The sudden and unlikely appearance of military sandbags and a pup tent staked onto the well tended lawn of the historic downtown Petaluma Museum here in the south of sleepy Sonoma County was certainly an attention grabber this week, as motorists and visitors to the venerable gateway to wine country stopped to take a gander at a graceful, old, Carnegie Library building seemingly bracing itself for attack.
It takes a stunning visual to grab folks' attention these days and the new regime of movers and shakers at the Petaluma Museum has proved its battle tactics to be spot on in engaging the public to take time from the fast track and delve more enthusiastically into the far more compelling, rich, cultural historic avenues of our country's storied past.
According to President of the Military Writers Society of America, Tony Lazzarini, one of the saddest, though least chronicled eras of American history, after the Civil War, was the Vietnam War.
Sure, we've all seen the movies: Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, The Deer Hunter. The Vietnam War took place over a decade long period from 1964 to 1974, an era otherwise known as the heyday of the hippie movement.... sex, drugs, rock and roll and all that. The clash of two iconic cultures, a country at war vs. a country discovering itself to the utmost extremes. But how is our perception of the Vietnam Vet different from the reality of so many millions of unsung heroes?
Now, some 35 years after the fall of Saigon, two thirds of Vietnam Veterans are dead. "We're losing the remaining one third of Vietnam Vets at a rate of more than 300 a day," said North Beach, San Francisco-raised Lazzarini over Thursday morning coffee across the street from the Petaluma Museum.
We'd taken a stroll in the sunshine during a flurry of activity in which dozens of volunteers and museum staff were putting together the final touches on a remarkably rare exhibit designed to honor the dying breed that was in its teens to late 20s during the Vietnam era.
Unlike the blood-splattered, music-based Hollywood approach: "It's important that this exhibit is well represented and that personal stories are accurately told," explained the 25th Aviation Battalion 'Little Bear'. "It's time to honor these guys while they are still alive."
Lazzarini is an extremely charismatic man with so many creative outlets that it's hard to imagine such a dynamic individual having any time in his action-packed life to suffer the slings and arrows of any small degree of post traumatic stress. But it's the creative process that enables the prolific speaker/author/film maker/playwright to continue with his life-long processing of the highs and horrors of a 21 month tour of duty in Vietnam from aged 19 to 21.
"Veterans frequently turned to creativity to express themselves in ways that could not be put into words," he said."Otherwise, it would slowly eat you away."
Lazzarini described his own personal creative journey post-Vietnam as a form of therapy. "War is so destructive," he said "It goes against everything we believe." "We didn't come home as a group," he explained. He was discharged after two tours of Vietnam in 1966 and 1967 and awarded the coveted Air Medal for Heroism.
"I went from the strong bond of brotherhood and constant night missions to walking the streets of San Francisco, isolated and surrounded by the negative attitude of civilians towards returned Vietnam Vets."
Highest Traditions is the name of the book that Lazzarini wrote about his roller coaster experiences in Vietnam, in which he flew over 250 missions as a helicopter door gunner on a UH-1D (Huey) helicopter.
At that time, the average life expectancy of a gunner in combat was just 20 seconds, later improving at the slightest stretch to 2 minutes.
"How do you put the genie in the bottle?" he asked. "After all the atrocities of war, Vets like myself returned home only to ask themselves 'who is this guy?"
A long time Marin County resident, Lazzarini tackled life head on in his trademark way after settling back into reality in the Bay Area. A heady cocktail of risk, adrenaline and high speed action replaced the thrill of helicopter missions in the form of race car driving. Owner/driver of a 1970 XJ6 racing Jaguar, the former IBM employee recently competed in a two day endurance race at Infineon Raceway, here in Sonoma County. "I always wanted to be a race car driver," said Lazzarini. "Sound, movement, speed..."
Precision is clearly a major factor in this supremely successful Vietnam veteran's life. "I have always kept myself within the realm of right and wrong. When to shoot. When not to shoot. A lot of names on the wall are not there because of these specific actions."
Dispelling the myth that the vast majority of Vietnam Vets came home completely washed up and unable to contribute to society, Lazzarini is quick to quote reference to statistics that the average Vietnam Vet became "more successful than counterparts who didn't go".
Lazzarini diligently cleared the table in the coffee shop of our emptied paper cups and napkins, a crumpled sugar packet. "I never thought about not surviving," he said. "I was twenty-one at the end of my tour. I was indestructible. And I couldn't conceive of abandoning my friends, breaking the bond."
Back at the museum, an atmosphere of quiet calm had descended despite the day's unfolding of a slew of media attention. "Nine million people served in Vietnam during those 10 years, though only 40% were in combat,"said Lazzarini. "This exhibit here in Petaluma is of great importance." A swell of interest in the museum's exhibition in anticpated now through November 28th. A series of special events has been planned at the Museum, which is located at 20 Fourth Street, starting tonight (Thursday, September 25th, 2010) with an opening reception for Museum members and exhibition special guests.
This Saturday (Sept 25th) is Welcome Home Day at the museum at 1pm featuring a city proclamation and a special presentation by the Freedom Riders honoring Vietnam vets and the 15 Petaluma men who lost their lives.
Thinking of stopping by the museum to see the exhibit? Entrance is free of charge to Vietnam Vets, $3 donation suggested otherwise, though no one will be turned away. The film, "The Vietnam War" will be shown at 1.30pm every Saturday.
Guest speakers, including Tony Lazzarini talking about his epic helicopter missions (Sept 25th at 4pm), will be featured at 4pm on Saturdays Sept 25th, 26th, Oct 2nd, Oct 3rd, Oct 9th, Oct 10th, Oct 16th, Oct 24th, Oct 30th, Nov 6th, Sunday Nov 7th, Nov 13th, Nov 14th, Nov 20th and Nov 27th.