I was thrown an unexpected curve when, in June 1971, I bumped into Warren Hope, an old friend from grade school I hadn’t seen in years. He’d just gotten home from Vietnam after being wounded in the chest and shoulder. We encountered each other in the doctor’s office where I was getting tested for blood pressure (my way out of having to bamboozle my way through the bamboozle of Southeast Asia). Warren was there to get a prescription for Valium to calm his nerves. He and I went out for a beer afterwards and he told me some of what he’d gone through. He’d been a point man in the Marines in Vietnam. Point man: the lead soldier out in front of the patrol column as the soldiers move forward sweeping the jungle. Point men didn’t have a great life expectancy. But he had the luck of good genes, because he was quick on his feet and fast in his mind. He’d survived many missions out front without so much as a scratch. But one day he nearly bought the farm. That time, though, he wasn’t at the front.
Warren got pulled off the point man position and was told to report to the rear of the column. The lieutenant wanted to talk to him about a tactic and, as they were huddled together, planning their next move, he was hit in an ambush. The lieutenant died next to him, a bullet lodged in his brain. Go figure. In two years of service Warren had never been wounded in one of the most perilous of positions, but when he was pulled back to a safer zone he was. Life throws you unexpected curves.
December 7th, Pearl Harbor day
Pearl Harbor, Day of Infamy, December 7th. The day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941. That was an unexpected curve as well. The United States was thrown completely off guard. I recently visited the Fort Steilacoom Dog Park with my two dogs south of Tacoma, Washington. While walking I was thinking of war and the luck of the draw and how life and death can turn on the swerve of a bullet, when I came upon a cemetery just outside the confines of the dog park where deceased patients from the Western Psychiatric Hospital are buried, along with a few soldiers from the Civil War, and perhaps other wars as well. My dogs and I scurried, hunched over like specters, through a close-misting rain past the graves on the other side of the fence. At first, I hardly gave the cemetery a thought. The dogs were itching to run. I looked back and stopped.
I was curious to see the names of the men and women who were interred there. I don’t know why, but it was just a feeling that grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. Like the mist clinging to me. I doubled back and exited through a gate, stopped in front of the graveyard. Both dogs sat, as if they knew the gravity that was suddenly thrust upon my shoulders. What did these people do in their time? What lives did they lead before they were incarcerated and died in the psychiatric ward? Before they went to war? Before they were cut down on a battlefield so far away? No flowers on these graves, no towering headstones, no names. Just unmarked square stones gathering moss. There were dates scratched on the stones. I could barely read them. I wondered which were the soldiers and which were the patients. I touched my dogs. The fog closed in around me. I was feeling chilled, and not from the weather. Recently, three soldiers had been rededicated, with their names placed on new stones: Sergeant Oliver Bean, private Thomas Blanchard, and Charles Cooley, all union soldiers of the Civil War.
Drugs and War
I lit up a joint and leaned back against a fence. Medical marijuana. I wondered what part it played in war. Was it used medically to treat soldiers with life-threatening wounds? As far back as Roman times, and maybe even before that—in ancient Egypt—Cannabis Sativa was purportedly used as an anti-hemorrhaging drug for woman during childbirth. But in warfare? Other drugs were used, but cannabis not so much. In World War I soldiers were given cocaine to foster fearlessness. Germany prescribed amphetamines in WWII, amping the soldiers into the stratosphere, making them fight longer and more fiercely. They also used Pervitin, crystal meth, which reduces fear and your need to sleep. Cannabis was purportedly given to imprisoned German spies the allies were interrogating to induce a feeling of good will so that they’d more readily confess.
If the Powers That Be had given soldiers cannabis, both sides would have laid their guns down and welcomed talks with one another. They would have had tea with shots of brandy, laughed and marched home singing Bob Dylan tunes before Dylan was even born. Marching away from war—away from the fighting. Can’t have that, can we?
Marijuana Kept Him Sane
I knew how widespread the use of cannabis was in the Vietnam war. Warren gave it a personal side, though, one I’d never read about, because he was a friend. It was running rampant with the troops. Just about everyone had access and everyone was using it. He’d lived in a horror show, and some smoked to relieve the pressure; some smoked to forget. Warren still smoked, now more than ever. He couldn’t sleep and he shook when he told me of the comrades that had died in his arms. Marijuana was the only thing that kept him sane, past and present. The Valium he was prescribed relaxed his muscles—not so much his mind. He didn’t want to take anything stronger, so he stuck to pot. Good choice, I thought.
Back in Steilacoom, I bent over and ran my hand over one of the unmarked graves. I wondered about these Civil War soldiers buried here at my feet. Hemp was around back then in the 1860s. Someone had to have been smoking it or eating the seeds like they’d been doing throughout history. I read that General Robert E. Lee endorsed the use of cannabis and said every soldier should carry it, “as it relieves debility, fatigue and suffering.” Ulysses S. Grant advocated for marijuana as well, saying, “It is of great value to the wounded and feeble, and that it is harmless.” Perhaps the soldiers underneath these ancient stones got a taste of the magic bud before they met their demise. I only hope so.
Live Your Life & Its Curves
Warren and I said goodbye outside the bar. I thought I’d see him again, but I didn’t. Never saw him again. Never knew what became of him. That was unexpected, as well. I thought we’d be good friends for a long time. But we lost contact, as so many of us do with friends over time. He may be alive and well or he may be dead, buried under some similar-looking stone like the ones here in Steilacoom, in some military cemetery somewhere at the backend of Time. It is almost as if he didn’t exist. As though I made him up in my imagination. I’m pleased, though, he got to taste the bud, that he got some relief from the pain and stress cannabis afforded him. You can try to minimize the damage done to your life, but in the end it really doesn’t matter. Live your life. With all its faults. If you’re always looking over your shoulder, you might get wounded and life will be nothing more than an exercise in futility. The unexpected curves are lurking just around the corner. Embrace them.
Related – Volunteers of America: Home on the Range