For Judson, this is the “year of turning 60.” He is in his fourth year as the home-care program director of the Highland Valley Elder Services in Florence, MA. This is a new career after working as a reporter and editor at the Daily Hampshire Gazette in Northampton, MA.
He and his wife, Sandra, an elementary school teacher, are the parents of a 26 and 28 year old. He is actively involved in St. John’s Episcopal Church and in his small condo community, Laurel Park, the evolution of a Methodist community from the 19th century. He also sings with much enthusiasm in a local chorus.
I grew up at Phillips Academy Andover as a faculty brat. My Dad was an English teacher and I had a very protected childhood. I was quite young for my age and was young for my class chronologically, which stayed with me. The prep school campus was idyllic and I had a wonderful childhood. My parents got a place for next-to-nothing on the coast of Maine when I was a child so in the summer months we went to this primitive old island and lived a basic, wonderful summer idyll. I was clearly very privileged and all of this happened without my folks ever really any serious money. We were not rich, but we were really lucky in a lot of ways.
Politically I had no consciousness through high school. In 1965 I went to the University of Pennsylvania and had a huge awakening. I hit Philadelphia, the streets of Philadelphia and suddenly the whole civil rights movement was happening. The movement was in full flower and I had hardly ever even seen a black person. I remember my first encounter downtown and just being taken, almost intoxicated, by the urban environment. That experience was really very defining for me. My story with the war really begins with my awakening to some sense of social justice. I plunged in my limited way towards the end of Penn in urban issues. Through that work my political consciousness was changed. My parents didn’t talk about world events. We didn’t live in a town; we lived in a boarding school. My father is a very literary man and my mother is an artist and life was sweet. We didn’t get involved in local or state politics. I don’t remember my parents expressing opinions on any major issue. They were Republicans though not arch. I remember singing the song “Eisenhower’s got the power, Stephenson’s a jerk,” which reveals where our political leanings were. The war wasn’t on my mind neither in high school nor in college. But discovering the black community through a thesis I did about urban renewal issues related to Penn expanding. The students basically said, “Come on, Penn, you’ve got to do better.” I was writing for the school paper and I believe I had something to do with raising the issues.
Right after I graduated I went to work for the EVENING BULLETIN and within 6 months I had been recruited to work for a black community organization in west Philadelphia. I left a remarkable career opportunity and went to work for this charismatic black man, Herman Wrice, who had started a group called the YOUNG GREAT SOCIEY. He needed a writer. Herman was very savvy and he pulled me in when I went to interview him. Before the interview was over he had offered me a job. He wanted me to write a chronicle of the work he was doing with gangs. He was a former gang member who had almost died when he was caught in crossfire. He was committed to turning gang kids around by exposing them to the business and university communities and giving them opportunities they never even dreamed of. My job was to chronicle these gang guys going through the maze he had set up for them. It was like one long feature and I had an enormous document that actually got stolen by a filmmaker he had also recruited. I ended up with a fragment of it, which took me to Breadloaf Writer’s Conference. My Dad had been there as a young man and I applied and got in.
While I was in college I had a 2-S deferment, but in 1969 I drew the number 12 in the lottery. It scared the shit out of me. It was narcissistic, but I fell in with the black movement and I just couldn’t get enough of it. There is no heroism in my story. I got the number 12 and I had gotten married by then and my wife, Sandy, and I had considered various possibilities. The Peace Corps was a possibility once the number hit. Our first apartment downtown had been occupied by Edward Rendell who had been the immediate past director of the Democratic National Committee and is now governor of Pennsylvania. At the time he was a D.A. and moving up fast in Philadelphia politics. It was a gross apartment and the first thing we did was wash Ed Rendell’s facial hair out of the sink. He goes on to become big timber politically. But Ed is important in another way because my first ploy was to duck into the Army Reserves and he got me into his unit. Somehow he made that possible. I joined the Reserves and started to go to monthly meetings. I had long hair and I remember putting grease in my hair on Sundays to go to the Guard meetings.
Meanwhile I continued to work at the Young Great Society and I just didn’t want to have anything to do with the war. I had determined that I was against the war so I applied to be a CO. I was reflecting upon my work in the ghetto community of West Philadelphia – a community called Mantua. It was more intellectual than felt, but I put together a case. Here I am doing this humanitarian work and I have no interest in being in the military. I based my case on the work I was doing as a reflection of my conscience, my social conscience. I had partaken peripherally in the protest movement. I had a couple of high school friends and I remember a defining moment sitting around a kitchen table in one of their houses in New Jersey. These guys were saying, “We’re going to go for it. We’re going to join the military. We’re going to be soldiers, that’s how we’re dealing with this.” I wasn’t going with them. I didn’t know my path. They knew theirs. They both went into the Marines. Then I remember my uncle saying, “This is the defining event of your generation and you should go. You should be part of this.” I heard him, but when the time came and the number came up I was scrambling. I knew I wasn’t going, but I saw no clear path.
I didn’t get the CO. They probably saw me as an opportunist. Drugs figure in the next chapter of this. I went up to Breadloaf with my writings from the Young Great Society. There was always this ambition to be a writer. It was a heady time for me and it was enhanced by some heavy doses of hashish. By the time I came out of Breadloaf – down from Breadloaf – I had decided in that euphoria I was in that I was going to “Fuck ‘em.” I was going to go to basic training, but I was going to be a resister. I wasn’t going to go through with it. I think what pushed me was an infallible sense, an exuberance that took me to this point – I am just going to say no to the system and let them do to me what they will. Maybe it was hubris…
The basic training was for my service in the Reserves. My CO application had delayed things a bit, but after Breadloaf I was called. I was definitely in a bit of a haze coming off that experience and I was told to report to Fort Jackson in South Carolina. I had decided I wasn’t going to cooperate. I didn’t know what the consequences would be and in a very immature way I felt invincible. My wife was terrified. We were very different ages and she could tell you the story from the outside looking in and it was definitely scary for her. I was very young when I got married and I was hardly grown up at this point. Having grown up in the environment I did and marrying early I had a lot of immaturity to work out. But I was exuberant and invincible and on this “trip”.
When I got to South Carolina I hooked up with this radical little cell. There was a gay guy I remember and there were lots of drugs in the house. I had a few days before I had to report. I didn’t show up exactly when I was supposed to and I was befriended by this group and encouraged by them in the course of action I was about to embark upon. I decided to keep a diary. I showed up for basic training in the pouring rain and I tell the story in here (Judson reads from his almost 40 year old account of his experience):
I was barefoot with hair looping down my neck, shirt open.
Some friends left me off at the end of the Commanding General’s
driveway. I walked up, rang the doorbell. The general’s wife
“Hello, Ma’am. I’m a friend of the General’s and I’d like to talk
to him. Is the General in?”
No, he wasn’t, but would I like to come in?
My toes sunk in the carpet, leaving little brown tracks.
“You see, ma’am, I don’t believe in war and I’d like to talk with
the General and tell him what I intend to do. I’ve never actually met your husband, but…”
She poured me a Coke.
We talked. I explained that I had joined the Army Reserves a
Year and a half ago, had applied shortaly after for a discharge as a
Conscientious Objector, but that had been refused and I had been
considering other routes including leaving the country, but had
decided instead to report for duty and immediately refuse all orders.
“To sort of ‘test the System’? she quizzed.
“Not really for show, Ma’am. Just to state my case, that I can’t
remain in the Army in good conscience and take the consequences.”
She nodded dubiously.
“Would you like a ham and cheese sandwich?” she asked, going
into the kitchen.
I accepted, drawing little circles of sweat and grime on the
polished table while she cut big hunks of ham. She opened the icebox.
“You say you’re opposed to war?” she called in. The icebox door
“Yes, Ma’am. You see, I think the world’s coming to an end,
“Yes, well. It says that in the Bible, you know,” she stated,
placing the thick sandwich before me.
We talked for about an hour. I told her I believed in non-
violence the way Ghandi practiced it in India.
“Yes, but where do you think this country would be if…”
I washed down a leaf of lettuce.
“Would you like to live in India or China?”
“I don’t really think that’s the point.” I swigged down the Coke.
“Ah, do you have any cigarettes, Ma’am?”
She handed me a Parliament. We smoked and talked some
more. We got along very well, and in a while, found that we agreed on many things, but that we just phrased things differently. After a while she drove me down to the Reception Station.
“Good luck,” she said as I was getting out.
“Thank you, Mrs. Coleman.” I started to walk up the sandy
“By the way,” she called through the window, “keep to that
non-violent thing.” She smiled.
I made a peace sign. She drove away.
I went to the Reception Station. I told them, “I am not going to get my hair cut.” I was number 104. (Judson resumes reading from his diary):
“Hey, 104, you didn’t bring no shoes or nothin’?” They laughed.
“You crazy.” They sat around in their fresh fatigues drinking Cokes
and eating Oreos, playing pinochle. Puerto Ricans, Chicanos, Blacks.
A group of Arcadians from New Orleans. Some of them had finished
high school; most hadn’t. The Puerto Ricans couldn’t speak English.
One Chicano kept saying he wanted to kill a Jap.
Tuesday the Commanding Officer called me into his office and
told me that at exactly 0900 he was going to give me an order to
have, cut my hair and begin processing for training.
Two hours later he called me in, issued me the direct order and
read the maximum sentence I could receive for refusing: 5 years hard
I refused. That afternoon I was ushered into the Stockade.
I was looking at five years. I was still euphoric. I haven’t looked at this since I wrote it and picking it up is strange. There are parts that are actually O.K., but a lot of it is immature. I was in a kind of fantasyland. I was living off this idea that I am this privileged guy. They can’t do anything to me.
There were a bunch of losers in there – me among them. I was the only one there who was “politically motivated”. Most of these guys were high school dropouts, working class from all over the south. Some of them had been to Vietnam and, in fact, Vietnam runs through here in the things I hear. Like on the golf course detail I heard about mutilations and it was all completely surreal. There was no pain involved for me. I go off on these little poetic fantasies in here, little aesthetic asides. I was reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer – it was all contrived in some ways, but in the meantime I was observing and listening to these guys who were much less privileged. What you find is this privileged, preppy guy who thinks he is invincible meeting these loser guys and in some cases a war hero. There’s an element of honesty about the thing as well.
While I was in there I was keeping notes, I was writing and I saw my time there as an opportunity to chronicle this experience. Sometimes I would get asked why I was there:
“How many times ya’ll been AWOL, Brown?” I’d be asked.
“None. I refused an order to go to basic training.”
“No shit, why?”
“I’m, ah. Well, I’m morally opposed to the Army.”
“Dig it. Fuck the Army.”
“Well,” I’d continue, “it’s a little more complicated than that.
You see…” And I’d try to explain exactly how it was more complicated,
But whatever I said came out sounding very contrived and ridiculously
“You see,” I’d begin, “the reason I’m opposed to the Army is…”
No. No. It didn’t make sense. So I soon gave up my explanation
altogether, realizing that if there was any difference between my
“objecting” to the Army and merely resenting it like everybody else,
it was a difference of erudition, not heart. It was fine to be “opposed
to war” – I suppose I always shall be, and shall always feel compelled
to explain myself – but I realized soon after I entered the Stockade
that that particular belief had nothing to do with being a prisoner,
except perhaps by way of explaining why I became one.
At one point I quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
In general a prisoner is no doubt inclined to make up, through
an exaggerated sentimentality, for the soullessness and lack of
warmth in his surroundings and perhaps he may react too strongly to
anything sentimental that affects him personally.
I think that is the dignified way of saying that that is how I was. It was a hyper-real moment for me and I was taking it in aesthetically, emotionally and in terms of social learning. I was treated decently. I am above it all, of course. Everyone is a little bit caricatured in here. I keep going off on these lyrical passages trying to evoke some kind of beauty out of the place – a surreal painting of the whole event.
There are some places where I was able to capture what was really going on:
Alan Vencomo is a Puerto Rican dude (I’d gotten to calling
everyone “dude” while I was working in Mantua with black people)
from the Bronx. He served in Vietnam for 11 months until he was
wounded in both knees and got a “compassionate” leave, returning
to a hospital in Florida to get a steel spring put in his right knee and
a small rod in his left. When he was released they ordered him back
to ‘Nam, to serve his last remaining month. He hauled ass. Got
caught. Now he has sat for 57 days in the Stockade awaiting a
General Court Martial and he hasn’t yet had his charges read to him
or had any word when his trial will be.
His skin is brown and smooth; pupils dark hard mahogany; hair
black and wiry an parted down the middle. He talks in a rolling Bronx-
Spanish-English that sounds like marbles rolling down a board.
“I’m a leader, man. Whenever we went out on patrols I’m in
front. They thought I was a sergeant, man, and I told them, “Man,
I’m only an E-2.” But I was out front, so they thought I was a
Sergeant. Later they wanted to make me one, but I said, man, “Fuck
And when his knee was shot they gave him a medal. Then his
other knee was shot and they gave him another.
“The medals don’t mean shit, man. You can’t buy a cup of
coffee with ‘em. I don’t wear the damn medals, man.”
He starts to talk to me about ‘Nam and about the hooch he built over there and I tried to get poetic.
Alan was a leader. In the field he’d tell the new recruits. “Be
cool, man. Don’t try to be war lords.”
Alan concentrated on survival. Kept his medals in cans. He
went about his business like a businessman and got 31 “kills”. He
went about his killing and survived.
Now he went out 30 days to the field. And back for 10. And out
30. And he went out to the reeds and the quick knives that flashed in
the mud. And he lay low in the reeds and hugged the bunkers. Then
he turned, in 30 days, and then in 30 days back to the base and to his
hooch, buried 14 feet in the ground, which he built in 3 months with
his hands, and in which he survived.
He dug a hole 14 feet deep. Then he planted 9×9 beams and
reinforced them with steel plates. Then he poured concrete for a floor
and concrete for walls. Then he built a six-foot thick rocket-proof roof with the ramp he took off an old Marine amphibian landing
craft, and a sheet of plastic they use for runways, and chicken wire
and sandbags. Then he poured concrete over all this, like gravy, then
bulldozed earth and worms and crushed grass over the works.
finally a friend drove a 50-ton tank over the works, and the hooch
held, the beams didn’t splinter. As a last touch he got an old
submarine door to seal the entranceway, which made the hooch,
at last, grenade-proof, bomb-proof, gook-proof, death-safe.
He lived there, in 10-day spells, for 11 months. Once, when
There was an attack, and GI’s were going crazy and running mad along the bunkers, Alan unlatched the sub door and yelled, “In here!
In here!” They jumped off the bunkers, 115 GI’s, scrambled and packed into the hooch and lay there, in piles and layers, breathing,
Until the pounding and yelling ceased above and, through seven feet of runway and ram and chickenwire and worms, the world was still, and there were the dead and the Asians retreated to the trees. The
Hooch held. And all the little hooches in the ground lay quiet beneath a dark solitary mountain, called Nudy Bah Dinh, the Black Virgin, a
distance from which “you could spit into Cambodia.”
I go on to talk about his love affair with a French Vietnamese girl. I am sure he was leading me on, but he talks about his hooch. “I love that place man. You know, when you build something with your own hands, you love it more.” Then I asked him, “Were you changed by Vietnam, Alan?”
“Ain’t got no more heart. Ain’t got no feelings anymore. If you
Fell out that window and cracked your head, I wouldn’t give a damn. I
Saw so many men cut down there, and there, and there.” He points at imaginary corpses. “Gone. Dead. And you can’t cry over every death.
And it just don’t mean nothin’ anymore.”
Alan, with his broken knees, head thumping with rockets, came home – one month short – to Florida to get his knees fixed. They fixed them. Then they said, “O.K., go on back soldier.” So he split and went to his wife and two kids in the Bronx. But he couldn’t get into that anymore. That was gone. He was caught, put in the Stockade. Here he is for 57 days. He laughs a lot and makes jokes and people think he’s funny. He always got along. He’s a leader.
But the prisoners don’t see him at other times, wandering around the barracks with his mahogany eyes, all sad and dumb and dazed and shiny hard, talking about his hooch he made with his hands.
I was really listening. I had been doing this kind of writing in west
Philadelphia and so I was continuing this act of being the recorder of these lives that were very different from mine. Here’s what I said when Alan left us:
“In Vietnam, man, we were all brothers. Black, white, Spanish. We had to stick together, man. And I…” He rubbed his arm showing his amber color. “I could go between black and white.”
Everybody at the Stockade loved Alan. Whites. Blacks. Puerto
Ricans. Alan had all our blood in him. He was happy, or seemed so,
and perhaps the prisoners were drawn to that. He was empty and
lonely. Maybe it’s that that drew us so. He was true.
Of course, no one will miss him. It is as if one of the barbs has
fallen with a clink of the wire…
Out on the golf course detail I heard some horrible stories:
Then he looked to the ground and his spade sliced into the earth and a brown weed shaped like an asterisk popped out. We went along, popping asterisks, as Carl told me how he lopped off Gook’s ears after he killed ‘em. Said he had a whole string of ears in his hooch, and for each set he had a medal.
A tall, tanned sergeant, the greenskeeper as it turned out, was
standing by us. “Ya, man, he chuckled. “Guys used to slice off the
gooks ears and penises and they’d saw the ears to their fatigues and
wear the dicks on their belts.” He burst out laughing. I looked at him
“No shit,” the sergeant winked.
“You’re sick!” I shouted. “You’re both sick!”
We argued. Carl said Gooks weren’t human beings and didn’t
have any feelings or values. I protested. They tried to tell me what
war was like.
“Can you describe pain?” the sergeant asked me. “I try to tell
people what it was like, but how do you describe awful continuous
pain? You can’t.” He said when he first got to Vietnam, his buddy was
lost one night and found the next day skinned alive. And Carl
described decapitated GI’s hanging from tree limbs.
“You learn to hate Gooks, man,” said Carl.
The sergeant put a hand on my shoulder and asked, “Have you
ever hear of revenge?”
Crushed, I told them if the Vietnamese weren’t human or didn’t
have morals or values, how were the Americans any different.
butchery was butchery. We moved down the fairway squishing
mushrooms under our boots. But soon the conversation had become
intolerable of all three of us.
There was another character, a man named J. He was a musician. He played ten instruments including drums, guitar, trombone, trumpet, and flute. He was drafted after a year and a half at Julliard. In Vietnam he minstrelled about with his guitar. He wrote ballads and here’s one he sang for us:
I’d like to see the Prezident
In an Army hospital bed
With a broken arm and a fractured leg
And shrapnel in his head…
Then one day he fell off a 40 foot tower, busted his pelvis, and
was shipped home. Spent five months in traction, and when he was
released, flew the coop. Went back to the City and joined up with his
band again. Played a few nightclubs. Trucked down to Ft. Lauderdale.
Then he got picked up on the Gator Run (a weekly sweep of Florida for
AWOLS). When I got to the Stockade, J. had been there 44 days
Already, awaiting a Special Court Martial.
Sitting on the concrete steps of the barracks, J. was stoned on
painkillers he took because his pelvis ached. He missed his
instruments. He said at home he had millions of them. So he played
himself, slapped his knees like bongos, made twanging noises
imitating a guitar, blew air through the hole in his teeth as if he were
I’d like to give the Prezident
His very own M-16
Send him into the woods
The woods he’s never seen.
` Then I’m sure that he’ll be back
To tell you what he saw.
He’ll tell you that he’s had enough
And that he wants no more….WAR!”
I thought if I were going to title this I’d call it Yentser’s Hat.
This evening in line-up Sergeant Ace came up to Yentser and
Took the hat off Yentser’s head, thumbed the rim back and forth, stuck
His fingers through the moth holes and the cigarette burn holes.
“Burn it, Yentser,” he barked. Now Yentser’s hat had become a weird
symbolic diadem. He’d sliced the cloth up, the cloth of the brim and worked the cardboard out through the scar leaving the brim soft as flesh. And the brim flopped over his eyes and flapped in the breeze and his red hair licked out like flames through the holes in the top. The hat seemed nearly organic and stood out in a trim in a row of trim caps like a vegetable. Now the order came down from Ace, “Burn it!”
Back in the barracks, Yentser emptied a butt can and put old cigarette packs in the bottom and lit them and dangled his hat in the flames. It caught with a sizzle, flamed and bubbled and began to melt and drip back down the sides of the can and the thick black smoke smelling terribly of roasted nylon clouded up in the can. Finally the hat was just a large crusty ash with the texture of a meringue cookie. I got a matchbox and we broke the large crust down and filled the box with the little burnt, shriveled up pieces of hat and wrote on the side, “Yentser’s hat died October 7, 1971.” I’ll carry the casket and keep it in my footlocker and remember Yentser, faced filled with flames, gazing wild-eyed over the cremation.
I think it was a final example of juvenile revolt against the system –
person against the machine. The environment was totally dehumanizing and these guys were trying to live their lives against this backdrop. We were all in it together. It was solidarity. To me there was something about all of it that was exotic. Coming out of my past there was the exoticism to the blacks efforts in west Philadelphia and then this. I was drawn to something so other, something so beyond what I had known. I also saw this opportunity to use my descriptive abilities to try to capture this.
I applied for an “Undesirable Discharge” while I was in the Stockade. Sandy had hustled around and found out information we needed to know about what I could do. My brother was a lawyer in D.C. and somehow he made an intervention. To this day we are not quite clear what he did. They wanted me out of there without a court martial – out of the Stockade and out of the Reserves. I was branded “undesirable.” I remember the feeling of being kicked out the door and being barefoot again. I went back to the little marijuana house and it was over. I was done with the military after 5 weeks.
I continue to this day to have enormous respect for those who went to Vietnam. My friend, Jim Munroe, recently described his experience including being seriously wounded in a grenade explosion. It changed his life entirely. He became a priest. Thinking back to my uncle saying, “This is the defining experience of your generation. You ought to be part of that.” In a way I suppose I was. But I didn’t suffer a loss. I got through it without injury. I got something from it – a rich encounter with folks I hadn’t seen in my life. As a journalist and in the work I do now I try to break out of the class crap and try to be with folks who have other things to speak to you about – courage, character – and it is a privilege to take it in, to respect it and to honor it and magnify it. It was all a part of my process of coming of age.
In retrospect if I had gone where my classmates from high school went it would have been gut-wrenching. This was a learning experience. I don’t have any sense of courage about what I did. This is how I took it on and I was very lucky that I was able to avoid it. I just respect those who took it on and served in the war.