In 1967 I graduated college with a broken heart and no desire to continue my studies at a graduate level. My local draft board learned of my situation, and offered to cure my broken heart with a two year hitch in the Army. I was young and innocent but even then I knew that my college degree was likely to land me at the front of a patrol in some sticky jungle in Southeast Asia, so I “beat the draft” by opting for a four year hitch in the Navy. I thought a few years at sea would be a good way to learn about the world.
I had done a little jail time, and my generally bad attitude and unkempt appearance more or less disqualified me as far as officer's training school was concerned. But that was all right. In those days the Navy offered enlistees the choice of three jobs, with the promise that the enlistee would be assigned to one of them. I chose Journalist and Photographer's Mate – two positions for which I was superbly qualified, and... Well, I couldn't even imagine a third, so I chose the most absurd one on the list, Shipfitter, which is the Navy's version of a plumber. Whereupon the Navy promptly made me a plumber. I was beginning to learn something about the world.
I can't say I enjoyed my four year hitch. As Samuel Johnson famously observed, being on a ship was a lot like being in jail. But I had two wonderful buddies – Eddie Cobos, a little Mexican American with street smarts and an Einsteinian emotional IQ, and Joe Jacaruso, built like a linebacker and possessed of a genuinely saintly disposition – birds would eat from his hands. I loved those guys. We did our jobs, and mostly stayed out of trouble, and we had our sailorly adventures, and in the course of all of this we learned a lot about life and about ourselves. Mission accomplished. At this remove, I don't regret having done the time.
I didn't like the war we were in, and I didn't like the politicians who were running it. I sympathized with draft dodgers, and I wrote letters – as an enlisted man – in support of a friend's application for CO status. But I always thought it was a shame the way vets were treated in the 1960s and 70s. There were not a lot of programs, and there was not a lot of support for people who had seen combat (I had not). The great books about Vietnam had not yet been written, and nobody had the faintest idea what PTSD was. There were a lot of effed-up guys walking around, and they didn't get much respect for their suffering, or understanding of its causes.
Now, as if to make up for our past lapses, we've gone overboard in the opposite direction. Now, everybody who's recently done time in the military is a “Hero.” This kind of smarmy sentiment makes me gag (particularly since most of it comes from people who never were in the military). Very few of the people who ever served were heroes. Most were just regular people from varying walks of life - like Eddie or Joe or me. Some were jerks; a few were crooks.
And speaking of criminal activity, how about being sent to war by a Congress full of draft dodgers? (And speaking of the draft, one of the biggest mistakes this country made was eliminating it.)
Or how about Seymour Hersch's article on the real story behind the bin Laden killing, as portrayed in Zero Dark Thirty? Like, it's not the bad guys against the good guys; it's our bad guys against their bad guys and, as often as not, both sets of bad guys against us – the regular people, the ones who wind up fighting the wars.
Feeling pretty conflicted about my country today. Not in a very bloggy mood, so I'll skip right to the commercial.
***In honor of this fine Memorial Day holiday weekend (cue card for applause, with Bud Lite logo), here's a vintage chart of Buzzard's Bay, done by the master chart maker, George Eldridge.
Chart. West Chop to Point Judith, Including Buzzards and Narragansett Bay and Providence River. Geo Eldridge Hydrographer. Boston: S. Thaxter & Son, 1898. This is a chart on heavy paper, linen backed, measuring 43 ¾ x 29 inches. It gives a detailed view of coasts and waters between Point Judith and the western end of Martha's Vineyard, as far north as Fall River. Lights and areas covered by each light are indicated in red. The chart also shows frequent soundings, positions of lightships, and coastal locations. A very scarce chart, and is even harder to find in excellent condition, as this one is.$1500
George Eldridge senior became a chart maker in 1850, when an injury forced him to retire from fishing. Son George W. also spent time at sea, but soon took over the chart business and raised it to new heights. The Eldridge firm issued at least 11 numbered charts and 10 lettered charts covering the Gulf Coast to Maine, each in many iterations and updates. They also issued harbor chart books containing closeup charts of the harbors depicted on the charts, and tide books.
Eldridge was very much a down-home operation. In contrast to the finely detailed Coast and Geodetic Survey charts of the day, Eldridge designed his charts with clean lines, no clutter and clear soundings, so that they could be read with greater ease aboard a rolling vessel in poor weather conditions. Instead of engraving and electrotyping, he used lithography, and later photolithography, to produce clean bold lines. This resulted in enormous popularity of the charts among the fishermen and merchant sailors of New England. Eldridge’s son peddled charts and tide books himself from his catboat to the many vessels anchored at Holmes Hole (Vineyard Haven), which was a very popular port for coasting merchant vessels; his four daughters painted in the lights and scratched out old errors, and his wife even backed some of the charts in fabric to make them more durable.