Sunday, June 29, 2008

First Memoir Entry

The memoir/autobiography class that I was a part of ended in the middle of May. During the class, I began a memoir about my year in Vietnam. It is about half done. Below is the opening scene that depicts a pivotal incident in my year of war.


It was late April or early May of 1967 and late at night in the hold of the USS Benewah, a barracks ship and our base of operation anchored near the South Vietnam city of Vung Tau. Our infantry company had just begun patrolling the Rung Sat, a tidal swamp and “free fire zone” a few kilometers outside Vung Tau in the Mekong Delta. Anyone we came upon in this area was enemy. I had been with the men of B Company in the second squad of the second platoon since August of ’66. We had trained together at Fort Riley, Kansas and we sailed to Vietnam together arriving in that country on 28 January 1967. I was close to a number of men in my fifty-man platoon. I felt particularly close to the twelve men in my squad. We knew each other.

Our platoon had not seen major combat nor had it any combat related injuries since arriving in country. However, we knew that the enemy was near because our sister units had taken some casualties, mainly from booby-traps. We had stumbled on one or two VC base camps during first few operations in the Rung Sat. Moreover, we had taken rifle fire during at least one incident while walking through one of these camps. The day before our unit had returned from an uneventful three-day mission. It was somewhere near 0200 as I lay awake in my top bunk. I hadn’t been able to sleep. At 0500, we would move out on Navy landing crafts that would land us for another three-day patrol.

This night, lying awake I prayed in the semi-darkness of the Benewah’s hold. Colored lights, red or yellow, set at the exits of our below board holds cast an eerie and faint yet distinct glow over the whole barracks area. I looked around at the sea of upper bunks and the men in those bunks who each lay over the bunks of two other men. My parents had brought my two brothers and I up as Roman Catholic and from early on I had taken my faith and spiritual life serious. Prayer continued to be important part of my life before and after being drafted into the Army. This night my prayer became especially important. Anxious, I lay on my bunk talking to God. At first, I don’t remember that I asked for anything specific; however, it is easy to conceive that I prayed for my safety and that of the people in my squad and platoon. By then a prayer for a successful mission killing the enemy was definitely not part of my existence. However, as I lay there I drifted into a deeper and more tranquil prayer that, in a short time, became extremely intense and emotion filled. At that point, I had received a gift of prayer; my prayer focused away from myself. It focused on the lives of my companions. In an intensity that took my focus off of my life and drew my focus to my friends I begged God to give me the courage to risk my life even to the point of dying for the other men in my unit. My focus converged on my squad; however, later in my tour God answered my prayer in an expanded manner. God’s focus, I would come to find, is not so parochial. I continued to pray that night and quiet reigned as I rested until our platoon sergeant rousted us and we finished packing our gear. After putting on our gear that included an M-16 assault rifle, three grenades, ammunition, food, water, a protective flack vest, and possibly a can of machine gun ammo or a radio, and various other things that we needed, we walked up the stairs that led to the main deck. Reaching the deck, we walked down a gangplank to a pontoon floated dock and boarded a landing craft that would transport our platoon into the Rung Sat swamp and another three days of patrolling. We were off to another mission that we realized could mean contact with our then enemy. We felt a certain excitement and dread that goes along with the threat of wounding and death.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

I Train Boxers

I have known Fernando for six or seven years and, along with his manager, Joe Burke, have trained him for over two years. At times, I irritated Fernando while I work with him and offer corrections to improve his boxing form and technique. Almost daily, he tells me, with a smile, that he “hates” me. However, he still listens to what I say. Fernando and I are friends. He will have his sixth professional fight in Mississippi late in July.

I Train Boxers,
Professional and Amateur

A few weeks ago, I called
Fernando, our pro.
Can’t remember what prompted
The call.

He answered in his
speedy Spanish tinged English.
The words I heard sounded like
“I love you.”

Immediately, I responded,
“I love you too.” Then,
self-consciously, I asked,
“did you say something
about love?
He said, “no.”

I heard that clearly and
quickly changed the subject.
But my words still remain.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Women's Work

I walk near a group of women
from a graduate class of which I
am of the oldest part.
One class assignment is
a discourse based in
stringing beads.

These women, five or six,
mostly younger,
the oldest perhaps thirty, sit
on marble steps leading to an old
Distinguished building.
Columns stand adjacent to its entry.
As they string their beads,
One of the women, holding
beads and twine in her
spread skirt, looks up and good-
naturedly calls my name.

Thinking her greeting an invitation,
I walk up the stairs and
attempt conversation.
Yet, in their midst I feel
something primal, something timeless:
women stringing beads, making garments,
mending, weaving baskets, grinding maze,
working together.

And together, they
converse, they laugh,
they sit quietly while
I feel alien.
It’s not a man’s environment.

Gently, I ease from their midst as
these women go on with
their sacred communal work—
Their ancient women’s ritual.

Looking back now I surmise:
they did not comprehend
their shared depth of being as they sat
so peaceful, so self-possessed. Yet,
as did mine, their spirits knew.

Monday, June 9, 2008

For Healing

Shortly after the last major incident that I experienced in Vietnam, I wrote my grammar school and high school friend Tom Fernandes. Tom, who was in the Air force, was stationed in Puerto Rico. It was less than a month after above incident that I returned home. I visited Tom’s family about two weeks later.

For Healing

From the war,
I’d letter a sent far away.
To a friend of the night battle I wrote.
Of fear, destruction, death, and
Mutilation I told.
Someone to share with I needed.
To worry my parents I couldn’t.

I left war and visited his family at home.
We had a nice conversation ‘til
Of the letter I told
And of the night I spoke. They went
From sociable and friendly as I talked
To blank and silent.

Is what I felt and, as I walked from their house,
I swore I’d never again speak
Of the war.

I didn’t ‘till, later, some twenty years
And almost crippled from the pain,
Healing required words from the
Memories that I contained.

Robert Jost

Thursday, June 5, 2008

A Conversion Story

A friend of mine, Joe Burke, told this story in front of the congregation of his parish. He shared the story with a few of us at King’s Gym in Oakland where Joe and I train boxers together. I found the story so moving that I decided to post it on my blog.

James Whitcomb Reilly and Johnnie Hayes

As Part of our Centennial Celebration, Saint Anselm's has formed an outreach program to contact people in the parish for input on how to better move us forward in our spiritual journey in the years ahead. The committee members, like myself, have been tasked as an advance guard to tell a brief story about when they most felt a part of this parish or maybe felt most welcome. This story is about other things as well but you can draw your own conclusions.

My story is about two people: James Whitcomb Reilly, named after the Hoosier poet from Indiana, and a pastor at Saint Anselm’s of many years ago, Father John Hayes. It is also in part about us as a congregation and how we are all in this together in our faith journey to God.

The story begins when I and my wife Patti moved with our first born to San Anselmo in 1960. The move was prompted by our rent reaching the astronomical amount for a two bedroom flat in San Francisco of $115.00 a month. Imagine! We came to join my brother-in-law and sister-in-law Jim and Betty Reilly who had proceeded us with their own growing family.
With the arrival of our third child, we quickly outgrew our first home in San Anselmo, a two-bedroom, on Morningside Drive. In 1964, we moved to Barber Avenue where we still live and where we welcomed three more children. We and the Reillys both topped out with three boys and three girls each. The move’s timing was perfect because my in-laws were in their mid sixties and had been working all their lives since their early teens. They were more than ready to retire and move into our first home on Morningside Drive. My in-laws had good years in San Anselmo with their grandchildren and their son and daughter-in-law and daughter and son-in-law near them.

Then Reilly got terminal cancer. He would be the first of our clan to die. Reilly was first generation, one of nine children born south of the “slot” in San Francisco. He finished grade school with the good nuns. He was blue collar, hard working, and hard drinking. He was not religious and in fact was often quick to put down the church. But some of that early formation with the good sisters and his very Catholic parents stuck. Reilly was more than a little afraid of his impending death. He hadn’t been in a church except for weddings and funerals in sixty years.
Now enters Father Hayes. I thought Father was not unlike the Irish priests I grew up with. They were strict, conservative, not very approachable, preached much about hellfire and damnation, and gave us large doses of guilt.

How Reilly and Father Hayes got together is a miracle in itself, but get together they did. From their first meeting, Reilly was a changed man. The two had much in common. They were from the same era, both very Irish and, both liked a sip of Murphy’s or Jamison if the right occasion called for it. And they both could frequently find that right occasion. Father met Reilly frequently, heard is confession, and gave the last rites. I know the sacrament has a new name that I’ve forgotten.

Well, Reilly with the grace of God and the help of Father Hayes ended his faith journey at peace and with a clean slate. Reilly could give Father Hayes no greater compliment than to say after on one of their visits, “that Johnnie Hayes is a real priest.” Bottom line, he was a real priest.

Was a soul saved? For sure! Did our loving God put Reilly and Johnnie Hayes on the right place at the right time? Most certainly! Did Johnnie Hayes give Reilly a helping hand when he most needed it in his life? For sure he did. And a strong hand it was.

You can well imagine that Johnnie Hayes will always have a soft spot in the hearts of the Burke and Reilly families. It gives me pleasure to share this story with you, to thank our loving God for the putting in motion the events I just related. And though the priest too has been gone for some thirty years it is only fitting to end by saying—God Bless You, Johnnie Hayes.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

We Need

The poem, “We Need,” portrays the circumstances surrounding a mid-day flashback and the particulars of this flashback. My first blog posting, "Nature and the Unnatural," depicts the flashback incident more fully. The incident in "We Need" occurred during a normal workday. Bill, William Burns, who helped me during this traumatic recall, did two or three tours in Vietnam and later went to Africa as a mercenary. He suffered from numerous physical ailments.

We Need

We sat at the table
during break, Bill and
I and a woman co-worker.
Twenty-five years later
he and I talked
of survival, not battle.
We talked of the monotony,
the lack of sleep, the
heat, the humidity,
the weight we carried,
being continually in water,
and the need for constant
Then, while they
talked, I felt my
head slow drop
and my mind go back.
I was in that tidal swamp
Standing in water between
my ankles and knees.
The heat of the mid-day
sun reflected off the
water’s glistening surface.
I didn’t know how I’d
go on standing on the
edge of hell in the
Rung Sat. Then Bill hit
the table saying,
“Come back Bob!”
At his funeral I spoke
saying: “It’s good to be
with someone who

Robert Jost

Credit: First Published in Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace, edited by Maxine Hong Kingston, KOA Books, Kihei, Hawai'i