The Heads, With Gratitude - John Samuel Tieman

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Axar.az presents an article "The Heads, With Gratitude" by John Samuel Tieman.

It's late at night when I remember The Heads most clearly. In Vietnam, in 1970, The Heads gathered every night in our bunker, where we got high. Bong song bombers, Cambodian Red, Park Lanes, Montagnard bowls from which we'd give “shotguns”. The Heads -- CW, Ollie, Chuck, Dick, Sandy, Poncho, Arnie, Thompson, Steve, Mike. Others. These are the guys who saved my life, because these are the guys who saved my soul.

Before I write another word, this disclaimer. I'm not promoting drugs. I've been clean and sober for 34 years. This isn't an essay about drugs. It's an essay about love.

When you see a war movie, some guy invariably saves another guy's life. He pulls his buddy from a burning tank, a flaming airplane, stuff like that. But here's what I learned in Vietnam. There's more to surviving a war than just living. There's also saving your soul.

You might think all my memories of The Nam are all Red Alerts and truck convoys and the Cambodian Invasion and such. And sometimes that's true. Not tonight. Tonight, late at night in my study, when I look around my modest home, my beloved wife asleep in the next room, I say a prayer of such gratitude. Gratitude because I remember the night Ollie saved my soul. I'm alone in the bunker. Ollie, a burly Black guy from Louisiana, comes into the bunker, lights a “j”, pops a tape into the cassette, and says “You gotta hear this, man.” He plays “Our House” by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. And Ollie smiled a smile, and Ollie dreamed a dream. And for just a second, with one of the “Heads”, I too dreamed a dream of gentleness and love. There. In a bunker. In a jungle 10,000 miles from here. In the middle of a war. Gentleness and love.

A bit of background. I was stationed at the 4th Infantry Division’s base camp, Camp Radcliff, at An Khe in the Central Highlands. I was in the Division Band. Almost every night, there were rocket and sapper attacks. Some nights, Charlie would lob a rocket in just to keep us awake. One night, sappers blew up 21 helicopters. I did nothing heroic or even noteworthy. Nonetheless, most of us suffered from varying levels of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. One buddy qualified for 100% disability.

But about The Heads. After hours, we had our own bunker in which, well, let's just say the pot smoking was prodigious. We did our duty. Some of us even got medals. But when the off hours came, party tonight for tomorrow we die. We were hippie soldiers. My war name was “Buddha”. Plenty of weed and plenty of cool sounds. Jimi. Janis. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Chicago. Joe Cocker. Our hospitality was legendary. Often, as the sun set, Heads from nearby units joined us. I remember medics, mechanics, a physician, clerks, drivers, and lots of grunts.

I'd never met folks like “The Heads”. I grew up in St. Louis.. My life was narrow. I joined the army in 1969. In the States, the band was a separate unit comprised solely of musicians. A master's degree was not uncommon. In 1970, in Vietnam, I was part of a company that included drivers, mechanics, grunts, typists. I was good friends with an auto worker from Ohio, a Chicano from San Antonio, a Black guy from Louisiana, a hippie from Los Angeles, a piano player from Detroit.. Our armorer, Mike, was from Chicago. We were young. Chuck, a jazz trumpeter from Dallas, Chuck we called “Pop”. He was 24. I was 20.

These guys saved my soul. What did they save my soul from? Despair. I knew two guys, from a nearby company, who committed suicide. They had a suicide pact. Another guy went berserk and shot dead four of his buddies before they shot him dead. I watched while they killed him. Why did I not despair? Because The Heads saved my soul. Because The Heads taught me this simple lesson. There is more to surviving than just living. From The Heads and other war buddies, I learned that kindness, compassion, gentleness and simple goodness, these are always of paramount importance. Indeed, compassion is never more important than when cruelty seems to rule; gentleness is never more important than when strength seems the only value.

Today, I am 74 years old. I've kept up with a few of The Heads. Most have faded as the mist fades with the dawn. Of course, kindness wasn't limited to The Heads. Don wasn't a Head, and he's one of the most compassionate human beings I've ever met. But now and again, often late at night, I remember. Like tonight, how I remember Ollie and “Our House”. I feel nothing but gratitude for Ollie. Because once, in 1970, he saved my soul. And he saved it not with a bullet or a Claymore mine, but with a song about love and home.

2024.04.29 / 10:00
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