The Price

When I think of Vietnam, I think of Joe Cocker. Of course, I remember M-16s, bunkers and Claymore mines. But I think of Joe Cocker singing “Delta Lady”. Why? Because I was 19. Because he sang –

Please don’t ask how many times I found you
Standing wet and naked in the garden
And I think of the days
And different ways that I held you
We were closely touching, yes our heart was beating

I think of “Delta Lady”, because I had never known that kind of sensuality, that kind of intimacy.

In 1970, I was stationed with the 4th Infantry Division Band in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. We had a great job, but it was a dangerous place at a dangerous time. This was during, and just after, the Cambodian Invasion.

But this isn’t an essay about danger. This is an essay about longing.

Musicians in Vietnam were like musicians anywhere. We were artists, artists in uniform, but artists nonetheless. As a group, we were vastly more educated than our fellow enlisted men, and, frankly, more sophisticated than many in the officer corps. A master’s degree in music was not unusual, a bachelor’s degree fairly common, proficiency on your “horn” a must. I knew a guy who was drafted right out of Woody Herman’s band. My point being that we had all the intelligence, sensibilities and sensitivities of artists. And we were young. Chuck Willis, a Spec. 4 from Tyler, Texas, a trumpeter, Chuck we called “Pop”, because he was the oldest of my group of buddies. He was 24. I was 20.

Our company was divided between “juicers” and “heads”. The juicers were drinkers. They often were the “lifers”, professional soldiers, as well as those who, for whatever reason, preferred liquor to drugs. Then there were the “heads”, the dope smokers. I was a “head”. We “heads” were “hippie soldiers”, who wore peace signs and beads beneath our fatigues. We did our duty, several “heads” were decorated, but we loathed the war.

In the Central Highlands, the nights could be cool. And we were cool. The “heads” had a bunker to ourselves, a bunker to which, when we were off-duty, we could retreat in the evening and get high. There someone would break-out a cassette player and tapes. Today, this seems as ancient as saying we read from an illuminated manuscript. But, in 1970, this was hi tech. And our music was deeply cool. Janis. Jimi. Chicago. Credence. Blood, Sweat and Tears. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. And Joe Cocker.

“Standing wet and naked in the garden.” I had never known that kind of intimacy, that kind of sensuality. I was on a first name basis with a dozen prostitutes. But what Joe Cocker sang about – I longed to know what that was about, what my wife calls “domestic eroticism”, the simple eroticism that leads to the fullness of our humanity.

This is the price we ask of our soldiers. This is what we deprive them of. At a time in their lives when they should be working on the skills of intimacy, they don’t simply find themselves isolated – they find themselves sharpening a bayonet, clearing a minefield, cleaning an M-16 instead of dry cleaning their best suit, or that long black dress, for a date. It’s easy to say that war deprives folks of their lives and their limbs. What is difficult is to say that we deprive that young soldier of his or her psychic wholeness. “Welcome Home!” is easily said. It’s painful to think of Audie Murphy, America’s most decorated soldier, having flashbacks during which he held his wife at gunpoint.

But about “Delta Lady” There’s also these lines –

And I whisper sighs to satisfy her longing
For the warm and tender shelter of my body

“My body.” Me, “the warm and tender shelter”. Like many veterans of war, I bore a terrible and certain knowledge, that, given the right circumstances, I’m capable of killing. And I don’t speculate. I am certain of it. This I learned at age 20. At a time when I should have been learning how my body can be a “warm and tender shelter”. At a time when I should have been learning not only how to love, but how to be loved. When others were having their first love affairs, me and the guys in that bunker were having Red Alerts.

Which is why, today, when I look around my modest home, when I look at my beloved, my wife, I say a prayer of such gratitude. And I think of that time when Ollie, our assistant armorer, a burly black Chicagoan, comes into the bunker, pops a tape into the cassette, and says “You gotta hear this, man.” He plays “Our House” by Crosby, Still, Nash and Young. And Ollie smiled a smile, and Ollie dreamed a dream. And today I pray for Ollie, wherever he is, that he got that house, that he married that woman he’d heard about in a song.

Filed under: John Samuel Tieman, Prose