Composer Phil Kline saw lyrics in the engravings made on cigarette lighters owned by U.S. soldiers in Vietnam. Veteran William Crapser saw memories of a hell on earth. Jeff Lunden reports.
American soldiers serving in Vietnam often had their chrome Zippo lighters engraved with terse sayings, from the confidently patriotic to the darkly sarcastic. The engravings often reflected sentiments of young men confronting the grim realities of violence and death on a daily basis.
New York-based composer Phil Kline became interested in the engravings several years ago, inspired by a magazine article. The more inscriptions he read, the more he saw lyrics. Kline began to group the sayings by theme and eventually set them to music in Zippo Songs.'
Kline released Zippo Songs: Airs of War and Lunacy in January 2004.
William Crapser finds memories of a hell on earth in the engravings. He recalls purchasing his first Zippo in Vietnam at a PX for $1.25 -- engraved by a jeweler for fifty cents: "For those who fight for it, freedom has a flavor the protected will never know."
He recalls that his fellow soldiers put "anything and everything" on the shiny silver surfaces -- front and back. Crapser lost his on patrol 35 years ago. Retired and living in upstate New York, he continues to suffer the effects of post traumatic stress disorder.
Crapser is the author of the award-winning novel Remains: Stories of Vietnam. He contributed the essay below:
Returning From Vietnam
I had been trying to come home from Vietnam since 1969; more than eighteen years. Over the years it seemed I had been condemned to death in Vietnam, and that I was slowly dying with the nineteen-year-old marine I was when I fought there. Over the years the young marine I was kept a tight hold on me and lived in anguish inside me. He took tighter and tighter control of my life until, toward the end of my refusing him, of my guilt over him, of my refusal to reognize him, his full anger exploded. The doctors told me it was a flashback. But I saw only him.
Still refusing to accept his existence inside me, I took vast amounts of drugs to suppress him, subjected myself to being strapped down and injected with Thorazine. "This will keep him in check!" I thought. But he did not go away.
His anguished screams rose up inside and became mine. My mouth would open and the sound I made was not a grown man's.
The way I conducted my life -- living on the edges of society, looking and dressing like an angry nineteen year old, acting out my crisis like and adolescent -- only strengthened his grip. I became numb with my own anger, doubled with his anger, the two of us facing down each other inside me, resembling a father and son who don't like each other but are stuck together in their blood.
The first decision I made which led to my recovery was to recognize him as me. That, yes, I was the nineteen -year-old pointman lying flat on my face in terror and fear as the enemy rounds impacted around me. That, yes, I was the nineteen-year-old marine who had killed and, at times, killed without remorse. I realized I could not fight him anymore or deny him. I realized I would have to make peace with him and bring him home.
So I began to meditate on him, think about him-the "me" who was a nineteen-year-old in Vietnam-until I could see him very clearly in my mind. He looked sad and he was very tired. When I really focused on him, I too felt sad for what he had gone through and I realized how badly I wanted him out of the war. Then an idea dawned in me.
I decided to bring him home. I began by picturing the nineteen-year-old "me" stopping, then dropping his rucksack, his suspender straps and web-belt, his gas mask and K-bar knife. Then I watched him (in my mind) throw his rifle on top of the pile. Then I watched him take off his camouflage utilities and wipe the camoflage grease-paint off his face. When he was finished, I placed a men's clothing store in front of him ( I realized, too, I could really think anything I wanted) and had him go in and pick out some nice civilian clothes. I watched him dress in geans and a sports shirt and a light jacket (he also picked out a suit). As I watched him dress I could see some of the pain and exaustion lift from his face. When he was done, I told him he was going home, that he didn't have to fight anymore, that he was being discharged. He burst into laughter and tears and ran toward me, his arms wide as if to embrace me. And inside me we embraced. Then I put him on a plane and sent him to someone I knew would love and care for him, someone who would listen to his stories and calm him through his frights. Someone who would always be there for him.
I sent him home to me.
William Crapser served with the 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion, 3rd Marine Division in Vietnam.