IN THE FALL OF 1967, I had a lot going for me. I was a student at Columbia College in Chicago majoring in journalism. It was a great time, a time of change, of freedom of expression, from Richard Burtons interpretations of Shakespeare to Artaud and Theater of the Absurd, a time of opposites, from the meditative poetry of Rod McKuen to the howling madness of Allen Ginsberg, from the music of Lawrence Welk to the music of anyone under the age of thirty, from the tearful speeches of World War I veterans on Memorial Day to the rebellious voices of the civil rights and anti-war movements. It was a time of elegant plumage and fine feathers, and fighting soldiers from the sky, Irish Christian Brothers High School education and rejection of the crew cut and swaddling-clothes morality of the fifties. It was a time of LSD, uppers, downers and pills that could take you further than any chariot or book. It was amoebas floating on walls in hip clubs called discotheques in the south Loop, black jazz and blues at 51St and Wentworth, and hippies sleeping in abandoned buildings on Wells Street under the el tracks.
I was from a blue collar background. Mom had been a secretary for the WPA, Dad had been on Iwo Jima, Bougainville, Guam and Midway Island during the war. I wasnt a radical kid looking to protest, I was a product of the Ice Box and If It Quacks Like A Duck generation, tempered by a hard discipline, a liberal,
Laisse faire, sell Santa Claus on Christmas Eve capitalist sending pennies to the missions in Africa.
I was educated by nuns who never left the convent and priests who later became pedaphiles. I was taught to love Jesus but never take a back seat to anyone.
In the end, I withdrew from college and joined the Marines, because so many guys in my neighborhood were doing the same. Guys who rebuilt engines on their fathers cars and took their lacquer blond girlfriends to Oswego and US 30 dragstrips to see Big Daddy Don Garlitz race his nitro fuel burning funny cars. The reasons guys were going into the military varied from learning a trade to being a hero like on all the TV shows we watched as kids; Combat, The Rifleman, Bonanza and The Big Valley. We all wanted to be like Lucas McCain and Rowdy Yates. We believed that men won the West with their six shooters and World War II with their M1s.
I was no different from many kids just turning eighteen. I could have stayed in college and been deferred, but the guys who came back from overseas with sidewalls and bulging arms, talking about foreign lands was more enticing than the talk of keggers and getting crabs from some farm girl in Iowa City.
So I took the plunge, boarded my first airplane bound for Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego two days after Christmas. There I saw my first palm tree, smelled my first salt sea breeze and was turned into an American fighting man by some of the most squared away, hard-nosed pricks Id ever met in my life. They were called DIs. I did everything so many others did, was hardened as so many others were hardened, learned to march in formation, crush a mans head with a pugil stick, shoot an M14 and do squat thrusts forever. And I loved the taste of sulfur that stayed on your lips long after your ammo was spent. I became a Marine and was very proud of that fact. I wanted to fight in Vietnam, but I had one thing going against me, my damned IQ, it was too high! Most of the guys around me didnt have what I had. They were black, hillbilly, or guys who took shop in high school. A few were actually illiterate. I remember the day everyone received their Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) and the cloud of doom that hung over the guys who were made basic infantry. I was made an engineer. They went to Camp Pendleton to fire the M60 and .50 caliber machine guns and set up ambushes. I went to Fort Belvoir, Virginia to learn heavy equipment mechanics. Years later, most of them ended up psychologically ill or in law enforcement. Years later, I ended up in the Peace Corps.
At the time, I was disappointed. I wanted to blow things up, to snipe and snoop in the jungle. I did everything, like request mast, like be incompetent, everything I could think of to get my MOS changed, but it was impossible. I was told to square my ass away or be sent to the brig. So I obeyed, I did what the Marine Corps asked me to do.
It was a violent time. During my first leave in April 1968, Martin Luther King was killed, followed by riots and fires. Later Bobby Kennedy was killed, followed by the infamous Democratic National Convention. And I knew guys whose fathers were big Chicago cops, the kind who wore weighted black gloves and whacked protestors on the kneecaps with night sticks.
I went to Vietnam in September and it only got worse. I learned a lot of things while I was there about courage and abuse, but the thing I learned most was that people dont like each other, especially people who are strange to them. Vietnam was as much about fighting amongst ourselves, black against white, South against North, Chicano against anyone who wasnt Chicano, as it was about fighting against the Viet Cong and NVA. No one wanted to know anything about anyone else, and what a shame, because there was so much to learn from other people; the incredible black lingo, layin up in the crib, and I was so mad I coulda bit a hot brick and dared my lips to blister. The twangy, sexy music of Tammy Wynette and Hank Williams. The great intellects of the American Indians.
I never fired my rifle at any human target, but was riding in a reckless convoy once which killed four Vietnamese. Two guys in my unit were killed; one while on patrol by friendly fire, the other in a racially motivated fragging incident. It was strange time. It was easy to hate the guy next to you. We were a house divided. What could any one person do about that?
In 1969, the US government started a program called Vietnamization. As a part of turning over the war to the South Vietnamese, we were to teach them what we knew, namely how to repair heavy equipment. We had three old men who used to wash parts and make soda runs to the PX for us. We never taught them anything, but it was a challenge just to try. During this time, I got to know the Vietnamese as people, not just those ungrateful bastards whose war we have to fight for them, They were gentle people who wanted nothing more than to work, get along and live in peace.
Vietnamization didnt work very well, but I learned to appreciate another culture. One Friday, I went to the village of Lee Van Tieng and met with his family. They were ordinary people, with ordinary needs, a house, clothes, food on the table. I remember Lee running around making sure everything went right, just like someone would do if you visited their home in the United States. We smoked a few bowls of tobacco, ate rice and fish, sat and talked. I tried learning Vietnamese. I liked being a military man who could put down his rifle and get involved with people on another level.
I didnt join the Peace Corps because of my work with the Vietnamese, but so much of the Peace Corps reminded me of the time when I worked with those old men in a hopeless effort to teach them to be mechanics. I cant change what I am, an aggressive, often impatient, success-driven American, who sometimes likes to play violent video games, but I also like new things, going to new places, working with people who can learn from me and from whom I can learn.
Terry Campbell went to Tanzania and served as mechanical engineer at Mwamapuli Irrigation Project, supervised the clearing of sixteen hundred acres of land and construction of canals for rice production. Then he joined up again and went to the Dominican Republic as an Appropriate Technology Water Volunteer, supervised the design and construction of solar composting latrines to prevent ground water contamination. His last Peace Corps tour was with the Crisis Corps in response to the earthquakes of 2000 and 2001. He supervised the design and construction of fifty earthquake resistant houses in 5 months. Terry also served in the Marine Corps in Vietnam from 196870 as a heavy equipment mechanic and operator. Today, he lives in Chicago and owns his own landscaping company.