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WAR TORNMy World in Conflict
By JOHN BALL
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2011 John Ball
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTrouble Ahead
On a Friday night in early February 1968, I was in turmoil over a change in plans. Although I had tried with every means available to me to avoid this particular situation, all my stratagems had been swept aside in a single moment by the Bureau of Naval Personnel. I was on active duty with the US Navy, temporarily stationed with Patrol Squadron VP-31 at the North Island Naval Air Station in San Diego, California. I was there to learn to fly the P2V Neptune, a large navy patrol aircraft. I had worked hard to get where I was and had planned each move through flight training carefully in order to get this duty, because it was all preparation for an assignment to VP-17, a patrol squadron stationed on Whidbey Island, Washington. In addition to my transition from the training aircraft to the larger Neptune, I was expected to take a few classes in survival training, nuclear warfare tactics, and military justice.
At the conclusion of my training, which was scheduled for late March or early April, I expected to return to the Pacific Northwest to join the squadron. After living in Seattle for four years while attending the University of Washington, I considered the Pacific Northwest my home and was eager to take up my new duties on Whidbey Island. Because this assignment in San Diego was expected to last only three or four months, I had taken a room in the Bachelor Officers' Quarters (BOQ), but I preferred to spend my off-duty hours and weekends at my parents' home in Lemon Grove, a suburb of San Diego, just a few miles away.
I had grown up in Lemon Grove but hadn't lived there since I left for the university six and a half years earlier. This temporary assignment to VP-31 was a pleasant opportunity to spend a little time visiting with my parents. That is, it had been pleasant right up until this morning's meeting with the captain from the Bureau of Naval Personnel. Now all the pleasantness was gone. It was replaced by an incredible sense of doom. With the sudden change in plans sitting squarely in front of me like some large, ugly troll, I wanted to get off the base as quickly as possible and didn't even stop at the BOQ to change out of my uniform. When I left the base, I headed to my parents' house. I had to talk to someone, and family was the first thing that came to mind. I wasn't sure what kind of reception my situation would get, but I had to start somewhere.
I caught up with my father just as he was leaving the dining room, not long after he and Mom had finished their dinner. Mom was busy in the kitchen cleaning up the dishes.
"Dad," I said, "will you grab a seat for a minute? There's something I've got to tell you."
The room was filled with the scent of baked beans and hot, sweet, brown bread, a long-standing Friday-night tradition at our house. The smell was both familiar and pleasant, a friendly reminder of my childhood. In this comfortable setting, I took my customary seat at the dining room table. It was the second seat on the right, counting from my father's chair at the head of the table. His chair was the only one with arms. The seat between us had always been my older brother's. Dad, perhaps sensing my intensity, chose not to sit in his customary place at the head of the table, but in one of the old-fashioned family heirlooms that were positioned in the corners of the room. Those chairs were stuck in the corners for historical purposes rather than for seating. With their narrow seats and upright backrests, they were quite uncomfortable.
Dad was still a trim man at forty-eight, though his middle was slightly bulky from the wide belt he wore under his shirt to protect the slipped discs in his lower back. Isolated in the corner like a boxer between rounds, the wide belt and straight-backed chair made him sit up stiffly. At five feet nine and just under 160 pounds, he looked like a compact middleweight. He was twice my age, an inch taller, and outweighed me by ten pounds. I knew I'd never quite grow to his dimensions. He wore faded blue jeans and a red and black checkered flannel shirt; he had his customary mechanical pencil, six-inch steel ruler, and small notepad tucked in the pocket protector in his shirt pocket. The seating arrangement created a distance between us, an awkwardness that reflected the tension I felt. It was unusual for me to ask for a conversation like this, and I could see the questions forming behind his eyes. I wasn't sure if this was the best time or place for this discussion, but it couldn't wait for a better opportunity. We hadn't really sat and talked much over the last few years, so I was just as uncomfortable as he was.
"The navy plans to change my orders," I said, "from the patrol squadron on Whidbey Island to a top secret squadron operating out of Thailand. I think I'm going to have to refuse those orders."
He seemed shocked for a moment, and then, looking me up and down in my officer's uniform, he asked cautiously, "What do you mean, refuse orders? You can't refuse a set of orders—you're an officer. And if you do, they'll throw you in jail. Besides, why do you want to refuse them?"
"Because I think they are illegal," I said. "I can't actually talk about the details because everything about these orders is classified, but I believe what they are doing is wrong."
He sat quietly for a moment. "Well," he said slowly, "when did you decide you know more about right and wrong than your senior officers?"
"Dad," I said, "when I was growing up, it seemed to me that you always made your own decisions about what was right and wrong. You didn't need someone else to tell you."
He looked at me with his dark brown eyes fixed in an awkward stare. He said, "You always did have a problem with authority."
We sat, immobile, for some time. I waited, staring back at him, trying to figure him out. His handsome, sun-darkened face was totally devoid of even the slightest hint of what he was thinking. Damn, I thought, it's a shame he doesn't play cards; the man could be one hell of a poker player. He didn't say anything, but I was used to that. He had always been a quiet man—strong, yet shy and reserved by nature. In spite of that demeanor, to me he had always been a figure of competence and authority. He was a machinist by trade and a practical man. He knew how to make things and fix things; he understood how things worked, even though he couldn't—or wouldn't—explain it to you. I think he had figured out a great many things that most men will never understand. While he made sense of the world by watching it, listening to it, touching it, and tasting it, I tried to understand the world through intuition and imagination. This fundamental difference in approach limited our channels of communication. As a result, he and I rarely talked about ideas or ideals—at least not about personal things, such as morality, religious convictions, or social justice.
The loud, syncopated ticking of the clocks in the room emphasized the silence between us. "Well," he said finally, "I guess you'll have to figure this one out on your own."
I can't say I was surprised, but I was disappointed that he hadn't said more. I can't remember if, when I was a kid at home, we had ever had real conversations about things outside our normal daily family life. The "talks" I remembered most clearly from childhood were the arguments and criticisms, usually about my poor performance in school or my failure to complete my assigned chores at home. Of course, there were good reasons to talk about such failures, since my habits had provided ample opportunity for criticism. I had been a lazy kid and blind to the concept that such mundane chores had anything to do with duty, honor, or personal responsibility.
As far as the big ideas in life, I couldn't have verbalized them even if I had wanted to. Certainly I couldn't have explained them to my parents, because I had no idea what principles I truly believed in. When I left home as an eighteen-year-old, I don't think I even understood the concept of a conscience. I had not yet developed one. And in the six years since I had left home, l know I hadn't spoken of the growing conflict between my sense of honor, loyalty, and morality, and what I was now being asked to do in the US Navy.
My father was a World War II army veteran, but I didn't have a clue what he really thought about the war he served in or the war we were fighting in Vietnam. Perhaps I never asked the right questions, but he certainly never volunteered that information. Was his unwavering stare a reflection of shock that I would even consider such action? Perhaps it was fear that I was about to do something really stupid. Or was it disappointment in me for not living up to his expectations? I didn't know for certain whether he was proud that I had become a navy officer and pilot after college, or simply surprised that after years of rebellious behavior as a kid, I had managed to stay out of trouble. One thing was certain: whatever trouble I had avoided to this point was about to catch up with me.
* * *
In the 1950s and '60s, San Diego was known as a navy town. The bay was full of navy ships, and the seamen who manned those ships were everywhere. When the ships were in port, the sailors swarmed over the streets of downtown San Diego in their skintight bell bottoms and jaunty white caps, in the usual search for alcohol, tattoo parlors, and young women. They tended to travel in large groups, almost as numerous as the flocks of pigeons that soared overhead. San Diego was a place of bright sun, a world-famous zoo, and booming optimism. This was my first home. I grew up here, surrounded by military bases, both navy and marines, and I went to school with their kids. I even worked one summer in a locker club where sailors kept their civilian clothes while they were aboard ship, but I can say honestly that when I accepted the scholarship that eventually led to my commission in the navy, I didn't have a clue what life was like in the armed forces. Of course at eighteen, I thought I knew just about everything I needed, but now at twenty-four, with those navy wings of gold on my chest for a whole six months, I realized how little I had known—about the navy and about myself. I loved flying, and becoming a pilot fulfilled a childhood dream, but I was very uncertain whether I should ever have become a navy officer.
Sitting at the dining room table in the house my father built with his own hands, I wondered at what point I had made the mistake that eventually put me on this path with that big, ugly troll waiting for me. Was it at eighteen, when I chose to leave my home, my family, and everyone I knew to attend the University of Washington? Or was it later, at twenty-two, when I accepted the officer's commission? Now I was face-to-face with another life-changing decision. The tick-tock of my father's clocks kept reminding me that the troll would have to be dealt with soon. He would not wait while I dithered over which path to take. It was a judgment call, and I needed to make it soon. Would I get it right this time?
My father, sitting in the corner across the room from me, was probably wondering what mind-warping stranger had taken over his second son's body. The walls we had built between us were for our own protection, to keep our angers and anxieties in, as much as to keep the other out. Here I was banging loudly on that wall, but maybe he couldn't tell whether I was asking for help or just trying to deliver a message of my intentions. Dad preferred to deal with facts, rather than emotions. But when it came to questions of right and wrong, of morality and duty, there were no facts to sort out. Those answers would have to come from the gut, based on personal values and beliefs, rather than external facts.
He asked, "Didn't you know that this kind of assignment was a possibility when you accepted the commission?"
"That's true," I said. "But I had hoped it wouldn't come to this. I made several choices along the way to limit the possibility of combat duty. After primary, I selected props rather than jets. And after basic, I chose multiengine for advanced training. Then, when I graduated from flight training, I selected the patrol squadron, not just because it was in the Pacific Northwest, but because it was also the least likely to be involved in combat."
"Well, I guess you'll have to live with the consequences of those choices," he said.
As a kid, I had always looked for a way to avoid the consequences of any poor decisions I made. Whether it was my failure to complete my spelling workbook or my lack of preparedness for a weeklong camping trip, I never wanted to take responsibility for my action or inactions or accept their consequences. But now I was trying to act like a grown-up and take responsibility for my actions and their consequences. I thought I could predict the consequences of accepting these orders to Thailand. Everything I had learned about history and human affairs since I left home led me to believe that America was heading in the wrong direction. Although I couldn't talk about them because they were classified top secret, there were actions being taken by the US government in Vietnam and throughout the region that violated international law and the Geneva Convention. We were claiming the moral high ground while acting like the bully. As far as I could see, it wasn't working, and I couldn't see myself just going along with the program. I had finally come to the realization that if I was going to have any integrity at all, I had to stand up for what I believed. And I had to understand and accept the consequences of my decisions and my actions. As hard as I had tried to avoid it, the navy had placed me squarely in the middle of the moral dilemma that war brings to anyone who truly believes in peace. This new assignment would mean bombing and killing people at such a low altitude that you could actually see their faces. I had to ask myself, "Is there an honorable way out of this situation?"
I had heard of two other officers, one in the army and one in the air force, who faced orders they felt they could not perform; in each case, the officer had been court-martialed and sentenced to the federal prison at Leavenworth. My career as a navy officer and pilot—which should have been just taking off—was about to abort, and I was likely to go skidding off the North Island runway into the dark, troubled waters of San Diego Bay.
As a kid, I had always wanted to fly. I naively assumed that this was a common characteristic of mankind. I considered it inherent in man's psyche, long before technology made it possible. I know Leonardo da Vinci studied the possibility back in the sixteenth century; and long before him, the ancient Greeks gave us the story of Icarus and his father, Daedalus. They were both imprisoned on the Isle of Crete, and they were looking for a way out. After watching birds fly freely from the island to the Greek coast, they decided to make their own getaway through the air. Using the technology available in those days, they made wings for themselves of wax and feathers. Their first flight was conducted without any flying lessons, computer simulations, static trials, or training runs. They were operating on what I call the "Nike Principle": Just do it. Their application of technology was successful to a degree, since both father and son did get off the island, but they missed on at least one mission-critical objective: Icarus failed to reach a safe landing.
Icarus was probably a real test-pilot type, so enamored of his new ability to fly that he couldn't stay within the planned flight parameters. He just had to try to expand the envelope. In a critical deviation from the plan, he flew too near the sun, increasing the heat load on his feathered craft, thus melting the wax that held those glorious feathers; and his flight from Crete literally fell short of its goal. His father, who may have been more of an engineering type, stayed within the parameters and achieved the intended objective. It is difficult to assess whether this myth has persisted to our modern era because it draws forth a universal dream of mankind—that is, the desire to fly—or persisted because it was a convincing demonstration that sons should always heed their fathers' advice. You know how it goes: "If you had just listened to your father, you wouldn't be out there trying to outswim the sharks." It can also be seen as a cautionary tale regarding the ability of technology to solve the problems of modern society, as in: "Caution must be used when adapting existing materials to new applications. Technology is good, but it must be developed one step at a time."
Excerpted from WAR TORN by JOHN BALL Copyright © 2011 by John Ball. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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