Radiation Oncology Flashback

“I think you need a haircut,” Jean said. Usually I respond, “No, I’m good for another few months.” This time I said, “Good idea,” because I like the idea of getting ready for radiation; to do it in a ceremonial way, including trimming my hair and my beard, taking care with what clothes to wear, praying to do it well.

The next day would be the “planning appointment” at radiation oncology. I knew there would be a CT and I would get some tattoos to guide the radiation team when it’s time irradiate me. It felt a lot like I would be going out on a long patrol that would start that next day and end sometime in the distant future. Like most other patrols, there would be casualties – some would die, some would be wounded. I was hoping it still ain’t me.

If that simile isn’t clear enough, it’s like this: let’s say it’s a patrol or operation with 100 troops going out/100 patients getting this sort of treatment. 85 of the troops will make it back/85 of the patients will be fine. Of the 15 troops who don’t make it back, some will die and some will be wounded. Of the 15 patients who are not fine, some will die and some will have further treatment, which will likely be increasingly difficult. Pretty good odds in the world of lung cancer.

There were elements of flashback to the planning appointment. When I was working in hospice and with refugees, I had associates who were in radiation oncology and I’ve spent many hours with refugees and others (including my Mom) in the waiting rooms and cancer treatment areas in Parkland, Presbyterian, Baylor, and M.D. Anderson. So a waiting room with sick people was familiar territory. As usual I felt a kinship with the people who worked there, regardless of their roles. We’re all playing in the band.

Some years ago in Old East Dallas I came across a woman with a ghostly sort of appearance. She had advanced cancer and a difficult past. I helped her with various things, as did my mate in the streets, Martin. One day…

I was taking her to radiation oncology at the county hospital (Parkland Memorial). I’d arranged for a translator from the Multicultural Center to accompany us to explain palliative radiation, which is kind of a difficult concept for someone who doesn’t speak much English. I had the woman in my truck and we went by the center to pick up the translator. I went in and in the conference room I found 3-4 people – including the translator – folding origami cranes. The director of the center told me the translator couldn’t come with the lady and me because they had to fold the cranes for an event at the area peace center. I was literally dizzy with rage. But I didn’t say anything – just left.

Radiation oncology was down the usual endless series of subterranean hallways and doors with little signs saying things like D-1572. The waiting room had the usual complement of sick, pale people. I stayed there while they took the lady through the double doors into the treatment area. There was a little TV on a little table in a corner and Mrs. Doubtfire was playing in the VCR. I’d never seen it before and to me it was one of the funniest things I’d ever seen, which was weird, because I was in a very unfunny place. So I was trying not to laugh, but I finally did. Hard. It seemed to be okay.

Ultimately the lady went back to her home country to die. She took a good stash of dilaudid with her. I hope it was enough.

Before she left, she and her daughter took me to a kind of blue-collar buffet for a thank you/goodbye dinner. It’s still sweet and poignant to me.

This radiation oncology unit where I am now is not the same as the one where I saw Mrs. Doubtfire. They move me through the process professionally, efficiently, and in a nice way. No six hour wait! The oncologist has brilliant credentials and experience. What more could one ask for? We’ll see how it all turns out.

A new world

It’s a new world (5/12/2022)

Here we go, into a new world, the world of being a patient with cancer. I am not a cancer patient; I’m a person (or patient) with cancer. Given the type of cancer I have and other factors, there is a high likelihood that I’ll be fine after treatment.

I’ve studied this world, gone into it many times with others, and taught about it for a number of years. I tried to teach people about the lived experience of being a patient with cancer. What is it like to be put into this world? I taught that it is a new reality. And so it is.

But I’ve never been here as a patient. I imagine that the reality for me is not as radical as it is for some people. I am not suddenly thrust into thoughts/perspectives of mortality and suffering.

History (4/20/2022)

A few years ago a CT for something else showed the presence of a nodule in my right lung. (“Nodule” = tumor <3 cm in diameter; tumor >3 cm = “mass.”) Subsequent imaging has shown steady growth of the nodule. It is now 2.9 x 1.3 cm and has changed in character as well as size – to the extent that the tumor board at my HMO is confident in initiating treatment for a primary adenocarcinoma of the lung. A PET scan showed no other suspicious lesions or nodes, so there is likely no metastasis. Treatment will include a biopsy to confirm the diagnosis, but it’s pretty much guaranteed to be accurate.

What does it all mean?

The fact that this is a less aggressive (than small cell or large cell) primary lung tumor with low likelihood of current metastasis is very good bad news. Treatment will be surgery (lobectomy) or radiation (stereotactic body radiation therapy/SBRT). In both cases, treatment is focused only on the tumor and adjacent tissue vs. systemic (chemotherapy) or a wider field of radiation (full lung). Two and five year outcomes show success rates for SBRT comparable to surgery (~85%) in cancers of this type.

The tumor has not been staged, but I assume it’s stage 0 or I (in situ).

I used to begin introductory lectures on cancer by saying, “There are well over a hundred known tumor types/malignancies and within those types and the cases resulting from them are countless variations.” The basic types of lung cancer, for example, include (1) non-small cell (adenocarcinoma, squamous cell, large cell [of various types]), (2) small-cell (several types, most notably oat cell), (3) mesotheliomas, (4) chest wall tumors, and (5) lung tumors that are distal metastases from other primary tumors – breast, for example. There are other, less common lung cancers.

All of us have knowledge or experience related to cancer in ourselves or someone we know or knew. But that doesn’t mean we know much about another person with cancer or about cancer in general.

I’ve spent much of my life involved in some way with people who have cancer and I’ve tried to live a life informed by these experiences. It’s a little weird to have cancer, but here we are. I count myself as very lucky.

Mistakes, bumps in the road, and lesson learned

Mistakes were made. The main one was that the doctor who told me on 4/13 that I have cancer forgot to refer me to the next step – radiation oncology. So there was a delay in the referral being made despite several messages from me to the surgeon and primary care doctor. I also had a pulmonary function test on 4/18, but couldn’t get an interpretation of the results until 4/25 or 4/26. It was weird being unable to get any response from the surgeon or primary care doctor. I finally talked with radiation oncology to learn that I had not been referred. I talked with the radiation oncologist on 4/29, 16 days after referral was supposed to be made.

The lesson learned was that I have to actively be in charge of my care and it is necessary to quickly follow-up on everything.

I wrote this to the surgeon on 4/25: “This delay is intolerable. I don’t know the legal definition of patient neglect, but neglect and disrespect for me as a human being are my lived experiences of this situation.”

Biopsy day (5/10/2022)

Got to Interventional Radiology at Kaiser on-time at 0830. Lady at front desk (Shirley) was warm and nice. I had the notion that she appreciates that this is potentially more stressful than some other procedures. The admitting nurse asked the usual questions and did a good job of starting the IV (a little more blood around the site than I expected, but there was also the fact that they planned on using my blood to plug the wound in my lung, so it just may have been a slightly bloody action). The nurse and I had some things in common and had a nice conversation.

I rode the bed through multiple double doors to the procedure room where I met several of the people involved in the procedure. The doctor explained what would happen and asked if I had any questions. I answered no, but told him that my wife asked that they spare as much of my chest hair as possible. I wondered then and now what his internal response was. I imagined that he could have been thinking, WTF, we’re here to biopsy a tumor (this is as serious as cancer) by sliding a needle between his ribs and into his lung and the patient is talking about his chest hair. Yes, and here is why: how I live is as important to me as how long I live. Sex and intimacy are important parts of how we live and Jean likes my chest hair. I’m not giving up a single thing unless I have to.

They asked me if I can put my arms up over my head. Okay. Then they asked if I minded them securing my wrists with my arms up like that. Okay, I said, “We must be in California ‘cause it’s getting a little kinky here.” Somewhere along the way they gave me versed and fentanyl.

I don’t remember what happened next until I was in the recovery room. We’ll see what the biopsy shows. As expected, adenocarcinoma of the lung (5/13/2022).

So, here we go.

No-knead pot bread, the sourdough update      

Sourdough pot bread, 2022

12 years ago I posted a recipe for no-knead pot bread from NPR. It’s “pot bread” because it’s baked in a pot. Below is that recipe adjusted for sourdough (recipe for making sourdough starter at end). Original post is here and NPR article is here.

12 years ago Leslie was alive and well; we were in Dallas; There was 12.5” snow in Dallas that February; I was teaching end-of-life care and community health at Baylor; Leslie and I were both working in the Agape Clinic; Leslie, David, and I traveled for ~7 weeks in Asia (Hong Kong, Hanoi, Hue, Saigon, Phnom Penh, Battambang, Bangkok, Chiang Mai), and more in 2010. Those were some days! (see original post link above).

Good, dense crumb. Toast from this loaf is superb!

Now Leslie has passed from this earth; I’m in Berkeley, married to Jean; it’s sunny and cool here – and Dallas about to get some seriously bad weather; I’m retired and pretty tired, too; doing a little gardening, more baking, some writing, quiet life; in the past year Jean and I have traveled to Dallas, Bolinas, Point Reyes, San Francisco, La Honda; we’re about to hit the third year of this pandemic. These are some days!

No-knead pot bread: I made a summary (below) because the NPR article uses a lot of words. But I recommend you read NPR as well. I use a ceramic pot with top to bake in. I tried Le Creuset (heavy metal) but it scorched a little, so maybe bake at slightly lower temp if in metal?

4 cups/20 ounces/567 gm flour (3 parts all-purpose, 1 part bread flour OR some variation on 20 gm rye, 60 gm whole wheat, 487 gm all-purpose)
2 tsp salt
¾ tsp instant yeast OR ~50 gm liquid sourdough starter
2 cups ice water (if using sourdough, dissolve the starter in water and then add the ice
1 teaspoon honey or barley malt syrup
(if making cheese bread) 1/2 – 3/4 pound Monterrey pepper jack cheese cut into ½” cubes. Eatzis uses jack cheese. Cheddar gives too much oil for my taste. Gruyere is good, but expensive.
Olive oil

Stir dry together, then vigorously stir in ice water
Oil top, cover, fridge 8-12 hours
In cool room let rise 8-10 hours. The longer this rising, the more sour the taste. See end of post for other ways to increase the sourness
Stir. If making cheese bread fold in cubed cheese after stirring

Oil top, let rise until ~doubled
Fold using oiled rubber spatula until mostly deflated

Cover, let rise until doubled (2-4 hours)
The cheese may seem to come to the surface of the dough during rising, fermentation. I just push it back into the dough as far as my finger goes.

Preheat oven and bowl to 450 – lower the middle rack 1st
(Go fast – carefully) wipe small amount olive oil to inner hot pot
Dough in – use oiled spatula
Slash dough, spray water generously, put top on pot

Bake 55 minutes with top on***
Top off, reduce heat to 425
Bake 20-25 more minutes
*** some recipes call for ~ 25 minutes with top on and 55 minutes with top off

Making sourdough starter (from Tassajara Bread Book – my first baking book from sometime in the early 70s). You can also start with dry starter from several internet sources or best of all, use starter from a friend. If you start with dry starter, you have to use the dry to start your own starter which can be either a batter type starter or a firm starter.

2.5 cups flour (I used 1 cup all-purpose, 1 cup whole wheat, ½ cup rye – rye tends to have more of the requisite microorganisms)
2 teaspoons honey or barley malt syrup
2.5 cups warm water

Combine and let ferment for at least 5 days, stirring daily. A longer ferment yields a more sour starter. To maintain batter status, the starter should be replenished with 1:1 flour and water every time you use it. Or just add flour to generate a firm starter. Store in refrigerator. Feed every 1-2 weeks.

Increasing sour taste (from experience and truesourdough.com)

  • Use whole grain vs white flours, especially all or part rye flour
  • Stir longer, more vigorously
  • Stir or knead the hooch (brown liquid that may come to top) back into the starter
  • Longer ferments at cooler temperature

    Whole wheat sourdough from Tassajara – baked another time

  • Use dry starter vs. batter starter. The above recipe yields a batter, but decreasing hydration is easy – just add more flour to the batter
  • Use smaller amounts starter in recipes (I don’t understand why this one increases sourness)
  • Use warmer (not hot) water
  • Feed starter less frequently

Happy baking!

Bread makes itself, by your kindness, with your help, with imagination running through you, with dough under hand, you are breadmaking itself, which is why breadmaking is so fulfilling and rewarding.

Edward Espe Brown in the Tassajara Bread Book

 

 

In plain sight

Dedicated to Charles Bukowski and his biographer, Neeli Cherkovski for their inspiration. 

Annex Street

1517 Annex

1.

Opening into a concrete courtyard
surrounded by apartment doors
Upstairs a woman insane from
Alcohol
Saying to me, “help me, mister” in her
Cracked raspy drunken voice and I

Want to party? They would say.


Said, I can’t help you, S—–.
I said, I can’t help you.
In the morning she was dead
Blood splattered on the walls at the top of the stairs.

Two apartments were joined
In a way that meant there was no exit
From part of the apartment
Of course there was a fire
Of course there was a girl
Who died in a windowless room in the fire
I have a candle that
Was given to me at the Novena for Esmeralda.
Her older sister was a gangster who used to flirt with me
(she was really hot and I would get flustered)
No more of that

Two former prostitutes lived with a teenage girl
Who had seizures almost every day
She was on a lot of phenobarbital and other drugs.
The women liked to fix me things to eat
Once they gave me blood soup
The smell of blood was with me all day.
They married the girl to a truck-driver when he was in town
They’d fuck all the time
The girl having seizures I guess.
They would stagger out of the bedroom, sweaty,
Her hair in her face, her mouth open, and her eyes in the
“Repetitive side to side movements” of nystagmus.

2.

I knocked on a door.
You know how you can sense that
Someone is there but there was no answer
A curtain moved and I knocked again.
Finally the door opened and
There was a woman standing there
Disheveled, maybe a little confused
She stood aside and I went into her one bedroom apartment and
So began a two year journey ending in
Death.

The apartment smelled of beer and musty and old
Her oldest son slept on the floor
Before he was sent to
Prison for armed robbery.
There was another son, this one with Down’s syndrome, and
There was a 12 year-old daughter.
The woman had cancer.
I spent hours, days with her in her apartment and the gyn-onc clinic at the county hospital.
Her daughter, some other people, and I took care of the woman.
The daughter was soft-spoken, sweet.
I loved her and tried to take care of her, too. Her photograph is on my wall.
The woman was a heavy drinker, but
I didn’t realize it at the time.

She would lie there on an old stained two-cushion “love seat”
In the musty small living room
With stained old carpet, beige, of course.
I think she had once been a beautiful woman, but
Those days were gone, ground down by poverty
loss grief alcohol war displacement illness.
During those two years she seemed vacant most of the time.
Once I saw someone kneel beside her and
Pray and though the woman didn’t understand the words,
She heard the language, the meaning of the words and
Then was the only time I saw her show emotion, a few tears.

I walked into the apartment
On the morning of her death
Curled up on that love seat.
She took a last breath and
That was it.
Her daughter and I moved her to a blanket on the floor and
Washed her wasted body
With help from a girl who lived downstairs who
Was a tough kid and who said
We should put something nice on her.
So we dressed her in a clean pink t-shirt and
A flowered sarong.
Ready for pick-up.

1604 Annex

A woman I’d seen around
Invited me into her apartment.
In the living room there was a couch,
No tables chairs TV.
She brought me a Pepsi and
Sat down beside me, close up against me.
It felt good, she smelled good, she looked good.
She smiled at me and let me know we could fuck if I wanted.
I did want, but
That’s not where I was at at the time.

Dark hallways
Darker stairwells
Beige/brown carpets, linoleum floor halls, beige/grey walls.
Laundry drying on handrails
Children playing in the tiny concrete courtyard
That always flooded when it rained
Small hope
Desperation.

Two teenage girls were in an empty apartment
Hiding from their father, who
Of course
Abused them sexually.
Blankets in a pile in a corner where they slept
We helped them move to an apartment on Gaston Avenue.
One of the girls ended up in the penitentiary
The other worked at McDonalds,
Frying fries, wrapping burgers.
Trying.

Omicron update – take heed

A few days ago I posted: “The virulence, transmissibility, and vaccine resistance of the omicron variant is unknown, but it seems to be a fast-mover and is a reminder to be as safe as possible…” Now we know. Omicron is a very fast mover, anyone can infect anyone, cold weather is here, more people are sick (53% increase in cases over last 14 days in California), the variant causes illness ranging from mild to severe, California and New York have new universal mask mandates, so on and so forth and so, dear ones, here go again. We’re tired of this pandemic, but too bad; it’s not over.* Here is one functional way to approach the coronavirus at this (omicron) stage of the game:

The vaccine + booster (the new “fully vaccinated”) is like a slice of magical Swiss cheese laid on top of you. Protection against severe disease is pretty good, but not 100%. AND even fully vaxed we can still carry and transmit the disease – thus infecting others and promoting the virus’ ability to further mutate.

A second slice of that cheese (the masking slice) on top of the first slice cuts the number of openings considerably, but still not completely (though highly effective against any variant).

Add a third slice (the social distancing slice) and there is hardly a hole in the protection. Good air circulation is essential to social distancing.

Frequent hand washing helps.

This “targeted layered containment” concept is taken directly from Michael Lewis (2021). The Premonition (pp. 92-93). WW Norton.

* Covid has killed >5,000,000 people worldwide and the U.S. leads the world in recorded deaths and cases (800,000). Trump’s crime against humanity.

Mr. Natural says, “Take heed.”

 

Omicron

We’re tired of this pandemic, but too bad; it’s not over. Here is one functional way to approach the coronavirus at this (omicron) stage of the game:

The vaccine + booster is like a slice of magical Swiss cheese laid on top of you. Pretty good protection (how effective against omicron is not yet known), but there are those holes, so the protection is incomplete. A second slice of that cheese (the masking slice) on top of the first slice cuts the number of openings considerably, but still not completely (though highly effective against any variant). Add a third slice (the physical distancing slice) and there is hardly a hole in the protection. Frequent hand washing helps. This “targeted layered containment” concept is taken directly from Michael Lewis (2021). The Premonition (pp. 92-93). WW Norton.

The virulence, transmissibility, and vaccine resistance of the omicron variant is unknown, but it seems to be a fast-mover and is a reminder to be as safe as possible. As with the currently predominant delta variant, it is likely that anyone, vaxed or unvaxed can be infected and can infect others.

Mr. Natural says, “Take heed.”

I found some photographs

Clearing out a drawer
I found a few photographs.
There were some good ones
And I stuck them in my suitcase.

Among them were photos of Leslie, Pov Lon, David, and Keo on the front porch; my Mom/Grandmother Mary and David in our kitchen; Leslie and Baby David; and David and his siblings.

I looked at these pictures of life and I realized I’d helped take care of four of those people in the last days of their lives. My Mom, Leslie, Keo, Phana. What sadness. But I’m glad there were not more than those four. Here they are with some of the photographs.

Photo: Leslie, Pov Lon holding David, Keo on the front porch (Keo and Lon had been in a war, concentration camps, and refugee camps until about two months before this photo was taken)

————-

My Mom I’d known all my life. She was about 70 when she died in the cottage behind Leslie’s and my house. David, Leslie, John, and I were with her every day. John and I were with her when she passed sometime in a long night.

When she was first diagnosed with small cell cancer of the lung I worked to understand the natural history of that disease. I mapped the likely metastatic pathways of her specific tumor type and the manifestations of metastases so that I could be sure to prevent or treat early any resulting problems (like hypercalcemia or spinal cord compression) or at least understand those problems. That became the basis of a book on end-of-life care in which I mapped the 18 most lethal tumors and associated problems.

A month or so before she passed, my Mom and I journeyed together. Among the things that happened that day (What a day!) was that she forgave herself. After that her pain lessened and her suffering was much less – all the way through to the end of her life.

How my Mom died: http://ckjournal.com/how-my-mom-died

Photo: David showing his Grandmother how to play golf

—————

Leslie and I were together for nearly all of the years since we were 16. She died in my arms at Baylor Medical Center.

In Leslie’s last month I would read to her when we were in bed – first from my blog (the traveling parts), and when that became too difficult for her to track, I would read from Little Golden Books and similar books I had stored in David’s closet. I realized that everything I read was related to going home, finding a safe place, and the like. Books I read to my sweet Leslie included:

Melanie Mouse’s Moving Day
The Fuzzy Duckling
The Shy Little Kitten
The Pokey Little Puppy
Home for a Bunny

Once when I was in David’s closet looking for another book to read to Leslie I saw a book titled, These Happy Golden Years. I burst into tears.

From my journal: Dying is often not easy. These were hard times for her. She underwent profound changes starting at almost exactly 6pm that last (Thursday) night. She went to surgery about 1:30am Friday morning and she passed away back in her room surrounded by pure love about 4:30am. (I’m actually not clear on times, and maybe even days.) I was with her, embracing her, whispering words of love, of remembrance, people she loved, people who loved her, the Song of Ruth…

We are fulfilled. Nothing is undone between us. We have loved and been loved, lived our beliefs, had a happy home, had a beautiful son, had a grand partnership with one another, had many adventures, and so much more—really, it’s been amazing!  

Photo: Leslie and David

—————–

Keo I’d known since she was about 10, when she and her Grandmother lived with us for a few months in 1985. When she became so sick with cancer I went every day to Keo’s apartment. It was a hard time. Keo was ready to die, but nobody in her family was ready for her to go. She begged to die. I spent time with her and her husband and mother on her last day. She was 39 when she died. A few days before her passing I sang this song to Keo:

Keep on walking where the angel showed
(All will be One, all will be One)
Traveling where the angels trod
Over in the old golden land

In the golden book of the golden game
The golden angel wrote my name
When the deal goes down I’ll put on my crown
Over in the old golden land

I won’t need to kiss you when we’re there
(All will be One, all will be One)
I won’t need to miss you when we’re there
Over in the old golden land

We’ll understand it better in the sweet bye and bye
(All will be One, all will be One)
You won’t need to worry and you won’t have to cry
Over in the old golden land.

(Robin Williamson)

Some of Keo’s gripping story is here: http://ckjournal.com/keo

————-

Phana (David’s sister) I’d known since she was four. She was in her 30s when she passed. I took her to chemotherapy almost every week in Dallas and in Houston, to other appointments, and we hung out with David, Charles, and John in San Francisco. We spent many hours together in the car, infusion room, and elsewhere. We shared a lot. When she was close to dying, I thanked her for helping me through my grief from Leslie’s passing. Phana understood immediately. She died right around Christmas while I was in Berkeley.

Photo: David, Chhouen, Phana, Soda in front of our house

Once John and Phana and I were at the corner of Judah and 9th) in San Francisco and Phana was vomiting in the gutter. In just moments a young woman from a clothing store across the street came over with a bottle of water. After Phana passed, I went to that store and thanked the woman. I’m still thankful for her

————–

I’ll try to be around and about.
But if I’m not,
Then you know that I’m behind your eyelids,
And I’ll meet you there.”

(Terence McKenna)

We are all veterans now

We’re all veterans now. Some of us were on the front lines – nurses, doctors, housekeeping staff, respiratory therapists, etc. (and their families); some were in less danger, but not in the rear – police, outreach workers, grocery store people, and so on; most of us were in the rear, doing things like wearing a mask, distancing, etc. (though some died – body count = more than 500,000); others were shit-birds – anti-maskers and anti-science types, MAGA brown shirts (red hats), and the dumb-asses walking around with their penises hanging out – I mean their masks covering their chins(!) and noses uncovered.

So, Semper Fidelis, Brothers and Sisters. Welcome home (just as soon as you’re vaccinated). Deepest Gratitude to all who worked on the front lines. Sorrow for all who were lost. Grief for all who Mourn. Thanks to all who did their part – staying home, masking, distancing, helping neighbors and friends (personal Thank You to Monica, Janet, Sherry, and others for helping us!). And fuck off to all whose “personal freedoms” were/are more important to you than protecting others from disease. 

There are always shitbirds – in every organization or group of any size, every race/ethnicity/tribe, universities, police departments/faiths/churches/synagogues/ministers/rabbis/imams/all of ‘em, military branches, neighborhoods/cities/ counties/states/countries… did I mention families and sometimes couples? Always people who don’t pull their weight, who take more than their fair share, who talk better than how/what they do, who bow to evil/follow liars/, and so on. You know who they are and so, I guess, do they.

What a journey! Damn! Thank YOU!

 

After the Hill Fights

I suddenly remembered that this happened – 54 years ago in 1967.

We had been in a days-long battle, part of something called the Hill Fights (near Con Thien). It’s kind of a blur, but it seems like I spent most of my time there with 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, mostly hooked up a machine-gun team. When it was over for me I was taken back to Dong Ha, kind of a front of the rear place where they had things like a mess hall, hospital tents like a MASH unit, occasional rocket attacks, a little post exchange, and other stuff I guess. I went to the post exchange, but they wouldn’t let me in!!! Said I wasn’t squared away or some kind USMC BS – and they said I had to unload my weapon! My flak jacket had (someone else’s) blood on the front and it had got to smelling bad and I surely smelled bad on my own, too, with sweat and smoke, etc. But still, I was unhappy. I needed some goddam cigarettes.

It was evening by now and I went over to the hospital tents where there were piles of discarded equipment from men who’d been shot or whatever and I was shuffling around in all this gear like helmets, packs, boots, flak jackets, web

At Con Thien, photo by David Duncan

 

gear, and so on. Some of it was pretty bad, too – blood, shit, everything on it. Seems like it was a misty evening, but I can’t be sure. Even at the time I could see how surreal this all was. I found a cleaner flak jacket and left mine behind. I’m sure I got some smokes, though I don’t know where from.

I’ve never been able to keep it straight what happened when in the Hill Fights. I know it was April into May, but I wasn’t there the whole time. I remember the mortar fire; how glad I was to be using an M-14 vs M-16; the un-fucking-believable volumes of fire, incoming and outgoing; the man who died as his guts fell out of his back when they turned him over; the man lying there covered in blood, smiling and shooting me the finger because we’d just saved his ass and he had what looked like a million dollar wound; the helicopter spinning around and hitting the ground hard; carrying the last dead Marine out of the downed chopper while the NVA were firing at us and the chopper coming in to pick us up; I keep kind of fixating on a trail that followed the contour of a hill, but it was just a trail. And now I remember about the piles of gear.

I know this: when Jeff and David and I were in Vietnam in 2005 we were happy to visit Thuy Bo (Dodge City to us, near Hill 55) where our company had operated for about six months and where some serious fire-fights happened. But where the Hill Fights were, Khe Sanh, 861? “No. Those are killing fields,” Jeff said.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Hill_Fights

 

Busted flat in Baton Rouge… what does that look like?

He was surely one of the few students at his high school to ever flunk the last English paper of the senior year, but he just could not get it together to write the paper. He thus flunked the paper, the course, and the year. It was a fitting end to a sometimes dismal high school experience.

He left home without telling anyone anything and took a bus to Grand Saline, Texas with a “plan” of working in the salt mines (he was kind of a dramatic kid). The salt mines had been closed for some time when he got to Grand Saline, so he got a cheap hotel room. The room was up a long, straight flight of stairs and there was a loop of wire in lieu of a doorknob or lock. It was a very cheap room.

The next day he hitched a ride on out of Texas to Shreveport and a lonely bus station. From there, a man picked him up and drove him to Baton Rouge. In Baton Rouge he ended up downtown in a bar, where a man told him he could stay in his room. Clearly, the man had plans other than sleeping and the kid said he would just sleep on the floor. At some point in the night he was awakened by the man leaning off the edge of the bed fondling him. He remembers shouting very loudly and grabbing his already packed stuff and running out of the room. He doesn’t remember where he spent the rest of the night.

In the morning the kid was walking along a downtown sidewalk when a police car pulled over. The cops put him up against the wall and searched him and dumped his suitcase out on the sidewalk. Oops, there was a pistol in there, so he got a ride to the parish jail and a few nights room and board.

Jail wasn’t bad for him. He had some cigarettes, which he shared with an armed robber, who was a badass, so the kid was pretty safe. The food was typical jail fare – peanut butter sandwiches for breakfast with astonishingly bad chicory coffee, bologna sandwiches and Kool-aide for lunch, and he doesn’t remember what was for dinner. There’s nothing to do. Talk, scheme, worry, pace, space out.

The charge was vagrancy. He went to see the judge, who asked him what he was doing in Baton Rouge. He told the judge he was looking for a job at a golf course. The judge asked him if he was a golfer and when he said, yes, the judge asked what a “round robin” is and the kid gave the right answer. “Not guilty.” The suitcase and its contents were not registered in, so apparently the po-po got a pistol.

Not far from the parish jail there was a Toddle House – a 14 stool café serving breakfasts, hamburgers, waffles, and so on. The kid was sitting there trying to decide whether to have his hamburger with or without lettuce and tomatoes (five cents more with and he was pretty much busted flat, enough that a nickel made a difference) and when the waitress took his order he blurted out “with!” It was a really, really good hamburger and decent cup of coffee. While he was sitting at the counter the waitress and cook were talking about needing someone to work nights. The kid joined in and volunteered that he could do the job. The cook/manager, Chuck let him work that day to get a sense of what he could do. He did okay and the waitress, a sweet Cajun woman named Jenny liked him, and so he got the job.

Chuck took him to the Florida Street rooming house where Chuck and his partner, Vince lived. He got a room for something like $12 a week and just like that he was set up with a job and a place to live. He worked as cook and counter man and everything else 7 pm – 7 am usually seven nights/week for $0.85/hour to start and eventually to $1.35/hour. He was in a weird place in his mind and working like that was no problem. On days when Chuck and Vince were both off, the three of them would go out drinking at one of those bars that open at 6 or 7 am.

Photo from https://restaurant-ingthroughhistory.com/2014/03/02/toddle-house/. Thank you!

Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues

You can tell by the way she smiles