From a cloud of white smoke, a slim, dark-haired Englishman in his mod-rocker uniform of skinny white slacks, white boots and a golden jacket over a ruffle-cuffed white shirt emerged a bit dazed and sporting a new giant cowlick atop his coif. After regaining his bearings, he played through the planned parody of his band’s modus operandi of stage destruction by seizing the acoustic guitar from around the television co-host’s neck and smashing it on the stage, as he had with complete conviction to his own instrument moments earlier. By now, the drummer had left the drum platform and was prostrate on the stage in a theatrical continuation of the bombastic event that had just taken place.
Though these pyrotechnics were a planned part of The Who’s performance of “My Generation” on the Smother Brothers Comedy Hour, the truth that the intensity of the blast was unexpected can be seen in the reaction of those on stage. Roger Daltrey turns away with the posture of someone shielding himself from a grenade blast. When Tommy Smothers returns to the stage wearing the sacrificial prop guitar, he looks a little confused and it’s a moment before he and Pete Townshend are back in synch with their ax-busting moment. Only bassist John Entwistle looks like nothing really happened.
The detonation that was more akin to an industrial accident than performance art could be blamed on Keith Moon’s eternal dedication to the dramatic, reckless moment. After a disappointing blast during rehearsal, he triple-packed the kick drum with extra explosive charges.
In their amp-spearing, eardrum-splitting American television debut, The Who created musical theater that resembled combat, in some ways lending continuity to the programming of the day. The scene on the screen in living rooms from state to state that Sunday night was one of debris, fallen and shell-shocked young men, a post-blast moment that’s likely the beginning of a lifetime of ear-ringing madness. It’s even been said that Keith Moon ended up with cymbal shrapnel in his arm.
Dust and smoke started to fall away among trees and grass, not nearly as visible now that the flash was over. The sound of nearby helicopters and other explosions continued behind the silence that enveloped the brush from where no one emerged. Minutes earlier, quiet breaths and subdued whispers had mingled with the rustling of branches and leaves. Then came a pinpoint moment in time when everything changed, when the night ripped open in a hot white flash of yesterday and tomorrow exploding, then contracting, into the microscopic crack in forever that was the now for two souls.
Private First Class Benny Carr. Nineteen years old from Corbin, Kentucky.
Sergeant James Chambers. Twenty-four years old from Union City, Tennessee.
Both were part of the U. S. Army’s 14th Infantry, 25th Infantry Division stationed in Cu Chi, Vietnam. When the rifle-propelled grenade found them, they were manning a listening post in the Ho Bo Woods. I know almost nothing about Private Carr. As for Sergeant Chambers, I know as much as a son can having never met his father.
Drafted in 1966, my father landed in Vietnam during the spring of ’67. By the time autumn arrived, he knew he was expecting a child. In his letters to my mother and other family, he often mentions the baby. He tells my mom to be careful; asks my grandparents to look after her until he returns. He calls me by name.
When my father did return, it was with an Army escort that Mom released to spend time with his own family instead of remaining for Dad’s funeral. I would later find out that, once state-side, he came home via train. As a child I would love trains, even want to be an engineer.
My mother and I actually took a train once to visit family in another state. This was during my childhood railroad phase, so I was nearly euphoric when we boarded. Our journey took a dark turn, however, when I somehow managed to injure my finger on the metal arm of my seat. It was an upsetting few moments, but I was okay after a porter patched me up with a Band-Aid.
That’s what I remember most about the train.
My thoughts started to settle and my body relaxed as I sipped the whiskey sour. It was my last night in Saigon and I was toasting a solitary farewell on the roof of the Rex Hotel. A band played “The Sound of Silence” while, on the streets below, a thousand motorcycles honked and swerved around buses, cars and pedestrians. I leaned back in my chair, listening to a song first popular when American military officers and journalists filled the bar. Over their drinks they watched the flashes of distant artillery fire. Over mine, I watched a Filipino band pull off a dead-on rendition of an American pop standard. As I left the bar, a lady with 1980’s spiked hair laughed, got up and invited me to sit next to her girlfriend. I declined, walked out onto a small balcony near the entrance of the restaurant and looked down at the calliope street scene.
I breathed in the air of a city whose name invites ghosts for so many. Sometimes I think that maybe the souls of those who have gone before us return to the place they died. If that’s the case, my father might have been on that balcony, listening with me to the streets that were anything but silent.
That night in Saigon, I didn’t think so much about the September Sunday forty years earlier when my father was in those woods. I didn’t try to construct his and Private Carr’s last moment. Instead, I felt a calm that contrasted sharply with the busy streets and neon lights, the electric sounds of a bustling city. In that moment, I knew peace.
There is a Buddhist belief that a soul wanders among familiar places and people – home, family and friends – for a few days before moving on. With that thought, I imagine my father visiting my mother a few hours after he died, which would have been the night of the same day because of the time difference. Maybe she was watching television, maybe even The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Perhaps my father’s ghost flinched a bit when Moon’s drum exploded. Maybe he noticed that Mom started a little, too, not realizing she did so because the blast, for some reason, reminded her of the sudden, fleeting sharp pains she had felt earlier in the day. I imagine my father shaking his head at the thought that anyone would want to emulate the sights and sounds of war on a stage, in a song, and then smiling because those loud Englishmen tearing up the stage were actually entertaining and it was a pretty good song, before they blew everything the hell up.