Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Other Side

As an infantry fighter in the jungles, mountains, and rice paddies in the Central Highlands of Vietnam in 1966, one might think I wouldn't read a book written by a former NVA enemy soldier. You might feel it would be upsetting or heighten Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to read about a past enemy's experiences of combat, death, and destruction while fighting Americans.

Bao Ninh, pictured below, was born in 1952 in North Vietnam. He deployed south with the Glorious 27th Youth Brigade to fight American and ARVN soldiers in 1969. The unit consisted of 500 hastily trained youths. Only 10 survived the war. Mr. Ninh was one of the ten survivors and was part of the Ho Chi Minh's forces that overran Saigon on April 29, 1975.

His book, The Sorrow of War, was a huge bestseller in Vietnam and was translated from Vietnamese to English by Phan Thanh Hao and edited by Frank Palmos. The English translation copyright was 1993 by Martin Secker & Warburg Limited in Great Britain. The copy I read was published by Riverhead Books in New York.

The novel's central character is a young fighter by the name of Kien. Tu was the name of a fellow fighter with Kien. "Tu was killed at Gate 5 of Saigon's Ton Son Nhat airport on the morning of April 30 only 3 hours before the war ended."

Kien described the deserted areas of Hanoi during the bombing raids and the troop-train movement of NVA soldiers south when U. S. President Lyndon Johnson ordered periods of ceased bombing.

Kien's life following the war is absorbed with memories of that jungle place in the Central Highlands where, in '69, his brigade was almost annihilated by helicopter gun-ships at tree-top height, artillery, napalm, and Phantom jets. That place is referred to as "Jungle of Screaming Souls".

Kien describes life after the war. Many times at night he lies in bed and is attacked by helicopters with the "whump-whump-whump sound of the rotor blades". In reality it's the ceiling fan in his bedroom."

Mr. Ninh writes in the novel of Kien saying, "I am watching a U. S. war movie with scenes of American soldiers yelling as they launch themselves into combat on the TV screen, and once again I'm ready to jump in and mix in the fiery scene of blood, mad killing, and brutality that warps soul and personality. The thirst for killing, the cruelty, the animal psychology, the evil desperation. I sit dizzied, shocked by the barbarous excitement of reliving close combat with bayonets and rifle butts. My heart beats rapidly as I stare at the dark corners of the room where ghost-soldiers emerge, shredded with gaping wounds."

Mr. Ninh fought, I fought, and comrades on both sides fought in Vietnam over ideology. The fight was not for land, natural resources, food, or water rights. It was about differing cultures and the desire to spread one over the other (the north and south).

But, if one is not willing to defend a way of life, then one should be prepared to accept change in his speech, language, style of dress, behavior, thinking, or even his religion if an outside force brings different ideology. Would you fight to defend a way of life?

Have a good week!


Sunday, June 21, 2009

Satisfied Customers

I've added Kent Shropshire and Dean Goodman to my mental list of satisfied customers. Dean (L) and Kent (R) are in the picture above.

The 4,000 pound white oak log was delivered to my sawmill by these gentlemen for milling into inch and a half thick boards 12 inches wide to floor a farm trailer.

The men were cautious and skeptical after experiencing poor quality sawing by another sawyer. They commented that prime logs had been converted into boards of wedge shape and wavy cuts. "It was very difficult to work with the lumber," said Mr. Goodman.

Kent and Dean became sawmill "hands" as we had fun milling the lumber and working together. As both men departed the job site with the lumber, they expressed satisfaction with the quality.

Click on the photos to enlarge.

Have a good week!

Saturday, June 13, 2009

DC Trip

While our daughter was on the east coast on business, my wife and I joined her in DC last weekend.

We toured sites we'd never before visited. The Holocaust Museum, Jefferson Memorial, National Cathedral, and Union Station were first time visits. We also road the upper deck of a Gray Line tour bus.

We stayed two nights in the L'Enfant Plaza Hotel close to the National Mall.

More pictures are available by clicking here.

A rededication of the Lincoln Memorial happened while we were there.

Have a good week.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Vanishing Values

Virgil Gray Conrad never held a mortgage, never borrowed money, and never used a credit card.  Cash or checks have always been the method used to purchase everything.  The only exception was an appliance purchase using Sears Revolving Credit (SRC) many years ago. When Mr. Conrad received the first statement and saw the interest expense, he quickly paid the full amount due and never repeated the consumer trap of buy now, pay later.

Gray and Martha Mock Sprinkle married on April 25, 1947 after Mr. Conrad returned from the Pacific Theater where he fought in the 81st Infantry Wildcat Division during World War II. Before he returned home, Major General Paul J. Mueller pinned a Silver Star on Staff Sergeant Conrad  for his acts of valor during the invasions and battles on Angaur and Peleliu. The 321st Regimental Combat Team, where Conrad was assigned, lost 170 men (KIA) and 545 wounded. Enemy forces killed were 1,300.  Former Secretary of State George Schultz also fought with the 321st RCT on both Angaur and Peleliu. Captain Schultz was the only Marine to have fought with the army unit as he served as Marine liaison officer. 

Gray was born February 4, 1919 in Lewisville, North Carolina which is now a small incorporated town next to Winston-Salem.  Mr. Conrad grew up in the rural area where his father farmed and worked as janitor at Lewisville School. Young Conrad often helped his dad sweep the school floors in return for a sandwich from the school cafeteria. When church socials were held for fund raising, a nickel would buy a cone of homemade ice cream.  Children who didn't have a nickel were allowed to lick the dasher.  Gray was one of those youngsters without a nickel.

Reverend G. W. Fink was the depression-era preacher at Lewisville Methodist Church in 1930. He told the parishioners, "$30,000 is needed to build a new church building.  Some of you have money and some have muscle."  The Conrad family were among those who had muscle and responded to the call by employing their labor to mill trees into lumber to satisfy the church pledge during the building project.

After the war, Gray worked for R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company for a few years before he entered barber school on Trade Street.  Barbering has been his life profession for 50 years.  He still cuts a few heads of hair only on Mondays in the shop beside his home.  Mr. Will Reynolds, tobacco tycoon, was a regular customer in Gray's first barber shop.  A haircut was priced at 75 cents. Mr. Conrad was both puzzled and amused by the old man's lack of gratitute and habit of not offering a tip for Gray's service.  

Gray proudly tells of building his house in 1955 partly with his own labor and with money he and Martha saved from their earnings. Martha worked as a bookkeeper at Snyder Lumber Company on Vargrave Street in Winston-Salem for several years, a tax preparer a few more years and later in life became a teacher's aid at Vienna Elementary School.  
"The floor joists in the house are 2 by 12 oak lumber", said Gray as he described the timber he had milled for their house.  When Gray and Martha moved into their new residence, materials costs and contractors were paid in full in the amount of $11,040.  

Those dollars would have the buying power of $88,320 in year 2008. Think about that for a moment.  How many folks today accumulate that much money before buying a home?

Today the loving couple still live in that attractive, well maintained, and comfortable home. While Gray tends several garden plots and cuts hair one day per week, both Conrads are assisted by a live-in caregiver, Rhonda Mabe. Ms. Mabe attends to daily duties inside the house and sometimes in the yard and garden as well. For several years now Mrs. Conrad's health condition has required full time assistance from both her husband and Rhonda. Gray, now age 90, accepts the difficulties of aging, caregiving, housekeeping, and barbering in the spirit of ... soldier on.  

A girl and boy were born to Gray and Martha in December 1952 and November 1954. Their daughter, Margil, (derived from the first 3 letters of Martha and the last 3 of Virgil) was born first and is an eleventh grade history teacher at Cary High School in Cary, North Carolina. It is heartwarming to hear Margil describe her childhood. She adored her hero daddy and frequently visited the barber shop to see her father at work and to meet customers and people in the community. Their son, Larry, also speaks admiringly of the way Gray and Martha supported his youth activities in scouting, school, church, and more.  Larry achieved Eagle Scout status.  He is now a 29 year employee at Nortel in Research Triangle Park and lives in Raleigh with his wife and two sons.  Margil and Larry closely monitor and frequently visit their aging parents.

Gray has always been a sociable person.  He is respected, admired and liked by many people. Spirited debates often occur at Old Richmond Grill where he visits friends for morning coffee. Gray is usually the one who incites others who erupt into loud talk as they espouse "truth" about the matter under discussion.  Politics, social programs, work, and money are popular topics.

Gray Conrad's life embodies core values that have not been adopted by many people in following generations. The qualities and ideals of patriotism, willingness to put oneself in harm's way, one marriage, living debt free, living within one's means, tilling soil, and growing fresh vegetables are traits that have largely vanished in modern society.  Only time will reveal if those core values were wisely abandoned.   

Gray, thank you for being a friend.

The three pictures were taken on June 1, 2009: Starting at the top photo is Mr. Conrad, next is his house, and last is Vienna Barber Shop. Click to enlarge the pictures.  The bottom image is the awards ceremony where Gray received the country's third highest award for valor, the Silver Star.

Have a good week!