Lost to Vietnam

by Beth Taylor

On November 16th, 1965, not far from Philadelphia, my brother, Geoffrey Taylor, hanged himself in our basement. He was 14 years old. I was 12. According to the story my family pieced together, at his Boy Scout meeting earlier that night, his Scout leaders, all veterans of World War II, took Geoff into a back room of the church basement, and told him they might withhold points from his patrol because he had refused to march in a parade the week before to support the Boys in Vietnam. Geoff had not marched in part because our family was Quaker, and generations of Taylors had chosen alternative service over fighting. Now, in 1965, Geoff told the Scout leaders that he could not in good conscience march in that parade.

In those early years of Vietnam, part of what led my brother to suicide was the conflict of living in a staunchly pacifist family while admiring friends who were sons of WWII veterans. My brother was a bright, athletic, popular boy who had been student body president of his public Jr. High School. But as he entered 9th grade, in 1965, and he voiced his feelings about war during history class discussion, he was called a coward, and later a gang of boys cornered him in the hallway, pummeling him with fists and names.

We did not know what he was going through. But, looking back, there are clues to Geoff's turmoil the day he died. In the afternoon, he and I quarreled -- about what, I can't remember. I finally cursed at him, which I had never done before, and he slapped me, which he had never done before. Then, at dinner before his Boy Scout meeting, Geoff argued with my father about what he should say in a speech he had been asked to give about Thanksgiving for the troop. My father wanted him to talk about my mother's family who had celebrated Thanksgivings in New England for 300 years. My brother said no, and stormed up to his room. A few minutes later he brought down the Scout Manual and announced, red-faced, that he would read straight from the book and then nobody could laugh at him.

So that night, he apparently went off to Boy Scouts feeling he couldn't be a good enough pacifist or son, and then, after his speech, in the back room of that church basement, he apparently found out he couldn't be a good enough Boy Scout either.

Geoff had been upset and fascinated by the self-immolation of Norman Morrison on the steps of the Pentagon two weeks before. Perhaps in some desperate way, Geoff saw Norman as a role model and thought that by strangling himself, he could prove something too -- that he was not a coward? that he was this angry? The doctor told us that, in the moments before he killed himself, Geoff had probably lost his mind. I imagine him hearing all those voices -- his Boy Scout leaders, his peers, his parents, and I hear him thinking how he can't please anyone, how he must be morally inadequate. And I hear him finally turn his fury on himself. Of course, this does not totally explain Geoff's suicide; no suicide is ever finally understood. It just sits there in our hearts, a terrible, humbling hole of pain.

My brother had been a very good Quaker, and for years after his death it was comforting for me to be as good as he had been --organizing moratoriums at my Quaker high school, standing quietly in peaceful demonstrations against the war, doing guerrilla theater with Vietnam Vets in the streets of Washington to demonstrate what a raid on a village looked like. I was earnest and well-meaning and sure of my mission. Life was gritty and sad, and each boy I knew who left for Vietnam as a soldier or medic, or for Canada as a resister in exile, or for prison as a draft card burner or anti-war protester was my brother crucified, again and again and again. The young men I was drawn to seemed like my brother -- smart, passionate, first-born sons who faced their moment in history with full heart -- and they became heroes, or they self-destructed.

Butch Geary was tall -- 6'2" and lean, with confident hazel eyes, and what his mom called "a Pepsodent smile." He was the oldest of five children in a Catholic family. His dad made nuts and bolts at Standard Press Steel, and Butch liked working on the farms of our Bucks County neighbors. He raised goats and rabbits for our 4-H Club, and when he led our 4-H Club pledge, he had that smile on his face that drove a few of us girls nuts. He was a faithful enough Catholic to serve as an altar boy at a Mass at the 1964 World's Fair. Then, he earned his way through Temple University, ran its Catholic Newman Club, tutored kids, and sang for Vietnam Vets at Valley Forge. Because his dad had been a Marine, he was proud to do his duty for his country and go to Vietnam. He planned to come home to go to law school at Temple, and then to be a senator because he revered John F. Kennedy. On April 5, 1969, as a 2nd Lieutenant for the 3rd Battalion, India Company, of the 7th Marines, he led his men, fearlessly we are told, out of a field toward enemy entrenched in the woods, and a sniper shot him through the head. He died believing in what he was doing. But his family now says he died for a war gone awry. "We were wrong," his mother says. But, she adds, "Mr. McNamara's book," -- his apologetic retrospective -- "is a crime."

Tony McQuail was my brother's friend who stayed brotherly to me. 1970: Tony was Student Body President at Westtown, a Quaker boarding school, writing me poems. Then suddenly he was making passionate speeches against the war, writing editorials in local newspapers, and burning his draft card in public. A kiss goodbye and he was gone, to Canada. He says now that he could not face prison; as a teenager he had been molested by an older acquaintance and he could only imagine what might happen in prison. More important, he says, he knew he could have avoided Vietnam by being a C.O., but as he helped other young men in his Quaker Meeting explore the choices open to them, he became convinced that "the draft was a major tool of the war trade," and he could not cooperate with it.

After Tony publicly refused to register on his 18th birthday in the spring of 1970, an FBI agent came out to his family's farm in Downingtown. They "agreed to disagree on what were one's obligations to country and to God." The agent said he would not arrest Tony if Tony promised to register by the fall. Tony agreed. But as autumn neared, his struggles of conscience made him realize he would "have to be a tax resister as well as a draft resister." That is when he knew he needed to find a country "less at odds" with his beliefs and values. He did register as he had promised the FBI agent, but then he flew to Canada, staying with a Quaker couple until he found a job on a dairy farm. He watched from afar as his birth date drew a high lottery number, and he waited through the months of concern until he knew he would not be drafted or indicted. He knew he could return to the U.S., but he says now, he felt "so much more welcome and at home in Canada." There, he says, Democratic Socialism helps the society to develop a "more humane social, economic and political culture than the society [he] left."

At the time Tony left the U.S., his father said in no uncertain terms, "I cannot understand this decision." But his father also finally said, "I still love you." A few years later his parents sold the china collection that would have helped finance Tony's college education, and with the money, Tony bought a farm near Toronto on which he built a house and barns by hand. His Westtown sweetheart, Fran, joined him, and they married, and had two daughters. Besides running an exemplary Organic Farm, Tony has served as president of his township, as a trustee for his Public School Board, and as the Executive Assistant to the Ontario Minister of Agriculture. He has made a moral, productive life for himself, but to those of us who had grown up expecting him to be a dynamic leader in our community, he too was lost.

Bob Martin I met through Friends General Conference. Slightly built, wiry, he had intense dark eyes and curly reddish brown hair. He studied religion at Columbia University, and then when his number was called, he went into the Navy. Quickly, though, he found he couldn't stomach the military training for a war he did not believe in. His quandary led him to convert from Catholicism to Quakerism, and he was granted one of the first discharges from the Navy as a C.O.

In 1973, when the bombing in Cambodia was stepping up, Bob joined other Quakers to witness his protest on the lawn of the White House. When they were arrested he decided not to pay the $10 to let him off the hook. So he was put in the Washington, D.C.jail. The first night he was in a relatively safe cell, but the next night they sent Bob up to maximum security. The guards disappeared and the inmates passed him around, selling him for cigarettes. He was gang-raped about 60 times over two nights before having his request for transfer acknowledged. The local Florida Avenue Quaker Meeting helped get him released, and then helped him set up a press conference to protest the rapes. When he came to visit me in Pennsylvania, I hugged him and felt how his body had calcified -- stiff like hard plastic, insensitive to any more pain, unable to feel comfort.

Only recently have I found clues to the troubled turns Bob's life took after I knew him. On a positive note, he founded the organization, Stop Prison Rape, Inc; he taught Comparative Religion at Columbia University; and he wrote as a journalist. But his trauma clearly seared him to the point of sucking him into a double life. In the late seventies and early eighties he apparently became a drug addict and a petty criminal, then spent more time in jail, where he too became a rapist. He changed his name from Robert Martin to Don Tucker to Steve Donaldson. He did sustain one long term companionship with a woman. And, as he searched for comfort in the midst of such violence and instability, he became a Buddhist, then a Hindu, and then returned again to Quakerism. He died of AIDS in New York City in July, 1996.

My cousin Rick Thompson, was a buddy of my brother Geoff's. I loved him for his goofy jokes and worn red baseball cap. I remember all of us crammed in the sunny way-back of the '57 Pontiac station wagon, to go see the Phillies or to the beach in New Jersey. Rick grew into a long, lean runner. During spring break from Westtown, he would jog the 3 miles to our house from his part-time job as a welder, and I would watch him eat half a jar of peanut butter at our kitchen table. Even though he too had been raised a Quaker, he felt he could not NOT go to Vietnam. So he went as a generalist aide for the Quaker hospital at Quang Ngai. He fixed everything -- tools, machines, electricity, and he learned Vietnamese so he could negotiate and run errands for the team. When I wrote him my last postcard, I was doing my European hitchhiking tour before studying at Oxford. I remember staring at the snapshot he had sent, of him standing in front of the hospital. I stared at his grin, and long droopy mustache, and his lean, strong body in jeans and white t-shirt. How different our worlds were, I thought; what did it feel like to be in Vietnam, I asked. I never got a response. In November, 1973 Rick flew with two South Vietnamese kids to Saigon to get them settled in a special hospital for paraplegics. On the way back to Quang-Ngai, on November 17, 1973, one day after the eighth anniversary of my brother's suicide, the plane crashed into a mountain during a monsoon. The day before Thanksgiving, Rick was identified because his was the only 6 foot long charred body, surrounded by small ones.

Rick's journals show me now he had assimilated deeply into Vietnamese ways, and he felt a passionate disaffection with American culture. The woman with whom he spent his last R & R says she thinks it's very likely he would never have come home from Vietnam, other than for visits, even if he had lived. Rick is now buried next to my brother behind Abington Meeting house in Pennsylvania. For me, their deaths -- in 1965 and 1973 -- began and ended the Vietnam War.

It's aftermath is another story. In the last few years I have begun to sit down with the brothers and sisters and parents and cousins and friends of my young men. Only now, 25 to 30 years later, do most of us feel some semblance of calm. It took thirty years -- sometimes rocked by bouts of depression, emotional silences, strained relationships, even alcoholism -- for us to regroup, finally land gingerly on our feet and appreciate the love and family we have in our lives right now, instead of always judging it less than the lives we lost in that awful night or day so long ago.

The families of my lost young men have all changed and gone on -- picked up the pieces, made choices that made sense after grief. Butch Geary's sister was a novitiate in a convent in Media, PA when Butch was shot behind the ear in a meadow in Vietnam. That bullet, she says, shot right through her life. It was the moment through which everything from then on would be seen and judged. She, the daughter and sister of Marines, is now a liberal activist in New York State, married to a public defender. She is also the mother of three boys, and she says, if there were a draft, she would take her sons to Canada in a minute.

I married the man who said "I need you to get the ghost of your brother off our pillow." I married him in part because he was willing to work in a place like city hall, to wrestle with difficult but powerful people because he knew they were often the key to doing good. Although I will always be proud of my Quaker heritage, I joined a mainstream Protestant church because the service centered on the complexities of Biblical narrative, which, in my study of literature, I had come to see as central to the vision of most writers who spoke truth to me. The young woman minister seemed to know what Sherwood Anderson and Flannery O'Connor had taught me: That we are all Christ and we are all crucified; but we can easily become the crucifiers -- usually in the name of a religion or philosophy.

I have learned, I think, some things which I hope make me a more alert parent and constructive citizen. I have learned that religion, even pacifism, can be blind-sided. I have learned that a child imitates a parent even though the parent thinks they have offered the child free-choice. I have learned that some truths I once held as self-evident just aren't. And I have learned that to truly understand an issue, one must genuinely imagine how others come to totally different conclusions. Over time I came to understand that many people -- even some who go to war -- also believe that "there is that of God in every person." And I learned that to live as I once thought a Quaker should -- to be proudly "in the world but not of it," sometimes inhibits one from participating in crucial parts of our democracy -- in legislatures, boardrooms, and public school systems, for example.

These days I try hard to show my children that their struggles can still be helped by religion, or conflict resolution, or sports, or some kind of creative process like literature, music, or art -- but that no way of doing or understanding has THE answer to confusion; nor can it protect them from pain and compromise in the future. My children teach me in return that it is time for a new set of stories; it is time to let go of old pain.

Recently I have begun to read Vietnamese memoirs and fiction about the American War, as they rightly call it. Some Vietnamese wonder why we Americans are still so focused on our grief. The war with us was one in a series for them. Grief was a familiar part of life. They prepared my cousin Rick Thompson's body with flowers and traditional wrapping so his spirit would not feel lost and it would be comforted. I believe now Rick accepted his fate even before he died. I believe Butch almost expected a bullet. I can only hope that my brother Geoff in his lonely panic and Bob Martin in his abused woundedness have also found their peace. I know Tony is living his. It is time for each of us to accept -- to forgive, to ask forgiveness -- and to move on into our own separate peace.

Beth Taylor
July 13, 1998

Published in Friends and the Vietnam War, ed. Chuck Fager, Pendle Hill, Wallingford PA, 1998.