What makes us go against our instincts, our best learned interests? Though time and again my mother impressed upon me gentleness and a respect for life, though I knew in the back of my mind and in the humming cargo of my own blood that she was right, there I was at nine years old, living across the street from the foothills, armed to the teeth.
The mild coastal wilderness came right up to our drive. What really had I to fear? What enemies lay in ambush across Alisos Drive among the lichen-covered boulders, the impromptu gatherings of oaks and ferns, the dry knee-high tides of grass? I knew the chipmunks among the thickets and the chicken hawks lazy on the air, heard the jays and wild peacocks complain through the burning twilight and dawn. What was I was preparing for when let out all day across the creeks and hills—hunting knife and throwing knife in my belt, 35 lb. fiberglass bow in hand, and a quiver full of bullet-point arrows on my back? I possessed all the bravery needed to pin-cushion a rotten log with shafts, or with a friend fire arrows off into the seeming center of the sky, testing how close to us they would dive back down. But in the creeks, for no reason I could then know, I was the scourge of blue-belly lizards sunning there, and ran their slight bodies through from close range. When my last arrow shattered against a rock, miserable boy that I was, I unstrung my bow and looped the string around a lizard s dead neck to dangle him by crevices where his compatriots hid, and thereby drew them out— whereupon I brained them with a bash from the flat face of my bow. Oh, we had myths about blue-bellies being poisonous and so allowed ourselves the senseless kill. The two stripes along their undersides were as often yellow or green as blue, and they had no teeth, were small and wisely frightened of us—no one was ever bitten. But we had our unthinking myths and these were our self-proclaimed trails and creeks, and somehow served to harden my boys heart against such tenuous slips of life scampering in the afternoon light, out of my unconscious way.
Respect for life. The idea should have sunk in the year before when one Sunday I went out the back door with a sling shot, and, loading a piece of gravel from the drive, shot at the first thing I saw. A common robin. It was about 15 feet away, and I was surprised when I hit it—more surprised when it let out a cry as the pebble struck it broadside in the wing. I had not killed it, but its reaction was distinct, reminding me of a kid on the playground crying out and gasping for air at the same instant, sucker-punched in the stomach by a bully. The bird flew off, but I felt terrible all morning. I had not expected to really hit it—I was just carelessly fooling around with whatever device I had on hand.
Before that, there was Christmas, a foot-long silver WII cannon that shot shells the length of our living room. I already had metal tanks with movable rubber tread, turrets that pivoted 360 degrees, and legions of plastic soldiers in assorted combat poses. Like almost all boys I knew, I had painstakingly glued together models of battleships, aircraft carriers, submarines, airplanes ranging from a Sopwith Camel with mounted machine gun to a blue British Spitfire, a green Flying Tiger and the new Delta-winged jet—an arsenal of toys. This was de rigueur for the 50s. That same Christmas my friend down the street, Archie Komgiball, and I received matching sets of military gear—plastic helmets, canteen and .45 pistol on a utility belt, and a replica Browning water-cooled machine gun on tripod, vintage WW I. We had acres of brush and hills and fields in which to run around pretending to kill each other, doing happily so the live-long day.
The last years of grammar school I outgrew this and left the hapless lizards and birds in peace in favor of sports. Yet many films then still celebrated the war and were offered for our general consumption. Certain classmates were always drawing bombers and jet fighters being shot down in flames on their notebook paper and swastikas on their cloth binders. But by 8th grade, almost everyone’s thoughts had turned to dances, dating, records and radio—the usual first rush of hormones and romance. Deciding who was popular and who was not, we were less obviously cruel. The early 60s were a holdover from the 50s. We were too young to have grasped what had happened in Korea, and those details and political lessons were far behind us by the time we were old enough to study history. Though Korea was our most immediate example, we were still examining Hittites and the first iron weapons, the strategic importance of the Bosporus and the Dardanelles in high school. The one modern history class—an elective— ended with WWII.
Right in front of us was Vietnam, but in 1965-66 it was more a social issue than a political reality for us. Among parents or on TV talk shows like “Joe Pine,” we’d hear something like “They should take all those long-haired hippies and send em over there with a bunch of flowers in their hands and see how they do.” Yet, going through our freshman year, we questioned little and were, for the most part, oblivious to Indochina. But not for long. At the beginning of our sophomore year, we reported one Saturday morning to a hall at UC Berkeley where the redoubtable American institution of testing, the ETS, was administering an exam for the Draft Board. The results of those three hours needed to add up to a score of 70 or above, or you traded your I-Sstudent deferment for a ticket to the jungles of southeast Asia. I was terrified. I had, and have to this day, a severe mental block, learning deficiency, dislike for math, and from the college entrance tests, I knew two-thirds of the test would likely be math. I had scored very low on the SATs and was lucky to be admitted to college at all. Although there was not as much math as I feared, I barely squeaked by with a score of 71! My feet had felt the fire as I narrowly jumped over the flames.
Weeks prior to the big test, recruiting officers set up tables in the halls of our classroom buildings—a situation which would not be tolerated a few years later. At that time, however, a more conservative national climate supported the war and a military presence on campuses whose avowed aims—the educating and opening of minds—was not seen as contradictory. Two Marines stood just inside the door to Dante Hall in pressed blue coats and pants with red stripes, with white belts, gold swords and scabbards as polished as their buttons. They were closely shaved and had buzz haircuts. They drank their coffee black. Cocky, almost cheerful, they were confident they could talk students into the corps—”All you college boys are going sooner or later!” they’d almost yell at our backs as we walked by. “The corps will teach you to fight, to stay alive!” was their parting appeal to logic. Fearing the worst from the ETS, I stopped by the National Guard table to check out the reserve program. They were all in wrinkled—by comparison to the Marines—green fatigues and decidedly less gung-ho. Reserves meant six years—six-week summer camps through college, a year active duty, then a couple on reserve with two-week camps in summer. Purely from a practical point of view, I knew I wanted nothing to do with the military, but I wasn’t so sure the feeling was mutual, so I was weighing one dark eventuality against another. Not even 19, I came close to being frightened into the reserves. I hadn’t seriously begun to think tilings through—morally, ethically, philosophically—one of the main reasons for being at a liberal arts college. I mentioned the reserves to my father, and despite the fact that he had been proselytizing me for years with his conservative political agenda—everything from the domino theory, Communist infiltration of the UN, liberal senators on the Foreign Relations Committee, to the length of girls’ uniform skirts—he advised against signing up. He said it was a good rule not to volunteer, not to ask for trouble. Delay as long as possible. Something else may turn up. It was the best single piece of advice he ever offered.
I made my 71 and continued college. Others were not as fortunate. Some failed the test, others gradually flunked out. At home, my friends attending City College had been kidding themselves about their studies for a year or more. With classrooms situated on a cliff top overlooking the beach, they could see daily right down to the sea. If a swell was running, some drove down with their surfboards. If the bay was calm and glassy, Schiefen would drive five minutes to his house, hook up his boat and round up the usual crew for water skiing, eighteen, nineteen years old, living on the coast in Southern California, it had to be next to impossible to focus on the future. About the time Sozzi, Bruno, Orsua, and Schiefen were getting notices to report for physicals in LA.—the prelude, as we all knew, to an induction notice—I was reading Locke and Hobbes. While they were pressured into enlisting in hopes of having some choice of assignment and avoiding the front lines with the draftees, or, while delaying, were in fact drafted, I was piecing together my thoughts about government and the war. I had the luxury of time to think. If, at 19, anyone had a “world-view,” it did not then, even for a moment, include the possibility of Canada. The choice was war or jail. No choice really. Before they had a chance to figure out who they were, what they believed, or what a life was worth, they were coerced—plain and simple—into playing a hand dealt from the bottom of the deck. Locke and Hobbes gave me a pragmatic notion why anyone belongs to a government/commonwealth—happiness and security. Right off, it made no practical sense to fight a war—especially one so monumentally removed from your national security—and die—as likely as not—to hold onto something death would deprive you of posthaste. More time, more arguments, more of LBJs face on TV shoveling (as Robert Bly so aptly had it) the lies of war at us, plus a perusal of theology, brought me to a firm and moral opposition the war.
Schiefen pulled transport and Orsua, jet engines; neither would be sent out on search and destroy “missions” with M-16 and bayonet. They survived and came home. They dodged their share of missiles and mortars, took fire along the road to Khe San and Chu Lai, saw enough die on both sides to skew their views and values for more than a little while. Another high school friend, De Vito, was sent into Cambodia. Once there, he mingled with the Moutainyards, married the chiefs daughter, and took up a loin cloth and a powerful supply of smoke. When he wouldn’t report back, they had to send some Force Recon guys in deep to drag him out. He worked through more than 15 years of PTS trying to make adjustments to the plain flat facts of his old world. Sozzi was given a radio and made to run through the jungle. Bruno went down in a gunship, but managed to crawl free of the wreckage and hide despite a sprained back, broken ribs and a mangled hand. He lay in a rice paddy for 14 hours before he was picked up. One summer, when he couldn’t find a ride, I drove him up to San Francisco for the seventh operation on his hand to make it finally 20% functional. From all of them, I learned a lot about the war second-hand before the pressure was really applied and I had to make a decision.
College over, I took a job at a Catholic grammar school and applied for a 2-S deferment for teaching. About this time, late 1970 early 1971, opposition to the war was mounting and the system was running short on recruits and draftees and they canceled all teaching deferments. I was classified 1-A. By that point, I knew I wasn’t going to Vietnam or any war, not going to take a life or put my life on the line to further the economic interests of the military industrial complex, their share holders, and the political capital of politicians and the “careers” of men like Westmoreland who lied and knew he was lying to the American people. What I did was contact my friend in law school who was in touch with a battery of lawyers who fought the draft. $400, and they took you through all the appeals with the Selective Service System, counseling et al right up to court—then you worked out payment depending on how long and involved the case. I went directly to the Selective Service System in the basement of the post office to appeal my 1-A classification. I began to state my views as they conformed with the CO. classification and said I wanted a hearing and would appeal this right on up the line. The Appeal Board positions were staffed by citizens of the community and until I reached court, I felt I could defend myself against the usual blood and guts scenarios and conundrums of Republican bank vice presidents and local Chamber of Commerce types. But before I finished my third sentence, the agent said he would postpone my official appeal for a few weeks. A lottery had just been approved for the next year’s draft and after the first drawing, if I did not have a good number, they would process my appeal. He said if I received a number over 245 my chances were good that I would not be called, over 285 they were very good.
I walked out feeling lucky and unlucky at the same time. I at least had more of a chance than I first thought, an uncomplicated one, if I could for once get really and truly lucky. I sat on the beach the rest of the afternoon looking out to a blue point where I couldn’t tell sea from sky. I wondered about my karma, if I’d done anything at any time to deserve, more than the next guy, to be that lucky? Word of the lottery spread quickly. On the night of the drawing, I ended up at a friends duplex with about 10 or l2 others. Everyone arrived with a bottle—no wine, no beer, no mixers—this was straight, hard medicine to celebrate or feebly console. In black and white we watched a big plastic globe being turned with 360 some dates (they were covering leap years and every contingency). They pulled birthdays out and lined them up on slots—one at a time, a long, slow process, which reminded me of a documentary film in which men were burning leaches off their legs. This was crazy. Bingo. Bobbing and weaving with fate, ducking deaths long left hook. No choice. Your birth date, your number, could as easily pop to the top first as 300th. Sweat it out or adios!
A couple fellows whose numbers came up early left, fellows I hardly knew, but felt awful for, suspecting the ludicrous nonsense to which all the bodies would add up. The media was the message. What message did the first 245 receive from the TV that night about their lives, their worth? This was obscene, but certainly no more so than the war on TV every evening for years in filmed footage and body count, with commercial interruptions. I was halfway through a bottle of gin on the rocks when I cleared 245. One or two pulled numbers in that limbo between 245 and 285.1 was 314.1 sat my glass, which had not had much numbing effect, down on the kitchen counter, and went for a walk outside along the cliff top to shake myself, clear my head and heart a little, and just hear the reassurance of the waves, take in the salt savor of the air. That was it. Something had come up. It looked like I was free to live my life. Many were not.
Four and a half years of graduate school followed, then years of part-time teaching, finding my way as a writer, making a living by teaching freshman composition. Yet its amazing how youth buoys you, how much you can bear. I scraped by rather cheerfully. Finally, in 1980,1 landed a full-time position at the University of California in my hometown, and though the workload was very heavy, I found time to write. I rented a room from my stepbrother who had bought a fixer-upper and there was a nice field out back with a white horse, a dilapidated Italianate villa on the rise which blocked out most of the freeway overpass. We had tamarisks bordering the field, trumpet vines along the fence, agaves across the street, jade plants and cabbage roses by the garage. I had a view out on it all, a very good group of people to work with, and that was conducive to writing, to appreciating my life.
One day, driving back to Santa Barbara from Santa Cruz where I’d gone to visit my friend, the poet Gary Young, and go over some recent work, I saw a jack rabbit along the side of the 101 freeway outside of Santa Maria. In 1982 there were still stretches of the road there covered by nothing more than scrub oak and chaparral. The rabbit was not 10 feet from the right lane, and as I saw it a memory flashed up in full detail about the one time I had ever gone hunting, just a little further down the road in Los Alamos. The scene came back so vividly that I pulled over to the roadside and jotted it down, knowing that it had to mean something, that it would probably work its way into a poem sooner or later…
I was 18 that summer and invited by a friend to go hunting. Harry’s father owned a ranch and it was dove season. Fd never eaten a dove, killed a bird, or for that matter fired a shotgun. Still, it seemed something young men did. Without giving it much thought, I said I’d be happy to go. I borrowed a shotgun from another friend, even bought a cheap hunting vest to look the part, one with back pockets for birds and rows of slots on the front to fill with shells. We parked the car near the base of a short run of hills and took off hiking over some deer paths. We reached a small summit and paused to load up. Just then, Harry yelled, “Here they come,” as doves scattered from a large oak tree up wind. We blasted away and doves began falling out of the air like planes in the war films from our youth. Some streaked in long horizontal paths like Japanese Zeros smoking down on that TV program from childhood, “Victory At Sea.” Others scissored the air in splashes of confusion, a tumble of off-kilter grey feathers. But they weren’t all dead. With thumb and forefinger, Harry showed me how to squeeze the last air out of their slight necks, but I just couldn’t. Our initial salvos must have scared the rest off. We hiked around a bit more, then separated and took different trails. Walking a gully, I heard a spray of shot rain down on the oak leaves above my head. I yelled out that I was down range and to have an idea, but heard nothing in reply. Later, walking a path with the shotgun over my shoulder, it discharged it into the air. Earlier, Harry would have been walking right behind me. Again, forgetting which way the safety was off or on, I discharged a round into the dirt, inches from my foot.
Harry and I met up, sat in the shade and drank some water, our jackets weighed down with doves. We talked a little about the regimentation of the Catholic school we had both attended, the beautiful girls there who had eluded us. We must have felt smug, self-possessed, must have thought we were someone, all right. The fear and guilt of religion had scared him so thoroughly, Harry said, that until he was 17 he figured there was no way to avoid spending eternity in hell. Now that the grip was broken, if he ever had kids, the last place they would go would be a parochial school. We were still floating on the cheap grace of youth, alive in the heat and high summer, the vague and great expectations of young men, and so the subject of the war and draft never came up. We counted out our doves, swore we would cook and eat them, and headed back down to the car. Just before we got back, something moved in the raw dry grass. Then, on the first twitch of two tall ears, we together blew the ever-loving-Jesus out of a jack rabbit until we couldn’t tell fur, from dust from blood…
I wrote down that entire incident in five minutes, so completely had it played back in my mind. That rabbit caught my eye, a messenger from a world almost lost, a world I needed to reconsider and make sense of for my life. A few weeks went by and a combination of several things helped put my notes in perspective and give me a poem. One week both Newsweek and Time had apocalyptic photos on the cover and gave coverage to the Nuclear Freeze movement—a strong political idea between 1982 and 1983 which proposed that we unilaterally stop building all nuclear weapons, negotiate, and from there talk reductions. An artist friend had a new bumper sticker on her VW which read simply, “FREEZE OR BURN.” On our small cement patio, I recently had noticed that a family of lizards had started sunning themselves as we rarely sat out there. Also, there seemed to be a connection between the mind set of nuns and the strict Catholic upbringing we had had and what I’d seen of the military. Hellfire and intimidation, the arbitrary values assigned to one life, one belief over another—the rules and a mindless power.
The poem was a simple narrative about hunting, and all I finally had left to do to make the body and ideas turn together and take on a larger focus, was to give the poem a title with motivation relating to the Nuclear Freeze movement. It needed a title which the action and event could react against and thus stand without embellishment and be a mindful emblem of our lesser selves. The events then, would speak for themselves. “Why I’m In Favor Of A Nuclear Freeze” came readily to mind. That was all I had to do to “get” the poem right, all, that is, except ask myself why the hell we had killed that rabbit so coldheartedly, and answer, that it was because we had the guns, because we could.