May 2016


A Year in Nam: Fifty Years After


Upon a recent visit to my alma mater, Manhattan College, I remembered an alternative campus newspaper called the Jasper Journal that was launched in my Junior year. So alternative, that the first couple of issues were mimeographed (an ancient copying process for the millennials out there) until funding was available that would turn it into a real-looking newspaper. I had done a sketchy masthead for the inaugural issue along with a drawing of a leprechaun wishing everyone a Happy St. Patrick’s Day, which was the following day. That was fifty years ago.


The editor of this interloping paper at this rather straight-laced Catholic school, was a handsome, studious looking young man of seemingly boundless energy, who was very active on campus. His name is Steven Burchik. Think Clark Kent.


Wondering what might have become of him, I went on line and there he was; author of a recent book recounting his time in Vietnam: Compass and a Camera: A Year in Vietnam. (



I picked up a copy posthaste, and found it to be a gripping read. A gripping read for me being one in which you come away knowing something about something real and important, that perhaps you had never thought much about before. What it might have been like to have spent time in the Vietnam War, is certainly in that category for me.


Nam is a part of our history that will always be a point of reference, whenever entanglements in long drawn out and unwinnable wars in any conventional sense are debated. And so even if written almost fifty years after the fact, this book is still—to coin an overused 60’s word — “relevant.”


I never went to Nam. I had gotten a temporary deferment, and then later on, received a high number in the first lottery draft held on December 1, 1969. The luck of the draw was based on your date of birth. No one above the first 195 numbers was ever called. (How would you have fared? Mine was 344. I did not have to go. I did not volunteer.


Ah yes, the draft. I often wonder with all the fiery rhetoric these days about the need for more “boots on the ground,” that if a draft was in effect, would we be so quick to advocate sending our young men and now women— given the goal of gender equality— to far off ancient warring places? Wars without end? And no amen? As Steven Burchik succinctly notes:

“It was one thing to discuss war policy in the abstract. It was something very different to be an active participant.”

My hat though is off those who do volunteer and put their lives on the line. Especially in these terrorist times when national security is directly at stake, and not a theoretical concept. It was hard to make that particular case for Nam with its “Domino Theory” in Southeast Asia. And I’m certainly not advocating bringing back the draft. But I digress. And if I ever write a memoir, that would be its title: But I Digress.


But Burchik did. Go to Vietnam and write a memoir. And… took over 4,000 pictures in the year he was there! A number that astonishes even him, as they were taken in a pre-digital era, “when you only shot twenty-four or thirty-six pictures on a roll and then had to pay for developing and printing in order to see what you had captured on the camera.”


Imagine how many he would have taken if the war didn’t keep getting in the way? He even out-Matthewed Brady! But that’s all by way of epilogue.


At the beginning of his marvelous book, he recounts the context that led him there in the first place:

“I had enlisted in the army with mixed feelings about the service. I was not particularly eager to experience combat, although that was highly likely in the late sixties. My student deferment had expired when I graduated from college. This meant I was subject to the draft…This also meant that plans for starting a career would be tenuous at best.


“There were also personnel feelings that were factors in the decision….My father’s family had come from Czechoslovakia, and my mother’s …from Poland. I had grown up in deep awareness that these countries were trapped behind the Iron Curtain under the communist system….I felt some personal obligation to help prevent the further spread of communism…”


For those of us who have never been in a combat zone, Burchik’s highly detailed account of the experience, will transport you there— replete with all its life-threatening dangers, and conversely, its benign mind-draining periods of down time.


While he has no regrets about his enlisting, he soon realizes that the goal here is not one of heroic victory:

“Now that we were living with the day-to-day reality, our focus changed to survival. We wanted to get through this experience without being wounded or killed.”

No, this was not a John Wayne movie.


Forget the Viet Cong. I would have given up after being swarmed by red ants (as he was), not to mention leaches (as he was), or finding myself stuck in the muck and mud of a river up to my shoulders (as he was), which can change course suddenly and force you to literally swim for your life while in full battle gear. Such an accident did in fact claim the life of one of his platoon mates.


And then of course far more threatening, how about being the point person leading a platoon (as he did) through dense foliage where there could be booby traps, or “piles of dried leaves next to a trail that could easily conceal trip wires to grenades or other explosive devices?” And that snippers could be lurking anywhere? The slightest untoward noise could set off rounds of fire in the direction of where an enemy might be approaching. Or not. But if ever a time and place to shoot first and ask questions later, this was it. And your rifle was your bedmate.



And through it all, Burchik soldiers on in a levelheaded, responsible manner. He has no axe to grind. No self-pity. No second guessing. No polemics, political debates or philosophical conundrums. Although he does briefly reflect on his struggle with the legitimacy of killing, influenced by his understanding of the fifth commandment and Catholic upbringing.


On the flip side, the cliché about army life has always been one of “Hurry up and wait.” And in that waiting, there were sandbags to be filled, tents to be pitched, encampments to be established (“defensive construction”) tiring patrols, KP, rifles to be disassembled and cleaned, night watch for hours at a time over nothing. (But you never know.) One day, Burchik even had to defend a truck full of dirty fatigues en route to a laundromat, “owned by an enterprising Vietnamese who had won a contract from Uncle Sam for his laundry services.” (1,200 shirts…no starch!).


But on another day, the waiting is suddenly over. While Burchik arrived in Nam on June 28, 1968 it wouldn’t be until eight months later on February 24, 1969 when he had his first direct run-in with the Viet Cong. Time and dates are scrupulously noted by him, as he was always counting the days remaining until his return home.


His long wait before seeing (rather than just hearing) action, was not especially the norm. Many other units experienced intense and frequent fighting, and lost many men in the process. He counts himself lucky in this regard. And while he never clearly can identify his own specific killing of the enemy, he did take down, with three shots, a rampaging water buffalo that had head-butted a soldier in his platoon. And get this:

“The farmer who owned the buffalo would be able to file a claim with the U.S. Army for the loss of the buffalo and receive compensation…”

Imagine Trump on this? “That is the worst deal I’ve ever heard of— folks, we don’t win anymore. If it were me, I would have sued the owner for the cost of the ammunition to kill that buffalo, and much worse, let me tell ‘ya."


Yet within the seams of all of this, Burchik goes about his life in a manner, that bears an ironic sense of normalcy. In addition to his photographing everything that moves and managing all the processing that that involves— and sending them as gifts to family, friends and platoon mates—he reads, goes sightseeing, even goes on vacation (to Australia for a week), does Christmas shopping, buys a gumball machine for some local Vietnamese kids, AND he even applies to graduate school. In the course of which, he finds himself immersed in academic red tape in writing to New Jersey to get his transcript sent to the administration at Michigan State University.


I don’t know about you, but the last thing I want to do while in a war, is jerk around with Jersey over a transcript. (“Hey, I’m fighting here!”). And not to be morbid, but you could be one land mine from all of this becoming academic (pun intended). But Burckik knows he’s going to make it. He knows he will come home and marry his fiancée (to whom almost fifty years later he is still married)…he knows he will go off to grad school as planned:

“…we had a good chance of making it if we followed the lessons from our training and didn’t take unnecessary risks. I realized I might be killed, but I assumed that it would most likely be the ‘other guy.’ (Editor’s Note: There would be 58,272 ‘other guys’ when the long war was finally over).

He concludes:

“Perhaps this was selfish, but this thought allowed me to function for the next twelve months.”

Again. No movie script heroics here. The basic plot as always, is one of survival.


Though speaking of movies, at one point he even gets to meet Joey Bishop and actress Tippi Hedron of “The Birds” fame, who was nervously passing through on a USO-type tour. And somewhere along the line, inexplicably, she has picked up a puppy? And the juxtaposition between Burchik at leisure with actress and puppy, and Burchik “at work” with AK and action, all seems rather remarkable to me in its “unremarkableness.” As if to suggest, just another day in Nam.



Ultimately, this is a story simply told, absent any histrionics—which made it especially poignant for me—about one man’s boots on the ground. Often muddied and soaked ones, at that.


Finally, I’ve often said that we turn to poetry in those transformative times of life, when nothing else can seem to quite capture what it is we are feeling or trying to express. And I don’t know if Burchik is a poet on the side, but six months into his stay in Nam, and with his departure still seeming a long way off, he was compelled to write a poem. It follows in its entirety.






After Six Months



A body, buddy is dragged from the river,
You grab his tongue and grasp for the life that is gone,
A slick leaves you, wet and lonely.
You sit and watch, for the kid who is sitting and watching.
He climbs to dive for life; with a snap crackle falls to numbness,
You pity, frustrate, infuriate.
Picture a boy and his dog; the picture’s the whole, the boy is the half,
You smile at a woman, smiling at her husband.
A twelve-toed boy asks for chop-chop,
You half laugh, “No sweat, baby-san,” and he turns to the next.
A warm bowl, rice and fish, at one in the morning, (smile),
“You get me radio?”
“Pacify the civilians!!!”…Please?
You chide, plead, admonish.
A shadow moves, an AK rings,
And final score is tallied,
You have two and we have one and four errors.
A cloud floats by, the weeds flow free,
You are or you aren’t! Yes.
The announcement is received, with love and yes
They each will marry,
You think, it’s been a long time.



                                               —Steven Burchik





Joy Within the Quote of the Month



Last fall I offered a piece on a rather interesting, witty, and pioneering woman in the advertising business named Joy Golden, who had recently died. (“That Old Woman in My Building Who Died”; OCTOBER, 2015 MUSE-LETTER ).


I noted rather sheepishly, that I had not even known her name until her death, not to mention all she had achieved during a rather interesting lifetime. That would change as I got to meet her daughters, and heard the stories from those in the building, who knew her well; some going back as far as 35 and 40 years.


Advertising Age, the industry bible, had called her “An advertising legend…a trailblazer…an inspired and inventive wit with a larger-than-life-personality …”


Another source called her “the real life forerunner to the fictional Peggy Olsen from Mad Men, given their similarities in starting at lowly desk jobs and rising through the ranks of a male-dominated industry.”


The New York Times chimed in with a 1,000 word obit piece, again particularly referencing her sharp wit.


And so it should have come as no surprise when a formal tribute was finally scheduled last month:



150 people jammed into the Milton Berle Room (how many do you think you’d draw?) for an afternoon of fond remembrances, a short video of some of her life’s highlights, a few of her funny commercials, and this being an entertainers hangout, a performance by a guy named Mark Nadler that was to die for. (Sorry Joy, I couldn’t resist). He sang Gershwin’s “S’Wonderful” above his playing of “Rhapsody in Blue.” There is apparently no term for this sort of intricate musical concept; a fugue for vocal and instrumental perhaps coming closest? (Mark Nadler 'S Wonderful - YouTube). All of it ending in a champagne toast.


But again and again, the conversation would turn to Joy and her acerbic wit. And how that wit was particularly in evidence when dealing with incompetent customer service people, for whom she had a legendary lack of patience.


I often include a “Quote-of-the-Month” piece in these Muse-Letters, in which I play back something I might have recently heard or read by someone famous or obscure; someone alive or long since dead. And as one exchange between Joy and a particularly bad waiter brought the house down, not only for her lightning quick repartee, but her intelligent play on language as well, I thought I’d reprise it here.


     WAITER: (With great exasperation) “I’m not a waiter. I’m an actor.”


                JOY GOLDEN: “Then act like a waiter!”







An Exercise in Ekphrasis



Ekphrasis, from the Greek, is a rhetorical device in which one medium of art tries to relate to another by describing its essence and form. In poetry, an ekphrastic poem is one inspired by viewing a work of art. Perhaps the most famous example of this being "Ode on a Grecian Urn" by John Keats. ("What men or gods are these? What maidens loth? / What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?”).


It’s not a type of poetry that I usually try to write. (“I knew John Keats. John Keats was a friend of mine. Sir, you’re no John Keats”). Though there was an exception in something I once offered here entitled “Snapshot of Boy With Glove: A Sonnet” (NOVEMBER, 2012 MUSE-LETTER). That is, if a snapshot can be said to be a piece of art.


Usually it’s the other way around, in which I will sometimes add an illustration to accompany a poem I’ve already written.


But rather recently, an aunt on her 94th birthday, showed me for the first time, this sketch that she had done of my mother some 73 years ago.



It inspired a couple of ekphrastic poems; one in free verse, the other, a standard “5-7-5” haiku.



Lady in a Bonnet


When she first came bearing fresh flowers
and time was tethered to a pocket watch
we had not as yet arrived.
             And when we did
we would come to learn that
To everything there is a season.
Something especially, we did not surmise.
And that April showers bring May flowers
clichés and metaphors still being crocheted,
the frolic yet to come in the plays on words.
And the years rushed by like a runaway train.
Then troubadours in the village began to wonder:
Where have all the flowers gone?
And a face once “as pretty as a picture?”
All still here when she reappears!
we want to shout to those withering among us.
But keep it locked within ourselves
and take to a silent meadow each year
to welcome her arrival.






Wearing a new dress,
       a bonnet shading her eyes,
              she brings fresh flowers.










I have been invited to participate in the 21st Annual Lower East Side Festival of the Arts this coming Memorial Day weekend, sponsored by…

As I did two years ago at this event, I will be reading a group of my poems, as yet to be determined.


The cabaret-style festival is an annual celebration of local neighborhood culture and history, that runs for three days May 27-29. It features over 100 performing groups in which all cultures and disciplines are represented including local poets, musicians, dancers, and performance artists, who are from, or affiliated with the Lower East Side.


That Saturday afternoon on the 28th, a Street Fair will be held on East 10th Street, which includes food and goods sold by local merchants, along with various performances and entertainment, that as always, are free. However, as there may be some New York values in evidence throughout the festival, discretion is advised for those who might be from out-of-state, and/or, of holier-than-thou persuasion.

Theater for the New City: 155 First Avenue (bet. 9th and 10th Sts.) NY, NY 10003

May 27th: Fri. 6PM-2AM
            May 28th Sat. 12 PM-2AM             May 29th Sun. 6PM-1AM





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