Opening Day is only a few days away, a sure sign of Spring and the eternal cycles of life. The grass is greening from its Winter brown; the trees are budding. There’s a faint scent of lilac wafting in the warming breezes. Life and hope seem to renew themselves… unless you happen to be a Met fan!
I know you Cub and Yankee fans have just started playing your violins for me. One of you I’m going to ignore; I’ll get to the other one later.
The Mets, despite playing in one of the best baseball markets in the known universe, didn’t exactly tear up the league last year (or for the last six or so) finishing second to last in the NL East with a 74 and 88 record.
If that wasn’t bad enough, everything good they did last year seemed to have been twisted into something dreadful.
1. They had a great start, actually going into the All-Star break contending for the division… then there was that horrific 7-18 July, and not another winning month for the rest of the year… they even went 1-2 in October.
2. Johan Santana pitched the franchise’s first ever no hitter, a somewhat ironic accomplishment for a franchise who had Tom Seaver, Dwight Gooden and Nolan Ryan pitching for it at various times. But, the no-no was tainted; it was preserved on a bad call, which was broadcast on every national sports media outlet in the world.
3. R. A. Dickie became the first knuckle-baller to win the Cy Young. I hope he’ll be happy playing in Canada this season.
Other off-season gems included the Mets paying outfielder, Jason Bay, $21 million not to play baseball for them. They even lost one of their AAA Minor League teams, the Buffalo Bisons.
While other teams were scarfing up free agents to get ready for a competitive 2013 season, the most hopeful thing for the Mets going into spring training was that the franchise’s owner, Fred Wilpon, won’t start the season in the slammer. Wilpon announced he had settled a $162 million lawsuit over the Bernie Madoff scandal. In fact, Madoff himself claimed from prison that Wilpon “knew nothing” about Madoff’s Ponzi scheme… and God knows… Bernie’s word is as good as gold… as long as you get out quick. But, at least the Mets’ 2013 season will open without the team in receivership and a foreclosure sign on Citi Field.
So, going into opening day, the Mets hopes of success are about the same as the Chicago Cubs, with one huge difference… unlike the Cubs, the Mets aren’t loveable… in fact, they’re pretty much despised around the league.
So, what would cause someone… someone like me for example… to be a Mets fan, other than a ploy to piss off all the Cub fans I know (and loving it).
The first thing I’d like to point out is that I’m a Mets fan neither by nature nor by nurture.
As I mention in my bio, I’m about as much “New York City” as anyone can be. I was born on the east-side of Manhattan in Gotham hospital. When I was a kid, New York City had three baseball teams (they weren’t called franchises back then) the Giants, the Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers. And, the team you rooted for was not really a matter of choice, it was part of your social identity.
Dodger and Giant fans-this was the old National League, when the Braves played in Boston-were the salt of the earth. These were hourly-wage, blue collar, union-member, ethnic folk-Irish, Italian, Polish, Sicilian. Yankee fans over in the American League tended to be Republican, white collar… the bosses… the English.
National league fans drank beer; Yankee fans, cocktails. Dodger and Giant fans rode the subway to work; Yankee fans drove their car (or had a Dodger fan drive it for them). National leaguers lived in apartments with all the kids stacked in one bedroom; Yankee fans had homes in the ‘burbs with a bedroom for every kid, green lawns and swing sets in the back yard. Dodger and Giant fans were Democrats; Yankee fans, Republicans. There was no common ground.
In my family, who were all Giant fans since the Fred Hooey-Buck Ewing days, changing religion would have been accepted easier than going over to the Yankees. (To this day I have a brother and sister whose souls I pray for daily). In fact, in my house the three persons of the blessed trinity were McGraw, Terry and Ott.
During the baseball season, Dodger and Giant fans ignored the Yankees. They were over in that other league and the only inter-league play that existed back then, when the Baltimore Orioles were still the St. Louis Browns, was the World Series in October.
But, Giant and Dodger fans savaged each other. I had an uncle (by marriage) who was a Dodger fan. From April to October, no one in the family would talk to him… and that was the merciful option; even his wife, my aunt, my father’s sister, who taught me poker and black jack, was tainted by odor of Dodger-ness.
There’s a famous story about the Giant player, Bobby Thompson, who in a playoff against the Dodgers in 1951, hit a home run up the left-field line in the old Polo Grounds in the bottom of the ninth-the famous “Shot Heard ‘Round the World”-to consign Dodger fans to “waiting for next year” while the Giants went on to the series against the Yankees. (They lost in five!) After he hit the homerun, Thompson remembered that his apartment was in Brooklyn, and the Dodger fans in his neighborhood would probably be waiting for him to get home. So, he had to hide out in the clubhouse until the Brooklyn lynch mob gave up and went home.
But, during the World Series, Dodger and Giant fans united against the Yankees, regardless of what National League team they were playing. So in October, at various times in my life, I’ve been a Dodger fan, a Milwaukee Braves fan, even a Pittsburgh Pirate fan (that was sweet!), any National League team that was playing against the Yankees.
Then came that horrible day in September, 1957. The National League abandoned New York City. The Giants left the Polo Grounds for San Francisco; the Dodgers abandoned Ebbets Field for LA. New York baseball was dead!
Now you have to remember (for some of my readers, you have to find out) these were the days before national media. There was no ESPN, no USA Today, no internet. When the Giants and Dodgers left New York, they completely disappeared from view for a ten-year-old kid growing up in New York, except for the vestiges left in box scores in the NY Daily News and Daily Mirror.
Then in 1962, after four years of no National League-in other words, real baseball-in New York City, the Mets were born!
Now the 1962 Mets were arguably one of the worst teams ever to play the game. They made the pre-Jackie Robinson Brooklyn Dodgers look like champs! But-and here is one of the secrets of their early success with New York City fans-they emulated the old Dodgers and Giants. One of the colors they wore on their uniforms, was Dodger blue, and on their caps they wore the same orange “NY” logo as the old New York Giants. And, they played their home games at the Polo Grounds. That pretty much did it for me… I was hooked.
Another major attraction for the early Mets was that they brought the Giants and Dodgers back to New York. Anytime one of these teams came to town, the Polo Grounds were packed, and most of the “home town” fans were not rooting for the Mets. What would be the point in that? They went 40-120 that first season, the most losses by any major league team since 1899. They finished dead last in the National League, 60 1⁄2 games behind… wait for it… the San Francisco Giants (who went on to play the Yankees in the Series losing in seven).
Also, with the Mets, returned some hometown heroes like Gil Hodges, Don Zimmer and Roger Craig who had Dodger pedigrees. And, of course, Casey Stengel, who had both Giant and Dodger history, as well as being one of the most successful mangers the Yankees ever had, was brought out of retirement to manage the team. Stengel’s baseball wisdom included such sage advice as, “Being with a woman all night never hurt no professional baseball player. It’s staying up all night looking for a woman that does him in,” and “The secret of successful managing is to keep the five guys who hate you away from the four guys who haven’t made up their minds.”
And, of course, the early Mets, despite their dismal proficiency at anything resembling major league baseball, were “loveable.” For example, say the following two words to any vintage Met fan, “Marv Throneberry”! The response you’ll get, with a healthy dollop of New-York-City irony, is, “Marvelous Marv!”
Throneberry was the personification of Mets endearing ineptitude. Not only did he screw things up on the field, he did it big! An infamous “Marvelous Marv” story. Throneberry was called out at second and manager Casey Stengel came out to argue the call, but was told by the umpire “Don’t bother arguing Casey, he missed first base, too.” And, New York Mets fans loved him!
Ironically, the Mets two World Series victories destroyed their image as the “loveable losers.”
When the “Miracle Mets” of 1969 overtook the Cubs for the Eastern Division, swept out the Braves for the National League Pennant, then beat the Orioles in five for the Series, Met fans had to accept the fact that their team were no longer a parody of a major league baseball club, and their play on the field had to be taken seriously. The comedy show became a melodrama.
The Mets stopped being “loveable”-at least, outside of Chicago, where they never were-in 1986, the year they beat the Red Sox in seven. I’m not sure exactly how this happened, but my theory is that it had something to do with playing “power baseball” around the league with a little too much swagger and a little too much cocaine.
So, here we are in spring 2013, and my team is neither “lovable” nor the Washington Generals of baseball, but just another perennially underperforming Major League franchise. My only question is whether it’s too early to do adopt a venerable Brooklyn Dodger tradition and declare, “Wait’ll next year!”
Okay… first things first… it’s pronounced Teer Na Nohg and it means the Land of Youth, which is a characterization of the pre-Christian concept of the afterlife, a land where time does not exist and all are in the full bloom of youth.
In the last chapter of my novel, The Violent Season, “The Bay, Part Two,” a man who is struggling to recover from the horrific experiences of war and combat in Vietnam, and shocked by the destruction wrought by time on the home of his youth, remembers stories of ancient heroes and the Tír na N’Óg that his Irish grandmother had told him as a boy, which now resonate in a way the man had never anticipated.
“His grandmother told him it was a magical stone. In Ireland, the “little people,” the tuatha dé danán she called them, used these moon stones to mark the entrances of the líos, their magical underground kingdom, a land of eternal youth where mortal time didn’t exist. She told the boy that only great heroes, Fionn mac Cumhail or the great Cu Chullain, dared to enter the líos. Once there, they were greeted by the léanan sí, three beautiful maidens, one red, one gold and one black, who
would love and care for them.
There, the hero was reunited with his comrades, who had fallen in battle at his side.
There, they all were young again, their battle-wounds healed.
There, they would feast and drink in the eternal strength of their youth.
There, the hero would be reunited with his loved ones, who had gone before him into the land of shadows.
There, all their joy, all their love, would be restored” (from, The Violent Season).
In the late 1970’s, some eight years after I had left the mountains and jungles of Vietnam, I was sitting on an American Airlines flight at the gate at LaGuardia Airport on my way to Chicago, the same flight I had taken every Sunday night for the last six months.
It was April, a New York City Spring; wet, sleet-laden rain was pummeling the thin skin of the Boeing 727, teetering the wings like a playground see-saw. I was strapped into an aisle seat with three tiny bottles of Bacardi rum and a can of Coke that the flight attendant at the door, who by this time knew me by name and had anticipated my arrival, had handed me when I flashed my boarding pass.
I was a nervous flyer. Surviving two helicopter crashes and a “rough” landing on a mountain runway under mortar attack in an Air Force C7A Caribou will do that. I figured my number was way overdo. So my coping mechanism was rum, coke and a spy novel to bury myself in while the flight crew and the fickle gods, who rule the folly of human flight in tin contraptions on stormy nights, decided whether we were going to land at O’Hare that night (and in what condition).
I was reading a passage in my book where the “hero,” a British secret agent-type, and his ally, an ex-IRA terrorist, who was now working for MI6, were trying to extract vital information from members of the Irish underworld in the slums of Belfast. Part of the conversation was in Irish Gaelic, which I suddenly realized that, as my eyes passed quickly over the text, I understood! Amazing stuff this Bacardi! But, when I went back actually to read these passages, the Gaelic was as obscure to me as Sanskrit.
Now, I would have attributed this entire phenomenon to pre-flight jitters and that miracle elixir bottled by that esteemed miracle worker, Don Bacardi, and just forgotten the whole incident. But, about a week later, I was on the phone with one of my more high-tone friends, a young woman, who boarded and trained horses out on Long Island. She was telling me about one of her new horses.
“… and his name is Capall Dubh…” she was saying.
“Oh! He’s a black horse?” I interrupted.
“Yes,” she answered, “That’s what his name means, but how did you know that?”
Well, I didn’t know how I knew! The English meaning had just popped into my head!
This being the 1970’s, and with my need for explanations, rational or not, I developed a number of theories to explain this linguistic marvel.
First, I was having a nervous breakdown that somehow manifested itself in the “gift of tongues.” Then again, the whole concept of a “gift of tongues” suggested to an Irish-Catholic a second Pentecost of the Holy Ghost (very unlikely considering my lifestyle at the time) or a demonic possession (The Exorcist was a very popular movie at the time… I haven’t been able to face pea soup since I saw it).
My personal favorite theory was that I had had a former life as an ancient Irish warrior. (We’re always someone famous in our former lives. That’s the way these things work as the character, Annie Savoy, in the movie Bull Durham, explains.) I was having flashbacks to my former life as an Irish hero.
A couple of days later, I was at a family wedding, one of those wonderful, New York, Irish blowouts (Q: What’s the difference between an Irish wedding and an Irish wake? A: One less drunk.) There, I ran into my older cousin. She and I had spent our summers together as kids; to me, she was more like my older sister than my cousin.
When I told her what was happening with the Gaelic and my Irish warrior theory-we were well into the wedding celebration by this time-my cousin just laughed and said, “When you were small, you and Nanny used to sit in the front room every afternoon, sipping tea, watching The Kate Smith Show and Queen for a Day, while Nanny jabbered away at you in Irish and you just sat there saying ‘Tá, mamó,’ “Níl, mamó,’ ‘Tuigim, mamó.’ We were never quite sure you spoke English until you were about five, Skip!”
I remembered the tea-hot, sweet and thick with canned, Carnation condensed milk; my grandmother would pour a bit in the saucer to let it cool for me. I remembered sitting in the front room in the late afternoon with muted sunlight glowing behind heavy drapes, softening the noises of the city street, as Nanny and I sat in large, over-stuffed, high-backed chairs watching the tele.
But I didn’t remember the Irish! So, I asked my cousin, “Then why don’t I remember Nanny speaking Irish to me, Sock?”
“When you started school… what were you… about six… Nanny refused to speak Irish in front of you anymore,” my cousin explained. “Nanny believed if you wanted to get anywhere in this country, you had to speak English without an accent, like an American. That’s why she never spoke Irish in front of any of her own kids. My mother had never heard her speak Irish! She wanted her children to sound like Americans. They couldn’t sound like they had just gotten off the boat. Barry Fitzgerald sounds quaint in a movie, but no one in America’s going to give him a decent job. So, she never spoke Irish in front of you since that day.”
Well, in a way, I was kind of bummed that in a former life I hadn’t been a fénnid, a doughty warrior of the king’s fianna, but I had quite enough on my plate trying to deal with having been a grunt in Vietnam. Yet, I began to remember the tales my mamó had told me while we sat in the front room sipping our tea and listening to Kate Smith on the tele.
My grandma had been born in Mayo, so she wasn’t a big fan of Cú Cullainn and the Ulaid. Being a Connaught woman, she was partial to the legendary Queen Maebh, if her daughter, my Aunt Mae, was any evidence, bean fíochmhar rua dearg, a fierce, red-haired woman. But, she loved the tales of Fionn mac Cumhall and the Fianna.
One of my favorite tales that she had told me was how Fionn saved Tara on the Samhain from a fire-breathing demon, Aillen, who lulled his opponents to sleep with a magic spell before he attacked. Fionn manned the ramparts of Tara alone, with his spear placed under his chin, so if his head nodded in sleep, the point of the spear stabbed him. (I would have tried this one to keep students awake in my Monday, first-period classes, but I’m pretty sure bringing spears to class is illegal in Indiana.)
Her favorite tale, though, was that of Derdriu and her tragic love for Naoise. “Deirdre of the Sorrows,” she called the tale in English. In fact, I remember she once told me that derdriu, not brón, was the true Irish word for sorrow.
So, these many years later, I now play the role for my readers, that my mamó had played for me, a seanchaí, a teller of tales. These echoes of the Irish language spoken on sunny afternoons over sweet, thick tea and the myths of Irish heroes of course find their way into my tales.
In my novel, The Violent Season, a man, haunted by the horrors and combat and lost friends, and horrified by the devastation of the places he had loved as a child, wants to escape back into his past, where he can be innocent again; where he can again be with those who had loved and protected him; where his childhood dreams would again live.
“Somehow the man believed that, if he dared the dark, twisting path, broke through the brambles and brush of the years and climbed the hill, when he reached the top, all would be restored to him. The waste lands would be restored, would live again. He could again run along the secret Indian paths, brave the valley of the Iroquois, sit under the shady maples in the place of watching over the broad, grey-green bay of Lake Champlain near the fort of the English.
When he reached the top of the path, there before him would appear the white bungalow, framed in red. His grandmother would be there standing on the back porch, calling him.
His beautiful, red-haired aunt, would be sitting at the patio table next to her radio playing “Deep Purple.” She would look up from her magazine, take off her sunglasses, and her bright, green eyes would flash a welcoming smile.
His uncle would be behind the house polishing the Green Hornet, with its spotlight and police radios, into a deep, boundless, green luster.
And Janey, his sweet Janey, would run to him, her arms wide in welcome. ‘Why did you take so long to get home, squirt? Don’t you know how much we missed you?’” (from, The Violent Season).
Of course, entry into the Tír na N’Óg is not possible. The man must remain in the land of mortals. But, life renews itself, because love survives all things, and it is his wife who calls him back into the world of light, as his violent season ends.
This isn’t an actual Irish ghost story.
I actually do have a few of those, but I’ll save them for another time. No… this is more an exploration of the sub-conscious of an Irish-American writer as we approach that great parody of the Irish-American identity, “St. Paddy’s Day.”
Now, I say parody out of no disrespect for the Irish, the Americans, the hyphen or the saint. The term applies to using some twisted perception of “Irishness” as an excuse to get drunk, loud and disorderly in vast, overwhelming numbers.
Parody would also characterize the hundreds of images seen in store windows, on front lawns and windows and on TV of a runty, drunk and pugnacious, red-headed character, fists up and with a clay pipe sticking out of the side of his mouth, who curiously has found himself a long-term gig, when not acting as the symbol of “St. Paddy’s Day,” as the logo of a nationally famous Indiana sports complex, which is also vaguely associated with a Catholic university.
I could go on about how these characterizations have their pedigree in nineteenth-century, anti-Irish, Hogarthian, British caricatures of “Paddy and his Pig” to suggest that the Irish were too “savage” and “infantile” to govern themselves.
Or, I could go off on a rant about the hypocrisy of that well-known and nationally-renowned liberal, Catholic institution of higher education, which loudly and indignantly condemns as “racist” the use of Native American caricatures as “mascots” by other universities and sports teams, but still displays a bigoted and degrading caricature of the Irish as its mascot on its athletic website and on its “team apparel.”
No… that’s not at all what I want to talk about today…
I had the opportunity earlier this week to appear on “The Dead End,” a talk-show hosted by Richard Long, author of the best-selling thriller, The Book of Paul, on Blog Radio out of New York. I had a lot of fun doing the show with Richard and two other Irish-American writers, Karen Victoria Smith, author of Enslaved and Dark Dealings, and Michelle Browne, author of The Loved, The Lost, The Dreaming: A Horror Anthology. (Connections to these talented writers and their works can be found at the end of this article).
If you have a few minutes-about 120 of them-take a listen to the show… we had a grand time.
In his exploration of how an Irish-American identity informed our writing, Richard asked whether the Irish version of Catholicism make the Irish different from other ethnic groups. I didn’t respond to this question (the curse of the introvert… I was still processing it while the show moved on to another subject). Having grown up among other ethnic groups, who are generally Catholic-Italians, Sicilians, Puerto Ricans, Polish-there is one area where I believe the Irish differ vastly, the Irish sense of sexuality.
Now, I know we Catholics all received the same rigorous indoctrination from the good sisters in “Catholic School.” Over our eight years of grade school, we memorized the Baltimore Catechism and the nun’s drilled us in it daily.
“Raymond! What is mortal sin?”
“Sister, ‘Mortal sin is a grievous offense against the law of God.’”
“Why is this sin called mortal, Raymond?
“‘This sin is called mortal, or deadly, because it deprives the sinner of sanctifying grace, the supernatural life of the soul,’ Sister.”
“Good! What are the sources of mortal sin, Raymond?”
“‘The chief sources of actual sin are: pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth, and these are commonly called capital sins,’ Sister.”
“Are sins of lust mortal sins?”
“And what would become of your soul if you were to die with a sin of lust on your soul, Raymond?”
“That’s right, children. Remember! Our Lord said that the one who lusts even if only in his thoughts, still commits a deadly sin. Lust is a mortal sin in thought, in word and in deed. Thinking about it, or talking about it, or committing it will condemn your soul to the agonies of Hell for all eternity.”
Is it any wonder I have nightmares?
My sense of my Irish-Catholic sexuality is angst… even in my wild-child days of the 1970’s as a swinging bachelor and bar owner in New York City, sex always seemed a somewhat forbidden fruit. Somewhere, even in the darkness of my bachelor boudoir, was a little, chubby-cheeked, Irish kid dressed in the white and navy-blue of our Catholic school uniform reciting, “I would burn in Hell for all eternity, Sister.”
By the way, if any of you out there also suffer from this same, Irish-Catholic anxiety over sex, do not read James Joyce’s, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The Jesuit’s sermon on damnation-the black, eternal, smothering fires of Hell-will put you over the edge.
Or, for that matter, Dante’s Inferno and Purgatorio where the punishments in the afterlife of those guilty of the sins of lust are revealed in lured detail. There’s no sex or sadism in the Paradiso, which probably explains why no one reads it.
In the second chapter, “Soldiers of Christ,” I tell the story of a young boy, Mickey Dwyer, falling in love for the first time but not understanding what’s happening to him. As he is about to file into Sunday mass with his best friend, Joey Benedict, and the rest of his eighth-grade classmates, Mickey tries to catch a glimpse of Lorie McShea.
“As they got ready to file into the church with the rest of their class, the line of girls drew parallel with the line of boys. Mickey knew he shouldn’t be looking around—the nuns might catch him, or even worse, Joey—but he couldn’t help but look for Lori among the girls […] Mickey had never had any interest in girls. But, for the last few months, something seemed to be changing. Gradually, he began to realize that he thought he might think otherwise. He wasn’t interested in what girls did; that was all pretty silly and useless stuff as far as he was concerned. But, he was becoming interested in girls… well… because they were girls. Why? He didn’t have a clue. He never gave it much thought. But, whatever was going on, it was probably sinful and should be suppressed, because it felt so… so… strangely delightful and alluring. So, Mickey didn’t want to suppress it, especially with Lori, even if it did endanger the salvation of his immortal soul. For him, Lori was a blond-haired, blue-eyed ray of sunshine in his shadowy world of predators and power in the school yard, the playgrounds and the streets of the neighborhood” (from The Violent Season).
Later, in Chapter Four, titled ironically, “A Meeting Engagement,” another young man, Pat Green, after four years attending an all-boys, Catholic high school, finds himself in a college classroom with a beautiful and assertive young woman, who is trying to get his attention. Green of course doesn’t have a clue about what to do.
“At this point in his life, Pat Green had not shared a classroom with a member of the opposite sex since the eighth grade when he was thirteen-years old. And, he was discovering that a few things had changed since then. His memory of awkward, skinny, stringy-haired girls dressed in shapeless Catholic-school jumpers had been abruptly shattered by the image of Judy Kelly, a well-developed, auburn-haired, beauty in lipstick, eye-shadow and skirts that never quite made it over her knees when she sat in a desk less than six feet from him in two of his classes. The Jesuits of St. Xavier Academy had done nothing to prepare him for this moment except convince him that every time he so much as thought about Judy Kelly, he was committing a horrible sin and endangering his immortal soul. He never even consciously realized that it was she who had chosen to sit near him, and this had to mean something important. No, he couldn’t think. He couldn’t function. He couldn’t keep his eyes off her. He found her very act of breathing fascinating, the way she filled her stylish white blouses that moved in and out… in and out… as she took each breath causing a condition in him that any first year nursing student sitting in that cafeteria at that moment would immediately, and correctly, diagnose as hyper-ventilation” (from The Violent Season).
In the narrative related by The Violent Season, this sense of sexual naïveté and angst serves to establish the innocence of these young men who will soon be cast into the crucible of war raging in the hills and jungles of Vietnam. For one, sexuality is an act of commitment that keeps him joined to the woman who loves him and awaits his return. For the other, he finds love in the arms of an exotically beautiful woman in Vietnam but both are scarred by tragedy and war. Neither can recognize their feelings for the other.
Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig oraibh!
The Blessing of St. Patrick’s Day to You!
Barnes & Noble: http://bit.ly/NpEy0E
Karen Victoria Smith
Barnes & Noble: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/c/karen-victoria-smith
Recently, a reviewer of The Violent Season, Ray Voith, asked me this question, “I meant to ask you – did you talk to North Vietnamese soldiers to get a perspective on their part in the war, or did you base your segments about them on the (valid) assumption that we are all in this life together?”
First, a little about Ray before I get to his question. We’ve never met, but he and I have shared a significant, formative experience. We both attended a Roman Catholic seminary for the Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America, known as Maryknoll. Since Ray is older… much… much… older than I am, we weren’t there at the same time, but we were both nurtured in the humanity, social justice and the life of the spirit which is Maryknoll.
Maryknoll’s hope for us was, “To raise up sterling men for God.” I sincerely hope I have not disappointed them and my Maryknoll brothers and sisters,.
Now to Ray’s question.
No. I haven’t spoken to any former members of the People’s Army of North Vietnam (PAVN), except to trade insults across a battle field.
“Hey, GI! You got American cigarette?”
“Smoking’s bad for your health, Charlie!”
“My name not Charrie!”
“And my name’s not GI! I have a mother!”
Although I have read intelligence briefs and transcripts of the debriefings of defectors and POW, my general inspirations for the characterization of the North Vietnamese soldiers in The Violent Season, is Erich Maria Remarque’s novel, All’s Quiet on the Western Front, which I read shortly after returning home from Southeast Asia.
This book was breakthrough for me in a number of ways.
First, I was brought up in a generation that vilified Germans. My grandfather had fought them in the First World War, and my father and uncles had fought them in the Second. In every war movie I had watched as a kid, the soldiers of the Wehrmacht were portrayed as brainless, clumsy, evil automatons, who spoke English badly with thick accents. “Sooo… vair are your papers… hmmm?” They were the enemy!
So, I was surprised and quite impressed by Remarque’s characterization of German soldiers, Paul Bäumer and his comrades. I immediately recognized in them myself and the guys with whom I served in Nam. Despite being Germans, and therefore the “bad guys,” they became human for me. I recognized their plight and sympathized with them. They were me!
Second, the book helped me understand my own sense of alienation. When I got home from Nam, everything seemed superficially pretty much as it was before I left. Although my brothers and sisters had grown a bit, and mom and dad were a little greyer around the edges, my room was still in the basement, (I had to kick my brother out of it). My favorite shows-Bewitched (Oh! Elizabeth Montgomery!), Dean Martin (Oh! The Ding-A-Ling Sisters!), Mission Impossible, Get Smart (Oh! Barbara Feldon!), and Monty Python-were still on the tube. My favorite rock station, 77-WABC, was still blasting out the tunes. And most of my friends were either back from the war or had never left.
But, something seemed “off.” I couldn’t put my finger on what was wrong. Everything seemed pretty much the same, but something dark was lurking around the margins of my perception… some discordant note in every chord.
Then, I read the passage in All’s Quiet on the Western Front where Paul goes home from the front on leave. He finds his hometown has not changed since he went off to war. However, he also discovers that he does “not belong here anymore, it is a foreign world.” He feels disconnected from most of the people he had known before going into the army. In the end, he concludes that he should never to have come home, and returns to his comrades at the front before his leave expired.
In The Violent Season, I wrote a chapter, “Coming Home,” telling the story of Pat Green’s coming home and his struggle with his sense of “not belonging” in a society that was not welcoming to returning soldiers.
But, back to Ray’s question.
In writing The Violent Season, I wanted to break the typical “good guy / bad guy” convention of the genre. So, I adopted the premise that “the enemy,” the North Vietnamese, were as human as were I and my comrades.
Of course, my other hurdle in achieving a connection with North Vietnamese soldiers was cultural and racial. I remember statements about the North Vietnamese made to me by other soldiers, while I was in Nam that “they weren’t like us”; or “they don’t put the same value on human life that we do”; or, “they’re fanatics because of communism.”
Right after leaving the army in 1970, I had my “ex-patriot” experience, but instead of heading off to Paris like Hemingway, I headed to Taipei. I had no intention of returning to the States any time soon. I immersed myself in the Chinese culture, even learning to speak Guoyu, and enough of the Taiwanese dialect to order lunch.
My experience of the Chinese people was consistent with the “Theory of the Universal 20–80 Split.” There were certainly some cultural differences, but that was the just the twenty percent of the experince. As far as the other eighty percent went, the Chinese and I shared the same sense of humanity. They desired security and happiness. They laughed at funny movies and wept at sad ones. They loved their children. They were cautious with strangers… just like me.
So, when I attempted to develop the characterization of the North Vietnamese soldiers in The Violent Season, I assumed about them the eighty percent. My characters are attached to and concerned about their families; they want the war to be over so they can go home; they’re terrified by the dangers of combat. The other twenty percent-army routines, cultural beliefs, communist ideology-I constructed from research and imagination.
Another of my assumptions in constructing my characters was that, as in our army, there were some “good guys” serving in PAVN and some real jerks. So, essential questions for me as a writer were, “How would a NVA grunt behave?” And, “How would an NVA cultural or ideological martinet behave?” This approach defines the essential difference in characterization between Sergeant Major Trinh and Sub-Lieutenant Tran Trung Thanh, who appear in my story “A Very Bad Day.”
Trinh, who in his essence is a poet and teacher like his long-dead father, whom he continues to mourn, is of course severely damaged emotionally by a lifetime of war against the Japanese, the French, other Vietnamese, and now the Americans. Tran, on the other hand, is an FNG-a “F’ing New Guy”- still a boy really, “high” on the propaganda he was force-fed as a university student in Hanoi. Tran forces a fire fight with an American patrol near a place in the highlands called “The Volcano,” despite Trinh’s advice that the engagement is unnecessary. Of course, the results are tragic for both the Vietnamese and Americans involved.
The characterization of Colonel Tran Van Dung in the final two “Chu Pa” stories of The Violent Season is based my conception of how a North Vietnamese career officer, trained as a staff planner along the lines of the US Army’s Command and General Staff School, with pronounced Meyers-Briggs “Thinking” and “Judging” inclinations, would have behaved.
Dung is essentially a good man; he wants to serve his country and believes that his actions serve to reunite his people. But, not only is he faced with a powerful enemy that seeks to destroy his command, but he is also constantly forced to deal with internal “political” influences and ideologies, which at times, albeit potent and dangerous, are not constructive. These I represent by Lieutenant Colonel Dai and his black notebook.
Dung is one of my favorite characters in The Violent Season for a good reason. When I read the sections of the book dealing with Dung to my wife, Jan, she responded, “So! He’s you!” Ironically, she was absolutely correct. Dung is me! And he’s every other soldier-American, Vietnamese, Korean, Australian, and Degar-who fought that war.
One of the stories that I didn’t write for Season was Dung being invited to address a group of American veterans long after the war had ended. At first the Americans are hostile to him; he’s still “the enemy” in their minds. But, as they begin to realize that they share more with this man than they do with many of their own fellow citizens, they come to embrace him.
This potential for empathy between American soldiers and their former enemies, was expressed in my first book A Grunt Speaks,
“NVA. This was an abbreviation for the North Vietnamese Army, also known as the Peoples’ Army of Vietnam (PAVN). These were bad guys on testosterone. They were typically well-trained, well-equipped and motivated, unlike the Viet Cong whose training and sub-standard weapons were as much a danger to themselves as they were to any grunts they might encounter. The NVA could be recognized by their pith helmets, tan or OD uniforms, red collar tabs (if you got that close, you were about to have a bad day) shiny, clean, Czech-made AK’s and bad attitudes. Grunts’ attitude toward the NVA was a combination of hate, fear and respect. The “hate” and “fear” part is obvious—their job was to kill us and they were damn good at it. The “respect” is harder to explain. First, like us they were “good grunts”—they were trained, tough and determined. Second, these guys were sharing our experience—putting up with the same crap, living in the dirt amidst the bugs and reptiles, losing friends, missing home—and putting up with their own version of lifer—the political cadre (I’m sure more than one of these blokes wound up with a frag in his blankets). Ironically, the NVA were the closest thing to us we had in Nam.” (from A Grunt Speaks).
Thomas Hardy, in his poem, “A Man He Killed,” had it right, I think, “Yes; quaint and curious war is!”
So, to my friend, Ray Voith’s, question, did I interview any North Vietnamese veterans for my book, the answer is no. They were within me. Now, they are brought to life in The Violent Season.
Someone on the IT staff of my school obviously did! Our email server now blocks “dirty” words.
I found this out when one of mine students told me one afternoon. I don’t remember what brought it up, but the young man informed me that the email server was blocking “dirty” words. I challenged him, but he stuck to his guns.
“No! Really, Dr. G! You can’t send them! I tested it myself!”
“Tested it,” I asked? “What do you mean?”
“I… er…” he responded warily worrying that he might be stumbling into some insidious, adult trap, “I, like… sent emails? You know, with those words?”
I felt a need to test his scientific method.
“So, you sent emails with only one word in them to test the filter,” I asked?
“Yeah,” he confessed, “That’s what I did!”
I had a vision of this young man sitting in his room during study hours avoiding his homework by trying to pump every “dirty” word he could think of through the firewall.
But, I was more fascinated by the phenomenon itself.
“So, what words were blocked,” I asked?
No teenager is going to fall for this obvious trap.
“I… er… I mean…” he stumbled.
“The “F” word,” I asked?
“Yes,” he agreed warily, wishing he had never brought this up… but it was eating up some class time.
“And the “S” word,” I demanded again?
“Yes,” he affirmed now getting into this exchange. “And the “C” word and the “N” word too.”
I pretty much knew what the “N” word was. In my novel, The Violent Season, an African-American soldier, Cee Davis, explains that protocol to Jimmy Delvecchio as they’re sharing beer, cigarettes and bullshit (Oops! Can’t send this through my school email) on a Trailways bus speeding through the mountains of Pennsylvania toward Scranton.
But, the “C” word momentarily stumped me.
“What’s the “C” word,” I blurted?
The boy looked absolutely panic stricken when I asked this. Then, before he could respond, I got it! The “C” word was the one single word in the English language that my older sister, despite all her street savvy and resilience, will rip my face off should it ever pass my lips in her presence.
So, much to the young man’s relief, I immediately stammered, “Never mind! Never mind!”.
(Teaching Lesson! Teachers, like lawyers questioning a witness in court, should never ask a question the answer to which the teacher doesn’t know. Even then, a teacher is in store for a few surprises.)
My initial reaction to this announcement was resentment. It seemed to smack of some kind of anti-first-amendment suppression of free speech. But, then in a master stroke of rationalization, I let myself believe that faculty email was not screened… this was something to keep the kids in line. I mean, we correct them when we hear them use such language on campus. And, I could easily visualize one of our school shrinks, using his NPR-voice, explaining that this helps prevent harassment and bullying.
So, I let this one go until one of my emails was blocked by the language police!
Discovering “Dirty” Words.
What exactly is a “dirty” word?
We certainly seem to have a list! Listen to Carlin! And, a couple of new ones have been added by our seeming obligations to “social consciousness” and “culturally-correct speech.”
I remember clearly the day my dear mother introduced the concept to me.
I was in the first grade, about six years old. We were learning to read by “sounding out words.” For those of you who grew up in the phonetics era, this entailed applying the sounds of the English alphabet to written words, which were drilled in class. At best, an inherently flawed approach, since the sounds of spoken English as lost all reasonable coordination with the alphabet. But, absolutely necessary in learning how to read until publishers begin printing books in phonetic symbols.
“Next word… Raymond!”
“Yes, Sister! D-O-G… “D” says duh, “O” says oh, “G” says guh… Dohg!”
“That was good, Raymond, but this “O” is short, so it’s pronounced “awe.” Please try the word again.”
“Dawg, Sister.” (That IS the way the word’s pronounced in Queens, New York.)
Now there were many things in elementary school that I was not good at. I even refused to memorize multiplication tables and spelling lists. (Even then I was a futurist. I knew that eventually someone would invent the calculator and spell check, eliminating the need for such crap.)
But, I was good at sounding out words! And, despite lessons about the Seven Deadly Sins that were drilled into us during catechism class, I was proud of myself and willing to show off my prowess any time I got the chance, even if I didn’t understand why an “O” between a “D” and a “G” had to be “short.” So, I reveled in “reading” the new words I saw in store fronts, billboards, signs, and, unfortunately for me, on walls.
One afternoon, while walking home from school through the neighborhood, I spotted a new word chalked on a concrete wall that bordered a playground near our apartment building. I couldn’t resist! It seemed pretty simple to sound out. Only four letters. I knew the sounds an “F” and a “U” made, but I was a bit confused why a “C” was needed when there was also a “K.” Inscrutable language, this English. But. I quickly mastered my new word, and ran home to demonstrate my prowess to my mom.
“Mommy!” I yelled as I walked through the door of our apartment, “I learned a new word today!”
“That’s wonderful!” she responded, “Tell me!”
“But I don’t what it means, mommy,” I complained.
“Just tell me, Skippy! I’ll tell you what it means,” she coaxed. (Yes, my parents called me “Skippy” back then. Now it’s Doctor Skippy, capisce!)
“Okay, mommy… “F” “U” “C” “K” says…”
I almost immediately learned… I say almost because, although my mother, a native New Yorker who had grown up during the Depression and World War II, was a difficult person to astound, even she needed a nanosecond or two to recover from my pronouncement. That, she proclaimed forcibly, was a “dirty” word! What it meant was that I got to chew on a bar of Ivory Soap… “Ninety-nine, forty-four, a hundred percent pure… it sticks to your molars.”
Oh, just to set the record straight, I pronounced it perfectly!
What Makes A Word Dirty?
Now, at six years old, the concept of a “dirty” word confused me. I was smart enough to realize that this word was unspeakable around adults, but how could such a short, simple sound be so offensive?
In fact, let me ask you, my dear readers, were you offended by my obvious use of the infamous “F-word” just now? It’s enough that now I would not be able to get this article past my school language cops.
Is this word intrinsically offensive?
I believe the answer to that is no.
Language for the most part is offensive “operationally,” based on the context in which it’s used.
I’d like to explore three aspects of verbal “context” that could make a word “dirty”:
1. The assumed intent of the speaker;
2. The “context” of speech act, and
3. The intimacy of the speakers.
What did you mean by that?
A few years ago, we created a concept called “hate speech” to exempt certain words and other speech acts from our concept of freedom of speech and expression.
When the concept was first introduced, it made me a bit uncomfortable. To me it sounded too “1984,” regulated “newspeak,” mandatory politically correct speech. It simply seemed like some regulation of speech to prevent certain classes of people from hearing words they didn’t want to hear.
Once, during a rather lively discussion about the subject in class, I discovered my students didn’t have a clear understanding of the concept either. Their sense of it was that certain words are forbidden! Even thinking them was somehow culpable. And, as well-drilled products of our secular “religion” of culture, they all accepted it as mindlessly as I had to accept “transubstantiation” in my seventh-grade catechism class. Don’t understand a bit of this, but somehow my immortal soul depends on believing it and acting accordingly.
For me, my doctrine of religious faith meant I couldn’t chew the host at communion; for my students, their doctrine of cultural faith meant certain words were irrevocably banned.
So, their understanding of “hate speech” was that certain words cannot be used… ever… for any purpose… because the words themselves were “offensive”! The section of my novel, The Violent Season, where Cee is instructing Jimmy Delvecchio about the infamous “N-word,” would in itself violate their accepted dogma of “hate speech.”
Okay! I’ve been there, too! But, I was six years old and trying to scrape soap out of my teeth because I had innocently said some word that was somehow “dirty,” in itself. So, I decided to do a bit of research on the subject… that’s what teachers do… right?
According to my sources, “hate speech” is any speech, whose only purpose is to incite violence or prejudicial action against an individual or a group. There is no “intellectual” content in the speech act. It’s a verbal assault, using words instead of fists.
Now, despite all the protests and groans of my post-modernist friends, this understanding of the nature of a speech act, as the definition alludes when it states “whose only purpose,” is dependent on the intent of the speaker.
It’s not the word that causes the offense; it’s the hate behind it. And, that’s the intent of the speaker, boys and girls!
So, part of my understanding of a “dirty” word, is one whose sole purpose is to do intended harm to another.
The Context; or, Where You Say You Found This Thing?
I am enough of a linguistic post-modernist (and a Post-Nicene Christian Neo-Platonist-I have my membership card!) to understand that “speech acts”-conversations, written texts, words chalked on walls-are at best ambiguous unless they exist within a “context.” For a word, this would include all the other words that surround it in a sentence. Or, for a speech act, the situation in which it’s said… even the time period. In the 1930’s, people drank to be “gay.” Today, I don’t think you can drink your way into that.
I remember one of my professors in grad school explaining the relationship between “context” and “meaning.” He asked us how the word “dirt” made us feel. He got no response. It was an early morning class, so most of us were at least three cups of coffee south of feeling anything. Besides any grad student worth salt recognized a trick question when it’s asked. Besides, I had no idea what the word “dirt” and “feeling” were doing in the same sentence.
Finally surrendering to early-morning-student apathy, he explained that it all depends on where the dirt is found. Dirt in the garden’s a good thing. Dirt piled in the middle of your bed, not so much.
What does all this mean?
To demonstrate the effect of “context” on “dirty” words, let me share with you a passage from The Violent Season.” The scene is a group of infantrymen in Vietnam, who have just gotten back to a firebase after three weeks “humping the boonies.” They’re having breakfast, their first hot meal in weeks, and they start talking about what caused them to be in Vietnam.
Their squad leader, Jonesy, asks one of the guys, “Sweetie” Gonzales, whether he had joined the army.
“What do I think!” Sweetie shot back. “I think it’s all bullshit! Back in the world, I got this real sweet job. I work the bar in my uncle’s restaurant in Echo Park near the stadium. I’m makin’ pretty good money, get my drinks for nothin’, and after them Dodger games when those blonde chicas from the county come in half in the bag from drinking beer at the ball game, I have some really good times, you know! Then I get this letter from the fuckin’ draft board and my whole life goes to shit! What the fuck does anybody care about that? Just another Chicano off the streets of LA, right?”
“Hey Sweetie,” Jimmy Delvecchio called over, rubbin’ his thumb and forefinger together, “You know what this is… it’s the world’s smallest violin… you’re breakin’ my heart, man.”
“Fuck you, D,” Sweetie responded. Then he continued, “The college boy here got one thing right. This fuckin’ war’s bullshit, the way they got us fightin’ it. Best bet, keep your head down! Stay alive! Do your twelve months and get your ass back to the world!”
In this passage, I put a pretty good dent in Carlin’s list of “dirty” words. My intent was creating verisimilitude, putting readers into the scene and help them believe that they’re hearing a real conversation among soldiers. This is the way infantrymen talked to each other in Nam. Expressing it in the novel creates a mood that resembles the reality.
If, as a reader, you were not offended by the use of the “dirty” words that my school’s language-police would have blocked, you’re empowering the context. If you were offended, you’re obviously not going to buy the book,
The words aren’t offensive; they’re “dirt in the garden.”
“Talk Dirty To Me, Morticia!”
You may have also noticed also that the characters in the novel were not offended when certain words were addressed at them, “‘Fuck you, D,” Sweetie responded.’” This is an example of the last element in the interpretive context of “dirty” words, the intimacy of the speakers.
Detecting the intent of a speaker is always a tricky thing. But, the more intimacy and trust that exists between people, the more people either know or are willing to assume an intent; among friends usually that no harm is intended even when a friend addressed one of the “dirty” words at them.
I remember my two closest friends back in the hood; one was Italian, the other was from the US Virgin Islands. I could go up to my Italian buddy and tell him he was one dumb wop, or tell my other friend to sop acting like a spic. And, either of them could call me a stupid mick, if they thought I was doing something dumb. (My Virgin-Island buddy still does this! And, he usually gets it right, damn him!)
No harm! no foul! We were friends. We trusted each other’s essentially good intent. But, heaven help any other guy who tried that… we were also referred to in the neighborhood as the “Kangaroo Brothers” and the reputation was well-deserved.
In The Violent Season, Cee Davis, relaxed by a couple of beers, uses a word in front of Jimmy Delvechio that’s inappropriate based on their racial differences and the casual state of their relationship, two guys, sharing a long bus ride, a few beers and a couple of cigarettes.
So, Cee lays it out for his white friend.
“Just forget I said that, Jimmy,” Cee said quickly, “Just forget that word altogether. If you say it, I got to kick your ass. In fact, any black man hear you say it, he got to kick your ass. If he don’t, he just a pussy. So, you just forget that word, hear.”
Later, after saying that the word is at times appropriate when used among his close friends, Cee explains the point further.
“But,” Cee continued, “I say that word to someone I don’t know, I got me a fight. In fact, if I wanted to start in with some guy, that’s the fastest way I know of gettin’ it started. But, any black man hear a white man say that, it’s a fuckin’ war. That’s all I got to say ‘bout that. That word just somethin’ dumb, fuckin’ crackers use to let each other know they just motherless, ignorant, peck ‘a woods. Let’s talk ‘bout somethin’ else. You need another beer?”
Certainly, this conversation portrays the inherent tension between the races in late-1960’s America. Despite that, there was every opportunity for individuals to overcome the obstacles of suspicion, prejudice and historicized fables to share their sense of humanity.
But, as Cee points out to Jimmy, certain protocols need to be observed until mutual trust and intimacy can preclude their necessity. After that, certain words used between them would lose their potential bite.
Wrapping It Up.
I imagine my discomfort with the language screening being performed by the school’s email server is not that it’s trying to shield kids from “dirty” words. A futile attempt at best, but one I’ll allow is well intended. I mean they all watch HBO!
My problem is that it’s being done robotically, solely on the words themselves. There’s inadequate intelligence in the system to examine the context of the word.
Hmmm… maybe the robot could get a job with the license bureau over at the Department of Motor Vehicles?