We are going.
Brothers and sisters, going.
Whether into the light or through the doors of Persephone, who can say?
In an eyeblink there will be none to remember, much less tell of hearing Ravi Shankar in the Monterrey sunrise.
No eye alive will have watched the Pentagon levitate, neither Yippees, nor mystics, nor those veterans of the 82nd Airborne who a half year later would, along with their brothers in the 101st, arrive in flaming Detroit. Or in nine months – roughly the time it takes to gestate a human baby – pile sandbags around the bunker at Phu Bai.
It’s OK to be going. That’s how it goes. Everyone goes. I’m cool with that. Not entirely ready, but cool. And I don’t worry much about what I’ll leave behind. But there was a moment when a considerable minority of the planet’s young, and I among them, believed it might be possible to actually live on Love Street. And we had this notion that Pentagons can rise, like a chopper, and come down again, but different.
* * *
Once upon a time, I loved helicopters. Particularly Arthur Young’s 47D bubble canopy model, one of which hangs suspended, rotor immobilized, from the atrium roof at MoMA. Art, yo.
In 1962 when I was twelve, we moved into a 20th floor apartment. From my window, I could look south and see the choppers landing and taking off from the pads atop the Port Authority building nine blocks south, even as the flocks of palomas flew to and from the tenement rooves to the east and west, taking a wheeling turn around the Chelsea sky. Under one of those rooves, five stories down at street level was this restaurant, La Taza d’Oro. Whose bacalao and mofongo and flan and “Sanjuañero pa’ calle” cafés no one will soon remember, nor be alive to tell of.
In ’63, at a brand new movie house, between Port Authority building and my high-rise, I saw From Russia With Love, which also featured a chopper which buzzed and shot at Sean Connery as he ran madly through what was supposed to be Bulgaria with Daniela Bianchi. 007 was dressed as a businessman carrying what looked like an attaché case, but was actually the Lektor – a decoding device he’d stolen from the Russian embassy in Istanbul. And it was in that theater that I took in my first real lesson in tactics – dig this: 007 tells Daniela – she’s his mole at the embassy – that he’s going to steal the device on Wednesday. But because he doesn’t trust her, he does the op the day before. Yeah.
In those days a gaggle of short films and cartoons surrounded the feature. One very popular animated character was Baby Huey, an immense and Candide-like duckling. Baby Huey wore an infant’s bonnet, a cropped, short-sleeved, prussian blue shirt, and a safety-pinned diaper. His orange legs had proto-toes on their feet, as well as four-fingered hands at the end of humanoid arms. Quack-a-Doodle-Do.
A year after Bond boosted the Lektor, something – I won’t say what, ‘cause I really don’t know – happened in the Gulf of Tonkin. But for certain it wasn’t long before there were official American boots on the ground in and planes and yes, choppers in the air. In plenitude. A lot of the choppers were Hueys. They flew all sorts of missions, being “utility” helicopters: medevac and more. It’s the more part, you see, because when equipped with rockets and gattling guns, these Hueys – officially the UH-1 Iroquois and engineered, like the 47D by Bell – became the equivalent of rotored Achilles’, by which I mean absolute killing machines. You can get a sense of them in certain sequences of Apocalypse Now, which will have to serve when we, who actually felt those merciless blades assault the air, are gone. Gone with the Cong, the NVR and ARVN. Gone with William Calley and his boys, whether into the light or somewhere darker and hotter, who can say? Gone with whichever zombies in blue took down Fred Hampton.
And because, like bears, there are always three, spotlight on Huey P. Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party and author of much of their 10-point manifesto, which, when anyone who remembers hearing it read aloud by Bobbie or Huey or Eldridge or Angela is gone, will maybe still be findable at, say, Blackpast.org.
* * *
While the Hueys were affrighting the air over Nam, some folks back home were watching To Tell the Truth, an audience-participation game show which was all about identifying from among three possible candidates who was the real so-and-so. And at the end of each episode, Bob Collier, the host, would call out: Will the real ___ please stand up?
But is there a real Huey? Could enough of those rotors lift a Pentagon, or blow it away? If it walks like a duck…
Empedocles would say, and maybe he did, but no one alive now heard him: “They are all real.” Real as rain. Real as the Napalm invented at Harvard in the same year Huey P. Newton was born.
Napalm itself is a portmanteau word, a blend. Which I would do well to remember as I, as we, prepare, if such is possible, to blend into the earth and sky.
Not gone but going. And still singing, in place of Marvin who went before us: Can I get a witness?
N.B.: This piece was triggered by a café conversation with a young friend who urged me to write more about my life during The Day, and recollections thereof. His own experience with a restored Huey as a teenager in Ireland led my friend to eventually become a pilot. A more general sense of urgency to write about the culture of the sixties has also been stimulated by an ongoing dialogue with my daughter, now thirty, as well as numerous of my college-age students, both American and foreign-born. It is my conviction, pace Oklahoma!, that the Millennials and the Boomers should be friends. We have a world to gain, and only our limitations to lose.