Jeffrey MacDonald's thoughts re: Fort Bragg and Fayetteville, North Carolina
(Spelling, punctuation and grammar preserved)
You asked me if I ever think of Fayetteville. If you had been to Hell - and came back - would you ever dream of that searing heat? Yes, I think of that city - it has been there, a weight, for 24 years now. I speak to friends who still live there, and I always wonder "if they sound so normal, how can they stay in Fayetteville?" John Irving wrote about thoughts similar to mine in a way - he called them "the undertoad", an unseen force, a malignancy, that sucks you under, a force that is not understood. Let me try to tell you about Fayetteville, North Carolina, back then, before the earth tilted for me.
If you fly into the city, as I did upon my first arrival in the summer of 1969, you can rent a car and proceed quickly through the flat and undistinguished city itself, and then you can drive eight miles in a northwesterly direction along Bragg Boulevard (NC 24) to Ft. Bragg. It will be your first glimpse of the essence of the city, eight miles of beer bars, strip joints, gun shops, pawn shops, and used-car dealers. Such strips mark every military town, lending them a slightly disreputable air, a feeling of impermanence, of litter, of cheapness.
My destination in 1969 was not Fayetteville itself, but Ft. Bragg. The city only registered in my mind as an unkempt presence, sort of like a neighbor's run-down home in need of repairs. Ft. Bragg, on the other hand - that vast and meticulously maintained Army base - unguarded, unfenced, and marked only by neat signs - is home to the XVIII Airborne Corps, the 82nd Airborne Division, Pope Air Force Base and the 23rd Wing Flying Tigers, and the U. S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center (Green Berets). Or, to put it another way, Ft. Bragg houses - and controls - several of the best, proudest, most dangerous, and elite fighting units ever assembled at one time and place.
Testosterone is the fuel that aggressive fighting units live on - and it hangs heavy in all military towns. None, however, have more of it then the city that is host to the U. S. Army Airborne and their guerrilla fighters, the Green Berets. It is of no small significance that the Berets came into prominence under the patron sainthood of that icon of testosterone, John F. Kennedy, or that found on the sandy grounds of the Smoke Bomb Hill area of the Special Warfare Center is a large, handsome, bronze statue of a Green Beret fighting man, donated by John Wayne himself. My destination in 1969 was this JFK Center for Special Warfare.
It is still possible, in my mind, to separate Fort Bragg from Fayetteville. Yet, over time, the distinctions blur. The two are so intertwined in life - and in death - that thoughts of the two sometimes merge. And, even now, I still think of Ft. Bragg as the Good Twin. Fayetteville is different. I see Fayetteville as John Irving's undertoad. I've met people, by the way, who would reverse my titles - claiming that it is Ft. Bragg that brings evil to the match, and not vice versa. But I've been there, and came back, and I saw the essence of each of them.
On the surface, Fayetteville is as follows: flat, shopworn, and - to my eye, even back in 1969 - unattractive. It lies on the Cape Fear River in the southwestern portion of North Carolina, on the coastal plain, in an area of lumber, cotton, tobacco, and farming. The soil is sandy and harbors many one-huge tracts of pine trees. The city now is about 75,000 people; back in 1969 perhaps 50,000. Ft. Bragg itself, for comparison, has roughly an equivalent number of people living on it - and during weekday work hours, the post can contain 125,000 people on it. It always seemed strange to me that Fayetteville is a seaport, regarded so because the Cape Fear River is dredged to a depth of eight feet, from coastal Wilmington, all the way inland to Fayetteville, and shipping thus occurs on that water route. The industry in the area is light, and used to contain cotton and rayon mills, busy lumber mills, and tobacco sheds. Essentially, it appears as if Fayetteville lives today by being a service to, and supplier for, Ft. Bragg. The Army post supplies the money and fresh troops, Fayetteville supplies the provisions and the diversions, both.
Fayetteville was named after Lafayette, when the French General visited in 1784. The city was originally formed in 1783, by the union of two towns, Cross Creek and Campbellton. It is an area mainly populated by Indians, then Scots, with a smattering of German, Irish, and English as well. The Scots were predominantly Highlander in origin, thrifty, tough and proud, and very Presbyterian. The city, which was the state capital from 1787-91, lies sixty miles south of the current capital, Raleigh, and Fayetteville was the site in 1787-88 of the 2nd state convention in the union to ratify the U.S. Constitution. While driving through Fayetteville, I never felt the presence of so much history - it is as though the petty business of the day, that is, survival, is more important. In one word, Fayetteville is hardscrabble.
My personal point of reference in 1969 - that infamous hot summer of Woodstock, of Chappaquiddick, of the Manson murders, of the height of the Vietnam War - was the Smoke Bomb Hill area of Ft. Bragg, the Berets. I was a newly-licensed physician, a new Captain in the U.S. Army, and my own battle testing had occurred on the west side of Spanish Harlem, around 186th Street, in New York City, at the Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital. My tour of duty there - a year as a surgical intern - was filled with grueling 36 hour shifts, with the reward of maybe 12 hours off, unless, of course, one of your patients was critical. It had been a startling year, even awe-inspiring, and more than fulfilled what we had always been told in medical school: that your internship either made you a good physician, or broke you. It seemed a natural progression to move from saving lives in a hectic emergency department on 186th Street, to being an eager young captain, proving his mettle to grizzled 2 -Tours-in-Vietnam sergeants, men who rarely gave young captains much thought at all - men who had been over the hill.
I had volunteered, of course. At the height of the Vietnam War, in the family - and neighborhood - I grew up in, it was natural to volunteer. I already had three or four friends from my hometown who had been killed in Southeast Asia. If you were able to, and did not volunteer, in my peer group your failure to do so seemed unmanly, at best, and vaguely treasonous, at worst, a letdown from all of the values instilled within. My wife, Colette, from the same town, accepted the first volunteering, that to pass directly into the Army post-internship. Medical school (4 years) and internship (1 year) are hard years, more difficult and trying if finances are tight - so why not volunteer, and perhaps get assigned to, say, Hawaii or Germany? She was so enamored with the two subsequent volunteering episodes, that of becoming a paratrooper, and then a Green Beret. But she understood: she knew well that the one poem my father gave to me was "IF" by Rudyard Kipling. And if I was "to fill that minute with 60 seconds of long distance run...", Colette somehow understood that it was almost a biological imperative that, in that hot summer of 1969, I end up on Ft. Bragg, knocking on the door, and asking to wear a Green Beret. I was soon entitled "Group Surgeon, Third Special Forces Group (airborne)", and I was wearing that beret and jump boots. Heady stuff, indeed, for a 25 year old male, full of himself, already accomplished in the arts of lifesaving medicine, and having come from a background where it was important to be co-captain of the high school football team. So, Ft. Bragg seemed almost like home to us, Colette and I, once we were there with our children, even if in retrospect it is clear we avoided, more and more, the ill-kempt and more disorderly Fayetteville, during that fall of 1969.
When looking back at Fayetteville, it is now clear to me that in 1969, I gave it barely a nod. I should have looked closer. But it was more urgent for me to secure on-post housing for our family, and for me to learn how to be a captain in charge of men. Then I was eager to beat it out into the weeds, as we said then, that is, to go on maneuvers with the troops and prepare for war in Southeast Asia. And by flying into North Carolina, as opposed to driving in, I had missed the sign - but Colette did not. She had seen the sign - it had registered. She had driven into North Carolina several weeks after I had arrived, and she mentioned it right away, our first day together in North Carolina: "Jeffrey, can you believe it? There is a sign on the highway, welcoming you to North Carolina, and it says North Carolina is the "Home of the Ku Klux Klan".
Fayetteville is located approximately half-way between New York and Orlando, Florida on I-95, and Colette was telling me of the huge and notorious Klan sign she had witnessed as she drove to Fayetteville. It welcomed you to North Carolina with the instantly limiting pronouncement that it was the home of the Klan. "For God's sake," she said, "this is 1969! What kind of message does that sign send to people? What kind of place is this?" I was momentarily startled by her consternation.
"What are you talking about?", I replied, not super interested, because I was anxious to tell her of how neat it was to jump out of helicopters with a parachute, as opposed to jumps from a fixed wing aircraft. "Oh Jeffrey", she said, "that sign ... I just don't know ... it bothers me." I laughed and brushed aside her fears. "Relax. It's only a sign, for heaven's sake. It is probably a relic of the 1930's. Come on - our neighbors are great, you'll love them, and we're safe here on the base. We're not living on shantyrow, you know", I said, confidently. Colette always enjoyed my enthusiasms, and she knew I was bubbling with all kinds of news to share with her, so she put aside her dread - that rumbling from the underbelly? - and soon we were happily racing with our two girls, Kimberly and Kristen, through the new housing - new to us, a step up, can you imagine, three bedrooms! They were small rooms, but they seemed adequate to us, as the kids ran from room to room, and we decided which child would have which room. The quiet neighborhood, with friendly nod, and children everywhere, seemed a relief to us after the long years of medical school and internship, years spent in very low-rent neighborhoods in big cities. The sign, back on I-95, was forgotten. Colette's more introspective - feminine? - view of things was overpowered that day with my tales of rappelling down cliffs and jumping out of Huey helicopters. If I had to guess, now, I suspect Colette was only somewhat reassured by my easy dismissal of the implicit message of that sign. She tended to see things in layers, whereas I was always racing ahead to new things, maybe catching only the surface. I saw the big swamps in North Carolina, but she saw the cottonmouths and the leeches. Perhaps she had caught a glimpse of the undertoad. I had not - not in 1969.
Introspection not being in my armamentarium in 1969, and never agonizing over much, never mind highway signs, I am sure that day we concentrated mainly on rearranging our new household and settling in. I try to rationalize my dismissal of Colette's fears by recalling what a hotshot young surgical resident had told me late one night. We were having coffee, after having successfully saved the lives of several firemen, all of whom had been crunched when their speeding fire truck overturned. The front tires had been shot flat as they careened around a corner, in an ambush, in Harlem, and the truck rolled on them. I was wondering if I had acted too quickly, having inserted some chest tubes into the chest of a fireman, before the confirmatory x-rays showed the damage to his ribs and lungs. The resident laughed and said, "You're not here on this rotation to agonize. Agonizing is for internal medicine doctors, or pediatricians. If you agonize, the patient dies. Here, you act, based on all your training, as fast as you can." It was music, of course, to my ears, but the clincher was when he patted me on the back, saying, "That fireman is alive because you didn't agonize."
One year later, in the summer of 1969, I still hadn't cultured that rich broth of reflection. I never had the time, or so it seemed. And much later, long after I had too much time for introspection, I came to the conclusion that my wife probably had never discarded her primal fear, uttered so simply that first day in North Carolina. Looking back, I noted her pattern later that fall of confining her activities, and those of our kids, to be sure, to on-post activies. This pattern of remaining on Ft. Bragg was broken only by one activity I can recall, that of visits with me, and our children, to a corral off-post, where we quartered our little Shetland pony, a Christmas gift form Santa Claus to them. Why did Colette stick to the base?
That corral was located several hundred yards off Bragg Boulevard, back in some scrubby pine trees, amidst several ramshackle houses and trailers - the kind of housing so prominent in parts of Fayetteville. When driving back the two or three miles onto Ft. Bragg when coming from the corral, it was always pleasing to see our middle-class neat home, snug in its housing tract, a tract called Corregidor Courts. Our area was an enclave of homes limited to officers, up to the rank of captain, with dependents. Mainly, the buildings were four family units on shady, quiet streets, built of red brick, and one or two stories, with parking in front, and grass all around. Ours was an end unit, one story, on a very low grassy hill, and Colette was please with its appearance and apparent safety. On the front porch screendoor was the white and black crisply worded Army-issue sign, "Cpt. J. R. MacDonald".
Larger homes were available on-post for majors, colonels, and even generals. One street not too far away, commonly, if incorrectly, called "Colonels' Row", was a lovely, almost elegant, street, totally shaded with tall trees, and with larger, very solid, upper middle-class homes, giving you a hint of a more gentlemanly officer past, the army of prior wars.
I suppose, to be honest, I must report that there were areas of Fayetteville itself as luxurious as Colonels' Row, in fact several areas of expensive homes, often bordering golf courses. They were what represented upper crust in the city, yet any over-riding memory is more toward those ramshackle, seedy, unkempt dwellings, scattered throughout Fayetteville, with ragged yards, and cars up on blocks.
And, when I think of driving in Fayetteville, it is always of the customized hot-rods, revving up their engines, altered by their owners by not yet fully painted, the Supersports and Mustangs and Dodge Hemis, racing up and down Bragg Boulevard. The regular businesses and stores that must have dotted the area don't come through the mists of time, as do the discount outlets and the pawn shops so obviously present.
Fayetteville always speaks to me in harsher terms. It all has to do with the underbelly of the beast, which I met, in the early morning hours of 17 February 1970, in the supposedly safe confines of our modest three bedroom officer-with-dependents quarters, deep in the heart of Ft. Bragg. Fayetteville had sneaked onto the guarded post, and life was ripped from us. The world would always have a different tilt to it from that morning on.
My first actual view of that I-95 sign, the one establishing Carolina as Klan country, occurred some eighteen months after that day Colette brought it to my attention. I saw it only as I exited the army and North Carolina, driving north as a civilian, with my honorable army discharge papers on the seat beside me, on the front seat of our 1965 white Chevy. The front seat was lonely - it did not contain Colette, or her warm and lovely intelligence, her insightfulness, her softness. And the back was cavernous in its silence, no longer noisy with the laughter of our two children. Colette, Kim and Kris were dead, and they were already back in New York, having been flown there for burial after a funeral service for them in the chapel of the JFK Center for Special Warfare. They had been murdered in the early morning hours of 17 February 1970.
The sign was actually on the opposite side of the highway, best situated for you to read its message of hate if you were traveling north to south. I could see it, though, stark, naked, a sort of sick pride somehow attached to it, it message almost palpable. And I remember Colette's words, "What kind of a place is this?" She, much more than I, had understood what it might mean to live in the Fayetteville area in those times.
Should Oliver Stone - or any other dramatic film maker, shoot a movie about Fayetteville, no doubt the film will contain glimpses of that sign. In this case, the picture is worth 10,000 words. But I had missed it in 1969. And now it was too late. In truth, had I seen it - had I driven to North Carolina instead of flying in for the first time - I'm not all sure it would have alerted my consciousness as it did for Colette. Back then, I was too sure - of myself, of life, of my family, of the essential goodness of man, of my own lifesaving skills, and even of the correctness of the Vietnam War. It was for me, as it was for many others volunteers arriving at the Center for Special Warfare, or at the divisional headquarters of the 82nd Airborne: our school of life, consisted of testosterone, adrenalin, and an attitude. We believed that no matter what happened, you just "take two salt tablets, and drive on". It was the damn-the-torpedoes-full-speed-ahead school of life, and it made for lots of exhilaration, but little reflection. And Fayetteville itself did not seem worthy of any reflection at all. When you're young, you have lots to learn. I think more of that city now than I did back in the summer and fall of 1969, when it was only eight miles down the strip from Ft. Bragg.
Back then, at the height of the Vietnam War, Fayetteville was bustling and crowded. MP's cruised the strip and the downtown area constantly, in pairs, alert for the frequent trouble. You could spot the off-duty young GI's - some (improperly) wore portions of uniforms, and an occasional one would be in dress greens, often with travel orders sticking out of his pockets. Mostly, though, you saw groups of lean young men with short haircuts - so short they had "white (or black) sidewalls - cruising town. They cruised the bars, the strip joints, the fast food palaces, the pawn shops, the sidewalks in front of stores. Groups drifted from bar to bar, or carhopped at the drive-ins. It wasn't as obviously troubled an area as, say, the sleazy portions of Times Square in New York - but Fayetteville was no walk-in-the-park even then. The girls of the trade congregated in pairs or groups on a particular street, or in front of a bar, of all nationalities, colors, ethnic origins. Sometimes pidgin Vietnamese-English was used, especially when hustling, or bartering for sex. It was like all the rougher of the military towns - too coarse, not exactly a place where you took your wife and two little girls on Saturday evenings. Weekends, especially, were not for families, but were for separating young soldiers from their paychecks. To do this, various prominent techniques were used, outrageous prices for drinks of dubious quality, but also including under-the-table drugs for cash, or affectionate contact with the scantily clad hostesses. Few nineteen year old GI's, no matter how macho, are much of a match for a skilled and nubile hostess, or even a manipulative and slick drug dealer. So the troops prowled, and scored. And the hangers-on multiplied. And the police sirens were heard more frequently. Well known hot-spots, such as the garish and boisterous Pink Pussycat Lounge, were homes away from home for thousands of young soldiers, and business flourished.
It wasn't until several years later, in the early 1970's, that the infamous "body bag" drug trials tore the lid off the drug trafficking in North Carolina. But by 1969-70, it was already evident to even casual observers. Fayetteville was a mecca for drug dealers, and, it was later discovered, was the transshipment point for major drug traffickers up and down the East Coast. The flotsam and jetsam of the business littered Fayetteville - dirty needles on the grounds of the city parks, young men and women mildly - or seriously - overdosed and sleeping it off, in ponchos or sleeping bags in the bushes of those same parks. Parking lot exchanges of cash for drugs were obvious at the busier night spots. Vacant-eyed ex-GI's, their girlfriends, the pimps and their whores, and people euphemistically calling themselves "counter-revolutionaries" populated downtown, the strip, the bars, the parks. Families were less likely to use the parks for afternoon outings - it was the territory by 1970 of the subculture. When Jane Fonda came to Fayetteville to preach against the war, it was from the Haymount section of Fayetteville, and from the parks, that the majority of her supporters arose, to chant their message. Out on Smoke Bomb Hill, and in the various company areas of the 82nd Airborne Division, such demonstrations were generally considered, at best, questionable in taste, maybe obscene, and at worst, the telltale signs of a society gone berserk with drugs and criminal behavior - maybe even treason. It wasn't at all unusual to hear an otherwise calm and collected trooper, highly skilled in the arts of killing, mutter about Jane Fonda whenever her name came up, "I'd like to have that commie bitch in my sniper-scope crosshairs." It was a very strange scene, Fayetteville was, in 1970. It is difficult now to explain to people who were not there how huge the gulf had become between the old order - seemingly willing to stick to duty and the rules at all costs - and the new wave, those controlling the parks and the subculture, who seemed willing to do anything to taunt the old order. It was as if two totally different languages were being spoken - and neither side could listen. Understand, Fayetteville, was not a bastion of the "liberal" Eastern media elite. The two area newspapers, The Fayetteville Times, and The Fayetteville Observer, dutifully reported a conservative version of the Southeast Asian war news, but mainly concentrated on generally favorable coverage of Ft. Bragg and Pope Air Force Base. The other main section of the news was the list, each day, of the prior day's felonies. The papers listed the murders, the rapes, the assaults, the major drug busts, and the occasional arrested demonstrator. The list grew longer, seemingly, each week. Fayetteville was rocking with the vibrations of the times, and in Cumberland County, the struggle was between the counterculture on the one hand, versus the one group most unlikely to understand the new message: the volunteers of elite fighting units, "Airborne-all-the-way", many eager to prove their mettle in Southeast Asia. It might have been different at army bases consisting of regular units, draftees who didn't want to be there. But on Ft. Bragg, with highly polished jump boots and jump wings the norm, Jane Fonda was serious business. Most of the active duty troops - and their dependents - and the retired and ex-military people living in Fayetteville - considered themselves not only as volunteers, but as patriots. They couldn't understand people who didn't cry when "Taps" was played. They had answered the clarion call to arms, when their country asked, and they had little regard for those who did not.
So, when I think back about 1969-70 in Fayetteville, it is with terribly mixed emotions. That town, while unexceptional in appearance, had a tumultuous intensity that perhaps was a microcosm of the national crises we were in. It had everything - earnest young troopers preparing for their most dangerous hour; battle-weary vets returning home, some with what was called "the thousand yard stare" on a vacant face; the dis-affected; the retired conservatives of an earlier time and war; way too much testosterone; the counterculture and all of its detritus; and then the predators, the criminals, the burgeoning drug trade and their enforcers. It was all there, in Fayetteville.
For those of us out on Ft. Bragg, the rising clamor had not yet full registered. We heard it as a distant din, not a roaring in the ears as it would become. On Ft. Bragg, even the rush hour traffic was mannerly, controlled by MP's in starched fatigues, even on hot days. And there was no loitering allowed, and we liked it that way. Thus, when I think back about Fayetteville, I now realize I had seen it, but I didn't really know it. I was too involved in life to worry about demonstrators, crime, drugs - or death. Perhaps I felt immortal - isn't that why wars are fought by young men and not old? To me, back then, Ft. Bragg was distant to Fayetteville - but, it turned out, not distant enough. And it wasn't until I exited North Carolina in 1970, and that sign leaped out at me from across the highway, that I saw through to the real core of what it all meant.
Thus, it was no surprise to me to learn, much later, that actually, the area is steeped in violent eruptions. Even the county name - Cumberland - derives from a slaughter. It refers to an Englishman, the Duke of Cumberland, who defeated the Scots at the Battle of Culloden in 1746 and promptly ordered the slaughter of the wounded Scots littering the battlefield. And more than a 100 years later, General William Tecumseh Sherman marched through Fayetteville, looting and pillaging, seizing provisions and livestock by force, even firing the vast tracts of highly flammable pine trees - and then, suffering a last indignity upon Fayetteville, by leaving behind, from his departing army, the "20 to 30 thousand useless mouths" of the hangers-on to his army, the refugees, dependents, escaped slaves, and the camp followers of all armies, the social outcasts of the day.
So now, when I think of Fayetteville, and I feel anew, each time, the terrible loss of Colette and Kimberly and Kristen, I sometimes wonder if those events were so singular as they seemed back then, gruesome, sudden, wounding, but simply an aberration, crazies gone amok. Or, did Fayetteville sneak onto Ft. Bragg, in the heat of the night, the beast craving just another meal to appease its old hunger? I wonder, now, was it an echo of the past? And I wonder if I would have understood the message, had I seen that sign, as I think maybe Colette did, in her primal dread. Maybe, had I seen it, I at least would have listened more carefully, when my wife asked, "What kind of message does it send? What kind of place is this?" What kind of place, indeed. I do think of Fayetteville.