Almost twenty years ago when I retired I knew I had stories to tell. I began studying the writing craft at Bemidji State University. Muddy Jungle Rivers, A Vietnam War Memoir, was published in 2012. Since then I have spoken at dozens of book signings and other events. The most humbling experience is to listen to the stories and read the messages veterans and veteran’s families share with me. This next Tuesday evening I am scheduled to speak at the Annual Volunteer Dinner for Sanford Bemidji Home Care and Hospice about issues older veterans face as they approach End of Life. I will put to use lessons I’ve learned listening to those veterans over the past several years. My topic, “Making Peace with the Past.”
A few years before my mother died I began interviewing her and making notes. After her death in January 2010 I discovered a treasure trove; 200 years of our family history locked in the chickenhouse—about seventy feet from where we had visited in the old farmhouse.
Over the next eight years I studied and catalogued thousands of pages from letters, diaries, scrapbooks, photo albums, and a “Mental Health Journal” my grandmother kept.
I began writing—hundreds of pages, but not finding the door I was searching for. I discovered the Lonely Hearts catalogues my stepfather Herman had ordered after World War Two. From Cupid’s Columns my mother’s picture and advertisement jumped out at me and I realized the story started with Herman—he had made first contact.
My first memoir, Muddy Jungle Rivers, picks up where Pawns ends. After bouncing through a series of foster homes and a summer riding the rails and living in hobo camps, I enlisted in the Navy in 1965—over the next three years, I did two deployments to Vietnam.
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A few months ago I received the Minnesota Humanity Center “2017 Veteran’s Voices Award.” The following week I was interviewed by our local television station–I guess I forgot to post it on my blog.
September 11, 2017, my wife, Patti, and several family members attended the 2017 Veterans’ Voices Award ceremony at University of St. Thomas. The Minnesota Humanities Center started the program in 2013 to recognize Minnesota Veterans who quietly work with the underserved members of our state. I was deeply honored to be selected.
The evening had an air of celebration yet the sixteenth anniversary of 9-11-2001 hung like a pall over the ceremonies. After the White Earth Veterans Association Honor Guard posted colors, Bemidji’s own, Joe Vene, sang the National Anthem. After the Anthem, a moment of silence was observed for those lost on 9/11.
During that moment, as the White Earth Honor Guard marched slowly away, their dance bells rang mournfully, like chimes in the night calling the lost. As I accepted my award, I thought about what one of my old riverboat crewmates wrote to me a few weeks earlier when I questioned why we are still here after so many others of our Vietnam Brothers had been lost.
Brian wrote, “You and I are still here because it’s not our time yet. Someone watches over us, just the way they did when Tango 7 and Tango 11 got switched on the Cua Viet at Dong Ha. The 18th has become a day for me to remember and reflect. The Travelling Wall was in my area over the July 4 weekend, I made a point of going there to honor the men we lost those days.”
I too, remember the Marine Corps and Navy Memorial Services held on the sandy banks of the Cua Viet River and the Army/Navy Memorial Services held on a pontoon barge in the Mekong River. Fifty years later the faces blur but like chimes in the night, they echo in my memory.
In helping others, I honor the memory of those who never had a chance to grow old. Perhaps Brian is right. Our work isn’t finished yet.
This past week, we reached a milestone. In March, 2014, I visited with my former employer about a vision I had to supply our local food shelf with ground beef. The late Mr. Joe Lueken liked the idea and the program kicked off two months later. Sadly, Joe passed away, but the program continues on strong. This past week we reached our 10,000 lb milestone.
Here’s an excerpt from the article our local newspaper, The Bemidji Pioneer ran in 2014:
BEMIDJI — For 14 years, Wendell Affield helped his late friend’s family as they battled through homelessness and hunger, providing them meat from his farm butcher shop.
On Tuesday, he stood inside the Bemidji Community Food Shelf as those efforts were extended to the community at large.
Affield is part of a collaborative program between himself, Joe Lueken, the now-employee-owned Lueken’s Village Foods, the food shelf and the community.
Joe Lueken personally paid for a commercial “stuffer” — the machinery needed to push 30 pounds of ground meat through a tube into smaller one-pound sacks — as Lueken’s Village Foods donated $1,500 toward the newly created community meat program.
Affield, while helping his friend’s family over the years, long envisioned such a program.
“We helped the one family and there’s hundreds and hundreds of families in this community that need help,” he said. “If everyone that can pitches in a little, it makes life a little better.”
Lueken’s staff members — and Affield, who from 1985 to 2001 was the the butcher shop manager for Lueken’s — were on hand Tuesday to train two food shelf volunteers on how to process the meat.
“This has actually been fun this morning,” said Dea Paine, who has been volunteering at the food shelf since 1995 and has been on its board for about 15 years. “Except for the cranking — I’m short.”
Pam Johnson, a community member who began volunteering in September, usually works in the warehouse unloading trucks in the morning. But this day she wore gloves as she held the bag to the stuffer’s tube. As Glenn Carroll, a meat department manager with Lueken’s, turned the crank, the bag was filled with beef and Johnson then passed it to Paine, who would tape it shut, place it in the tray, and add it to the dozens awaiting food shelf clients.
In total, they bagged 400 pounds of ground beef.
“The theory behind this whole program is that labor is such a big part of the price of meat. So if the food shelf could purchase it direct, and the meat is processed by volunteers, all of that overhead is eliminated and it makes it all that much more affordable,” Affield said.
This past week I traveled 1,593 miles and 51 years back in time.
Professor Tom Murphy, Indiana University, South Bend, initiated my trip when he asked if I would like to speak to students in his history classes that use Muddy Jungle Rivers—my visit included an evening public reading. I’m often surprised at the wide-ranging discussions during reading conversations—from the antiwar protestors to troops in the field to the political scene. One young lady, questioning the morality of the Vietnam War, attempted to equate perceived police brutality to troop behavior in Vietnam—there really is not a reasonable answer for such a question. Our national collective Vietnam Experience continues to haunt us—including our grandchildren.
As we drift into the autumn of our years it’s common to reminisce about the past. The past week while in Indiana I had the opportunity to reconnect with two men I served with during our 1966 deployment to Vietnam. We’re old men now, but sitting near the bonfire, I closed my eyes and listened, and once again I saw three seventeen-year-old sailors joking on the deck of the USS Rogers. We had a wonderful few days together.
As much as I treasure my visit with them, it feels good to be home.
I will be visiting Indiana University, South Bend, on April 18, 2017. During the day, I will discuss my Vietnam memoir, Muddy Jungle Rivers with two history classes who are using the book. There will be an evening event, open to the public, on campus, at Franklin D. Schurz Library.
A little extra event I’m excited about–two old shipmates from my first Vietnam deployment will be there–the first time we’ve seen each other in more than fifty years.
A few days ago, Rhonda Culbertson, from the Library interviewed me.
A Conversation with Wendell Affield, Author of Muddy Jungle Rivers
Posted on March 20, 2017 by jmfelli
By Rhonda Culbertson
I had the privilege of speaking with Wendell Affield, who will be coming to campus Tuesday April 18 to discuss his book, Muddy Jungle Rivers: A River Assault Boat Cox’n’s Memory Journey of His War in Vietnam and Return Home. The event will take place in the 3rd floor Bridge area of Wiekamp Hall starting at 5:00 p.m. The event is free and the public is encouraged to attend.
Mr. Affield is soft-spoken and articulate. His voice has the distinctive cadence and faint accent that reminds me of his generation of the Minnesotans I grew up with. He and his wife live near Bemidji, Minnesota, in a log cabin overlooking a small lake that flows into the nearby Mississippi River. A pair of swans are summer residents, and great entertainment.
He had a difficult childhood on a small farm in Northern Minnesota. Both his mother and stepfather struggled with mental illness. At 17 he enlisted in the Navy, and while still a teenager he was deployed to Vietnam during the Tet offensive, as a member of the Mobile Riverine Force. He piloted an armor troop carrier through the delta of the Mekong river and then on the Cua Viet River, just south of the DMZ. He was seriously wounded in an ambush and was medevaced off the river. Later he was brought back to the United States for rehabilitation and therapy for his injuries. The emotional and psychological wounds took longer to heal. Not until retirement did he begin the process of writing his memoirs. He started attending classes at Bemidji State University to learn the craft of writing. Over a period of ten years he honed a collection of memories and stories into his book.
We spoke at some length about his writing process. Surprisingly, considering the vividness and detail of his writing, he did not keep a diary during his time in Vietnam. He relied on a writing technique taught by Donald M. Murray in his book, Write to Learn, for creating a memory tree. The trunk of the tree is an event. As you delve into the specifics branching out from the main trunk, old memories start to reawaken. These ‘trigger memories’ are where other memories attach. Mr. Affield also made extensive use of military resources available on the web including ‘After Action Reports’ to supply missing pieces and additional detail. Those who shared his experiences confirm his accuracy.
The original essays were discrete stories based on vivid but disjointed memories, told from a retrospective viewpoint. After working with the material and consulting with classmates and mentors, he realized that it needed to be a larger chronological work told from the viewpoint of a young soldier.
I was not surprised to learn that stylistically, one of his main influences is Hemingway. His writing has the immediacy and carefully crafted sentences of that author. He is also an admirer of other WWI poets and writers, who evoked the loss and waste of war so powerfully.
Mr. Affield and I also talked about some of the moral and ethical challenges faced by soldiers in combat situations. Although he entered the navy with a fairly limited picture of the larger world, he felt that his childhood on a small farm and growing up near Red Lake Nation, an Ojibwe reservation north of Bemidji, gave him insight into the agrarian existence of the Vietnamese peasants. He was able to empathize with their plight, and imagine how people in his own community might react to the violent intrusions of war.
He feels fortunate that he did not have to fight in a context where he had to be the first to fire, or where the difference between soldier and civilian was blurred. He has a great deal of empathy for current soldiers who are fighting terrorists in an arena where the distinction is not always clear.
One of the most gratifying aspects of sharing his story has been the contacts he has made with other veterans. Social media has given him the chance to reconnect with many from his past. His website and blog have provided opportunities to interact with veterans and family members who have found insight into their own experiences through his story. Veterans struggling with posttraumatic stress are particularly drawn to his talks and workshops. He makes sure to have information about local veteran resources at all of his appearances.
Mr. Affield feels that writing can be a powerful healing tool for anyone dealing with trauma; not just veterans. Several times he mentioned that the act of writing the trauma down ‘puts boundaries’ around an event, and allows the writer to start making sense of the traumatic injuries and to approach them more dispassionately. He recommends the book, Writing War: A Guide to Telling Your Own Story, by Ron Capps as an aid for those who would like to record their own experiences.
Although Mr. Affield has taken careful pains to not glorify war in any of his writings, a history class with Tom Murphy made him realize that the anti-war movement perspective was missing from early drafts of his book. Embodied by one of his military comrades, nick-named “Professor”, the anti-war position was explored using remembered conversations. Upon returning home, Mr. Affield had an encounter with anti-war protesters. Thirty years later he returned to the scene in an attempt to learn why the protestors had assaulted a hospital bus loaded with wounded troops enroute to Great Lakes Naval Hospital. What he discovered was quite astonishing.
He hopes that accounts like his can help us, as a country, learn from the past. While reading H.R. McMasters’ Dereliction of Duty, Affield was outraged at the hubris and lies made by national leaders in the early 1960s—deception that dragged this country into the Vietnam War. He hopes that Mr. McMasters remembers what he wrote while serving as National Security Advisor for the current administration. Affield also talked about the experiences of his mother and grandmother who were in Europe during Hitler’s ascendancy. His grandmother, a student of history, foresaw the problems that might arise from the 1938 Munich Agreement. Mr. Affield sees parallels with the current situations in the Middle East and North Korea.
Mr. Affield closed our conversation with an anecdote. He wanted to place copies of his book in his former business place. He felt he needed to warn the owner, a devout Jehovah’s Witness, that there was profanity in the book. The owner took a long look at the author and said, “Wendell, war is profane.”
Please plan to join us for a fascinating conversation. Copies of the book are available for check-out in the library, and by contacting Vicki Bloom, firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information or to rsvp, please contact Rhonda Culbertson, email@example.com.
For more information about the author and his books visit his blog at: https://www.wendellaffield.com or https://www.facebook.com/wendell.affield/.
I am deeply honored that New York Times Bestselling Author, Laura Schroff, included a story about my friend, Angie, and her family, and my wife, Patti, and me. It truly is a humbling experience to be one of thirty stories selected out of the thousands Laura must have read. I encourage you to take a look at Angels on Earth–not for our story, but to explore the profound lessons Laura shares–lessons of how we can help others.
Laura, thank you for the signed copies of Angels on Earth that you sent to Angie and me. I think there is a universal truth that you explore in your earlier book, An Invisible Thread: a truth that connects many millions of people, but in today’s harried world the connections are too often ignored. After my memoir, Muddy Jungle Rivers was published, I reconnected with many Vietnam Veteran friends. Our thread had been stretched across fifty years of silence. Deland, another Vietnam Veteran friend, was the thread that connected Angie and me. When Angie read about her late husband in “The Six Cups Of Coffee” tears trickled down her smiling cheeks, happy that Deland is remembered. Angie was the last person to live in that dilapidated house in the story; the city condemned it. Today, several years later, it’s a small grassy play area across from the homeless shelter. Good Luck with your book release today. I hope to see you in Minnesota one day.
About six months after my friend, Deland, died in 1999, his widow and her family came to our farm, homeless and hungry. Angie is a proud lady and offered to repay our help. I told her that anything we shared with her was a gift. So began a journey that continues today.
Deland and I first met in a therapy group. We had been diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a result of combat in Vietnam. Too often, PTSD sufferers go through life battling depression, reliving traumas, and feeling they are victims. There is another way for some.
Posttraumatic growth is a relatively new concept. UNC Charlotte, Dept of Psychology, describes it this way, “It [posttraumatic growth] is positive change experienced as a result of the struggle with a major life crisis or a traumatic event.” When Angie and her family arrived at our farm 17 years ago, she unwittingly became an instrument of healing for me.
Today, when I do readings and talks about my Vietnam memoir, Muddy Jungle Rivers, I discuss PTSD and how my journey with Angie and her family has been rewarding.
I am deeply honored to have Laura Schroff include Angie’s story, “Six cups of Coffee” in Angels on Earth.
Miigwech [thank you], Angie and Laura.
In April 2015, Jim Northrup and I were featured speakers at an evening program titled, “Making Meaning of Vietnam.” I will always cherish the memory of Jim, sitting a few feet from me, nodding in agreement and encouragement as I spoke. Jim followed me. My sister videoed Jim’s presentation. As I sat watching the video this afternoon, listening to him speak and read his poetry, I reflected on how the war affected combat veterans.
About two weeks ago I was invited to attend an Ojibwe Bear Claw Ceremony. During the ceremony our host presented me with a beautiful eagle feather. “Every warrior should have one,” he told me.
I am deeply humbled and will attempt to live the Seven Sacred Teachings that the eagle feather symbolizes:
Honesty, Truth, Humility, Love, Wisdom, Courage, Respect.
I remember the evening of the reading, Jim invited my sister, her husband, and me, to join him, his wife, and friends at a small restaurant for dinner. During those couple of hours as we ate and visited, I glimpsed several of those Seven Sacred Teaching virtues as I listened to Jim–especially Humility.
Even though you’re a Marine, Jim, I’ll bid you Fair Sailing.
(I will send the Jim’s video to his family. I hope they post it on YouTube for everyone to see.)