We had no cameras
To shoot the landscape
We passed the hash pipe
And played our Doors tapes
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Recruits of Oscar Company, 4th Recruit Training Battalion on Parris Island, c 2013
(thanks, Lance Cpl. David Bessey)
If there’s one thing any of us can count on, it is Billy Joel’s uncanny ability to write memorable and poignant songs that not only get stuck in our heads, but get stuck in our hearts for years. "Goodnight Saigon," one of his few political tunes, is on that list. He wrote the lyrics as an homage to his friends who had gone to fight in Vietnam and returned home to a less than hero's welcome. In fact, he often brings veterans up on stage to sing the chorus with him when he performs it live.
Released as one half of a double A-side (with "Leave a Tender Moment Alone" - for those of you who can even remember what a 'Side-A' was), "Goodnight Saigon" appears also on Joel’s 1983 album, The Nylon Curtain
. For people in my generation, the Vietnam War has always been something of the past, not much different than World War II or the US Civil War. But to our fathers and uncles, it has always been present; perhaps in the background, but still in the present nevertheless. In 1983, the fall of Saigon had only happened seven years earlier. Seven years. That’s nothing. Yet for a kid born in 1979, a kid who was only four years old in when "Goodnight Saigon" was on the charts, I never really understood the pain of veterans in the '80s and '90s.
Joel did. The song was very important to him even though his producer, Phil Ramone, didn’t think it was going to be a hit. Ramone told the Celebrity Café
, “When he does it once in a while in a show, the place just comes apart. I think that happens a lot that we don’t think something will be powerful and it turns out that it does come out powerful.” Joel explains the reason he brings them on stage is to give them a kind of welcome back that they never got coming home from the fighting.
Billy Joel, c 2006
Parris Island has been a training ground for US Marines since 1891. All male recruits living east of the Mississippi River, and all female recruits nationwide, are brought there for basic training (boot camp), approximately 17,000 each year. Soldiers are broken down to nothing and rebuilt in the Marine Corps image, including personal hygiene, physical fitness, Marine Corps history, weapons training, and we can’t forget The Crucible: a rigorous 54 hour final test of physical, mental, psychological, and emotional obstacles, where recruits may work as a team, win as a team, or fail as a team. The Crucible stresses the Marine Corps virtues of honor, courage, and commitment. The Marine motto: Semper Fidelis
, or always faithful.
The Marines have a harsh reputation, especially compared to the other branches of the military. For example, the Marines training at Parris Island referred to the Air Force basic training ground at Lackland AFB in Texas as Charm School. They are known to be the most brutal of all the soldiers and their training is the most intense. During one personal story, a friend of my father, training at Parris Island, had a trash can thrown at his back. The drill instructor assumed he would duck or move out of the way. Instead, he just turned around, allowing the full can to hit him and break his back. He was soon after discharged for medical reasons. Other recruits have been punched, kicked, spit on, and screamed at. They were forced into midnight marches and deprived of sleep for days on end.
Have you seen the film Full Metal Jacket
? It takes place at Parris Island.
As time marches, the Vietnam Conflict continues to fall ever further in the past. I remember thinking when I was younger what would happen to society’s collective memories of the Holocaust when the World War II generation all passed on. Would the pain hit as sharp? As sharp as knives? Or would we be dulled through the passage of time? The more artists and songwriters like Joel capture the emotions in the moment, the more likely we as a people will remember…
~ Justin Novelli
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