Thursday, December 5, 2013


"Remains of Fatal Crash"          watercolor by Jan Barry

I arrived in Vietnam just before Christmas 51 years ago, assigned to an aviation unit in America’s secretive war in Southeast Asia. Casualties in these special ops missions were seldom recorded in the news or elsewhere. Working on art to plumb the origins of disturbing dreams that still propel me out of bed, I’ve been painting an unforgettable scene in Vietnam in 1963.

Years ago, I wrote a poem, titled “Casualties,” that described this scene in detail:

Eyeballing the remains
of one of our planes
recovered from a mountainside,
a bunch of us stand
in the gaping space
where the propeller, engine,
instrument panel, and
windshield had been—

contemplating the miracle
of the copilot stepping unharmed
straight out onto the ground,
while the pilot was fatally
wrapped around a tree,
still strapped in his seat.

Lt. Rhinehart’s take off
from a hole in the jungle
uphill against the ridge’s rise
nearly scattered six Special Forces
troopers and their jump gear
plus the crew chief
through the mangled trees
behind his corpse.

“Lucky thing the lieutenant
only killed himself,”
muttered Sgt. Bowen, the chief
mechanic, through a clenched cigar
jutted into the wrecked cockpit.

“Nineteen years in the Army—
and Wright’s resigning,”
someone said of the copilot.
“Said he’d be damned if he’d die
in this damn campaign.”
Resigning a year short of retirement
provoked respectful silence.

“I'm hanging it up, too,”
Thomson, the crew chief,
barely 19 years old,
abruptly announced.

“Third crash,” he spat,
a grimace aging boyish cheeks,
his suntanned left arm
pinned in a sling.
“The jackass who dreamed up
flying Canadian bush planes
in the god damned tropics
can kiss my ass.”

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