by Michael Ryerson
I happened to catch this morning’s interview with Michael Smith on The Today Show. Mr. Smith is in the news for having stood in a bookstore line for an hour and a half so that he could spit a mouthful of tobacco juice in Jane Fonda’s face (and then run away). He was unrepentant, saying when he returned from Vietnam through International Airport in Los Angeles, he was confronted with a ‘line of anti-war protestors who proceeded to spit on me’. His grievance with Ms. Fonda is of course, for her ill-conceived trip to North Vietnam at the height of the war which I guess, figuratively speaking for Mr. Smith puts her in that line of spitting hippies back in L.A. However tortured this reasoning may be, one must give Mr. Smith high marks for creative thinking.
I don’t remember the first time I heard the spitting story but I remember where I was living at the time and that places it in about 1980 or 1981. It was a shocking story really, told in an offhand sort of way, about events far enough removed to mean nothing could be done except to feel incensed and somehow violated. After that first time, I heard it several times more over the next couple of years and it was always pretty much the same, always second or third person, happening to a friend or a relative or a friend of a friend and always back in the late sixties or early seventies. But, of course, the time frame was a critical part of the story. It was about the war, after all, and the raw deal men who served in it got when they came home to no-parades and little fanfare. Like most apocryphal stories it was really about voicing a grievance. And it was always just half a story but because the person telling it was never the actual person to whom these things happened you couldn’t really ask about the other, missing half of the story, you know, the part where you might ask what the fuck did you do about it? There must have been a hell of a fight, right? I mean somebody spits on you there’s gonna be a melee right? Right? But that part of the story was always missing. It was always just the spitting. The first couple of times I heard the story I took it at face value. What an unbelievably shitty thing to do to a guy wearing a uniform. But then I started to feel uneasy about it and started to ignore it as it went by from time to time over the years. Uneasy about it because I should have known about it and I didn’t.
Over the years, Ms. Fonda’s sojourn to Uncle Ho’s North has become a bitter kernel in the mosaic of Vietnam. One of many. One photograph shows her sitting, laughing, on an anti-aircraft gun, surrounded by her amused and delighted hosts. It was and remains a hurtful image to most vets. It seems the sleek Ms. Fonda, who has led a materially privileged life, suffers from a remarkable paucity of taste and decorum but has now, with a book to hawk, come to her senses and recognizes that grainy photograph and the trip it frames to have been a monumental lapse of judgment. Although I must say, one is hard pressed to find sufficient evidence that she’s displayed good judgment frequently enough otherwise to make this occasion a ‘lapse’. In any event, she’s now sorry and can’t we all just be friends and read a good book, ‘like, for instance, this one I’m holding’, or maybe aerobicize together. But I really don’t have a problem with Jane and, frankly, I didn’t have a problem with her back when she took her trip to North Vietnam. I didn’t much care one way or the other. She’s always seemed irrelevant and transparent to me, driven by an all-too-obvious agenda of self promotion. Mr. Smith is another kettle of fish.
My problem with Mr. Smith is his story about the lines of anti-war protestors he found waiting for him in Los Angeles and that they ‘spit’ on him. I don’t believe him. The story is unbelievable on many levels and regardless that it has become a popular story in a certain hard-rump area of the veteran’s community, it has always been unbelievable. With Mr. Smith sitting in his Marine sweatshirt the opportunity to ask simple and direct questions presented itself. But Matt Lauer being little more than a pleasant shill cannot be expected to be an actual journalist although he occasionally plays one on the show. So very few questions were asked and none where the spitting hippies were concerned (nor about the running away).
I came back from overseas through Los Angeles and no one spit on me, there were no lines of antiwar protestors. I came home in March of 1968, flew into Los Angeles on a commercial flight from San Francisco on a Friday evening. It was raining. I was travelling alone and while there were several other servicemen in uniform on the plane, we weren’t together. As we came up the ramp into the concourse, no one raised an eye-brow, in fact I don’t believe anyone even looked at us. No one called out and certainly no one spit on us. I was sun-tanned, skinny and quick tempered, just like 98% of the other servicemen returning from Southeast Asia. I was running short on sleep and carbohydrates and would be for the next couple of months. But no one even glanced at me. Further I’ll say this, if anyone had spit on me (or at me) there’d have been an old fashioned fist fight, someone would have needed stitches and dental work, I’d have spent some time in the brig and there’d be a police report about the incident. I don’t know where that part of Mr. Smith’s story is or did he just ‘take it’ passively?
When I came back from Southeast Asia in 1968 I still had fifteen months on my enlistment contract. I was assigned to Schools Battalion at Camp Pendleton. I lived in a sergeant’s quarters at Area 21. During those months it was not unusual for someone to need a ride to or from LAX. I probably averaged three or four trips a month ferrying people between the airport and Pendleton. Sometimes I drove, other times I just rode along to keep someone company. So in addition to my passing through the airport on my return from overseas, I frequently shared a car for a couple of hours with someone who had just passed through the same concourse and baggage area. I never heard the spitting story one time. Not once.
George Putnam was a Southern California institution. That’s a tired old saw, saying someone is or was an institution, but with Putnam it’s almost as if the term was invented for him. In the 1950’s and ’60’s, at one time or another, he anchored the news on all four of the major independent stations in Los Angeles. When it came to news and commentary, George Putnam was ubiquitous. My mother watched him nearly every day, which isn’t saying much considering nearly everyone watched him nearly every day. My mother trusted him and he knew his success depended on her trust.
He had a head full of wavy blond hair, great teeth and a well-practiced, nearly convincing twinkle in his eye. The term matinee-idol-good-looks comes to mind. He could hold his own with Dick Powell, William Boyd or Gene Autry and in fact he did, riding his own white horse every year in the Rose Parade decked out in silver and white with a pair of six-shooters and a big white hat. Yeah, a Southern California institution. Although he delighted in calling himself a ‘life-long Democrat’ borne of his love of FDR, he was nonetheless a conservative guy. He ended most broadcasts with a segment called ‘One Reporter’s Opinion’ where he would deliver a heartfelt editorial accenting the position of the government or the military or the business community. He was not favorably disposed toward method actors, anti-heroes or hippies. He accepted the logic that had taken us to Vietnam and bought the explanations for why we were still there. There can be no doubt that if a rumor existed of soldiers returning from Vietnam being spat upon by anti-war hippies at LAX, George Putnam would have immediately decamped with a full crew to the airport to document and denounce the proceedings. But he never did. George Putnam never covered this story.
Of all my friends who are veterans, we’ve heard this spitting story over and over again and none of us had a similar experience, not one. And if returning Vietnam vets had been faced with this kind of treatment at the airport, I’d have gone down to the airport to be with them and I wouldn’t have gone alone. But no such incidents were reported in the Los Angeles Times, no local news anchor mentioned it, Los Angeles Police and airport security make no mention of it in their histories of the period. Further, no such story appears in the New York Times or the Washington Post nor any other major newspaper of the period. It was a bad time for the country. Even after all these years, it’s still painful to think about. But if we’re going to think about it and talk about it, let’s keep it real.
Mr. Smith says he was acting on behalf of all Vietnam veterans upon whom Ms. Fonda ‘spit’ all those years ago. Well, he’s not acting on my behalf, I’ll be responsible for my own dance card, thank you very much. I don’t need Mr. Smith to take care of my loose ends. I think Jane Fonda and her opinion about Vietnam are and were pretty much irrelevant. I can’t imagine standing in a line for an hour and a half to be close to her for any reason. Mr. Smith says he has a problem with Ms. Fonda. I think he has a problem with the truth.
Which brings us back to the spitting story itself. It is one of those self-serving fables which appear from time to time, intended to reinforce some slight, real or imagined, without the slightest evidence it actually happened. And perhaps most importantly, to destroy those damnable hippies who, it turns out, were right about the war all along.