Rapture Garden

DSCN0128Cut thick vines in sun

below tall pine and silver maple shadow.


Plant scarlet acacias,

purple, red, yellow, and white rose bushes.


Spray oasis with rainbows.


Lift leaves and spread limbs of

peach, plum, apricot, and grapefruit dancers.


Caress ripe fruit, ravish succulent flesh

and lick lush juice.


Savor symphony of fragrances, hues, and flavors.

rapture garden staggers my senses,

energizes the spirit,

and lavishes me.

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A Berkeley Confrontation about Vietnam

USS Oakhill (LSD-7)

USS Oakhill

When the USS Oakhill docked in San Francisco, I called my good friend Jerry Cohen, whom I had met in Japan. He attended Boalt Hall Law School in his third year on the University of California Berkeley campus.

“Hey Jerry, my ship’s going to dry dock in Oakland next week. Let’s get together.”

“You should play softball with some of my friends.”

“I’d love to.”

“Got any equipment?”

“I have cleats, glove, and a bat.”

“I’ll call you when I’ve arranged a game.”

I drove from San Francisco to Berkeley for softball, wondering what changes Jerry may have undergone at a prestigious law school in a city filled with radical politics, free speech movement, anti-Vietnam War protests, and clashes with the police.

He waited at his apartment with a few other Berkeley students in jeans, baseball hats, and tennis shoes, clutching gloves and bats. Most had long hair, beards, and mustaches. We went to the practice fields on campus and had an intense game. I actually left my feet at full speed diving for a ball someone sliced down the left field line, and slid into a wire fence while holding onto the ball to make an out.

“Hey, Lavery. We know you’re a gung-ho Annapolis grad. Stop trying to impress us with reckless abandonment.” Jerry quipped.

I had to catch that ball.

After that spirited game, he invited us back to his apartment for dinner. I walked up the stairs and noticed wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves filled with books. Jerry and his wife had an enormous library filled with the great literature, history, politics, philosophy, law, music, and much more.

“You remember Mandy?” Jerry said, as a blond with blue eyes and curls everywhere carried in a tray of cheese quesadillas. She was wearing blue-jeans and a Stokely Carmichael Black Power tee-shirt with a raised clenched fist.

I smiled, “Yeah. We met in ‘63 when Jerry and I drove out to LA from Massachusetts in sixty hours, even though we had to look for love-notes you left along the way.”

She nodded with a smile of nostalgia, “So, how long’s your ship here?”

“About five months.”

Jerry brought out a large green bottle of Tanqueray and mixed gin and tonics on the rocks with a slice of lime. Mandy served pepperoni pizza and a fresh fruit salad. After dinner we moved to the living room where a discussion began. Jerry’s group of friends attended law school at UC Berkeley or were graduate students in English, Comparative Lit, and History. They all loved sports. I tried not to feel intimidated by the level of academic achievement that surrounded me--so different from my Navy pals.

Jerry asked, “What does a navigator do to get your ship through the Golden Gate Bridge?”

“Ensure we passed safely under the Golden Gate at our ETA of 8:00 a.m.”

Remarks flew at me: “Wow,” “That’s cool,” and “How did you do that?”

“The navigator must keep accurate estimates taking account of wind, and current to adjust our speed to avoid other craft entering and leaving San Francisco Bay.” Making an exact arrival time seemed simple to me as I had radar fixes, and quartermasters citing landmarks visually as I charted our approach. The group of students, however, made it sound difficult and congratulated me on what they appeared to believe was remarkable.

I felt I needed to inform Jerry of a crucial decision I had made a few months before, and blurted out, “I turned in my wings and transferred out of flying in jets a few months before the Navy assigned me to my ship.”

“Why did you do that?”

I pulled out of my wallet a folded one-page request and handed it to him.

He read it quickly, “You wrote this Dan?”


“Why do you keep it in your wallet?”

“To remind me of an imortant decision I made that removed me from a dangerous situation with out much of a future.”

“What do you mean?"

“I heard some pilots say at the officer club, ‘Here comes the pilots and there are the bombardiers. The ones that fly are men, and the others are queers.’”

“Are there many homosexuals in naval aviation?”

“I never knew of any--undoubtedly there are--but the remark was meant to demean the non-pilots.”

“What else?”

“Our ready room instructor referred to navigators as “dipshits.” Then we lost a few navigators there. And, the RA5C I flew in had the nickname, ‘The Flying Coffin.’”


“It was the heaviest jet to land on carriers, and had the worst losses over Vietnam. On top of that, we lost a number of men to safety and maintenance problems.”

“Those are damn good reasons.”

“I cheated death by transferring. The North Vietnamese shot down the jet the navigator and pilot who replaced me flew. They didn’t recover the navigator’s body. His pilot remains a prisoner in Hanoi.”

“Sounds like the smartest thing you ever did.” I sensed the mellow mood shift dramatically as Jerry turned and spat out, “Lavery, why the fuck are we in Vietnam?”

“To stop the communist aggression into a neutral weak country that needs our military support.”

Unexpected laughter greeted my simple explanation.

“A tall bearded law student said, “Where did you learn that?”

“The Naval Academy courses in Far East History and counter-insurgency, a prep for Vietnam course at the Naval  Base in Coronado, and Defense Department articles.”

A grad-student of history asked, “Don’t you remember Dien Bien Phu?”

“Refresh me?”

“The French colonial army lost the civil war to the Vietminh? The seventeenth parallel separated North and South Vietnam at the Geneva Conference with an agreement that free elections would take place in two years. One dictator after another ruled the South, they held no elections, and we backed them ever since.”

“So you don’t think the Viet Cong are communist terrorists?”

“The Viet Cong are fighting a civil war against the unpopular regime. Ho Chi Minh assists with supplies and his army.”

His explanations calmly cut into my simplistic statement. I did not know the pre-war history. Still, I felt compelled to defend our position. “After our ships were attacked by torpedo boats at the Gulf of Tonkin, Congress authorized President Johnson to respond with an executive order to repel unprovoked aggression.”

“That was a false report. Our ships were not attacked on August 4, 1964 in Gulf of Tonkin, but Johnson used the Congressional resolution to launch an illegal war on North Vietnam.”

Jerry added, “Johnson never sought a declaration of war from Congress. Two nights before the claimed torpedo attack, our airplanes and CIA fast boats initiated the hostilities bombarding the North Vietnamese coastline and islands.”

My anger grew. I knew friends in Vietnam. Some had died there. After a deep breath, “How did you learn that?"

Jerry admitted, “We attended a teach-in by Norman Mailer who demonstrated the lack of international support for Johnson’s war, the illegal and false basis for it, and the hideous civilian casualties from a genocidal air war."

“That’s a bunch of bullshit, Cohen. How can you believe such left-wing crap?”

The history student  added, “An expert described the horrible burns to humans from napalm and explained how our anti-personnel bombs sent millions of razor sharp fletchets spinning to the ground and slicing up any living thing in an area the size of a football field.”

Another responded angrily, “They characterized the B-52 carpet-bombing as a war crime under the Geneva Conventions. Are you aware of the damage and terror of those heavy bombs laid down systematically over a swath of many miles?”

I realized I could not counter their passionate, logical, historical, and humanitarian arguments. They had me on the defensive and embarrassed when I couldn’t clearly define all the parties to the dispute. I had confused the Viet Minh and Viet Cong with the North Vietnamese regulars, and then blindly parroted the domino theory Eisenhower had initiated.

Jerry continued, “Johnson used the domino theory to justify invading Vietnam to stop the communists from expansion in South East Asia. He claimed if we didn’t invade South Vietnam, all the neighboring countries would soon come under communist rule from Russia and China. Most scholars disagree with that assessment because the Chinese are traditional enemies of the Vietnamese.”

I felt I had to challenge these academic critics when our troops were involved in combat, “You sound like you’ve been persuaded by left-wing radicals who don’t have access to our intelligence reports.”

Jerry disagreed, “Much of that information comes from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearings Senator Fulbright held beginning in February 1966. What’s left-wing about that, Lavery?”

After a moment of silence to consider his remark, I asked, “Do you have a copy I can read?”

“Sure. I’ll grab it off the shelf.” He jumped off the couch, found it among an array of books on foreign policy and history, and handed it to me. The report was two inches thick contained in a bound book with a colorful cover featuring Senator Fulbright questioning Dean Rusk.

I scanned the book, quickly thumbing through the chapters. It included testimony from Dean Rusk, Secretary of State, and George Kennan, a well-respected expert in foreign relations. It contained footnotes with references for follow-up, including the testimony of key decision-makers. Having provoked my curiosity I said, “Thanks, I’ll read it this week. What else do you suggest?”

“You ought to subscribe to Ramparts,  the New York Review of Books, and I.F. Stone’s Weekly.' See the stack on the bottom shelf,” he said pointing to that last year’s issues. “Take a few to check them out. They always have thoughtful articles on the War. Berkeley has good book stores with information on the history of Vietnam.”

“Yeah, but I see posters in their windows saying, “Get out of Vietnam, Now.” You must know they’re full of radical propaganda.”

“You don’t think the military feeds the troops propaganda?”

“I read what I trust and I‘ve always gotten plenty of information from the Navy, Newsweek, and CBS. I’ve never heard anyone call that propaganda.”

“Read the Fulbright hearings, and you’ll see a lot of what the public is fed on the media is propaganda from the military industrial complex.”

“I’ll read all of the Fulbright Hearings. I doubt any of it will change my mind.”

Jerry broke up the confrontation, “Food’s ready everybody.” Then he took me aside, “Keep an open mind, Lavery. You’ve only heard the military position backing the war. The anti-Vietnam movement is growing and exposing the lies. Read up on it. Relax and have another drink.”

This confrontation with these sharp minds made me realize I hadn’t taken the time to study the background of the conflict. Gradually, over the next two months I learned that many popular authorities, like Senators Fulbright, Frank Church, George McGovern, Wayne Morse, and others had made dissent against this War respectable. The physical appearance of Jerry’s friends may have jolted me into a knee-jerk reaction that these disheveled academicians were irrational idealists, or worse, commie sympathizers.

These sources caused me to view more critically the Defense Department information and that of its supporters. In my sheltered military existence, I began to recognize the information that government fed the public and me was filled with propaganda. I started to ask myself why I had let my purpose in life drift so far from the values that had almost led me into the ministry. How could my government make me think I should navigate hundreds of Marines to a conflict so controversial that many highly educated people actively protested against it? I began to consider for the first time that the peace marchers might be right. They weren’t wild-eyed radicals bent on tearing down America. They were impressive and intimidated me with their arguments because I needed to read and understand the history of the conflict. However, I still had no choice but to follow orders. I had always trusted the Naval authorities who gave me orders. The Defense Department experts were required to know the best course of action for our country. Could they be wrong?

After reading the Fulbright hearings on how we got into Vietnam, many books on the history of Vietnam, and listened to KPFK people’s radio station in San Francisco, I subscribed to the magazines Jerry suggested. In about four months it slowly came to me that the Vietnam War was immoral and unjustified–-and that I had to oppose it. For the first time in my life, I grew suspicious about our government’s motives.

My father, teachers, and professors assured me that the United States had always done the right thing. Now the miserable Vietnam War, which claimed thousands of American and millions of Vietnamese lives, seemed a horrendous mistake.

I joined Veterans for Peace. There I met others opposed to the War. I wanted to return to college and study for a more meaningful career than the military when I completed my commitment so that I would have the background to contribute something important to society. Before my ship set sail for Vietnam, I purchased more than fifty books from Berkeley bookstores spurred on by the energy the confrontation infused in me on a furious pace to catch up on the reading that my military background, athletics, and disinterest had caused me to neglect.

Berkeley will always stand as a beacon to me lighting a path for my future. The enlightening experience this confrontation caused helped me learn to question authority. Trained to accept the explanations of those who made military policy on which life and death mattered, I had always obeyed lawful orders without question. The confrontation had sparked an awakening of critical thinking and moral outrage against our killing machine in Vietnam based on a lie. While soldiers in battle don't have the luxury to choose which orders to follow, many  people were becoming aware that support for counter-insurgency warfare in Vietnam depended on a well-oiled propaganda machine. The empathy I had learned from my grandmother Ruthie, the New Testament, and now the Peace Movement returned and kindled inside me a new commitment. Finally, I was on fire.


"There are times when you have to obey a call which is the highest of all, i.e. the voice of conscience even though such obedience may cost many a bitter tear, and even more, separation from friends, from family, from the state to which you may belong, from all that you have held as dear as life itself. For this obedience is the law of our being."

Mahatma Gandhi’s inspirational words, India's spiritual leader (1869-1948)

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Over There and Back

The muscular Marine officer watched sunset with his wife and eight-year-old daughter from their porch overlooking the Pacific Ocean on the Island of Coronado, California. Water lapped the shore as the surf rolled in. Shaded streaks of magenta and orange shimmered in cloud scattered sky. The reflection cast on the smooth back-flow mirrored glowing colors smeared by Nature’s paintbrush. The pattern changed with wind or breaking wave—white foam erasing images. Plunging water from waves splashed after breaking with percussive beats in throbbing rhythms. Seagulls squawked diving for minnows, catching them in beaks, flying up, circling for more. Who would know a World War raged across that Ocean?

The transport carrying him and his platoon of marines would depart tomorrow for an island occupied by the Imperial Japanese Army.  Captain Thomas Hart embraced his wife for a final time. “My ship passes Point Loma at 8:00 A.M.”

She looked at him with tear-stained eyes, “Write me every week, keep this picture in your helmet, and stay healthy.” He gazed at the photograph of his slender blond wife, freckled eight-year-old daughter, and him as they sat on his leather living room couch, petting his Labrador retriever.

He put on his cap, jumped in the waiting Marine jeep, threw his green duffle bag with his belongings in the back, and departed in a cloud of dust. Wife and daughter waved goodbye as his image faded in the twilight.

In a half an hour he had boarded the USS Zeilin, a Navy Amphibious Assault Transport carrying one hundred and fifty officers and two thousand enlisted men. Joining his compatriots in officer’s quarters, he stowed his gear, and lay in bed thinking about the journey ahead. What would he feel with his marines in landing craft plowing through the ocean approaching Japs dug in with cannons, machine guns, bullets whizzing at him, and shells bursting? He feared death, but had to hide that. Troops needed a confident leader in battle.  Closing his eyes, he meditated while deep-breathing—a walk beside a peaceful lake.

The transport steamed out of the San Diego harbor with a gaggle of gulls trailing, looking for garbage from the galley, the smoke billowing out of the stacks after an Aircraft Carrier.

Hart’s wife and daughter watched the ship gliding slowly toward the horizon ever growing smaller. When only a blip, the Zeilin dropped and disappeared as if it fell off a table into a chasm.

Two months later the Japanese initiated the battle. Alerted by the pre-dawn American amphibious forces offshore, the garrison of cannons opened fire on the task force with their six-inch naval guns shortly after five A.M. His fleet’s battleships responded. Planes strafed the enemy. Fireballs lit the sky when a sixteen inch shell hit an ammunition dump. Hart’s stomach churned. “Move out,” barked the platoon sergeant, a burly Texan named Hunsicker.

The captain of the Zeilin played the Marine Hymn over the public address system, and the sailors cheered as the 2nd Battalion Marines crawled over the side and down the cargo nets.


Hart’s platoon clambered into a landing craft. They plowed through the rolling water toward the shore.A marine next to Hart vomited. One mumbled the Lord’s Prayer with eyes closed as machine gun bullets sprayed the front of the craft. A wave lifted them—do we have a guardian angel? Hart wondered. Only men, of all living things, pray.”

Explosions from cannon shells shot water high in the air and rocked the craft.As they approached the beach some men in the water tried to reach cover in the jungle. Machine guns cut down many. Mortars fired shells at them from positions hidden in the jungle. The landing craft opened its front ramp. Hunsicker screamed, “Move out.” Bodies littered the beach and floated in the water. Hart struggled through the surf, held his rifle high, and scrambled out of the water onto sand.

A soldier in a stupor, next to him with one arm shot off cried, “Oh no, no.”

In an underground concrete bunker, a clean-cut intelligent Japanese commander planned strategy with another officer before a model of the island. Allied aircraft bombs blasted close, and shook the walls and table. As he sat on a bed for support, the leader clutched a photograph of his wife, in a kimono with a parasol, hugging their young daughter on his lap—all smiling. A Buddhist shrine hung from the wall next to a large white flag with a red circle in the center. He lit a pipe, and poured green tea into porcelain cups for him and his lieutenant. On the beach the men raced over dunes, fell, and rolled. Many died.

Shouts of “Corpsman” came from wounded marines. Hart ran into the jungle with others for cover until they reached tall grass, and crawled. Automatic machine-gun fire from under palm trees and rifles across the way in shrubs, rattled sporadically. “We’re caught in crossfire,” Hart yelled. He said to Jim, an Alabama sharp-shooter, “Get the riflemen. I’ll take the machine gunner.”

“OK Captain—let’s give ‘em hell.”

Joe, a marine from Boston who loved baseball, tossed a grenade into a hidden gun nest where Jap bullets killed two marines. After an explosion, two bloody bodies rolled out from a small dirt bunker covered with palm fronds.

The sergeant yelled, “Fix Bayonets.”

Joe imagined a blade slicing into his neck, blood gushing out. Bullets flew at them from the enemy in the jungle. A marine with a buddy next to him under cover screamed, “I’ll get the sniper” and shot. A body tumbled out. They came out to inspect.

One marine turned the body over and shouted, “It’s a dummy.” Bullets rang out from a tree killing both marines.

Jim told Joe, “Bet I stay alive longer than you.”

“Shut up and fight. If I win, you won’t pay.”

The sergeant saw rifle fire coming from a cave yelled, “Send for a flame thrower.”

A wounded Japanese soldier staggered from the jungle fell with blood flowing from bullet holes. He dreamed he was with his wife and two teenage sons soaking in an ofuro, helped them towel off, and dined with chopsticks seated in the yoga position. They meditated before a Shinto shrine.

Hart told the sergeant, “Get someone to guard the prisoner. I’m going to check on our wounded,” and left the area.

Hunsicker broke both of the man’s legs with his rifle butt, and then questioned him to learn their plans. The prisoner refused to talk. The sergeant cut off his left ear. In agony the man with fear in his eyes, held his bloody head. “Where are the Jap troops?” After silence, he stabbed the soldier in the neck and twisted the knife. Screams trailed off to a choking sound as the enemy soldier fell to his death. The sergeant kicked his body into a hole hidden by a tree. Unknown to the sergeant, a young marine observed his actions.

A soldier with a flame thrower arrived as requested and torched the cave with a stream of liquid fire scorching two Japanese soldiers who burned to a blackened crisp.

The young marine nearby vomited.

In another area of the jungle, a Japanese soldier without his helmet on photographed a large purple and scarlet flower with curving petals like a brilliant jellyfish. He opened a book from his backpack and examined the flower. Smiling as he thumbed through his drawings, he drew the flower with a set of colored pens. His face relaxed into a tranquil expression.

Marines with fixed bayonets spaced out to avoid making an easy target. Japanese soldiers sharpened their bayonets that glistened in the sun, like those of their samurai ancestors.

Hart wrote in his journal, “I’ll never figure out this war. Our men are like possums in a tree, easy targets for the enemy. Japanese men go up in flames like tissue paper. The flame thrower is the worst. I’d rather take a shot.” Returning to the scene where the sergeant had the prisoner, Hart questioned him, “Where’s the enemy soldier I asked you to guard?”

“I tried to get information out of him but he ran away when I was distracted by the Japs in the cave.”

Hart shouted, “Anybody see the wounded prisoner leave?”

The young marine approached and whispered, “The sergeant broke his legs, cut off his ear, and then killed him with his knife.”

“What happened sergeant?”

“This is war. I killed a Jap. That’s what we do so they can’t come back at us.”

“Sgt. Hunsicker we fight hard, but we don’t torture prisoners. We don’t fight out of hate. We’re not professional killers.”

Hunsicker said, “That’s a bunch of crap. I’m going to bury our dead, and kill me some more Japs.”

The young marine mused, “That’s the danger. We forget why we’re here. No one warned us of that.”


Navy and Air Force planes zoomed overhead, and bombed the enemy. Explosions rocked the ground. Sounds of missiles, bombs, and machine guns from strafing sent plumes of smoke in the air as our men smiled and cheered the angels from the sky.


After twenty minutes of constant pounding, the silence left only the jungle sounds of birds, insects, rustling palms, and ferns in the wind. Hart interrupted the ambience, “Let’s find Japanese headquarters. Follow me, I have a communication from a scout in the air that we are close.”

The men reached a clearing that overlooked a roof hidden from view. They descended through the camouflage. Hunsicker broke a hole in the roof. The young marine peered in and exclaimed, “The Japanese commander committed Hari Kari with his sword.”

Hart jumped into the room, saw the sword in the commander’s stomach and the shrine. He looked at the photo of the happy Japanese family. A tear rolled down his cheek as he climbed back and faced the men, “It’s over. They followed him back on a trail and stopped when he signaled them.

“Men I have received a message we must join the others and return to the ship.” The men followed Hart toward the beach and encountered a Japanese soldier crying next to a dead friend in uniform without his helmet. Hunsicker took aim, but Hart stopped him, “He’s unarmed.” They approached the Japanese. The distraught soldier had no weapons. Hart offered him water from his canteen. The soldier reached out for the canteen with one hand and handed Hart a small book with the other. A look of astonishment came over Hart’s face, as he thumbed through the book.

The young marine watching over Hart’s shoulder said, “The soldier was an artist. Those are his paintings of exotic flowers.”

Tears fell from Hart’s eyes. He gathered the men. “We have taken this island. Only he remains and will commit Hara Kiri, an ancient form of ritual suicide that defeated samurai, or those whose shame was too unbearable used to restore their honor.” His unarmed friend was needlessly killed. Bow your heads in prayer. Dear God help us put an end to war. Amen.”

The men trudged in silence back to the landing craft. Fires burned, and smoke rose from the island. The smell of death was everywhere as were the ghastly images the men will never erase from their minds. The men entered the landing craft that returned them to the transport. They climbed the cargo nets, and entered the Zeilin. They looked from the ship’s height over the desolate island, once paradise to its natives, now desecrated by war.

The young marine said, “We won this one. There are so many more to go.”

“I’m looking for the next battle,” Jim offered, “I got myself six gooks here.”

Joe said, “I wonder how the Red Sox are going to do next year.”

Six months later the transport pulled into San Diego Harbor. The base let the families know the time of arrival when the ship approached. Tom’s wife and daughter stood at their porch as a small dot appeared on the horizon beyond the rolling ocean kissing the shore. Sea gulls flew, squawked, and dove. Porpoise cavorted bobbing up and down beyond the surf. Dry sand glistened with shells and pebbles as each incoming wave receded. Tom noticed that Nature didn’t seem to know what he and his men had done, that a war was on, that people were dying. A steady rhythm from the sounds of waves thumping after breaking, assured a casual observer that Mother Nature would weather man’s meanness.

At the gang plank where the Zeilin anchored among a crowd of well-wishers, family, and officials, Tom stood waving. The Coronado Navy band broke into the Marine Hymn. There wasn’t a dry eye. Below, Hunsicker shined his shoes. The young marine wore a wide smile. Jim cleaned his gun. His family was down south. He couldn’t wait for another medal as a sharpshooter.

When the time came, Major Tom ran down the gangplank, grabbed his wife and daughter, hugged, and kissed them.

“We are so proud of you dear. Thank God you’re home,” his wife said.

He lifted up his daughter, and wheeled around in a dance of joy, and shouted, “I’m home. I’m home to stay.” He put his daughter down and hugged his wife as the tears rolled down all of their faces. Their hearts beat as one.

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