… I learned how to play the guitar in Vietnam. Somebody had an instrument that looked like it had been at the bottom of the ocean for a century. The strings were rusty. A few were missing. We stripped some communication wire to replace the missing strings, tuned it up so we could play it. This one guy showed me how to play House of the Rising Sun. Its a hard song to play, especially when your fingers don’t have callouses. But I kept playing it over and over…
I was born in the General Hospital in Minneapolis — where MCTC is now, ushered into the world during a period of great disharmony. The next seven years were war years — the whole world at war. It made a big impression on me. The intensity. Children can feel that kind of thing pretty strongly. By the time I could read it was 1943. I remember seeing the picture of Iwo Jima in the paper and bringing it upstairs to show my mom. I said – “Isn’t this something!”
I was a serious child. I lived in North Minneapolis with my mother. It was just the two of us. My mother had had 13 siblings. There is a picture of her family. One sister is holding a guitar. My Grandma could play the guitar a little bit. I think guitars were pretty common in the homes of Swedish immigrants.
When I was six we were riding the Minneapolis street car past a pawn shop and I saw a banjo in the window. I told my mom, ”I want that!” I had just seen a movie with Bing Crosby playing the banjo. I liked the sound of it. A few weeks later a man — a coworker of my mom’s — came to the door with a case in his hands, — a full size guitar with the word “Swede” stenciled on top of the case.
I had small hands! I couldn’t handle it . A Banjo I might have been able to handle. Maybe if I’d gotten a banjo I would have become Earl Scruggs. But the guitar was worthless to me. I could make a sound — that was it. Mom didn’t have money for music lessons.
I ended up trading the guitar for a trumpet, and then the trumpet for a 22 rifle.
My mother and I went to war movies. Mom loved John Wayne. The Sands of Iwo Jima was indelibly X’d in my mind. I joined the army reserve when I was 18. We had meetings once a month and a summer camp — Camp McCoy in Wisconsin. At 20 I decided to join the Marine Corps. Why? I was having trouble with my girlfriends. And I went to see a movie.The hero was in the Marine Corp and I liked the way he looked— wanted to be like him.
I went to the government building on Washington and 3rd Ave; walked around it three times. The third time I said to myself “You don’t have a hair on your butt if you don’t go in there”. I took a sharp left and went in. The Officer asked me when I wanted to begin. I said “Right away.”
My mom hardly ever listened to me when I was young. She was always off somewhere else in her mind. I had a droning voice, so I’m sure I put her to sleep. I would sit at the kitchen table and talk and she would be busy cooking or cleaning and she never heard what I was saying.
I told her I was joining the Marines. She said “Un- huh.” The next day when I came home from work mom said, “There was a man from the Marine corp here today. He said you joined the Marine corp?!” She was shocked.
A week later I walked out the door, headed to the recruiters office. There was a group of young guys down there. Because I had been in the army reserve, they put me in charge of the group,
gave me all their records. We got on a plane and flew to San Diego.
The Army reserve had been a pretty low key thing. The Marines was something else. Twenty minutes after I got off that plane I knew I had made a tremendous mistake. The guy who greeted us was Marine from his hair to his toes and down to his bones. He had a voice that scared the hell out of me. They put us in the back to a pickup truck, seated so we bounced from one side to the other. When we got out of the truck there were two Marine commanders yelling at us. They were from the south. We got screamed at more because we couldn’t understand their accent or what they wanted us to do.
That night we had to stand by our bunks until every man had memorized the Eleven General Orders. If one guy got it wrong we had to start again. We were up until the early morning. Two hours later the bugle blew and we had to get up and the insanity began again.
It was always that way in the Marine corps. If one guy got it wrong we all had to pay. It was indescribable. Just shear terror for young kids.
I was stationed at Camp Pendleton in southern California. During leave, I took a bus from Los Angeles to Minneapolis. We stopped in Omaha Nebraska for a break. When I came back to the bus depot, I heard a girl saying she was going to Minneapolis. I asked her if I could sit with her. We got married several months later.
For a woman to have a husband in the Marine corp — its about the worst thing that can happen.
We had two months together before I got sent overseas to Okinawa for 14 months. When I got back and I don’t know who she is — she didn’t know who I was….
After that we lived together at Quantico in Northern Virginia. I was there to train officers to how to use machine guns. We were close enough to Washington D.C. that we got to go see Kennedy speak at the Iwo Jima memorial and lay a wreath at the tomb of the unknown soldier on Veterans Day 1963.I will never forget it — all those men in black suits with grey hair and the young President with his tomato red hair. Two weeks later, we were in the middle of a graduation at the instructor school. They told us to go home. They said we were in a state of national emergency. Stay by your phone. You may be called up at anytime.
We didn’t know the president had been killed until we got home. We were just leveled. We went up to Washington a few weeks later to see his grave. My wife gave birth to a son during this time. He died 24 hours after he was born. To this day it still kills me to say it. I still cry. His name was John. We named him after the president and buried him in Arlington cemetery not far from where Kennedy was buried.
At Quantico, while I was teaching officers to use machine guns, I was aware there was a war going on. There had not been many ground troops at that point, but I could sense that something big was going to happen. From Quantico I was sent to Hawaii — where my wife was from. She had family not far from where I was stationed. She was happier there.
One night in 1964, we went to see a movie with our whole battalion. Before the show began the officer came out and said to us, “I can’t tell you where we are going — but pack your bags. All I can tell you is— when they ask you what you did during the war you won’t have to tell them you shoveled shit in Louisiana.”
It was gut wrenching. I went home and told my wife I was leaving the next morning. She was pregnant with my daughter.
It is hard to explain war to anybody. Friends of mine were killed. Good friends of mine. It doesn’t go away. Every night in Vietnam was a horror show.
I was there for seven months… until the incident when I cracked up.
We were in the middle of laying in ambush in a heavy rainforest. It was thick – you could barely get through it. We were on a ridge line – we had set up ambush control — something we had to do from time to time. We were all scared as hell. There was movement. All of the sudden I heard a grenade blow up. I turned around. Everyone was saying ”Get off this hill.” I tumbled down. Everything restricted me. I couldn’t make my way through vines. I was like a wild animal. I beat my way through. People were falling down behind me into the bottom of the ravine.There were hogs in the ravine.
In an area smaller than half a closet, seven of us piled up. I had a rifle in my chin and someone on top of me. I didn’t feel any pain. I didn’t feel anything. We lay there in a pile until day-break, trying to stifle our breathing. About half way through I heard screaming and yelling. I assumed most of our group were dead.
In the morning we unwound ourselves.
I felt like I had been a coward. That is the way you think. I didn’t know what I would say to my commander. The other guys had already told the officer what had happened. No-one said a word to me. It weighed on me. I felt like I couldn’t be a Marine anymore.
We carried M14 rifles. Every squad had a grenade launcher. As a squad leader I was supposed to have a rifle. I gave it to the guy who carried the grenade launcher — switched with him. I didn’t feel like I could carry a rifle any more. I didn’t feel Iike I was a squad leader any more. I wasn’t in command anymore and I didn’t act like I was in command anymore.
It was a shattering experience. The Marine way of thinking was gone.
That night someone came and told me “At dawn you go down and see the first sergeant.” So, when the other guys were still asleep I went to the first sergeant. He said “ Check your gear. You are going back to Hawaii. Your wife is in the hospital and we are giving you emergency leave.” I couldn’t believe it. My wife had a break down the same time I did.
I wish you could understand. We were defending an airstrip. There were planes taking off all day long. My first sergeant gave me a new set of dungarees and told me to go down to the airstrip and find a plane going to Hawaii. Can you imagine this? I was walking on the airstrip as the planes were taking off, yelling, “Where are you going?”
I got on a plane going to the Philippines with five Coronals in dress uniforms – all spit and shine. They wouldn’t even say hello to me.
That night I ended up in a barrack in the Philippines with some Navy guys. They were heading out on a liberty night. I wanted to go to the club and get drunk but all I had was my Vietnam rags. One of the guys gave me a pair of pants to wear — size 28. I was a size 32 when I went to Vietnam — but they fit. He gave me a white t shirt. I went up to the club and had a couple beers. I ordered some food but I couldn’t eat. I went back to the barracks.
The next morning I found a plane home to my wife. I couldn’t believe I was in Hawaii. No one was being shot at. Everyone was walking around like nothing was going on. Business people. Tourists…
They gave me a position with the arm forces police and told me they would not send me back to Vietnam — but a few months later I got orders to back. I could not figure out how to tell my wife. We had a new baby. They gave me a month to get things worked out with my family.
When I showed up 30 days later, the guy looked at me. He’d experienced combat and he could just tell. He said “How long you been in the Marine Corps?” I said “Nine years.” He said “You’ve been to Vietnam already haven’t you? I think you should try to get a hardship discharge.”
I had never heard of a hardship discharge.
He said “You have to go to the doctors, have them examine you psychologically, visit a priest…”
So I did. Went through all the hoops. Then we waited, my wife and I. We were like zombies — just waiting.
The Rising Sun
I learned how to play the guitar in Vietnam. Somebody had an instrument that looked like it had been at the bottom of the ocean for a century. The strings were rusty. A few were missing. We stripped some communication wire to replace the missing strings, tuned it up so we could play it. This one guy showed me how to play House of the Rising Sun. Its a hard song to play, especially when your fingers don’t have callouses. But I kept playing it over and over.
One day while waiting to hear about my discharge petition, I was watching television — this is in Hawaii —this woman comes on and she says My name is Laura Webber. I am going to teach guitar on this channel and I invite your to join me. If you send me $5 I’ll send you a workbook. Every Wednesday we will have a lesson.
I got the workbook and watched every Wednesday, come hell or high-water. She’d say This is the E string….
Then — Laura Webber came to Hawaii!! She invited her audience in the area to come down to the University of Hawaii with our workbooks and she would give us a couple live lessons. I went down. There were fifteen of us — guys — with our guitars and our workbooks. We sat on the grass and had a lesson. We opened up the workbook and played and sang together.
Laura Webber saw I had a classical guitar and she told me to get some Bob Diamond albums. I went down to the record store, but I could not find Bob Diamond. Finally the record store clerk said “Maybe she meant Bob Dylan?” So I got some Bob Dylan albums.
I finally got the call about the discharge. The guy said , “You got your bags packed? Well unpack them. You got a hardship discharge.” That’s how I left the Marines. We moved back to Minneapolis. I got a job driving taxi, which I hated. The dispatcher was corrupt and I didn’t make any money doing it.
I decided to see if I could make some cash playing guitar.
My wife thought I was crazy.
I saw an ad in the paper that said musician wanted It was at a place.It was in White Bear Lake . Dave’s Courtyard. There was a women with a piano. I played there behind the piano, where I couldn’t be seen. I played there for eight weeks.
Veteran Against War.
The anti war movement was growing in Minneapolis when we returned. Once, my wife and I were going to a movie at the campus theater. The cops were in riot gear and there were 400-500 people there throwing marshmallows at the cops. It was amazing. We walked through the crowd to see the movie. It felt weird. It introduced me to what was happening. Later on I got involved in the Vets Against the War. We were following a group in Chicago. We had a protest at the airport where the reserve. We had a hunger strike.
In the eighties I was involved in another hunger strike — against the war in El Salvador. We fasted for twelve days at the Cathedral.. Roy Bourgeois was the Priest who fasted with us.
I was a leader. He was a leader. Roy and I had some friction.
The Cathedral was freezing. At one point the Bishop came in. I knew him. I was brought up Catholic. Went to Catholic school and I was still going to mass. I had served mass with the Bishop at St Stephens. I said to him “Could you turn the heat up in here?”
I told that to Roy and he said “You said that to the Bishop?”
[Jerry suddenly began to cry.]
It was a crazy time. I had an affair with one of the fasters. Her boyfriend came at us with a gun.
Here we were acting like saints, but we were anything but saints.
Becoming a Troubadour.
After the gig in White Bear Lake, my confidence as a musician grew. I got other gigs. In 1973 I saw Bob Bovie playing on the corner of 7th an Nicollet. He was a cowboy singer. I followed him, getting a corner (where you could encounter people from two directions.) It was noisy as hell but I had a loud voice then — as a Marine you learn how to project — I could be heard down the block.
The cops did not bother me much. Once in a while I’d see musicians packing up, saying, “They are kicking everyone off the Mall.” I’d take off, wait a little bit and then come back. The cops were done with their sweep. I could get the best spot then.
Once I was playing where the City Center is now. I had my case out facing the building. A group of teenage kids came around — four or five of them. One said “Let me see your guitar.”
I said “No I’m trying to make a living.”
They came real close, encircling me, talking about how to take my money. I was intimidated by them but something inside me said, the best way to deal with this is to sing and give it your all. I started to play Mr. Bo Jangles, with all my heart and soul. A few people came and stood behind the kids. Then more people came. Pretty soon I had 20 people standing there. People started clapping and throwing money into my case. When one kid started to try to grab the money, someone in the crowd said
“Get away from that case — that guys is a singer, man. A singer! Leave him alone.”
I began writing my own songs in about 1968, but it was several years before I felt like it was legitimate to play them. I would test them out on the Mall. It was hard. Most people like to hear the classics they know.
I started playing in the Dinkydale hallway on the East bank of the University of Minnesota — did that for decades. One day in 1975 ,this guy came into the mall. He looked strange. Dressed in white. White jacket, white pants, and a black beard. His face looked kind of like an owl. He stood there listening to me, peering at me like a bird.
After a couple songs he said to me “You know I have a show…”
I thought “Sure – you have a show” I nodded. I was humoring him. “What kind of show is that?“
He said I put up some bleachers. People play. I do some story telling. Would you like to come?
I said “Sure.” I thought “Yeah sure you do.“ but he gave me a date and directions.
I thought, “What do I have to lose.”
I showed up at the address at the appointed time. There were indeed some bleachers and about 40 people there listening. I saw my friends Bill Hinckley and Judy Larson.
I thought “Holy shit, this must be real.”
Afterward the man in white said he had a morning show if I wanted to come. He kept inviting me to play on his morning gig. Public Radio. Garrison Keillor.
I’ve played in clubs in 25 states. In the late 70s I got a tour in Southern California. Some people in Los Angeles had a radio show. They got a copy of my tape, liked my music and set up gigs for me from San Diego to Los Angeles.
I almost missed my radio appearance with them. I was driving up from San Diego. I was excited. I stopped at a gas station and locked my keys in the car. I told the gas station attendant I was supposed to be on the show in 45 minutes. I ask if I could borrow a a mop and a beer can opener. I shoved it through a tiny slit open in the window. After 20 minutes, of praying and finagling, I got it open.
I got to the radio station just as the show was starting.
I did the Nursing home circuit across the country — got that because a man who was 90 years old — a pastor — liked my music. Sometimes my audience was so far gone they ‘d be sitting there saying “Take me away.. take me away” It’s pretty hard to play when someone is doing that.
Now I’m getting to be that age.
I have had a love affair with the guitar. My songs go in many directions. I like all forms of music. Some sound like country, some sound Cajun. I borrow from everyone. Simplicity has always been my game. I heard once that “Any damn fool can be complex — its hard to be simple” — I think maybe it was Woody Guthrie who said that.
I stopped playing for five years. 2010. I didn’t even play on the street. It was a terrible period. I was getting too anxious about having an audience and where I was playing.
I just started again. Bought a new guitar. A “Collings,” made in Austin, Texas,. Why did I start again? I’m not sure. I guess I just decided I’m not too old. Willie Nelson is still playing and he is a little older than me…. It’s never too late. I should probably start listening to City’s 97 and work my way into the 21st century. I like some of the new stuff, but it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks. Memorization is harder now.
I would not trade my life for anyone. I am blessed a thousand times. It’s humbling.. Someone told me I should write a book. I said “It would take a life time to write it.