Sky Pilot

Jonathon Delacour's recent comments on the morality of war, in general, and the relationship between war and religion reminded me of some of my own experiences and feelings while in Vietnam.

Despite feeling the battalion chaplain was a great fellow, I wanted nothing to do with his sermons before and after our combat missions, much less prayers over a slain comrade. Perhaps that was because I had already begun to feel that this war was immoral, but I suspect it was more that I felt deep down that it was "un-Christian" to be killing your fellow man.

As a platoon leader I couldn't totally avoid the chaplain's sermons, but I always put as much distance between them and myself as possible, even if it meant taking on an extra duty. I had a duty to be there, but I couldn't personally reconcile those duties with my own spiritual beliefs.

It wasn't that I was unaware of Christianity's history, but I had personally chosen to view the Crusades, and songs like Onward Christian Soldiers, as a perversion of Christ's message. To me, Christ represented the ultimate "Love," and there was no connection between "Love" and killing your fellow man. In that sense, I guess I tended to agree with AKMA, not Jonathon.

When I returned from Vietnam, one of my favorite songs was Eric Burdon and the Animal's "Sky Pilot," a popular song which pointed out the chaplain's religious hypocrisy. The bluesy tone of the song was certainly appealing but it was lines like

But he'll stay behind
And he'll meditate
But it won't stop the bleeding
Or ease the hate.

As the young men move out
Into the battle zone
He feels good -
With God you're never alone
.


that really appealed to me. This contrast between those forced to fight and those who stayed behind and felt "good" appealed to me on many levels.

Perhaps it's the INTP in me, but I could never quite get past the inconsistency of the young men bleeding and learning to hate while the minister prayed for them. The two were simply irreconcilable, as suggested by:

In the morning they return
With tears in their eyes
The stench of death
Drifts up to the skies.

A young soldier so ill
Looks at the Sky Pilot
Remembers the words
"Thou shalt not kill".

Of course, the song ends with the refrain "How high can you fly?/You never,never,never reach the sky," suggesting that it's the chaplain that's wrong and lacks true faith, but I never felt that way.

I simply felt that, for me, there was no way to reconcile my attempts to kill VC with my own beliefs. I had suspended my spiritual beliefs in order to stay alive and to fulfill my duties as a platoon leader. I doubt I could have done any other and stayed alive or stayed sane.

I would worrry about my eternal soul in another time and in another place.

Poetry Lovers in a Dangerous Time

Sometimes when I allow myself to think about it, I feel guilty when I focus on poetry rather than on the political and environmental disasters I see happening around me. When I feel that way, though, I try to listen to Bruce Cockburn's "Lovers in a Dangerous Time."

Don't the hours grow shorter as the days go by
You never get to stop and open your eyes
One day you're waiting for the sky to fall
The next you're dazzled by the beauty of it all
When you're lovers in a dangerous time
Lovers in a dangerous time

These fragile bodies of touch and taste
This vibrant skin -- this hair like lace
Spirits open to the thrust of grace
Never a breath you can afford to waste
When you're lovers in a dangerous time
Lovers in a dangerous time

When you're lovers in a dangerous time
Sometimes you're made to feel as if your love's a crime --
But nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight --
Got to kick at the darkness 'til it bleeds daylight
When you're lovers in a dangerous time
Lovers in a dangerous time
And we're lovers in a dangerous time
Lovers in a dangerous time

The saddest part of all this is that I may well be dead before this "War on Evil" is finished. I can't afford to ignore those things I love the most and simply focus on the war and the environment until the problems are solved.

I guess I just have to remember that every moment spent on those things I love is just that more precious because of the times.

I Will Listen to More Van Morrison

I’m feeling a little guilty that unlike many of my blogging buddies I don’t have any exciting New Year’s Resolutions that I can break in the next few weeks. However, I’ve never felt the need to make resolutions, nor that they would do much good if I did make them.

Of course, I could resolve not to get cancer this year, but my body doesn’t seem to listen too well to what the rest of me is telling it or I wouldn’t have gotten cancer twice already.

I guess I could resolve to lose a few pounds but then I would have to give up eating, one of the great joys in my life, one I constantly try to balance against staying in shape for the hiking I love almost as much as I do eating.

Instead of resolutions, then, perhaps I’ll just present one of my favorite Van Morrison songs and resolve to listen to Van more this year in order to remain in a good mood longer.

“Dweller On The Threshold”

I'm a dweller on the threshold
And I'm waiting at the door
And I'm standing in the darkness
I don't want to wait no more

I have seen without perceiving
I have been another man
Let me pierce the realm of glamour
So I know just what I am

I'm a dweller on the threshold
And I'm waiting at the door
And I'm standing in the darkness
I don't want to wait no more

Feel the angel of the present
In the mighty crystal fire
Lift me up consume my darkness
Let me travel even higher

I'm a dweller on the threshold
As I cross the burning ground
Let me go down to the water
Watch the great illusion drown

I'm a dweller on the threshold
And I'm waiting at the door
And I'm standing in the darkness
I don't want to wait no more

I'm gonna turn and face the music
The music of the spheres
Lift me up consume my darkness
When the midnight disappears

I will walk out of the darkness
And I'll walk into the light
And I'll sing the song of ages
And the dawn will end the night

I'm a dweller on the threshold
And I'm waiting at the door
And I'm standing in the darkness
I don't want to wait no more

I'm a dweller on the threshold
And I cross some burning ground
And I'll go down to the water
Let the great illusion drown

I'm a dweller on the threshold
And I'm waiting at the door
And I'm standing in the darkness
I don't want to wait no more

I'm a dweller on the threshold
Dweller on the threshold
I'm a dweller on the threshold
I'm a dweller on the threshold

I don’t claim to know exactly what the song means, even after reading the various definitions of the phrase “dweller on the threshold,” but I know it has been my favorite song for a long time and am planning on having it played repeatedly at my funeral, not that I’m planning on rushing that.

I’ve felt for a long time that I’m on the threshold of a better self but have never quite become that better self. Hopefully blogging is a part of discovering “just what I am,” and I’m also hoping it will help “me travel even high.”

Leaving My Sadness Behind

I’m so used to being in tune with virtually everything Jonathon says that I was a little taken aback when I read, “I've known for a long time that the legacy of those years is that I equate authenticity with sadness” in reply to a comment I made on his blog entry discussing Jackson Browne.

Somehow that statement haunted me this morning as I sucked up the last of this year's leaves. At first I wondered if perhaps I didn’t agree with him. Certainly much of what I’ve written about in my blog has focused on “sadness.” My favorite literature, too, often seems centered on sadness. If I am to believe all the negative reactions I’ve gotten when I recommend Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure as my favorite book, it is, indeed, a sad, depressing novel. Many of my favorite poets also focus on the inevitable sadness that accompanies life. Blues music is undoubtedly my favorite music, and what’s sadder than “the blues?”

Still, I resisted the notion that authenticity must be identified with sadness. Sadness is authentic, no doubt about that. At times, it’s what we most remember about relationships and events in our lives. My first love ended with a “dear Loren” letter as I was about to leave for Vietnam, Vietnam was anything but happy, and admittedly my first marriage is best symbolized by Browne’s “Shape of a Heart.” Nor can I deny that these are all pivotal events in my life.

However, I still don’t “equate authenticity with sadness.” Perhaps I might subscribe to a dialectical view of life, where joy and sadness seem to balance each other out, where both are “authentic” experiences. It often seems that sadness is the direct result of a corresponding happiness. For instance, the end of my “first true love” was sad precisely because the beginning had seemed so joyous. Everything had seemed so “alive” with Judy that it suddenly seemed dead without her. I’m not convinced, though, that the ending negates the beginning. The beginning joy is just as real, just as authentic, as the final sorrow.

Of course, I followed that sad moment up with a jaunt to Vietnam, so my life seemed really sad for quite awhile, particularly since I became a caseworker after leaving the army. Ironically, it was the joy of my marriage that ended this miserable interlude and gave me new hope in life. The birth of my two children seemed to confirm that optimistic view. For a while, everything, even the end of the Cold War, seemed to offer a rosy outlook on life.

Kids who were a pain-in-the-ass in school often seem certain I will remember them vividly, but, in reality, memories of them have long since faded. Instead, I remember the kids I loved teaching, the kids that were full of life and made sharing their life a joy.

But what really convinces me of the authenticity of happiness is that I seem most alive on those days when I am doing the things I most love. I often judge my summers by how many days I spend in the mountains, and I can’t remember a bad day while hiking in the mountain. I hardly remember the days when I sit around and accomplish nothing, but I vividly remember the joyful moments I spend with my kids or with my grandson Gavin. The “authentic” days are those you remember vividly, not those you have forgotten.

About the Size of a Fist

One of the dangers of nostalgia, of looking back, when you’re my age, is that, like Orpheus, you may catch a fleeting glance of a love that has died, but is still following behind you, confronts you every time you look in your daughter's eyes or pick up your grandson. While looking up “For America,” I ran into another song on the album I liked even more and one that, perhaps, brought back even more unpleasant memories than Vietnam, if that’s possible.

It’s one of several songs I used to console myself with after my 17-year marriage died a long, slow painful death. In some unknown way, it helped me to make sense of a divorce that I never wanted and never really understood. It may be the best song on Jackson Browne’s Lives in the Balance, and, sadly, seems nearly as much of an anthem of my generation as "Doctor My Eyes":

In the Shape of a Heart

Was a ruby that she wore
On a chain around her neck
In the shape of a heart
In the shape of a heart
It was a time I won't forget
For the sorrow and regret
And the shape of a heart
And the shape of a heart

I guess I never knew
What she was talking about
I guess I never knew
She was living without

People speak of love don't know what they're thinking of
Wait around for the one who fits just like a glove
Speak in terms of belief and belonging
Try to fit some name to their longing

There was a hole left in the wall
From some ancient fight
About the size of a fist
Something thrown that had missed
There were other holes as well
In the house where our nights fell
Far too many to repair
In the time that we were there

People speak of love don't know what they're thinking of
Reach out to each other though the push and shove
Speak in terms of a life and the learning
Try to think of a word for the burning

Keep it up
Try so hard
To keep a life from coming apart
And never know
What breaches and faults are concealed
In the shape of a heart
In the shape of a heart
In the shape of a heart

Was the ruby that she wore
On a stand beside the bed
In the hour before dawn
When I knew she was gone
And I held it in my hand
For a little while
Dropped it into the wall
Let it go, and heard it fall

I guess I never knew
What she was talking about
I guess I never knew
What she was living without
People speak of love don't know what they're thinking of
Wait around for the one who fits just like a glove
Speak in terms of a life and the living
Try to find the word for forgiving

Keep it up
Try so hard
To keep a life from coming apart
And never know
The shallows and the unseen reefs
That are there from the start
In the shape of a heart

It sometimes seems to me that in comparison to my parents’ generation, we treated love and marriage like jewelry, something to be worn for a while and then discarded when out of fashion or when we have tired of. No need for diamonds here, rubies will last longer than this marriage!

Sadly enough, it is possible to live with someone for seventeen years and never know “what she was talking about” and never realize that “she was living without.” Perhaps it’s as simple as men are from Mars and women are from Venus, but I suspect that it goes much deeper than that. Beliefs that seemed unimportant when young and in love, suddenly seem insurmountable barriers when raising kids.

Maybe we simply weren’t willing to settle for what our parents settled for. We wanted a marriage that fulfilled all our dreams. We wanted a lover that “fits just like a glove.” Perhaps we simply expected too much from marriage and too little from ourselves. Surely if you don’t “reach out to each other through the push and shove” that’s inevitable in any relationship, it isn’t going to last.

Perhaps we simply never know each other, can “… never know/ What breaches and faults are concealed/ In the shape of a heart” until we encounter them in our evolving relationship. And, unless we are good navigators of the heart, “The shallows and the unseen reefs/ That are there from the start/ In the shape of a heart” will leave us high and dry, stranded on the island that is ourselves, cut off from all those we once loved.

To Find Out what is True

Reading a Jackson Browne interview in Nature Conservancy where he says, “I've heard a number of people put forth the idea that my activism or my talking about political things in my music has resulted in less success, less sales at one time or another. … But even if it were true, it wouldn't be a hard choice to make. It's more important to struggle for what you know is right and for what you feel to be valuable,” reminded me once again why I’ve always loved his music so much.

“Doctor My Eyes” one of the first songs I discussed in this blog, still ranks in my ten favorite rock and roll songs, but other songs like “For America” also strike me as great folk rock.

“For America” seems as relevant today as it was when it was recorded in 1986:

As if I really didn't understand
That I was just another part of their plan
I went off looking for the promise
Believing in the Motherland
And from the comfort of a dreamer's bed
And the safety of my own head
I went on speaking of the future
While other people fought and bled
The kid I was when I first left home
Was looking for his freedom and a life of his own
But the freedom that he found wasn't quite as sweet
When the truth was known
I have prayed for America
I was made for America
It's in my blood and in my bones
By the dawn's early light
By all I know is right
We're going to reap what we have sown

As if freedom was a question of might
As if loyalty was black and white
You hear people say it all the time-
My country wrong or right
I want to know what that's got to do
With what it takes to find out what's true
With everyone from the President on down
Trying to keep it from you

The thing I wonder about the Dads and Moms
Who send their sons to the Vietnams
Will they really think their way of life
Has been protected as the next war comes?
I have prayed for America
I was made for America
Her shining dream plays in my mind
By the rockets red glare
A generation's blank stare
We better wake her up this time

The kid I was when I first left home
Was looking for his freedom and a life of his own
But the freedom that he found wasn't quite a sweet
When the truth was known
I have prayed for America
I was made for America
I can't let go till she comes around
Until the land of the free
Is awake and can see

And until her conscience has been found

Although I wasn’t one of those who saw the world from “the comfort of a dreamer's bed,” unless you can call a cot in Vietnam a dreamer’s bed, I, too, joined the army naively believing “in the Motherland.” I found my own “truths” in Vietnam, but America is still “in my blood and my bones,” though I had hoped that we would have learned enough in Vietnam to find new ways of ensuring freedom and justice “for all.”

Loyalty isn’t “black or white.” I want my country to be right, not wrong. I know that the “truth” will set you free, but you certainly can’t count on the President or any of his administration to tell you what that is, can you? Worst of all, we seem to face another “generation’s blank stare.”

Like Browne, I would like to think that “I can’t let go till she comes around/Until the land of the free/Is awake and can see/and until her conscience has been found.” That ought to keep me around for quite awhile, huh?

A Working Man in My Prime

Van Morrison’s “Cleaning Windows” has always been one of my favorite Van Morrison songs, and Van Morrison may well be my favorite singer:

Oh, the smell of the bakery from across the street
Got in my nose
As we carried our ladders down the street
With the wrought-iron gate rows
I went home and listened to Jimmie Rodgers in my lunch-break
Bought five Woodbines at the shop on the corner
And went straight back to work.
Oh, Sam was up on top
And I was on the bottom with the v
We went for lemonade and Paris buns
At the shop and broke for tea
I collected from the lady
And I cleaned the fanlight inside-out
I was blowing saxophone on the weekend
In that down joint.
What's my line?
I'm happy cleaning windows
Take my time
I'll see you when my love grows
Baby don't let it slide
I'm a working man in my prime
Cleaning windows (number a hundred and thirty-six)
I heard Leadbelly and Blind Lemon
On the street where I was born
Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee,
Muddy Waters singin' "I'm A Rolling Stone"
I went home and read my Christmas Humphreys' book on Zen
Curiosity killed the cat
Kerouac's "Dharma Bums" and "On The Road"
What's my line?
I'm happy cleaning windows
Take my time
I'll see you when my love grows
Baby don't let it slide
I'm a working man in my prime
Cleaning windows...

Until recently I was never entirely clear why I liked this song so much, but recent nostalgic lapses have helped to refresh my memory.

I put myself through college in the ‘60’s by doing janitorial work; I was “ a working man in my prime.” Occasionally that included washing windows, but the company also hired a professional window washer because I did such a pitiful job on them. Equipped with the latest high-tech cleaners and cleaning clothes, I spent hours cleaning the windows, only to find them smeared and streaked when I finished.

He, on the other hand, used a little ammonia in a bucket of water, a squeegee, and old newspapers to complete the job and came out with sparkling clean windows. How could I not admire his work? It was simple, required few supplies, and did the job to perfection.

More importantly, though, this self-educated black man could more than keep up with any of my discussions about what I was learning in college. He educated himself purely for his own edification. He had no desire to be anything other than what he was, a window washer. He was self-employed and totally independent. I didn’t realize then how special he was. I do now.

Looking back at those years, I suspect that, except for the wages, I had found the perfect job. I enjoyed working alone at night with no disruptions. If I did my job right, and I took pride in doing it right, no one ever told me what to do or when to do it. I set my own schedule and did things the way I wanted to do them. I spent most of the time while I was working thinking out papers that I was writing for my classes. (It doesn’t, after all, require great concentration to sweep and dust.) If I had realized that this would be the only time in my life when I would have this kind of freedom I would have enjoyed it more.

On the other hand, this was also the only time in my life, except for the last few years, that I had time to learn simply for the sake of learning. I didn’t yet have a career in mind and was simply learning what I wanted to learn. I was exploring modern poetry and philosophy in an attempt to find the meaning of life, an endeavor I too soon abandoned for making a living and supporting a family, but that, too, may be part of what the meaning of life is.

I was also beginning to listen to blues music, though I began with John Lee Hooker, Bobby Blue Bland and Ray Charles, not the earlier bluesmen mentioned in the song. They came later. And yes, I even read "Christmas Humphreys' book on Zen," though it took me another thirty five years to read Kerouac'sOn the Road.

It's only looking back that I realize how much societal expectations determined what I was to do with my life and who I was to become.