Coming Back to Me: The Vietnam Experience
Edited with Final Cut Pro. Music by Jefferson Airplane. My first ever attempt at editing/montage: lost generation of Vietnam.
Edited with Final Cut Pro. Music by Jefferson Airplane. My first ever attempt at editing/montage: lost generation of Vietnam.
by Benjamin J Spencer
WITH THIS DOCUMENT, or rather, testament, I will attempt to recreate for you, dear reader, the specific circumstances involved in the horrible disaster which occurred upon the date of 28 August, 1988, at Ramstein Air Force Base near the town of Frankfurt (in what was then West Germany).
This is but a poor account of a day of indescribable horror, and may I never live to experience another of its like.
I arrived at this base – which is to this day still regarded the center of European operations for the United States Air Force under the grand tenets of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization – as I say, I arrived at this base in rather high spirits, as the annual Flug Tag, as the Germans say, was about to begin.
And truly it had promised to be a rather exciting display of aerial acrobatic prowess. A number in excess of 300,000 spectators, whether military or civilian in appointment, eagerly awaited the opening fly–over of jet aircraft, a customary commencement ritual at the annual event.
My military designation was as a sometime civilian contractor, and as a consequence I was not chosen to join the gathering of officials and dignitaries seated in ascending rows of bleachers, apart from the general population. I stood instead in the commoner’s area near the landing strip (though this unsuitable arrangement did not overly offend me, as I strive always to remain a keen and unbiased Observer of Humanity in all its God-given variety, hue and temperament.
Predictably, though – and I might add disagreeably – the hapless poor had heaped themselves in large closely-packed throngs, squirming, braying at a deafening level, consuming great excesses of beer and spirits, and in general behaving with that minimum of social decorum which all such classes are wont to do.
I daresay that if they had been less eager to press themselves together and intemperately gorge on spirits, thus shamefully impairing their faculties, perhaps the effect of the disaster might not have been so dire.
The poor simple souls! They cannot be fully blamed for their ignorant and passionate natures.
* * * * * * * * *
The day was gauzily overcast but otherwise quite fine. Low forested hills arose behind the grey asphalt of the landing road.
Presenntly the opening jet formation flew directly over the heads of the spectator, occasioning great roars of jubilation from the crowd. The show was begun.
The multitudes were held rapt as the daring jet aviators flipped, twirled and banked in effortless unison – in one moment swooping gloriously upward into the heavens, the next tumbling into a precipitous dive toward the Earth, avoiding the inflexible impact of death with mere inches to spare.
Now, the most spectacular display involved nine Italian Air Force jets, collectively know as Frecce Tricolori, viz., the Tricolored Arrows in the fanciful manner of those blessed to live in the fairer regions of Europe.
The Tricolored Arrows rocketed in unison over the crowd. But, as these nine planes were aligned in a heart-shaped formation perpendicular to the ground, all flying at low speed, one of the pilots suddenly broke away from the rest to perform a complicated maneuver.
During the first moments of the exhibition, murmurs of awe arose as one from the assembled, and all faces, tilted unswervingly as they were at the sky, at once betrayed the very type of boundless admiration and respect for these noble airmen as might be accorded by any mortal to a cadre of heavenly hosts dropped down for a visit.
But now, as this one Arrow broke away, arrived the moment that would immediately transfigure each benignly wondering visage into an open-mouthed mask of terror.
For unbeknownst to all in the crowd, this plane – which had in a manner sheared away from the rest – had dipped too closely to the ground, and the pilot was , it to retain control of his craft. No doubt owing to sheer confusion, the hapless airman suddenly corrected his flight in the exact opposite direction – directly into the flight paths of the two other fellows beside him.
All sound seemed to cease in the seconds before the terrible moment of collision. And then – chaos!
From my vantage point near the runway, it appeared as if somehow, fantastically, in that paralyzed instant, all three planes literally imploded into the same tiny point of space and fused into one mass of metal: but then the moment was spent, and the laws of physical intertia regained their awful, inexorable power.
Two of the craft tumbled harmlessly down the runway, molten together into a pulsating ball of orange flame and twisted steel. But the third jet’s trajectory became immediately, horrifyingly clear to all.
This massive jet fighter ricocheted off the ground, then sailed, screeching over the blacktop and directly toward the crowd presently surrounding a concessions vehicle.
The great steel behemoth catapulted and slid across the broad field for a distance of not less than fifteen hundred meters before coming to rest against the vehicle; yet its velocity and power were so tremendous, not enough time remained to these poor souls even to scream: the flaming jet was upon them.
* * * * * * * * *
It would not be seemly to dwell upon the miseries inflicted upon the dead or the injured that day.
But I can faithfully report that the accident occurred within so brief a span of time – as I was told later, only three seconds elapsed between the collision and the deadly landing – and the flames so hellishly hot – nearly 1600 degrees Fahrenheit – that few human observers had a reasonably chance to flee the scene even though they watched the whole catastrophe.
70 persons died either instantly or shorty following the crash. But several accounts have been revealed to me that I have been assured are true in relation to some of the 500 survivors at the site – which covered a large area owing to the flaming debris shooting out from all directions, and which smoked and smoldered for several hours afterward as brave rescuers endeavored mightily to preserve as many lives as possible.
One of the most fantastical accounts related to me tells of a woman who had been standing near the jet when it first impacted the ground.
As the jet pierced the soil, its massive bulk plowed up a giant ramp of earth, which promptly buried the woman and buffered her from any further harmful effects of flame or heat. The plane then ricocheted aloft once again, and she was found – thanks to that almighty Hand which spares us all – frightened but very much alive soon after the rescue efforts began.
Regrettably, the great majority of survivors had not the same protection, and several wandered from the field naked, disoriented or otherwise in shock, and burned over much of their bodies, only to be discovered and treated by observant medical workers – may of whom had arrived on the scene mere seconds after the disaster and who pulled countless wounded back from the jaws of death.
Others of the disoriented survivor would not wait for help, rashly clambering into vehicles and attempting to transport themselves and their family members off the base in order to reach medical centers, and even in some cases appropriating government or military vehicles and exiting the grounds before they could be prevented by authorities.
* * * * * * * * *
In spite of the overwhelming scale of the disaster, the physicians of the emergency service and the helicopter rescue teams performed outstandingly well, and though the hospitals surrounding the Ramstein Air Base fairly overflowed with patients suffering from the most grievous and life-threatening of injuries, a great many of those showered with debris survived and went back to their lives out in the wide world.
As for this observer, however: I am of the opinion that no amount of soothing treatment may ever be able to fully expunge the bitter memories from the minds of those who witnessed the event.
I can only be grateful to that merciful One who saw fit to preserve me safely in this world for the other tasks He has appointed to me.
AS FAR AS MONMOUTH (A LAWRENCIAN RANT)
By Benjamin J Spencer
Bright dry dawn breaks as we motor toward the queen ant’s former home this Thanksgiving morning. The freeway shoulder glistens cold grey. Frost tendrils creep across the earth, advance riders on the front flanks of winter’s full legion, silently scouting and reconnoitering the land. The thinnest icy surface settles fleetingly on the bare trunks and bare fields all about the freeway.
Drab trampled fields, spiky and harvest-ravaged, lay naked and exhausted, spread cruelly open to the repeated freeze and thaw of night and day. The sky blazes bright and translucent as skim milk. The sun wilts, half-hearted, it’s warmth a distant prospect.
Far out in the fields under hanging mists, large metal objects glint: abandoned tractors and combines, pipes and sprinklers, hulks of trucks, all immobile, all waiting for the men to make them come alive.
On our left, Mount Hood floats in a separate plane beyond field and forest. Silver haze obscures her massive base, but the edges of her glaciered slopes are cut supernaturally sharp, indented into the white-blue sky. She floats as sleek and remote and pastel as a children’s book rendering of Olympus. Certainly she is a commanding image when apprehended straight on, but the moment I look away she flees my rational mind, dissolving into my unconscious as quickly as rain evaporates from a desert floor. From my window she exists only in two dimensions, a phantasmagoric rice-paper print all but flickering in and out of existence – pretty but false.
The q.a. sighs and murmurs in slumber, curled shrimp-like in the passenger’s seat. Our little defrosting jets blow valiantly, but the windows are yet cloudy after half an hour of driving.
A stench of hot oil and exhaust reaches us. A sport utility vehicle roars past us without so much as a signal. Little orange flags flutter wildly from either side of its massive hood.
All those little flags on all those countless sports utility vehicles! Think of all the labor, the cloth and the dye expended to furnish those flags for the faithful. Think of all the hapless freeway drivers they will distract. Think of the children they will endanger.
The American values his college sporting event above all else. Occupation, family, health, all these necessities trail in the American’s eyes behind the bright sinister advertisements of the college publicity machines. They race their vehicles with a terrible conviction. They bully and weave like fighters, and when they reach the stadium they jeer and bellow and smear their faces with paint, eyes bulging white and rolling like a frightened horse’s. They are given little banners to wave and little chants to shout and little kicking cheerleaders to ogle. They conceal their paunches in their belts, eager to participate in this overproduced, manufactured revelry. Ah, the happy multitudes! How utterly miserable!
Arrive in Monmouth and are of course stopped by a police officer, less than a hundred meters into the town.
The cruiser lights spin silently blue and red, blue and red on our dashboard. The gravel crunches under our tires as we park, waking the q.a. who stares reproachfully at me.
The officer takes his time. He demonstrates his power over us with the utmost trained casualness. The warning lies not in his face; no, his face holds all the expression of a blackjack dealer. It lies in his bearing, his posture ramrod straight and physically imposing. It lies in his movements, the darting of his head as he examines my papers, the sinew just below the skin of his neck. It lies in his flashlight, which he shines periodically straight into my shrinking pupils. His hands are sheathed in thin woolen gloves.
“California plates,” he notes, lips pursed disapprovingly.
“What were we stopped for?” asks the q.a.
“License plate light is out.” woolen gloves replies.
To his obvious dismay our papers are impeccable. The woolen gloves impatiently wave us on.
Later we examine the plates. The lights are working properly. The q.a. gasps. “Why, you’d think it was a crime to have a different state license!” she rages.
Arrive at the q.a.’s childhood home. A black-haired pixie of seventeen sucks on to us like a lamprey. The lamprey is the q.a.’s sister. She squeals and pesters us until finally I escape into the restroom. Flowers on the counter, and scented toilet paper, and U.S. Catholic magazines back to July.
We are summoned to dinner. The large Irish-Catholic family is assembled. A shriveled and horrid-looking corned beef and cabbage plate shares the table with turkey and gravy, mashed potatoes and pink cranberry punch.
The turkey is quite fine and juicy, but there is only a smidgen of it for us before it is gone. The old buzzards, the grandfathers and uncles, hoard the darkest and finest meat in heaps on their plates. They bury their precious hoards under towering drifts of mashed potatoes and steaming gravy, and deposit the green peas hastily in the pockets remaining. They proceed to chew noisily, smacking and slurping with gusto, and talking all the while.
Long ago was the day the buzzards decided they were too old to observe manners and civility and all that nonsense. I suppose when more hair sprouts from my ears than does from my pate I will sympathize.
In the dim smoky family room the old buzzards lounge in recliners and on sofas, swelling bellies stuck up like islands, belts loosened and dropped to the hips. They drone on about the sad state of American politics.
In from the other room floats snippets of the ladies discussing the latest films and the laughter of the little cousins. The little cousins look like miniature door-to-door encyclopedia salesmen, in their little cheap rumpled khaki suits, and the gleaming gelled hair sculpted artfully by their mothers. Their little heads resemble pale sausage ends squeezing out of plaid cardigans. But of course they still behave as little children, running this way and that, and jumping over us, and flatulating impressively for the amusement of the others and to the horror of the aunts around the table. The older children have been banished willingly to the small back room where they sit crosslegged and openmouthed, faces bathed in the pixel glow of a video game.
The q.a.’s mother hoists three enormous pumpkin pies out of the refrigerator and positions them impressively on the dessert counter. She steps back proudly and calls for the diners to return if they can.
Alarmed, the buzzards stare at each other, place their hands on swelling bellies, sigh heavily. It must be done. It is their only job on this day of thanks and joy. They must partake of the women’s culinary labors or the social order will break down.
Groaning and huffing, they somehow lift their bodies out of the easy chairs and lumber into the kitchen.
A fire of cedar logs has been lit; the great flat slab of a stone hearth warms our backsides and we grow sleepy. This bland holiday grows more humdrum and obligatory with each passing year. Yet I suppose there is comfort in tradition.
The Irish family’s bank of shared tradition is rather impressive. The family myths and folklore, that very Irish feeling of family destiny and prominence; these are not so much actively learned as they are absorbed by a child growing up, as if from the very air of the house or the grain in the wood. They belong, if I may say, in the category of extra-sensory perception.
The arbitrary cultural illusions of history and familial bonds become concrete realities to an Irishman. His sense of self and his place in the world are ultimately maintained or destroyed by them.
Blue wood-smoke curls out of the chimney. The q.a.’s father chops wood on the porch. The cracking sound of the splitting logs, and the hollow thock as the kindling strikes the concrete, satisfy my soul. Here is how civilization began, with wild male strength and surety, with physical labor and reckless power in the free open spaces of the world.
This domestication, these gatherings and niceties and neat wedges of pumpkin pie, these pious murmurings of thanks and submission, these plaid cardigans and rumpled sausage-casing suits, they do not become us men. We must bring wildness back into the world.
I let the chill wind numb my face and gaze upon the dimming western horizon. The broad pink sky fades to purple and then blackens entirely. The house lights wink on.
FROM PORTLAND ONWARD: A WHITMAN-ESQUE JOURNEY
PART 1: MUSIC AT THE CRYSTAL BALLROOM – HAWTHORNE BOULEVARD – THE NIGHT SKY
Later that night…
As I write I am reclining on my open porch observing the night sky.
Toward the South,that impervious half-human warrior Orion with his starry belt and scabbard (mammoth Betelgeuse announcing
his unsurpass’d power boldly from the sword haft), stares down over a span of centuries, the model of implacability and stern manly authority, challenging all the heavens with all the fierce dispassionate pagan cruelty and freedom he can conjure, a centaur, true kin of Pan and all the wild things – overshadow’d only by Luna in all her magnificence and sheen, singular, inimitable.
Left North-West Portland shortly before 9 o’clock in the morning, middle of August, in a comfortable sleeper.
Crossing the mighty river vein, route of busy trade and bastion of prosperity for the entire region – the Willamette as the natives name it, glistening in the clear, placid morning sunlight, great brown surface eddying and swirling, an enormous coiled snake shuddering and boiling with ancient wisdom and strength.
A good view of the industrial district from the Steel Bridge – waves of midsummer heat warping the great red cargo bins – and the rusted hulking cranes, so still, so silent, so sunken and establish’d in the dense sooty earth, it scarcely seems they were ever employ’d as working machinery, but rather uprooted from the crust of the earth and twisted into shape by some massive hand.
We are past the mountains now and descending rapidly to the level floor of Eastern grassland.