A BIO FOR OLGA

(An author named Olga first wanted to include a chapter in her next book about me.  The more she learned about me. the more determined she became to devote the entire book to describe my life’s arc.   Weeks passed with frequent exchanges by email; then I left for India to shoot a film.  When I returned three weeks later, there was no mail from her…which was curious.  After a few days, I went online to check…only to discover her obituary.  Her letters had been so animated, I’d always assumed she was a much younger woman.  So it goes.)

I was my family’s second child and first -born son.  My sister Angela taught me to read when I was three, and by the beginning of kindergarten, I was inhaling all sorts of material – children’s books, like Dr. Doolittle and Freddy the Pig, novels such as Treasure Island, Wind In The Willows, and Tom Sawyer.  I showed early signs of being a ‘special kid’, scoring rather high in whatever tests they administered in the early 1950’s.  Much was expected of me, by both my parents and the educational system in Washington DC.  My father, a remarkable man by any standards, was now a professor of English at Howard University; my mother, a college graduate, was working for the CAA.  In 1955, my father moved us to Salonica, Greece, where he taught English at Anatolia College, as a Fulbright scholar.  For two years, whenever time allowed, we traveled throughout Europe and the Middle East, my father and I, visiting ancient ruins, museums, churches and mosques.  I developed an appreciation of vastly different cultures.  I was by now fluent in Greek, which helped me return the taunts of villagers who’d never before seen a Black person.  ‘Arapi’ (Arab) or ‘mavraki (little black) they called me, and I responded with ‘aspraki’ (little white).

So much of my life has been spent as a ‘stranger in a strange land’; adjusting and accepting that I could survive and even thrive amidst change and unfamiliarity.  I was constantly ‘the first Black person’ to do so many things, here and abroad – this tendency too, followed me much of my life.  Coupled with my father’s expectations and demands for excellence, these circumstances generated a great deal of pressure and stress.  I was not physically large, a rather bookish kid who wore glasses and braces, and who played the violin.

(Though clearly gifted, the first Black student at the Otheon in Salonica, I gave up the violin soon after my return to the US, fearful that it was not a ‘manly’ instrument.  Many of my later choices were similarly motivated. While I never doubted my masculinity, I was too insecure to entertain pursuits that were gentle, intellectual, ‘feminine’. Though I later in college learned to express on guitar what musical gifts I had, even then I was making choices based upon the judgement of others, once again disappointing my father.  But I was an ‘accident waiting to happen’, regarding the profession of a soldier, which I guess I then perceived as the ultimate test of manhood…and perhaps it is and perhaps I still do.  I could have avoided military service entirely; I’d an offer to direct TV in Brazil.  Additionally, my father, concerned I might end up in combat, arranged an interview for The Big Picture, an Army PR TV program, where I might have used my directing talents instead of my marksmanship, for I was then rated as Expert on 8 different weapons.  Again I disappointed my father by turning down the interview and volunteering for Vietnam, a mere formality, since Infantry Officers had no other purpose than to serve in combat.  Much of my life has been an exercise in choosing other than that my father might have wished for me.  My father, abandoned by his own father at three, had accomplished so much in his life – I felt driven to validate my own existence.  A poor Black man in Louisiana, he became a Lutheran minister, later received his Ph.D. in English, then became a diplomat. As many sons of remarkable men have discovered, it is difficult to ‘find fresh snow’, to make one’s own mark on the world…and I often tried to do so – to my detriment.  I admired, respected and loved him very much…and while I always had his love, it was only towards the end of his life that I accepted I had also earned his respect.)

I was both shy and extroverted, and continued to read voraciously, graduating to science fiction and literature.  By high school, I had distinguished myself only by underachieving, showing flashes of brilliance scholastically and musically, then backing off, which frustrated my father to no end.  When I was ready for college, he accepted a post in Germany with the USIA and I went off to Antioch College in Ohio, on a Naval Engineering scholarship.   I was younger than most classmates, immature, and spent that first year discovering girls, beer and poker, and my grades reflected my priorities.  The next two years were spent in Germany at a campus in Munich, created for dependents of military personnel and diplomats stationed abroad.  While my grades improved somewhat, my priorities were bridge, poker, beer, skiing and girls…and trying desperately to fit in.  I was one of four black students in a class of 400. I spent a summer working as a lumberjack in the mountains, developing a fluency in German and an appreciation for the warmth and quality of life enjoyed by those we think of as ‘peasants’  (which was reinforced by my experiences with the villagers I defended in Vietnam).  I had athletic success in basketball and football, began to play the guitar, had many friends and my first real relationship – but little direction or any real sense of what I wanted to do with my life.

I returned to the US and began studying at the University of Maryland in 1964 and wandered into a TV studio on campus – and suddenly knew what I wanted to do, professionally.  My grades improved, I made more friends, (but the closest were those who’d returned from Europe…we were all ‘different’ and we kept pretty much to ourselves) and after graduation in 1967, became the first Black director for WBAL, an NBC affiliate in Baltimore.  I’d injured my knee in a football scrimmage at U of Md., which had made me ‘1Y’, a draft classification meaning ‘physically unfit for acceptance’…but when I responded to a pre-draft physical, the doctors acknowledged my condition, but asked, “You can walk, can’t you?”  When I responded, “Certainly”, they said, “Well, you let us know if you have any trouble.”…and proceeded to induct me into the Army.

I’d never had much patience for authority or being fucked with, (I’ve always had a short temper and a big mouth) and on that first night, came very close to being placed in the stockade.  Clearly I would never survive without rank…and as usual, my test scores were ‘off the charts’, which resulted in my admission to Infantry OCS.  I was in constant disciplinary trouble for 26 weeks…but was a distinguished graduate (I was very good ‘in the woods’.)…. and was rewarded by having my orders for Special Forces pulled and assigned as a Tac Officer in the very school I’d just graduated from.  (At that time, Tac Officer was the highest priority in the Army, a hellish job, counseling, evaluating and weeding out those unfit to lead a 44 man Infantry platoon in combat.)  After six months, I was allowed to ‘write my own ticket’ and requested jump school, Ranger school, Special Warfare School, Vietnamese language training, and demanded a combat assignment which did not involve working with Americans.  (I had by now embraced the concept of ‘warrior’ and apparently needed to test my skills in the most crucial context of all –combat…but only with those who shared my perspective, which in 1969 did not include most line Army units in Vietnam –  pot, smack and fragging were commonplace.)  I got all but Ranger, distinguished myself in language training and arrived in-country, expecting to serve as Liaison Officer to the Vietnamese Airborne.

A ‘ring-knocker’ (West Point graduate) had managed to steal my assignment, so I accepted a posting as XO to a MAT Team, a five man advisory team to RF-PF troops (essentially like our National Guard, but poorly equipped, poorly trained, and often poorly led.)  During a brutal firefight that first night, I won the respect of my team and my troops, directing airstrikes, mortar and ultimately, a rather dangerous dust-off, outside our perimeter, to evacuate our most seriously wounded.   Our CO was slightly wounded that night, but two weeks later, more critically wounded (an AK round through the buttocks), medivaced out and I took over the team.  For the next several months, I slowly, as they say, ‘enhanced the fighting ability of our forces’, with training, persuasion, bartering for weapons and supplies, and the support and assistance of my counterpart, a remarkable young Vietnamese Lt., who became a close friend and trusted ally.  Nguyen Van Dai was an exceptionally brave and capable soldier (he’d been wounded three times before I arrived and decorated with our Bronze Star) and we shared many harrowing and hilarious experiences together.  My team was made up of two NCO’s, a medic, an interpreter (usually a city kid who’d been taught English in school, but was useless in the field) and an XO, (which we did without for several weeks, replacements were hard to come by.)

I loved my work, believed in what we did, (which was assisting and training the villager/soldiers to defend their homes and families from the VC), enjoyed the respect of my team and allies, and began to believe in my own invincibility, after surviving so many close calls.  For once in my life, I was one of the largest men in the vicinity, physically, and I was remarkably strong and durable.  I carried my own PRC-25 radio, (since both it and I were already prime targets, it simply made sense to do so), wore a red beret, laughed at the reward offered for my head (perhaps $500) and in general, felt for the first time in my life, really capable, really powerful, really meaningful, my potential at last, realized.  (In retrospect, I suspect I had much to prove to myself, regarding physical courage.  I’d had my share of fights as a child, some racial, but more often, small and bookish, I was simply the target of bullies.  I was always afraid, but even more afraid NOT to fight.  I survived the ass-whippings, even won a few, but continued to question my own courage.  I weighed less than 165, yet played college football and basketball, driven to prove myself to others, but mostly to myself.  I was terrified of heights, so volunteering for Airborne school was a no-brainer, it was just one more physical test.  By OCS, I excelled in Army PT tests; as a Tac, I offered my candidates a weekend pass to any that bested me in the six events…. In six months, not one succeeded.  I was relatively apolitical in the ‘60s, in truth I viewed this war as an opportunity to test my mettle. The larger political issues were intellectual abstractions; day to day combat was as immediate as life ever gets.  I learned in combat who I was, and interestingly enough, I’ve not been in a fight since I returned home. )

Because the villagers in my AO trusted me, I accepted a mission one Sunday that was the beginning of my end as a warrior.  A PRU team (CIA paid assassins with the Phoenix program) entered my HQ and intended to go out and seize someone their intelligence told them was a VC agent.  I knew that often, simple unfortunate farmers ended up as their targets, for these mercenaries were paid by the body, intrigues were commonplace, double agents abounded, so I decided to accompany them, to insure that nothing untoward took place in MY AO.  Bad move.   We were betrayed, ambushed, and while I got the team extracted, I got pretty thoroughly shot up in the process. On the operating table, I was pronounced dead and then brought back (a truly life-altering experience, no pun intended), an event which has since defined me in many ways.  I am very much a product of my life experiences, but none, including work, relationship, travel, have affected me so deeply as the events of that 14th day of September, 1969.

Months of hospitalization and surgery followed, I eventually recovered to teach at Ft Belvoir’s OCS, teaching Engineer Officers  escape and evasion and patrolling, eventually resigned my commission and moved to NYC in autumn of 1970 to study acting.   I was immediately successful as a working actor, a gifted student and a promising professional.  Aside from my annual PMS around September 14th, I seemed untroubled by my wartime experiences.  I made lots of money, worked constantly on soaps, commercials, theater, films (was even nominated for an Emmy as host of a TV Newsmagazine on CBS) was in an intense relationship with an actress who lived with me, and on the surface seemed quite well adjusted.  By 1980, the wheels were coming off.  My relationship was foundering, I was addicted to gambling in the commodity and stock markets, (proceeded to lose $250,000) and had lost the appreciation for how fortunate I was, simply to be alive.  I was dedicated to trashing whatever success came my way.  I was a very unhappy human being.  During the ‘80’s I spent hours each week in the VA Hospital system, working with PTSD and psyche patients in locked wards.  While I knew I was unhappy, their lives were so clearly less rewarding, it seemed inappropriate to examine my own dissatisfaction.  For years, I continued in this manner, became heavily involved with VVA and veteran’s advocacy, and continued to deny my own problems.  In 1988, a friend gave me a book, Myra McPherson’s  “Long Time Passing”.  I read it, recognized myself in its descriptions of vets with problems, asked for help (very uncharacteristic of me) and got very lucky –I was referred to a psychologist, Dr, Victor DeFazio, a former vet who only worked with cops and vets.  Vic gave me back my life. (He continued to work with Russian shrinks until the fall of the USSR on techniques for PTSD and survivor guilt -my own Achilles heel – for the “Afganzi” suffered from many of the problems our own soldiers brought home from the war.)

After six months with Vic, I was out of debt and no longer gambling.  Chief among my issues was a subtle and corrosive feeling of unworthiness…and since the reality and ‘celebrity’ of my life belied that perception, I had become dedicated to sabotaging whatever success I created – personally, financially, and artistically. There’d been alcohol and drugs, I’d smoked since I was 17 (Pall Malls, both to be different and to ‘feel’ older and more mature), motorcycles and numerous relationships, but my destructive obsession of choice was trading commodities.  Ironically, I had some real talents, which required further subversion, for my intention was to lose, and thereby feel unworthy.  When I won, I felt guilty, when I lost, I felt comfortably miserable and went to bed without dinner.   So many men I’d respected and cared for had not come home, and over the years since returning, I slowly began to question why I  had survived when so many others had not.  None of this was conscious, mind you, but it was a continual subplot in my life.

(My earlier mindset, upon returning from Vietnam was that I was on borrowed time.  My doctors were amazed that I’d survived my wounds but held little hope that I’d enjoy a normal life-span, so I lived very much ‘in the moment’ those first ten years, grateful to be here, expecting to die young and accepting of that perception.   I’d a morbid fear of marrying and fathering a child, and leaving them behind; and I used this mindset to avoid assuming a ‘normal’ grownups’ lifestyle, with a wife and family.  By the mid 80’s, I’d come to accept that if my life ended anytime soon, it would more likely be because of what I’d done to myself since Vietnam, rather than what had happened to me in Vietnam.)

Through therapy, I began to forgive myself for having survived, accepting that I ‘deserved’ to be here and perhaps even deserved to be content, if not happy.  And gradually, I became so.  I began to plan a move west to LA, something I should have done 10 years earlier.  LA was where the majority of film and television roles were cast.  I arrived here in early ’91 and have enjoyed considerable success since.  I now own my home and car, am debt free, and, at 56, am considering how I might spend the next ten years of my life.  As affirming (and therapeutic) a career as acting has been, I suspect my best years are behind me.  I have two pensions, some skills, and a need to feel useful, challenged and involved.  I’ve come to accept that I will not be understood by most people, certainly not those without any connection to war.  I feel somewhat less driven to be understood by them, but continue to seek insight for myself.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.