|The Whole World Was Watching
an oral history of 1968
DanielleSavastano: Where and when were you born, and where did you grow up?
Bob Kerr: I was born July 14, 1945 in Cortland, New York and grew up in upstate New York until my high school years when we moved to Detroit. I graduated from high school in Detroit.
DS: Could you briefly describe your family and your neighborhood?
BK: Well, when we lived in Detroit, we lived in a suburb called Grosse Point which was an entirely white, upper middle, well, maybe, nah, upper middle class suburb in Detroit.
My parents were both teachers and I went to a private school called the Grosse Point University School and it was a pretty cloistered existence it was pretty, it was nice in a way, but it was pretty unreal in a way too.
I mean, it was all white, it was fairly wealthy, we weren't wealthy by any means, but the community was. It was a nice school, it was a nice place to go to school, but I had a lot to learn once I left there.
DS: Did your mother work outside the home?
BK: She taught part time.
DS: How did your family respond to that?
BK: It wasn't, wasn't a problem. She was always there as we were growing up, she stayed at home. So, it was only after my brother and sister were off at college and I was in high school that she decided to go back and teach, so it wasn't an issue even.
DS: How were your household chores and duties allocated in your family?
BK: God, I don't remember. I mean, when I was in high school I was the only kid at home so I did that part of it. I did the lawn and shoveled the walk, but I didn't do a lot.
DS:What were your parents' political views and affiliations?
BK: Republican conservative, Eisenhower, Nixon, it's pretty embarrassing to think about now, but they were.
DS: Where did you and your family get information about politics and other events?
BK: Always news papers, primarily. We were a big news paper family and I can always remember news papers from day one. I know my parents were not, they never ran for office, but they were always involved locally in committees and stuff. They stayed, you know, they kept up on local candidates. The newspapers and, I don't remember so much TV news being a big thing, then, just mostly newspapers.
DS: What did you think you wanted to be when you grew up and how did that change over time?
BK: I had no idea. You know, when I was young, real young, I though I'd be a doctor and then I realized I didn't deal with blood and needles very well. I went to college, I was an English major in college that takes you in no particular direction. I realized I wanted to get into news papers probably sometime in college. I was on the college paper, I hung around with a lot of people who were really into journalism. I didn't have much in the way of career thoughts at all until, maybe until I was in the Marine Corps, and then after I got out I came back to Detroit and got an internship at the Detroit Frequent . I think, I turned out to do what I wanted to do, actually which was nice.
DS:Were you aware of any discrimination against people in your family or neighborhood?
BK: Not in Grosse Point, Michigan I wasn't because it was all white. But I think I became aware of, of, yeah of discrimination or of different classes maybe. The newspaper ran a great picture in Grosse Point once of all the cleaning women, there's one street where all the cleaning women who came out from Detroit to Grosse Point to clean the houses, waited everyday at five o'clock for their buses back home. The photographer shot straight down the street and there was all these black women waiting to leave Grosse Point.
And my sister was a poverty lawyer in Detroit and she tried to give me a social conscience, she tried very hard to give me a social conscience, and I think she sort of sowed the seeds. Without her I probably would have gone much longer without really being aware of what was going on, but she was, she was a great help.
DS:Where did you attend high school and how did your education shape you as a person?
BK: Well, the Grosse Point University School, which was a private day school in Grosse Point. My father taught there so I was allowed to go there on full scholarship, that's why I could go there. It was a fairly privileged environment, I don't think it got me ready for much of anything. I think it was a good education, teachers were good, small classes. I mean, the social mix was obviously, not anything like I was going to be seeing when I got out. So, I think, for me, between there and college it was kind of a jolt because, you know, it was a big difference for me.
DS: Okay, where did you go to college and did you?
BK: It was called Hamilton College, which is in the wilds of upstate New York. At the time it was an all men's school, eight hundred men up on a hill top, all by themselves. And my father had gone there, and some uncles had gone there, and it was a wonderful school. I mean, it was, but it was a little monastic. The winters were, upstate New York winters are legendary.
And we were eighteen, eighteen was the drinking age then, only in New York. That was a huge adjustment, I mean, all of a sudden I could go into a bar where I couldn't in Michigan. So it was a pretty crazy four years. It was good academically, it was a wonderful place, and it was a physically beautiful place to be. But it was that, I came out of there in 1967 when things were starting to get a little crazy.
DS: Did you, you said you were an English major?
DS: Is that what you were at first, or?
BK: Yeah, I was. It was the catch all major for people who really didn't have any definite goals. You like to read, you like to write, you know, you did that.
DS: Did you do any extracurricular activities or memberships in?
BK: I was on the school paper for, I think, all four years. I just played like, intramural athletics, fraternity athletics. I didn't, the only social club I was in was the club that drank every week, that was our goal. But no, I wasn't very active.
DS: Do you feel there was a generation gap?
BK: There was an incredibly large, I think that there was an incredibly large generation gap. You mean between my parents and I?
BK: Oh, absolutely. I think it became more pronounced once I went in the Marines and then came back from Vietnam, I think, I went way left in my politics. I supported McGovern in '72 and my parents were, had those rock solid values from the Fifties of family and everything else and I was a complete jerk back then. I was really flaunting that whole freedom thing, growing my hair to my shoulders, when I still had hair. My father I think was real disappointed and I think back on it now, and I'm real disappointed at the way I acted. I was real angry, maybe `cause we were supposed to be.
But yeah, it's a long answer to your question but, I don't think my parents could quite take it all in what happened in the Sixties, they just, it was just so overwhelming I think for someone of their generation, the World War II generation. And I wasn't home a lot once I went in the Marine Corps and then I went to work, I was away from home. But when I would be at home there would be some uneasy times, because I was doing that whole thing that they found irresponsible, if not criminal, and I was into it because it was this first time to really cut loose I guess. So, there was a big gap, we came back together eventually, but there was a few years there when it was, it wasn't pretty, it wasn't comfortable at all.
DS: What about, like, the clothing and the, like, your hair and styles, what did that reveal about people in the time?
BK:I think, I mean, I was just, I just got hideous. I mean, I was wearing the flowered shirts and bell bottoms and everything, wearing my old Marines stuff with the long hair. And I think, you look back, I mean, hindsight is everything, but it just seems so fraudulent to me now in a way that we felt it necessary to shock people by our appearance. It was sort of bogus, I think, in a way.
But at the time, it was just this great self indulgence spree we all went on, you know, with drugs and drinking and everything and we just thought we had it all together that our parents had been repressed and we were, we were free. And it was a crock basically. It really was and the damage is still being felt, but I've jumped in.
DS: Yeah, how do you feel about the use of drugs? Did you know anyone who did drugs and had consequences or?
BK: I don't know many who didn't, to be honest with you I really don't. I mean, the people I knew, we all did marijuana, we all did some chemicals. Especially the people I knew from Vietnam, some of them just never got out of it. But, yeah we did. And I don't think I gravitated towards it as this mind expanding experience, I gravitated toward it because of the people who were doing it already, and I wanted to be part of that.
DS: Which were you favorite movies or books or anything that influenced you at the time?
BK: During '68 or in that period?
DS: Yeah, in that period
BK: Oh geez, what was happening then? I'm trying to think. I don't know, I know Easy Rider was like '69, that was a great pivotal movie, it was supposed to be anyway. The Graduate, but I can't remember movies that like, socially, you know. I probably will right after I leave. But you know, I can't. It's funny I can't, I should be able to think of something.
DS: Did you watch TV at all or anything?
BK: I watched, you know, all the music, there were awful music shows on then, like Shindig and Hullabaloo, that was when British rock was really starting to get big, and I can't remember what the big pivotal TV shows were, that's terrible, I can't. I remember watching The Beatles at Shea Stadium on TV. But as far as like, you know, TV shows that I always watched, that were particularly meaningful, this is awful. I can't think of what they were. I remember The Graduate was a great movie, but it was just a movie I liked.
DS: Going back to school, what instructor or course do you most remember and why?
BK: In college?
DS: Yeah, or in high school.
BK: I had an expository writing course in college, which was, I remember only because it showed me that I could write. And the teacher was incredibly encouraging, and just really, got me excited about it. I remember Modern British Literature for some reason because we read James Joyce who I'd never read and I actually got excited about Ulysses, which most people didn't want to even read.
And the teachers at Hamilton , I mean, Hamilton was a place where if the weather was nice you'd sit out under a tree and have you know, Modern British Lit. or something like that and the teachers were very, and those two courses I just remember getting excited about writing and, you know, British Literature. Those were great.
DS: Do you, can you remember any important music that was an important part of your life? That influenced you at all?
BK: I can remember in '64, I was a freshman, I had just finished my freshman year in college I think and The Beatles were around and I just never thought, I just thought they were kinda wimpy. And this friend of mine I had, this friend of mine got tickets to the Rolling Stones when nobody knew who they were. And we went to see them in a hockey stadium in Detroit and there were like, five hundred people there, nobody knew who they were and they were like in this huge hall with nobody, and we just knew as soon as we saw them we said these guys are incredible and Keith Richards was like, still doing Elvis Presley moves on stage and everything and I've just stuck, I mean, I've been with them forever. They were nasty, but they were, there was almost a wit to their music too, and it was very pointed and edgy, you know.
I loved, I loved rock and roll and I loved a lot of the Brit, I mean, I loved "The Kinks," "The Who," "The Stones." I went to an awful lot of concerts, I just loved the feeling, I went to some of the big festivals. I remember being in Byron, Georgia in a soybean field with like half a million people there, the Atlanta Pop Festival, and Jimi Hendrix was there and Jethro Tull and I forget who else. I liked an awful lot of the stuff.
I grew up, in Detroit when I was a kid Bob Segar was like the local band, he was this guy who just had a local band and he was always around and then he hit it big in like, seventy eight or nine with "Night Moves" and I thought that was great I mean, he was my local, local, local kid made good so. Yeah, and then at The Journal I was a music reviewer for a while even though I technically I couldn't do it, but I did it anyway `cause they started [in on -? ed.] concerts and I had long hair so they figured, let him do it.
DS: Did you go to Woodstock?
BK: Didn't, I was in Vietnam then.
DS: Oh, right. Was 1960 and the election of John F. Kennedy at turning point for you at all?
BK: It was a huge disappointment at my house because everybody was a Nixon, I wasn't, I was pretty apolitical, that would have been my sophomore year in high school. But, no, I don't think I saw it as a, as a turning point. I don't remember getting excited about Camelot or the Peace Corps or any of that stuff, `cause I don't think, when I was a sophomore in high school I don't think I had any political awareness at all.
DS: Do you remember anything about the Cold War or, like, the Cuban Missile Crisis?
BK: I remember the Cuban Missile Crisis and the tension of it, and my father being convinced that we were gonna go to war over it, and him actually expressing the hope that he didn't, he hoped that my brother and I wouldn't be drawn into it. And that was sixty. two? I think?
DS: Yeah, something around there .
BK: And yeah, I remember an incredible amount of tension. I remember I couldn't wait to get to the newspaper to see what was going on and how proud we were, I mean, everybody felt so good when supposedly Cuba backed down or Russia backed down since then we've found I think it was otherwise, but yeah, I remember that.
DS: What about when JFK was assassinated, do you remember that?
BK: That was the weirdest, I think, when I always think when did things turn? I think that was when they turned. I was in my room at school, I was a freshman, guy walked in and said, JFK and John Conneley had been assassinated, and we ran down to the basement of the dorm to watch the TV, and they came, Conneley hadn't been obviously he had been hit. And it was just so removed from anything, we just weren't, you know, I mean, that didn't happen, it just didn't happen, but since then it's happened. I remember they called of school for four days and they had a peace vigil and we had chapel services and there's this unreality about it that I think, we started to realize that we weren't, you know, we weren't safe anymore like, these things could happen, I mean, I always see that as the time when the world flipped over I mean, from then on you know, it was like crazy, from then on I mean, Vietnam was just sort of starting he had just gotten us sort of involved and then it just got crazier.
DS: Do you think that discrimination against people of color was a problem?
BK: I saw, you know, I told you, high school experience wasn't that revealing about it. But, I mean, Detroit was a heavily black city at the time. My sister was very involved, in, I guess what you might call racial politics or whatever, she got me involved in some campaigns for black judges.
But, yeah, you could see a lot of it. I think going into the Marine Corps was a real eye opener for me because all of a sudden your living in these squad bays in Vietnam with people, you know, inner city kids, and a huge, huge, majority of kids over there were underprivileged inner city kids, black kids mostly.
And you know, you'd hear for the first time a lot of times, what, you know, what they were all about. And I hadn't heard that before, I mean, I hadn't had, my black experience to that point was you know, taking a cold drink out of the guy who would come dig up our garden every spring. Or you know, I'd see a few at the games in Detroit and stuff, but I mean, nothing. And I think the Marines was good for me that way `cause it really opened your eyes.
DS: You said your sister tried to get you involved in the thing for the judges, were you involved in any, like, groups like that or Civil Rights Movements or political groups?
BK: Not as a, I would go down with her and campaign for people at factory gates and stuff. I had a brief fling with the Vietnam Veterans Against the War in '69, '70. John Carey, he's a senator in Massachusetts now, but he sort of started that group.
And I was very impressed with him I used to come home and watch Dick Cavet, and Dick Cavet had him and this other guy on for like two weeks straight, debating the War this was like '70,'71. You know, it was great, it was great television. This other guy was like, Veterans for Just Peace and he was very well dressed and John Carey had his fatigues on so I got sorta involved with that because I thought that group had the greatest impact and had the most credibility if Veterans thought the War was wrong, you know, maybe people would listen.
DS:Did you think discrimination against women was a problem?
BK: No, I didn't see that, not then. I didn't even think in those terms, no.
DS: Did you follow any of the, any of those things like the Women's Movement or the Civil Rights Movement?
BK: I think, yeah, I mean, once I started working for newspapers, which I started to do in '69, you couldn't help but be aware. I mean, those were the things that were going on and we were sort of in the center of it.
I remember in Moratorium Day in '69 in Detroit when I was covering, I was working at the Free Press and I covered that, and just the anger that day was incredible to me. And. the Free Press was good because it was a Detroit paper and realized it had to reflect Detroit so, there were a lot of blacks were working there, a lot of wom, a lot of black women actually, who taught me a few things, much to my embarrassment sometimes because I was coming in from Grosse Point everyday and they thought was a bit of a handicap to start with, and they thought they had to let me know what was going on. So little by little, my awareness grew. But I would say that, you know, did I see, you know, discrimination against women as an issue in '68 or, no, I don't think so.
DS: Okay, were there any rallies or demonstrations on your campus?
BK: There was, it was a real quiet campus, in that, I mean, as I said it was kind of stuck away in the middle of upstate New York. There were some attempts to block military recruiters from coming.
The biggest demonstration I think we had was when the administration let state police come in and search dorm rooms for drugs, and the place went nuts. And that just shows you probably how spoiled and self indulgent we were, that that was the biggest thing that would get us upset. I mean, I think it was a stupid thing for the administration to do but, it wasn't a real activist campus in terms of antiwar politics. I left in '67 and after, it did become more so after that.
But I don't know, I remember a lot of people telling me I was crazy when I enlisted in the Marine Corps in my senior year, I mean, which I did out of lack of anything better to do basically, but you know, they told me how nuts I was but, there wasn't, there wasn't a heavily, you know, there weren't any bombings or burnings or anything like that.
DS: So, you enlisted in the Marine Corps?
BK: I did, I did. I walked into the student center at school one day and things weren't going too well, and I'd just broken up with somebody, which was a pretty regular thing for me anyway, and my grades weren't very good. So I knew graduate school wasn't a possibility. And there were two guys in dressed blues there and I thought, they look great so I thought, why not? And really, I mean, that's really flip but that's about as much thought that went into it.
DS:Did you have any history of military service in your family at all?
BK: I had an uncle who was a doctor in the, an Army doctor, but no, no great sense of I had to fill family tradition, no.
DS: How long did you serve for?
BK: Just two years.
DS: Did you chose the services that you did, like, Marines or?
BK: Yeah, well I had taken a test for Navy Air. I thought being a pilot would be great. You know, just this incredibly naive look at, you know, it would be nice to fly jets. And I didn't pass that.
And then the Marines were next, the Marines were, the Marines, if you had pulse you would get in the Marines. The Navy ROTC or Navy OCS and some of the other OCS programs were really tough to get into, navy being because everybody wanted to be on ships `cause they figured that was safer than going to Vietnam, but the Marines were, the Marines were this crazy leap for me, like, I'd lived a safe, kind of you know, life, well up `til then and I figured I would make the break and go into the Marines and be crazy.
DS: Did you learn any new skills or anything while you were in the Marines?
BK: Well, I mean, I worked officially as a combat correspondent in Vietnam. So, I suppose, I learned to write, although you couldn't write anything bad. You couldn't say a Marine got wounded, I mean, you couldn't write anything bad that happened. But it let me at least write and develop I guess some skills.
I mean, other than that, I mean, learning to shoot a rifle, the weapons stuff, I mean, I had to carry an M-16 when in the fields with Marines, but I don't think I ever felt I became a rifleman or, you know, every Marine is supposed to be a rifleman first and then something else later. I'm not sure I ever, I mean, we came, we were in some fire fights and stuff, but as far as learning skills in the military that served me well I don't, except the fact that I sort of worked as a reporter, but that was all.
DS:Did you know, anyone who got drafted or tried to resist that or anything?
BK: Oh a lot of people. A lot of people who got four "F"'s, a lot of people went to graduate school strictly for that reason because you still get deferred by that. I was the only, I was the only person in my high school class, I think, who went, and one of maybe four or five from Hamilton, my graduating class, at the most. I remember we got, I forget what year it was, a friend of mine flunked out, didn't know him well but at Hamilton you knew everybody, and he flunked out, enlisted in the Marines and got killed in Vietnam, like three months later. And that really jolted all of us, it really kinda brought it home, you know, in a way it hadn't before.
DS: Do you recall how you felt as you left home?
BK: To go to Vietnam?
DS: Yeah, or in the Marines.
BK: I was sobbing that day I remember. My parents didn't want me to go, they didn't understand why I was doing it and I left for boot camp in September of '67. And my brother drove me to the airport because my parents, I didn't, I wanted to say good-bye at home. And they were you know, they weren't, they didn't say, you're crazy to do this, they just they were very supportive with saying good-bye and everything.
And then it was almost a year later when I left for Vietnam and that was a lot more traumatic I think. I don't think, even though the chances were like ninety percent that I would go to Vietnam if I was in the Marines, they never thought I would.
And the day I left was just real, real, tough on them. It was, `cause I had to fly to Camp Peddelton, I think for a couple of weeks, and we just held each other in a way we didn't normally do. And it was, it was real emotional and our family was not an emotional family, so it was a pretty heavy moment for us.
And when I was in Vietnam, I lied, the best thing I ever did I think, I told 'em I was in a rear area, I was in air conditioned office, I was never in danger. And I was going out with Marine infantry units, you know, all the time, but I just kept up this, and I think it was a, when I look back on it, I think it was a very kind thing I did because I think if they knew what I was doing they would've been, it would've been that much harder, you know.
DS:What about your experiences in boot camp and officer training schools you had?
BK: Talk about you know, jolting you out of your old lifestyle. I mean, you know, I'd gone to Grosse Point University School and Hamilton College, I mean, that's just about as white and privileged as you can get. And all of a sudden, I was getting beaten around by these southern, oh, they're all southerners, all the DI's it seemed like, were just southern guys.
In OCS, there was this little edge to everything because they knew you'd be a lieutenant eventually, and they'd have to salute you, but boy, but until then. And I liked all of them, in a weird way, I was scared to death of 'em. They could still slap you around then, they could, you know. But here we were this bunch of guys who, most were all college graduates, some of 'em weren't, some had worked their way up and gone to OCS, which was at Quantico, Virginia, it was just ten weeks of being scared and uncertain. I was never a commissioned officer. I made it through OCS but I was never commissioned.
But, you just, you like these guys so much even though they belittled you and demeaned you everyday. And yet, you wanted to do well for them, and I was personally disappointed that I didn't make it for that reason. I mean, I even went up to my DI at the end of it and apologized, it was weird. And he got killed later.
DS: Where did you serve?
BK: I was in, I stayed at Quantico for a year. The way it worked out was if you went through OCS and you weren't commissioned they just made you PFC, and we were all assigned different jobs at Quantico. I was on the base newspaper, and then they had one opening for my job in Vietnam and I just took it on the spur of the moment. I said, this is crazy to do the Marine Corps and not go to Vietnam, it's stupid. And I probably could have hid out in Quantico for the two years, but I'm really glad I didn't.
And then, I was sent to what was called I-Corps, which was the northern most part of South Vietnam, along the DMZ and Dong Ha, Quang Tri, in that area. And we covered, we were all over the place in the Marine units, I mean, in a weird way it was a great year because I got to see so much of the War being, my combat course was I was out with engineers and infantry units, and we even spent a week in a mountain yard village once. So, in a way, I was very fortunate to see it that way.
DS:When and where were you when you were in South East Asia and how long did you stay there?
BK: Well I just said where I was. I was there September '68 to September '69. The Marine Tour at the time was thirteen months `cause the Marines wanted to have one more month than everybody else, it was typical of them. But my enlistment was up, so I did twelve months.
As I said it was frightening sometimes, we got hit, and it was frightening to be in combat, but at the same time it was incredibly eye-opening. We would go out on missions sometimes and nothing would happen, and you would sit and realize what a beautiful place it was you would sit up on a mountain at night and look out and just, it's a stunning country, and you would think, why is this happening?
And other times it would be crazy, I mean, the first time I ever went out on an operation the helicopter was coming into the LZ and they yelled, "Hot LZ." This is a war story, this is my war story, but and I looked out and there were guys lying on ponchos in the landing zone. And it was hot and I looked out and I wondered why would they be sleeping in the middle of all this that's going on? That was my first thought, I didn't think dead, you know, it was like, my first time out the door gunner opened up before we even touched down and it was like, oh my god what is this? And that was my first thought, why would they be lying out here sleeping in the middle of all this? And they were just lying on ponchos, just spread out on the ground and it was very strange. I realized quickly enough that they weren't sleeping.
DS: What did you understand the purpose of the American Military presence in South East Asia to be?
BK: To keep the North Vietnamese from overrunning the South Vietnamese and denying them the opportunity to be a democratic government. It was a civil war that we were coming in on the side of democracy. And it was us against them, it was freedom against communism, it was all the classic confrontations. And I think, when I went in '68 it was starting to turn in terms of questioning. I don't think it had been questioned for a while, but it was starting to be questioned before I went, obviously, but there was an awful lot of, when I was OCS they had the big demonstrations at the Pentagon in Washington, so that clarity of purpose was starting to be eroded even then, you know. Anyway, by the time I got back it was like, the turmoil was there.
DS: Did you know, like, about the unpopularity of the War while you were there?
BK: Oh yeah. We would debate it a lot over there. I think one thing that was agreed was that the demonstrations were undermining us, that they were probably leading to the deaths of some Americans because it encouraged the enemy. But, at the same time, a lot of us thought it's probably good they're doing this because this is nuts, this makes no sense.
I mean, you could see, the craziness of it was, on one level, you could see that the real military professionals were allowed to do what they wanted to do, everything had political considerations, so you would think something was obvious and then they couldn't do it. Or you would spend days taking something and then you would have to leave it. So militarily, it made no sense.
And then politically, you realized the South Vietnamese didn't really have their hearts in this. I mean, they didn't really wanna, you know, so you were really confronted with a lot of questions and then you said, man, I hate to die for this, `cause there's not much point to it. That's what made it so weird, and I think the drugs, the drugs over there were unbelievable. It was like a real refuge for a lot of people.
DS:Do you have any other stories about combat or anything?
BK: I mean, I, yeah, I do, I don't know. We were getting overrun at night once, I was really scared and it was just a question of if they ran by the hole I was in, thank god. There were just, yeah, I don't know if you want to, I was scared, incredibly scared a lot when things happened. I mean, I think I was ready to do what, I was supposed to be a rifleman of sorts when things happened, but the most gruesome stuff was the aftermath of stuff. I mean, you were, we were in an area once, do you want details or?
DS: Sure, yeah.
BK: They would set up these things called fire support bases, and what they were, were a hill top leveled off and they would put howitzers 105, 155's, and they put up you know, an infantry company for security and then they would set up wire all around. And they would put up wires with like, tin cans and stuff on them so that if anybody came through at night they would make noise. And one night these, what they call sappers, came through. And I looked out, and there was, fireflies were very common in Vietnam, you would see 'em all at night. So we looked out at what we thought were fireflies, and what it turned out to be was that they had these little pen light flashlights.
DS: Oh wow.
BK: And they flashed them on and off to see the wires. And they worked their way through the wires, just real quickly flashing, and they saw were the cans were and stuff. And by the time that we realized they were inside, what satchels did was they had what they called satchel charges, and what they were just explosive, contact explosives and they would run from bunker to bunker and just throw them in and just run around with them. And we were off the hill, thank god, when it happened, and everybody had to pull off eventually. And then when light came, the jets came in and drove the Vietcong off, or I don't know if it was Vietcong or the North Vietnamese army.
But you saw how the cruelest part of that whole thing was, and this is one of these things, you know, you sometimes hear about I guess. But there were a lot of them, a lot of the sappers got caught in the wire during the fighting that ensued and they were just hung up in the wire and never got out and they were just shot to pieces. And people just went out to the bodies, `cause I mean, a lot of people, a lot of Marines had been killed and just, and just, did, you know, did stuff to 'em, just cut 'em. I mean, these were long dead bodies, I mean, these were bodies that were so dead that you know, and they would stomp, stomp the heads or kick, just kick 'em, out of just pure hatred and frustration and all kinds of things I think, `cause friends had been killed or.
And we had to bring a guy back from there for dental identification. This crew chief on this helicopter came over to me and said, "Carry him on." And I said, "No!" And he said, "Carry him on," he said, "you're not getting on unless you help carry him on!" And it was like, there were no, he was, he was that far gone that they couldn't identify him and he was like this hunk and we put him down in the chopper and he was lying there in the middle with guys on both sides of him and everybody you could tell, nobody would look at him and he was like this hollow piece of stuff. And that was, that was probably the worst, that was, and I often, and you think since then, why didn't that mess me up more than it did and I don't know. I mean, no one should see that that's crazy. Let me know if I'm rambling too much.
DS: Oh no, that's the point of, when did you become aware of protests back home?
BK: I think, I think, when I was in OCS, I mean, we were aware that there was an antiwar movement on, but I remember when there, when they had the demonstration at the Pentagon we got orders, in OCS they would let you take weekend liberty after about six weeks because if you were gonna be an officer you were supposed to be able to handle that sort of thing. And, but that weekend, they said if they caught us in Washington, we'd be court marshaled. We couldn't go near the Pentagon, or near Washington. So you knew then that it was getting a little weird.
I remember reading about the women putting flowers in the gun barrels of the soldiers at the Pentagon and all that stuff. And then, I think they weren't as brutal as we, I mean, '68 was an incredibly heavy year for antiwar, it really heated up. So, I think we were aware of it, but not seeing it as anyway of having an impact on what we were doing at that point, obviously later on we did, but we didn't see it in those terms, I don't think.
DS: What about your relationships with the other soldiers? Were you guys, like, close?
BK: With other Marines?
BK: It was great. I would say, in terms of a feeling good about male relationships, that's the best it gets. And the weird thing is, they always tell you that you never keep those friendships that you always think that you go through this incredibly intense experience with each other and you'll stay in touch for life. And I remember a sergeant or somebody telling me that won't happen. And it doesn't. I stay in touch with one guy, occasionally, not in any way normally, and we were saying we were gonna have parties, and every year we were gonna get together in a different city, and we didn't. But during that time, it's just, I think it's a great feeling. You know, I sort of bought into that whole idea of "brothers in arms," I think, to some extent.
DS: Did any conflicts arise with people in your units or anything?
BK: Racially they did, a lot of, and you started to feel a little bit, I remember when Martin Luther King was assassinated, I was still at Quantico and I was in a squad bay which was I don't probably forty, fifty people maybe double bunks you know, and a lot of the guys who were there had come back from Vietnam and a lot of guys were waitin' to go.
But anyway, this real idiot came through, and I think he was from Arkansas or somewhere. And he said, "Did you hear they're gonna give the guy who killed Martin Luther King the medal of honor?" And there weren't that many people in there at the time, but there were guys, and there were a group of black Marines in the corner just talking. And I could tell, you know, that they heard what he said and he was found in the showers the next morning just, I mean, really beat up badly, and nothing was ever, they supposedly investigated, some people went to the, I remember some people went to the gunnery sergeant and said look, you know, basically this is what he said, this is what, you know, he deserved what he got. But that was the real ugly part.
But I mean, you know, you had blacks just beginning to realize, you know, we should have a piece of the action and you had the whites who still felt they didn't or shouldn't. And it was a tough mix. I mean, in Vietnam they always said the best relationships were in the combat units because you sort of knew they had to get along. But in the rear there was a lot you know, of stuff going on, at the EM clubs at night they would tell you, you know, go in groups of six or seven. We got to Okinawa on the way back they gave us the same warning, don't go out without seven or eight people because there's some you know, racial ugliness goin' on. So it was just starting to get, to have an edge to it. And I think part of that was because these guys were sayin', hey, you know, we died, you know, we took the shot, you know, we deserve something and we're not gonna go back to the same stuff we came from. So that added to it, and I think if any, if a white appeared to be pushing in the wrong way, they would react.
DS: Did you talk about going home a lot, like, with your friends or?
BK: Yeah, I think we would talk about going home, what we would do, more like short-timers calendars. Everybody kept a calendar. It started with three hundred and sixty five little squares or some guys would have a walking stick and they would carve a little bit of it each day. So if you saw a guy walking around with a stick that was like that long, he was a short timer, you know.
But, oh yeah, you had food fantasies all the time, sexual fantasies, constantly talked about what you were gonna do when you got back, and I don't think, probably very few of us lived up to it. But you know, we all had R&R, late, usually late in our year you would get to go. I got to go to Australia which was the most self indulgent six days I've ever spent in my life. But, that's what would help get you ready, or the idea was that it would help get you ready to come home.
But, it was very weird coming home. You really would slip sometimes in your language, or you know, my parents were pretty understanding about it but, it was, yeah we did, I think the biggest conversation in Vietnam was what we were gonna do when we got home.
DS:What were your personal views about the War? Did that change after a while?
BK: You know, it's funny. I don't think, it's so personal when you're there and I think it's a very personal, and you don't see it in big terms, you don't see it in political terms, you see it in terms of your friends, and what you have to do each day. And I don't really think I saw it beyond that a whole lot `till I got back and then I just started to, you know, that thing with Vietnam Veterans Against the War and just started seeing some of the duplicity involved, and what got us in there, and how the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution probably wasn't legitimate.
And it all, you just started to hear a lot of the lying that had gone on and anger, you know, incredible anger, I think was the biggest thing among veterans, just angry that they'd been taken, there's a sense that you had been taken for a fool, you know, you'd really been had. And people were mad about that, and I think the political awareness came with a sense of personal betrayal more than anything else that, it really was, you know, we had been taken. And you reacted in a way that, I think you felt a need to be almost as well informed as you could so you could react you know, correctly. So I mean, I just read an awful lot, listened an awful lot.
And I mean, you know, that whole Jane Fonda, Joan Baez thing I'll never understand, I mean, I just despise what they did. I just think it was misguided, and stupid, and dangerous, you know. And I remember going to see Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden once, and I just, it was just like an act almost, it was just. I thought it was just profoundly sad that she was used, I think she was used anyway. I don't think they helped shorten the War I don't think they helped anything, but anyway.
DS:How did you deal with the realities of the War, like all the you know, like death and everything?
BK: With drugs, we drank a lot, and with friends, you know, you use your friendships. We didn't, I mean, within our own unit which was the combat correspondents of the [... -? ed.] we didn't lose that many people, we lost some.
But the weird thing was you'd get very attached to the unit you worked with, that you went out on the field with, and we would always come back early, you know, we'd be out maybe ten days, and they'd be out, god, forty sometimes, so when they came in you'd always go over and see who got it. And it was, it was a very grim thing to do, but you wanted to know, you wanted to know, you know, if anybody you know, had gotten killed. And I mean, you can't exaggerate, we were, we were in a pretty loose position.
I mean, we were kind of on our own when we weren't in the field, and we had a little hooch at this place called Vandiger combat base and no real commanding officer around a lot.
And you can't exaggerate the use of drugs and alcohol in Vietnam, I mean, it was, it was incredible., everything was pretty plentiful. And it was, you know, sometimes you just like, think it was great to watch the flares at night and get a little stoned and watch the flares go up at night. But there were other times when it really was a way to deal with it, and it was not maybe the right way. But every once in a while they'd do a sweep and they'd bust guys for marijuana or something but, it was.
The funny thing was, that sometimes you'd buy, buy marijuana from the Vietnamese and it would turn out to be buffalo dung, and you really couldn't take it back and demand your money back so. But there was a lot of it, I mean, there were times when, did you see Platoon?
BK: Best Vietnam war movie, I think, ever made, and there's a party scene where they're down in this bunker and they're playin, god, the Doors I think or something and they're all smoking out of their rifle barrels.
DS: Yeah, we saw that in a movie actually.
BK: Yeah, and that movie for me was just an eye opener. I think it, brought more people around than anything, I think.
But there was a lot of it, I mean, there were parties, that were just loud. Everyone would be in these dusty, little grubby hooches and everybody would go to the PX and you'd have these, you have stereos with everything in there and you'd just crank it up and you get, you just get crazy. And you dance with each other and it was just crazy, but that's, that's what we did.
DS: Did you receive letters from home or write letters home at all?
BK: A lot, yeah. As I told you I lied in the letters to the extent of what I was doing but, yeah, a lot of my mother must of written two or three times and a lot of care packages. A lot of people sent care packages and some tapes. We would send tapes home sometimes. Some guys would send these incredible war stories on tapes home like, `yesterday I almost got it.' I would sit there listening to them record these bullshit stories about `oh, it was tight yesterday we were in heavy you know, and I'm lucky to be here you know, it's just, you know.' And I was thinking, who you sendin' that to? `Oh, my girlfriend or my mother.' And I would say, 'Oh that's nice.' You know?
But yeah, there were a lot of, the big thing was Dear John letters. I mean, people haven written about 'em for, people have written books about 'em, but guys would get Dear John letters from their girlfriends or their wives you know, telling 'em it was all over. And it was like, it was incredible.
I mean, one guy he just went out and read it and he put his rifle right in there and just [gesturing a gun right underneath his chin] and he was sitting next to his best friend and he had his rifle like this [showing how the rifle was being leaned on, barrel side up near the man's face], and he had just gotten his Dear John letter and his best friend was trying to console him and he just brought the rifle back in there and just emptied his magazine into his head. And his friend was like a basket case I mean, he was just, he was just gone. And it was, [he laughs], it's nothing to laugh at but it was like, I mean, some of 'em would send pictures with their new boyfriends you know, there was like a real sadistic edge to some of it.
And I had gone, I had been, I had been date, madly in love with this women who, we parted on uncertain grounds, I think when I left. But I finally wrote to her in Vietnam I said I gotta know what's goin' on, and all this stuff, and she wrote back and said she was married, and had gotten married fairly soon after I'd left. And so this friend of mine who, he had been saving a bottle of scotch for his wedding anniversary or something so we went down and got, just got wrecked. It was silly. But there was, when that happened you had to sort of rally around and you know, get drunk or stoned or something, anyway, that was my Dear John experience.
DS: What about the living conditions, can you describe that?
BK: Well, they weren't that bad. I mean, the hooches were just basic plywood hooches. But you know, you had a decent bunk, and I remember we used the ammo boxes for book cases. Books were big, books were, books you had to have, people traded books, and `cause when you didn't have anything to do you really wanted to read. And we had, I think after a while we had electricity at Vandergrift. So we had radios, on the radio there was a guy that came on "Good Morning Vietnam" and then played rock and roll from Saigon. I think, and it really wasn't bad, the food was I mean, they really made an effort to give you good meals over there. But you know all that like creepy crawly things. There were a lot of you know, rats and stuff like that, and there were. What do you call the things with a hundred.?
BK: Centipedes! There were centipedes that were huge, I mean, they were like, they were like this [holding hands about six inches apart], and some guys would get up and shoot with their 45's in the middle of the night you'd hear a 45 go off and the guy would say, you'd wake up, and the guy would say, "There was a rat, I finally got the rat." And a 45 sounds like a you know, a bomb, and these idiots, some of these idiots would sit at night waitin' and they'd shoot the 45's and you'd want to kill 'em. I mean, you'd literally want to kill them.
But, it was in some ways I've got really great memories of that year in some ways. I mean, we ate well, and in the field, out with the grunts it was [predictable ], when you dug in at night and we were given radio duty or perimeter duty or something like that, and you'd cook up your "C" rations. And if it was a quiet mission it was like a nice, it was almost like a nice camping trip. You know, you're out there in a beautiful spot, usually high up, and it was fairly peaceful. Although there was always that edge of, were they out there and were they gonna, you know, do anything.
But it's weird, the living. We had all the beer we wanted. These USO shows would come through every once in a while. If you were in the rear you've see them. Mostly they seemed to be Filipino rock bands who would like memorize "Twist and Shout" phonetically. You know, they really didn't know what they were singing so it would be: [singing with an accent] "Twist and shout, come on, come on, come on." You know, and it was like, but they were, they kept bringing these bands through, and every once in a while like Australian bands or British bands or something that went through. I mean, they weren't out in the field, they were out in the rear areas but.
And then, I remember one great night in Dong Ha they showed the Green Berets, the John Wayne movie. Have you ever seen it? It's, it's, it's hideous, it's a joke. And they tried to glamorize Vietnam and make it this great cause. And we're watching it in this Butler hut and it was like the first beer can hit the screen about twenty minutes into it. And then they just, they just tore it down. Nobody could stand it. It was so awful, you know.
So, but I mean, we did, you know, we did, I mean, that's something about America, they'll Americanize any place as much as they can. You know, movies and the PX had, the PX's we could go back to had almost anything you wanted. And I figured there were, you know, there were hookers around but we never, we were never around them.
In Saigon if you were in Danang or somewhere I guess you could. We didn't we never got the opportunity, whether we would have taken it or not I don't know, but, so there were a lot of differences. I mean, between, the big gripe was if the guys in Saigon or the officers got in combat they would just hang low, but the guys up in the high lands were you know, gettin' shot at combat bay but, so there was a big difference. We always had to got to go the Navy Construction, the Seabee's, `cause they always had the best food, you know, they always had lots of good stuff, so we'd try to make friends with the Seabee's whenever we could.
DS:Did you approve or disapprove of the military tactics that were used, you know, like Agent Orange and?
BK: It's, I think, you know, it's all in hind sight `cause we didn't obviously know what was being done at the time. The things that were done, there's nothing to approve of. I mean, there was, I think even, you would see napalm getting laid down sometimes, and hear this ssss, they were trapped, I mean, napalm literally sucked the oxygen out of the air. And I don't think anybody thought, well some people thought that was groovy, but, but we've certainly learned since. And I had to get a screening for Agent Orange because I was you know, where it was being used, we were never aware of it, but, it's just hideous. They played with, they knew, you know, they knew what they were doing bad chemical knew, you know, and they said, they're expendable, that's basically what they said, you know, and it's the most hideous, I think somebody should have, you know, been hung for that, physically, and `cause they, I just.
I went to a funeral in Exeter, the Veteran's cemetery, one day of a guy that, that they knew he died of Agent Orange, they knew that's what it was, and no, the army wouldn't, it was at a time when the army sill wasn't admitting it. And the anger at that chapel and the Veteran's cemetery was just palpable, I mean, it was just so hideously unfair. He had come home, thought he was okay, his son suffered some birth defect because of it. I mean, you just obviously, no, no, there's no connection. And so at the time, you know, to answer that question in a round about way but I don't think we thought about it that way but since then, seeing the consequences, you can't be anything but angry.
DS: What about when you came home? Could you describe that?
BK: Well, it was, I didn't have anybody spit at me, that was the great thing. People were getting spit at, at the airports. I never knew anybody who did but I grew up with this whole idea of [inaudible]. I came in, I mean, to Detroit, at like two in the morning I remember. And I went home and I told my parents what I had been doing there, and then my mother just started crying, like, you never told us that. And then my father said, you know, my father realized what I had done and it was like, you know, he said do you realize what you did for us? Do you realize what you did? What would have done if you'd known? And we stayed up till, oh man, my parents, you know, we were never this very open emotional family and we stayed up till like five in the morning, and I had some pictures to show them of my friends and stuff. And then I went up and I took my uniform off and I never put it back on again.
I realized that, I remember thinking about it later and realizing that it wasn't gonna mean as much as it should of. That it was over now and it wasn't gonna mean that much and I had to get on with stuff, but I wanted it to mean more than it could. Here I had done this thing, I had done it, I had gone in the Marines and I had gone to Vietnam you know, and I was back in Grosse Point and it's funny, I think my father was actually proud that I had done it, he had thought it was crazy to go, but he was proud that I had done it. And my mother was too, `cause she started telling her friends, you know, Bob was in, he was in combat.
And I got word of, I don't how much later it was that I was getting a medal, one of those unit citation things, if you were out on an operation at a certain time the unit could get a commendation. And it said you could come down to the armory and get in uniform and get it in a ceremony or we'll just send it to you. And my mother said, well we'll all go down and we'll see you get the medal. And I said, no, I could never put that uniform back on again, I'm just not gonna do it, and I thought, and my sister told me later, she said, that was so shitty, you know, you coulda, you couldn't put that on and go down and you know, let her have that moment. And I said, yeah you're right, it was just selfish and stupid and I should have, you know, they sent it to me, it was, you know, I should have done that for my mother, but I didn't `cause, I was, I was doing the thing, I was doing the you know, the alienated veteran thing or whatever so. I wish I had apologized to her for that I don't think I ever did, so anyway.
But, you know, I got a job at the Detroit Trade Free Press as an intern. I had sent them some of the clips I had done at Vietnam, and then they sort of farmed me out to another paper in North Carolina and, and I, I don't know, I don't know how much Vietnam lingered, you know. I mean, I know it's lingered but I don't know, I don't think you ever know.
DS: Did you experience any hostility at all as you came home as a Veteran?
BK: I really didn't. I, there was a woman, I was at a cocktail party and a woman, I think it was a friend of my sisters, she was a very liberal lawyer, and she came right across the room, and she said, "I just heard you were in Vietnam. You're Jane's brother. I just can't believe that." And I said, "Well, what can't you believe?" She said, "How many babies did you kill?" And I said, and that was like, this cliché, like you know, how many babies did you kill? And she was real, she was pretty [... -? ed.], you could tell, her husband was there. And this friend of mine had this great answer to that, `cause somebody asked him in the LA airport and he said, no more that I can eat. And I thought that was the greatest answer for that `cause it was answering a kind of real stupidity with another kind of stupidity, you know. And I just looked at her and said, I don't know what I said, I didn't say anything harsh, you know, she's a friend of my sister's friends and I just, I think I said I didn't kill any. And her husband sort of eased her away, and I think he called me later to apologize or something like that.
The great thing about it is that, a friend of mine that works at the Washington Post says the same thing. It still has a certain shock value, that it's great to toss it out every once in a while in unexpected places that you were in the Marines and in Vietnam. `Cause even though it's sort of fading or has faded, it's still sort of fun to toss that out. `Cause a lot of times when, like, I'll write a column or something and people will say you know, how could you possibly understand that? And I'll say, well, you know, I was in the Marines. So there is that sort of childish glee that can be taken now by tossing that into the conversation.
DS:Did you ever belong to any of the active Veterans groups or anything?
BK: Nope. No, no interest in that. I got solicited and everything I just didn't want to do it.
DS:Looking back, how do you feel about the military service and how do you think it affected your life?
BK: Wouldn't trade it for anything. I absolutely, the best thing I ever did for myself because, and I don't see it in terms of lending myself to a bankrupt cause or anything like that it just. It just opened me up to the kind of people I'm never gonna see anywhere else.
And especially I think it served me well in my career as a newspaper guy because I think it just, it gives you a perspective, you know. And some of it, and it's sometimes overstated but I met eighteen year old kids who were magnificent in combat, who did stuff that just was, just stunning at how good they were at it eighteen and nineteen whatever they were, and just seeing that was an experience that somehow shapes you, I don't know how.
But then, it helped `cause I, I look at the guys in Grosse Point, who went to Grosse Point, graduated from high school and went to Michigan or ivy league or graduate school and settled back in to Detroit or Grosse Point and still lived there. And I think, I've done better than that. I've at least looked at some of the possibilities, I've at least taken one big chance and I wouldn't trade it for anything, I never regret it. I wish I'd been better at it I think, I wish I'd been, you know, a better Marine than I was, but I was proud. I came out a sergeant and I loved it, I loved the idea of being a sergeant. And yeah, yeah, I have no regrets at all, I've written a lot, I mean, it's a great source to write about, especially now that I write a column, you know, my views of Bill Clinton are some what affected by it I think, you know, a lot of that stuff, it's there, it's a part of me and it's gonna affect my view of everything. I'm very grateful of the Marine Corps.
DS:What about your work experience after the military? Like, how'd you end up in Rhode Island?
BK: It was weird. I was, as I told you I was an intern at the Detroit Free Press, which was a wonderful, it was the paper I grew up with. And at the end of the internship, they couldn't give me a job, I think the internship went well I think, but they sent me to Charlotte, North Carolina which was a paper in the same chain, at the time it was Night Newspapers, now it's Night-Witter now, yeah, the Charlotte Observer which is a real good paper, and a real good experience for me. I went down to cover high school sports, then got into the news side, and I got fired in '71. It was a cumulative thing. We had our differences. I was a good writer, but it wasn't a union paper so there wasn't much grievance procedure involved. I was, you know, as I said at that time I was kind of a jerk and a little bit defiant, you know, I thought I was the next Hunter Thompson or somebody like that.
So anyway I got fired and I just called everybody I knew from school who were in newspapers and one guy was at the Journal [The Providence Journal] and got me an interview and then I came up in '71, and figured I'd do two or three years at the Journal, and the idea, the game plan of most people I knew was to do two or three years at a paper like The Journal and then you'd get to New York or LA or Washington, and that didn't work out obviously.
But I met my wife who worked for the Fall River paper when I was covering the, when I was working at the Fall River Bureau of the paper for the Journal and I've been pretty happy to stay around here. I often think, you know, what would have happened if I made it to the big city? But I like the Journal, I like the area, so, and the Journal's been great. I mean, I got the column about four years ago, late you know, I was almost fifty, and I was happy with what I was doing, but the column has been like a rebirth for almost, it's such a great job. So it's, I'm a happy camper right now, even though newspapers are a dying industry.
DS: Yeah, did you get most of your information from the paper? Or what about TV? Did you think that was like, sort of getting more popular for people to watch?
BK: For now?
DS:Yeah, no, like back in the Sixties and stuff.
BK: Yeah, I think, I think, you know, they called Vietnam the TV war, especially. That was the first time it was being brought in the living room so vividly. I mean, World War II certainly wasn't and I think people more and more were drawn to it then `cause of the immediacy, and newspapers couldn't match that and that's what really. I mean, newspapers are still the ultimate source of news, as far as I can see, they can do what nobody else can but, people have less time now, they have more options, they've got the Internet they've got TV, they've got, so newspapers are kind of a dinosaur right now, we're trying very hard to make them you know, vibrant and meaningful and, I mean, to people like you especially I mean, it's very hard to sell a newspaper. I don't know what's gonna happen, I've just been real fortunate to work for a good newspaper as I long as I have you know, it's the best job going.
DS: Did you think avoiding the draft was morally correct by people who were trying to do that or?
BK: I think there were ways to do it that were morally correct. I think, I really disliked the, I admired people who took, who put, their whole life, the life they had known in jeopardy and went to Canada or to Sweden or whatever. But the people who used the medical dodges or the educational dodges or something, I thought were real hypocrites in a way, you know, if you're gonna do it.
And a friend of mine would always say, my best friend at the Journal always says, he went in the reserves, or the, whatever that other thing is, National Guard. And he always said he regretted he hadn't done it one way or the other, that he hadn't gone to Canada or Vietnam. I thought those were the two, I thought those were the two legitimate options.
I think getting some doctor who was a friend of your father to clear you with flat feet or whatever, you know, using one of those nifty little dodges was really the lowest `cause you see, I mean, if you were there and you saw the eighteen, again the cliché of the eighteen year old inner city kid, you know, he didn't have any of those options. I thought, yeah, I thought there was a legitimately, moral reason to oppose the draft and then there was the illegitimate.
DS: Did you know anyone who left the country to try and avoid it?
BK: Who tried to avoid it?
BK: Yeah. I mean, I didn't know any people who, the people who I knew avoided it because of the advantages they had who could get medical or, I'm not sure when grad school stopped being an exemption but it was a while. They all went to grad school. Somehow, I had no close friends in high school or college who went, somehow they all stayed.
DS: Did you support the limiting of nuclear testing? Or was that an issue at all?
BK: Yeah, never been a, I would say I do, but that was never an issue for me.
DS: Do you think the US should have used nuclear bombing or more serious weaponry in Vietnam?
BK: I think that it should have been, if we were gonna do it, it should have been a military war, and it should have been left to the military to run it. And what they, I don't think we ever should have used nuclear weapons there because I think it would have spread the war, irretrievably in other area. But, I think if we were gonna do it, we should have done it and not made every decision over there a political decision. You know, there were some great career soldiers over there who were totally frustrated `cause they weren't allowed to do what they do.
DS:Did you feel that most veterans were treated with respect and courtesy?
BK: I think, now, I think there's a great change. There really was a time when veterans, Vietnam veterans were treated, you know, the classic was some guy who went in a tower with a gun and just went nuts with a gun or drugs or something. I think now there's been a big change, I think now, it is, I think there's real respect and more understanding.
I just think, I mentioned the movie Platoon, but I always think that was a real turning point, I just think that it was a real eye-opener for a lot of people. Oliver Stone who made it who was a Vietnam veteran of course, so you know, that made a difference. But I think the difference between now and twenty five years ago is one hundred and eighty degrees. It's totally different.
DS: Do you recall Lyndon Johnson's announcement on TV that he wasn't gonna run for president?
BK: It's funny, I was at Quantico then, and we were comin' back from DC. I wasn't in the OCS I was just there, and we were stopped on the side of the road. I don't know if the car had broken down, or what, and we heard it on the car radio. I was with these other guys that started swearing at it, that sonofabitch! That guy's gettin' out in the middle he's not gonna finish the job! He's not gonna. And that was the reaction that he had gotten us into this and he was bailing out. Yeah, I remember that, I remember hearing that on the radio. I think there was that sense of, Jesus Christ Lyndon, you got us embroiled in this thing and now you're backin' out, you can't do that. But he did it.
DS: What about the assassination of Martin Luther King, how did you feel about that?
BK: I already told you about that incident in the squad bay. And that was after Bobby Kennedy. right? I think yeah, I'm pretty sure. It was such a crazy summer in `68.
I remember there were riots in DC because of it and we were told we had to go up there for riot control and I said, Jesus Christ. We didn't end up, some guys did, but I didn't. And I just thought, you know, it's funny, I felt this weird sort of, I felt sorry for the blacks that I knew and I thought maybe I should say that to them but I didn't `cause what were you gonna say to them? I'm sorry you lost Martin Luther King, or I'm sorry you lost this great leader of yours? I mean, they would have, I don't know what they would have done.
But I think, boy, the capacity for madness had grown to that point in '68 where there were two assassinations, you know, we lost Kennedy five years before, John F. Kennedy. And we were appalled at and horrified, I remember, but there's this growing, `cause Vietnam was going then, and our capacity for this stuff had just gotten bigger, so we weren't as shocked as we might have been ten years before.
DS: What about when Bobby Kennedy was shot?
BK: Same reaction, I think. I really liked him, I thought, I thought he was the best of the family. I had hope, I had great hope for him and I was just incredibly sad by that. We were just talking how crazy it was, how crazy everything was and how it was gonna get crazier, we knew it was gonna get crazier, and that was just a sign of it. It was more crazy than anything else, more crazy than sad almost. It was very, it was very strange.
DS: Do you recall the Columbia University sit-in and other student, like, agitations against the War and draft?
BK: Yeah. Kind of. I remember reading the Strawberry Alarm Clock and those things, that was a book about that Columbia sit-in and stuff like that. I remember Life Magazine then was the big, you know, it always had big pictures of those things, you know, students passing stuff through the windows to the students who were holding the buildings. And I remember, I think I thought you know, right on, you should be doing this, this is good. I think it was after I got home I think that happened. From a distance, I remember watching that from a real distance as I recall, you know, I didn't want to be a part of it, and I was pretty dispassionate about it.
DS: Did you follow the campaigns of Senator Eugene McCarthy and Governor George Wallace at all?
BK: Yeah, to some extent. I remember, when the heck were those? Wallace was what seventy? I remember going to see him once when he was in Massachusetts after he was in his wheelchair. But I wasn't you know, "Clean for Gene" wasn't, to me he was like, I loved McGovern in '72, hated, despised Nixon.
I don't remember getting worked up over either one of those. I know Wallace was a real cracker who was frightening to me, frightening in that he had the support he did, but I don't know if I cared that much.
DS:What about the Democratic Convention in Chicago, you remember anything about that?
BK: It was funny in '68, I was, I was at Camp Peddleton in California, where everybody went before they were going to Vietnam, and we were watching it. There were a bunch of us watching it on a TV set in a store window, it was turned to the sidewalk. And it was a black and white TV, they were showing the street madness and everything. And we all thought, I hate to admit this now, but we all thought the cops should really just bust heads. And I don't know why there was just this sort of mob mentality watching that thing.
And afterward you're going, they really, they rioted, they really lost it, the police lost it. And looking at it in retrospect, it was a hideous event, but I remember at the time, we were all just standing there in the street.
Camp Peddleton was, Oceanside was the town of Camp Peddleton, and these little guys would stand in the doorways of these stores and urge you to buy things for your girlfriends `cause you might never see them again. It was the sickest little strip of stores I've ever seen, and then in that atmosphere we were watching this thing on TV. There were guys cheering the cops, I wasn't cheering the cops, but it was weird, it was bizarre, it was this very out of the time sort of experience, didn't make any sense.
DS: What about the women's lib demonstration at the Miss America Pageant, you know, the burning bras and stuff?
BK: No, I don't remember. I know it happened. I mean, I read some of the famous women's lib writers and I thought they're real legitimate rights issues, but I don't remember getting particularly moved by that kind of demonstration.
DS: Do you remember when the Olympic athletes, like, for their Black Power they, like, saluted during the ceremony?
BK: Yeah, Tommy Smith and John Carlos. I thought that was an incredibly eloquent thing to do. I just thought that said so much, in so brief a time. And I was glad, I admired them. I mean, they had the platform, the world platform and they took it. You know, all these howls of protests, but I just thought it was a marvelous demonstration.
DS: What about the Space Program and the circling of the moon?
BK: Never, you know, it's like it doesn't mean a thing to me, it never has, I've never been excited about it. It's a lot of money spent on something that I don't see any benefit from particularly. It's so we can say we did it. I remember we went out of class when Allen Shepard did his flight when I was in high school, and I think we thought it was pretty exciting then but the Russians had already beat us at that point. But I mean, you know, the space, the Challenger now, I just don't, no I've never been thrilled by it.
DS: Overall how would you say the Sixties affected you and the United States in general?
BK: Not well. I think we're paying a price we'll pay for the Sixties for a very long time. It was a very, in some ways it was a great decade because it confronted things that had been suppressed for years like Civil Rights and women's rights.
But in another way it opened up this, under the guise of personal freedom, this sense of self indulgence and self entitlement that just went totally out of control. I think you see it now, in the lack of community, in the lack of sense of community in the lack of family and stuff like that. I think we paid an awful price for the Sixties.
I think it's a balancing act because we took great strides in personal liberty and personal rights but at the same time we just tore at the fabric of the country and a way that has never been repaired and I don't think will ever be repaired, I don't think ever will be prepared. The drugs really started that and haven't let go.
The sexual revolution I think has ended up in a very unhappy way in a lot of ways, that the value of life has been cheapened. Socially, I think, the Sixties were a bomb. For me, it was, I'll be forever grateful that I was the age I was during the Sixties. At the same time, with all this in retrospect I think it was an incredibly exciting time to be around and trying to find out about yourself, and trying not to be so self indulgent that you didn't learn anything, that you just learned how to get stoned or have sex or feel good all the time. which apparently was what Bill Clinton got out of it. But I think the impact of it has been incredible and continues to be.
DS:What were the most important changes of the Sixties? Which do you think were the most positive and the most negative?
BK: I think the Civil Rights, obviously the Civil Rights Movement and the awareness of what blacks had gone through, I think was the greatest positive change, in the fact that more people were aware of it and changes were made and the Civil Rights Act was passed. And I think, the honesty of racial attitudes was good in a way, because ugly as they were in a lot of ways, they were brought out. There was just this incredible division and we have to work on it all the time or it's just gonna turn ugly and hurt people again.
I think the awareness that came out of the Sixties, as a very general answer, was the best thing that came out of the Sixties. I think we knew each other better because of it. And I think maybe Vietnam hopefully taught us something, but I'm not quite sure, in terms of would we ever do it again, and I think maybe we would. The whole idea was this, oh we'll never make this mistake again, and I think we can, I think we're ready to make that mistake again. So I don't think that's a particularly positive thing but, I think you know, the awareness, you know, the Women's Movement that came out of it and people saying yeah, I'm gonna take what I've got coming now, was good.
DS:How would you compare the presidencies of Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, and Nixon?
BK: And Nixon? Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. I mean, Kennedy was killed, in a crude way, was killed at a good time. I think his image would have suffered with another term probably. He was so charismatic, and so photogenic, and his wife was so beautiful and his kids were so perfect that he was what everybody wanted him to be, and we didn't look at his life the way we look at president's lives now, so he was allowed to skate on his personal foibles. I think much of Camelot was a fraud, now that I look at it, but at the time I thought, oh my god, he's everything we want to be, he's gonna take us where we want to go, he's gonna make us what we're supposed to be.
And Johnson just seemed this tragic feature who had all the right ideas, to help the poor and the war on poverty, and just let a war get away from him and destroy everything, and Nixon was just a hideous aberration.
DS: What were your feelings when the War, like, finally ended?
BK: Nothin'. In '75 when you watched the North Vietnamese sweep into the American Embassy, it was like a foregone conclusion then and I had lost interest. You know, it's awful, but I generally lost, you know, the South Vietnamese didn't really want it badly enough. It was anti-climatic at that point I think. Channel 10 did a twenty year anniversary thing in '95 and they interviewed me for it and I sort of wondered what the point of it was, it was a very good show, but I thought that was a weird thing to commemorate.
DS: Looking back at the Vietnam conflict from the perspective of the '90's has your opinion of the War changed?
BK: No, I don't think so. I think as we go along and get, I think I've gotten closer to veterans than I had before. I love the company of Vietnam veterans and I think, we talk, not a lot about it, you know, to the extent we do, I think we see it now, not in political terms or moral terms, I think we see it as the great adventure of our generation and that we're glad we took it, messed up as we may be. And there are guys who are just, who are still, you know, checkin' into VA hospitals at certain times of the year `cause that's when the bad memories come, you know, stuff like that. But I think we see it much more, not in black and white terms so much but we're glad we had it, and right or wrong, I don't think that's an issue.
DS:Have you visited the Vietnam Memorial at all?
BK: Yep, yep, I went for the dedication in '85? God, I should remember that. I've been back two or three times, you know, looked for names, and cried a little. My wife went, and she was real great about it `cause she would sorta just stand off to one side. She's always wondered if somehow something will click, you know, will hit me about Vietnam, but it hasn't yet and I sure think that if it was gonna happen it would have happened by now but she's very good about that.
And I would like to go back. A friend of mine recently did a bicycle ride from Hanoi to Saigon, and I would have loved to have gone, and I'm gonna go someday, I don't know, but I would love to go back.
DS: How do you feel about young people like us still striving to answer questions about American involvement in the Vietnam war and the whole decade of the Sixties?
BK:I think you should really question the romantic visions of the Sixties, I think you should, geez that's a good question. Yeah, I don't think you should look at it as this great time that everybody had, which I hear some people say, you had the best bands, you had the best drugs, you had the best everything.
You know, it was like, it was an incredibly, there was incredibly turmoil, and you know, emotional upheaval and questioning stuff that we thought was rock solid for decades. I think the best thing to accept about it is that we're never gonna totally resolve it, that there is no total resolution of it. I mean, anybody who tells you they have a lock on their feelings, or their views of the impact of the Sixties, is got to be lying or, you know, dillusional. The best I think is that we can keep learning from it.
The Vietnam War has to be a war that we keep learning from, the Civil Rights Movement and everything else that happened has to be a learning thing, and I'm disappointed, I mean, I'm glad, I think it's wonderful that you're doing this because I don't see a lot of evidence that it's being used that way.
DS:Okay, last question, what advice would you give to us?
BK: Oh Jesus. Be, Jesus, I should have figured you were gonna ask this. Be skeptical, be skeptical, skeptical, skeptical, but not cynical. Don't, oh man, I sound like an old timer. I mean, the weird thing is, I wouldn't want to be you, I wouldn't want to be sixteen again or fifteen. I think it's a frightening time to be that age, and I think I grew up at a good time to be that age, and, god, enjoy it. Don't be in a hurry, you know, it's like, the mysteries are all solved by the time you're twelve now, and it's terrible, leave a little room for mystery, and leave a little room for exploring. To me, it's just sad that so much is known so early I guess. And that sounds weird but it's like, take it slow, that's a real easy thing to say, but.
And read, read good people, read like, read a lot of good writers. And think about them. And don't watch television. Don't drink, don't drink, I mean, don't be in any rush to drink. And this is all elementary stuff. You can get messed up on stuff so easily and lose so much of what is important. Yeah, I know it's cool to drink and stuff, but don't let it get away from you because it can mess you up something awful. Learn from the Sixties but don't think of it as this golden period where people could doing anything they wanted to. Because it was that way, we are still paying for it, so don't, you know.
And I'll tell you, the best thing that you can do, what I would tell anybody, is find three or four good people that you feel really good with and use each other because that's what I do. That's the best thing you can do, I think at any age. I think it's real important when the challenges that kids are facing now I can't imagine. I just can't, can't, I don't have kids, but I can't imagine sending a kid out today and telling them how to deal with what's going on. To me, it's frightening and very sad in a way. So, for what that's all worth, that's it.
DS: Alright. Well, thanks.