Khe Sanh '68 and Stella's Game

And we woke up on 31 January to learn a new place name: Khe Sanh. That afternoon we learned that Jeff’s there. No longer was Vietnam some abstract.

White bread America was as affected by that conflict as the rest of the country.

The controversial McNamara Line of outposts and electronic monitoring systems along the 17th parallel was built starting in 1967, and was anchored by combat bases like the Khe Sanh Combat Base (KSCB), which was a series of revetments and artillery batteries that was a most impressive sandbag fortification with an air strip and helicopter landing pads enough to maintain a Marine battalion. In January 1968, there were some 6,000 Marines based out of the Combat Base, and an unclear number of South Vietnamese and Royal Lao troops. The struggle for Khe Sanh and the I Corps area started nine days before Tet ’68, but William Westmoreland insisted that Tet was a diversion from Khe Sanh.

Was the tail wagging this dog?

The day after the Tet offensive exploded on the news, the war became very personal for some of us, even at the tender age of 12. With older sisters who had boyfriends of a certain age…yes, two of them were in-country. One mailed a letter to my oldest sister just after Christmas, saying how this Khe Sanh place was just a maze of sandbags.

Every TV newscast about Vietnam became a contest to see who could spot Jeff

While the war raged and every evening people watched at the Marines fought for the hills and villages around the base, there were times when we thought “oh, there he is!” But we never knew for sure. No one heard from Jeff…not even his family…until after the siege was lifted on 6 April by the 1st Cavalry Division. His parents received a note–brief and hurried–saying he was OK and headed for Japan. The next my sister heard was a year later, after he got back Stateside. Yeah, that kind of thing happened, too.

Letters and Friends and Stella’s Game

Cover of Stella's Game:
Cover of Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendships, Available Now from fine booksellers everywhere

Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendships is a story of four kids growing up in these turbulent times, when things like video calls, instant messaging with a device in your pocket were the stuff of science fiction. To communicate they wrote letters, and some letters arrived with odd timing, like Jeff’s to my sister. But the kids worry because their families worry, and that worry spills over to their friends sometimes, and friends offer what comfort they can.

Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendships takes place in the Detroit area from 1963 to 1974, following four children trying to fit in, to learn, to love, to laugh and for one–to stay alive. Look for it on Amazon and everywhere else. Learn what it was really like growing up without too much concern about money, but a lot about your future, and about your friend’s futures. Money doesn’t, after all, buy security for everyone.

Tet '68 and Stella's Game

On Tuesday, 30 January 1968, many of us awoke to a world different from the one we had slept in.

Marines outside Hue, February 1968
Getty images

There was supposed to be lines, rear areas, clean divisions between combatant and non-combatant…everybody knew that’s what war was supposed to be like. Combat was like, well, Combat and The Gallant Men. Besides, General Westmorland and Vice President Humphrey both said that the US was winning the war in Vietnam. Then…

Nứt trời; Làm rung chuyển trái đất!

Vietnamese for Crack the Sky; Shake the Earth!

But the Tet offensive, like the message above, in ’68 changed all those perceptions. The phrase was the signal sent to North Vietnamese units that the offensive to take over South Vietnam, planned for months, was on. Khe Sanh was suddenly put under siege; the US embassy in Saigon was partially captured; many provincial capitals were attacked, and the old capital of Vietnam’s empire, Hue, was captured by Viet Cong forces, which began a bloody campaign of massacre.

War didn’t have executions like the one in the New York Times for 2 February 1968–the one on top of this blog. Photographer Eddie Adams captured BG Nguyen Ngoc Loan, chief of South Vietnam’s national police, executing CPT Nguyen Van Lem of the Viet Cong, whose unit had just slaughtered Lem’s friend’s family. Before that photo appeared, Vietnam was just World War II in color with different weapons and uniforms, and the US Department of Defense had treated it just like that..until that day.

And Vietnam became a very different kind of war…

Wounded men, Tet ’68
Washington Post

And there were images of men hurt in the fighting delivered into your very home; in the newspapers, the magazines, on television. I was twelve, living a comfortable white-bread suburb of Detroit…and we saw this war unfold before us in living color. This kind of horror came after the riot of ’67, when the whiffs of smoke and tear gas rising on that wet and angry breeze from downtown, and the imagery of troops marching in formation down Woodward Avenue with bayonets fixed, and the news that our housekeeper was burned out of her home, reached us in the supposedly insulated suburbs that long and hot summer. Sure, I was too young to be drafted, but my older sisters had boyfriends…and one who was drafted in March of ’68; and one was going to West Point in the fall.

That war affected the affluent, too.

Public perceptions of the war changed decidedly after that. Though the battles for the capitals and the countryside ended with the US and South Vietnamese controlling most of the country and the Viet Cong were mostly destroyed, the war for public opinion was lost that winter. By spring, the demands to end the war were becoming overwhelming. Yet, Richard Nixon’s campaign theme was “Law and Order,” while Hubert Humphrey’s was “End the War.” And Nixon won in ’68 mostly, it is thought, because he promised new leadership…and he did get the US out two years before the Saigon government collapsed.

Your Author, 1967

And that damn war affected the characters in Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendships. Imagine how a 12-year old–like the guy to the right here–might be affected by the knowledge that a family friend was a Marine stuck in Khe Sanh…and how his friends might be affected by that knowledge. Remember that this is Nixon country for the most part; supporters of the conflict in Vietnam.

But you don’t have to imagine it if you can read about it in Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendships on Amazon or at your favorite booksellers.

Christmas 1968 and Stella's Game

It was one of those moments in our lives when history was being made right before us. Apollo VIII orbited the Moon on Christmas Eve, 1968, with William Anders, James Lovell and Frank Borman reading from Genesis. The story of “why Genesis?” hails back to when the astronauts knew they were going to be LIVE on TV on Christmas Eve, 1968…the end of a tumultuous year. The three cast around for just what to say until Borman talked to a friend in the US Information Agency, Si Bourgin, who turned to a former war correspondent, Joe Laitin, at the Washington Post, whose wife, Christine–who worked in the French Resistance–simply said “Well, that’s simple. Read from the first ten verses of Genesis. It’s a natural.”

No one had any better ideas…

Anders read the first four verses; Lovell the next four; Borman the last two, and closed with, “[a]nd from the crew of Apollo VIII, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas – and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.”

We heard them read from Genesis while we were watching the first Earth-Rise, marveling at the sheer majesty of that blue marble rising above the multi-faceted surface of another world.

That Christmas was especially poignant for many in the US, because between the Tet Offensive in January, the King assassination in April, the RFK assassination in June, the continual roaring of protests and electioneering and the coming of Nixon…and of course the Tigers winning the World Series…many of us were quite weary at the end of that year.

And so were the characters in Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendships. December, 1968 was sad, and weary, and full of hope for the the teen’s futures.  Ask for Stella’s Game at your favorite bookseller.

Cover of Stella's Game:

Stella’s Game and Christmas 2019

By the time you see this, Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendships should be available as a Kindle book (ISBN 978-1-64550-698-0)…just $0.99 you cheapskates (or free for you Kindle Unlimited members)! Go have a look!

Back Cover of Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendships

Out of my depth, you say, YOU write about history. Well, this is history, really: a view of the 1960’s and early ’70’s as experienced by four young people living in suburban Detroit. It’s somewhat autobiographical; somewhat not. It’s the times I grew up in, and it’s a story that my wife might want to read, since she doesn’t read the rest of my stuff.

So the story begins, and in a few weeks you’ll be able to get the paperback (ISBN 978-1-64550-694-2) and the E-book. Stella’s Game, as I’ve said before, starts with young children, growing up amid the turmoil of the times. The guy in the picture? Yeah, he’s me; he’s eight and in 3rd Grade when Stella’s Game begins.

Growing up in affluence in the ’60’s didn’t make anyone immune from the chaos, but Stella’s Game could.

Money couldn’t save kids in the suburbs from the troubles of the ’60’s, especially in Detroit, but Stella’s Game did.

In the ’60’s, people lost respect for institutions, but not for Stella’s Game .

Before there were cell phones, before there was a World Wide Web, before Facebook and e-mail, and before people became fleshy appendages to electronic media devices, there was Stella’s Game.

Before there was Google, friends lost each other, but there was Stella’s Game.

When Stella dealt her Game, everyone were friends. Stella’s Game is home, a safe port in a roiling sea.  When she shuffled, the world took a seat, and the winds fell; as she dealt, the waters returned to calm. When the cards were dealt, troubles were gone.

Stella’s Game:  the eye of the storm where you are welcome and safe…she won’t have it any other way. The players become family.  No matter the argument–calm, cool, uproarious or explosive, Stella sits at her big round table and quietly to shuffles her cards.  As she shuffles, the boisterousness begins to subside, or the temperature slowly drops, and a calm descends on the room as the players take their place at the table, and Stella begins to deal her Game. Stella shuffles cards, and everything else gradually fades into the background. An aura of serenity envelops the room, unnoticed by the players–the subjects and participants–in the process. No one decides to put everything aside. they just play, and failure to take part is a heresy.

The players don’t bear witness to the process–they are a part of it.  Stella’s Game just happens.

Four kids experience the marches, the riots, the wars…and puberty and family quarrels and weddings and divorces and madness and death and birth…then they get to graduate from high school and move on to…well, that’s where Tideline: Friendship Abides takes over in 2020.

Christmas 2019

For all of my loyal readers–O you brave souls–I wish you a blessed and a Merry Christmas and a peaceful and prosperous New Year. Some of my messmates have paid the ultimate price for our freedom, but most have not. To all of my comrades in arms I say thanks for staying alive. I plan on putting out a blog at least twice a month for all of 2020, regardless of which grifter ends up in the White House.

Happy Holidays from the Front

I also want to take a few minutes here to say a special Happy Holidays to those of you who are in harm’s way, and living some version of the photo to the right. That could have been me more than once, eating my holiday meal in the boonies, shoveled out of a Mermite can and onto a paper plate, consumed with a plastic fork and knife.

Clare-Bear and Alex, 2018

This is the last photo I have of Clare, courtesy of her daughter. The boy is her grandson. I like to think that the best Christmas gift anyone could give Alex–who I’ve never met–might be to never feel the pain of his Clare-Bear’s passing.

At this time of year I want very much to think back with fondness, but…not this year. The passing of my Brown-Eyed Girl–to whom Stella’s Game is dedicated–was harder on me than I care to admit. I think of “better places” that she could be in and I just think that the best place for her has always been in my heart, if not next to me on the sofa. Her passing was devastating for those of us who loved her, especially Peter, Shannon, and Eric…and you know who you are. But, be at peace, Ware. We shall always think of you with fondness, gratitude and love.

Battle of Coronel, Author’s Day, and Stella’s Game

Yes, someone actually decided that authors were worthy of recognition. This happened nearly a century ago…when people were still reading and not waiting for the video.

Battle of Coronel: 1 November 1914

The Endless Game of Weapons Innovation

In the late 19th century, naval ship development was driven by two contrasting needs: beat the other fellow and do it cheaply. The “other fellow” was often hard to define, but the biggest challenge that European navies felt they faced would be merchant ships that their warships couldn’t outrun. Propulsion systems for merchant–especially passenger–ships of all kinds were being developed faster than the more hidebound, budget-conscious navies could adapt.

If this starts to look like a game of paper-scissors-rock, you’re got the right idea

In the mid-19th century, Russia built the first ship called an “armored cruiser” that was meant to show the flag powerfully at distant stations. This preceded by a decade or so the first armed merchant cruisers by that giant arbiter of naval fashion, Britain’s Royal Navy. Their idea was to take one of those speedy merchantmen and arm it to catch other speedy merchantmen. Then someone popped their heads up and announced to no one’s surprise that the enemy could make those, too. so the RN adapted the Russian idea of a powerful warship on a smaller hull but with great speed and range to counter the theoretical armed merchant cruiser menace. Then these ships got big, and fast, and powerful and in 1911 the RN came up with the third part of this deadly game: the battle cruiser. If this starts to look like a game of paper-scissors-rock, you’re got the right idea, but arms designers had done this for centuries at sea: this ship design to counter that one, then another innovation to overcome the next.

…the bosses back in Berlin were light on how this flotilla would survive on the other side of the world if the war went on more than a few months.

Then came WWI, and the game became deadly. Trapped in the Pacific at the start of the war was the German East Asia Squadron, led by Maximilian von Spee. Its mission was to raid enemy commerce in the Pacific in the event of hostilities. While a great idea for a short war, the bosses back in Berlin were light on how this flotilla would survive on the other side of the world if the war went on more than a few months.

So, after running more or less wild in the Pacific for a couple of months, von Spee decided to raid the coast of Latin America for a while. At the same time he realized that he’d run out of ammunition pretty soon, so he decided he’d hightail it for home around the end of the year. But the Royal Navy got in the way.

the German ships were manned by long-service professionals…the British by reservists just called up. German gunnery was renowned; British gunnery…not so much.

The Germans had two armored cruisers (see above) and three light cruisers (defined as a warship in size and power somewhere between that of a destroyer and of a bigger cruiser) with them, in addition to a number of auxiliaries and storeships. To counter this force, Britain’s Christopher Cradock commanded two armored cruisers, a light cruiser, an armed merchant cruiser and a pre-Dreadnought battleship. On paper it looks like the British had the advantage with that big battlewagon…but they didn’t because the battleship was too slow to keep up with the rest of the squadron. In addition, the German ships were manned by long-service professionals; most of the British vessels were manned by reservists just called up. German gunnery was renowned; British gunnery…not so much.

Battle off Coronel, Chile. British ships in red; German in black. Wikimedia Commons

The result was well within the realm of predictable on 1 November 1914. British losses were over 1,600 men and both armored cruisers, which were literally buried in shells. German losses were three men wounded. However, that was but one battle in a long campaign, and to win that fight the Germans expended half their irreplaceable ammunition. Any more commerce raiding anywhere would have to wait; von Spee decided to run for home.

It was the heyday of the half-century long race to outrun those fast armed merchantmen

But in this deadly game of paper-scissors-rock, the rocks were dispatched to break the scissors. Two battlecruisers arrived in the Falklands just in time to destroy the German squadron a month later. It was the heyday of the half-century long race to outrun those fast armed merchantmen, then to outgun those fast armored cruisers. It was also the last demonstration of this kind of deadly one-upsmanship, as the armed merchant cruisers were replaced in strategic importance by the submarine, making the armored cruisers and the battlecruisers strategically pointless.

National Author’s Day

The Unknown Author, plugging away…

Now you, too can honor at least one author…me…by buying at least one of my books. Or at least, by putting one on your list.

In 1928, Nellie Verne Burt McPherson, teacher, avid reader and president of the Bement, Illinois Women’s Club had an idea of setting aside a day to celebrate American authors. She did this because she sent a fan letter–remember those, not just likes on a page somewhere–and decided that mere thanks were not enough. She submitted the idea of an Author’s Day to the General Federation of Women’s Clubs–that’s still around, too–which passed a resolution declaring 1 November as National Author’s Day. The US Department of Commerce followed suit in 1949.

Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendship

Have a seat; we’re dealing Stella’s Game.

And here’s one you really should put on your list–Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendship, due for publication 3 December 2019. Stella’s Game follows four kids from 1963 to 1974; half their lives. It’s about friends, family, learning, challenging, fun and danger. It’s also the first volume in a trilogy that will follow these kids until 2001. Look for it in December.

Where We’ve Been, New Publishers, Stella’s Game and Labor Day

Well, we’ve been busy with a couple of non-fatal health issues, with saying goodbye to My Brown-Eyed Girl, with rebuilding the chronological database, with writing the Stella’s Game trilogy (of which, more later). That and a few actual PAYING jobs…you get the idea.

But now I believe I can get back to some sort of at least a monthly schedule with tidbits about obscure events and obvious, special days and the like. And of course the purpose for this blog–selling books.

Why the Samurai Lost is Now on Amazon

Cover for Why the Samurai Lost Japan: A Study of Miscalculation and Folly

JDB Communications, LLC, is pleased and proud to announce a new source for publishing: IngramSpark. Customers have complained about shipping costs from Book Patch, but no longer. Amazon Prime customers, of course get free shipping.

The Stella’s Game Trilogy

OK, it’s not what you’re expecting. I started writing a story that my dear wife would read–and might actually like. It kinda grew, now into three volumes.

Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendship starts in suburban Detroit in 1963 with four kids, four families…and the Kennedy assassination. It follows their lives for the next two decades–through Vietnam, and Watergate and everything around them–growing, learning, loving, interacting, suffering, mourning and dying. While there’s very little “action” in the sense of battle narrative or action scenes, there is some violence, though limited in scope. Expect Stella’s Game by the end of 2019.

Stella’s Game leads into Tideline: Friendship Abides, that starts in 1974 and follows the narrators through their careers (OK, I had to do it: three of the four are in the Army and one is in the Navy), their love lives (as restricted as they had to be in uniform then), and rediscovery. You’ll have to see it. Expect to see Tideline in early 2020.

Tideline then leads into The Safe Tree: Friendship Triumphs, which takes place in late 1986. There’s betrayal, conspiracy, two weddings, arson, a shooting or two, and old feuds. But, like the first two books, the friends…well, you’ll have to see it. Expect The Safe Tree sometime in 2020.

Labor Day 2019

Labor Day has always confused me, frankly: it’s a day celebrating labor by not working. Huh. Explains some of those union contracts…

Its’ origins are obscure and disputed, but it’s been the traditional end of summer since the early 20th century. It’s also been the landmark for many when school started again. When I was doing that…when the dinosaurs roamed the Earth…Labor Day was Monday; school shopping Tuesday; school Wednesday. Shopping for school stuff before Labor Day just wasn’t done, you know.

My Brown-Eyed Girl Clare and Rethinking

This is going to be maudlin, folks. Get over it.

UPDATE: Clare’s memorial in Detroit will be in the Oriental Garden (weather permitting) on 29 June, or the Kingswood Lobby if needed. The Grand Haven memorial will not take place. Contact me directly if you have questions.

I met my Brown-Eyed Girl in May of 1972 behind her house on Faculty Way at Cranbrook, one of the most exclusive private schools in the United States. We talked about…I have no idea what now, but I was smitten, hopelessly, by a warm, dimpled faculty brat who seemed to care about what I thought. And I didn’t know her name; I wouldn’t know it for a while.

For whatever reason I was in the dining hall, terrified for some reason and looking for a place to sit when Pete Dewitt, one of my housemasters, invited me down to his on-campus house and introduced his daughter, Clareann, who went by Clare…that warm, dimpled faculty brat.

And I kept coming back. I laughed with her older sister Karolyn and brother Peter, talked with her parents Peter and Elizabeth about my future, broke bread with cousins and grandmothers and felt as if I were family. They soon came to call me Friday’s Child because I came down from the dorms almost every Friday, even after I graduated in ’73 and joined the Army.

And I went to her brother Pete’s wedding in ’74…then to Clare’s in ’78. That hurt so much I thought I’d bust, but I had to be happy for her. I got a job in Wisconsin and moved, then sent her a plant when her daughter was born in May ’79. I saw her at Karolyn’s wedding that October, and she looked happy.

I kept coming back to the Dewitt’s on vacation. Next time I saw my Brown-Eyed Girl was December ’80, and she had separated from her husband. The next year I tried very hard to get us together, but she believed her family would have objected to any marriage between us. On April Fools Day 1982 I had my first date with my future wife, Evelyne in Wisconsin, and in one way or another, we’ve been together ever since. I hurt Clare when I told her that I had found the Girl of My Dreams, but we both agreed that we were impossible and she wished me well.

But as Evelyne well knows, my Brown-Eyed Girl was never far from my thoughts.

Clare and I didn’t speak again for seven years when she called me out of the blue. We talked off and on again for years; she called me when her father passed in ’99, and again when her mother passed in ’04. That time, Ev said, “let’s go.” So we went. And it was then that Clare told me that she’d completely misread her family’s attitudes towards me, right after I apologized for hurting her so badly 22 years before.

From such moments are whole movie franchises born.

We communicated regularly after that, trading visits to Michigan and Wisconsin, phone calls, emails, and texts. She made freinds with Evelyne–a blessing I still cherish–and came to my mother’s wake in ’12; I came to her sister Karolyn’s in ’15. That was hard on her because she’d often talked about retiring with Karolyn when the time came.

I last saw my Brown-Eyed Girl in June 2018, when we were in Detroit for my 45th reunion. As it happened, Pete’s wife of 44 years had just succumbed to cancer a few weeks before, and I saw then that something was broken in Clare. She was tired, working a job she had loved but no longer, and worn out from it. I had trouble connecting with her after that. Communications were always irregular, but she didn’t acknowledge my texts for her birthday, Christmas or New Year’s. After I tried calling after that; she finally called me back, said she was fine, worried about her brother. She didn’t sound fine. That was February.

On Monday 18 March 2019, my Brown-Eyed Girl Clareann Mersbach Dewitt Thompson passed away suddenly in her home in Ferndale, Michigan, the day after the 35th anniversary of my marriage to Evelyne. Her brother Pete called me the day after. I’ve spoken with her daughter Shannon and Pete since: there will be a memorial in early summer. I will attend, to say goodbye to my sweet Brown-Eyed Girl who was the first girl I ever loved who loved me back.

And every time I asked, she never remembered when we first met behind her house on Faculty Way…not that it mattered four loving decades later.

So long, kid. We’ll see you on the other side. I know we will.

Rethinking

Rethinking is allowed, especially when your database gets corrupted and your oldest friend dies suddenly.

For the past several years, I’ve been building a database of events on an Outlook Calendar. Today (February), when I started putting together the April blog entries, I discovered that the latest “improvement” to the online version of Outlook corrupted much of my data, effectively deleting hundreds of events and national days from the individual days by unhelpfully adding end dates to them. While I found ways to recover them, they are work-intensive and tedious–not how I wanted to spend my time.

Thus, I find a need to pause, reflect, and figure out what to do about this blog. The purpose is to sell books, which it has failed to do, regrettably. In a good week I get maybe 200 views, mostly on LinkedIn, and one or two likes. The blog itself has less than a hundred followers.

So who am I kidding?

Sure, I want to sell books…lots of books. Unfortunately this isn’t the way it’s happening. I either lack the sales acumen to make my work attractive to potential book-buyers, or I don’t write well enough to attract readers.

So the question is, what to do? The WordPress subscription ain’t cheap, and it ain’t paying for itself. What’s going to happen is I’ll change my plan this month, and what effect that has is unclear. The domain, https://jdbcom.com will stay around, and the archives will be here, but four or five entries a month? Eh, methinks not, not the way I’ve been doing it. Just how is a current mystery.

Fear not, regular readers (both of you); dead the blog shall not be. Transformed, maybe. Weekly, not in current content format, no. But this is April…perhaps by May I’ll figure it out.