by Casey Matson

Hello to all who may read this synopsis of my “American Experience”. It will be difficult to make it brief enough to be readable yet not long enough to be boring but I will try.

I was born in Portland in 1952, the oldest of three children. My Dad had a degree in Anthropology and later in life was an urban planner. My Mom had a degree in Sociology and was a home keeper.

I never felt truly at home in any of the small cities I grew up in. Perhaps because we moved at crucial times for a kid, late elementary and mid-high school but beyond that my upbringing which included parents who both attended Reed College in Portland and were proud to be considered out of the main stream and labeled Beatniks, labor organizers and sympathizers.

I spent my first two years on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation as my folks had obtained a grant to record the final days of that tribes fishing activities on the Columbia River before the Bonneville Power Administration added yet another dam which inundated the rapids and falls which the tribe used to catch salmon (their mainstay food and income supply) during their annual migration upstream. That was a sore point for my folks until they passed away.

One of my earliest memories is standing on the running board of Gary Snyder’s or Philip Whelen’s MG with other kids hanging on tightly while racing up and down the dirt street we lived on in Seattle during the many parties and discussion meetings they held. Although surrounded by all of this counter culture and anti-authority from birth we all know that as a child what is most important is fitting in and being accepted at school and elsewhere. Therein lays the inner conflict that follows me to this day and resulted in numerous scrapes with many forms of authority particularly governmental (police and the military).

In 1961 while I was in the fifth grade we moved to Pittsburg, CA (as my father had made Urban Renewal his career choice). What had begun as an Italian fishing town had grown into an industrial complex stretching up along the river to Antioch including the Johns Manville Asbestos Plant . Fishing was long gone and the original heart of town near the river lay in disrepair and ruin. The favorite pastime was cruising and drinking our way up and down Railroad Ave. radios blaring out songs from the Miracles, The Ronettes and MoTown in general. Acid Rock was not even known about, much less listened to. Although only an hours drive from San Francisco, Pittsburg was a world unto itself, frozen in time. Drugs such as marijuana were seen as being reserved strictly for the minority section of town. The rest of us drowned in alcohol at weekend parties and while cruising.

I did have family who lived in San Francisco on Lincoln Ave. looking across the street at Golden Gate Park and I began to take the bus (and later drive) over to the city on weekends. My cousin Neil introduced me to the park which we roamed daily and nightly (on occasion borrowing the rental boats on Stow Lake after hours). It was during this time that the Haight was coming into it’s own and became a natural attraction for me. We would hike up to the meadow near the carousel and then walk up and down Haight taking in all of the sights, strange looking people and the free concerts.

My first non R&B album was Disraeli Gears and I began a gradual shift toward this new scene. At this point in time the for me the war was simply an ever present background noise seen nightly live and in color which gradually increased in tempo and volume as I wended my way through school. In 68 we moved to Yakima, Wa. so my father could begin another renewal project. We were forced from Pittsburg due to my father’s outspoken comments on the reaction to the mini riots we had after MLK was slain. Deputized and armed citizens roamed the housing projects and minority area of, committing more mayhem and causing more problems than the riots, which he very publicly castigated.

You would expect Yakima to be even more conservative and out of it, but by 68 the counter-culture scene was already there, although on a small scale. I did manage to drink my way through high school and did not start taking drugs until just before I graduated in 69.

By that time the war was an ever-present and town-splitting presence, reflecting the country as a whole. I had friends whose brothers had or were serving and in particular my best friend Dave’s brother John. I knew him before he enlisted and ended up as a door gunner in the 7th Cav. He was an entirely different person when he returned….hooked on Heroin and entirely unrecognizable as the person who had left.

This left an indelible impression on me and that is when the war began to dominate my thinking. The lottery had been instituted the year before as a response to the perceived inequality in how the draft operated. Low income and minorities first, white and middle class or wealthy last. When my lottery occurred and I ended up with a low enough number to be at a high risk of being drafted my mother bought me a bus ticket to Canada. A loving (although considering we only lived a few hours South by car inexpensive) gesture on her part. It is the thought that counts. I weighed my options along with my fellow unfortunates and opted for the Coast Guard. There was enough patriotism in me due to the influence of WW11 (my father had served) and lack of deep anti-war fervor to not head for Canada or burn my draft card.

Because of the war there were very few openings and you had to test for them. I passed high enough to get one of them and off I went to boot camp. I ended up serving on an icebreaker out of Seattle as a ship’s diver. We would head North to the Arctic in the summer and down to the Antarctic in the winter. The military and I (as should have been expected) never did see eye to eye and although I enjoyed my job immensely there was continuing friction between myself (along with numerous other shipmates) and the “Lifers”. There is a distinct separation in my mind between authority that I respect, earned by rational thought, experience and having an open mind and the authority that is based on ridged unbending, blind obedience.

The military as a rule is an example of the latter which I have always disliked and resisted. I bounced around for awhile after my enlistment ended and then the Yom Kippur conflict occurred. Because of my upbringing and my love of history I was very sympathetic to Israel and what it represented so the day after it began I volunteered though the AJC to go to Israel. In my mind it was a completely different war than the one I had done my best to avoid. This was a conflict where a nation founded to shelter people from bigotry and genocide was under imminent threat of being liquidated. It was intimately linked to WWII which— if there is such an animal —was a “good war” fought to save people from death and persecution at the hands of truly evil people and not the war of my generation—the Vietnam War—a conflict born of the Cold War and the mindset that too many people in government and private held. A blind antipathy to anything not resembling Democracy and the American model of it. A totally political war and not a war of survival although that is how it was sold.

In Israel I ended up in Kfar Vitkin a small farming village just North of Netanya. It was a moshav which is a kind of collective rather than a kibbutz. Folks owned their own land but bought and sold their products as a group. I took the place of Gidon Hrubi who was fighting up in the Golan Heights region as a tank commander. The Golan fighting was some of the worst and Gidon was not released from active duty for many months after the shooting had ceased. We had a pilot in the air force from our town and after a successful dog fight would buzz the town at about 200’ in his Phantom. After two or three of these they told him to stop as the chickens would quit laying and it scared the crap out of the livestock.

It was a truly once in a lifetime experience and I think of it often.

Occasionally I would get a day off and travel the country. I went up to Jerusalem a number of times and roamed the old city thoroughly. The dichotomy between old and new cannot be stronger anywhere else on earth. I spent a weekend at a hostel on the Galilee and visited Haifa, Ceasarea and Mt. Hebron. From the summit you can look across the entire width of the country from Jordan to the East and the Med in the West. My big excursion was to take a bus to Eilat and then hitchhike on a military convoy down to Sharm el sheik. I visited the bombed out Egyptian gun emplacements on the heights, dove the Red Sea and slept on the beach and met my first and only true Bedouins….

I do not know if I would volunteer today as the mindset in Israel has changed so much. They have done much in the recent past to substantially change how I view them. At moments they seem to begin to resemble those who actions were the catalyst of its creation. They are caught up in their own Cold War with the ensuing negative actions. I returned to the states, partied till it became boring and then took off for Alaska on a salmon seiner. I eventually settled down and have a wonderful family and a great life but the Vietnam War never really left me.

Later in life I began to acquire and read books about it. Books from every point of view: from the grunt in the field to McNamara’s bio to those written by North Vietnamese. That conflict was the defining issue of my generation and I needed to more thoroughly understand it. I have always wondered how I would have reacted in combat and to a degree wish that I had gone. I have harbored some guilt that other boys just like me went off to war and did not return or were seriously injured physically and emotionally. There is a sense that somehow I did not do what I should have done to share the burden. I have always carried my share but in this instance I am still in doubt. There is no resolution to this conflict I will always carry with me but I do understand it to a much greater degree. I believe that we all carry a conflict of some type within ourselves it is how you deal with it that matters in the long run. I will carry mine until I die.

— Casey Matson

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