Well, it’s been over 50 years since we hung around together, Doug. We had great plans for life after high school, didn’t we? You were going to search for the holy grail of physics, the unified field theory, and I was going to design elegant electronic devices. I remember that you kidded me that I would end up building better refrigerators. But I think that if anyone was likely to have found that theory, it would have been you.

I’d spent the summer before our sophomore year working as a library page at MIT and was all afire to go there. I talked with you so much about it, I think I put the notion in your head, too. Anyway, when MIT rejected me and took you, I gave you the MIT pennant I’d had up over my bed and wished you well. It was only fair: I was smart, but you were brilliant.

We drifted out of touch when I went off to New Orleans and you to Cambridge. I started down a path that led to a hitch in the Air Force in Germany, and you stayed the course at MIT. When I got your letter saying that your Navy Reserve Seabee unit had been activated and sent to Vietnam, I scratched my head and wondered what that had to do with the unified field theory, but I was preoccupied with getting ready to try civilian life again.

Then in September 1967 I got the letter from my mother with the newspaper clipping . “Sailor killed in Vietnam.” It seems you were in your bunk when that artillery round dropped on your tent . I’d like to think that you were like the soldier the World War I poet Wilfred Owen described:

“There, in the happy no-time of his sleeping, Death took him by the heart.”

I’d also like to think that in that “happy no-time” you found your own unified field theory.

With a Perspective in memory of Doulgas Carroll Coker, I’m Winston Tharp.

Winston Tharp is a retired broadcast engineer who narrates audio books from his East Bay home.

When I came home from Vietnam I was done with Vietnam, but Vietnam was not done with me.

I had been an officer on a Navy ship that went up the rivers in I Corps, in charge of 35 men and responsible for keeping the ship moving. We didn’t lose any men and the ship was not blown up, like some others.

There was little time to think over there, which made it easier. At some point I realized, as did many, that the war was not going well, and the generals weren’t telling Washington the truth.

Coming home was harder than being over there. While attending an anti-war rally in San Francisco, others found out I had been in the Navy in Vietnam. They spat in my face and called me a war criminal. So I stopped talking about Vietnam to anyone, but that doesn’t work. Although functioning on the outside, I slipped into alcoholism and drug addiction, with severe anger management issues.

Twelve years later, more dead than alive, I re-started my life and stopped taking drugs and alcohol. That is when the Vietnam dreams started. It was always the same dream, with different outcomes. I am harnessed to my ship like an ox, connected by a long tow line, pulling my ship through the swamps to avoid being blown up. All my men are up on the bow cheering me on. Sometimes I would succeed. The ship would burst through the jungle and suddenly it was a float in my hometown’s Memorial Day Parade. All the townspeople lined the street waving flags giving us the welcome home we never got in real life. Other times, the enemy overtook us and I knew we were all going to die.

These dreams went on for five years. I don’t have them anymore.

There is no real way to talk about war after you are in it. As my friend Ord Elliott, who served in the worst of it, says: “When someone asks me about the Vietnam War, I feel the silence envelope me. The silence replaces something lost, that didn’t have to be lost, but was lost, that’s been replaced by the silence. The silence bears witness.”

That’s right. The silence and the dreams.

With a Perspective, I’m Dennis Holahan

Dennis Holahan is an attorney at a major law firm in San Francisco.

37 years ago, I arrived in America, an 8-year-old Vietnamese refugee. We landed in Seattle where I saw snow for the first time. Everything was clean, white and light-filled. I thought we were in heaven. The first American I met was a little girl with blond curls and blue eyes. She looked exactly like a cherub. I was convinced we were in heaven.

My family’s journey to America is not so different from that of the Middle Eastern refugees today. My father, a member of the South Vietnam regime, was imprisoned for 4 years after the war. As a child, I was reminded daily that he was a traitor, that our family did not belong. Our persecution was ceaseless. There was but one option — escape.

We planned an 8-day voyage to the Philippines. We had two days of good weather. The rest are now a blur of the awful smells of human waste, the constant churning of my stomach, vomiting until I thought I would die. I remember the black walls of water that threatened to engulf our small wooden boat. I remember hunger and thirst so great they twisted like ropes around all my organs. During that time, 120 ships passed us by. None stopped.

On the 10th morning, the skies cleared. We had no food or water. Fuel was dangerously low. Landfall seemed impossible. Miraculously, a ship flying the U.S. flag approached. We were rescued.

Since that day, the image of the giant behemoth flying the American flag has become synonymous with life and freedom. I dedicated most of my adult life searching for the captain and crew who saved us. Their actions made me believe in American generosity and the conscience of the human spirit.

I was a child of war. I am also the beneficiary of extraordinary compassion. Having both perspectives, I know that compassion heals war wounds. It is the seed that cultivates a future worthy of believing in.

With a Perspective and gratitude, I’m Lauren Vuong.

Lauren Vuong is an attorney in San Francisco. This November, she and her family will travel to New York to meet for the first time the surviving captain and crew who rescued them.

Forty five years ago I was at the Oakland Army base for my pre-induction physical. When asked if I had any conditions that might interfere with military service, I said that my family doctor had declined to recommend a deferment for a knee injury. The Army doctor looked at me and asked, “What gives him the right to play God with your life?”

I passed my physical and was classified 1A. But then something happened that did feel like divine intervention. The draft was abolished. I was never called up.

The words “baby boomer” are so familiar that it is easy to forget the circumstances behind the label. To be a Boomer is to be born in the shadow of war. Military service was a constant in the background of our lives. It seemed like everybody’s father had served. I remember the dark green duffel bag my Little League coach used to haul our gear and the Navy uniform in my dad’s closet.

But Vietnam meant that military service moved from the background to looming over us. The draft was like a harvesting machine that scooped up young men and turned them into soldiers. The prospect of fighting a war meant you had to make a choice. Many volunteered, some resisted or evaded. Others like myself were more ambivalent and fatalistic. I didn’t support the war but my efforts to avoid service were half-hearted. I was willing to go only because I didn’t think it right to have somebody else go in my place.

The draft both caused and exposed divisions in our society. Our nation feels polarized today, but there are few differences sharper than the one between those who feel a duty to serve and those who reject that call. Fathers for whom the draft and service had been a common and unifying experience saw their sons resist the same summons. Those who put on the uniform were vilified, as were those who fled the country. Some bid their sons farewell never to see them again, while other people’s children went about their lives.

And to a large degree, these are wounds that have never healed.

With a Perspective, I’m Paul Staley.

Paul Staley lives in San Francisco.

Shortly before May 4, 1970, my brother and I went for a walk in Kent, Ohio. It was my freshman year at Kent State and my brother had re-enrolled after serving in the Army. It was a balmy summer evening when a young guardsman armed with an M-16 stopped us and marched us back home at gunpoint. Apparently, we were out after the newly instated curfew.

My brother had completed a tour of duty in Vietnam as an infantry lieutenant doing nighttime missions behind enemy lines. From his letters and photos home, I knew it was dirty work. He could’ve taken the rifle from that guardsmen before the kid knew what hit him, but my brother just walked peacefully back to our apartment. Marc had returned home one of the few anti-war officers of the time. He converted me into an activist as well, and at a festival in our hometown where we were distributing anti-war leaflets, a man overturned a table into our faces.

On that infamous Monday in Kent, I had just left the quad where a protest was scheduled. Very few students were assembled so I went home to get a roommate. On the way back we heard the mayhem. Twenty nine National Guardsmen fired 67 rounds in 13 seconds – killing four students and wounding nine.

What strikes me most now, some 47 years later, is the tragic irony of my brother surviving the insanity of Vietnam only to come home to being marched back into our apartment by that guardsmen and the subsequent murder of our fellow students a few days later. The dissonance that he experienced during this homespun violence, in the face of brutality he left behind in Vietnam, is incomprehensible.

To this day, I love him for the bravery he’s shown grappling with PTSD while maintaining his goodness and decency. While we rarely talk about any of this, I know it has affected him profoundly and we both agonize that the war’s lessons seem lost on America.

With a Perspective, I’m Paul Jones.

In “It’s a Wonderful Life” George Bailey, having seen what his world would have been like if he had never been born, gets a second chance at life.  He runs through the streets of Bedford Falls, shouting in exultation.  Leaning on a frosty window, he wishes the evil Mr. Potter a Merry Christmas.  And when he enters his house, he welcomes with open arms the bank examiner there to arrest him. He exclaims, “Look at this wonderful old drafty house!” He sprints upstairs looking for his wife, and on the way up, the banister knob comes off in his hand, and he kisses it, before returning it to its place.

My home is my touchstone, the collection of everything my wife and I care most about in the world. In the hallway: a picture of my mother, like a young Joan Baez, cradling my brother in a rebozo, my sister in a stroller gazing out across her new world, and me, wearing a sweater two sizes two small, leaning against the textured concrete of the Berkeley Art Museum. Our bedroom wall has that crack resembling the coastline of California. And when you step just right where the carpet meets the tile floor, there’s a squeak that sounds just like a cat meowing.

It’s these imperfections that make a house a home. George Bailey understands this at the end of the movie. He has nothing but gratitude for everything in his life, and the things that once bothered him, he now treasures.

Like George Bailey, I have learned real beauty is found in worn and imperfect things: the asymmetrical redwood tree with the branch reaching up awkwardly like a giant’s hand, the old cast iron pan seasoned so well it turns an ordinary steak into something sublime, the way her voice warbles when she tries to extend the high note in the song she loves most.

As Yogi Berra said, “If the world was perfect, it wouldn’t be.”

With a Perspective, I’m Pete Gavin.

Pete Gavin is an 8th grade English teacher at Kent Middle School in Kentfield.

Criticizing people who show up wrapped in homemade armor and equipped with improvised weapons to “defend” you from alt-right rallies will fill your mailbox with outraged messages about how ungrateful you are. They’re defending us, we’re told, from racism, from sexism, from exposure to right-wing views the expression of which will surely make us wither and die. We should be thanking them, we’re told, for their bravery. Otherwise a long parade of conservatives, or perhaps right-wing provocateurs, will come to our university town and…speak.

I want to reassure all these self-appointed civic defenders dressed up like the Unibomber that we’re good. We got this. We don’t need defending from provocative speech, or racist speech, or sexist speech. We’ve heard it all our lives. Maybe there’s a mean-spirited group out there hoping to bankrupt our decidedly liberal town, hoping we “clutch our pearls” and have a riot every time we hear a different point of view. But most of us are not that person. Most of us have heard racist, sexist speech all our lives and know how to handle it.

First: let people speak. Cultivating the patience it requires to allow even an offensive perspective will be a better shield than any plastic trash can lid, and more useful than anything you can re-purpose from Home Depot. If you don’t want to hear it, or don’t know how to respond, you can always walk away, which is the first rule of self defense.

Most of us aren’t hearing anything we haven’t heard or read before. We’re not only up to hearing it, we’re pretty good at responding. We’re a university town where even odious ideas find an occasional harbor. And that’s okay. It may seem old-fashioned, but the First Amendment still has a lot of fans.

With a Perspective, this is Carol Denney.

Carol Denney is a Berkeley activist and musician.

When my daughter and a couple of her friends had to be in Berkeley for a three-day volleyball camp, I volunteered to drive. A self-employed writer, my office is portable. I can work anywhere, all the time.

On Day One, I spent the day holed up in the library working.

By Day Two, proximity to the non-routine proved overwhelming. Seizing a wild hair of an idea, I decided to take a field trip to the Lawrence Hall of Science. Rather than drive, I would walk.

For 1.8 mostly vertical miles, I wound my way up Centennial Drive to Grizzly Peak. On the way, I passed Memorial Stadium, which on that clear, summer day, emptied of its patrons, offered a breathtaking study in both classical revival architecture and seismic engineering. The stadium sits directly on the Hayward Fault, some 410 spectacular feet above sea level.

Next stop was the Botanical Gardens for a brief but head-spinning introduction to arguably one of the largest collections of plants anywhere in the world.

The higher I went, the broader my vista. By the time I reached the crest, I had the entire Bay Area spread out before me like a visual picnic lunch.

At the science center, I learned about a praying mantis able to mimic a white orchid and why so may scientists are crazy about cephalopods, a phylum of mollusks considered a model organism for the study of genetics. In a planetarium, I was reminded of the phases of the moon, the bravery of Galileo and the brilliance of a curious child.

Educators speak all the time about the importance of field trips for school-age children, how they enrich as well as refresh a young mind in a way classroom learning cannot. What about an older brain? When I went back to my computer on Day Three, my brain definitely seemed spryer. Okay, maybe not so spry as the seven year-olds who so impressed me in the planetarium.

Then again, they probably go on more field trips than I do.

With a Perspective, Holly Hubbard Preston.

Holly Hubbard Preston writes essays and fiction from her base in St. Helena.

I recently came across a bit of a mystery on an archaeological site in Joshua Tree National Park. We were looking at a scatter of Native American artifacts, most of them flakes of the brilliant white local quartz, and the gray, dense volcanic andesite, the remains of tool making and sharpening. We saw fragments of charred food bone, probably mountain sheep, the bone’s organic luster burnt away. As we made our way into the granite boulders on the edge of the site, we encountered something I didn’t expect.

On a trail through the rocks, we found a few pieces of burnt bone. Then a few more, and a few more. As we searched, I found a piece of bone on top of a boulder. I stopped, pondering how this bone found its way there. Then I found a piece of bone in the branches of a bush. These bone fragments were recently put here, and weren’t part of the site at all.

We retraced the path. Scatter of bone. Two steps. Scatter of bone, leading out of the granite island onto the desert floor. This wasn’t dinner bone. Someone had scattered the ashes of a cremation. Park staff told us that they had found a cremation nearby not long ago, the metal tag from the crematorium still with the bone. A few days later, we found another, the fragment of burnt skull clearly human.

It is, of course, illegal to leave cremations on national park lands, but people do. Scattering our loved ones’ ashes is one of the very few times most of us handle human remains. There’s no more spontaneous or personal ritual we have than this. We make it up, placing the ashes where it seems right at the moment, saying what comes to mind, what we’ve always wanted to say, what we wish we had said when our loved one was alive, what can only be said now that they are gone.

With a Perspective, this is Mike Newland.

Mike Newland is director of cultural resources for an environmental science and planning firm in Petaluma.

Many years ago, when voice lessons was high on my list of things I never considered doing, a friend started raving to me about her voice teacher and told me I had to meet her. I told her my sole interest in singing was with a bar of soap in my hand.

“What’s so special about her?” I asked.

“Come and see,” she insisted. This is a line that also appears in the New Testament.

Unable to shake her off, I gave in. The teacher was Madi Bacon, a woman in her 90s, a founder of the San Francisco Boys’ Choir. After spending about half an hour with her, talking about nothing much, and singing less, I said to myself, “It doesn’t matter what she teaches. What I can learn from just being with her transcends any particular subject.” I asked Madi for voice lessons, and she agreed. Anyone I would call “lucky” has had a similar experience.

I was thinking about this during a break in a play rehearsal, while chatting with someone 50 years my junior. Where would I even begin if faced with growing up now, in a world as unrecognizable to me as the one in which I evolved would be to her? But the way in which she talked about one her teachers forged a link between our generations unrelated to the material progress that separated us. What we really learn, we learn from people. And not so much because of what they know as who they are. Of course, this idea isn’t new. People hung around Socrates who, according to himself, knew nothing.

One of my favorite hasidic tales tells of a young hasid who visited a revered teacher two weeks’ walk away. When he returned, his fellows crowded around him, eager to hear some words of wisdom from the master’s mouth. To which the traveler replied, “I didn’t go to him for his words. I wanted to see how he tied up his shoes.”

Madi Bacon came to my birthday party that year. While descending 60 steps, she tripped and tumbled to the bottom. She picked herself up and started to dance.

With a Perspective, I’m Richard Friedlander.

Richard Friedlander is an actor, mediator and author. He lives in the East Bay.

The technology industry has long struggled to create inclusive corporate cultures.

Tech leaders would have us believe they are making great strides, but they aren’t. For example, Google’s latest diversity report shows just 20% of the technology organization is female. One of the main reasons companies struggle so much to address diversity is due to a major misunderstanding: People think the best way to address unconscious bias is to train it away.

And yet, decades of research shows it is virtually impossible to use
training to remove the unconscious bias permeating society. Silicon
Valley claims to be data driven. But these companies ignore the data that shows that even though they’ve deployed unconscious bias training, their diversity numbers have barely budged.

There is good news. Research has shown companies can impact hiring decisions in a way that makes for truly fair outcomes: change the process. Use identity-blind resume reviews. Conduct structured interviews in a way that only allows interviewers to score candidates on the skills and values that are relevant to a job and not on things like how much they ‘like’ someone.

What’s critical is to interact with hiring teams at the moment they make a decision, like when they are reviewing a resume or scoring a candidate’s interview responses.

This sounds hard. Fortunately, technology can do this for us. It can
remove identifying information from resumes. It can enforce scoring
guidelines for interviews that focus the hiring decisions only on what’s relevant.

It’s time companies stop relying on unconscious bias training and start doing things that have been proven to be successful – change the hiring process – and use technology to make it scalable.

Imagine the results a company can achieve when it hires the very best person for the job regardless of gender or race.

That’s not just good for business. That’s good for everyone.

With a Perspective, I’m Laura Mather.

Laura Mather is a Silicon Valley-based entrepreneur dedicated to removing unconscious bias from the hiring process.

I’m almost 80 and have spent my entire working life in the food business. But you don’t need to be a food expert to know it takes more than throwing seeds into a field to yield a bountiful crop. You have to tend the land, and build for the future.

That’s how ideas are – they’re seeds – and you need to nourish them.
When I was 56 my first wife passed away and I decided this was my opportunity to give back, and it was the most rewarding decision I ever made. I ended up at my local food bank…this was back when they just gave out canned and boxed food. But I had a seedling of an idea to ask farmers to donate their excess food. So I drove up and down the Central Valley and throughout California talking to growers. I got a lot of no’s…but no’s were part of the job. So I kept at it.

One day, we got a call from a grower who had a truckload of stone fruit he wanted to give away. It was just going to end up in the dump, so I figured out how to get it into the hands of hungry families and seniors.

Little by little, it grew into a big program. Today, 17 years later, more than 180 million pounds of produce is distributed each year. That produce goes to 600,000 Californians, nourishing them and their families.

Some folks say I was innovative. I say it was just a small kernel of an idea that luckily took off.

Everyone has lots of small ideas every day, and anyone can make a difference in the world. When someone says no – and there are going to be a lot of no’s – you keep on plugging away.

That’s what innovation is all about.

With a Perspective, I’m Gary Maxworthy.

In 24 years, Gary Maxworthy has gone from volunteer to board member of the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank. His Farm to Family program serves nearly every food bank in California.

It’s September, and for teachers, that means back-to-school. Classrooms are filled with students sporting new clothes, just-bought shoes, fresh unused backpacks. And every September, amid the new group of students, I think of a student I met many Septembers ago.

Gab was from a country in Africa. An orphan, he’d been adopted by a couple in San Francisco. And, so Gab began his American education. But, although he could barely read or write, let alone speak English, he did come to my classroom with an education of sorts from a difficult school.

Because I was shocked when his parents told me Gab had been a boy soldier. In a story familiar in parts of the world ripped apart by civil war, he was taken prisoner, given a weapon and forced to join a rebel militia. Somehow he survived, and somehow he had also been given a new life in the United States.

Gab didn’t talk about his past, and seemed a happy kid. With a sparkling white smile, he was the fastest runner in the school, beating every other student in races. But one day I asked him about his trip from Africa to America, and his smile disappeared. He told me he came with all the worldly possessions he owned; one ragged t-shirt and the shorts he was wearing. He didn’t even have shoes. And, listening, I glanced around at the fashionable footwear I saw on other students, and thought about this random lottery of life, how the luck of our birth – where and when and to whom – determines our destiny.

But mostly, I was amazed at the resilience of the human spirit, how a kid like Gab can make it through a nightmare and back, returning to normal life in this new country where his problems were not escaping a burning village or rummaging through trash for food, but finishing homework. I thought about students whose biggest problem was lacking the coolest pair of sneakers, in a world where some kids have been handed a gun, but never even owned a pair of shoes.

UNICEF – The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund — estimates there are thousands of forced child soldiers, some as young as eight, in about 25 countries. I never thought I would meet one. But every September, I remember Gab and how he showed me that back-to-school is so much more than a new backpack – for some, it’s a brand new life.

With a Perspective, I’m Richard Swerdlow.

Richard Swerdlow teaches in the San Francisco Unified School District.

If you’re like me, that astonishing August eclipse already feels a long time ago. But wasn’t that dimming of the morning light one of the bright spots of summer? For over an hour, I joined folks young and old on a plaza to share dark glasses and peer through telescopes, to marvel at the crescent shape projected through a spotting scope onto white card stock, and also a pair of moonshadow googly eyes through binoculars. There were sunspots to be seen and, through a telescope with a hydrogen filter, the arcs of solar flares along the curve of the sun. I went old school: cereal box topped with aluminum foil. A few people asked to see: Does it work?

It was a time of delight and community and wonder, to speak of alignments and cycles, and to marvel at the fact: We are alive to see this!

Then people peeled off to go back to work or class or the morning’s errands. I sat in the gardens next to the Mission Church on our campus to do some editing. The noon bells rang for Mass, and that reminded me of how the first time a mission bell rang here more than two centuries ago it forever changed the way time was ordered in this place.

Then I went to get a couple watch batteries changed. Something I’d been putting off for weeks; I never seemed to have time for it. Inside the dusty little clock shop was a solitary bearded man who asked of my trusty Seiko with the brown leather band: Has that been dead long? Apparently the battery in it had started to leak.

On the wall were a few cuckoo clocks and a joke about a newlywed husband who comes home drunk. But that’s another story. As for the watch, it has a face that absorbs sunlight and makes the numerals glow in the dark. It must be 25 years old now.

The next time we see an eclipse coast-to-coast will be the year 2045. I hope I’m alive to see it. That will be the 100th anniversary of the end of World War II, when millions died in order to defeat the Nazi scourge-and the war only ended after atomic weapons were used on human beings.

There are some cycles we want to break.

With a Perspective, I’m Steven Saum.

Steven Saum is editor of Santa Clara Magazine.

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor

KQED Public Media for Northern CA