Original Fiction by Paul Haeder / July 25th, 2020
JT loves drawing sandhill cranes. Extruded from memory, JT sits on the sagging bumper of the Ford RV as he pushes capillaries of charcoal into the sky he delivers on the sketch pad paper.
Unending fire sky, he tells himself. He wants to imagine the sky this way, Turneresque, electric, something like all those village buildings he left behind in Huehuetenango what seems like a life time ago.
He steadies his hand and fingers, pushing and pulling, like an archaeologist digging through strata for evidence of life. He has no need to jump up and start over with colored pencils, Prismacolor pens, or sloppy acrylics.
The celestial rainbow of cirrus is a constant wash in his blinking moments, in between drawing birds of El Bosque and remembering war. The elegance of this bird — Antigone canadensis — JT knows is lost in his sketching, but each time a Rocky Mountain sandhill crane lifts, bouncing on air, dipping back into the water, JT understands the limits of art. It’s easy to fold back, fifty years.
A half century passes, from a youthful JT, soon a Government Issue grunt, then lifted out of Indochina with near-spiritual mortal wounds, into London to visit an aunt in Surrey. Then off to France. It’s a dream and nightmare, December 1968. A 23-year-old’s dream to see Paris.
Walking for hours in Saigon, JT finds himself in the cubby of a wood carver, Viet Nguon. In an instant of hormonic synchronicity, the Las Cruces boy is being told about Southwestern Native American masks by a bamboo-thin man in black silk ensemble. This master of wood has long graying hair cuffed into a foot-long viper down his back. He doesn’t display a traditional Fu Manchu beard of aging guys. Rather, this man’s sideburns are something out of Dickens – Vietnamese lambchops. Curly hair like the dogs sold in markets for stir-fry.
Viet’s store is on a side street near An Dong market, and the alley-sized foot-and-bike path is devoted to shops where wood carvings and wood artisan wares are manufactured and sold.
The artist Viet has three hundred masks in his cramped shop. JT is all eyes, and for the New Mexico kid, each crazed mask seems like magic.
The Vietnamese artist speaks English. “You like? Many hundreds more I sell to many kinds of people. Where you from soldier?”
JT wants the real blood of these people – words, emotions, gestures, laughing and chatter from these Homo Sapiens he was told was “always the enemy . . . left or right, north or south, boy or girl, they are your enemy, Thomlinson. “
The lucidity of his nights sweating is always about the sound of war. The screams and moans of machine-gunned farmers, VC, somewhere in the elephant and canary grass. The rice paddies at night. Groans. The odor of flesh, burning shit, tires, and napalm and diesel. It was his companion now, extracted from the field, ready to ship out and be done with the war with Vietnam. I’ll never done with Vietnam, he told himself. Even now all the way to the middle of New Mexico Chihuahua desert.
“You come from where?”
JT stumbles in his response: “First Division, but ready for home. Attached at Tan Son Nhut,” JT says as he straightens his back, in deference to the elder. The man is in his sixties, JT estimates, but that’s not always easy to gauge for so many Vietnamese – older guys sometimes look younger. Maybe he is eighty. Hard to tell.
“I see, I see. Bro’, Big Red One. It says Thomlison. Family name? My name Viet Nguon. Call me Viet. I ask where you family come from, no care about patch on arm?”
JT’s surprised – then, looks down at his fatigues, the name patch. JT touches the BRO shield and number 1 on his arm. He still never got used to the fact he had been drafted 18 months earlier, and his whole life was green, black boots, humping a rucksack, laying mines, carrying an M-16.
“Uh, New Mexico. Las Cruces. United States.” JT still can’t recall the last time he spoke to a civilian Vietnamese. Sure, the yelling and cursing his unit dramatized out of fear, that wasn’t the same. JT, remembers words, grunted words, gaseous words, lifting from the dark green of Vietnam, scattered dying enemies. Children screaming. Babies heaving. Groans. Water buffalo slogging. Civets. Roosters. Chinese music on transistor radios. Cicadas.
“You have people with beautiful masks. Fantastic features. What you call serpents. Those people in your homeland, named Hopi, Navajo. Great masks. Here, look, one I do like they say, kachina – like a bird. What, you call raven?”
Viet gives JT the water melon sized mask. Amazing details of the bird’s beak and nostrum, the eyes, blue-black, the wood almost alive with feature cuts.
“I go to your country with books, no? Inside words on page. Masks, a magic of people. You put on. Put on. Here, mirror.”
JT reluctantly takes the mask, which is light, and he touches the fine carved spaces. Black feathers are slicked back, like a mane flowing to a person’s neck. The corvid’s eyes have two perfectly drilled openings so the mask wearer can see.
“It’s okay, sir.” JT says trying to hand back the mask.
“No, good stuff, Thomlinson. Magic. You put on. You can be new Thomlinson. No more corporal, no more jungle, no more boom and fire . . . but bird man. Try on. Magic!”
Viet puts a calming but firm hand on JT’s shoulder. Surprisingly to JT, Viet is tall for a Vietnamese, almost 5’ 11”, two inches shorter than JT.
JT knows the signs of panic, claustrophobia, are telltale – sweaty upper lip, flushed neck, slurred words. He’s feeling the acrid instant coffee hit his windpipe.
“It okay, Thomlinson. Bird goes on this way,” Viet says, helping lift the mask into place. “You know, black plague? Your ancestors had bird masks. Put sage and perfumes in long beaks. Chase away bubonic plague. You know this history?”
JT imagines all these bird men, fat, big Frenchmen and others walking around with prods to keep away the plague victims. “Un, no, not that. But I remember my mother taking me and my sister to Santa Fe. I remember the dances. Lots of costumes. Masks. Just like this one. And others, sir.” JT presses the concave of the mask into his head as Viet secures the headgear with a beautiful silk purple ribbon.
“Raven. Powerful. Not what plague doctors have in seventeen century. This powerful . . . they call crow talisman.”
JT is guided by the artist Viet to the mirror near Viet’s assembling table where he carves and designs masks.
“Maybe Thomlinson clan knows raven good animal, help people. Make world for them. Raven trick too. Steal shiny objects. Raven is child, cause loud trouble for others. But wise. See, Thomlinson, see magic of mask?”
JT looks at the image in the mirror – tall, thin GI, wrinkled uniform, with this magnificent piece of art, carved and adorned with black and purple feathers. He sees that boy, in El Bosque del Apache. Mother taking the children to the wildlife refuge to watch sandhill cranes and snow geese winter over in the desiccated land around Socorro.
JT knows the transformation from soldier into this Vietnamese man’s magic bird will be his talisman. Memory molded into whatever is left of his feelings about killing Vietnamese. The goo of death and stench of heaving Americans in a foreign land disappear for a moment, maybe forever in this crystalized moment.
“You see, you feel. New you. Raven, crow. We have in Vietnam, same clown birds. They come with death. Silly creatures. Smart. Last ones standing after Big Red One bro’s come in with mortars and fire tongue.”
JT stares for what seems like ten minutes. Viet vanishes. The mind, JT thinks, plays tricks. He squeezes his eyes shut behind the mask, and he sees himself flying. Black bird at El Bosque. Jumping around all the other birds. Trickster. Pest.
You know son, either way you look at it, we are fucked, says JT’s mother, looking like cracked pasta months from her death from breast cancer.
Vagabond lives I gave you and your sister. I am okay with you leaving, hiding in Canada. Mexico. Or you go over there in the bloody morass and come back hardened, but with a chance at something new.
Their mother was an ornithologist for the US Fish and Wildlife Service. JT and his sis’ Roberta always got the Rachel Carson and Jane Goodall of things.
Look for the birds when you can, Johnny Boy. If you go overseas, look for birds and listen to the people who know their birds. If you go, dear, you will have bird stories only I can dream of . . . . El Bosque is fantastic but not like all those old-world jungle species. It’s going to be heaven.
When JT takes off the large, bigger than human life-sized mask, he feels tears running down to his open collar and pure white cotton undershirt. Viet is there instantly, with a wooden carving of the same sort of bird. It fits in the palm of his hand. He hands it to JT.
“You take. You hold this when you got back. New Mexico. Big land of colors I see in movies, no? You go see birds for new light. Vietnam. One day, Thomlinson clan and Viet clan come together. You go to Paris, like I study art. Ho Chi study art in Paris. Go to big museum of African work. Trocadero. Ethnology. Go see masks.”
JT never paid Viet because Viet never took the corporal’s money.
Six months later, JT is in Paris, bumming around, absorbed in the street art. Bumming hashish. And he finds the Trocadero had been demolished in 1935.
But he does find those masks and other ethnographic materials Viet Nhung talked about. At the Musée de l’Homme, housed in the Palais de Chaillot.
JT carries the rucksack and the journals his mother would have wanted to see if she had survived another wintering of the sandhill cranes. The entire list of sightings of birds throughout his humping through lowlands and jungle and alpine forests would have put her on Ornithological Cloud Nine.
Not just an artist’s obsession, but an offering for a mother’s memory. More than 880 birds in Vietnam, and Corporal Thomlinson comes back to El Bosque with more than 340 captured in notes and sketchings.
A bird professor at University of New Mexico was blown away by the lonely corporal’s bird list and his descriptions and drawings. “You’ve got to get a doctorate in birds, man. This is crazy impressive.”
He follows in his mother’s footsteps – this time state game and fish. Entire weeks in wilderness. Entire lifetimes to find the birdman’s magic.
It is birds that saved me, man. So many of my buddies from Vietnam, gone. Three sheets to the wind. Hunkered down in some flop. Lots of heroin. I did nothing more than listen to Viet and push something like magic into my being. I never got to be the fucking artist of my dreams, of that magic, but, still, the art of this, out here, now, in the boonies, with birds. The other wildlife. Some marbles still in my head pushing 74 years old. You can’t call this a blessing, but man, I have had my mother next to me every single day. She was right . . . . I would come back, transformed. I know this is a so-called sacred moment, and I am grateful, but what saved me was not a higher authority or power, but the true magic of masks and birds. – He wrote this during one of his AA meetings, that famous 20-year coin award.
JT still has the Picasso quote taped up to the tiny wall of the RV where the small bed is slung over the cab of the vehicle. Something profound enough for a drifting American ex-Vietnam soldier to have written down in his journal next to the birds of Paris he spent time cataloguing and drawing.
He found the quote somewhere on the Paris streets. Someone he shared wine with. A Frenchman who recognized in the young JT a transcendence from tool of war to a drifter in time and space . . . to magic seeker.
“You want to be an artist?” this fellow asks. “You enjoy Picasso? Oui, when Pablo was young, no pennies in his pocket, in Paris, he kept his eyes open for African masks at the Trocadero Museum. It was not an impressive musee. But the young Picasso, he fell for the magic – the charm — of Africa. Here, his actual words from a book. I give you them now, Johnny Boy:
A smell of mold and neglect caught me by the throat. I was so depressed that I would have chosen to leave immediately,’ Picasso said. ‘But I forced myself to stay, to examine these masks, all these objects that people had created with a sacred, magical purpose, to serve as intermediaries between them and the unknown, hostile forces surrounding them, attempting in that way to overcome their fears by giving them color and form. And then I understood what painting really meant. It’s not an esthetic process. It’s a form of magic that interposes itself between us and the hostile universe, a means of seizing power by imposing a form on our terror as well as on our desires. The day I understood that, I had found my path.
Sandhill crane. Omnivore. Average life span in the wild: 20 years. Body: 31.5 to 47.2 inches. Wingspan: 5 to 6 ft. Weight: 6.5 to 14 pounds. More than 500,000 sandhill cranes amass at Nebraska’s Platte River in spring.
Sand Hill Crane and Sand Creek Massacre. JT can’t shake the mnemonic. In November 1864, Colonel John Chivington and his Colorado volunteers massacre a peaceful village of Cheyenne camped near Sand Creek in Colorado Territory. Chivington the Methodist preacher placed himself in the center of the Indian wars as his opportunity to gain recognition to win a government office. Chivington burned villages and killed Cheyenne whenever and wherever he could.
JT was there, days after Calley and his men from Charlie Company 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment unleashed the My Lai Massacre. Three hundred or 507 dead?
This day, this war crime, a war crime that was exposed by soldiers and condemned by the U.S. government in 1864. Sand Creek Massacre unleashed decades of war on the Great Plains. Even locals are unaware of what had happened in their own backyard.
The hundreds of troops charged the Cheyenne village of around a thousand. A chief raised the Stars and Stripes above his lodge. And others in the village waved white flags.
In response, the troops opened fire with carbines and cannon, killing more than 150 Indians, most of them women, children and the elderly.
Before departing, the troops burned the village and mutilated the dead, carrying off body parts as trophies.
A 104 years later, these 1st Platoon members testified in court that the deaths of individual Vietnamese men, women and children took place inside Mỹ Lai during the security sweep. Livestock was shot as well.
JT can’t forget the testimony of PFC Michael Bernhardt describing what he saw upon entering the sub-hamlet of Xom Lang:
I walked up and saw these guys doing strange things … Setting fire to the hootches and huts and waiting for people to come out and then shooting them … going into the hootches and shooting them up … gathering people in groups and shooting them … As I walked in you could see piles of people all through the village … all over. They were gathered up into large groups. I saw them shoot an M79 grenade launcher into a group of people who were still alive. But it was mostly done with a machine gun. They were shooting women and children just like anybody else. We met no resistance and I only saw three captured weapons. We had no casualties. It was just like any other Vietnamese village – old papa-sans, women and kids. As a matter of fact, I don’t remember seeing one military-age male in the entire place, dead or alive.
Band Number: 599-05468
JT goes to the small RV and pulls down one of his first big color sketches. He brought to life one of the old timers. One of those Rocky Mountain sandhill cranes with the band on his leg for more than 36 years.
It was JT’s last foray in the Wildlife Service. December 2006. In El Bosque.
The Sandhill crane started life on the Wyoming border, on the Thomas Fork of the Bear River.
Band Number: 599-05468. One of the oldest Rocky Mountain Sandhill Cranes. The bird was banded with its brood mate on June 29, 1973. The year his sister died in a car wreck. The year he began banding birds.
A two-chick brood is normal for Rocky Mountain Sandhills.
The magic of birds and what JT’s mom inculcated in him pushed him through Vietnam, through the dark nights of booze and massacres.
JT was there to sketch the animal when it was banded with its sister.
Then he was with it for last rites — Band 599-05468. For its 36 and a half years on the planet, the creature flew from Border, Wyoming — where he and his sister were banded at age 44 days — to the staging area for sandhill cranes the San Luis Valley of Colorado and then down the Rio Grande to Bosque del Apache. That’s a one-way trip of 700 miles.
If one were to assume this crane returned close to its nesting grounds each spring and back to Bosque del Apache each winter, the bird made the round trip 36 times, as well a final one-way trip where it was found. That is a total of 51,100 miles in a lifetime, or the equivalent of circling the earth more than twice.
JT thinks about the bird often, what the Fish and Wildlife guys call Band Number 599-05468.
The day he sketched the chick, JT knew a different name would stick for him. Not Band 599-05468. But an anthropomorphic one — Black Kettle.
Named after the Cheyenne Chief, Black Kettle, who survived the Sand Creek massacre. Black Kettle, the chief who had raised a U.S. flag in a futile gesture of fellowship, survived the massacre, carrying his badly wounded wife from the field and limping east across the wintry plains. He was a peacemaker, and in 1865 he signed a treaty, resettling his band on reservation land in Oklahoma.
Three years later, Black Kettle was killed there in 1868, in yet another massacre, this one led by Colonel George Armstrong Custer.
Corporal Johnny Boy Thomlinson remembers. Each memory captured somewhere in his 74 years of sketches.
Note: Original short fiction, to be read July 31, Zoom Cirque Press reading 7 pm PST — Link here. Join us. Here is the link.