We are all blessed with the ability to
block out painful memories. It’s like administering an anaesthetic.
Without it most of us would go insane because it takes a long time for
deep wounds to heal, and we need a way to carry on while the healing
process takes place. The toughest part of the process is during the times
when the anaesthetic wears off, and we’re forced to face the memories
On a quiet evening in 1999 I was alone in
our home in Vancouver, Washington. Except for small, everyday problems,
things were generally going well. The kids were fine, there was money in
the bank, and my wife, Pati, and I were looking forward to our vacation.
Suddenly, I felt that something was terribly wrong. My heart began to race
and I started to sweat. I looked at my hands, and they were shaking. I had
an overwhelming sense that I was dying. The only time I’d ever felt such
deep desperation was in Vietnam. But I wasn’t in Vietnam, or was I?
I remember standing in the hallway,
telling myself to cut the crap and get a grip. I also told myself that
this was the kind of thing that happened to neurotic fools, and I wasn’t
going to become one of them. Finally I decided that if I was dying then
let’s get on with it. That seamed to help. Maybe accepting the situation
countered the anxiety, or maybe things just ran their course.
This was the worst of several such
incidents. They always happened when I was alone and never lasted long.
They started thirty-two years after Vietnam. I can’t explain why.
There were times during the war when I had
little chance for survival and the fear was indescribably intense. Then,
suddenly, the fear would disappear, and the dragon would take over. During
these times it was like I was separated from the situation, and detached
from it. I was able to think clearly because fear didn’t cloud my
judgement. In fact, I thought more clearly, and reacted faster and more
decisively than at any other time in my life.
But the fear and desperation didn’t go
away. They were just set aside until later. The dragon was extending me a
line of credit, kind of “survive now, and pay later”. AND, THE DRAGON
The most important element in sorting
things out was time. It wasn’t possible for me to understand the things
that I’ve written about in this book when I was in my twenties, thirties,
or even forties. The parts that I couldn’t deal with, I simply locked
away. I told myself that I’d put the war behind me, built a new life, and
that was that. WRONG!
Until a few years ago I was busy with
family, work, politics, coaching, and a thousand day to day things that
consumed my life. It wasn’t until the kids moved out, and the pace slowed
that the past began to catch up with me, and I had no choice but to
finally deal with it.
The first step was admitting to myself
that I had something to deal with. I, like all “baby boomers” who were
raised with John Wayne movies and Green Bay Packer football, believed that
the answer was simply to “suck it up”. After all, that was what “The Duke”
would do. It is embarrassing to admit that it took me thirty years to
realize that “The Duke” was dealing with a movie script, and I was dealing
with death, suffering, and destruction.
While in my thirties and forties I
continued to play football, basketball, and baseball. During a Monday
night pick up basketball game I came down on the side of a guy’s foot and
turned my ankle. I treated myself the way I always had by simply re-taping
it, and finishing the game. By the next morning the pain caused me to see
a doctor who put me in a cast for eight weeks while my hyperextend ankle
healed. He also told me that my basketball days were over. According to
him, the ankle had been damaged so many times that one more injury could
mean that I’d give up walking as well as basketball.
So much for “suck it up”. It was my first
significant reality check. And, although a small one, it made me begin to
understand that there were limits to what I could overcome by force of
will. The time was right for that first step. The others would come later,
when their time was right.
I’ve made many mistakes over the years
because I wasn’t ready to handle a particular situation. Most often it was
due to a lack of experience. In a world where decisions were based on
money and politics, the dragon was no help. Planning, finesse, patience,
and the ability to analyze were the most important factors, and the dragon
had none of these.
The anaesthetic made it possible for me to
build a wonderful life with my wife, Pati. We’ve cruised the Caribbean,
navigated the San Juan Islands on our own boat, played softball and
basketball together, and built a relationship that made it possible for me
to accomplish things like writing this book. There are no words to explain
how much she means to me.
I’ve been blessed by being a part of the
lives of our four children, and four grandchildren. I’ve watched Krissy
and Kim grow into fine young women, and become great mothers. They both
manage medical offices, and they’re only in their mid twenties. I couldn’t
be more proud of them. Kim can light up my day with just a “hi dad”. Her
laughter is the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard. Krissy is my
protector. When Pati is gone she watches over me, buys me dinner and
drinks during happy hour, and smiles across the table in a way that says
how much she cares. She holds a very special place in my heart. I played
“strap on the gear, full contact, smash mouth football” along side our
oldest son, Greg, he at guard and me at tackle. The game couldn’t have
meant more to me if it had been the Super Bowl. He’s not only a great son,
but also my very good friend. I wrestled with, fished along side and have
had the privilege of being allowed into the life of our youngest son, Ron.
He is very selective about who he lets in. I’m honored that he’s allowed
me to be there. I helped my grand daughters, Malika and Kaylee learn to
swim, made them pancakes, and told them stories at bed time. Just hearing
them call me “Papa” makes my day. My grandson’s Grant and Dominic are old
enough the wrestle with, and they do wonders by making me feel young
All of these things were possible because
I was able to put the dragon aside, and postpone dealing with the past. I
was also able to learn to navigate through the money and politics world
where civilized dragons take a different form. They’re more like snakes,
not violent or physical, but very dangerous in their own way. The dragon
that I found in Vietnam is no match for them in a civilized jungle. So,
for life back home to be possible, the Vietnam dragon must be put to
sleep. But, he’ll always be there.
One evening a few years ago Kim, Greg, and
I were getting out of my car a short way from our house. As we did, I saw
two boys and a girl, all three high school age, arguing on the corner
about fifty feet away. Suddenly one of the boys pushed the girl, and
knocked her down. She got up, and walked toward me while the boys stayed
on the corner. As she passed I could see that she was crying.
I asked ,“Are you OK”?
She said, “ Ya, I’m fine”.
I said, “I’ll stay here and watch them
while you leave”.
As I watched them one said, “You got a
I said, “Ya, and you’re it”.
The one doing the talking turned to his
buddy and said, “let’s take him”.
They walked up the street toward me, one
slightly behind the other. I focussed on the one in the lead, the same
mouthy guy who was doing the talking. The dragon had already picked him
out as the one to go after first. That’s right, the dragon was awake, and
in control. Vietnam isn’t the only uncivilized jungle in the world.
Mouthy stopped just out of arms reach. The
other guy was at his right about a half step back.
The one closest said, “This is none of
I pointed out that, “I just made it my
The guy in the rear said, “She scratched
I allowed myself a quick look at his face.
And, sure enough, there were scratches there.
I told the guy with the scratches that his
damaged face didn't justify what I had seen on the street corner. There
were two of them and one of her. As I talked to him I continued to watch
the guy in front of me. His hands were at his sides, he stayed just out of
reach, and his eyes and posture said that he wasn't ready for more than
Long before they reached me I chose the
best places to deliver the first punch. It had to be in a spot that would
cause enough damage to put him out of action immediately. I couldn't
handle both of them at once. So, one of them had to go down, and stay
This incident caused the biggest reality
check of my life. While it was happening the dragon was awake and in
control, but it was me doing the thinking. Or, was it the dragon doing the
thinking. Suddenly it hit me. The dragon wasn't some demon sent to posses
me. He wasn't some dark part of me left over from the Stone Age. THE
DRAGON WAS ME, AND I WAS HIM.
It forced me to admit that I'm a killer.
It was me who killed Vietnamese soldiers, not some beast from hell. I was
the one that was ready to cripple the guy on the street corner, not some
cave man. All of this capacity for violence was part of me, just as much a
part as the guy who makes pancakes for his grandchildren. This honest look
at myself made it possible for me to understand the events of my past.
I killed the N.V.A. soldiers that night
because I wasn't willing to give them another chance to kill me. I asked
myself if I should have taken more time before taking a human life. I
asked myself if I was obligated to put their well being above my own. I
asked myself if I had the right to be a dragon.
The answers came in a flash:
Hesitating would have given
them an excellent chance to kill me. They’d already tried once. I had no
reason to believe that they’d changed their mind about wanting me dead.
So, was it reasonable for me to take a chance? NO, not at a time in my
life when I had neither the experience nor judgement to justify that kind
Placing their well being above
my own would have meant that I believed that saving them was worth loosing
my own life. Did I believe that I should be willing to die for them? NO, I
was at the beginning of my life with the entire adult portion ahead of me.
Once I had answered these questions
honestly I was able to come to grips with my actions. I could look at what
caused them, and decide if I believed that they were justified. Being able
to do this has brought me closer to the kind of peace that I haven't known
in over thirty years.
I have also come to understand my attitude
toward the world around me, and the people in it. I have little respect
for authority. I call no man sir. I do not depend on others to determine
what is right for me. I'm fiercely independent. I take full responsibility
for my actions, and apologize for nothing.
Authority over others is something more
often acquired than earned. It is handed out as a reward for cooperation,
an incentive for more effort, or as a learning devise for those who will
some day shoulder significant responsibility. I only give my respect to
those who have truly earned a position of authority. But, I do not regard
them as one with greater worth than me. I respect them for their
contribution and effort alone.
I haven’t called anyone sir since I left
the service over thirty years ago. Then I did it because it was part of
the drill. I saluted the uniforms and insignias that the officers wore,
not the men that wore them. I, like Powel, respected only those who earned
my respect through their courage or effort.
Continued next week