Posts Tagged ‘Last Journey’

This is another segment of “Last Journey.” This is a book that is written by me with the help of my son SSG Darrell Griffin, Jr. He was killed by a sniper just outside of Baghdad. At the time he and I were working on a book that we planned to call “The Great Conversation.” He was conflicted about having to kill men or be killed. He was a philosopher and he had difficulty reconciling his mission as a combat soldier with the teachings of the great philosophers. This is except 5. We will be putting excerpts on this blog for the entire book so we estimate there will be about 100 excerpts.

In the last excerpt

In the prior excerpt Linda and I found a place to live.  It was tough since we were both only 16.  I have just gotten home from a full day at school and a full day at work.

I grabbed a soda and some chips and turned on the television. There was  Nixon with his five o’clock shadow, looking nervous: Good evening my fellow Americans. Ten days ago, in my report to the Nation on Vietnam, I announced a decision to withdraw an additional 150,000 Americans from Vietnam over the next year. I said then that I was making that decision despite our concern over increased enemy activity in Laos, Cambodia, and in South Vietnam. After full consultation with the National with the National Security council, Ambassador Bunker, General Abrams, and my other advisors, I have concluded that the actions of the enemy in the last ten days clearly endanger the lives of Americans who are in Vietnam now and would constitute an unacceptable risk to those who will be there after withdrawal of another 150,000. To protect our men who are in Vietnam, and to guarantee the continued success of our withdrawal and Vietnamization program, I have concluded that the time has come for action. Tonight, American and South Vietnamese units will attack the headquarters for the entire Communist military operation in South Vietnam.

My first thought was: How cold does it get in Canada? I changed the channel and adjusted the rabbit ears on our hand-me-down TV. The scene was a bunch of unshaven, tired-looking young men walking a trail through a Viet Nam jungle. There was napalm burning in the background. The only sound coming from the TV was the deadly noise of machine guns and helicopters swooshing by overhead. The words over the scene were “and today’s body count is….” I switched the channel again. I mouthed Walter Cronkite’s “and that’s the way it is on April 30th, 1070” as he closed the CBS Evening News.

The country went crazy over Nixon’s announcement. Students protested at Kent State University in Ohio. On May 2nd the Kent State R.O.T.C. offices were burned out. The next day, the Ohio National Guard was sent to the campus. Ohio Governor James A. Rhodes promised to use “every force possible” to maintain order. Rhodes denounced the protesters as worse than “brown shirts” and vowed to keep the Guard in Kent “until we get rid of them.” On May 4, about 1,500 student protesters gathered on campus. Four students were killed and nine others were wounded when a contingent of Guardsmen suddenly opened fire during a noontime demonstration.

June 1970 – Fort Ord, California

Finally my application to the National Guard came through. It was raining the day I arrived at the processing station at Fort Ord. A stern sergeant lined us all up in a loose formation and laid it out: We would be processed over the next few days and assigned to our various basic training units within a week. There would be haircuts, shots, tests, more shots, more tests. The first day we all got haircuts. I could really feel the morning Monterey breeze with my new buzz cut. Later on that day we were issued Army boxers, tee shirts and socks, a duffle bag, Army greens, fatigues, boots and other gear. We were beginning to look like we belonged in the Army. National Guardsmen (NGs) were trained alongside the regular Army draftees, but you could always tell them apart. The NGs knew they were going home after their training and didn’t pay a lot of attention; the regular Army trainees were eager to learn all they could because most of them would be sent to places where their lives depended on their training.

Basic training wasn’t that tough. I was assigned to unit A13 (Company A, First Battalion 3rd Brigade) and issued a punch card. If we did something above and beyond the call of duty we could get our merit cards punched by a training officer or NCO. It didn’t take much to get your card punched. Things like looking sharp at morning roll call, extra shiny boots, a good shot pattern at rifle training. The whole merit card system was somewhat juvenile. If we got enough merit points we could actually go home for a weekend during basic.

One morning toward the end of August I got a call from Linda telling me she was pregnant. I was stunned. I had been gone for two months. I didn’t have a job, and had just signed up for college; our only income was the meager pay I was getting from the Army while in basic training. Linda was living with my grandparents.

After nine weeks of basic training, we were promoted to A.I.T. (Advanced Individual Training) and assigned an M.O.S. (Military Occupational Specialty). My MOS was 94B20 – cooks helper. Hardly a “tough soldier” MOS, but soldiers need to eat. I was never told why I was selected to be a cook, but two weeks after basic I was one of forty future Army cooks standing in front of a stove. The first thing we learned that day was how to crack two eggs at the same time. I also learned how to make jellyrolls from scratch. In nine weeks I went from not knowing how to flip an egg to being able to cook a meal fit for a general. But I was glad to be going back home.

Stockton – November 1970

I arrived home in time for Rene’s first birthday. We lived with Grandma and Grandpa for a couple of weeks while we looked for a place we could afford. Grandpa had softened his negative attitude toward Mexicans while Linda was living with him. So much for the racist old Indian. We ended up at the Brown Top Trailer Park again. All the old tenants were still there, probably because of the low rent. This gave kind of a homecoming atmosphere to our return. We had moved up to a bigger trailer on the other side of the park, away from the heavy traffic. It was a lot roomier, and had a small dining room table that would accommodate two place settings. We also liked the fact that the built-in heater could be turned on without a match. There was a front and a back door. I had to have a place to study so I nailed a piece of wood across the back doorway. That was my desk. I could sit there in the doorway and study in the fresh air. Above the door I built a shelf for my reference books. I’d never had a study before, and it was magical. The trailer was older than our first one but in much better shape. The paint was fresh and there was a small yard. We didn’t worry much about theft. Any burglar who wanted anything of value would just keep driving past Brown Top. We could open the curtains along the front end of the trailer and let the sunlight in once in a while. The landlord had paved the dusty dirt road in the trailer park. Life was good.

In February 1971 I started at Delta Junior College. I had never known anyone personally who had gone to college. I still had my job at Paul Cox Studio, the paint store whose owner had once given me unused paint to paint the shed out in front of our trailer. Mr. Cox was a retired executive from a major Northern California furniture chain. He had worked himself up to a mid-level management position and taken an early retirement to start his own business. One night Mr Cox invited Linda and me over for dinner. He and his wife – “the love of my life, Betty” – lived in the nicer area of town. I had never had a reason to go into this area before. I parked my ’57 Volkswagen in front of his house. We got out of the car quickly so that Mr Cox wouldn’t come out and see the piece of junk we were driving. I was afraid he would notice the bald tires or the peace symbol that was standard issue for all VW bugs. I really needed this job so I didn’t want to make any political statements. I was in awe of the Coxes’ house: no broken windows, no peeling paint, a lawn that covered all the dirt in his front yard. I had never been in such a nice house. It made me see what could be possible with a little luck and a good education. At the same time it seemed to push those possibilities further from my reach. How do we get from a trailer in a dusty trailer park to a house like this?

Paul altered my work schedule to fit around my school schedule. I was lucky: whenever my tuition was due or I needed money for school, business at the studio would be good enough to generate bonuses for the employees. Several months later, when Paul found out that I was going to major in accounting, he let  me start doing some bookkeeping for him. When I went back into the records, I discovered that my school needs had mysteriously dictated when the bonuses came.

III: Darrell R. Griffin, Jr. Is Born

A bomb explodes in the men’s room at the U.S. Capitol; the Weather Underground Organization claims responsibility. U.S. Army Lieutenant William Calley is found guilty of twenty-two murders in the March 16, 1968 My Lai Massacre and sentenced to life in prison. A Los Angeles, California jury recommends that Charles Manson get the death penalty. A lot of bad stuff happens in March of 1971. One really good thing that happens in March is that Darrell Ray Griffin, Jr. is born.

I have to explain the whole thing about naming him “Darrell, Jr.” Years later he would ask me if I named him Darrell because it was cheaper. To this day I cannot remember why we gave him that name – my name. But I’m glad we did. Having the same name always made us feel closer. We brought him home to the Brown Top Trailer Park. His sister Rene was now sleeping on the fold-out couch-bed in the living room part of the trailer. Skip had a bassinet that Linda got from her baby shower.

August 6, 1971 – Stockton

It was near closing time and Mr. Cox had his feet on his desk reading the New York Times. I had mixed my last gallon of paint and was cleaning and shutting down the paint machine for the evening. As I walked into the office to say goodnight to Mr. Cox I noticed a headline: “’72 Draft Lottery Assigns No. 1 to Those Born Dec. 4.” In 1971 anyone who had a selective service lottery number lower than 125 had a good chance of being drafted. The draft lottery number for my birthday, June 21, was 296. This meant that I would never have been drafted. I had taken a gamble back in May of 1970 and joined the National Guard. Now I was locked into six years of meetings twice a month and two weeks of service every summer, but I was pretty sure that I wasn’t going to Viet Nam. I didn’t really mind being in the Guard. It was like a weekend job. I always felt a little guilty about the guys that got drafted and went through basic training with me at Fort Ord. I knew I was going home after basic and they were going to be trying to stay alive in Vietnam. I would go to NG meetings twice a month and get paid for it. It wasn’t much, but since I was making close to minimum wage it definitely helped the family budget.

Winter 1973 – Stockton, Brown Top Trailer Park

We tried to keep it together and make a pleasant home for Skip and Rene, but it wasn’t easy. One night we had a really bad argument. I said something to upset Linda, and she threw a jar of Vaseline at me. We started screaming at each other while Rene and Skip sat on the couch trying to watch TV. After about an hour the screaming died down. Linda went to the bedroom and slid the door closed. The

trailer had only two rooms and it was difficult for the combatants to find our own space to cool off in.

I sat down between Rene and Skip and gave them a hug. Rene looked up at me and asked: “Do I have to get married when I get older?” “No,” I said. “Why?” “Well, I don’t like arguing and mommies and daddies always argue and yell at each other.” I tried to explain to her that being married didn’t mean you had to argue all the time, but I was pretty sure that she was sticking with her view of marriage.

It was getting cramped in the trailer. Skip and Rene could play out in the front yard until someone drove through the trailer park past our trailer and kicked up dust. When the weather was bad they had to play inside. Doing homework was impossible at times. I would be sitting at my desk trying to study, Rene and

Skip would be playing fifteen feet away and Linda would be watching TV. It was winter so the kids had to play inside most of the time.

On a Saturday just after Christmas, I was doing my homework when I heard a knock at the door. It was Mattie Rivas, Linda’s mother. She got right to the point. “How would you guys like to move into a bigger place?”“I would love to,” I answered, “but right now this is all we can afford.” “Look, Darrell, I know you don’t like to take help from people but I have a deal for you.” She had sold her house and land out on Jack Tone Road and made enough to buy a couple of houses in town. She was going to rent one out. “It

looks great on the inside, but the outside needs a lot of work. If you agree to fix it up I’ll let you live in it for what you’re paying here.” Given our current situation, it sounded like a good offer. It was a small two bedroom house just down the street from the Bachelor Adult Bookstore. The back yard was overgrown and looked like the thicket where hobbits lived. But the house itself was huge. It was newly painted and the carpeting was new. The kids were still sharing a bedroom but at least they were in a normal house. This didn’t stop our bickering. We were two kids trying to raise two kids. It was only a matter of time.

Cleaning up the property was good therapy. I would work in the yard while Skip and Rene played in the overgrowth. Out behind the house was a corrugated metal shed. The shed proved to be a perfect place to grow marijuana. I hung some black lights from the ceiling and lined the shed with tin foil. I had never had a green thumb, but before long the shed was full of six-foot-tall plants. I invited my sister Sandra and her husband over one weekend for dinner and to sample some leaves from my “garden.” I had been working hard and I needed a little rest from school. After dinner we all went out to the garden shed and

picked a bunch of leaves. We put them on a cookie-sheet pan, dried them out and rolled them into joints. I didn’t get much homework done that weekend. Soon this became a regular ritual. Then the stress of keeping up with my classes started getting to me, so a doobie or two during the week made sense. Within three months I had to drop all my classes at Delta.

One day my Franklin High School yearbook arrived in the mail. I lit up a joint, grabbed a glass of wine and started flipping through the pages. How cool, I actually graduated from high school! So now what? I was lousy at skilled-labor jobs. I used to get Grandpa Moxley boiling mad because he would be under the car working on it and ask me for something like a seven- sixteenth box wrench. The instant I heard him yell, “Skip, bring me…” I would panic and start rummaging through his footlocker toolbox on the garage floor. I could never find what he wanted. Where I grew up a man was measured by the size of his tool box and what it had in it. If you had a robust collection of Snap-on-Brand or Craftsman tools you were at the top of your game. Maybe part of the reason I felt inadequate as a young man was that my tool box had only a few tools and they were the ones I bought at the local auto supply store 88-cents bin.

It occurred to me that since I wasn’t very good at skilled labor, maybe I should take college more seriously. Whenever I went to check on Rene and Skip, Jr. while they were asleep, I felt guilty. They always looked so peaceful, knowing in their little hearts that Dad had it all together. Dad would be a good provider. Dad wouldn’t let them grow up poor. The image of Skip sitting on the couch imitating me as I did my homework, underlining passages, drawing circles around paragraphs and dog-earing pages, made me smile. I didn’t want him to imitate me smoking weed. One night I just quit.

It wasn’t easy. Most of my relatives were stoners. At Christmas time thirty or forty family members would gather at Grandma and Grandpa’s house for the annual gift exchange and Christmas dinner. There was always a room set aside for getting high. It was tough to avoid that room. But then I would talk to some my cousins about their money difficulties and how their unemployment checks didn’t even cover their dope costs and their regular bills. Suddenly it got a lot easier.

My family may have not been rich but there was a lot of love. One day when my cousin Richard found out I was walking three miles each way to attend Delta Junior College he called to ask if I was going to be home. A few minutes later I looked out the front window to see Richard (“Rick”) getting out of his pickup. As I walked out to greet him he was pushing a ten-speed bike up my driveway. “Here ,Skip. This is for you.” As he got back in his truck he said “Be sure not to ride it over by Grandma’s house ‘cause someone there is missing one just like it.”

Later that night I pulled some of Skip’s journals down from my library shelves. I opened up one of the journals he had kept in Iraq and sniffed it to see if there were traces of Skip that I could smell.

From the start, he had been troubled about the idea of going to Iraq. Given his constant studying and reading philosophy I knew he would have a lot of thoughts about the war. I had encouraged him to keep a journal; he was going to write a book about his experiences when he got home. Skip wasn’t able to complete his book. A sniper’s bullet saw to that. I am going to finish the book that my son started – the book that Skip was born to write.

II: Skip’s Dust Bowl Lineage

It was August 1945 when Grandpa loaded Grandma, Shirley, her younger sister Patsy and their younger brother Bobbie Joe into his Model A and headed for California – the Promised Land. He worked the zinc, lead and coal mines in Oklahoma until his lungs became infected. Safety in the mines of 1937 was sorely lacking. Miners worked below the ground and out of sight so the corporate mine owners were the face of the mining industry. It was more than mine caveins that killed miners. Many of them died a slow, lung-damaged death.

Aunt Pat (Patsy) liked to tell us about this trip out to California. According to the story, Grandpa, an Ottawa Indian, stopped at a liquor store somewhere in New Mexico to buy a small bottle of whiskey. He came back out to the car kicking the dirt. He got in the old Model A and slammed its frail door. “They won’t sell to Mexicans, niggers or Indians. Especially Indians.” Grandma got out of the other side of the car. “I’ll get it.” Minutes later she came out with “Grandpa’s medicine.” There were actually laws on the books then barring the sale of liquor to Indians.

They made it as far as Arizona, where Grandpa used up his last gas ration coupon. He pulled into a gas station to get gas, fill up the radiator with water and refill the canvas camel bag that hung from the front bumper. As Grandpa got out of the car he told the kids, “This is the last pee stop till we get to California so you better go now.” He walked over to the attendant who was sitting on the front porch and started to explain that he was out of coupons. The attendant said, “It don’t matter, the Japs surrendered a couple of days ago.” Grandpa paid the attendant, gathered up the kids and headed for California.

They drove on to the San Pablo region, near San Francisco, and found an old wooden caboose to live in while they worked the fruit fields. It had electricity and running water and it didn’t leak. San Pablo was a little industrial town. There were foundries spewing out black smoke that coated everything with grime and gave Grandpa a hacky cough. Grandpa got a job working in the smelting plant. This was the last job he ever had. When he became too crippled to work anymore he and Grandma packed up the family and moved to Stockton, California. Grandma was able to get welfare for me and my sisters. She found a job working at a local school as a cook’s helper.

At times I hated Grandpa. But as I got older I began to understand his sour attitude towards people and life in general. He was a proud 6’2’’ tall American Indian. He had a stoop from arthritis that made him almost a foot shorter. I remember watching Grandma drag Grandpa in an old wooden chair to the bathroom so he could relieve himself. We couldn’t afford a wheelchair because any benefits we had from Grandpa’s medical insurance plan had long since run out. He went from slamming a forty-pound sledge hammer on the closing pin of a fiery foundry blast furnace to having his bride drag him in a broken, worn-out wooden chair to the toilet.

My Dad, David “Ross” Griffin, got my Mom, Shirley Ann, Grandpa’s firstborn daughter, pregnant when they were both sixteen years old. The only way he could see to support my mom was to join the Navy. They were married on the base at the San Diego Naval Training Center. At seventeen he was in the Navy serving in Korea aboard the USS Iowa. After about a year in the Pacific the Iowa steamed into Norfolk, Virginia. Ross got tired of the “navy way” and went AWOL. He was lucky. Instead of a dishonorable discharge he got a general discharge under honorable conditions. The Korean War was ending and the U.S. government was going through a general military force reduction and he got swept up with all of the other seamen being discharged. He and Shirley set up housekeeping after he got out of the brig at Treasure Island.

DAD - David Ross Griffin

The only fatherly skill that Ross had was getting my mom pregnant and keeping her that way for five straight years. I was born in 1952, my three sisters were born in the following three years, and Mom was pregnant again.

Ross wasn’t into working, so Shirley had to get a job at the Windmill Pub in downtown Rodeo. On October 18th, 1956, on a narrow highway in Richmond, California, Shirley’s boss, “Dip,” was driving her and a couple of customers home when Dip had a sudden stroke and hit a telephone pole. Everyone in the car died, including my mom. At the age of twenty-two, Ross found himself a single father with four kids ages six months to four years old. He wasted no time in shopping us around to his family. No one would take all four of us so he turned to Shirley’s parents, the Moxleys. He figured that they were “Good Christians” who had done an okay job raising my mother, and they would keep us all together. To this day I can’t understand how they were able to take us in. Grandpa was very sick, out of work, and they were broke.

Dad was known around San Pablo as a bar brawling tough guy. It was worse now that his first love had died and he had given up custody of his kids. He was drinking in a local bar when a Hell’s Angel came up to him and asked if he would like to ride with the Angels. Ross had just gotten a motorcycle from his brother-in-law’s brother, who had to sell it fast because he was on the run for a bank robbery in another state. All he had to do was get his “colors” (the official Hell’s Angel insignia). Becoming an Angel was the biggest accomplishment of his life.

I was about seven years old when we moved to Stockton, following my aunt Pat, who had moved there with one of her husbands. We only had one car and my sisters and I were too young to leave at home alone. Grandma would get us up at 5:00 am and load us in the back seat of his 1951 Hudson with our blankets and pillows. Grandpa never had a car that was less than ten years old. It was big enough so that my sister Sharon could sleep in the back window; Sheila and Sandra got the back-seat floorboard and I got the seat.

At times there were eleven people living in Grandma and Grandpa’s house. Aunt Pat and her three kids lived with us when she was between marriages. To help make ends meet Aunt Pat got a job waiting on tables for tips only. At thirteen I got my first full time job as a dishwasher at the Rare Steer, working with Grandma. Every few years my dad would come around and get me and my sisters excited with all of his empty promises, only to disappear. He still owes me a bike.