by Michael Ryerson
This is the transcript of an interview (actually two interviews) and that should explain the sometimes vague quality. The context of the interview, the informality and the identity of the interviewer allowed for the exchange to be forthright, outspoken and profane, these being my normal inclinations. I have not edited for mixed audiences. This is how I think and speak. The narrative is made up of answers to questions which were no longer available when I transcribed them so I’ve tried to combine these comments and edit them for clarity. Some of the questions, ‘Why did you go to Vietnam?’ ‘Have people changed in your lifetime?’ or ‘Did you obsess about death?’ necessarily border on the inane but, of course they’re really meant to initiate some associative thinking, some woolgathering. My answers served to make some subsequent questions moot.
Well, I think you’re right, to a certain extent, but begs the question of degree. We’re all lonely. In some sense that’s the human condition, we squeeze through that little opening into this world, naked and alone and come to know that we are going to exit essentially the same way, naked and alone. Cheery, huh? Some guy said, ‘Everyone knows the same truth. We spend our lives finding ways to distract ourselves from it.’ And that’s what I think he’s talking about. We spend much of our lives looking for ways to deflect this reality. But it isn’t all that either. Maybe it isn’t ‘all’ anything. My problem with the question is it reflects an essentially useless perception concerning our lives. It would make a nice Sunday sermon and give the parishioners something to take with them as they go back out into the sunlight and try to deal with the poor and disenfranchised and the thugs and malcontents that populate their everyday world. As to your point, I’m reminded of a scene in a favorite film of mine (let me apologize for a movie analogy, I generally avoid them) Papillon, which concerns the travails of several prisoners of Devil’s Island in the early twentieth century and, in particular, the central character Henri Charrierre, known as Papillon for his butterfly tattoo’ed chest. Anyway, after several escape attempts Charrierre, ‘Papi’, finds himself in solitary confinement in a tiny dark cell. Once a day, a small window in his cell door is opened and he is ordered to ‘show yourself’ meaning he is expected to thrust his head out through the window opening so that he can be inspected for head lice and given the occasional haircut. One day early in this time, he sticks his head out and is quietly hailed by the old guy in the next cell, a frail, wizened elderly man, who whispers, ‘How do I look?’ Initially, it seems an odd question and causes Papi to pause, finally saying, ‘Fine. You look fine.’ The old man seems satisfied. Life in solitary is brutal in its tedium, soul-sucking and desperate, time grinds on. One day Papi notices his neighbor no longer ‘shows himself, his cell now apparently vacant. More time passes… Papi learns to supplement his meager diet with insects he catches in his cell. An unseen friend, on the outside, hides an occassional ‘treat’ in his fresh water bucket. Mostly, he lives in the dark. Finally, one day he shows himself and a young prisoner has taken up residence in the cell next door, his head exposed, blinking, unsure. Papi calls out to him and we see Papi has aged terribly, his hair now white, his teeth gone bad, his skin pale, translucent. In a voice not much more than a croak, Papi says, ‘How do I look?’ I think much of what we do in life is to ask for someone to tell us how we look, to signal, maybe even validate our existence, our being. As Ratzo Rizzo yelled at the cabbie, ‘Hey, I’m walkin’ here! I’m walkin’ here!’ (another movie analogy. sorry). I was a generally disinterested student flirting with the magic 12 unit minimum and defiantly producing lackluster marks by testing on nothing more than wit and caffeine. At the start of my junior year, I finally hit the oh-fuck-it button and enlisted. It was a mistake. Yeah, why two tours. Well, I was a victim of circumstance. Early on, I was a generally motivated guy who had pretty much bought into the whole Marine Corps mystique thing. I know how impossibly innocent that sounds but that’s what you get with eighteen, nineteen year old kids. I was generally pretty good at my job and believed I would be safer if I was making as many decisions as possible. I picked up rank as fast as I could. In the early days it was pretty quiet, there were well under a hundred thousand Americans in Vietnam when I got there (Feb. ’66), I didn’t hear a gunshot that I took personally for about two months, I didn’t see my first dead body for almost three. But it accelerated pretty quickly after that. Sniper took a couple of shots at me and a friend on a lonely stretch of road. We stopped, got out and went after him. Hard to believe. Looking back I can’t believe we were that dumb. Just a couple of kids. Word was, in my MOS, I could expect to be back within 90 days of my first rotation (which would have been Mar. ’67). I could see the situation was getting less and less controllable. I was presently with a unit (11th and 5th Marines) that was aggressive, well run and operating in an area we (the unit) knew well. If I went home and rotated back, I would be taking my chances with where and to whom I was assigned. Extend my tour with 5th Marines and stay with friends or go home and roll the dice. I extended for a year. Circumstances. In mid-June (’66) our position is overrun, stroke of midnight, night of the 19th/morning of the 20th. fight lasts four and a half hours, Sergeant Wilder kills a guy with his bare hands, strangles him while yelling for someone to help him, Ed Claybin is wounded by the same mortar round that kills Gary Sangster, it haunts him to this day, a grenade lands near him but he can’t call out so he drags himself over on top of it and refuses to be moved when it fails to go off. A corpsman stays right with him trying to stem the bleeding while everybody stays clear trying to decide what to do. The fight continues, a guy, barefoot and still in his underwear, crosses over and climbs up on an amtrak and starts up the fifty caliber machine gun to stop the VC in the wire, he burns up his first barrel, I’m given another one and told to take it out to him and to tell him to lower his cyclic rate, I have to cross some open ground, I’m scared shitless. I stay by the amtrak with another guy, Rick LeClair from Reno, firing our rifles into the treeline at shadows and silhouettes. We start carrying ammo for the fifty, they decide to roll Ed off the grenade and throw a sandbag on it, it works. Ed is medivac’ed and faces seven back surgeries and four knee surgeries and still has flashbacks. He was awarded the Navy Cross. The kid in his underwear on the amtrak is awarded the Silver Star. By dawn the fight was mostly over. We had 36 bodies in our position and in our wire and 36 more on the trail outside our wire. We had six KIA’s and 41 WIA’s. By the end of ’66 the count was up to 400,000 Americans in-country, we were taking casualties three or four days a week, less sleep, less hot food and more ‘entertainment’. Irony strikes. I’m reassigned to another unit anyway. I kept a calendar like most guys. Marked each day off every morning, rain or shine. Got to be a ritual. Spring of the second year I was wounded. Spent some time in the rear while my leg got strong. I picked up Captain Browne when I went back to the field. He was the best. By April we’re getting shot at every single day, small arms, mortars, artillery from N. Vietnam, ambushes, automatic weapons, RPG’s, in July we run into flamethrowers for the first time, route 561 ambush, they blew fucking bugles for recall. Bugles. 85 KIA’s in one morning. The casualties are coming fast and furious, started standing-in to morning staff meetings cause we were running out of young lieutenants, I was an E-5, a buck sergeant, and I’m standing in these morning briefings because we don’t have enough officers left. An incoming artillery round glances off a tank turret and kills six men running for a slit trench, Captain Browne is one of them. Nobody’s sleeping, I’m down to about three hours in twenty four, my body weight’s down to 146. I’m 6’1″. A laundry list of names goes here. A long list. Late August is quiet. We think we’ve seen the worst. We hadn’t. September is the back breaker. Rain like you can’t believe and in-coming every single day, lots of it, hammering us. A thousand rounds a day into Con Thien, a position about the size of a baseball field. A thousand rounds. Eight guys drown trying to withdraw from the Cam Lo bridge in the middle of the night, north face of Con Thien is ‘probed’ by four hundred North Vietnamese regulars, the fight lasts nine hours, we call for artillery on the wire and in the compound. Lt. Bennett and another guy are killed by the back blast of a 106mm recoiless rifle, three guys are blown up by an RPG attack on the road leading into our position, I see the NVA, five guys, running for the treeline but they’re gone before we can do anything. I keep marking the days off my calendar. We’re all focused on getting to the holidays, because that’s always been a quiet time. TET is right around the corner. We don’t see that coming either. SF’s down the road at Lang Vei are overrun by tanks. Tanks and more flamethrowers. I know if I get to the end of this tour, I won’t come back. I know what luck is and I know my string is long past due. My position skates TET, most everybody gets hit big time but we get through with a little half-assed probe, maybe six or eight NVA, they’re all killed in our wire. They start scooping up available bodies for Hue, 200 of us fly out of Dong Ha in helicopters in the second week of February, we land in an abandoned soccer stadium, find our way through streets choked with debris and dead livestock and cross the Perfume River in a mike boat full of shrapnel holes, standing in six inches of water. By my count I’m down to 35 days and a wake up. I’m starting to pray. Still marking my calendar. Ten days at the Citadel. At one point the gunfire is so intense ammo resupply is coming in every hour and it isn’t enough. 200 guys I came down with took 41 KIAs and maybe a hundred WIAs’. I haven’t had my boots off in a week. I’m afraid to look at my feet. We get back to the northern Quang Tri first week of March. Couple of days go by, young lieutenant comes back from R&R and sees me and holds out his hand and says, ‘What are you doing here?’ I don’t know what he’s talking about. I say, ‘What?’ He says, ‘They’re looking for you in the rear, you can go home.’ My calendar says I’ve still got five days to go. Life is a stream, it slows down and gets wider as you get old, but it doesn’t stop and wait for you. I guess I’m an adult. I couldn’t really give you much of an overview of my life except to say I think I’m a better person than I was. Technically, my background isn’t in manufacturing per se, but more on the management side (that sounds pretty pretentious, I know). Manufacturing doesn’t have much of a future in America, at least not in the near-term. Globalization will allow manufacturers to chase the labor dollar and in our lifetime it won’t be back here. I’ve never seen a Michael Moore film. Oh, I don’t think there is a solution to the manufacturing problem beyond the obvious development of new products here that then go into production here. But even in those instances, if the product is successful, the company will ultimately look overseas for production capacity. Long term the solution is our economy will change in some unforseeable way to accomodate available labor. In the end, of course, life-styles will change, worldwide wages will stabilize and we’ll all have a happy Christmas. But not in my lifetime. Perception being everything, my impressions of how the world worked as a child are pretty immaterial to how I think the world has changed since I was a child. The problems seem bigger (yes, even allowing for the atomic bomb thing) and the solutions seem more elusive. But every generation thinks the world is going to hell in a handbasket, that the problems they face are all-time bad, that the next generation is ungrateful, prideful and poorly educated. Not to mention too noisy and un-hygienic. Someday some generation is going to be right about that. Maybe. Sure, as a child I used to obsess about dying, the idea terrified me, I’d lay in bed at night staring at the ceiling thinking about my grandfather dying, what he must have been thinking right before he died, you know, was he scared, and where his body was right that moment and what must be happening to it. I don’t think about dying much anymore, truth be told when I do think of dying, I think of it kinda like a three day weekend. I didn’t pick management as a career, I just fell into it because I have no skills. I wouldn’t go back to pick another career because I don’t think we ‘pick’ much in life. I think that whole idea is an illusion. I look back at my life at various points and think about how I felt at that moment about the ‘future’ and how if I’d known what was going to happen, the pain I was going to be involved in, the ignorance and stupidity I was going to be guilty of, I’d have blown my brains out and that’s the god’s honest truth. I think stupidity allows us to go on. I was an indifferent student because I was stupid. The sap was rising and it was irresistable. I couldn’t walk slow. I am a more ardent student with every passing day. Time is not on my side. For fun I read and write and ride a bike long distances. I like old films and puttering around the house and watching my kid do just about anything. I’ve travelled a little bit and for all our faults (and there are many, many) we’ve still got a lot right in this country. Spike has been back to Vietnam twice. I owe him a trip. I know people can be thoughtless and cruel. I wish I didn’t know that. I don’t have a lot of ‘Holy Shit’ moments anymore. Maybe that comes with old age, not so much wisdom but more when we get old we stop putting ourselves out there and taking chances where the holy shit moments are. Among my mother’s possessions that fell to me for custodianship after her death is a large cardboard box of family pictures, mostly snapshots taken back in the day when she and my father were young people just starting out. As kids we used to look through these pictures, sometimes by ourselves, other times with an adult narrating for us, but always with rapt attention to the stories that went with the images. There are hundreds of them. In one, my mother, a remarkably beautiful woman is seen sitting on a blanket in a park under a tree with the sunlight streaming down on her. Next to her on the blanket is an infant looking up at her face. I remember the first time someone, probably her, told me I was that infant, I was probably four or five years old when I heard that for the first time. I couldn’t get enough of that picture. I really studied that little kid laying there helplessly on that blanket. Pure egocentrism. It was a delicious feeling to be so near the center of attention. I had pretty much forgotten that photograph, hadn’t thought of it in many years. I never really understood parenthood when I was younger. I didn’t become a father until late in life (41) and over the years when friends had kids and I’d hear them talk about their children, I thought it was a little overdone. I had one close friend who had been divorced a couple of years turn down a sizable promotion because it would have meant moving to a faraway city. He told me he couldn’t bear the thought of being so far from his son (I’m ashamed to say I probably thought something like ‘oh brother’ to myself). My son is now 23. He inherited my quick temper and for that I’m sorry. But he has a kind heart. He’s funny, intelligent, athletic and loyal to a fault (that’s a stupid thing to say, ‘loyal to a fault’, what does it mean anyway? sometimes words just go together and we don’t really consider what we’re saying. I can’t think of a single time my son’s loyalty hasn’t been appropriate, if such a thing is even possible). He owes his mother a great deal. I like hearing his voice, sometimes when we’re together, I can’t help not listening to what he’s saying and I catch myself just watching his face move and hearing that little smoky quality in his voice that he inherited from his mother. A few months ago we got that old cardboard box down from the closet, he wanted me to reacquaint him with some relatives long since passed on. So we spent an hour or two with me telling stories and him looking at the images and that certain little snapshot of my mother on that blanket in the park turned up. And I couldn’t help seeing that young woman with her child in a completely new way. With my son sitting next to me, I knew exactly how she felt about me. Maybe for the first time. I watched my son as he looked at it, too. I watched him study the baby’s face and the mother’s and look at the background and then back at us on the blanket. He thought it was kind of interesting that that was me in the picture. He doesn’t have a clear memory of my mother. I could see that someday he’s going to revisit these things, too. I guess that’s a holy shit moment. I don’t know what the secret to a successful marriage is, even though I’m in one. I’ve thought about it many times over the years of course, but whatever I come up with is always something I’ve heard other people say about their marriages and quite sincerely, which then seem to fail. Maybe I feel a little hesitation in trying to put it into words as though maybe it’s a jinx. That’s a joke. I was lucky enough to fall in love with someone I like and admire and once the physical attraction thing pulls you together (never to be underestimated!) everything that remains seems to be pretty much luck of the draw. Eventually you (hopefully) find someone who can play all the notes. Who’s to say? We lead with our eyes and after that kismet. I know I consider myself lucky beyond description and I know I don’t take my marriage for granted and that I work at it. And not in any quid pro quo kind of way. I don’t think it’s any kind of zero sum game. I put in and take enormous pleasure in the fact of the relationship puttering along for thirty years. I think being in love and staying in love is part of all these other things. I’ve never felt cheated. Not once. If we’ve taught our son anything, he’s seen that two type-A personalities can live together and be happy. I don’t think I changed my view of death so much as I just grew up. My obsessing about death was a childish behavior that I engaged in as a…child. As I grew just a bit and became interested in other things, baseball, bb guns, water balloons, I forgot to worry about dying. My grandfathers were both really fine men. My paternal grandfather, Frank E. Ryerson, was born in a soddy on the prairie in eastern Kansas, he was a Methodist minister for nearly sixty years, he’d been a circuit rider and preached in tents and in the open and finally a succession of churches big and small. My maternal grandfather, Arthur Stemple, Sr. was killed in a railroad accident in 1920, crushed between two boxcars (he was a brakeman for the A.T.& S.F). Some years later, my grandmother married his cousin (same last name), William ‘Bill’ Stemple, so her married name stayed the same. So the man I grew up with as my ‘grandfather’ was actually my step-grandfather if there is such a thing? He was a WWI vet, stonemason, curmugeon. Following Amistice Day, 1918, he insisted on being discharged in France and spent several years travelling around Europe, learning the stonemason’s trade and came home on a freighter, in steerage. He was given to salty language and parsimony. I don’t know how one writes. Said another way, I don’t think what I know is worth passing on. I suppose I like old films for many reasons. I like seeing the old things that remind me of my childhood, the cars, the buildings, especially Los Angeles the way I remember it. I like film noir quite a lot. But I like pretty much all other genres, too. Amazingly, I have friends who settled in Europe after the service, I look forward to maybe seeing them again someday. I’d like to see some little part of the Tour de France, drink some wine, argue with a Frenchman, wear a beret, piss off of a balcony. Just the usual stuff. But mostly I want to look back on my country from a long ways away again. I think I need some physical distance every once in a while to see the whole of it. My mother taught me (or tried to teach me) that I’m frequently too smart for my own good, that you are known by the company you keep and, when in doubt, mind your manners. I also learned I could have been a better son. My son has taught me that we all need to make our own mistakes and that there are some people for whom I’d lay down my life. Literally. Pretty fucking amazing. If the rewrite of the Constitution fell in my lap, I’d clean up that second amendment using simple English and complete sentences and I’d codify our right to privacy. And I’d be sorely tempted to place further specific limits on the executive. Okay, this part is going to be pretty dour. I apologize up front. No, people haven’t changed in my lifetime. People don’t change much over, what(?) a mere 60+ years. No, we’re pretty much the same assholes. In my lifetime, we’ve had a couple of mood swings politically speaking, communications are so good now, so quick, that ‘The People’ are more easily led, rumor is reported as fact in a thousand venues and it’s nearly impossible to get out ahead of a lie or half-truth. But that’s really just politics, driven by big (huge) special interests with virtually unlimited resources. Americans haven’t changed much in my lifetime and neither have populations in any other industrialized country, we’ve just become more accessible and hence, more easily influenced. Maybe we’ve got better teeth and faster cars, maybe we can heat up a bowl of soup in 45 seconds and produce a hundred thousand Barbie dolls an hour but, we still abuse our children, fuck farm animals, deal in human slaves, eat one another, starve one another and bomb the shit out of each other. Our DNA isn’t much changed from before some schmuck decided to crawl INTO a cave to get out of the rain, we’ve just got better weapons. Next 200 years? See above.