Tim Page’s War – a photographer’s Vietnam journey

Photographs of guns and flame
Scarlet skull and distant game
Bayonet and jungle grin
Nightmares dreamed by bleeding men
Lookouts tremble on the shore
But no man can find the war
Tim Buckley 1976 

Marines, Operation Starlite

Tim Page had already been two years “in country” when as an undergraduate I’d participated in the violent melees in front of the US embassy in London’s Grosvenor Square protesting what Kenny Rodgers would call “that crazy Asian war”. Our undergraduate passions were inflamed by the fear that our government would answer US President Lyndon B Johnson’s call to join him and his forces in Vietnam – our Antipodean kin in Australia and New Zealand has already committed troops, and Johnson was applying the economic screws. But Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson held firm and Britain avoided the débacle that has haunted the US for half a century.

This is the story of a war, and a young man who wandered into that war.

Chaos without a compass

A ship is waiting for us at the dock
America has trouble to be stopped
We must stop Communism in that land
Or freedom will start slipping through our hands.
I hope and pray someday the world will learn
That fires we don’t put out, will bigger burn
We must save freedom now, at any cost
Or someday, our own freedom will be lost.
Johnny Wright, Hello Vietnam

The Twentieth Century’s “Thirty Years War” was waged in South East Asia initially by the colonialist France, and then by neo-imperialist America. France’s war ended in defeat and ignominy for French arms and prestige, and a partition that was but a prelude to America’s Vietnam quagmire.

America’s War has since been defined as chaos without compass. It was inevitable that acclaimed historian Barbara Tuchman would chose it as one of her vignettes in The March of Folly, her celebrated study of débacles through the ages characterised by what would appear to be a single-minded determination amounting to tunnel vision that is akin to stupidity.

As Tuchman saw it, exceptionalism and manifest destiny are historically proven folly. Self-belief in American power and righteousness has historically created delusions of grandeur, obstinate attachment to unserviceable goals, stubbornness, and an inability to learn from past mistakes or even admitting error – a wooden-headedness that often sees the US persisting on erroneous paths that lead to loss of blood, treasure, reputation and moral standing.

Why did the US’ experience of backing the wrong horse in China in the forties not provide an analogy and warning in Vietnam in the fifties? Why did the experience in Vietnam not inform the it with respect to Iran right up to the fall,of the Shah in1978? And why hadn’t it learned anything when it stumbled into Salvador in the eighties? And then, of course, we arrive in the 21st century with no-exit, never-ending wars in Afghanistan and Middle East that end in retreat and betrayal with the ‘freedom-loving’ USA still backing the wrong horses by supporting autocrats and tyrants against their own people.

But, back to Vietnam …

As historian Per Yule noted in The Long Shadow: Australia’s Vietnam Veterans Since The War, the Vietnam War was based on an assortment of unproven assumptions and half truths. It wrongly identified a dictatorship as a democracy a civil war as an international conflict. Our armed forces were sent to fight in support of a corrupt military regime which received solid support only from the catholic minority and the small landowning class. Few willingly fought for the regime.

Many in the US military reckoned that if given a free hand by the administration of President Johnson, they could have prevailed against North Vietnam – by destroying it utterly with overwhelming firepower. But the US had backed the wrong side and no amount of support could make the South Vietnamese fight and die hard enough for their corrupt, incompetent, puppet government. We hear a similar rationale with regard to the the Afghan army’s rapid collapse and the US’ shambolic withdrawal from Afghanistan

The US wanted to convince the North Vietnamese that they couldn’t win on the battlefield. The North Vietnamese wanted to convince the American people that the cost in blood and treasure was too high. Both sides continued to believe that they could improve their positions through escalation and both continued to focus on military rather than political means to end the conflict. And so we were left with an almost certainly unwinnable strategy of bombing the enemy to the negotiating table when that enemy shows no willingness to negotiate under duress. The bombing campaign, code name Rolling Thunder, was described by a commentator in Ken Burns’ documentary The Vietnam War as “the dumbest campaign ever designed by a human being”.

The many names for a war lost before it began

All we need is a little determination;
Men, follow me, I’ll lead on.
We’re waist deep in the big muddy
And the big fool says to push on.
Pete Seeger, Waist Deep in the Big Muddy

Vietnam has been called the pointless war and the needless war. It was certainly a costly war. The butchers bill was horrendous. No one really knows how many people perished. Civilian deaths range from 1.3 to 4.5 million.of which over 80% were Vietnamese and 7% Cambodian. American soldiers dead numbered 58,220 and wounded,153,303. The number of Vietnamese and Cambodian wounded is inestimable.

As for the American forces, it most certainly “the poor man’s war” – most who were perished or were maimed were not rich folks, and a disproportionate number were black. Amd the more who died, the more were sent to replace them. And like here in Australia, thecdraft caught mainly the poor and unconnected. Even as soldiers started going home, actual or attempted murder by enlisted men of their superiors increased alarmingly.

As to the monetary cost: an estimated $1 trillion in today’s dollars. But that is doubtlessly an understatement – what about the rebuilding, the rehabilitation, the recompense? Vietnam was the most heavily bombed country in history. More than 6.1 million tons of bombs were dropped, compared to 2.1 million tons in WW2. U.S. planes dumped 20 million gallons of herbicides to defoliate VietCong hiding places. It decimated 5 million acres of frostbite and 500,000 acres of farmland.

It has been called “the helicopter war” because choppers were the primary mode of ground combat and transport, and also “the television war – it’s triumphs (few) and tragedies (many) were beamed Into American homes nightly, fuelling the public’s confusion and unease about this Asian war, and eventually, the anger that forced the US government to eventually withdraw over half a million soldiers, marines, airmen and sailors and abandoning South Vietnam’s puppet government, its demoralised and abandoned army, and its unfortunate, battered and bloodied people to the tender mercies of the hardline and heartless ideologues in Hanoi.

Vietnam was also, notoriously, a pharmaceutical war. In its final year’s, as raw and reluctant draftees made up an increasing proportion of the US forces, indiscipline and substance abuse transformed, in the words of one professional soldier, an officer, a fine army into a rotten one. Alcohol, marijuana, acid, coke, heroin, and a cornucopia of pills were freely available on base, on leave in Saigon, and often, in the field, and many soldiers actually made it a business. The press too were sucked into the machinery.

And, it was a promiscuous war. So far away from home and loved ones, like warriors in all wars since time immoral, US solders took comfort and solace where they could find it. Historians, memoirists, veterans of both the French and American wars in Indochina write and talk of the beauty of the Vietnamese women. Economic deprivation and social dislocation create a flesh market supplying lonely, frightened strangers in a strange land.

It was chemical warfare – not the mustard gas of older wars, and the Zyklon B of the Nazi death camps, nor the recent wars in the Middle East, in the first Gulf War, between Iraq and Iran, and in Syria – but the broad-acre use of chemical defoliants designed to deny the enemy of jungle and forest concealment that left behind a bitter harvest, a legacy of disease, deformity and death that ricochets to this day.

And, in the United States, it was a war that divided a nation. The protest movement emerged during 1965. It grew and grew, and by the Moratorium of October 1969, it became the largest outpouring of public dissent in American history. The moratorium movement was massive and unprecedented – and peaceful. Nationwide, hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people across the US were marching. The children of politicians and officials and soldiers were also marching. They were marching not about winning or losing the war but demanding an end to the war.

It was a journalists war too, and the photographers’ War. The military had a relaxed and tolerant attitude towards the press that would seem profligate and foolhardy in today’s tightly managed and manipulated combat media. Journalists and photographers would be permitted and indeed invited along on patrols and sweeps, carrier landings, on helicopter “dust offs” (a euphemism for evacuating the wounded and the dead), and the controversial “search and destroy” operations that destroyed so many fields, villages and lives. Needless to say, the coopted fourth estate were often in harm’s way. They were taught how to use weapons and often actually did use them in self defence and, sometimes in anger. And like the officers and men with whom they worked, many were wounded and slain. More than two hundred would die covering the fighting in South East Asia.

And English photojournalist Tim Page, who ran away from boring ‘sixties Britain to the exotic East at the age of seventeen, taking the ‘overland’ route that decades later would be called ‘the Hippie Trail’, washed up in the war of our generation, and left it critically injured and indeed clinically dead in a medivac chopper.

Tim in a tight spot

Cameras and Comrades

There is no decent place to stand in a massacre
But if some women takes you’re hand
You go and stand with her.
I left a wife in Tennessee and a baby in Saigon
I risked my life but not to hear
A country-western song
Leonard Cohen, The Captain

Tim Page literally and figuratively ambled into the last of the “great” wars of the Twentieth Century; and reading Tim’s autobiography, you wonder whether this peregrinating, ever-restless bloke had more lives than a cat!

Page ran off to join the circus. Leaving England in 1962, it was to be twenty years until he saw his folks again. A restless soul, he split for Europe with his girl friend, and when she baled, headed ever-eastwards, an early pioneer of that famed trail in a succession of secondhand vehicles and a caravan of colourful comrades. The further east he wandered, the more drugs he savoured, sampling the local toke through Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal and Burma. Many a time, he was flat broke and broken down, and laid low with a variety of exotic, intimate and excruciating ailments. But we needn’t go there.

Though photography was a teenage hobby, he drifted into the profession almost by accident, and virtually ambled into the Vietnam War, the Great War of our generation – a road -trip to Vientiane, the sleepy capital of the Kingdom of Laos to renew his expired Thai visa saw him hanging out there just as the the US’ fateful foray into Indochina was escalating into the quagmire that it was to become.

For Tim, it was the worst of times, it was the best of times. “Hot and cold running …” he says, using the vernacular of those days … booze, drugs, girls, he meant – battle injuries and diseases – and action, lots of it, in the air in helicopters and on occasion, fighter bombers, on the land in jeeps, armoured vehicles, and motor bikes, on the rivers in patrol boats, and on foot.

The lure of sex, drugs, and excitement – and paid work for a major news agency saw him wash up in Saigon and the celebrated, inebriated Frankie’s House, a kind of home-away-from home and party house for transiting bao chi – ‘round-eye’ newsmen – a decadent, dissolute, de facto foreign correspondents club. From here, they would fan out though war-wracked South Vietnam under the often dodgy and dangerous protection of Uncle Sam.  In the 1992 series of Frankie’s House, based on Tim’s Vietnam days, he was portrayed by the Scottish actor Iain Glen, famous nowadays for his role as Ser Jorah Mormont in Game of Thrones.

Iain Glen on the left as Tim Page in Frankie’s House

Like the soldiers they accompanied, many came back in body bags or on stretchers. Many just disappeared @and it has been Tim’s mission in life to trace these lost souls. They include his best buddy Sean Flynn, the son of famous actor and pants man Errol Flynn.

Tim’s number almost came up in a blood-soaked friendly fire debacle on a navy river boat. Patched up and R&R in the US, he photographed the burgeoning antiwar demonstrations wracking the nation and ‘fesses up in his chronicle that he didn’t quite get the rage of the protesters – to Tim and his Saigon peers, the war might’ve been hell, but it was also a helluva buzz, and he was itching to return to the maelstrom.  

But his intoxicating and intoxicated Nam days came to an explosive end in a dry paddy field when he and his helicopter crew landed to help an injured GI and walked into a minefield. Dead on arrival and resuscitated three times, he was medivacced stateside minus part of his skull and with injuries that hamper him still half a century later. Photographs of that almost fatal encounter turned up out of the blue just a few years ago.

Post-op and recuperating in the US, Tim took himself off to Woodstock, New York State. where it was being said that there was going be a cool scene – which indeed there was, as we all remember:  the famous music festival held over three days in August 1969 on Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in Bethel, New York (65 km) southwest of the town of Woodstock. But Tim never got to hear any of the great music – complications from his injuries meant that he had to be medivacced out of Woodstock, probably on the same chopper that had just brought in the legendary Crosby, Stills and Nash.  

And today he is still alive and kicking, despite multiple surgeries, PTSD, and suicidal impulses, and is still shooting pictures, revisiting Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, and also Afghanistan (he was appointed the UN Peace Ambassador that unfortunate country) where his photos have recorded for posterity, real-time real-time stories of reconstruction, recovery and resilience in these battlefields of old. One of his last “hot war” missions was to report in pictures on the Wars of the Yugoslav Succession. In Bosnia, he “souvenired” a Toyota utility truck with big UN letters on its flanks that eventually ended up on a property in Bellingen.

He is in demand at photographic exhibitions and symposiums news world wide, and continues to hang with those of his bao chi who have also survived the journey. Tim is now a neighbour of ours, over the hill, across the forest, four thousand miles and a lifetime away from his Asian war

Of our elaborate plans, the end
Of everything that stands, the end
No safety or surprise, the end
Jim Morrison 1967

© Paul Hemphill 2021.  All rights reserved

A Vietnamese woman grieves for her dead husband

Author’s note

Internationally acclaimed photographer Tim Page has been the subject of many documentaries, two films and the author of ten books, including his latest opus Nam Contact. He has been recognized as one of the ‘100 Most Influential Photographers of All Time’ and is the recipient of many awards. After a career spanning sixty years, world renowned photographer Tim Page has settled quietly into the Bellingen Shire, where he and his wife Marianne live what Tim describes as “a peaceful life. The choice of the word Peaceful’ is pertinent considering that his photographic assignments during the of the Laos Civil War, the Vietnam War and the Six Day War in the Middle East in 1967 brought him directly into the firing line. He still carries the injuries to prove it.

This piece was originally conceived as a forward for an autobiography of Tim, now a friend and near neighbour on the edge of Bellingen’s Tarkeeth Forest. It was but a fallback option – I’d suggested to Tim and his Marianne that the book would be better served with a forward by either Paul Ham or Peter Fitzsimmons, Australian historians who have written about the Vietnam War.  It eventuated that the book was not published – but the story grew with the telling, informed by a re-watching of Ken Burns’ excellent documentary The Vietnam War and historian Max Hasting’s masterful tombstone of a book Vietnam., an epic tragedy 1945-1975  

The photographs featured in the post are but a few from Tim’s large archive. They are used with his kind permission ©Tim Page. These and many more can be viewed on his website timpage.com.au and in Nam Contact .

In Country

Postscript

At 4.15pm on Wednesday 24th August 2022, after a relatively short illness, our friend and neighbour Tim Page, photographer, writer and humanist, passed away peacefully at his bush home in Fernmount, Bellingen Shire, on the mid north coast of NSW. See: Journey’s end – photographer Tim Page’s wild ride

Also in In That Howling Infinite: The Ballad of Denton Crocker – a Vietnam elegy ; and Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold – 1968 revisited

Nam Contact: Symphonic coda to Tim Page’s Vietnam

 

The Ballad of Denton Crocker – a Vietnam elegy

One of the most poignant stories in Ken Burns’ powerful documentary The Vietnam War is that of a young man called Denton Winslow Crocker Junior, born June 3rd 1947, class of ‘65.

The story opens with Bob Dylan singing With God on Our Side …”Oh my name it ain’t nothin’, my age it means less; country I come from is called the Midwest”.

Denton’s family nickname is “Mogie”. “He’s a right little mogul, the way he rules our lives”, says dad of his infant son. Young Denton loves history, is proud of America and its heroes, and hates “Reds”.

It is 1964 and Mogie is restless. He wants to do his bit. So he runs away from home for four months returning only when until his folks consent to him joining up before he turned 18.

He enlists in March 1965.

Eager for combat, he wants to be a paratrooper and is delighted when he is able to join the celebrated 101 Airborne, the famous “screaming eagles” who had led the way on D Day back in another war. 

Posted to a support unit, he is disappointed, writing home that he “felt no sense of accomplishment whilst one’s friends are facing all the dangers”.

He finally gets reassigned to a combat unit at Qan Duc on the Cambodian border.

May 11 1966. Paul Simon sings The Sound  of Silence.

Denton’s buddy is mortally wounded beside him. He carries his dying friend from the battlefield, earning an Army Commendation Medal.

He’s in the field and at the sharp end, hoping he’ll be taken off the line. He writes home: “I was religious for a while, sending out various and sundry prayers mainly concerned with staying alive. But I am once again an atheist – until the shooting starts”.

Hopes of withdrawal are an idle dream.

It is his 19th birthday, June 3rd 1966, nighttime, “in country”, on the Cambodian border, and yet another operation.

His unit is ordered to climb to the crest of a hill overlooking a besieged ARVN (South Vietnam Army) outpost to organise artillery support for the morning’s offensive.

Mogie is the point man. Out of the darkness, a Vietcong machine gun opens up.

Denton Crocker Junior never made it to the top the hill.

Back home, officers come to the door. His mother recalls: “it was just lovely day to be out in our garden”, in Saratoga Springs, New Jersey.

Bob Dylan sings “One to many mornings and a thousand miles behind”.

“Our children are really only on loan to us”, says his mother, who by the end of 1965 was already having doubts about what America was doing in Vietnam – she was well aware of the politics and the protests in South Vietnam and in the US.

But she never let on, least of all to Mogie.

At the going down of the sun, and in the morning. we will remember them.


Authors Note:

This piece was collated from Ken Burn’s chronological account of the Vietnam War and retold as one narrative.

The photograph heading this post is by internationally acclaimed photographer Tim Page who spent three years “in country” in Vietnam from 1965.  But his intoxicating and intoxicated Nam days came to an explosive end in a dry paddy field when he and his helo crew landed to help an injured GI and walked into a minefield. Dead on arrival and resuscitated three times, he was medivacced stateside minus part of his skull and with injuries that hamper him still half a century later. Photographs of that almost fatal encounter turned up out of the blue just a few years ago.  Hes come through, despite multiple surgeries, PTSD, and suicidal impulses, and is still shooting pictures , revisiting Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, and hanging with those of his ‘bia chi’ who have also survived the journey. He’s now a neighbour of ours, over the hill, across the Torest, four thousand miles and a lifetime away from his Asian war.

For more in In That Howling Infinite with regard to the ‘sixties:

Things fall apart – the centre cannot hold ; Springtime in Paris – remembering May 1968Encounters with EnochRecalling the Mersey PoetsThe Strange Death of Sam CookeLooking for Lehrer; Shock of the Old – the glory days of prog rock; Window on a Gone WorldBack in the day; and, The Incorrigible Optimists Club.  

The last rains came gently – Steinbeck’s dustbowl ballad

The highway is alive tonight
Where it’s headed everybody knows
I’m sitting down here in the campfire light
With the ghost of old Tom Joad
Bruce Springsteen

In the last of our posts commemorating 1968, we pay tribute to author and Nobel Laureate John Steinbeck who died fifty years ago this month.

Back in the day, The Grapes of Wrath was included in our GCE A level curriculum, nearly thirty years after its publication and its iconic status. It was, to our formative minds, a pleasantly surprising choice. In the mid ‘sixties, before Vietnam became the quagmire that sapped America’s blood and treasure and trashed its post-war reputation as a force for good in the world, the land of the free and home of the brave was also was a beacon of bright consumerism, great movies, and pop music. The idea of an American novel in English Lit, so long the preserve of Britain’s literary canon, wonderful though it was, has a certain excitement to it. It gave to us a new literary language, a different sensibility, a fresh perspective.

But Steinbeck’s America was new to us, an America far removed from of the hope and glory that we’d been accustomed to in the years following what was seen as the US’ triumph in World War Two (the costly and critical contribution of the Soviet Union, now our ostensible foe, was singularly downplayed during these years). The Grapes of Wrath was a revelation, an eye-opener, a primer, indeed, for a youthful awareness and politicisation that would be further nurtured by the escalating war in Indochina and the rise and rise of the civil rights movement in the US.

The inevitable examination question in the summer 1967 was exactly that: why were studying an American novel? Any discerning reader taking in the opening pages of chapter one can answer this in a trice. The simple beauty, the lyrical and descriptive power, the gradual but relentlessly unfolding narrative is such that I can recite parts of it from memory over half a century later.

To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover. In the last part of May the sky grew pale and the clouds that had hung in high puffs for so long in the spring were dissipated. The sun flared down on the growing corn day after day until a line of brown spread along the edge of each green bayonet. The clouds appeared, and went away, and in a while they did not try any more. The weeds grew darker green to protect themselves, and they did not spread any more. The surface of the earth crusted, a thin hard crust, and as the sky became pale, so the earth became pale, pink in the red country and white in the gray country.

I have reproduced chapter one in full below. In a few short pages, it describes how the the last rains fell on Oklahoma’s cornfields and how the searing summer sun rendered the land to dust, creating the dust bowl so chillingly portrayed by filmmaker Ken Burns in his singular documentary of that name, and propelling tens of thousands of destitute ‘Okies’ “on the long, hard road of flight” (as Bob Dylan would describe it in Chimes of Freedom)  to California. As a literary record of an unfolding environmental disaster, it is without equal.  It is poetical, powerful, and profoundly unsettling, and there’s worse to follow.

There are few books that strike such a chord with me – books that I reread in whole or in part once in a while, often aloud, just for the verbal and lyrical thrill. Moby-Dick is such a one, Herman Melville’s classic treatise on seafaring, whales and obsession – from which this blog takes its name – particularly chapter forty one which brilliantly describes the demented and doomed sea captain’s descent into madness.

Whilst few writers can lay claim to have written the “great American novel”, Steinbeck and Melville cracked the code. My own personal contender would also be CE Morgan’s Sport of Kings, a long and deep story about a old Kentucky horse-breeding family – the “kings” of the title. Like The Grapes of Wrath, it is a harrowing journey through America’s dark soul. Morgan’s debt to Steinbeck  is transparent in her descriptive power.

Far across the road, cattle moaned with longing for a night coming in fits and starts. The air was restless and the crickets thrummed. The hot, humid breath of August was lifting now from the ground, where it had boiled all day, rising to meet the cooler streams of air that hovered over it. Airs kissed and stratified, whitening and thinning as the sun slipped its moorings and sank to the bank of the earth. 

Following the excerpt from The Grapes of Wrath, I republish an informative essay from The Independent with regard to a new biography of Steinbeck on the anniversary of his death. He was a gifted, complex and at times, unpleasant man. His stories of the lives of migrants and workers during US’ Great Depression, most notably in The Grapes of Wrath, and his short stories Cannery Row and Of Mice and Men, resonate today, prefiguring as they do the mass migration of populations due to climate changes, infrastructure collapse, the heartless hypocrisy of trickle-down economics, the reluctance and even refusal of the powers-that-be to help those cast by the wayside or onto the scarp-heap, and the demonisation of those are forced to take to the roads and oceans of the world in search of a better, safer life for themselves and their children.

In a 1952 radio interview, Steinbeck said:

“People were starving and cold and they came in their thousands to California. They met a people who were terrified of Depression and were horrified at the idea that great numbers of indigent people were being poured on them to be taken care of when there wasn’t much money about. They became angry at these newcomers. Gradually, through government and through the work of private citizens, agencies were set up to take care of these situations. Only then did the anger begin to decrease and when the anger decreased, these two sides got to know each other and they found they didn’t dislike each other at all.”

I recall Tom Joad’s parting words in the 1940 film adaptation when he leaves his family to fight for social and economic justice:

“You don’t aim to kill nobody, Tom?”
“No. I been thinkin’, long as I’m a outlaw anyways, maybe I could — Hell, I ain’t thought it out clear, Ma. Don’ worry me now. Don’ worry me.”
They sat silent in the coal-black cave of vines. Ma said, “How’m I gonna know ’bout you? They might kill ya an’ I wouldn’ know. They might hurt ya. How’m I gonna know?”
Tom laughed uneasily, “Well, maybe like Casy says, a fella ain’t got a soul of his own, but on’y a piece of a big one – an’ then -”
“Then what, Tom?”
“Then it don’ matter. Then I’ll be all aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be ever’where – wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’ — I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build –  why, I’ll be there. See? God, I’m talkin’ like Casy. Comes of thinkin’ about him so much. Seems like I can see him sometimes.”

And now, let Steinbeck set the scene for why Tom Joad and his family abandon their farm, pile their possessions on on old truck and head into the west …


The Grapes of Wrath, Chapter One

To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover. In the last part of May the sky grew pale and the clouds that had hung in high puffs for so long in the spring were dissipated. The sun flared down on the growing corn day after day until a line of brown spread along the edge of each green bayonet. The clouds appeared, and went away, and in a while they did not try any more. The weeds grew darker green to protect themselves, and they did not spread any more. The surface of the earth crusted, a thin hard crust, and as the sky became pale, so the earth became pale, pink in the red country and white in the gray country.

In the water-cut gullies the earth dusted down in dry little streams. Gophers and ant lions started small avalanches. And as the sharp sun struck day after day, the leaves of the young corn became less stiff and erect; they bent in a curve at first, and then, as the central ribs of strength grew weak, each leaf tilted downward. Then it was June, and the sun shone more fiercely. The brown lines on the corn leaves widened and moved in on the central ribs. The weeds frayed and edged back toward their roots. The air was thin and the sky more pale; and every day the earth paled.

In the roads where the teams moved, where the wheels milled the ground and the hooves of the horses beat the ground, the dirt crust broke and the dust formed. Every moving thing lifted the dust into the air: a walking man lifted a thin layer as high as his waist, and a wagon lifted the dust as high as the fence tops, and an automobile boiled a cloud behind it. The dust was long in settling back again.

When June was half gone, the big clouds moved up out of Texas and the Gulf, high heavy clouds, rainheads. The men in the fields looked up at the clouds and sniffed at them and held wet fingers up to sense the wind. And the horses were nervous while the clouds were up. The rainheads dropped a little spattering and hurried on to some other country. Behind them the sky was pale again and the sun flared. In the dust there were drop craters where the rain had fallen, and there were clean splashes on the corn, and that was all.

A gentle wind followed the rain clouds, driving them on northward, a wind that softly clashed the drying corn. A day went by and the wind increased, steady, unbroken by gusts. The dust from the roads fluffed up and spread out and fell on the weeds beside the fields, and fell into the fields a little way. Now the wind grew strong and hard and it worked at the rain crust in the corn fields. Little by little the sky was darkened by the mixing dust, and the wind felt over the earth, loosened the dust, and carried it away. The wind grew stronger. The rain crust broke and the dust lifted up out of the fields and drove gray plumes into the air like sluggish smoke. The corn threshed the wind and made a dry, rushing sound. The finest dust did not settle back to earth now, but disappeared into the darkening sky.

The wind grew stronger, whisked under stones, carried up straws and old leaves and even little clods, marking its course as it sailed across the fields. The air and the sky darkened and through them the sun shone redly, and there was a raw sting in the air. During a night the wind raced faster over the land, dug cunningly among the rootlets of the corn, and the corn fought the wind with its weakened leaves until the roots were freed by the prying wind and then each stalk settled wearily sideways toward the earth and pointed the direction of the wind.

The dawn came, but no day. In the gray sky a red sun appeared, a dim red circle that gave a little light, like dusk; and as that day advanced, the dusk slipped back toward darkness, and the wind cried and whimpered over the fallen corn.

Men and women huddled in their houses, and they tied handkerchiefs over their noses when they went out, and wore goggles to protect their eyes.

When the night came again it was black night, for the stars could not pierce the dust to get down, and the window lights could not even spread beyond their own yards now the dust was evenly mixed with the air, an emulsion of dust and air. Houses were shut tight, and cloth wedged around doors and windows, but the dust came in so thinly that it could not be seen in the air, and it settled like pollen on the chairs and tables, on the dishes. The people brushed it from their shoulders. Little lines of dust lay at the door sills.

In the middle of that night the wind passed on and left the land quiet. The dust-filled air muffled sound more completely than fog does. The people, lying in their beds heard the wind stop. They awakened when the rushing wind was gone. They lay quietly and listened deep into the stillness. Then the roosters crowed, and their voices were muffled, and the people stirred restlessly in their beds and wanted the morning they knew it would take a long time for the dust to settle out of the air. In the morning the dust hung like fog, and the sun was as red as ripe new blood. All day the dust sifted down from the sky, and the next day it sifted down. An even blanket covered the earth it settled on the corn, piled up on the tops of the fence posts, piled up on the wires; it settled on roofs, blanketed the weeds and trees.

The people came out of their houses and smelled the hot stinging air and covered their noses from it. And the children came out of the houses, but they did not run or shout as they would have done after a rain. Men stood by their fences and looked at the ruined corn, drying fast now, only a little green showing through the film of dust. The men were silent and they did not move often. And the women came out of the houses to stand beside their men—to feel whether this time the men would break. The women studied the men’s faces secretly, for the corn could go, as long as something else remained. The children stood near by, drawing figures in the dust with bare toes, and the children sent exploring senses out to see whether men and women would break the children peeked at the faces of the men and women, and then drew careful lines in the dust with their toes. Horses came to the watering troughs and nuzzled the water to clear the surface dust.

After a while the faces of the watching men lost their bemused perplexity and became hard and angry and resistant. Then the women knew that they were safe and that there was no break. Then they asked, What’ll we do? And the men replied, I don’t know. But it was all right. The women knew it was all right, and the Watching children knew it was all right. Women and children knew deep in themselves That no misfortune was too great to bear if their men were whole. The women went into the houses to their work, and the children began to play, but cautiously at first. As the Day went forward the sun became less red. It flared down on the dust-blanketed land The men sat in the doorways of their houses; their hands were busy with sticks and Little rocks. The men sat still—thinking—figuring.


John Steinbeck: A flawed genius

Martin Chilton, The Independent 20th December 2018

It’s the 50th anniversary of the death of Steinbeck, who will be the subject of a new biography in 2019. The Nobel Prize-winning author of The Grapes of Wrath was a complicated and controversial man, explains Martin Chilton in The Independent 20th December 2018 

New light was shed on the writer when interviews given by his second wife were found in a loft in Wales last year

“I have left a lot of tracks in my life,” said John Steinbeck, a giant of 20th-century literature, who died on 20 December 1968 at the age of 66. Novels such as Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden made him world famous, yet some of the truth about his past has taken half a century to come to light. Steinbeck was a complicated and contradictory man – and weirder than you might have thought.

Mad at the World is the title of a new biography to be published in 2019, and there is little doubt that Steinbeck was an angry man. He was outraged by injustice, poverty and prejudice, as his books make clear. He was also capable of more personal animosities, whether that was towards Adolf Hitler, his second wife or even book reviewers (“what lice they are”).

The quirkiness of his character was evident at a young age. Steinbeck was already dreaming about becoming a professional writer when he enrolled as an English major at Stanford University at the age of 17. He tried to sign up for a practical course in how to dissect corpses. “I want to learn about human beings,” he told a clearly unimpressed dean of the medical school. His application was rejected. Medicine’s loss was literature’s gain, and he went on to win a Pulitzer Prize in the novel category (1940), the Nobel Prize in Literature (1962) and the United States Medal of Freedom (1964).

Although he never got the chance to cut up bodies, he was to spend a lot of time in hospital, because illness and freakish accidents were a recurrent theme in his life. The pattern started at high school in Salinas, the Californian town where he was born on 27 February 1902. At age 16, Steinbeck contracted pleural pneumonia and came close to death. A doctor saved him by cutting through his rib cage to drain the fluid. Around a year later, he was seriously ill again and had to have his appendix removed.

Things were little better in adulthood. He had a serious kidney infection that required hospital treatment. He had an operation on a detached retina, an operation to remove varicose veins and another to repair a shattered knee cap after a balcony rail gave way on the second floor of his Manhattan home. In 1959 he suffered a stroke, in 1960 he had a suspected heart attack. At the end of his life, he was poleaxed by a back injury that required complicated surgery.

As fate would have it, an injury to a stranger was one of the decisive factors in pushing Steinbeck towards full-time writing. After leaving Stanford without graduating, he had spells working on farms and as a painter’s apprentice before moving to New York in the mid-1920s. In New York, he worked on a building site, ferrying wheelbarrows loaded with 100 pounds of cement, during the construction of Madison Square Garden. Six weeks into the job, a co-worker fell to a bloody death near where Steinbeck stood. The horrific sight made Steinbeck throw up. He quit his job that night.

His uncle helped him land a job as a reporter for the New York American, a William Randolph Hearst newspaper, but he quickly became disillusioned by journalism and returned to California. He worked as a tour guide and it was in that job he met his first wife Carol Henning. His wedding came shortly after the publication of his first novel, 1929’s Cup of Gold. It was the start of a career that would produce 16 novels and novellas, two sets of short stories, 11 non-fiction books, two plays, two screenplays and a large volume of letters.

Steinbeck sometimes played up to the image of a struggling writer whose upbringing was hard financially. Throughout the 1920s, however, Steinbeck was getting an allowance from his father, the treasurer of Monterey County, of $50 ($700 or £550 in today’s terms) a month. “Most people imagine that Steinbeck came from an impoverished background and was almost one of those workers in The Grapes of Wrath, but his family home in Salinas was a beautiful Victorian house with maids and servants,” said his biographer Jay Parini in 1994. “His was a self-conscious identification with working people, but he always travelled first-class and stayed in suites at the Dorchester in London and the Georges Cinq in Paris,” Parini added.

After a series of well-received novels, including 1935’s Tortilla Flat, Steinbeck won critical acclaim in 1937 for his novella Of Mice and Men, the moving portrait-in-miniature of 1930s California, seen through the friendship of oddball ranch workers George and Lennie. Two years later came The Grapes of Wrath, one of the defining novels of the 20th century, a work of rich descriptive power, in which Steinbeck showed his ability to summon poetry out of poverty in the lives of the “Okie” Joad family.

This deeply affecting story about the oppression of migrant workers, who were fleeing from the Dust Bowl states to California, struck a chord with an America reeling from the Great Depression. By February 1940, the novel was in its 11th printing, having sold nearly half a million copies. More than 15 million copies were bought in the next eight decades and around 50,000 copies are still bought in America every year.

The impact of Steinbeck’s work on the American people was momentous. When I met the singer and actor Harry Belafonte, he told me Steinbeck “was one of the people who turned my life around as a young man”, inspiring “a lifelong love of literature”. Arthur Miller wrote of Steinbeck, “I can’t think of another American writer, with the possible exception of Mark Twain, who so deeply penetrated the political life of the country.”

The 1940 film adaptation of the novel, starring Henry Fonda, is considered a Hollywood classic. Only a bitter legal dispute over the writer’s estate (between Steinbeck’s stepdaughter Waverly Scott Kaffaga and his daughter-in-law Gail Steinbeck) prevented Steven Spielberg from going ahead with his proposed remake of the movie in 2017.

Steinbeck rarely gave interviews, but in 1952 he spoke to the radio network Voice of America about how he had been “filled with anger” at the ill-treatment of migrant workers. “People were starving and cold and they came in their thousands to California,” Steinbeck said. “They met a people who were terrified of Depression and were horrified at the idea that great numbers of indigent people were being poured on them to be taken care of when there wasn’t much money about. They became angry at these newcomers. Gradually, through government and through the work of private citizens, agencies were set up to take care of these situations. Only then did the anger begin to decrease and when the anger decreased, these two sides got to know each other and they found they didn’t dislike each other at all.”

Many years later, it emerged that the FBI file had begun to keep files on the writer at this time, justifying it with claims that “many of Steinbeck’s writings portrayed an extremely sordid and poverty-stricken side of American life”. Thankfully, more enlightened minds than FBI director J Edgar Hoover were in positions of influence when Steinbeck won literature’s most illustrious award. It is notable that the Nobel committee praised his “keen social perception”.

The Grapes of Wrath was making Steinbeck world famous just as the 41-year-old began to fall for a 22-year-old nightclub singer called Gwyn Conger, whom he married in 1943. Three decades later, as a divorcee in her late fifties, Conger gave a series of interviews in Palm Springs to a show business writer called Douglas Brown. These interviews remained unpublished for more than four decades, until they were discovered in a loft in Wales in 2017.

After they had two children together – Thomas, born in 1944, and John Steinbeck IV, born in 1946 – the acrimony became unbearable and she divorced him in 1948. “The impulse of the American woman is to geld her husband and castrate her sons,” Steinbeck wrote to a friend shortly after his marriage ended. “American married life is the doormat to the whorehouse.” He would exact his revenge a few years later when he based Cathy, the wicked alcoholic character in East of Eden, on Conger. He would also fight her in court throughout the next decade to avoid paying child support.

Steinbeck, a heavy drinker, was not blind to his own failings and mood swings. “I know of no sadder people than those who believe their own publicity,” he said. Steinbeck had suffered from bouts of depression in the 1940s and even after meeting and marrying his third wife, Elaine Scott, he was frequently brought low by what he called his “what-the-hell blues”. Steinbeck said he “hit the bottom” in October 1953, a year after the publication of East of Eden, when he was treated at Lenox Hill Hospital by psychologist Gertrudis Brenner. “A sad soul can kill quicker than a germ,” he remarked.

In this period of mental health problems, he produced some of the strangest work of his career. In 1955, he published a short story called The Affair at 7 Rue de M, a horror-like tale about a child who is unable to get rid of a piece of bubble gum. Wherever he puts it, the gum keeps finding its way back into the boy’s mouth. In desperation, the father cements the gum to a dining table and it takes a week for the piece of gum to die. Steinbeck later burned dozens of stories from this period. He also abandoned a novel about a man who watches one too many westerns on television and then puts on a cowboy hat and heads out to be an urban vigilante.

Poet Ezra Pound once dismissed accounts of a writer’s life as a mere “laundry list” and Steinbeck shared this disdain for focusing on the personal life of an author. Perhaps he has a point. What can we ultimately conclude from the knowledge that Steinbeck preferred writing with pencils (using up to 60 in a day), that he liked jazz, enjoyed playing the harmonica, laughed at jokes by Bob Hope, preferred smoking small cigars and regularly snacked on tuna-covered crackers, washed down by red wine?

“The fact that I have housemaid’s knees or fear yellow gloves has little to do with the books I write,” he said. He derided the public’s need to “create a Steinbeck out of its own imagination” and insisted there were more important matters on which to focus. In 1938, for example, shocked by reports of the Nazi looting and burning of Jewish homes and synagogues in Germany, he was among a small band of writers, including Dorothy Parker, who sent a telegram to President Franklin D Roosevelt urging him to cut all ties with Hitler. Steinbeck became a war correspondent for The New York Herald during the subsequent conflict, reporting from England, North Africa and Italy.

Steinbeck was certainly a progressive in a backward era of race relations. He asked for his name to be taken off the screenplay for the wartime Alfred Hitchcock film The Lifeboat, because he was furious that the “dignified and purposeful” black character he had created had been “distorted”. He wrote to 20th Century Fox to complain about the addition of “a stock comedy negro”, blaming them for “strange and sly obliquities”. Not only did the Fox bosses deny his request, they actively stepped up a publicity campaign that highlighted Steinbeck as the screenwriter. The Oscar nomination he received simply added salt to the wound.

Despite these laudable actions, he was not above his own dirty tactics. In 1958, he was asked by Adlai Stevenson’s fixer, William McCormick Blair Jr, to write a novel that featured a corrupt version of presidential candidate Richard M Nixon. Steinbeck rejected the idea and instead suggested attacks on Nixon’s character, “kidney punch” zingers as he called them, such as starting rumours about Nixon and wife-beating. “All of these are dirty, but as I said, the man who tries Queensberry against gutter fighting is going to get the hell kicked out of him,” Steinbeck wrote to Blair.

John Updike said that for most Americans in the post-war era, Steinbeck’s reputation was as “a best-seller as well as a Nobel Prize-winning author of high intent”, but during the 1960s Steinbeck’s politics moved away from the liberalism that had earned him a reputation as America’s social conscience. He became friends with President Johnson (helping him to write his acceptance speech) and reported sympathetically on the Vietnam war from late 1966 to early 1967.

Observers in Vietnam noted Steinbeck’s fascination for American weaponry, especially the Douglas AC-47 Spooky gunship, nicknamed “Puff the Magic Dragon”. It could fire a hundred rounds of 50-calibre bullets every second. The writer loved going target practice shooting with the same type of M16 rifle the troops carried. He even manned a US army outpost during a night of sporadic fire.

His sons Thomas and John were on active duty in the US army at the time of his visit. John later became a fierce opponent of the war, a stance that put him at odds with Steinbeck, who wrote publicly about how Vietnam peace protesters gave him “a shiver of shame”. Steinbeck derided the hippie demonstrators for their “dirty clothes, dirty minds and their shuffling drag-ass protests”.

It is a characteristically odd twist that the 64-year-old who was able to survive a night taking on the Vietcong – and an attack on a helicopter in which he was a passenger – did himself irreparable harm with the innocuous action of lifting some beer. In Hong Kong, travelling back from Vietnam with his wife Elaine, he helped a Chinese delivery man. As he lifted the case of beer, he ruptured a spinal disc. Six months later, still in agonising pain, he had a five-hour operation on his back. The last few months before his death from a heart attack at his East 72nd Street home in New York were deeply miserable.

Biographers Jackson Benson (1984) and Jay Parini (1995) have previously battled with the character of Steinbeck and that challenge has now been taken up by William Souder, whose biography Mad at the World: John Steinbeck and the American Century will be published by WW Norton & Company in 2019.

There is no shortage of fascinating material for Pulitzer finalist Souder to re-examine. As well as Steinbeck’s writing (the prize-winning novels and less-well known masterpieces such as Cannery Row, The Pearl and Sweet Thursday), there is his sometimes madcap life, such as his drunken treasure-hunting escapades in the Bahamas. Even his friend, the noted psychological novelist Sherwood Anderson, admitted that he couldn’t “figure out Steinbeck”.

With Steinbeck, the unexpected was the norm. When his New York house was burgled in 1963, for example, the police report listed the stolen items as “a television set and six rifles”. The writer enjoyed the idiosyncrasy of humans. When he was asked for his “rules for life” by a friend in Vietnam, Steinbeck replied with his four mottos: “Never make excuses. Never let them see you bleed. Never get separated from your luggage. Always find out when the bar opens.”

Souder says he is excited by the challenge of writing about such a complex figure. “One of the things that attracted me to Steinbeck is that he was far from perfect – as a man, a husband, a writer, he had issues,” Souder told the website Steinbeck Now. “He had a permanent chip on his shoulder. He got side-tracked by ideas that were a waste of his time and talent. Some of his work is brilliant and some of it is awful. That’s what you want in a subject – a hero with flaws. Steinbeck was a literary giant who wouldn’t play along with the idea that he was important. I love that. He was mad at the world because it seemed somehow mad at him.”

Steinbeck wasn’t always mad at the world, though. Ten years before his death, this conflicted genius wrote a memorable letter to Thomas Steinbeck (the full version is available here), after his 14-year-old son revealed he had fallen desperately in love with a girl named Susan.

“There are several kinds of love,” he wrote, signing the letter as “Fa”. “One is a selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing which uses love for self-importance. This is the ugly and crippling kind. The other is an outpouring of everything good in you – of kindness and consideration and respect – not only the social respect of manners but the greater respect which is recognition of another person as unique and valuable. The first kind can make you sick and small and weak but the second can release in you strength, and courage and goodness and even wisdom you didn’t know you had … don’t worry about losing. If it is right, it happens – the main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.”

These tender and optimistic words of advice remain, like Steinbeck’s best writing, an absolute joy, despite the flaws of the man.


Here are other posts in In That Howling Infinite with regard to 1968:  Things fall apart – the centre cannot hold;  Springtime in Paris – remembering May 1968Phil Och’s Chicago Blues ; and Tanks for the memory – how Brezhnev changed my life

And the ‘sixties: Encounters with Enoch; Recalling the Mersey PoetsThe Strange Death of Sam CookeLooking for LehrerShock of the Old – the glory days of prog rockWindow on a Gone WorldBack in the day; and, The Incorrigible Optimists Club