Vietnam War - Memories of Pleiku

On March 11, 1982 a controversial design, created by a 21 year old architect named Maya Lin, was selected to be built as a memorial for those lost in Vietnam. On November 13, 1982 the Vietnam Memorial, otherwise known as “The Wall” was dedicated with a total of 58,195 names engraved on the shining black granite.  The names included those who were killed in action or missing in action. The design is not a traditional memorial that reaches for the heavens, but one that is buried into the earth. Lin's concept was to “create an opening or a wound in the earth to symbolize the gravity of the loss of the soldiers.” Regardless how you may feel about the design, the memorial, any memorial for that matter, is a sacred place. Every memorial or monument has a unique story to tell.  Persistent markers that edify an event, often tragic, ‘lest we forget.  Permanent structures reminding us of our sins so they are not repeated. For some, memory enticing instruments for something, or someone, that once was part of us. 

Vietnam War Memorial, Washington DC 2001

Vietnam War Memorial, Washington DC 2001

Memory is an odd thing. A crafty creature that lurks in our head, our heart, our soul. The memory creature will appear on demand, or not. He will be summoned by the senses; smell, sound, taste, site and touch. Or will appear at random; generally at the least opportune moment.  The strangest thing about memory, however, is that it is purely singular. No two memories are the same. I have three siblings. If you were to quiz each of us separately you would never know that we grew up in the same household, came from the same parents, or even had the same siblings. 

This is how it is, especially around memories of the Vietnam War.  As the youngest, and I refuse to cave in to the “I was the baby” line that my siblings would prefer to bestow on me, but as the youngest I was, well, very young during this period. My memories take on a rather naïve dimension. 

I have vague memories of Walter Cronkite on the nightly news. I remember telling the neighbors that my brothers number came up but I had no idea what that meant. Soon he was gone and we were baking cookies and packing them in popcorn to send overseas. Instead of letters we communicated via a tape recorder. 

Even though I was the youngest I was allowed to record my greetings in private. (I’m sure only brilliance came out of my 10 year old mouth!) Then there was the listening to the tapes coming back from the front—the only time we heard any emotion was when my brother learned his beloved dog, Mickey, had been hit by a car and did not survive the night. 

Suddenly, certainly without any warning for me, late one night I heard the other brother on the phone to someone saying, “Yes! It is true! Mom is going to pick him up now!”  What seemed like minutes later a big green man, grinning ear to ear, walked through the front door yelling, “How’s my little sister!”  I don’t know if these memories are real, or made up, or parts of stories I pieced together after the fact. What I know to be 100% true is that of all of my friends I was the only one who had a brother who went overseas to fight a war in a place called Vietnam. 

Vietnam War Memorial, Washington DC 2005

Many years later there was a time that my mother had to take me to the local airport. This was back in the day when you actually went into the airport and sat with people at the gate to see them off. While we were sitting there I said, “Hmmm. This seems really familiar to me. I think we stood here to say good-bye to Jim or Mike when they were leaving for the military.” Before I even finished the sentence my mother started to cry. “If it was your brother Jim, well I couldn’t say, I don’t remember. It was the worst day of my life. I couldn’t believe I was sending my son off to war.” 

Our family has a built in honor code of “Don’t ask. Don’t tell.” So it stands with this portion of our lives. We were all affected in one way or another. My older brother Jim most of all. While he was the one who had to do the heavy lifting, a family member doesn’t go off to war without some type of domino effect. With that in mind, I recently decided to toss the family honor code out the window. Having had a successful interview with a WWII vet I had built up my courage and finally asked my big brother if he would agree to an interview for my blog post on Vietnam. 

It was not an easy ask and it was a more difficult tell. After some tissue and talking, he agreed. He would answer any questions I had and he would do it only once. We sat down, me and my big brother, some forty years after he came home to find out what it was all about. It was an amazing discussion that lasted about 2 hours. Sadly, we had a tape malfunction so there is no recording. (Perhaps better that way.) The first thing he cleared up is that it was not him that we said good bye to at the airport. Mom and Dad dropped him at the bus station. (See? That memory creature is a strange and fickle being.)

As I have written many times in these posts, when discussing anything remotely war like, it is never cut and dried. It is always a big pile of messy, smelly poo. The quagmire that is “Vietnam” is probably one of the biggest. Trying to fit in a synopsis of what led to the US involvement in one little blog is a task not easily undertaken and may be better suited to an episode of Drunk History. However, I think a look at the events leading up to and including the conflict makes it easier for me to understand why it was such a mess and what the broader mess meant for me and my family.

Vietnam War Memorial, Washington DC 2005

The first thing to know is that US engagement in Vietnam was not a war. Congress never declared war on Vietnam so, technically speaking, it was a conflict and not a war. (Actually, the last time America declared war was in 1942 and that was against Japan. So the US involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq are also “conflicts” …technically speaking.)

There are key events that led up to the war, and to understand those it’s best to understand the players; the state of the whole wide world, religion, local and geo-politics, and insurmountable stubbornness of human beings.  Through the history of Vietnam, the history of the world actually, countries have conquered, captured, and colonized other countries. Usually under the guise of “Our, <insert way of life> is better than yours. Let us make you better.” So said the French, circa 1850, when they entered Indonesia, and Vietnam, to protect the Christians. (Keep in mind that the Chinese had a toehold in Vietnam in one way or another going back to 111 BC.)  The French held their place, for the most part, up to 1954.

Through time, the geographic area of Vietnam extended to the south and to the west increasing the area of the country. As that physical expansion happened, it did not necessarily translate to a cultural expansion. North and South Vietnam became almost two separate entities that never developed a trust for one another. 

Around 1941, activist Ho Chi Minh (born Nguyen That Thanh in Vietnam in 1890) returned to his country, specifically Northern Vietnam, after many years of travel during which he learned the secret handshake of communism and established the Viet Minh, a communist-dominated independence movement. During WWII, the U.S. military intelligence agency Office of Strategic Services (OSS), a precursor to the CIA, allied with Ho Chi Minh and his Viet Minh guerrillas (communists) to harass Japanese troops in the jungles and to help rescue downed American pilots. (At this point we should all foresee that this is not going to end well.) In 1945, the Japanese, fearing an American invasion, got rid of the French government and installed a puppet leader by the name of Bao Dai. Soon there was famine, unrest, and revolts. Ho Chi Minh used this to his benefit to propagate his Viet Minh movement. This essentially resulted in a standoff between North Vietnam (Ho Chi Minh) and South Vietnam (Bao Dai). 

We all know what happened to Japan at the end of WWII. Clearly they were not going to be walking out of Indochina with any prizes. The French believed they were back in control through the leadership of Dai, but Ho Chi Minh proclaimed independence by quoting text from the American Declaration of Independence, given to him by the OSS. He declared himself president and reached out to Harry Truman to work out a plan. Harry didn’t respond and US Allies did not recognize Ho Chi Minh or his government. It was in this year that the first American death happened in Vietnam. An OSS member on his way to the airport was accidently killed when a Viet Minh believed him to be French. The week before he had written in a field report that America “ought to clear out of Southeast Asia.” (I wonder if anyone read it.)

Vietnam War Memorial, Washington DC 2005

Between 1945 and 1949 Vietnam was in turmoil. The Battle was between North and South, the Chinese and the French, Ho Chi Minh and Bao Dai. Everyone seemed to be jumping in. In 1950, China and the Soviet Union recognized Ho Chi Minh’s Democratic Republic of Vietnam. The United States recognized Bao Dai’s French controlled South Vietnam Government. It was a proxy conflict.

In 1950 the era of “McCarthyism” began in the US after Senator Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin claimed that the US State Department harbored communists. No elected official at that point wanted to appear soft on communism. Truman ordered troops into South Korea and he sent aid to the French in order to assist the US-recognized government of South Vietnam. From 1950 to 1954 the conflict continued with the US involvement increasing and President Eisenhower calling the shots. At one point the option of a nuclear attack was even put on the table, but quickly dismissed. (Let’s applaud the one who figured that was a bad idea.)

In 1954 the French finally called it quits. The Geneva Accords believed it was best to split Vietnam at the 17th parallel, much like the decision to split North and South Korea, in the name of peace. While the outside world thought it was a good idea, the Vietnamese stuck to the plan of fighting it out for a single country, single leader.

Ngo Dinh Diem was put in place to lead the South, Ho Chi Minh held his ground in the North, and the US stepped up their involvement to stop the communist takeover. It was chaos. Minh was able to infiltrate his Northern comrades into the landscape of the South (those infiltrators were known as the Viet Cong) while the new Southern Leader was attacking anything and everything that wasn’t a Catholic. (That’s not a good leadership decision when living in a primarily Buddhist country.) The conflict dragged on. Little by little US involvement ramped up. (It could be equated with the proverbial frog in the boiling water. Put him in the boiling pot and out he goes. Put him in early and turn up the heat, he never sees it coming.)

Vietnam War Memorial, Washington DC 2005

In 1960 the United States changed administrations and the gauntlet was handed to the young John F. Kennedy. (This was now US President number three holding on to the big pile of messy poo.)  Using a lot of good sound bites, mostly about fear of communists and communism, Kennedy continued to increase support to the government of South Vietnam still under the leadership of Diem. 

Diem was very unpopular in South Vietnam. For those of us that lived through the Vietnam years, or studied it after the fact, you might remember an elderly Buddhist monk named Thich Quang Duc who sat down in a lotus position in front of a Pagoda and was set on fire by two young monks. The incident was famously photographed by AP correspondent Malcolm “Mal” Browne. The image is titled, “The Ultimate Protest.” This act was in direct protest to Diems government. (This protest resulted in Diem sending in troops to raid Pagodas. Yet again, another poor choice in leadership). 

In November of 1963 a military coup against Diem occurred resulting in the assassination of Diem and his brother. The US could be called complicit in that event as intelligence knew of the planning and did nothing to stop it. Twenty days later, John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Lyndon Baines Johnson was sworn into office, and handed the big pile of smelly, messy poo.

The assassination of Diem left a power void that resulted in a game of “heads of South Vietnamese government musical chairs”, the US ratcheting up their presence, and the Viet Cong gaining more hold over the rural population of South Vietnam. Then, in August of 1964, the infamous Gulf of Tonkin incident occurred which gave Johnson the key to the kingdom: in other words, Congress granted Johnson the authority to do whatever necessary in order to assist “any member or protocol state of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty.” By the years end there were 23,000 US military advisors in South Vietnam facing the threats from 170,000 VietCong / NVA Fighters. 

Vietnam War Memorial, Washington DC 2001

In March of 1965 the first combat troops, 3,500 marines, arrived in Vietnam. In April two more Marine battalions and up to 20,000 logistical personnel were sent. By July Johnson announced plans for an additional 44 combat battalions, which brought the US Military presence to 125,000. The American Embassy in Saigon was bombed, monthly draft calls were doubled to 35,000 and protests began on American soil. 

To say there was chaos is an understatement. By the time 1965 rolled around the entire country was fractured. There was no front line or rear line, nor any clear definition of an enemy. The US tried to halt bombings and negotiate peace but that didn’t last long. Although the polls suggested that Americans backed the war, the protests, mostly brought out by younger college students, suggested otherwise. Life in the US continued with the conflict as a distant yet growing concern. 

At home, my brother Jim was plodding along through high school. He heard the news of a classmate a few years ahead of him getting killed, but it didn’t really register. His life moved on.  Outside of his somewhat isolated world in the Mid-West, things began to change. 

Vietnam War Memorial, Washington DC 2001 (or 2005)

Influential people like Dr. Martin Luther King and California Governor Ronald Reagan called for an end to the war. Public opinion polls showed 46 percent of Americans believed that the US roll in Vietnam was a mistake. Even Life Magazine renounced its earlier support of the Johnson administration. A march on the Pentagon drew 55,000 protesters. At the end of 1967 Robert McNamara resigned as Secretary of Defense privately expressing doubts in the Administration’s strategy. Top aids to the Administration followed suit. By the end of the year 463,000 troops were deployed with 16,000 combat deaths.

Next, the Tet Offensive. What many call the turning point of the war. What my brother called “My first clue about what was going on.” 84,000 Viet Cong guerrillas strategically attacked a hundred cities around South Vietnam. The attack was brought back to the US for broadcast on the nightly news. (It was also during the Tet that the famous image of the execution of a Viet Cong guerrilla by police chief General Nguyen Ngoc Loan was made by Eddie Adams. One more disturbing image to sway public opinion away from war.)

In November of 1968 Richard Nixon defeated Hubert Humphrey in the presidential election. By years end troop levels reached 495,000 with 30,000 American deaths. This was the beginning of the bitter end. 1969 opened with peace talks that were seemingly worthless as the Viet Cong attacked 110 targets through the south including Saigon. There was an investigation into the Mei Lai massacre, one of the most shocking and tragic atrocities of war, and 46 men lost their lives in a 10 day battle on “Hamburger Hill.” President Nixon ordered the withdrawal of 35,000 soldiers and the first draft lottery since WWII was held in New York City. If your birthday was pulled with a low number chances are you would get a ticket to Vietnam. (Hopefully not one way.) This is where my brother’s story begins.

Vietnam War Memorial, Washington DC 2009

In the 1971 draft lottery Jim’s birthday came up with a low number. At this time he was in vocational school and thinking about becoming a police officer. His chances of being drafted were pretty high. If drafted he would have to serve two years of a probable unknown fate. If he enlisted, and “chose his career” he would serve for three or four, but he would have some choice in the matter. He went to the recruiting office and asked to be in the Military Police. After much effort he was denied a position as an MP because he is colorblind. (He really isn’t. He just doesn’t see pastels very well . . . so he says . . .I’ve seen how he puts his wardrobe together.)  He tells the recruiter that if he can’t be an MP he’ll become a cook. Nope. Not going to happen if he’s colorblind. (Seriously?)

After a bit of a battle he conceded, “Just take me.” Off to basic training he went. After he completed basic the Army asked what he wanted and he told them that he wanted to be in MP. “Nope, you’re colorblind.” At this point Jim stood up for himself, proved that he could see “red, white, and blue,” and off he went with two other guys from basic training to a little place called Pleiku Vietnam. This was his first ever trip overseas with no stamp in his passport to prove it.  He was to be part of the 560th MP Company and would be stationed at the 67th Evac compound. 

Vietnam War Memorial, Washington DC 2009

Before I go any further into this story, I want to make clear that I am a voyeur of history. I am not a voyeur of tragedy. My intent in interviewing Jim was never to get detailed battle stories.  My intent was to understand the mindset of a young man being shipped off to a far-a-way place to fight a war that someone else started. 

Jim was very clear that when he left the US, when he arrived in Vietnam, and all the way through the end he was pretty much kept in the dark about what was going on, politically speaking and otherwise. They kept the news away from those who were serving. He just knew he had a job to do. He took our fathers excellent advice to heart. “Keep your head down. Do what you are told.  Don’t bring home a war bride.” 

His responsibility as an MP was essentially to be the police of the army. He worked in a unit that was responsible for policing all Army personnel that lived on two different bases. For him this was Camp Holloway and the MacV (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam) compound. There was also a signal corps compound, engineering compound, and artillery hill. However, by the time Jim got to Pleiku the war was winding down and those three were closed. 

Vietnam War Memorial, Washington DC 2009

The schedule was loaded: 7 days a week, with 12 hours on and 12 hours off. Every 30 to 45 days they would get a day off.  The job of an MP is to be the police; solve disputes, deal with car accidents, watch for crime etc. They were to address everything that your local police officer does, but with army personnel and, when appropriate, the locals. He also said they were to protect the convoys. This is the part that is unclear to me. It was repeated often, so it was clearly a large and important part of his job but no details were offered. 

One part of an MP’s job was to go downtown to make sure all military personnel were not breaking curfew. It would be especially important to check out the local bars. Jim and his fellow MP’s may, or may not, have taken advantage of that after hours quiet time. They may, or may not, have associated with the locals. (I think there may have been hookers, but he did not confirm this . . . well, he is my brother and our mother may read this someday.)

It seems there was a lot of interaction with the locals, which, I am sure, brought some normalcy to life. He recalled going to see the “Mama-san” to get pineapple and how quickly she would core and cut it like he had never seen. There was a girlfriend for a period of time that actually saved him one night from what could have been an enemy lurking around. I would prefer to keep that story vague.

Vietnam War Memorial, Washington DC 2009

Aside from meeting up with the locals they would occasionally head up into the mountains where the Montgnard, indigenous peoples of the central highlands, lived. There they cavorted while imbibing in homemade rice wine. (It sounds refined but I suspect it would be more like moonshine). What’s fascinating about the Montgnard is that the US military supplied them with whatever they needed to protect themselves. They weren’t North Vietnamese, they weren’t South Vietnamese, nor were they necessarily “fighting for” anyone else. 

It was very clear through his time spent with the locals that all they cared about was surviving. “Today, tomorrow, and the next day. They just wanted to know they had a bowl of rice.”  They did what they needed to do to make that happen. As one would suspect, the black market was rampant. I asked Jim how it all worked and he went into great detail. I can’t tell you what he said. It’s not that it’s a big secret. I’m just not sure I completely follow it. It starts with Tide Soap from the PX and then I was lost. 

The army took some measures to combat the black market. One of the things was to put color dye in the gasoline so it could be traced back to the American base. On a random morning it would be announced that, “Gas is blue.” When someone spotted blue gas in town they would know it originated from the base and was therefor “illegal”. Oddly, the blue gas was spotted well before the color of the day was announced. The black market, like the military, was clearly efficient.

Vietnam War Memorial, Washington DC 2009

I asked my brother about friends. It seems to be a common perception that soldiers have war buddies. That was not the case. Like Joe, my WWII interviewee, Jim said he didn’t really make friends. It was especially difficult in his position as the police. “We were their enemy!” The MP’s were responsible for the rules and keeping order. That meant busting guys for illegal behavior. That mostly meant drugs. As we all know, there were a lot of drugs over there. Marijuana and Heroin were the drugs of choice. Mostly supplied by the locals. Drugs were so prevalent that there was one person stationed with Jim who had joined the military, to be deployed to Vietnam, simply to have better access to heroin. (I don’t believe his deployment lasted long.)

This brings up one of my bigger questions to Jim. “Why were people so seemingly screwed up when they come home?” His theory? “If you were screwed up going in you were screwed up going home.” That’s a theory and sure, I’ll buy it, but I think there’s more to it. You might be able to train a young man to shoot a gun, to kill an enemy, or drop a bomb on a village, but you can’t change their level of empathy and that has to have a lasting affect.

Jim’s first job as an MP was being sent to a barracks after four guys decided to play Russian roulette with a hand grenade. If you don’t know how it’s played it goes like this: You sit in a circle with a couple of guys. One of you pulls the pin out of a grenade. The grenade is passed around. If you hold on to the grenade it won’t explode. If you let go, well, it’s all over. One of the four let go and that was the end for them, and one poor innocent guy asleep in his bunk. That is how my brother was introduced to his job. 

Womens War Memorial, Washington DC 2005

Thus went the war for him. While he did not share details, and nor did I ask, it was clear the toll it took. His daily job was essentially to pick up body parts. Traffic accidents, drug overdoses, suicides, and murder. (Yes. Murder. On one occasion it was because of a cigarette.) His job was clean up. Up close and personal to the tragedy of war. He didn’t need to engage with the enemy. The US military was enough enemy to itself. Soldiers had a practice called “fragging.” To “frag” means to “deliberately kill (an unpopular senior officer) typically with a hand grenade.” Fragging was a real thing. Grenades, at that time, did not come with any type of signature so those murders were anonymous, untraceable, and more common than one would hope. 

Even though Jim was “away from enemy lines” it didn’t mean he didn’t get close to the enemy. Remember, this war never really had a front line especially when you think about the Ho Chi Minh trail that ran from the north to the south along the western border. Mortar shells would drop into the camp on occasion. At first, it was a bit unnerving, then after some time they would just hang out and watch like it was a 4th of July evening. There was one occasion that it did get scary. Jim and some of the other MP’s barely got into a bunker during an exceptionally heavy strike. It was the only time he was really terrified. It was the longest 25 minutes of his life, I guess. 

Jim was in Vietnam at the end of the war. He didn’t have TV or the news. He could only surmise what was happening. There were a few signs that the end was coming. One big clue was they started to have steak more often. (The cooks had been hoarding it to use for trades—see earlier comments about the black market—now they needed to get rid of it.)  There was also the change in beer. This went the other way. Out with the good stuff, Miller, in with the bad, Lone Star. (I’m just relaying the information I’m not making judgements). Once the Canadian Peace Keepers came in Jim and his crew knew it was the end. It was time to play cards, eat steak, and drink bad beer while they waited for their orders. When my brother left there were only two planes behind him. 

Vietnam Memorial, Washington DC 2005

I asked, a lot, during our conversation about what he knew of the “big picture” and he insisted that he just put his head down and did his job. When I pressed further he did say that when he went to the cities he would see large barracks with brand names like “Sea-Land” and “Pacific Architects and Engineers.” As Deep Throat famously said “Follow the money.”  Corporate involvement and greed in Wars goes back a long way and continues through today. (Think Halliburton.)

There was one incident, toward the end of the war, where Jim recalled being tagged to go out and watch the perimeter. This was not something that was part of his normal job. It was a bit unnerving, but he did it without incident. It was 40 years later when he just happened to be watching a documentary on PBS that he realized the night he was on patrol the NVA were marching south only a few hundred yards away. (I would have preferred to learn this information 40 years after the fact, too.)

All in all it was an interesting conversation with my big brother. My take away? He was asked by his country to do a job. Without complaint he did his job to the best of his ability. Unsolicited, he told me that if his President called him up and asked him to serve he would do it again. 

For me, the sixty thousand dollar question is this. “Why is it that you never talk about this part of your life? It’s played such a big role and it’s a huge part of history. Why so silent?” For my big brother, other than the fact that he simply does not want to wrap himself in the stars and stripes and salute all that is patriotic, it came down to this very simple thing: it’s just so sad. The whole tragic and awful series of events that was the Vietnam War was a complete and utter waste and it was just so profoundly sad.  

In 1972 a young man was sent away because it was his patriotic duty to serve his country. He was not so much a witness to history as he was a witness to human destruction. I concur. It was tragically and utterly wasteful. At its heart it was so very sad, yet that is why it is worth remembering.

Vietnam War Memorial, Washington DC 2001

In 1984 I went to Washington DC for a conference. I was accompanied by some classmates as well as one of my teachers. Naturally, we went to visit the Mall and specifically the Vietnam Memorial. I walked along side my teacher who, I had learned, was a flight instructor during the war. As we walked along the path he pointed to three different names on the wall. Young men who were once his students. It shook me to my core. Those etchings were attached to real people.  

I have visited that wall many times. I have witnessed people leaving trinkets, transferring the etched name to paper, and prayers being said. One man even asked a woman to take a  photo of he and his wife as he pointed to a name saying “This is him. The guy that saved my life.” When I visit the wall I always stop, look at the names in front of me, and then take a moment to thank the Universe that my brother’s name is not among them. 

Vietnam War Memorial, Washington DC 2009

American Revolution - Lexington and Concorde

It’s baffling, really, to look back at the American Revolution and wonder how the colonists could be so organized. No cell phones, no computers, no Facebook. How in the world did that madcap crew (who we now refer to as our forefathers) make this all work?

As things were heating up in Boston, General Thomas Gage received orders from the Earl of Dartmouth to get himself and a crew to Concord and get rid of the weapons stash which the colonists were building up.  Along with that, the report contained orders that Samuel Adams and John Hancock be found and locked up. Or hung. Most likely with the charge of treason. Our dear friend Doctor Warren got wind of this little report even before General Gage, and he was able to get Adams, Hancock and the primary players out of Boston. (Rumor on the block is the snitch was none other than Margaret Kemble Gage . . . New Jersey-born wife of General Gage . . . who had “sympathies with the Colonial cause and a friendly relationship with Warren.” You go, girl!)

Reenactors (2001)

With Adams and Hancock hiding out in Lexington, Warren and Revere were holding down the fort in Boston. Their next piece of business was to work out a plan. They needed to come up with a way to communicate to the leaders, the minutemen, and the townspeople. There needed to be a surefire way to forewarn them  so that they could stay one step ahead of the British. 

What they came up with was something akin to a good old-fashioned telephone tree (the precursor to emails blasts, tweets and what have you) without the aid of a telephone (or emails, Twitter and what have yous).  They devised  an alert system that used a daring combination of express riders, bells, drums, alarm guns, bonfires and a few trumpets. (I guess one really needs a good melody for something like that.)  

On April 16, Revere made a quick trip to Concord with the  pre-warning that the British landing craft were being drawn from the water which was a clear indication that something was up. The locals, understanding what that meant, began to move their arms supplies around hiding them in wells, barns and swamps. Revere went back to Boston to prepare the communication system should the Regular Army start the move. 

Knowing that this was the inevitable, Revere set up a system whereby three Boston Patriots (not the football players, but colonists sympathetic to the cause) would wait for word as to which direction the British would take on their move to Concord.  Would they march over Boston Neck or would they take boats across the Charles River?  Over in Charleston there were a few backup riders who needed to know which way to ride.  The patriots were to have two lanterns in the steeple of the Old North Church (then known as Christ Church) and be ready to shine a signal: “One if by land, two if by sea.” 

Reenactors (2001)

Reenactors (2001)

Sure enough, on the 18th of April 1775, the British made the first move. Revere the second. And thus begins the legendary story that led to “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.”

One thing that the Longfellow poem leads the reader to believe is that Paul Revere was the lone rider.  This in fact was not the case. There were a number of patriots out that night sounding the alarms. Heading in the direction of Lexington & Concord was our famous Mr. Revere (riding the northern route out of Boston) and a young shoemaker named William Dawes (riding the southern route out of Boston). Once in Lexington, they met up with Dr. Samuel Prescott.  The three of them continued on their way, but before they could get to Concord, Dawes and Revere were both captured. Only Dr. Prescott was able to make it through. (Not to worry: Dawes & Revere were both able to escape that same evening and get back to Lexington in time for the start of the war.)

The other urban legend passed down from that famous night is that Paul Revere road through town and country shouting “The British Are Coming! The British Are Coming!”  This (while a little more dramatic than what Revere actually said) is sadly untrue. It’s more likely that he stopped at farms and local establishments to warn that the “Regulars are out.” (You see, technically most of those who lived in the colonies were British so it would have been rather confusing to know which British he was talking about.)  

Visitors Center (2001)

Because of the courage and stamina of the midnight riders and their system of alerts, on the morning of April 19, 1775, about 80 militiamen were lined up in battle formation on the town green at Lexington waiting for redcoats. (One report has them coming out of the local tavern . . .  somehow, that just makes it all the better!) The British Regular army did not disappoint. They did a “one up” on our colonists, showing up with 500 of their own. 

Captain John Parker, the leader of our 80 or so militiamen from the local tavern, saw that he and his merry band of 80 were no match for the redcoats, and it is believed that he said "Stand your ground; don't fire unless fired upon, but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.” (This is now engraved in stone where the battle began.) 

Tavern Site (2001)

Tavern Site (2001)

A British officer, most likely believing this meant they could start with some negotiations ranted something to the effect, “lay down your arms, you damned rebels!” Now, I may never have stood in line ready for a war to start but I’m thinking that isn’t what you want to say to 80 guys just coming out of a tavern and ready for a fight. And sure enough, shortly after that the first shot was fired. And to this day, as far as I can tell, nobody knows from whence it came. 

At the end of that little kerfuffle, eight Massachusetts men were killed and ten more were wounded. Only one British Regular was wounded.

But the day was not yet done. The British commanders were able to find their little drummer boy to beat out the assembly, get them in line and move on to Concord so they could continue on their mission of capturing the militia supplies. 

Reenactors (2001)

Once in Concord, the troops were divided and sent out to capture as many supplies as possible. Colonel Smith must have had a lady friend as well because he was well equipped with information as to where many of the supplies were hidden. While the raids were taking place it seems that the minutemen (colonists) and the militiamen (more colonists) were starting to meet around the North Bridge. 

The colonists, about 400 strong, got themselves organized on one side of the bridge, while on the other side there was an inexperienced captain overseeing about 90 British troops. Clearly, this would not end well. Like many moments of that particular day, there was confusion all around. On the British side, their original orders were to march into Concord and capture the ammunitions stores (as well as Adams & Hancock, should they be so lucky). On the colonists side, they were only told to not shoot unless an order was given. Now that there was a standoff, neither side knew if they were to shoot, stay, or run. 

But then someone shot first. Possibly a warning shot from the side of the British to try and get some semblance of command. While this fact will live in the mute body of history, Ralph Waldo Emerson would famously capture the moment when he wrote "Here once the embattled farmers stood /  and fired the shot heard round the world."

Like all moments in history, we can go back and get many accounts of what people were thinking, what they wanted, what their expectations were. While everyone was certainly preparing for war, I would like to believe that some people were still holding out for something a little more civilized. Perhaps, by this time, both sides were at the end of their ropes and someone took the first shot out of sheer frustration. Perhaps war was simply inevitable. Or, perhaps we, as societies, still don’t know how to get what we want through common sense and negotiation. Who’s to say? The only clear fact that remains is that on that very famous day, on that very famous bridge, our little Colonies That Could were in a War of Independence that would soon begin one of the greatest experiments of all time.

American Revolution - Boston

When I was in grade school it was a very special day if we were able to see a movie. This was well before DVD's, netflix, or VCR's. The teacher would load up an old reel projector that made a unique clicking sound as the shutters opened and closed and the film looped through. It demanded a change of roll every forty minutes or so. This meant intermissions. Not a bad thing for rowdy 10 year olds!

My favorite movie, the one I couldn't wait to see each year, was "Johnny Tremain." The story about a young boy growing up in Boston during the lead up to the American Revolutionary War. We got to meet Paul Revere, Doctor Warren, and John Hancock. We saw them all dress up as Indians for the (real) "Boston Tea Party" and sang along with "The Liberty Tree." ("It's a tall old tree and a strong old tree, And we are the Sons, yes, we are the Sons, the Sons of Liberty!" ... it still gets to me.)

Walking through Boston, on the Freedom Trail, brought back the memories of that movie and the history that it told. It's fascinating to observe how a contemporary city with all of its madness and noise competes with the past. There is advertising for the Freedom Trail along with a nod to the Cheers Bar (Johnny Tremain meets Frasier Crane!)

Johnny Tremain meets Frasier Crane (2001)

Seeing the Old North Church was brilliant for me. Again, grade school comes back to me, remembering "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. . .

Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year. . .

(Just a hint. Do not use this poem if you need historic facts.) I was in this famous church one morning when a clergy member of this still active congregation gave a talk to the tourists. We sat in boxes, similar to a small cubicle you might sit in at work.  Back in the day, church members would have to purchase their own box. The more money you spent . . . the closer you would get to the front of the church.  (I don't think too much has changed since then.)

One if by land . . . Two if by sea (2001)

Walking along the streets of Boston, amongst the contemporary buildings, we see the homes, meeting places, and final resting places of the people who started this country.

Boasting that Paul Revere is buried here. (2001)

Tour guides happily take you on a tour of the dead.

So chipper showing off the dead (2001)

And there are plenty of those!

Old Graves (2001)

(Dead as well as tour guides . . .)

Getting the low down on those underground (2001)

But, I digress. Long before these cemeteries were filled with ghosts from Christmas past, or tour guides who longed to play them, there was quite a bit going on in bean town. The (real) “Boston Tea Party” didn't just happen out of thin air. There was a lot of build up to that event, and the subsequent events, that were the prelude to The American Revolutionary War (aka: American War of Independence).

Boston Massachusetts was the center of a pressure cooker that started cooking somewhere around the French and Indian War. That was 1754 - 1763 to give a bit of time frame. From that point on, England started to get a little greedy with the little colony's that could. There were "Sugar Acts" and "Currency Acts" and "Stamp Acts." Those were followed by more acts, and agreements, and affairs. Toss in a massacre, a few clandestine meetings along with some treason, and KA-BOOM!

The next thing we know, Patrick Henry is saying "I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!" and Paul Revere is getting ready for his ride. It couldn't have been very comfortable living in that pressure cooker. What does it take for a person to make a stand, to shake things up, and to create change? Were they afraid? Did they ever question themselves if what they were doing was right or possibly wrong? I wonder if I would have had the courage to step up and say "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!"

Then again, at that time, I wouldn't have been allowed. We don't see many women of this time. Where are they? And where is the working class? Where are the commoners? The people of color? The people that sat in the balcony at church? Do we only get to look at the extraordinary part of our past through the lens of the leaders and forget that, much like today, the city was bustling and noisy with people who just went about their business; people who didn't, or couldn't, read the paper or get involved with political activities?

We learn about history through stories, art, and documents. But, unless we look at these artifacts thoughtfully we only see the extraordinary. We shouldn't forget the ordinary. I'm sure they, too, had a part to play.

NOTE: I am not an historian and I do not play an historian on TV. For accurate historic data on any of these sites please go to your public library for more information.

The Lost Colony

While in school, we all learned about Columbus. Remember the little song?

"In fourteen-hundred and ninety-two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue
He sailed and sailed and sailed and sailed
To find this land for me and you."

Actually, Columbus was looking for better routes for the spice trade and could give two hoots about me, but it's a good date reference for when he sailed and sailed and sailed and sailed. Spain ruled in those days when it came to establishing colonies in North America, and England really wanted to get a piece of the pie. While Jamestown, England's first established Colony, is well known, there were a few duds before we got there.

Enter Sir Walter Raleigh. Raleigh was given a 10-year charter to colonize the area in North America known as Virginia. In 1584 he sent a small expedition, lead by Phillip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe, to what is now the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Amadas and Barlow chose this as the best place to dig in and try to do a "one up" on the Spanish and introduce themselves to the Croatan tribe of the Carolina Algonquians. 

The following spring, Sir Richard Grenville and a small expedition of men were sent to do some further exploration and establish a colony.

There were a few little mishaps during this particular expedition. First, the event of the lead ship, which contained all of the food stores, running into a shoal upon arrival. Oops. Then there was the incident of the stolen silver cup that resulted in the execution, by burning, of the local tribal chief. Ouch. (Needless to say the locals were not very impressed.) In spite of these events, Grenville left Ralph Lane and 75 other guys to hold down the fort while he went all the way back to England to get some more food. After a few months of watching and waiting Ralph and his crew were running out of patience. Thankfully, Sir Francis Drake was doing a drive by so Ralph and his small crew hitched a ride home to England. When Grenville’s relief fleet finally arrived they discovered the abandoned fort. Leaving a few guys and guns behind to keep their claim protected, Grenville heads back to England.


Reconstructed earthen fort (circa 2001)

In 1587 Raleigh decides to load up another ship to send over to the new Virginia (which is actually North Carolina but they didn't catch on to that part yet). This time, he is ready to establish an actual colony. 

At a time well before flush toilets, hair dryers and chilled chardonnay, 114 men, women and children made the choice to leave their homes in England, stuff themselves in a tiny little boat and take the dangerous journey across the Atlantic to explore and colonize a new land. That boat was smaller than many of the McMansions we see in suburbia. Imagine 114 people and some livestock crammed into your house without a single bathroom! Now that, kids, is what we call roughing it.

QE II - Replica of 16th Century Ship (circa 2005)

Ships Mast (2011)

There isn't much information about the colony itself. The group was lead by John White, a very good artist who documented much of the island on prior expeditions. He was named Governor of the colony. We also know that on August 18, 1587 Governor Whites daughter, Eleanor, gave birth to Virginia Dare who would be the first English child born in the colonies.

Statue of Virgina Dare (2001)

Wait a moment . . . close up of this one:

Virginia Dare up close and personal (2001)

Fascinating. A grown woman. A voluptuous grown woman. That's taking a bit of artistic license since nobody knows if she ever had the chance to grow up. Shortly after Virginia Dare was born, a colonist named George Howe was killed by local natives. Fearing for their safety, the colonists asked Governor White to go back to England to get some back up. They were also running out of food so if he could make a pit stop at the Tesco that would be good too. So off he sails and leaves his colony quietly waiting, waiting.

Mike Campbell, Festival Park Blacksmith Reenactment (2011)

Unbeknown to the colonists, Queen Elizabeth was having a few troubles of her own. Phillip II of Spain was looking to get the Protestants out of town and sent the Spanish Armada to take care of things. In order to defend herself, all able vessels were called up to keep those Spaniards and their Armada out of merry old England. Poor Governor White had no choice but to wait it out. It wasn't until 3 years later, which would have been the third birthday of his grandaughter Virgina Dare, (remember the voluptuous babe . . .), that he was able to get back to the colony.  To his dismay all he discovered was an empty camp.


Fort Raleigh National Historic Site (2001)

Not a trace of the ninety men, seventeen women and eleven children (that he knew of . . . there WAS some down time since he departed. . .). The only clue was the word "Croatoan" carved into a post in the fort and "Cro" carved into a tree. Houses and fortifications had been dismantled and there was no sign of struggle. It appeared that the colonists picked up shop and moved along.

There are many different ideas of what may have happened. Most of the theories have them moving somewhere and integrating with various Indian tribes. Either way, it makes for a good old-fashioned mystery. In lieu of CSI for lost English folks, there is a good pageant that tells the story, or a version of the story. If you are ever in the area and want to learn a little more you can always check out "The Lost Colony Outdoor Drama."

Lost Colony Outdoor Drama Stage (circa 2001)

It's quite a tale and there is something for everyone. It insinuates that Elizabeth and Walter could have been friends with benefits, there are little Indian battles and big Indian battles and, in the end, the tired colonists sing their way to a new life.  I guess if your Tesco delivery doesn't happen and your mouth is watering for some tea and crumpets, the only thing to do is put your best foot forward and sing.

NOTE: I am not an historian and I do not play an historian on TV. For accurate historic data on any of these sites go to your public library for more information.