The following is an excerpt from Gary Harlan's unpublished book Finding My Way Home.
Martha was a beautiful second-generation Mexican American I was crazy about from the moment we met, which was a week or so before I met Elaine. It could have been us together from the start had Lenny not beat me to it. By the time Martha made her tacit invitation, Lenny had been distanced by the group. He was set apart by his own growing need for sexual experimentation -- including bisexuality. The distancing he got was not a result of any collective moral judgment, but simply a case of incompatible interests. That was how I rationalized cuckolding Lenny -- by redefining him as my former friend. Nevertheless, the first effort was a flop. I was terribly nervous, having never made a move on her before, but lusting after her regularly for two years. She was a quiet person, and I was at a loss for words. I returned several nights later, but this time she was sick. The third time was a charm. We launched a love affair that was secretly maintained throughout the summer and into the Tall. At the beginning of October I asked Elaine for a divorce. We solicited the help of our friend, Myrna, who was a legal assistant. We had dinner with her and her husband the night we signed the divorce petition Myrna had drafted. We had been drinking, and it was late in the evening when Elaine remarked, "One thing about Gary -- he could never get away with cheating. You always know when he is lying." As Nietzsche observed, the will cannot will backwards. If it could, I would have immediately taken back my words: "Oh yeah? For your information, I have been seeing Martha for the past several months."
It was the cruelest, most thoughtless remark ever to come out of my mouth. Two months later, I moved up north, to earn a degree in philosophy at California State University, Sonoma, which is fifty miles north of San Francisco. Martha left Lenny, and we rented a place together in Santa Rosa. From that point on my sole priority was earning a bachelor's degree, and getting accepted into graduate school as a teaching assistant. I saw the experience in Kierkegaardian terms: I had moved from the aesthetic stage of existence to the ethical stage, a transition initiated by guilt, compounded by nightmares of Lenny suddenly standing over me, about to bring down an ax on my head -- the manner in which Trotsky was assassinated. But that was not who Lenny was. My fears were born of my own guilt.
I acquired something else in northern California besides a degree in philosophy. I bought a television. 1 never owned a television: I did not want one. I had always deemed TV viewing as incompatible with pursuing a degree in philosophy. If someone told me about the Stones being on Ed Sullivan, I would find a friend with a set. But that changed when Martha and I made friends with Kitty and Randy, a couple living next door to us in Santa Rosa. Forming our friendship coincided with the emergence of Kung Fu. After visiting our friends every Thursday evening for the first season it aired, Randy announced they would be getting a color TV, and I could have the black and white set for $25. It sounded more like an ultimatum than an offer, but like a fool, I agreed.
I like to think the philosophical lessons alone Made each Kung Fu episode worth watching, independent of the inevitable combat. But that would be like claiming to enjoy Playboy just for the articles, independent of the air-brushed images of beautiful naked bodies. I was no different than the next guy -- just waiting for the hero, Kwai Chang Cain, to beat some sense into the fools who abused his body and taunted him with, "Hey you! China boy!" In his gentle, unassuming way Kwai Chang Cain assures them he is but a humble human being wishing harm to no one. But we know the real business at hand will soon get under way, as the humble priest proceeds to whip the asses of all those fools -- individually and collectively. Not a one of them could say he did not get some enlightenment out of it. Of course, as is the case with all students, it comes down to the individual's capacity to learn, which, for most of the bad guys, was minimal. But along with the inevitable bad guys, there was always a regular guy or a regular family or even a whole town of regular folk who have come to a major juncture in life just as Cain comes to town. Sometimes these folk are not even aware they are approaching a life crisis until after Cain comes on the scene. Suddenly they have been ambushed by circumstances. Things just naturally start happening when the fugitive priest arrives -- and they always get resolved, one way or another.
Things got resolved for me the time my life became a Kung Fu episode. That's right. It took place the Labor Day weekend, 1981, long after they stopped filming the series. 1 had become one of those regular guys -- or was trying to be, anyway -- when my path crossed with the Kung Fu dude himself, David Carradine. Ostensibly, David came to the Ozarks to kick off a four-day Vietnam veterans symposium and pig roast with a showing of Americana, a movie which he directed and acted in. But the story he became part of had all the ingredients, minus the violence, of a top-notch Kung Fu episode: plot, characters, and dramatic tension. And like many of the episodes, this was a story within a story within a story. First, you had the nationwide self-help movement, in which Vietnam vets were raising funds for a memorial honoring their fallen comrades, and closing ranks on joblessness, adjustment problems of all kinds, agent orange, substance abuse, and a suicide rate that had long since surpassed the number of names that would appear on the Wall. It encompassed the drama unfolding in the Ozarks -- the controversy over the pig roast -- which in turn, encompassed mv story. Since I turned out to be the unsuspecting idiot caught in an existential ambush when Kwai Chang Cain came to the Ozarks, allow me to work backwards, beginning with my story.
It was my first attempt to tell my war story that resulted in my being thrown in the middle of the Pig roast controversy. It was a magazine article in which I described the personal effects of combat in terms of the leveling of TV perception -- which I find somewhat ironic, considering the publication of that article led to my becoming a regular spokesman on TV. As I wrote in chapter six, it was Ron Snyder, a two-tour Army combatant, who read the article, and invited me to help organize a Vietnam vets self-help program. After a year of intense lobbying in Washington and our state capitol, it was clear that if Vietnam veterans in Springfield, Missouri were ever going to have an outreach center, available to the thousands of Vietnam vets living in the Ozarks, they would have to do it themselves.
The first step toward achieving our goal was taken one cold afternoon in January, 1981, in the Green Beret Tavern. Six of us met there for the purpose of organizing our own American Legion post. Four of the group served in the Army in Vietnam, and two in the Marines. One look at us would tell you a diverse group had assembled at this now-defunct west-side dive, illustrated by a profile of two of the former soldiers, Ron Snyder and Jimmie Wood. Snyder was an entrepreneur who drank Perrier with a twist of lime, who lived for the day he would be driving a top-of-the-line Mercedes. Jimmie Wood was a laborer who drank entirely too much beer, and was quite satisfied with his beat-up Chevy pickup. But we did not get together to party. We shared the conviction that Vietnam vets could turn things around for themselves -- individually and as a group. The first order of business was the naming of our organization. Ron Snyder's motion was unanimously approved: The post would be called Vietnam War Memorial, honoring the sacrifices made by all sides during the war, and in memory of the missing in action.
Four months later we received our official American Legion charter. Gary Turner, one of the former- soldiers at the Green Beret Tavern meeting, was elected our first commander. We got off to an uncertain start that summer, until the pig roast controversy erupted. It began with a call from Bill Elmore in St. Louis. His group, the National Association of Concerned Veterans, had scheduled a national symposium and pig roast to take place Labor Day weekend, which was just over a week away. The site of the event was to have been the Buena Vista Ranch, owned by the father of Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys. At the last minute Mr. Jones succumbed to fears expressed to him about the property being destroyed by a bunch of whacked-out Vietnam vets. So Elmore and his group were in desperate need for an alternative site, and appealed to us for help. Thus a public relations career was forced on me, since no one else in our small group was willing to be on television.
The assignment was made worthwhile when I was told I had been delegated the job of escorting David Carradine around during his four-day visit. Within hours of my appeal over the local airwaves, J.T. Williams, a veteran of WWII, offered the use of his 160-acre farm in Douglas County -- affectionately known as Booger County ever since the notorious Twenties. By the next day, however, J.T.'s neighbors hired a lawyer, Don Banacker, who was quoted in the newspaper as saying the petition to block the plan was "based on fears the neighboring property would be damaged by beer-drinking participants." I;or the nominal fee of $200 we secured the services of Loren Honecker. Thus it was Banacker versus Honecker the day we did battle in the Booger County courthouse in the town of Ava. It was a thirteen-hour ordeal, lasting from 9AM to 1AM, and we lost. There was one hugely entertaining incident, when the judge, the lawyers, and law-enforcement officers all drove to J.T.'s farm to inspect the proposed site during the lunch hour, while the veterans wisely hung out at the local cafe. Unfortunately for the authorities, it was the height of the season, so all afternoon the judge and lawyers could be seen removing the countless tiny seed ties crawling in their socks and on their legs.
So it was back to the airwaves, with the same outcome -- another WWII vet offering the use of his farm. This one was closer to Springfield, and much better suited for the event. It looked as though the plan was in place until we read the newspaper headline the following morning: "Complaints Dampen Roast Hope." With one day before the symposium was to commence, and two days before the pig roast, these excerpts from the newspaper story reveal the extent of the public's paranoia about Vietnam veterans in the pre-Wall days:
"If the expected crowd of 2,500 people is denied the opportunity to gather together for the three-day event," Harlan said, "it's a pretty straightforward Constitutional rights violation." Greene County officials, including the sheriff, planning and zoning and county court have been receiving calls in opposition to the event. The highway patrol also received several complaints, said Lieutenant George Cumberland. "We've had some calls asking what we're going to do about it," Cumberland said Wednesday morning, before the meeting between the veterans and law-enforcement officials was scheduled. "As of now, we don't know what we're going to do, " Cumberland said. "If there's no violation of the law, my God, it's still a free country."
The meeting between the veterans and the law took place after Gary Turner and I agreed to sign a document stating should any of the hundred or so terrible things listed happen, we would be hauled into the Greene County jail without passing Go and without collecting two hundred dollars. The day before the event an article appeared in the newspaper beneath the headline, "Actor Joins Vets at Pig Roast":
David Carradine, Country Joe McDonald, the Grass Roots and 40 roast pigs will be part of the celebration this weekend at the Vietnam Veterans' Pig Roast, east of Springfield. But Gary Harlan, post adjutant of the Vietnam War Memorial Post 639, is hoping for more than just a good time. "The ultimate aim of this event is to unite Vietnam veterans and to educate ourselves about the problem facing Vietnam veterans today and to find solutions to those problems," Harlan said.
The pig roast Saturday is sponsored by the National Association of Concerned Veterans, based in St. Louis. The movie, which stars and is directed by David Carradine, will be shown Friday, 5:30PM, at the Northtown Mall Theater. The movie is about a veteran who comes home. Country Joe McDonald and the Grass Roots will perform at the pig roast lasting until midnight.
The pig roast went off without a hitch. Skip, a Navy corpsman who spent a tour of duty in T Corps, patching up Marines in the bush, had driven from St. Louis with his fiancee for the sole purpose of getting married at the Vietnam veterans pig roast. They were married onstage, during Country Joe's set. After being pronounced husband and wife Country Joe performed his famous Fixin' to Die Rag. The newspaper article appearing the day after the pig roast documented the outcome we expected all along:
Vietnam veterans came from California and Maryland, from Wisconsin and Georgia, to be part of this weekend. Saturday was a day for drinking beer and listening to live music; a day for veterans to begin to reach out and communicate with one another. The serious work of making voices heard will begin today and continue Monday with the symposium. Despite a lot of public concern, there was no unruly behavior. Security people with orange armbands roamed the site, but their most serious concern seemed to be a young man who was passing out petitions for a truck weight-limit bill in Missouri. He was asked to leave
Thus the story within a story had a happy ending. To trace my own story, the Kung Fu episode, we begin at the Springfield Regional Airport the night before the pig roast. In addition to the small group of veterans waiting the arrival of David Carradine, my old friend Jim, with whom I joined the Sixties counterculture over a decade earlier, was visiting Martha and I on his way to California. During the same period in which I commenced my real world confrontation, Jim decided to reenlist in the Navy in order to acquire some sort of navigational skill he could apply as a civilian when he got out, which was shortly before the pig roast controversy. He arrived in time to witness the Banacker versus Honecker contest, and now he was in the group of guys piling into a car with David Carradine.
This segment of the episode could be titled, Kwai Chang Cain Feels No Pain. No sooner are we seated, and heading toward the theater for the press conference before the showing of Americana, when someone breaks out an expensive bottle of champagne and six glasses, and someone else fires up a joint of some recently harvested Ozarks Gold. A crowd had already formed inside and we sat down at a table for the press conference. The first question came from a reporter at a country alld western station who asked David how long he was going to be staying in the Ozarks. In a most amiable tone he answered, "Maybe for the rest of my fucking life." Nothing abrasive in the utterance. You might have thought you were hearing a pleasant, though indecisive, Kwai Chang Cain saying, "Maybe a week. Maybe more." Sitting at his immediate right I whispered, "David! This is the Bible Belt, man!"
David directed Americana in 1973, long before Hollywood began exploiting the Vietnam War, and long before it became fashionable to make a movie about a returning Vietnam veteran. It was never a box-office hit, which is not surprising, since it does not feature a comic-book character like Rambo. Americana is a sensitive portrayal of a returning combatant less interested in assimilating into the mainstream of society than with the pursuit of a more basic priority, his emotional survival. Carradine plays a highly decorated Airborne vet who is hitchhiking across the country after his discharge. He finds himself in a small Kansas town containing a broken-down carousel sitting in a vacant field. He decides to stay there and restore it. Like Lew Puller, he is a combat vet who recognized he would find serenity only when he was capable of making a separate peace. His efforts are met with suspicion, fear, and hostility by the townspeople. In other words, Americana was a mirror reflection of what we had undergone prior to Carradine's arrival.
Every episode included someone who befriends Cain, and some of them, as I indicated, are left standing alone in the existential crossfire. Throughout the episode they are focused on Cain, and the external succession of events -- until the final segment, when they realize their own lives have suddenly been uprooted, their prior concept of themselves rendered null and void. Three-quarters of the way through this episode, I was focused exclusively on the struggle for the pig roast: The daily media updates, including the very day of the pig roast when Carradine and I were interviewed at the studio of the CBS affiliate, assuring everyone all the fears about disorderly conduct were unfounded, and encouraging people to come out for the event. But the damage had been done, with less than two thousand people on hand, making it a financial loss for the St. Louis group, but a uniquely intimate occasion for those who came. Just when I thought it was all finally over, my story -- and my new life -- were about to begin.
It began with a quiet Sunday evening at our home, the day after the pig roast. Martha had prepared dinner for David, Jim, and I. Afterward, David indicated he would like to go out before returning to his motel room. The only place I knew of open on Sundays in those days was the Green Beret Tavern, because they sold 3.2 beer. Martha and Jim said they were not interested in going out. We arrived to hear the sounds of the very humble country and western band featured on Sunday nights. I was pleased to take David Carradine to the birthplace of Vietnam War Memorial Post 639, which he had joined the day before, becoming the 18th member of the post.
One thing was certain: There was not a yuppie in the place. It was the west side, and 100% blue collar. We stayed long enough for everyone wanting an autograph to get one. The band was playing a slow song when one daring young lady invited David to dance. He declined, saying he had a wife back in California whose radar was so strong it could even detect him dancing with another woman. I took him to his motel room and returned home. Like David's wife, I had my own radar, and it was giving me a signal the moment I climbed into bed with Martha -- prompting me to ask her if she had sex with Jim. She said no, and I chose to believe her. The next morning I picked up David and took him to the airport. Afterward, Jim and I drove out to the country to a stream I promised he could fish in when all the excitement was over. Just as we were preparing to go back home, Jim indicated my relationship with Martha was not as stable as I imagined it to be. I immediately ask him if they had sex together, and he said no -- there was only some hugging and kissing. Again, I gave Martha the benefit of the doubt, which was only natural. Jim had visited us a number of times during my ten years with Martha, and not once was I ever suspicious of the two of them. I told Jim his visit was over, and we drove back in silence.
I waited inside the house for Martha, watching her say good-bye to Jim next to his car for much longer than I could bear. Finally he left. She opened the conversation by saying it was only my ego that was hurt. No, I told her. My heart was broken. Then, during the ensuing exchange, she said something which implied they had gone further than Jim had admitted to. "Then you did have sex," I said, which brought a look of confusion to her face. "If you didn't know that, then why are you so upset?" She could not understand how, from my point of view, making out with our best friend was enough to demonstrate how fundamentally unhappy she was.
That night I slept in the single bed in the laundry room, with my Doberman, Sadie. But I could not fall asleep. I was close to insanity -- meaning my mind was out of control, except for the one part of it -- the philosophical I -- witnessing the mental calamity. In terms of its capacity to interpret and analyze, it was rendered useless -- thus reducing it to the philosophical eye. Outside of producing the experience artificially, by means of psychedelic drugs, the only other time in my life in which I lost all rational control was during the battle for Hill 50. But this time there was no external outlet available for staying busy, such as tending to the wounded. I was the wounded one lying there, dying. My mind was like a carousel, spinning hundreds of times faster than normal, and I could only hold on by silently chanting words I had never uttered in my life: I hate you. I hate you. I hate you. I hate you. I hate yoe. I hate you. All night long.
The next day 1 tried to externalize
my pain by attempting to persuade myself I had a personal obligation
to track down Jim, and kill him. I knew he was planning to visit
someone in Dallas for a few days before driving on to California.
So it would not be difficult to find a motel loom from which to
observe his vehicle on the Interstate. But the philosophical
I stood in the way, just as it protected Martha the night
before. Whenever I hear of an enraged husband killing his wire
and/or her lover, I have no difficulty imagining the man's frame
of mind at the time of the murder. I was there. What I
see is a man without a self-contained concept of himself, independent
of the sum total of his relationships in the world. Sergeant Lee
had such a concept of himself, resulting in him perceiving the
Vietnamese the way I was perceiving Jim: As someone whom I had
no right to kill. Since my own concept of self was exclusively
tied to the will to survive, I had no problem saying Fuck it!,
and proceeding to kill the two VC in the tunnel. But after spending
most of my adult life studying, writing about, and teaching existentialism
-- a philosophy grounded in the concept of personal responsibility
-- the only death I was capable of producing after uttering that
phrase was my own. But instead of taking myself out, I stayed
stoned for two months, during which time I received a call from
Country Joe, wanting the number of a motorcycle club from Milwaukee
that rode down for the pig roast. I explained how my life became
a Kung Fu episode. "That's funny," he said. "My
old lady just left me too. Must be something in the air."
H O M E