With a long enough lever, said Archimedes, one could move the world. I think something like that lever exists and is in constant use between our ears. We just don’t pay enough attention to how we use it. But we all have memories of seeing the lever used. Here’s one of mine.
In 1967-68 I was a door gunner and then a crew chief on a helicopter gunship in Vietnam.
The gunner fired his M-60 machine gun from the right side of the ship. At night, after our long days were over, he was responsible for cleaning the ship’s weapons and repairing any damage.
The crew chief fired his M-60 from the left side of the ship. At night, he was responsible for readying the ship for the next day.
Wake-up was four in the morning. Lift-off was dawnish. We came home as darkness fell.
If we got to bed by 10:00 we were lucky. Many times it was midnight. During the Tet Offensive I flew 48 hours straight without sleep. In the end I couldn’t keep my eyes open except when we were taking fire. When I stood down I couldn’t sleep because of all the adrenaline in my system. That’s what I know about bad drug trips.
Our M-60s fired 550 rounds per minute and had an effective air-to-surface range of 2,200 meters. We sought to use them at distances much more up close and personal than that, however. On the ground M-60s were supposed to be fired in bursts of six to keep the barrels from overheating and producing jams. We considered our guns air-cooled weapons and used them like fire hoses.
We fired our 2.75 inch rockets, with their 10-pound warheads and 30-meter killing radius, from an average distance of a thousand feet. That was close enough that we sometimes broke our own chin bubbles with their explosions as we pulled out of our dives.
We fired our mini-guns—4,200 .30 caliber rounds per minute—when we were too close to use the rockets.
I had the honor of flying with the highest performing, best aligned organization I have ever known, or even heard of: the Mustangs, our gun platoon.
I was a very serious gunner—a helicopter gunship in Vietnam was no place for anyone who wasn’t serious.
But the Mustangs, when I flew with them, kept running out of crew chiefs. “High attrition,” the Army called it. I was serious enough, my bosses apparently thought, to be entrusted with an entire gunship. So they made me a crew chief.
I told them I was no motorhead, barely knew how to change a sparkplug back in the world.
“Fine,” they said. “You won’t be changing sparkplugs.”
Sandy Noyes, a wizened old man just turned 20, my own previous crew chief, taught me how to take care of a Bell UH-1C gunship.
The Mustangs assigned me 667. She was more like a living creature to me than machine, part magic carpet, part dragon. I appreciated both qualities. You had to be there.
Every day, and many nights, 667 took us to war. Thanks to a flock of maintenance wizards, she always brought us home.
Even after they made me a crew chief, however, I cleaned my own M-60 every night.
I loved the men I served with. I loved the infantrymen on the ground we tried to keep alive, although you could have tortured me at the time and I wouldn’t have admitted that. Testosterone toxicosis, you know. But it was love, all right. Each passing year makes that more and more clear.
I’ll put it this way: one of the most obscene things I’ve ever seen is the body of an American soldier wrapped in his poncho for transport off a battlefield. I have no idea how many of the names on the Vietnam Memorial Wall I saw leave the rice paddies and jungles of Vietnam that way, but too many.
I did not love the Vietnam War. It broke my heart. It left me with a profound confusion about where “home” really was. Six months into my 12-month tour, I did not regard our business in Vietnam as a fit enterprise for the America I had been raised to love by a father who served as a Marine in the Pacific and a mother who awaited his return. From then on, I was no longer working for “America.” I was working for my buddies. Period.
Anyone who has been in a war will tell you that it feels like being a grain of sand in a sandstorm.
“Support our troops, support America?” Chalk and cheese, as far as I’m concerned. Any politician who tells you otherwise is trying to sell you a share in the Brooklyn Bridge. I respectfully submit that our troops are best supported by not throwing their lives away, not by swallowing government propaganda about throwing their lives away.
The helicopters that inserted the troops into battle were called slicks. (Their sides were slick—no heavy metal weaponry protruding.)
One day a single slick I was covering was inserting a load of grunts. As the aircraft flared to land, a command-detonated mine exploded right beneath it. The slick flipped upside down, stuffing its rotors in the mud, making its engine explode in a pulse of air that flattened the green rice in a circle all around it. Then guys scrambled out in furious low-crawls, leaving trails in the mud. I’m looking down from maybe 15o feet. Safety off. Waiting for the rest of the ambush to continue. If it had, we would have been on it like a match on gas fumes.
The slick started to burn. No flames, but heat waves were dancing over it. It was like watching a helicopter sink in clear water. It took a while to re-establish radio communication with the ground troops. Pretty soon the ground commander told us that everyone had gotten out. We called that “un-assing the aircraft.”
But then the voice in our headsets said, “No no wait a minute shit the gunner’s still in there he looks OK he’s just trapped we can see him struggling shit!”
Tongues of flame began licking the dead helicopter. The air-shimmer rapidly increased. In ones and twos and threes, grunts, who were hunkered behind the nearby dike line for cover, sprinted toward the slick to save the gunner. It took tremendous courage to do that, because they made themselves easy targets. But as they approached the crash, their hands would come up to shield their faces from the heat, and then they would turn back.
Finally, a lone figure sprinted from the dike. When he hit the wall of heat he plunged through and kept going. From above it was like watching a halfback run a draw play. The rescuer dove into the crashed slick, which was now shooting serious flames.
Nothing. Now we were watching two men burn alive, waiting for the inevitable fireball.
And then, there they were, one man dragging another out of hell. Next morning, someone pointed the rescuer out to me in the mess hall. I didn’t know him. He wasn’t a member of our aviation unit. I think he must have been one of the Crickets stationed with us. These were long-range recon guys who went out in small patrols to scout and set up the landing and pick-up zones.
Something made me approach him. He was a handsome, powerfully built black kid. Gray smudges dappled his face where the heat had burned him. His eyebrows were singed. His hair was singed where the heat got under his helmet.
“Why’d you do it?” I asked. Even to me the question sounded stupid.
He just shrugged his shoulders. A black kid, drafted probably, saving a probably drafted white kid, just because. That was Vietnam.
But it wasn’t “just because.” I understood that instantly, and it was a life-giving understanding, even if I wasn’t fully conscious of what I understood. Now I think I get it. That rescuer was prizing away at the world with his built-in Archimedes lever.
And I don’t think he did it “just because,” not if “just because” suggests there is no implicate order in the universe, governing our lives by invisible forces. Not if “just because” suggests that symbiogenesis isn’t our lot, connecting all of us to each other all the time, connecting everything that is, ever was and ever will be.
What that rescuer taught me was that all we can ever do in life is act. Act we do. The only real question is how we act. How we act connects us to the flow of all that is, was, and ever will be. And only we can decide on that connection.
How we decide to act, then—this is what I believe—is how we make our life.
I share this belief, because it informs everything you see in this blog and the half-million or so words of reporting and documentation linked to it. I’m still a Mustang, you see. I decided long ago to never stop being one.
Judging from comments people make to me, I know the reporting suggests to some that American governance has become a wasteland. The reporting documents that Spokane, my fair city, second largest city in Washington State, is controlled by organized crime. It documents that Democrats and Republicans are equally complicit in this sordid state of affairs, and that every level of government in the land, now including the Dreamworks of the Obama White House, is implicated.
But I don’t think the evidence means that American government has become a wasteland. All any government can ever be is reflective. If we don’t like the reflection we see, I think we have to study the face in the mirror to see what we don’t like. And then we act.
It’s not that we should act. Or that we must act. It’s that we do act. And that action creates a reflection. That’s what I believe.
It wasn’t American government that pulled that kid from the burning helicopter before my eyes. And the turpitude, avarice and deep moral confusion that sent the rescuer to Vietnam had nothing to do with the decision he made, the action he took, the lingering reflection he left in my mind, and now in your mind, too.
That’s the point I’m trying to make. And the reason I’m trying to make it is because people keep asking me what, in the face of the daunting evidence we all face about the mess the world is in—including evidence contained in my reporting—can the average person do about it?
The question concerns me, because the last thing I want to do with my reporting is contribute to what psychologists tell us is the epidemic of “learned helpless” now plaguing us. But I also love the question, because I love the answer. The answer, the rescuer taught me, is this: do what you can. That’s all we can ever do. And it is the joyful reality of life that that’s enough. #
All photos copyright Larry Shook.