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
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
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
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
“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.
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
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
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."
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.
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
“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
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.
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”;
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
And so it should have come as no surprise
when a formal tribute was finally scheduled last month:
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
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.
(With great exasperation) “I’m not a waiter. I’m
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
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”
in a Bonnet
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.
a new dress,
a bonnet shading
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.
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
29th Sun. 6PM-1AM