A week before Thanksgiving in 1971, Clanton was rocked by the news that one of its sons had been killed in Vietnam. Pete Mooney, a nineteen-year-old staff sergeant, was captured in an ambush near Hue, in central Vietnam. A few hours later his body was found.
I didn't know the Mooneys, but Margaret certainly did. She called me with the news and said she needed a few days off. Her family had lived down the street from the Mooneys for many years. Her son and Pete had been close friends since childhood.
I spent some time in the archives and found the 1966 story of Marvin Lee Walker, a black kid who'd been the county's first death in Vietnam. That had been before Mr. Caudle cared about such things, and the Times coverage of the event was shamefully sparse. Nothing on the front page. A hundred-word story on page three with no photo. At the time, Clanton had no idea where Vietnam was.
So a young man who couldn't go to the better schools, probably couldn't vote, and more than likely was too afraid to drink from the public water fountain at the courthouse, had been killed in a country few people in his hometown could find on a map. And his death was the right and proper thing. Communists had to be fought wherever they might be found.
Margaret quietly passed along the details I needed for a story. Pete had graduated from Clanton High School in 1970. He had played varsity football and baseball, lettering in both for three years. He was an honor student who had planned to work for two years, save his money, then go to college. He was unlucky enough to have a high draft number, and in December 1970 he got his notice.
According to Margaret, and this was something I could not print, Pete had been very reluctant to report for basic training. He and his father had fought for weeks over the war. The son wanted to go to Canada and avoid the whole mess. The father was horrified that his son would be labeled a draft dodger. The family name would be ruined, etc. He called the kid a coward. Mr. Mooney had served in Korea and had zero patience for the antiwar movement. Mrs. Mooney tried the role of peacemaker, but in her heart, she too was reluctant to send her son off to such an unpopular war. Pete finally relented, and now he was coming home in a box.
The funeral was at the First Baptist Church, where the Mooneys had been active for many years. Pete had been baptized there at the age of eleven, and this was of great comfort to his family and friends. He was now with the Lord, though still much too young to be called home.
I sat with Margaret and her husband. It was my first and last funeral for a nineteen-year-old soldier. By concentrating on the casket, I could almost avoid the sobbing and, at times, wailing around me. His high school football coach gave a eulogy that drained every eye in the church, mine included.
I could barely see the back of Mr. Mooney, in the front row. What unspeakable grief that poor man was suffering.
After an hour, we escaped and made our way to the Clanton cemetery, where Pete was laid to rest with full military pomp and ceremony. When the lone bugler played "Taps," the gut-wrenching cry of Pete's mother made me shudder. She clung to the casket until they began to lower it. His father finally collapsed and was tended to by several deacons.
What a waste, I said over and over as I walked the streets alone, headed generally back to the office. That night, still alone, I cursed myself for being so silent, so cowardly. I was the editor of the newspaper, dammit! Whether I felt entitled to the position or not, I was the only one in town. If I felt strongly about an issue, then I certainly had the power and position to editorialize.
* * *
Pete Mooney was preceded in death by more than fifty thousand of his fellow countrymen, although the military did a rotten job of reporting an accurate count.
In 1969, President Nixon and his National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, made the decision that the war in Vietnam could not be won, or, rather, that the United States would no longer try and win it. They kept this to themselves. They did not stop the draft. Instead, they pursued the cynical strategy of appearing to be confident of a successful outcome.
From the time this decision was made until the end of the war in 1973, approximately eighteen thousand more men were killed, including Pete Mooney.
I ran my editorial on the front page, bottom half, under a large photo of Pete in his Army uniform. It read:
The death of Pete Mooney should make us ask the glaring question - What the hell are we doing in Vietnam? A gifted student, talented athlete, school leader, future community leader, one of our best and brightest, gunned down at the edge of a river we've never heard of in a county we care little about.
The official reason, one that goes back twenty years, is that we are there fighting Communism. If we see it spreading, then, in the words of ex-President Lyndon Johnson, we are to take "... all necessary measures to prevent farther aggression."
Korea, Vietnam. We now have troops in Laos and Cambodia, though President Nixon denies it. Where to next? Are we expected to send our sons anywhere and everywhere in the world to meddle in the civil wars of others?
Vietnam was divided into two countries when the French were defeated there in 1954. North Vietnam is a poor country run by a Communist named Ho Chi Minh. South Vietnam is a poor country that was run by a brutal dictator named Ngo Dinh Diem until he was murdered in a coup in 1963. Since then the county has been run by the military.
Vietnam has been in a state of war since 1946 when the French began their fateful attempt to keep out the Communists. Their failure was spectacular, so we rushed in to show how wars are supposed to be run. Our failure has been even grander than that of the French, and we're not finished yet.
How many more Pete Mooneys will die before our government decides to leave Vietnam to its own course?
And how many other places around the world will we send our troops to fight Communism?
What the hell are we doing in Vietnam? Right now we're burying young soldiers while the politicians who are running the war contemplate getting out.
Using bad language would be good for a few slaps on the wrist, but what did I care? Strong language was needed to give light to the blind patriots of Ford County. Before the flood of calls and letters, though, I made a friend.
When I returned from Thursday lunch with Miss Callie (lamb stew indoors by the fire), Bubba Crockett was waiting in my office. He wore jeans, boots, a flannel shirt, long hair, and after he introduced himself he thanked me for the editorial. He had some things he wanted to get off his chest, and since I was as stuffed as a Christmas turkey, I placed my feet on my desk and listened for a long time.
He'd grown up in Clanton, finished school here in 1966. His father owned the nursery two miles south of town; they were landscapers. He got his draft notice in 1967 and gave no thought to doing anything other than racing off to fight Communists. His unit landed in the south, just in time for the Tet Offensive. Two days on the ground, and he had lost three of his closest friends.
The horror of fighting could not accurately be described, though Bubba was descriptive enough for me. Men burning, screaming for help, tripping over body parts, dragging bodies off the battlefield, hours with no sleep, no food, running out of ammo, seeing the enemy crawl toward you at night. His battalion lost a hundred men in the first five days. "After a week I knew I was going to die," he said with wet eyes. "At that point, I became a pretty good soldier. You gotta reach that point to survive."
He was wounded twice, slight wounds that were treatable in field hospitals. Nothing that would get him home. He talked of the frustration of fighting a war that the government would not allow them to win. "We were better soldiers," he said. "And our equipment was vastly superior. Our commanders were superb, but the fools in Washington wouldn't let them fight a war."
Bubba knew the Mooney family and had begged Pete not to go. He had watched the burial service from a distance, and he cursed everybody he could see and many he could not.
"These idiots around here still support the war, can you believe that?" he said. "More than fifty thousand dead and now we're pulling out, and these people will argue with you on the streets of Clanton that it was a great cause."
"They don't argue with you," I said.
"They do not. I've punched a couple of them. You play poker?"
I did not, but I'd heard many colorful stories about various poker games around town. Quickly, I thought this might be interesting. "A little," I said, figuring I could either find a rule book or get Baggy to teach me.
"We play on Thursday nights, in a shed at the nursery. Several guys who fought over there. You might enjoy it."
"Yeah, around eight. It's a small game, some beer, some pot, some war stories. My buddies want to meet you."
"I'll be there," I said, wondering where I could find Baggy.
* * *
Four letters were slid under the door that afternoon, all four scathing in their criticism of me and my criticism of the war. Mr. E. L. Green, a veteran of two wars, and a longtime subscriber to the Times, though that might soon change, said, among other things:
If we don't stop Communism it will spread to every corner of the world. One day it will be at our doorstep, and our children and grandchildren will ask us why we didn't have the courage to stop it before it spread.
Mr. Herbert Gillenwater's brother was killed in the Korean conflict. He wrote:
His death was a tragedy I still struggle with each day. But he was a soldier, a hero, a proud American, and his death helped stop the North Koreans and their allies, the Red Chinese and the Russians. When we are too afraid to fight, then we will ourselves be conquered.
Mr. Felix Toliver from down in Shady Grove suggested that perhaps I'd spent too much time up North where folks were notoriously gun-shy. He said the military had always been dominated by brave young men from the South, and if I didn't believe it then I should do some more research. There were a disproportionate number of Southern casualties in Korea and Vietnam. He concluded, rather eloquently:
Our freedom was bought at the terrible price of the lives of countless brave soldiers. But what if we had been too afraid to fight? Hitler and the Japanese would still be in power. Much of the civilized world would be in ruins. We would be isolated and eventually destroyed.
I planned to run every single letter to the editor, but I hoped there might be one or two in support of my editorial. The criticism didn't bother me at all. I felt strongly that I was right. And I was developing a rather thick skin, a fine asset for an editor.
* * *
After Baggy's quick tutelage, I lost $100 playing poker with Bubba and the boys. They invited me back.
There were five of us around the table, all in our mid-twenties. Three had served in Vietnam - Bubba, Darrell Radke, whose family owned the propane company, and Cedric Young, a black guy with a severe leg injury. The fifth player was Bubba's older brother David, who had been rejected by the draft because of his eyesight, and who, I think, was there just for the marijuana.
We talked a lot about drugs. None of the three veterans had seen or heard of pot or anything else prior to joining the Army. They laughed at the idea of drugs on the streets of Clanton in the 1960s. In Vietnam, drug use was rampant. Pot was smoked when they were bored and homesick, and it was smoked to calm their nerves in battle. The field hospitals loaded up the injured with the strongest painkillers available, and Cedric got hooked on morphine two weeks after being wounded.
At their urging, I told a few drug stories from college, but I was an amateur among professionals. I don't think they were exaggerating. No wonder we lost the war - everybody was stoned.
They expressed great admiration for my editorial and great bitterness for having been sent over there. Each of the three had been scarred in some way; Cedric's was obvious. Bubba's and Darrel's was more of a smoldering anger, a barely contained rage and desire to lash out, but at whom?
Late in the game, they began swapping stories of gruesome battlefield scenes. I had heard that many soldiers refused to talk about their war experiences. Those three didn't mind at all. It was therapeutic.
They played poker almost every Thursday night, and I was always welcome. When I left them at midnight, they were still drinking, still smoking pot, still talking about Vietnam. I'd had enough of the war for one day.