Saturday, May 31, 2008


As with the first letter, the felt-tip pen drawing was on the front side of the envelope. It was addressed on the back side of the envelope and had this return address:

P.F.C. R.N.
(His social security number)
Co. A. 159th ASV. BN
101st ABN. DIV.
A.P.O. SF. 96383

I found this about Company A, 159th Assault Support Helicopter Battalion, where RTN served as a helicopter mechanic.

We were 19 years old when RTN was drafted in the spring of 1969. I was working and living at home with my parents and two sisters and spending as much time as possible on the weekends at the coast with him, short of staying overnight with him in the room he rented in Montara. I had dropped out of college at University of California at Irvine after six quarters, having realized that all I wanted to do was to be with RTN. Studying art and English literature seemed pointless when I had no intention of being a teacher, which was my parents' goal for me. Because I was so shy and lacking in self-confidence, I couldn't begin to imagine standing in front of a classroom and teaching anything. I had no college goal and very little confidence in myself as an artist after my experience as an art student. What I wanted to do was to move back to Northern California, live with RTN and get a job -- any job where I could be "invisible." Besides, I had decided that I couldn't continue to accept money from my father for any kind of schooling while living with RTN, which was what I saw as our next step. My plan had been to get a job so I could support myself. I had a vague dream of being an artist while holding a job and living with RTN.

Without much trouble, I had found a job in a small company in Burlingame, operating an injection molding machine that produced radio knobs. Even in 1969, the commute from Redwood City to Burlingame on Highway 101 involved bumper-to-bumper traffic. On the radio I would frequently hear John Lennon (scroll down for clip of Instant Karma) singing:

Instant karma's gonna get you
Gonna knock you right on the head
You better get yourself together
Pretty soon youre gonna be dead
What in the world you thinking of
Laughing in the face of love
What on earth you tryin to do
Its up to you, yeah you

Instant karma's gonna get you
Gonna look you right in the face
Better get yourself together darlin
Join the human race
How in the world you gonna see
Laughin at fools like me
Who in the hell dyou think you are
A super star
Well, right you are

Well we all shine on
Like the moon and the stars and the sun
Well we all shine on
Evryone come on

Instant karma's gonna get you
Gonna knock you off your feet
Better recognize your brothers
Evryone you meet
Why in the world are we here
Surely not to live in pain and fear
Why on earth are you there
When youre evrywhere
Come and get your share

Well we all shine on
Like the moon and the stars and the sun
Yeah we all shine on
Come on and on and on on on
Yeah yeah, alright, uh huh, ah

Well we all shine on
Like the moon and the stars and the sun
Yeah we all shine on
On and on and on on and on

Well we all shine on
Like the moon and the stars and the sun
Well we all shine on
Like the moon and the stars and the sun
Well we all shine on
Like the moon and the stars and the sun
Yeah we all shine on
Like the moon and the stars and the sun

As I try to tell this story as I remember it, difficult memories are surfacing. That is good. I want to remember the whole story.

What I just remembered is that RTN was making a living at that time by dealing hard drugs, had used IV amphetamines and had aspired to be a Hell's Angel, having seen the movie, "The Wild One," starring Marlon Brando. His friends were drug addicts. Profoundly naive, I was unable to see just who it was that I loved more than I loved myself. Like the young woman in "The Wild One," I wanted someone to take me away from the small life I thought I was living. In the movie, though, the young woman sees through "Johnny," confronts him and goes on with her life. He respects her for that and choses to continue his life as an "outlaw."

Unlike her, I didn't confront RTN at that level until August of 2002. He had been honest with me during the months of his diagnosis of terminal lung cancer and subsequent remission of that cancer. His friends, he had told me, were practicing junkies and alcoholics. He had referred to himself as an "outlaw, especially if I have to be." I called him in Modesto where he was living with his elderly parents, several of his brothers, his sister-in-law, a nephew and a niece. After my first few words, telling him I had something serious to talk about, he hung up on me after saying, "Goodbye Amanda." I was both devastated and relieved. We did need to say goodbye to each other. We weren't going to live happily ever after, as I had always imagined. It had taken me 36 years to accept that. Two months later, I received this letter:

Dearest Amanda,

Although you may choose not to know me these days . . . . .
Thank you for popping your head up and saying hello in so many wonderful ways. You have done well my friend. You have also grown some very deep roots, as I have. I really can't ever see myself ever leaving N. California for any length of time. Anyway, we all have things to do. I'd like to thank you for all your love. Please, take all my love and get on with your life.

Love Always,

*If things are okay or if things are not well* please call me. xox R. (this line was inserted later with a different pen)

P.S. This letter needs no response. If I ever meet up to your standards, I'll let you know. By! xoxox R.

("Woman Trying To Remember What She Is Trying To Forget," drawn in chalk pastel by AM, in the early 1980s)


Dale said...

Ow. Such a confused time. I remember the drugs swirling around, taking down some friends, leaving others standing. There's wasn't a lot of sense to how it worked -- who got through it and who didn't. Accidents of body chemistry and drug supply, more than anything else, I think.

I was surprised, at my last highschool reunion, to see how many people had made it through okay. There were times when I thought there'd only be a handful of us left by this time.

am said...

It is surprising how many from our generation survived drug and alcohol abuse. Thanks so much for your reminder of that, dale.

Given RTN's long years of drug and alcohol abuse, his PTSD, his exposure to Agent Orange, his bouts with throat and lung cancer, and then a brain stem stroke last September, it is astonishing that he lived until 41 days ago.

I am one of those who would have died long ago had I continued to use drugs and alcohol. In the midst of a drug and alcohol culture, I became an infrequent user of drugs and alcohol, finding that massive amounts of sugar worked better when I wanted to relax my mind or escape.

Given my body chemistry and family history of alcoholism, I developed bulimia as I experienced unbearable cravings for enormous amounts of sweet food, while RTN craved drugs and alcohol.

RTN became addicted to drugs and alcohol. I became addicted to him and to food. We were a classic match.

What began with love, ended with love, but the years in between challenged me to the core. I am still shaken. There is relief for me in telling our story as I remember it.

cbb said...

This is such a moving tale, am. You and I are the same approximate ages (or so I'm gathering - I was born in late 1949) and some of what you're writing is resurrecting memories for me too. Like you, I was spared the substance abuse curse. I knew my mother was mentally ill (though I hadn't seen her since I was four or five) and I was terrified I could "become" like her by using drugs. It was oddly the most paradoxical protection from her, in that I might otherwise have been tempted to try things that every one around me was trying.

It is only now that I'm really putting together what a gift my mother's mental illness was.

Your art is wonderful, by the way. Is it exhibited anywhere in this area? I visit my daughter in Bellingham a lot, and if you have any of works exhibited, I would love to see them.


Anonymous said...

What a heart-breaking recollection. I remember being in email correspondence with a man who talked about how "falling in love" and the aftermath always was. I didn't understand him because there's only one person I've loved with every part of me, and it didn't happen till I was in my late 30's. Reading this, I'm glad to feel I'm not the only person who has only truly loved one person. (I feel lovingkindness and compassion towards many people. But not the kind of deep love you describe here.) I find it moving to read this, and I'm glad you find it helpful. I often think about the word dreams you've had.

robin andrea said...

Your story of love, hope, redemption, loss is so moving. Those were challenging times, heart openings and closings. Raw and passionate. We were young.

You remind me of my first long-term love relationship. A three-year heart wrenching affair, at the end of which, MD asked me, "Why do you stay with me?" I answered,"Because I love you." I asked, "Why do you stay with me?" He answered, "Because you love me."

I left after that.

Dawn said...

thank you Amanda!

your story is so very touching and touches so many. I was born about 5 years later, and I remember my freinds older sisters and brothers going thru similar experiences.

R.L. Bourges said...

wow. would have lots to say. some other time.
take care.