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Smoking, Vietnam and Me: a Journal Entry

By H. Palmer Hall


I have, for years, equated my smoking habit to a particular evening in Vietnam when the Viet Cong dropped a few more than 20 mortars into our camp in the middle of Engineer Hill. Engineer Hill was the home of two units. One of them, the 555th Combat Engineers, was a strong fighting company. The other, the 330th Radio Research Company—my company—was just the opposite. We were, in non-official Army nomenclature I’ll leave to the imagination, pretending to be part of the world’s most advanced fighting force. Of the linguists and code breakers and radio intercept operators there, I believe more than 50%, like my friend Allen Hallmark and me, had college degrees, while many others, like my friend Don Mohr—who remained at Chu Lai when Allen and I were shipped out as undesirables from the 601st Radio Research Detachment—were on their way to a degree and later became lawyers, college professors and other namby-pamby professionals. We were, basically, not fit—as Arlo Guthrie suggested in “Alice’s Restaurant”—to serve our country in its military wing.

But still and all, one night the VC had the sheer gall to drop mortars on our position. Some of those mortars sent shrapnel into the linguist’s hootch—some people claim that that “t” in the middle of “hootch” is a French affectation and should be deleted, thereby making the word “hooch,” but that seems barbaric to me, much as “punji” must be the one and only correct way to spell those sharpened sticks the VC had the bad habit of dipping in shit and planting in holes where our boys in green could step on them and get major infections, and could have done serious damage to our refrigerators or even punctured our beer cans—but I digress. The minor cut I received on my right big toe that night could have come from flying shrapnel or from the haste with which I slid under my cot. It is quite conceivable that I cut my toe on the metal of the cot. At any rate, I never reported it, just bandaged it—possibly with one of those little Mickey Mouse band aids that were so popular then.

I’m determined to get back on topic: Smoking. I have often seriously suggested that I started smoking that night when—with my big toe dripping all of six or seven drops of blood and me stoically refusing to put myself in for a Purple Heart, with people yelling and screaming and quoting Yeats and Shakespeare, my heart beating rapidly from fear, and my dismay at the misquoting going on all around me—I could borrow but a cigarette (no cigars or joints handy) from a friend standing, or perhaps lying, nearby and suck it down to the very butt. And so I propose a semi-heroic reason—man in extremis, defending his homeland—for taking up the habit. This was the very heart of Marlboro country—a place where rugged men (almost all college graduates, many, like me, English or language majors) had to smoke amidst the hellacious fog of his country’s wars. Well, yes, that is all true. But it is merely a shadow of the truth.

You see, some years earlier, way back before I had graduated from college and had spent two very earnest years teaching English back in the Big Thicket of Southeast Texas to what we then, with no pretense, called remedial students and not developmental students, I had essayed to work on a film with my good friend J. D. Feigleson, now head of Feigleson Productions in Hollywood. Yes, that Hollywood, the one near the City of Angels in California. J.D. and I were both speech majors at Lamar Tech… which has since changed its name quite pretentiously, just as every other college and tech college seems to have done, from Tech to University. J.D.—who had much more money than I—was making a movie: full color and sound, set in medieval England, about a man who carries a bow and whose son is kidnapped for some reason that is never made quite clear. That was not unusual among filmic auteurs of the day. And for the purposes of this journal entry/essay, quite irrelevant. What is relevant is that J.D. was making a film that would serve as a kind of portfolio for his eventual triumphs in Hollywood. And I was his “associate” everything. I worked on the plot with him, took a small part in the film, scouted for sites, did a little bit of everything.

And together, big-shotting it as if we were really Hollywood producers—a title J.D. would eventually earn for himself—we smoked cigars. Mostly, in my case, cheap cigars. But we smoked: in his car as he accelerated and smushed me back against the seat of his racing competitive stock Ford, in the Thicket as we prepared for the day’s shooting, at J.J.’s Steak House as we readied the next day’s shoot. In his makeshift home studio as we edited the film, and finally, in the five different movie houses owned by his uncle that debuted the film to an audience of supportive friends and relatives; and later to Beaumont, Texas, and later still, Houston, Texas, strangers. Damn but that was exciting! And the whole trail was accompanied by smoking.

“The Bowman” was about thirty minutes long. It was pointless, and therefore some would say brilliant. It had no clear point of view. It followed the bowman on his quest for his son until he killed the pair of heartless thugs who had kidnapped the boy for no apparent reason. And then he and his son continued down the trail to wherever they were going in the first place. It was far enough ahead of its time that it won a cine gold eagle in the amateur class at Cannes. Or at least, it won a gold eagle from some film festival—the name of which I have conveniently forgotten. And me? I learned to smoke. J.D.? He’s got his own studio now and has produced and directed a few films that have appeared on PBS and in your local theatres. I became a college professor, librarian and poet/essayist and a confirmed smoker.

But I did not have my first actual cigarette until that night mortars fell on Engineer Hill and I cut my foot and was totally out of cigars. Sad, sad, sad. Now? I no longer smoke, but it took me decades to finally break the habit. Those of you who have seen me cut out of conferences to take a quick drag will no longer have that pleasure. It is over. After way too many years. Fini. Hết ri. Es todo.



H. Palmer Hall’s most recent book, Coming to Terms (2007), is a collection of journal entries turned into topical essays. His work has appeared in various literary magazines, including North American Review, The Texas Review, Briar Cliff Review, WLA: War, Literature & the Arts, and a bunch of others.  A book of his deadly serious poems, Foreign and Domestic, is due out from Turning Point Press in 2009.  His main job is as library director at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio.



A Dangerous Man

By T.R. Healy



“An individual death, like a pebble dropped

in water, might make but a brief hole; yet

rings of sorrow widened out therefrom.”


Seven Pillars of Wisdom



Late one afternoon, aching with fever, T.E. Lawrence was informed one of the tribesmen under his command during the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire had killed a soldier from another tribe. Because he had to maintain cohesion among the disparate tribes he decided the culprit must be executed. So, with the others watching, he led the man to a gully and, after allowing the man a few moments to gather himself, shot him through the chest. At once, the Arab “fell down in the weeds, shrieking, with the blood coming out in spurts over his clothes, and jerked about till he rolled nearly to where I was,” Lawrence recalled afterward. Shaking himself, he fired twice more until the man was still.

“Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity,” Lawrence observed in the introduction to his epic account of the campaign, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, “but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.”

The young Englishman was indeed a dangerous man, someone who, as a boy, dreamed of liberating a foreign people from subjugation. And with the outbreak of the First World War he was afforded the opportunity to realize this dream when he was assigned to be the British liaison officer with Prince Feisal in the guerrilla campaign the Arabs waged for two years against the Turks. Aware that he did not have sufficient forces to engage in pitched battles with the enemy, he devised an indirect strategy of sudden and harassing attacks that would deplete Turkish resources and pin down thousands of troops. The campaign did not defeat Turkey that was achieved by conventional British forces but it made such a defeat possible.

With the end of the war came the end of his dream, yet he remained dangerous. Some in England regarded him as a threat to their imperial interests in the Middle East as well as their own political survival. And elsewhere there were concerns that he might foment insurrections in other countries. Lawrence, however, sought to disappear from public scrutiny. Steeped in guilt for some of the things he was involved in during the war, he enlisted in the Tank Corps and the Royal Air Force under assumed names. He seemed determined to annihilate the person celebrated as “Lawrence of Arabia” and came to regard the years he spent in the ranks “as the best of my life” because “I live all of every day with real people, and concern myself only in the concrete.” Altogether, he served thirteen years as an airman and soldier.

Throughout his years in the ranks Lawrence continued to be troubled by his conduct in the desert. Indeed, one reason why he joined the Tank Corps in 1923, he wrote to a friend, was to commit “mind suicide” because he hoped to banish the most painful aspects of the war from his thoughts. He was particularly disturbed by what happened to him when he was captured by Turkish soldiers while on a reconnaissance mission in the Syrian town of Deraa. His account of his ordeal, in what is certainly the most startling passage of his memoir, is much disputed by his biographers. Many of them believe it is entirely fabricated. But there is little doubt that Lawrence experienced something very traumatic during his campaign in the desert.

After his arrest, he was taken to the room of the Turkish governor, who attempted to seduce him, but he resisted and kneed him in the groin. Incensed, the bey ordered his soldiers to hold the Englishman, then he bent down, bit him on the neck, kissed him, and slid a bayonet through a fold of his skin. Lawrence was then taken away and subjected to a severe beating, his guards taking turns with the whip, “which lapped itself like flaming wire about my body” he recalled. To his astonishment, beside the excruciating pain, he felt “a delicious warmth, probably sexual... swelling through me.” That awful night in Deraa, he believed, “the citadel of my integrity had been irrevocably lost.”

A few days before, Lawrence enlisted in the Tank Corps, as did a nineteen-year-old Scotsman, John Bruce, with whom the older recruit developed a very peculiar relationship. Taking the young man into his confidence, he told him he had made a terrible mistake and borrowed money under false pretenses, which infuriated a close relative he called “The Old Man.” This relative, however, did not want to put Lawrence through the humiliation of a public trial, so instead, he demanded that he submit to a prescribed regimen of corporal punishment to atone for his misfeasance. Lawrence then asked Bruce to administer the punishment of twelve strokes with a birch rod provided by The Old Man. At first, the young recruit refused, but Lawrence insisted it had to be done, so he consented and for the next thirteen years, on seven to nine occasions, he flogged the person he regarded as his greatest friend, furnishing written reports to The Old Man on Lawrence’s demeanor during the beatings.

Unbeknownst to Bruce, the elaborate story Lawrence told him of financial fraud and a vindictive relative was completely false. It was concocted so that he could experience again the punishment he received in Deraa. Threatened by the strange impulses he felt that night, he believed he had become a danger to himself and what he stood for and hoped to destroy that part of him that had found pleasure in such humiliation. In a sense, he sought the impossible: a kind of partial death that would relieve him of the guilt and shame he experienced at Deraa. Not surprisingly, he did not consider the initial beating he received from Bruce severe enough and insisted he do it again until his skin bled. The more he suffered the less he ached.




In 1935, toward the end of February, Lawrence was discharged from the RAF. Stationed at a post on the North Sea, he rode away on his bicycle, taking his time as he headed to his cottage, Clouds Hill, in Dorset. Above the door he had posted the words, “Does Not Care,” in Greek. He had not made any particular plans for his retirement but assumed he would comfortably adjust to his solitary life at Clouds Hill. That did not happen, however, as he struggled to cope with the idleness he found there. At times he felt bewildered by it, comparing his state of mind to what “leaves must feel like... after they have fallen from their tree and until they die.”

His small brick and tile cottage was in need of attention, so he passed some days making improvements and repairs. Sometimes he even invented odd jobs, such as installing a porthole. He lived a very sparse existence, eating meals out of cans, sleeping on the floor in a sleeping bag, wearing slippers so he did not have to be bothered washing socks. Much of his time passed slowly, with him “sitting in my cottage and getting used to an empty life.”

He seemed lost, not sure what to do without the military structure he had become accustomed to the last several years. What troubled him in particular was “this odd sense of being laid aside before being worn out.” At forty-six, he may not have had the dreams he once had but he still believed “Time is on my side.” Yet he could not figure out what he should do despite the numerous suggestions of his friends. And gradually a sense of disquietude seeped into his correspondence. Early in May, he wrote to a friend, “Also there is something broken in the works, as I told you: my will, I think.”

One activity that Lawrence continued to pursue with relish was riding motorcycles. Once, explaining the appeal of motorcycling to the poet Robert Graves, he said, “It is the reward of speed. I could write you pages on the lustfulness of moving swiftly.” And move he did, regardless of the terrain.

On the morning of May 13th, a Monday, he climbed on his clunky Brough Superior bike and rode about a mile and a half to the Tank Corps camp at Bovington to wire a telegram to a friend, the writer Henry Williamson, who two days earlier had sent a letter saying he would like to visit him at Clouds Hill. Lawrence told him to come ahead, whether or not it rained, then mailed some books to another friend. About an hour after leaving his cottage he headed back, moving swiftly despite the dips and rises in the narrow road. His motorcycle, fairly quiet at top speed, was very noisy in lower gears, to which he shifted when he approached the three dips.

As Lawrence was about to enter the middle dip, he saw a black van coming toward him and pulled closer to the left side of the road so it could pass more easily. He was in second gear, traveling no faster than thirty-eight miles per hour. Then, all of a sudden, he came upon two delivery boys on bicycles, moving in the same direction he was, one behind the other. Immediately he swerved to avoid colliding with them, but he clipped one bicycle in the back and was thrown from his motorcycle. A corporal, out walking his dog, heard the sound of the crash and rushed over and found the injured rider lying on the road. He was unconscious, and his face was covered with blood. Neither of the boys, however, was seriously hurt. Urgently the soldier flagged down a truck and told the driver to take Lawrence to the hospital at Bovington Camp, where he remained in a coma for six days until he died.

Inevitably, various theories were advanced to explain the unexpected and almost mundane death of the famous English soldier. Some people speculated that he might have been the victim of a plot by agents of a foreign government worried by his reputation as a troublemaker. Others went so far as to implicate his own government because of its concern he might reveal valuable secrets about its policies in the Middle East. A more plausible theory was that he was in such despair he took his own life. To be sure, since his discharge from the RAF, he had been quite despondent about his future, at times expressing a palpable sense of hopelessness. Only a couple of months earlier, consoling someone about the recent passing of a mutual friend, he admitted that “I find myself wishing all the time that my own curtain would fall.”

Sometimes, however, accidents are indeed accidents despite how unlikely they might appear to those not involved in them. And from the evidence presented at the inquest it is clear that what happened on the road between Clouds Hill and Bovington Camp was an accident. Lawrence may still have been regarded by others as dangerous, but he was too responsible to jeopardize the lives of two youngsters so that he could end his own life. What is possible is that in his current state of mind he had become a danger to himself. People who begin to lose hope are, as his biographer John E. Mack observed in A Prince of Our Disorder, “more prone to accidents.” Perhaps he was not as attentive to his own safety as he should have been that morning, possibly going faster than was warranted on the rugged little road, but if it cost him his life, he still was alert enough to protect the lives of the two boys.



T.R. Healy was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest. His essays have appeared in publications such as Appalachia, Combat, Ducts, and The Umbrella Journal.


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