Saturday, March 30, 2013

Dead Man Talking

Dead Man Talking

Triggers, flashbacks, nightmares, isolation, panic attacks, anger, heightened arousal response and survivor’s guilt. Those are some of the topics we talk about every Friday at the V.A.’s East L.A. PTSD. (Post-Traumatic Stress) group session. I’m the only Vietnam veteran in the group. The others served in Iraq or Afghanistan or both. Some of them are angry with themselves for not being able to leave these things behind — after all, some have been back for several years. It doesn’t help when I share stuff that I’m experiencing 44 years after I came back.

Some of the triggers are embedded in the calendar. We all remember the dates we deployed or the dates that all hell broke loose. PTSD counselors know some of the important anniversaries as well. They know they may have to work overtime to help the veterans find ways of coping.

One of the guys told us that he dreads the anniversary of the day his unit began the ground offensive. Immediately, my pulse started racing as I said to myself, “February 23rd!” That was the day in 1991 that U.S. troops invaded Kuwait in Operation Desert Storm. And even though I was at home in Burbank, that day will forever be etched in my mind. It was the day that a broken radio took me on an eerie, maybe even supernatural journey — a journey that encompassed my entire being.

It was all about triggers, flashbacks, nightmares, panic attacks, anger, heightened arousal and survivor’s guilt. That broken radio delivered it all.
To set the scene, I need to tell you that I was running my own investigative news service in February of 1991. All of the local television stations in Los Angeles regularly called on me to dig up the stuff their reporters couldn’t dig up. If they couldn’t find it, they knew that I and my team could.

But in February of 1991, there was no work for us because there was no local investigative news. The anticipation of war was all that mattered to the networks and the local TV stations. If there were ever cheerleaders for a war, it was the news media. There was so much residual, mass-accumulated guilt over the Vietnam War that it seems that everyone in the media was eager to wave the American flag in anticipation of a war we could win after all those years. It was the day that unbiased reporting went out the window.

February 23rd fell on a Saturday in 1991. I was already angry about the possibility of another senseless war, and I was angry that the people in my profession had lost every bit of impartiality. I was furious that the news media were locked out of the war. President George H.W. Bush and his generals made damn sure there wouldn’t be any of those annoying reporters and photographers messing with their beautiful war. And, I was angry because my colleagues didn’t seem to be angry about being shut out.

Here I was, virtually unemployed, locked out of participating in the coverage of the stupid war and, even worse, unable to even read, hear or see what our government and our troops were actually doing in this oh-so-popular war. Yep, I was pissed. There was nothing on television except what the generals were feeding the complicit media. None of the radio stations within AM or FM range had the range reach any legitimate reports. I was a journalist locked out by my colleagues and locked out by the government.

Then I looked up and saw that broken radio. I had vowed that I would never plug in that radio. I would never listen to that radio. Never.

This is the part of the story where I have to backtrack and fill you in on seemingly disparate details that, by all logic, should be meaningless to me on the night of February 23, 1991. That’s the surreal part of this story. Please bear with me.

A couple of month’s earlier, my mothers third husband — my stepfather, if someone 42 years old can have a stepfather — asked me if I could fix his radio. George Quinn wanted to listen to KMPC radio, 710 on the AM dial, but his super-duper, 10-band, short-wave receiving radio wouldn’t pick up anything below 1070 on the AM band. It didn’t matter that I knew nothing about how to fix a radio. All he knew was that I had started out in radio and currently worked in television news. He insisted, so I said I’d find someone who could fix it.

I could have taken it with me at that time, but his “There’s no hurry” gave me an excuse to do it later. I would pick it up another time. At least that’s what I told him.

I didn’t go back to pick up the radio. A couple of months later George went into the hospital. I visited him one afternoon. My mother walked me down to the parking garage when I was leaving and beckoned me to her car. She wanted to give me something. She reached in and pulled out George’s radio and handed it to me. I had forgotten about it.

“Mom, I promise I’ll get it fixed today. I promise!” She shook her head.

“Keep it. I know he’ll want you to have it,” she said. It was strange that my mother didn’t come out and say to me that he was about to die, but I got the message.

This is where the guilt creeps in. This would be the third husband my mother would lose. My real father died on July 4th, 1959. He had fallen in a skating accident four months earlier and never came out of a coma. July 4th is another trigger date. We were at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum that 4th of July. My mother had divorced my dad. We were at the Coliseum festivities with Edward “Rip” Ripley, the man she would marry later on that year. Vice President Richard Nixon was also there at the Coliseum that day, but I was more interested in the fireworks. Also, it was on the 4th of July in 1968 that we flew into Saigon for the first time. I always remember the 4th of July.

When George Quinn died, I set his broken radio aside. Even though I vowed I’d never turn it on, it talked to me. It reminded me that I had failed to keep a promise.

However, on February 23rd, 1991, it occurred to me that George’s radio might be able to pick up shortwave stations coming from countries that hadn’t embargoed their reporters. I was so tempted to pick it up.

While I considered it, I realized that February 23rd was going to be one of those days that would stick in my mind. It wouldn’t be that hard to remember, I thought to myself. My first stepfather, Rip, had died on February 23rd in 1974. I can never forget that day either. Family members had all converged in his hospital room that evening. My mother wanted to stay, so I stayed with her. I sensed that she needed me there. I was right.

After a while, he stopped breathing.

“Rip!” I said. It was loud enough that he started breathing again. But after a minute or so he stopped. I started to call out his name again, but my mother put her hand on my arm and just shook her head softly. She knew it was his time to die.

It may seem selfish of me, but only in the last year or two of his life did we begin to connect. I needed him. It seemed like he had finally become the father that maybe I had never allowed him to be. Survivor’s guilt?

In fact, since I’m talking about seemingly supernatural occurrences here, I have to tell you how Rip had changed my life — three years after he died. Yep, it’s true. I promise that this is all going to come together in the end. Really!

When I came back from Vietnam, I went back to work with the Postal Service. I had been working first as a Postal Policeman and then as a Mail Fraud Analyst with the Postal Inspection Service. But in 1977, they promoted me into a box — a position I’d be trapped in forever. One night the most vivid nightmare awakened me. I was soaked in sweat. But it wasn’t my typical, they’re-trying-to-kill-me-in-my-sleep Vietnam nightmare. I dreamed of an actual conversation Rip and I had had a couple of years earlier.

I had asked his advice about whether I should quit the Postal Service job to go into some stupid (it really was stupid) start-up business opportunity. I would be selling super glue or something like that. I think I had wanted him to talk me out of it. But he didn’t. The dream was like a video replay of that conversation.

“Young man,” he said, “now is the time you should take chances. If you don’t follow your impulses, you’ll regret it one day. It will be too late.”

I woke up in a panic. It was as if he had died again. I knew that I had failed to take his advice. Now I was in a box. I realized that he was right. This time, albeit a couple of years later, I took his advice. Thirty days later, I resigned and cashed in my retirement. Within a year, I was working for NBC on the Channel 4 investigative news team, Unit 4. The words of a dead man had motivated me.

But it wouldn’t be the last time. Now, back to February 23, 1991.

I couldn’t help but think about what Rip had told me back then and, again, in that oh-so-realistic replay in the form of a dream. Now here I was, on the anniversary of his death, wondering how I had managed to end up virtually unemployed and unable to either report on or participate in the stupid war that was erupting. Of course, my experience in Vietnam was running through my blood and my mind.

Then, to make things worse, the television debut of the film, “Good Morning Vietnam,” came on that night. I had to watch it, even though it intensified the triggers.

In case you didn’t see the film, it’s based on the real-life story of a serviceman in Vietnam who’s job was to be a D.J. and newscaster on the Armed Forces Radio Network station, AFVN, in Saigon. And even though the real-life Adrian Cronauer had Vietnam rotated of Vietnam out before I was there, his replacement still started the broadcast day by shouting out, “Goooooooood mooooorning Vietnam!”

I would hear it on the tiny transistor radio I always kept hidden inside the case pocket of the gas mask we had to carry. It was just my dog and me on patrol every night, so I could sneak a listen as the sun was coming up, while the truck was on its way to pick us up.

The film took me back in ways I hadn’t expected. Robin Williams’ character taught English to Vietnamese people of all ages when he wasn’t on duty. I had done the same thing when I was stationed in Soc Trang — it was one of the more positive experiences I had during my time in Vietnam.

When the movie was over, I knew I couldn’t sleep. I tried again to pick up a distant station on my clock radio, but it was fruitless. Then I looked again at George’s radio. I finally broke my vow to never turn it on. I plugged it in, turned it on and carefully tried to tune in any distant sound I could hear. I went from band to band, but picked up nothing.

Then, a station came in on a short-wave band. It was some guy telling someone — or anyone who could hear him — highlights of his life and his career. It certainly wasn’t anything relating to the Gulf War that was exploding. But I kept listening because his voice sounded distinctively familiar. I had heard that voice before. But where?

His broadcast was a lengthy, one-sided conversation. It was clear that he had accomplished a lot in broadcasting. He talked of being the first American to broadcast rock and roll music from Moscow. He played clips of commercials he had voiced over throughout the years. He mentioned having done work in Chicago. He played promotional tags — the kind you hear on radio and television.

But I couldn’t have heard him in Chicago, I thought. I’d never spent any time there. Maybe, however, I had heard him when I was stationed outside of Detroit after Vietnam. I know that, at night, I could pick up radio station WLS out of Chicago. Maybe I had heard him then.

The problem was that on Saturday, February 23rd, 1991, his rambling autobiography was fading. I was losing the signal. If only I could get an additional clue, I could figure out how I knew that voice.

As the signal was fading to almost silence, I heard him play a promotional tag in which he mentioned his name. I could barely make it out.

Gary Gears.

Gary Gears? I knew that name. But I knew it as PFC Gary W. Gears. He had been that voice on AFVN that welcomed each new day when I was in Vietnam.

“Gooooooood moooooooorning, Vietnam!” That was it!

Talk about surreal. What are the odds that I’d turn on a dead man’s radio while I’m freaking out over a war, and thinking about my own time in combat, and then hear the voice of the man I had listened to way back in 1969?

Talk about triggers and flashbacks! But there’s more. Jeez, I feel like an infomercial.

When Gary W. Gears faded away, I was sad. I wanted to know where he was now. I wanted to talk with him. Sure, he didn’t know who I was, but certainly, he’d appreciate a call from one of his “captive” fans from his time in Vietnam.

When I woke up Sunday morning, PFC Gary W. Gears was still on my mind. The only connection I had was the knowledge that, at least once, he had broadcast from Chicago. So I called and left messages with two people I knew who had grown up in Chicago — Karl Voss and Bob Ginger. They were both living in Phoenix where we had worked together years earlier. Neither of them answered their phones, so I left messages. I asked them if they if they remembered a DJ named Gary Gears, and maybe knew for which station in Chicago he had worked.

Neither Bob nor Karl returned my calls on Sunday, so on Monday morning I decided to do some pre-Internet digging. I figured that anybody in the radio business in Chicago would know Gary Gears and know where he was working. I was positive this wouldn’t take long.

The only station I knew of was WLS, so I called directory assistance, got the number and dialed it. I told the operator who answered that I was hoping someone there would know where Gary Gears was working. She forwarded me to the program manager.

“I know this sounds silly,” I said to the program manager, “but I heard Gary Gears talking on the shortwave radio Saturday night. I had listened to him when I was in Vietnam. I just want to connect with him and thank him.”

The program director responded the way I expected. He didn’t make any comments, but there was something about his matter-of-fact response that told me my request was somewhat strange or something.

“You need to call WLUP,” he said. “Talk to the people at The Loop.” Then he abruptly hung up.

So I got the number for WLUP, “Chicago’s Classic Rock Station.” I called and told the operator the same thing I had told the WLS operator. He didn’t say a word to me. He just transferred me.

“Programming,” the man said.

“Hi, I know this sounds silly, but I heard Gary Gears broadcasting on shortwave radio Saturday night and I really want to thank him. I was in Vietnam when he was on the radio there. Can you help me track him down?”

This time there was silence for more than four or five seconds.

“Uh, I’m sorry, but Gary Gears just died. He had a heart attack.”

I don’t remember the rest of the conversation. I didn’t hear it or nobody said anything. I just don’t remember. My head was spinning. How could I have lost a friend who I had never spoken to — someone I heard speaking just two days earlier?

When I got my composure back, I called The Loop again and asked for the news department. I asked them for more details. They even faxed me the story the local newspaper had written about the DJ.

Gary W. Gears, it turns out, was already dead when I heard him talking. Apparently, somebody played a tape of his radio autobiography over the shortwave radio as a tribute to him. He had died a week earlier.

As I was reading the obituary, the phone rang. I thought it might be Karl or Bob, but it wasn’t. It was my mother. She was checking in on me. I think she sensed that the censored battles going on in Kuwait and the lack of local work assignments was getting to me.

“What’s wrong?” she said after a bit of small talk. She always had a way of knowing something was going on. But I knew she was still mourning the loss of George just days earlier, so I tried to avoid my strange story. But she pulled it out of me.

After I finished telling of the ground fighting breaking out on the anniversary of her second husband’s death, the Vietnam movie, the strange broadcast I heard on her dead third husband’s radio and then learning that PFC Gary W. Gears had died, my mother paused for a second.

“What day did he die?” she asked. “What day did PFC Gary W. Gears die?”

I had the obituary in my hand.

“Um, he died a week ago Sunday. That would be, let me see, February 17th.”

“I thought so,” she said with a strange confidence. “That’s the same day George died. I’ll bet they talked to each other on the way up.”

You would have loved my mother.

Ps. Listen to PFC Gary W. Gears from back in 1969.

PFC Gary W. Gears Radio Air Check from 1969

6 comments: said...

Your mother was right they must have been talking about you. thanks for that heart warming story. I am sorry you have to suffer trauma just remember that the past is done what we have left is memories trapped in chemicals of the brain. I have followed your work for a long time and love it.

Don Ray said...

Thanks for the encouraging boost, Erin. It's great to hear from someone who knows about the trauma that some men endure.

Rip said...

Thanks for the fascinating read. The wanderings of your life have left a lot of dots to connect. When you do connect them you have a wonderful way of doing so. If you keep going, you'll get there. Keep on going, Bro.

Don Ray said...

It's nice that I'm also able to share the most positive things about people in my life. Rip (Jr.), I'm so glad you too the time to read this. Wanderings of my life. I like it. Thanks, Bro!

JoAnne Clark said...

You've got a great start. That's right, You've got mix some good in with the bad. I'm certain there is good and bad in everything. There has to be something gained If this is helping you I'm proud of you

VickiSiedow said...

Excellent story, Don, just as I expected. I have some that have a similar flavor.