In today’s guest blog, photographer and artist Mike Shipman muses on his memories of the 1960s and the Vietnam War era. Mike is the graphic designer for Bravo! Common Men, Uncommon Valor.
I’ve never been involved in a war. I’ve never been in an extremely violent situation. My life has never hung in the balance for extended periods of time. I’ve never been directly responsible for the lives of others – saving or extinguishing. My life is not that much different from the majority of Americans nowadays.
I do know war. My father and uncles were involved in Vietnam and Korea in various ways. My dad’s brother, a member of Mike Company, 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines, was at Khe Sanh in 1966 for about a week and says in an email “Went out to the Rock Pile for a couple of days. Nothing much going on when we were there. Some sniper fire, but not enough to be interesting.” All survived. They came back alive, at least. Perhaps they would prefer not to have had that experience but even then are satisfied with their individual contribution. Some of them came back perhaps stronger, with more purpose than when they shipped out. All came back forever changed.
I was five years old in 1968. I had a vague concept of war then. Mostly, it was a time when my dad was away. When I was a little older, I understood that some dads didn’t come back. My dad was in Vietnam in 1966 and 1969 in a non-combat role as a photo interpreter. That’s all I know and about all he can tell me. I’m fine with that. I don’t need to know everything that goes on in war. I’m sure even my wildest imaginings can’t compare with the reality.
One of my earliest memories is from his first tour. My dad was stationed at Beale AFB in northern California. Uncles and friends would come by our house on base for dinner before leaving and come by again when they got back. I was exposed to some exotic meals like wat, an Ethiopian stew made with beef and onions and hotly spiced with berbere, which I knew as “berry-berry”. Wat (What? That was the big joke) was ‘berry-berry” good and the man who introduced it to me and our family was a friend named Rambo. I remember him being a husky guy, kind of Marlboro Man-like, but shorter. I don’t know if that’s an accurate description, but it’s how I remember him. The main thing about him eating wat at our house was the amount of spice he put on his plate and the amount of sweat that poured off his face as he ate. My brother and I would marvel at the sweat and laugh at the sometimes apparent distress he went through as he ate. He came for dinner one time and after that I didn’t see him again. I don’t know whatever happened to him and, although I’ve thought about it many times, haven’t eaten wat since.
I remember at Beale the “morning roar” of B-52’s (and maybe an SR-71 or two), a thunderous noise as the bombers fired up their engines, just warming up and/or taking off. I don’t remember seeing B-52’s in the air, maybe because we were far enough from the flight line that we couldn’t see them. But the noise, every morning (seemed like, anyway), I will never forget.
I captured a giant bullfrog at the corner of our house and took it to school for show-and-tell. Yes, of course it escaped. I remember riding on my dad’s shoulders trying to grip his gel-coated crew cut in my hands and getting a stern warning from my parents after drinking water from a stream during a camping trip. Something about things in the water that could make me sick or kill me. I remember not being too worried. The water tasted fine. I picked out a puppy, a cocker-dachshund mix, and named her Coco after a cartoon clown on a TV show (Koko the Clown, created by Max Fleisher and produced by Hal Seeger).
I was born in Kansas and we moved back there in 1968 for my father’s second tour in Vietnam. I remember the house was a little square white box on a street lined with big trees. There were blue shutters on the windows. My Uncle Marvin (my mom’s brother) was visiting while my dad was away. During a typical heavy and loud Kansas thunderstorm, I must have been scared or nervous though I don’t remember feeling that way. My parents tell me it was my brother who was terrified. He’s three years younger than me and it was the first time he’d experienced such a storm. They can be quite intimidating. My brother and I were standing in the doorway, looking out onto the street. Uncle Marvin knelt next to me and told us that God had a big table with a sack of potatoes on it. Thunder was that sack tipping over and those potatoes rolling off onto the floor.
Another dish that became more of a regular meal at our house was ponset (I remember pronouncing it “ponsoot”), which I associated with Vietnam even though I think its origin is from the Philippines. It’s a simple rice noodle dish made with chicken and garlic. I don’t remember if it’s a dish my dad brought back with him or if my mom learned it from someone else in our military community. We ate this dish often as I was growing up, even after my dad returned home. I haven’t had ponset since those days, either. At least as we made it. Many Pad Thai dishes resemble ponset, so I suppose I’ve been eating variations of it for a while.
The Vietnam War went on for a few years after 1968, but I don’t remember much about that. We had moved to southern California and March AFB and I was busy trying to figure out if I was a Hippy or not and trying to convince my Dad to let our friend, who was an excellent airbrush artist (and a kind of Hippy), paint flames on our Datsun pickup. He eventually did. In 1969, I sat alone in front of the television one night and watched a man walk on the moon, as it happened, while my parents and some friends grilled hamburgers in the backyard. I took up playing the cello at school because I was apparently not old enough to play violin. My brother and I caught lizards in our backyard, when their tails didn’t break off and allow them to get away, threw pomegranates and snails against our back fence, and jumped our “custom” single-speed bikes, with ten-speed bike saddles, no fenders, and fat, nobby tires, over dirt mounds in an empty lot at the end of our street. We were excited to get our Time Life series of books on the world, science, nature, cowboys and Indians as well as the World Book Encyclopedia. Many hours were spent leafing through the pages of those books.
Our family watched Gilligan’s Isle, the Brady Bunch, Sonny & Cher, Laugh-In, the Carol Burnett Show, I Dream of Jeannie, the Carpenters, The Smothers Brothers, and Bob Hope on television. We went to Ontario Motor Speedway to watch Al Unser, A.J. Foyt, and others race around the track, and to see Evel Knievel jump 19 cars with his motorcycle. We went to Disneyland and I cried most of the time because I didn’t want to be shrunk on the World of Tomorrow’s People Mover ride where as you waited in the lobby to get on the ride, people got on the ride at one end in Tilt-A-Whirl type cars (only they didn’t spin around). Openings in the wall showed the full-size cars going by, then smaller model cars and people on another level, then a clear tube with cars about a foot tall leading into a box which emptied into a large, clear sphere where little specks flew around randomly, hinting at what was to come. Such were the concerns of at least one little boy in the 1960s.
I led a pretty regular, “normal” life for a kid, even though my dad was in the Air Force during a time of war. We moved around a lot, mostly in the west and Midwest. We didn’t go overseas. Getting to know the “new kids” usually started with a rock fight, though there really was probably only one. I don’t remember seeing much about the Vietnam War on television or encountering any anti-war protests. I wonder if that’s just me forgetting or if my parents made an effort to keep that kind of stuff away from me. My memories of that time are hit and miss, really. I was young, and I think most memories from that age period tend to fade easier than those made later in life.
Though I wasn’t interested in a military life (I thought I had enough of that in our own family), I respect those who do choose it. It’s easy to distance ourselves from the events that take place during war because it’s an experience incomprehensible by those who haven’t been there – the hardships, pain, stress, instantaneous decisions that alter the course of a person’s life, the things you wish you could take back as well as the things you’re extremely proud of being a part of, the lifelong friendships forged. The only way we can get a sense of what it means to go to war, to be on the ground fighting for your life and the lives of others, is to hear it from the individuals who were there. I don’t think it’s a fascination with war that drives people to want to hear “war stories” because, while we might initially be entertained by a Hollywood notion of heroes and noble battles and a glorious storytelling, we’re quickly sobered by the reality of it as told by someone we know, who we can see and touch. Someone who was there. I think the desire to know these stories is the desire and need to try and comprehend the enormity of war, the power and breadth of it, the utility and futility of it, and to understand – even a little bit – how war comes to infuse itself on a person’s soul.
When I watched the film Bravo! Common Men, Uncommon Valor, I heard in the voices and saw on the faces of the soldiers in their retelling, so many years later, a complex range of emotion: sadness for the necessity to participate in conflict, anger because they did not want to be there to do what they needed to do, resoluteness because they did do what needed to be done, disbelief and amazement in what they saw and experienced, a sense of duty to make a difference, and profound grief and respect for those who didn’t make it back.
I deeply respect those who choose to serve in the armed forces. My involvement in this project, though on the periphery, is in some small way honoring all soldiers for their courage then, and specifically now to the members of Bravo Company for their retelling of their stories which is helping America and the world understand more fully the ramifications of war and the truth of it, good or bad.
Mike Shipman is an Air Force brat who grew up mostly in the west and Midwest, shuffled from school to school, rock fight to rock fight, until high school when his father, too, had had enough. He started out with a career as a wildlife biologist and now is a freelance photographer and photography instructor living in Idaho. Mike met Betty several years ago when she was a student in one of his photography classes.
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