Joe Barrera: Home, But Yet Not at Home

MVCD Button

We were on the big jet but then they told us to get off. Quickly, we filed out of the plane and sheltered in the revetment next to the runway. The Viet Cong mortars landed some distance away. Our plane was not touched. We ran up the stairs of the Freedom Bird and took our seats again. The pilots gunned the engines and we were airborne. The men cheered when the wheels left the ground. I sat in my seat silently. My tour of duty was over but I felt a strange emotion: I felt sad—I wanted to stay in Vietnam. I wanted to keep on fighting the war. For me it was not finished. I had come up against the wall, what every combat infantryman faces. I had stood there, pushed against that wall and overcome my fear, I had done my duty. But I had not done enough. I had not gone through the wall. Yes, I had stepped into it but I had not gone far enough into the other side. I had not finished my war. I had not been true to fallen comrades.The other soldiers didn’t see it that way. They were just glad to go back to “the world” but I felt differently. “There must be something very wrong with me because I am not happy.”

In Japan there was a layover. We went to the PX to buy duty-free cameras, radios, and, of course, liquor. The place was full of Marines on their way to Nam. Their uniforms were brand new, their buzz cuts very tight, their faces so young and innocent. “You’ll be sorry,” the other guys said to the youngsters.

It’s been fifty-years but how fresh the memories. We landed at Travis Air Base, late at night, the end of August, 1968. We cleared Customs, dumping the Cambodian Red and other contraband in the amnesty bins. Then they took us to a big warehouse and made us take showers. After that we filed down a row of tables and senior NCO’s dressed us in new Class A uniforms. They had to help us put on the Army insignia, lining it up properly. We didn’t remember how to do that but nobody cared. The sergeants offered us the obligatory steak dinner. I was hungry and wanted it. But all the others loudly refused. Then buses pulled up and we were on our way to the Oakland airport. By this time the sun was up. How different “the world” looked.

In those days you could walk up to any airline counter in any airport and pay cash for a one-way ticket and nobody took you for a terrorist. I paid $80.00 for a ticket to San Antonio. Finally, it started to sink in. I was going home. In the waiting area people were sitting in what looked like school desks, the fronts fitted with single curved arms. At the ends of the arms were small black-and-white televisions. You could put a quarter in a slot and get 15 minutes of TV time. Everybody was staring intently at the TVs. I stood behind one man and looked over his shoulder. Just then on the screen I saw a policeman in a white helmet with a raised club chasing a “hippie,” catching the long-haired young man and beating him mercilessly with the stick. It was a shock. I didn’t know what to think. The violence sucked me in. I didn’t want to but I was compelled to see it. The riot on TV was the scene outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. “My God,” I thought, “I’ve been gone a year and the country is falling to pieces.”

Nobody in the airport talked to me. I was a soldier in uniform and I was invisible. I may as well not have existed. People looked right through me. Later on I realized something. The myth of spit and words in airports was invented by Vietnam veterans to deal with the deep wounds our countrymen gave us. Better to get spit on than to be completely shunned.

The small San Antonio terminal was full of people. I saw a tall soldier in Army green standing in a corner. Around his neck he wore the unmistakable broad blue ribbon of the Medal of Honor. Three or four other soldiers stood around him. The crown ignored them. I joined the soldiers. The man with the medal told us how he had saved the lives of other men in one of those forgotten Vietnam firefights, so bravely won but so uselessly fought. The profile of the ancient Greek warrior on the medal seemed to approve. The word “Valor” was inscribed above the face of the warrior. I turned away, looking for home. My fellow citizens ceaselessly rushed past me, past the tall soldier wearing his nation’s highest award for honor, for courage and devotion. Nobody stopped, nobody cared.

Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS, and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.

ISSUE 5 “Race-Class-Gender” is Available!

It’s here! After a lot of work, Issue 5 has arrived. We think you’ll find it a worthy read, with challenging and provocative pieces, but also with a thread of hope and growth throughout. A special thanks to our sixteen contributors who made this issue possible. Please take the time to purchase a copy. Support art, support creativity, support our efforts to rebuff the world fed to us in captions and tweets. BUY RCG.

Issue 5 (COVER) jpeg

The Almagre Review can also be purchased at…

Hooked on Books (Downtown)

Poor Richard’s (Downtown)

Ranch Foods Direct (Fillmore)

Books For You (8th Street)

Show up at one of these locations, ask the proprietor for a copy. The brick and mortar literature store is a bulwark of civilization!

The Almagre Review: @ Poor Richard’s August 19

Come join The Almagre Review at Rico’s Cafe (1247, 322 N Tejon St.) this Sunday from 2 – 4 PM. This is an informal celebration of the publication of our fifth Issue, made possible by so many contributions from our local writing and reading community. Contributors to Issue 5 are welcome to read their piece which appears in “Race, Class, and Gender.”

All are welcome. This is a casual affair, enjoined to the mild intoxicant of caffeine and married to the general joy of the written word. Along with contributors, we hope to hear from local readers and writing enthusiasts, so come with your favorite literary topics at the tip of the tongue.cropped-ar-monogram-q.png

~The Staff

Conversation with Constance Squires

Here at our journal, we’d like to take a minute and say thank you to local hero, Keith Simon, whose tireless work and support for fellow Creatives is truly a gift to Colorado Springs and the Front Range. Keith is the host of the Culture Zone, a weekly radio show where he chats with local makers of art, music, literature, and more.

Culture Zone (Constance Squires)

ISSUE 5 “Race-Class-Gender” Available August 16

It’s finally on its way, official release date included: August 16.

FB_ISSUE 5:_Jesse Jackson

The staff of The Almagre Review would like to thank our community for their patience. We missed our usual July deadline, and some of that has to do with bringing together an issue with challenging themes. We hope all may find elements that teach, instruct, and illuminate. And with humility, we acknowledge that this area of literary exploration could never be captured in 140 pages. This is our small contribution into the much larger pool of experience, and we hope you find time to be a part. Without a doubt, this issue is made possible by the wonderful authors and poets who honored us with their works. Our journal is indebted to them.

We will continue to provide updates as we move closer to the release date. Please feel free to tug our sleeve, Joe Barrera at jjbarr46@gmail.com, or John Lewis at larevistaalmagre@outlook.com.

Thank you all who have helped bring this edition to fruition,
The Almagre Staff

John Lewis: Why Moby Dick?

Because, not to cheek my reader, it’s Great!

Moby Dick jpeg

Melville did perhaps the one thing most harmful to a writer, even more so than failing to achieve publication. His first novel was a huge commercial success, followed by several other successes. This set a high bar, but also the wrong one, which Melville through natural talent and vision, veered away from. It wasn’t the success that troubled him, it was the simplicity of storytelling which provided this success. In the long run, he was bound to follow his artistic sensibilities, which proved incompatible to prosperity.

Along came “Moby Dick” or “The Whale” as it was titled in England. Melville had just passed thirty years of age, and whereas the first several novels were adventurous, lushly exotic, and did not place too great a demand on the reader, Moby Dick fell flat. By tackling such an immensely heady and symbolic work, he broke trust with his readers. Following publication, Moby Dick sold poorly and was largely misunderstood or neglected by readers.

But what a story it turned out to be! Melville died much less a literary figure than he had been in his young adulthood — Moby Dick a failure, waiting full rediscovery in the 1920s, thirty years after the author’s passing.

For me, this is the great American novel. It reads almost biblically, in that the story is long, but broken into 150 mostly short chapters. Each chapter is a self-contained masterpiece, and can be read on its own. Like the bible, one can pick it up, randomly open the book, and enjoy these micro-universes on their own merit, tilling the prose for a chance elevation from the daily routine.

The prose drips with metaphor and symbolism. Each sentence is a miracle of craftsmanship; the cadence and rhythm a near breathless prescription of fluidity. And one can extract deep personal meaning from her reading… declaring, “This! This is what the story is about.”

An old trick is to hotbox characters within a trap setting. An ex-boyfriend and girlfriend get stuck on an elevator. The ship’s councillor and her unwilling patient get stuck on a small spacecraft. A competent but motley whaling crew is buttoned up with an insane, vengeance-minded captain with a partial body!

It’s the captain’s body which is important. Moby Dick is a story about many things; a startling avant-garde depiction of racial harmony, an adventure tale, revenge plot, religious commentary, eco-thriller (after all, it is the pursuit of oil), class screed, or even a story suggestive of homoerotic romance.

I find in it the deepest of spiritual matters; it speaks of blasphemy and illustrates the peril of abandoning free-will. Captain Ahab is a mono-maniac, whose sole purpose is to destroy the thing which destroyed him years ago. Ahab was almost killed by the white whale years prior to the telling of Moby Dick. Unbeknownst to the crew, the chartering company, and family back ashore, Ahab has a secret plan to hunt the beast which took his leg. This is a man who has relinquished the gift of free-will, and if the western religious tradition is to be believed, free-will is given him by God.

Ahab, a man of God, has rejected this. He blasphemes his maker by renouncing the most important of all divine bestowals. In his previous encounter with the white whale, Ahab loses his leg. He is made incomplete by the ocean’s carnage. And the ocean is a metaphor so pregnant it will yield itself forever to the service of large literary tales. But, the other physical scar, though often overlooked, is important. Years before the novel takes place, the whale’s daggered tooth cut Ahab along his entire body, producing a scar that twists up his abdomen and chest, and finishes above his face along the eye and forehead. Melville has done us a treat here, symbolically cutting Ahab in half. This is a man who is no longer a man. We all know about the missing leg, the madness in his cabin, the nailing of the doubloon to the mast, but it’s this scar which has rent the captain asunder. In that, he is no longer human according to the author. The looming byproduct is a monster who has forfeited the power of choice. Ahab becomes the supreme animal, transformed into a beast, for he will imperil his crew, his company, to the annihilating goal of vengeance. This is what it looks like for us to surrender the power of choice.

Or so I believe.

I love this story, because at each opportunity to discuss it with a fellow traveler, I find that it means something else entirely. We have the same list of ingredients, the same simple plot — captain leads crew to destruction in pursuit of vengeance — that it continues to astound me, and contemporary audiences, with the diverse fruit of meaningful experience.

John Lewis
Artist/Editor
The Almagre Review

Joe Barrera: Remembering the Mini-Tet Offensive

MVCD Button

Memorial Day is about memories. With this in mind, I visited Joe Berg, the director of the 4th Infantry Division Museum at Fort Carson. There is a soft spot in my heart for the 1st Battalion, 8th Infantry, 4th Division, with whom I served in Vietnam. I asked Joe about Mini-Tet and the 4th Division. The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong Tet Offensive, Phase One, of January and February 1968, is well-known. Not so the Tet Offensive, Phase Two, in May 1968. We called Phase Two Mini-Tet, because it had all the ferocity of Big Tet. The 4th Infantry Division whose Area of Operations (AO) was the Central Highlands of South Vietnam, was particularly hard hit. In late May 1968 I was with 1/8th Infantry in the mountainous tri-border area of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. I asked Joe Berg what the historical record says about 1/8th Infantry and the 4th Division in the battles we fought there.

I knew the answer already but I wanted confirmation. The record is very skimpy. The 4th Division is a good outfit. In WWI, the division distinguished itself during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, Pershing’s sledgehammer attacks on the Hindenburg Line. In WWII, the 8th Regiment, my old unit, spearheaded the 4th Division’s D-Day landings and was the first to secure its beach head, Utah Beach. But in Vietnam we never got the credit we deserved. The battle cry of the division is “Steadfast and Loyal,” and that it has always been. But in the Nam it was other units–the 1st Cavalry, the 173rd Airborne, the Marines at Khe Sanh–who got all the attention. Joe Berg showed me Erik B. Villard’s book, Staying the Course: October 1967 to September 1968–the U.S. Army in Vietnam. Villard devotes about two pages to the 4th Division’s battles in the tri-border area. There is a brief mention of 1/8th Infantry’s fight with the North Vietnamese (NVA) 95C and 101D regiments at Firebase 29 on Hill 824 and other nearby firebases near the Montagnard village of Ben Het. Villard has a lot of ground to cover, so the brevity is understandable. But I wish it wasn’t so.

I was on one of those hilltop firebases whose name I do not remember. At first we were glad to be on the firebase, relieved from humping the 75lb rucksacks we carried. But that didn’t last long.The enemy kept up a constant mortar and artillery barrage. Day and night mortar rounds fell like rain. We were a shooting gallery for 75mm recoilless rifles from adjacent hilltops. Then the two-week-long barrage by Russian-supplied 152mm NVA artillery out of Laos just five clicks (kilometers) away. Those were big rounds, coming in with a horrible shriek. The NVA gunners aimed for the U.S. artillery batteries on the hilltop. We lived like moles in trenches and deep bunkers. We couldn’t patrol outside the wire. They had us surrounded and to venture out was to risk a deadly ambush. Resupply helicopters came in at their own peril. We suffered like the Marines besieged at Khe Sanh. Not as long, but the same kind of thing.

The spirit words on the 8th Regiment’s coat-of-arms are Patriae Fidelitas–Faithfulness to Country. I ran by the  tactical operations center, the TOC, one night and tripped on something. It was the battalion placard, blown down by one of those huge 152 artillery rounds. In the glare of an explosion I saw the Latin, Patriae Fidelitas. The sentiment is powerful. Roman soldiers on Hadrian’s Wall, guarding the empire’s remotest frontier, must have felt it too. Now the 8th Infantry held a 20th-century frontier. I propped up the sign against the sandbags and ran to the safety of my own deep bunker.

 

Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS, and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.