Sun, Mar 20, 2005 - Page 19 News List

Beating poverty, surviving Vietnam and still every bit a marine

Retired Brigadier General Ezell Ware Jr has seen a lot and done a lot and tells us what he's learned

By Asher Price  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , AUSTIN, TEXAS

In fact, it's the closeness of the war -- the thousand ways in the messy heat that he got to know his fellow soldiers -- that appears to have, paradoxically, left him so isolated. In one episode in By Duty Bound, a South Vietnamese man snatches Ware's camera. "Hey!" Ware shouts, and for an instant there is a bond, even if it is that between a thief and his victim. The next moment the man, who has evidently stepped on a land mine, "was just pieces of body flying through the air like debris in a storm ... I did not see my camera land," Ware writes.

"People came in and went out of your life so fast, you had to think of them as interchangeable, unless you knew they were going to play a role in your own story," he explains in By Duty Bound. "Names, faces, skin colors -- they were all the same. ... The irony was that the closer you got to death, the closer you got to the people who were with you. Danger would become an invisible hand that brought you unnaturally close unnaturally fast."

Deep in the Vietnam jungle he found himself closest to the man least like him, his blubbery, self-pitying, West Virginian co-pilot, a Klansman whom Ware only calls Burdett. His leg badly wounded in the helicopter crash, Burdett must rely on Ware to bear him to safety. And it is high in a banyan tree, after a meal of raw crickets, that Burdett makes his confession. Ware seems to care little (or maybe he is just unsurprised) about the admission. He just wants to be evacuated.

He is now, and was then, matter-of-fact. And his blackness, then, and now, was simply a fact, not a defining feature. "I did not want to put a glass ceiling on myself."

For a man raised in the Deep South in the 1940s and 1950s, the relatively color-blind military offered a world in which he could lift himself up by his boostraps. "Still hanging on a wall in my memory is a Life photograph of a Marine returning from the South Pacific after World War II," he writes in a recollection of his early childhood. "He'd obviously seen and done things that I wanted to see and do. For some reason, I ached to be that Marine. That he was white and I was black wasn't a thought that occurred to me, not even in passing. Such a thing didn't seem to matter. As far as I was concerned, we were both Americans, and that gave us more in common than we had differences."

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