Wednesday, October 17, 2012

God Bless the Child

(NOTE: Out of respect for some of the people mentioned in this post, many of whom I haven't been in touch with for 15 years and wouldn't know how to get in touch with today, I have changed their names. Just FYI.)

About 15 or so years ago a friend of mine got me involved in doing some acting for a local theatre company. I hadn’t acted since high school and, well, I wasn’t exactly a star back then. In fact the last show I had been in before 1996 was 10 years earlier during my senior year of high school with “Anything Goes,” (Scott was in it too, only with a much bigger part) and I was literally in the very first scene and then didn’t appear again before the curtain call. It was not resumé material.

But for whatever reason my friend Kathy, a method-trained actor for whom theatre was not just a break from her job as a therapist but also an extension of it, thought I would enjoy acting and had a part for me to play. It was in an original show called “The Man Who Knew Trotsky,” a Jewish family systems drama written by a friend of ours, and I played a large role as a troubled 30-something Jewish man who was married to a junkie stripper and was having an affair with his estranged older brother’s girlfriend. No, it didn’t exactly hit close to home. I don't have an older brother. (Hee!)

Anyway doing the show was an eye-opener and for a little while I got very into doing plays. I did about five of them in an 18 month period before it was time to take a break. It was indeed therapeutic and fulfilling and felt extremely healthy.

But the last show I did with Kathy was a show she had been wanting to do for years and years, a show about the Vietnam War. It came to be called “Who By Fire,” named after the haunting Leonard Cohen incantation, and it was the story of Vietnam veterans by Vietnam veterans. That was the hook as well as Kathy’s biggest challenge; she wanted it to star Vietnam veterans who would then tell their own stories. Whether or not they had any formal acting training was irrelevant—Kathy would (and did) take care of that. But it was to be a series of vignettes, 15 to 20 in all, about their tales from combat and their struggles after the war. Many would be them telling their very personal stories, and some would have these vets telling the stories of others. It was powerful stuff.

Kathy was an amazing director and remains an amazing person, and she pulled it off. She found a few Vietnam veterans who were willing to tell their stories. Some were deeply, deeply opposed to the war now and were opposed to all wars and had a intense (and well-earned, it seemed) distrust of the government. All lived with the memories of the war and all were haunted by various ghosts. Kathy drew their stories out of them gently, lovingly, and shaped them into one hell of a formidable acting troupe.

One in particular—we'll call him Bob—was severely troubled by the war and struggled for years and years. Bob was (and I hope still is) a loud, music-loving, ultra-liberal, long-haired, wisecracking force of nature whose experiences in Vietnam scarred him in ways that non-military folks like myself can really never, ever imagine. But he was also a blast to work with and he took to the stage with an almost unnerving natural grace. Many of the stories that made up the play were his own, a couple of them funny but several absolutely terrifying.
At the time I was not yet 30, married but not yet a father, and I was to be both Kathy’s assistant director as well as play a role in many of these vignettes. In one, called “Kid” and based on a story from the book Nam by Mark Baker, I played a deeply troubled kid trying to live with what he saw in Vietnam. In another, Ernie (another vet) and I recited a very powerful poem written by a friend of mine called “A Word With a Hero,” written to a dead enemy soldier whom the author had killed, and containing this amazing bit of writing (which we recited at the base of a model of the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial Wall that served as the backdrop for the entire show):

Now the people who sent you there to meet me are gone
And the people who sent me there to meet you are gone…
…and everyone just wants to be friends.
Why didn’t they think of that first?
Before we met that day?

The most grueling part that I was in was also written by Bob, and was the story of a badly under-qualified 2nd Lieutenant (played by me) whose panic and terrible planning got a large number of Bob’s fellow soldiers killed one night. It remains the single hardest thing I have ever done in my relatively brief acting career, and it stays with me to this day.

“All these men are dead because of you!” he screamed toward the end of the scene, slamming my head into the stage while I turned into a puddle laying on the ground. “Because of YOU!”

Again, doing “Who By Fire” was one hell of an experience. But one of the coolest things Kathy did was ask Bob, Don and Ernie—the three main players and all of whom had served in Vietnam—to pick the soundtrack for the show. To score it. They dove into the task with glee, coming up with not just the stuff of the era you may expect (like the Doors “The Unknown Soldier” and Joe Cocker’s “With a Little Help From My Friends”) but also with eclectic choices like Ray Charles’ iconic “America” and B.B. King’s epic “The Thrill Is Gone.”

But best of all is a song Bob chose for a skit called “C.O.” Which was a story told by Don about a conscientious objector that had been stationed in his unit. It was a matter-of-fact story about a man who would not fight and would not carry a weapon, yet who still served his country and served in Don’s unit. He was ostracized by many of them, but he still served, quietly and with a sense of purpose and focus and patriotism that Don made clear to us.

For this portion of the show Bob chose a piece of music that you maybe wouldn’t think would fit, but did so beautifully. Billie Holiday’s wondrous “God Bless the Child.”

Them that's got shall get
Them that's not shall lose
So the Bible said and it still is news
Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that's got his own

Yes, the strong gets more
While the weak ones fade
Empty pockets don't ever make the grade
Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that's got his own

Money, you've got lots of friends
Crowding round the door
When you're gone, spending ends
They don't come no more
Rich relations give
Crust of bread and such
You can help yourself
But don't take too much
Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that's got his own

Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that's got his own
That's got his own
He just worry 'bout nothin'
Cause he's got his own

It’s a socially conscious song dating way back to 1941, about poverty and want and the exclusion of those who haven’t got, brought to life by Holiday's angelic voice. But it’s also about being alone and forgotten, and the ability some of us have to deal with that and still forge our way forward. It was written at least a decade before anybody ever heard of Vietnam, but the words seemed to apply 100 percent to this conscientious objector I had never met, yet seemed to know quite well by the time the five-minute vignette had ended.

Because in this specific context it came through as a song about personal dignity in the face of unthinkable adversity, of a sense of pride and perseverance permeating into the darkest reaches of the human soul. He and the other C.O.’s were alone out there, isolated, thousands of miles from home and even farther away from many of those they served with. Still, they carried on. They got their own.

God bless them.

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