When I was driving to Carrabelle last weekend to participate in the Camp Gordon Johnston Museum Reunion, I was listening to “The Professor and the Madman,” a book written by Simon Winchester about the development of the Oxford English Dictionary. At one point the book was discussing the laughingly erratic progress of the project and Winchester used the term “Marching Blindly Through Molasses.” The term perfectly defines how I feel as I stand on the brink of the book I dream of writing.
I want to write about Camp Gordon Johnston, where a quarter of a million men prepared for amphibious combat between 1942 and April 1946. Having been in Tallahassee since 1982 (with the exception of the three years in New York), I have driven through Carrabelle more times than I can count. It was always on the way to somewhere else (specifically, the beach). This is typical of what I’d see out of the window:
I got interested in Camp Gordon Johnston (CGJ) when my friends, Tony and Linda Minichiello, became involved in establishing a World War II museum in Carrabelle. When Tony first started describing CGJ and the museum to me, I thought “oh that’s kinda nice,” but over a series of years I got roped in conversation by conversation and finally made it to visit. On a Saturday, I managed to wrangle my son and a friend of his into the car for the trip. Even though I arrived ten minutes before closing time, Tony gave us the deluxe tour, including the building where the museum stores its automobiles, such as this:
I took the time off of work this year and spent all of Friday and all of Saturday participating in the reunion activities. I sort of envisioned sitting down with the CGJ veterans who were there, picking their brains for stories and gathering detailed information for my eventual book. Which is why I am as surprised as anyone else that I spent most of the weekend thinking about Vietnam. (Although the annual reunion is centered upon the WWII veterans, it has expanded to be a gathering point for veterans from any branch of the armed forces, from any conflict.)
Two couples took me “under wing,” and both of the men were Vietnam Veterans. Rather rapidly as the weekend began, I deduced that my objective for the future book would be to meet everyone and gain some credibility among the veterans. There was no time or opportunity for in-depth “interviews” and the veterans who had been at Camp Gordon Johnson wanted to visit with each other, for the most part.
There were themes that ran through the conversations I had this weekend that connected back to Matterhorn, the audiobook I listened to several weeks ago. Although the book is technically “fiction,” Karl Marlantes has stated that it is based on his experiences in Vietnam. He said when he first arrived back in the US after serving, he “dumped” everything out on paper. It wasn’t until 30 years or so had passed that he could mold his “brain dump” from 30 years ago into the somewhat more objective book that was published. A couple of observations:
There is a point in Matterhorn where Marlantes’s characters talk about the toxic mist that is coming at them from a plane above. The troops are supposed to have moved on to a different location prior to the misting, but an administrative decision made in some office far away changes the plan. Their commanding officer says, “Oh, don’t worry about that. It’s just a defoliant. It won’t hurt anything but plants. It is called Agent Orange.”
The Camp Gordon Johnston veterans tell a story of a boatload of soldiers who were lost when their amphibious landing craft let down its ramp in the dead of a moonless night, thinking it was at Dog Island. The craft had missed the mark and was still in open water. The soldiers, weighed down with gear, all drowned. Did some administrative decision in some office far away move the mission to a night that did not have the benefit of the moonlight?
I am at 700+ words and there is so much more to tell. For now, let’s just say I “got it” every time Lynn, the wife of Jerry, one of the Vietnam veterans present, told everyone in uniform: