Tag Archives: memory

Wind: 40 Years After the Fall of Saigon

Fall of Vietnam HelicopterThe empty streets. Stunned faces. The last helicopter swings over the trees. And Saigon, for a moment, stops. A city that never stills. The Americans have gone, taking but a few Vietnamese with them. Left behind, men and women who had worked with and lived among and fought with and fought against and loved and hated the Americans. That ends, leaving a space between waves…running over sand. Drawing patterns that last but an instant.

What was that like? That stillness? The wreckage, the debris. People wandering. Stealing things they couldn’t possibly use, just to have something left. And the North Vietnamese, rumbled along the city perimeter. Not everyone was sorry to hear them. Others were beyond terrified.

April 29, 2975. Forty years ago today, and Saigon was no more. It would become Ho Chi Mihn City. The streets got new names—as did some people. Hotels and bars and restaurant took on new owners. But, in truth, Saigon never ends. You can no more snuff it out than you can Paris or Cairo. Only the Americans had gone.

In the weeks, months, years to come, America would turn away. Turn inward. Deep. It would take years before we turned back again. Oh, within a few years the films began—marvelous, harrowing films: The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Coming Home. Really though, they focused on the height of the American war, during the mid to late Sixties, and some of that was already a decade ago. But displacement, bewilderment, loss: for some time, those things would be too painful to revisit. Except for some determined to rewrite history. Sad news for them: history would not change, and new wars would not refute the old.

The helicopters. That soft whop-whop-whop. It still catches the ear. Such an indelible sound from the time. Coppola used it so evocatively in Apocalypse. So tied to the era. In a way, they wrote the final chapter, fading from the Vietnamese skies and arriving in swarms, commandeered by terrified South Vietnamese pilots, who crammed them full of their families and flew out over the ocean. Not even certain where the fleet sailed: they just flew west until the fuel ran out. Some found the ships (some certainly did not), landing where and how they could. The flight decks grew so crowded with aircraft that sailors had to shove choppers over the edge of the aircraft carriers. They would hang for second, rotors turning as through trying to catch air, before they fell, hit the water, and vanished.

I watched it. Not even knowing what I was looking at. Me and my dad—a World War II vet. He was a journalist, I was one in training. We couldn’t look away from the television, except to briefly glance at one another. I’m sure my face was stunned; my father’s was stone. My mom stayed away, working in the garden—her way of dealing with grief. I didn’t know enough to even feel the loss. To me, it was a fantastic news story. History, right in front of you. I felt something, but I didn’t know what. I think I’ve spent much of life trying to figure it out. Years later, as a writer, I dove into it—maybe too deep for my own good, at times. Some things, learned, cannot be revoked. Hell, I still don’t know anything. I read some books, talked to some vets (always a gift), and did some heavy imagining with some incredibly gifted artists, who gave me a lot more than I ever gave them. But, in context, with those who were there, it’s nothing. I haven’t even lived. Even if I had, Vietnam’s a moving target: it not only changes with each person—it changes as each person does.

Doesn’t everyone have a war story? Whether they’ve served or not. War enwraps us, becomes a touchstone: a clue as to where we are, who we are. Age divides us. Young men and women who served—or remembered—World War II looked at that war in a very different context than those who nervously watched their draft numbers—or those of their husbands, brothers, sons—during the Sixties. If you were below 30 (or thereabouts), you learned you couldn’t believe things. What you heard, saw, felt. You not only began to question the government—not a difficult stretch, after a certain point—but you began to doubt your parents, relatives, and their friends. All the people who, for so long, had been mentors, trusted advisors. Who had loved us. Now, you’re weren’t so certain they did. And the reverse was true.

Some who lived through World War II spoke movingly of the era’s camaraderie, even if they wouldn’t discuss the ghastly reasons for rearranging their lives. Those who lived through the crucible of Vietnam spoke of a different camaraderie: a dividing into tribes—for or against, served or ducked or protested, saw combat or a desk. And those were not static categories. The young man jacked for war by movies and fantasies could well come home to stand with protestors. Like that was easy.

When it was over—for America—the tribes never really came together again. There’s always been a split here between left and right, for reasons that fill thousands of books, and it might take another generation or more to as least partially repair that rupture, if indeed it can be bridged. Maybe World War II was the anomaly and division has been the actual nature of those supposedly united. For a country that worships liberty, we’ve spent a good part of our history throwing chains around one another.

Now, we’re farther away from the fall of Saigon than our fathers were from their war when the first Marines shipped off for Da Nang. Beards and ponytails have a lot of gray in them. Once overwhelming new singles, flashing with brilliant, fresh sounds and ideas—they’re oldies. Crazy books people fought over are standard fare in college. People look upon peace signs and doves as quaint artifacts, not as a button that once could get you worked beaten to hell. Wars get old too, the rough edges get sanded down, sanitized. Unless you’re in select company. Get in the right space with the right people, and the blood’s still fresh. It’ll never dry.

And in Saigon—forever Saigon—the girls in ao dais still ride their bicycles up the wide boulevards, and they smile behind their hands at old men who cock their heads and pause whenever they hear a helicopter.

 


Photographica: Late Afternoon and into the Past

Late Afternoon, Modish Building, Portland, Oregon

Late Afternoon, Modish Building, Portland, Oregon

A late winter afternoon–after a stretch of rain, the air still thick. Winter in the Pacific Northwest often limits you to shooting detail, given the long overcast stretches. But, when it clears, it gives you this full, rich light and color more akin to the semi-tropics, plus long shadows. Maybe the moisture content in the air; it somehow bends the light.

Here we have the golden hour plus: the warm light tinged with winter blues. The photo’s seem some post-production work, mostly to render it the way I saw it. Or at least how I remembered it. There’s no telling how far that can stray. Memory’s it’s own kind of filter.

The site–the Modish Building in downtown Portland–holds a special meaning for me. My first play–Controlled Burn–was produced on the fourth floor, in a sort of underground art gallery, with the artists squatting on site…not us, we came in as guests. Very punk, man! Kind of. They did throw some great parties. They also had limited gear available. The sound system was fantastic, and there must have been 50 cues, but our lights consisted of slide projectors and flashlights with colored gels over the lenses (and a silver plastic balloon that served to create a very cool watery effect). We took our set up in a rickety industrial elevator than ran so slow that you could reach out and touch the wall as it passed. We called if the David Lynch Memorial Elevator. We had to bring audiences up to the fourth floor in batches of ten. Luckily, the fire inspector never visited us.

With time, you learn. Back then, I had no idea. I remember Kyle Evans (who helped found Pavement Productions) and I attended PATA auditions when looking for actors. We knew nobody in the theatre community, nobody knew us, but they treated us as equals, and we ended up working with some very cool people like Sherilyn Lawson, Marty Ryan, and Catherine Egan (as a shamanistic dancer).

That’ll be 25 years ago this coming September. First play. Birth of Pavement Productions (I certainly had no idea that would last for 18 years). And my first review–the Oregonian compared me to a young Sam Shepard. They also said the play was kind of a mess–really, it was more performance art–and dubbed it “Uncontrolled Burn.” And thus the pattern: the critic give, and critic taketh away. Still, they couldn’t have made me happier unless they’d compared me to Beckett or Ionesco.

Funny that the piece really was a series of interconnected monologues, and I’m currently playing with a series of interconnected narrative poems–which could be performed as a series of monologues. I don’t know whether that means the circle comes round or I just have a limited number of ideas.

(Shot with a Canon 70D, 18-55mm zoom lens, processed in Adobe Lightroom.)

P.S.: This marks my blog’s 500th post.


Dallas

kennedyThe 22nd, and it becomes inescapable: the Kennedy assassination, 50 years ago. A before and after, where-were-you event.

I was a very young boy. In fact, the assassination may be my earliest conscious memory. There’s a fine way to start off a life: televised murder and national grieving before you know what death is. And people wonder why my work has a dark sensibility.

Here’s how the political becomes personal.

Continue reading


Flashback: 2007

So what does it feel like to sell the place you grew up?

Where you woke up morning after morning, wondering what the day held? Where you fell asleep to Christmas lights flashing outside your window? Where you sat in the red pickup truck, rain spattering the windshield, until “Witchita Lineman” faded from the radio? Where you wandered beneath a summer Milky Way so close you could reach and touch it? Where your father shouted “Come right here! Watch this!” and you rushed in to watch helicopters fall from the decks of U.S. aircraft carriers off of Saigon? Where you and your mother laughed about politics on early mornings as the coffee kicked in? Where you whacked tennis balls for your favorite dog to chase? Where he and your other pets are buried? Where you sat outside on a cold night, alone and in total silence, smoking a cigar and feeling the ghosts whisper past?

A place that now only exists in photographs?

Something like this. Times ten. On acid.


Found In Drawers

A flat, round eraser on a wheel, with at one end a brush. I found this when cleaning out my mother’s house before selling it. In the desk drawer where it had been all my life.

I knew what it was: a typewriter eraser, thin so it could remove a single character, the brush to sweep away eraser dust. Worked best on erasable bond or onionskin paper. I use the past tense because no one uses these things anymore, much less typewriters. But my parents did. My parents, more or less, were professional typists, and paid for house, heat, and food with circular erasers. They corrected memos, news stories, letters to relatives and friends long gone, in half-sized, folded envelopes that may still be locked away in trunks somewhere. Letters I’ll never see.

But I kept the typewriter eraser. Tossed it into a box with other things of absolutely no use that I couldn’t let go of. And now, thinking of that eraser, I can see my father’s hands carefully erasing, and that sort of bemused concentration he had while working. He’d catch you watching and flash a smile–not a full smile with teeth, and definitely not a smirk. Just a twitch of the mouth to acknowledge you.

My father was a handsome man, with a passing resemblance to Sean Connery, and he’d take me to James Bond films. I have a romantic notion of him looking like Connery and drinking in North Beach tiki bars when he worked as rewrite for Associated Press in San Francisco during the 1950s. He had no idea the kid looking at him would ever become a writer and would ever be writing this, but years later, when I’d become a newscaster, I learned that he tuned in every afternoon to hear my broadcasts. I wonder what his face looked like then.

How many times did I see that smile? When he was working hard, he’d set his mouth, and his lips would nearly disappear. When he was sawing or drilling wood. I don’t remember seeing him do that when typing. Maybe because you couldn’t take off a finger with a typewriter. You could certainly wound yourself. Wound yourself and others. In the right hands, a typewriter could be a weapon of mass destruction. But my father didn’t have those kinds of hands.

Sometimes I wonder about my own.


The Glory that is Denial

We’re having a pre-production meeting for “Dead of Winter” today, which is great–it’ll be wonderful to get the ship up and running, and all the pieces are coming together nicely. It also means that’ll no longer be able to pretend that I’m not going to be a producer again.

Don’t get me wrong: I love producing. It’s like hammering together a ship out of balsa wood and seeing if you can get it through the rapids. When it works, it’s immensely satisfying. When it doesn’t…well, it doesn’t. This is more a feeling of inevitability, like knowing you’re really going to see the surgeon or walking into the final exam room. Because the switch flips, and, suddenly, it’s not your life anymore. You belong to the play. When I think of holding down a job, all the plays I have in progress and to market, and just the obligations of paying bills and going to the grocery store, I hear this tremendous sucking sound at the back of my brain, and my eyes pull back in their sockets, and all my energy ebbs from a hole at the bottom of my spine.

Or something like that.

On the other hand, I can look forward to the stuff that makes it worthwhile. One would think those are opening nights, getting good reviews, and counting the final box office, but, really, the small moments remain with you. The ones hanging around outside with the smoking brigade and telling theatre war stories. They’re finding these unexpected moments during rehearsal when everyone rocks back at once and goes “yes!” And they’re even that nth hour during tech week when you’re so goddamned tired that you’re beyond tired (and there’s no fatigue like theatre fatigue, baby, unless maybe it’s having a loved one in the hospital), and, man, you just can’t hack it, and suddenly something funny–or maybe just borderline funny–hits you, and you completely go to pieces with hysterical laughter. The kind where you can’t breathe and you’re begging it to stop and your cast and crew are looking at you like, uh, he’s the guy in charge…we are so screwed.

And then there’s the bar. The post-show bar is a strange and beautiful thing, where people tell each other the damndest, personal, stuff. When I think back on a dozen of my favorite productions, I see my comrades in that vaguely sallow bar light, with cigarettes burning and empty beer glasses flecked with foam. Their arms are around each other. They’re laughing or bitching or some combination of the two. And that’s when I think, Patterson, you’re a very lucky guy.


The Things We Do

I did a strange thing this weekend.

As a preface, back around 2000, I wrote a play called “Altered States of America,” which was both a comic and serious look at America’s love/hate relationship with drugs, and, I suppose, with my own inclination for getting out this crowded, cluttered head once in awhile (a passion in my younger years that caused me a little trouble and provided a ton of pleassure).

I dedicated the play to Hunter S. Thompson, Warren Zevon, and Ken Kesey, and, within two years of its 2003 production, they were all dead. I sent a copy to Warren when he was literally on his deathbed. I sent copies to Thompson and to Kesey’s widow. I never expected replies, never sought them. I just did what I thought was right, to pay a debt for inspiration and for bad advice that often turned out well. It was a damned good show, great cast, some moments of beauty, others of (I think) sharp satire–at least some laughs. The production got decent reviews, but it was scheduled at the wrong time of year, the ticket prices were too high, and audiences were low. I’d go home each night after every show, sit on the back porch, and play “Wild Horses” over and over until I could go to sleep.

There’s been a lot of talk about Hunter lately. A couple books have come out, and factions are lining up between them, literary battles breaking out. In other words: he’s still riling people up. But I had these unsettled, deeply personal, and unresolved feelings regarding the guy; so, as I think a kind of exorcism, I made a movie.

It’s very simple, just some photos of Hunter off the net that warp and change in time to Pearl Jam’s “Man of the Hour.” It ends with “In Memoriam” then fades to black. It’s clunky and crudely done. I can’t do anything with it: I don’t own any of the rights to the photographs or the music. I wouldn’t want to do anything with it. It’s something for me. I made it, and I watched it, and I let loose a little bit of what had been floating in my head.

It was, in short, a personal endeavor, and this is as public as it will ever be.

S


Brick, Mortar, Memory

It must be winter: I’m listening to Leonard Cohen again.

Who was it who wrote something like: “…we are all boats beating forward, ceaselessly borne into the past?” James Joyce? No, Fitzgerald, from “Gatsby.” I can’t remember the quote exactly, but I can see that flotilla of rowboats on a flat green river, and I can feel my own boat wobble in the current.

Our entire economy is built upon buying things. In some way, that’s what provides and fills the larder, yet when the current finally carries you away, those things become inert boxes and odd objects, stripped of memory and resonance, in drawers someone will one day have to empty.

The common bromide says live for the moment, even though we can live nowhere else. But memory (or nostalgia) and hope (or worry) distance us from the present.

Perhaps architects are happy. They do their work, and their imaginations become part of our mindscape. Doctors, for all the good they do, ultimately lose. Lawyers, soldiers, and police we frankly need only when things go awry. Teachers transmit ideas, which do last, then release them, like caged birds, to go where they will. And the clergy, whose whole business is predicated on the eternal, operate solely on faith, which is all any of us really have.

Sometimes I think the restaurateurs, distillers, and tobacconists give the most to our present, even as their wares draw it away.

And the artists? We have the promise of the architects, but the odds are long. In that way, we’re closer to the clergy. Our job is just to shape and color what we ought to already know. Amusing (I think) to remember the many times people have said to me, in one form or another: how I wish I could do what you do.

It is winter.


Flashback: Winter Cascades

rain on evergreens.

trying to start the fire, more and more newspaper, burning, curling faces of politicians, until the kindling finally catches. still wearing your coat until the cabin begins to warm. light a pipe with a heavy, cherry-flavored tobacco. pour a glass of brandy. put on some slow, sad Brahms, shut off the light. watching chill rain, waiting on snow. the feeling coming back to your hands and feet. wet boots steaming before the fireplace. alone. relieved you’re alone, but also wishing someone was there. the fit never quite right. here on top of a mountain, thinking of the city, and, if in the city, dreaming of the mountain. never able to be just where you are. waiting for something to possess you, an outside event or idea. ever hanging. forever standing on your toes. and then suddenly, through the fogged window: snow in circles, rush of silence. weight of the brandy, pulling down into cushions. smell or burning pine. skillets on the walls. books. fishing tackle. phone, unplugged. desk with writing tablets, pens. no computers.

rising heavily, feeling the brandy vertigo come and pass, and opening the door to the soft hiss of snow, already filling in your footprints. no need to lock the door, closing it softly, and feeling the forest move around you. a slow-turning vortex of dark green memory. turning, turning, with all the faces past, the lost moments, ghost memories or piercing lost opportunties.

write something. save yourself from yourself.