibernating in the doldrums but with a little effort, patience and if you were of a mind, prayer, the Almighty hisself would sooner or later put wind in your sails, allowing you to go just about anywhere your mind wanted to travel. The professors I was later to give credit to for liberating my mindset my parents credited for leading me from the straight and narrow, of corrupting their son’s way of thinking.
Akin to studying “warmed over death of a bygone era” or going to the dentist, history class was something I endured the first twelve years of school. It took a different turn, however, after I signed up for a course on the American Civil War. Prof Steward, like Jesus raising Lazarus, was able to breathe life into characters long dead and buried. From the age of antiquity to the more recent past, the study of history was transmogrified into a rewarding adventure – reading, analyzing, questioning and turning over hidden gems, there but for the asking. A great deal of my time was spent researching Indochina, Vietnam and the like.
Once upon a long time ago someone had the perceptivity to declare, I didn’t know how much I didn’t know. I found if you dig deep enough and bypass the easy pickings of glittering pyrite stones of fool’s gold staring back at you, often planted there by those wishing you to stop and look no further; you can uncover all kinds of unimaginable truths. Kinda like going blackberry picking where you gotta chance being slapped across the face by a thorny vine if’n you hope to reach the juicy sweet nectar fruit just beyond safe grabbing. No pain, no gain!
Jim Ranabarger, Professor of Political Science at OBC, invited me to join him in a public debate on the Vietnam war, he and I opposing the conflagration, the other side supporting. One member of the opposition included a former Arkansas Governor and retired major general in the Marine Reserve. Why I was asked to participate in a debate on the Vietnam war I can’t rightly say. Perhaps not at the time but after the passing of a few years I readily admit to being a wet behind the ears snotty nose kid, especially when going up against so distinguished a fellow as a former Governor and a bona fide war hero. I was not yet a twinkle in my daddy’s eye when he would have been fighting Japs as a Marine Lt. Colonel in one of the bloodiest engagements of WWII, the campaign for the Solomon Islands. The debate was held in the Chapel at OBC but I’ll leave it to others to decide who won. Be that as it may, this probably marked the time where I was starting to question my calling to preach; the seed had been planted but had yet to sprout.
Early on in my studies I was reminded of the Biblical story where Saul of Tarsus, blinded while traveling on the road to Damascus, regained his sight when the disciple Ananias placed his hands on him the scales fell from his eyes. I too began to see things more clearly as the fog slowly but surely lifted from my eyes, allowing me to differentiate catnip from cat litter, separate the wheat from the chaff. Had I a crystal ball, which I didn’t, I would have known aforehand that the total death toll would reach between four and five million souls, give or take, double that number if we were to include the wounded, most of who were civilians and most of those women and children. I found it difficult to continue accepting the political and religious justifications for the Vietnam war that earlier on I soaked up like a sponge, as if it was the Gospel Truth itself. Justifications were continuously fed across the airwaves and byways to the public at large, like it was mom’s apple pie. I was further reminded of a sermon I once preached in a small countrified church in the hollows of rural Arkansas, titled, All Satan’s shiny juicy apples have worms. Our government, corporate elites, financial higher-ups, most of those in the media in the early stages of the conflict and many in the religious leadership all took part creating sugar-coated “shiny juicy apple” reasons that were spoon fed to We the People to justify our complicity in the Vietnam war, from stopping the ungodly Communist to making the place a bastion for democracy. Seldom discussed was the initial reason for our involvement — to help the French re-take their former colonies in Indochina — Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, an endeavor paid primarily by the U.S. Taxpayer. After the French lost their derrière at the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 the USofA took over the fight. Whispered usually only in polite circles, well away from the prying eyes of nosy citizens, where hidden just below the surface were a whole slew of attractive and enticing economic reasons for our being in Vietnam. Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte, don’t you cry, the secrecy and smoking mirrors are necessary to cover up the killing and dying sacrifices that would be required for their husbands and sons dying on the battlefield.
I had a modicum of uncertainty on whether I was really cut out to live the exemplary life of a man of the cloth, if you will, a proper role model. Doubts of course were an expected part of life, like if your kid sister told you that a robber broke in and ate your entire chocolate stash, you’d be crazier than a hoot owl if you didn’t register a little doubt. I kept the bulk of my questioning to myself, figuring such waverings were normal teething pains. Anyone worthy of their salt had to expect internal battles, have their mettle tested, a “when the going gets tough” sorta thing… As it turned out my time as a minister-to-be was short lived. Shortly before graduating I abandoned my “calling” to preach, foregoing attending seminary to enroll at SFA, Stephen F. Austin University, to take up graduate studies in history. The campus was not far from my hometown, twenty miles from the campus. Choosing to forgo becoming a minister also meant giving up my 4-D Ministerial Deferment. To tell the truth I never was all that keen at receiving a special “godly dispensation” that allowed me to avoid military service just cause I was going to be a minister, especially given there was no shortage of ministers supporting the war in Vietnam. I informed the Draft Board that I was no longer studying to become a minister. Course I suppose that took no special courage on my part cause I still had a one year student deferment while at SFA — which I was happy to use, not just to enhance my education but equally, if not more important, to avoid the draft….
My studies were moving faster than all get out, with less than six months left to graduation, more importantly, before I lost my student deferment. If you were so inclined, you could fry an egg on the hood of your car in the midday Texas sun but the hot breath I felt was the draft board breathing down my neck. Ironic how so much had changed in so short a time. I no longer desired to go to West Point or the Naval Academy or was anxious to volunteer to take up arms in a war I now thought wronger than all get out. Nor could I any longer wrap my faith around my country’s well oiled killing machine, allowing my government to be God’s translator of right and wrong, good and evil. Nor was I able to blindly accept religious leaders or the corporate and media elites who allowed it to be so. Unfortunately for me the clock like my marriage was also ticking and time was fast running out.
It was about this point in the telling of my story that Mount Vesuvius and me locked horns on an almost daily basis, including his pontificating that it “better to have a dead hero than a live coward.” Huggin’ up to a hornet’s nest would have been less “stingful” than replaying those words over and again in my head, but that said I couldn’t help but give a smidgen of credence to thinking that perchance his son was indeed a coward. If the truth be known, mayhaps I was just hiding behind all those draft deferments I had been given, 4-D or otherwise. Tens of thousands of American boys had already been killed, one or two I went to school with. I certainly wasn’t hankering to, as elder Stovall so eloquently put it, “come home in a casket draped in an American flag,” even if it would serve as living proof to my dad that I wasn’t a coward. Roger, my closest and dearest friend went through two years of ROTC, Reserve Officer Training Corps, same as me, when we were students at OBC but he also signed up for an additional two years of Advanced ROTC. He was now in Vietnam, a genuine Army Ranger and an officer to boot would you believe, fighting for what he believed was the right thing to do. I never ever, not even once, gave any thought that scrawny Roger was braver than I, nor until then that I might be his cowardly friend. Of course if I didn’t go to Vietnam how was I, for all eternity, to know if I might indeed have a yellow streak a mile wide running down my backside, a personal flaw that was in need of expunging? Thing was, for me the war was wrong, my country, no matter how much I loved it, no matter what justifications it could conjure up, was wrong, all the killing taking place was wrong. It would be wrong if I went to Vietnam to kill Ho Chi Minh Vietnamese or pajama wearing Viet Cong, namby-pamby Gooks or any other ugly word a person chose to call them, just to prove I wasn’t a coward. But if I refused to go, most everyone that mattered to me and many more that didn’t count for a hill of beans, would find themselves walking on the other side of the street whenever they saw me coming their way. Heck over time I might not like what I saw staring back at me in a mirror, possibly forcing me to cross the street whenever I saw me coming.
I passed the Armed Forces recruiting offices every day I drove to and from school. Every now and then thoughts of my friend Roger crossed my mind as I passed by. We lost contact with one another but I heard through the grapevine that he was now a First Lieutenant. Knowing Roger he was probably already a Captain. I figured if you had to be a grunt in Vietnam you’d be lucky to have Roger as your commander. If anybody could keep you alive after all was said and done, it would be Roger. No doubt he would think it funny, maybe ironic, that his anti-Vietnam, draft dodging, “cowardly” friend was thinking of him, wondering if he was still alive or dead. I had been giving a lot of thought to the idea that maybe I still could find a way to serve my country even if, heaven forbid, I were to end up in Vietnam. I would be willing, or at least I convinced myself that was so, to serve as a Medic or maybe I could help cover the war as a journalist or photographer with the Army or Navy. Who knows, I might even end up taking a picture of Roger on the battlefield or patch him up if he was wounded. I made the decision to stop by the recruiting office. I was hopeful I could sneak into the recruiting office without anyone I knew seeing me. Upon entering I saw one civilian who looked in a vague sorta way, vaguely familiar sitting at the Marine recruiter’s desk. The navy recruiter glanced up at me, like he might be inviting me over for a chat. I knew next to nothing when it came to non-commissioned officer ranks in the Navy but I guessed he was a Petty Officer first class. The army recruiter wasn’t anywhere to be seen so I sat down, a little uneasy like, where I managed to convey to him what I was looking for. Bottom line, the army was the only service that guaranteed you a job, even though it might not be the exact one you want, which to my way of thinking was no guarantee at all. The devil was in the details. The navy would “do its best” to get me a job I wanted but even then there had to be a good deal of flexibility on my part. I asked him to give me an example of what type of work I might do if I were a Navy photojournalist. The Navy had a few photojournalists but they were far and few between. He also said I might end up serving aboard a carrier off Vietnam where I would interpret photos for the next day’s bombing runs.
At this point in the conversation it came to me that I should be open and frank with the recruiter about my particular feelings, particularly at to my inclinations as it pertained to Vietnam, mindful of course of where I was sitting and with whom I was addressing. I mentioned to the Petty Officer that under normal circumstance I didn’t consider myself a “CO,” a conscientious objector, meaning “someone who on the grounds of moral or religious reasons opposed for all eternity ever serving in the armed services”. The draft board had an even more stringent definition of a “CO.” To qualify you also would have refused fighting the Nazis in WWII or unwilling to shoot anyone breaking into your house, even to protect the life and limb of wife and kids and pets. That pretty much crossed me off the list, that and the fact that I was a Southern Baptist who had a history of fighting anything that had two legs and sometimes just one. All that and more pretty much meant I couldn’t be a “CO.” But I digress.
When I let it be known that I was a “CO” of sorts when it came to the war in Vietnam. In fact all hell broke loose in the pews when I said I was willing to serve in any capacity in the Navy or any other branch so long as I was not required to carry a gun or do anything, like picking out targets for a bombing run, or doing anything that would require me to contribute to the killing of anyone. It was at that point I heard a loud banging sound, like a chair being knocked over on its side. The Marine was now standing, looking annoyed, like a bull in a huff and puff. His desk chair was overturned and fore you know it, faster than Superman’s speeding bullet he was halfway between his and the Navy recruiter’s desks. You might think me over-dramatic in my telling but I would have to disagree. The Marine leapfrogged the garbage can and headed straight towards me, with fire in his eyes and hell-bent on reaching my throat with his outstretched arm before the Navy fellow could intercede. It was thereabouts I discovered I had a quickness about me that heretofore I did not know existed, where with the combination of quick thinking and a natural survival instinct, I put the Navy recruiter between myself and the Marine. “You better get out of here and pronto, and don’t come back,” the Navy guy shouted while trying as best he cold to hold back the crazed Semper Fi fellow. I did as he suggested, no further urging required, figuring it was probably safer for me in Vietnam than the Armed Forces Recruiting Office. My run in with the Marine recruiter left me with few alternatives. The draft board would soon be salivating in their mess kit.
I had heard that Canada had opened its borders to American Vietnam war resisters, offering them political asylum. At first it angered me when I initially heard this a few years earlier but I soon realized that it might be my only real option, either that or go to jail.
I had no contact with Professor Ranabarger at OBC, not since graduation but I decided I would seek his advice on what I should do about my Canadian situation or if he could perhaps think of another possibility open to me. In fact he did have another solution in mind, a much better solution as it turned out. It was the irony of ironies that LBJ, the crème de la crème President of the Vietnam War machine, was also the President who set up the “War on Poverty” in the USA, which included the VISTA program (Volunteers in Service to America). As it turned out the first Volunteer program in Arkansas was sponsored by OBC. Professor Ranabarger was its director. Becoming a VISTA Volunteer was a possibility if I was interested. The year of service also provided a one year draft deferment, which I didn’t have to give a second a consideration. I filled out the paperwork. My first preference for location was Seattle, Washington but under the circumstance just about anyplace would do. I was approved to serve not in an urban area in the Northwest but in a small rural town in the Southeast of the country, in Waynesboro, Georgia, with a Black Farmer’s Co-op. Apparently I must have been mistaken for a farmer, given I at one point in time lived on 40 acres in Texas, raised one cow, fed a few chickens, was a member of the FFA, Future Farmers of America and rode horses every chance I got. I hardly knew a black-eyed pea from a pinto bean, never milked a cow or slaughtered a hog but there you go, my farming expertise supposedly qualified me to serve as an organizer to 500 farmers, who I would later call my black brothers and sisters, knew more about farming in their little pinky than I would ever know in a lifetime.
Perhaps I mentioned that my dad had a car dealership. The day before I was to fly off to Atlanta to begin my VISTA training someone walked into the Sales Manager’s office to see about buying a new car. When they were about done out of the clear blue the guy blurted out, “Heard that Stovall boy is a Pinko Commie Coward who got his butt kicked by a Marine down at the recruiting station.” Dumpy, the Sales Manager, told me later that he stood there all stupefied-like, not certain what to do or say, not until the guy opened his mouth one more time. “If he was my boy,” he said, with a shitsky looking grin, “I’d beat him to an inch of his…” Before he could finish farting through his teeth Dumpy had him in a headlock, pushing him up against the wall. With all the ruckus transpiring outside his office everyone within earshot came running, including my dad, who ended up pulling Dumpy off the guys before he could do any real damage. The parts manager later told me that Stovall himself tried to calm things down and get to the reason for the ruckus. Dumpy was reluctant to relay what the customer said, until prodded. It took a few seconds for it to register with him but when it did Daddy Stovall picked him up with both hands and threw him against the wall, his fist cocked, no doubt he was getting ready to knock him into the next county, maybe all the way to California. Dumpy and the parts manager managed to pull Daddy off the guy and boot him out the door with Dumpy telling him not to ever come back unless he wanted a serious butt-whooping. Also told him he could buy his car elsewhere. I caught a flight the next day knowing Daddy Stovall thought it was ok for him to tell his son that he was a coward — something where he was startin’ to backtrack — but not just anyone who walked in off the street who wasn’t family, right or wrong, would ever be permitted to mouth such garbage….
MGR – In 1968, the US army paid Vietnamese families about $33 for each adult civilian killed unintentionally, half that for each child. MGR, an acronym commonly used by soldiers, stood for the “mere gook rule”, hinting that no American would ever be punished for killing any Vietnamese. cf. KILL ANYTHING THAT MOVES, http://www.vvaw.org/veteran/article/?id=2213