I had the fascinating honor to meet John Wayne several times in passing as he visited Camp Pendleton California and the Marine Recruit Depot (MCRD), located in San Diego, a few years before his death on June 11, 1979.
He was the type of icon whose myth precedes and slowly replaces the actual truth of the man; at least to the masses that make up the myth to begin with. John Wayne or “The Duke” as he was known, was as complex and as simple as we all are at times; the foibles and idiosyncrasies in the beauty of just being human, becoming lost in the collective chaos of his fans.
We all have trouble finding balance in the things we do in life and by extension, those things of ourselves that drive the chaos of the path we choose to walk. It’s difficult to see ourselves in any objective sense, or to develop the introspective tools that help us to choose what we need in life, versus the vagaries and vicissitudes of what we want.
We war against the physical nature of ourselves to compete instinctively to the point of our own destruction, but yet somehow as we grow, as we learn, there develops a shaky truce between the actions and reflections of those actions, with the many different aspects that make up our nature.
The seeds of our success or that of our failures; are sewn into the fabric of our lives by the people who mentor us, as well as those who abuse us. Every breath we take, every thought we have, every challenge we accept, has a far reaching affect in the budding thoughts and behaviors of our personality and that of those around us.
When the local Firemen in Glendale California coined the nicknames of Little Duke and Big Duke, for the local paper boy and his dog; I doubt they could envision their own future, any more than that of the boy who would become one more imperfect legend of Hollywood.
Would they remember the boy and his dog? The healthy innocence smiling brightly from his eyes, the effect of their words and their friendship becoming such a large part of the man and no small part of the myth.
Can you see the young boy? Six years old, pulling his red wagon, his dog loping beside him, as they make their rounds through the neighborhood delivering papers; a time where children were raised not just by their parents, but by their friends and neighbors as well.
John Wayne, for those of you under the age of forty or so, was quite a few things beyond the persona that you would or could understand from the history books or media hype that breeds the legends of all great, but imperfect personalities we come to think we know.
There is a commonality of how we paint them that defines the legends as greater than they were, while bleeding away the humanity that made them great to begin with. Toiling and melding this artificial personality into something unrecognizable even to themselves.
It is the Achilles heel to any and all who find their careers created and supported by those that create the image we see and loose the sense of the person we don’t. Those we see through history, the media or the newest sound bite, are real people to us only when we see in them, what we should see in ourselves, the fragility of just being human.
It is this myopic vision we have of those we admire or those we hate, that bleeds out the reality of their humanity and limits the mirror image of themselves into some foggy caricature of who they were, projecting that same blindness into the ever waning perceptions of ourselves and our life on this side of the looking glass.
The faulty visions we have, become the prophetic nature of our true selves and that of those we target with our delusions. There are very few legendary figures that do not get lost in the virtual landscape of the cages we make for them; gilded cages with all that they could desire, but cages none-the-less.
We all roam the world to some greater or lesser extent as herd animals, projecting and reflecting the nature of our limits, in the common needs of those around us.
Herding ourselves into gardens of listless thought; reacting only to the cry of something lost, a hazy memory that becomes one more shadow of the dreams we once had, the future we once felt was ours alone.
There is a competition we are borne into, some nature of ourselves to combat the shadows of our life that we see clearly only in hindsight. We cry and fight to be born; but yet flinch at the change it brings to us and those around us.
We find peace only in the forgetfulness of the walls our mind creates and that our heart clings to. We project our loss, our dreams, our souls; into those who seem on the surface, to have found what we once dreamed of having.
It becomes a habit of our needful blindness that swirls our lives into a narcotic haze, a junky’s need to just have the next fix, the next high that slowly drains away the person we once could have been; if only we had known to fight for what we did not see.
We live gratuitously within the legends we honor with our attention; but destroy them or malign them when they trip and become the frail human they had always been, falling as they fall to the lowest common point of antipathy and narcissism.
I was only eighteen years old plus a couple of months or so, when I first met The Duke. He was well known for his love of visiting soldiers and Marines, for they admired him so much and the sentiment was well honored and well given.
He would sometimes show up in the Chow halls, walking with one General Officer or another, even stopping to talk to some of us, or pointing out a Marine that had the look of what Hollywood envisioned, was the proper look of a Marine. Sometimes giving them bit parts in movies or using them as background silhouettes, capturing moments of realism to the unreality of what they were doing.
Finding heroes to emulate, to look to for guidance in a world gone mad at times is a worthy goal, even in those times they fall short of who we thought they were. It is the blindness in our approach, or in whom we choose that becomes the problem. What makes another person worthy of our adulation? Our respect? Or yes; even at times, hero worship.
Isn’t that the question we should always ask of ourselves and of those we put on a pedestal? We spend so much of our time blindly competing with each other in so many inconsequential things, that we lose ourselves in the minutiae of the empty psychological trinkets, which become the nature of our thoughts and of how we look at the world.
John Wayne once said that no one should be allowed to vote until they were at least thirty years old. He said it flippantly and with that unassuming smile and charisma that he was famous for, but there was a point to his comment, even if it takes some life experience to understand it.
None of us understand the emotionally skewed nature of our logic, our loss of objective thought; as the puberty induced hormonal storms bring to us the passions of our biology, without regard to what is true and what is not. It works its way through our system and that of how we perceive the world, for many years to come.
It comes to us slowly, the years of our recovery, the introspection that we lacked in our youth. It is with amazement, those first moments we slowly come awake that we see the possibilities of our blindness, the foggy memories only understood in the hindsight of early middle age.
The Duke was not insulting those under the age of thirty; but recognizing a rule or corollary in human psychological development. That for the most part, during puberty and for some years afterward; not to engender too much of a sitcom pun, “we are not the masters of our universe”. A view we never agree with while in the storm; but if truthful, one we always regret in the decisions that become our life.
Before the age of thirty for most of us, we live in a purgatory of thought and form, where the hormones eventually lose their hold on us; but yet our intellectual reflexes, if not properly stretched and mentored, still seek to flash into illogical action at the slightest provocation.
John Wayne constantly catalyzed a firestorm of rhetoric from the young and the knee jerk professionals of much of the academic world, as well as feminist groups and others, who seem to forget that you cannot take out the biological influences that contribute to who we become.
He was full of quips that turned the mind to needful thought and smiled the smile of a man who knew of what he spoke. He was a mythic figure to many, irascible at times, joyful at others. It was the passion of the man that brokered so many debates; but his nature was loved by all, even as he was quickly aging from what the Cancer was slowing doing to his body.
He was the ultimate competitor and knew the importance of fighting the nature of things, even when there was little hope. My grandmother had died from Cancer and the starry eyed nature of the hope she had drawn from him, in their common battles, gave me the understanding of his humanity and the truth of his nature. Like most my age, I did not always understand the wisdom in his words; but my respect for him gave me pause for thought.
My father once said something I have found particularly profound over the years, and I think “The Duke” would have agreed with it. My father said “that he would become smarter, as I became older”. It is true, that as I have learned the lessons my parents learned the same way; with time and effort, that my Father and “The Duke” both became smarter as I grew to understand their words.
Finishing Advanced Infantry Training (AIT) at Camp Pendleton California, I returned to the Marine Recruit Depot (MCRD) San Diego to attend Sea School. At the time it was a Marine school dedicated to developing the skills we would need on one of several Naval Aircraft Carriers we would eventually be assigned to. Duty that required the skills of a policeman at times, a sniper or SWAT team style reaction squad at others.
We were given the duty of guarding Nuclear weapons at sea, running the Brig or as a quick response team for troubles in locations around the world we might travel through. Trouble, a colloquialism in military parlance for some form of armed insurrection, an American Embassy in need, or some form of protection needed for Americans abroad.
At Sea School, we were also given the extra duties that included performing military funerals up and down the coast of California, what had become known throughout the state as the Marine Corps Historical Pageant.
At military and civilian events alike, we would dress up in period uniforms of the Marine Corps, and tell of its history on stage. Our biggest show was the 200th Anniversary of the Marine Corps, celebrated with a Birthday Ball, its attending power players, politicians and actors included John Wayne, Telly Savalas, George Peppard and a slew of others basking in the limelight with its free drinks, free food and free publicity.
Life is a competitive sport as “The Duke” would say to us whenever he was around talking, drinking or smoking cigars with the Generals we drove or acted as security for. I think he loved being around Marines because it gave him some level of acceptance and camaraderie that he missed. That closeness of warriors that breeds acceptance beyond whatever one’s social standing is.
Most fans and protagonists alike limit their vision of him as just an actor, looking at what they think is a paradox at having never served in the military during a time of war. His strong support of the military and its defense of American Exceptionalism seems to them to be hypocritical.
To those of us who understand war, the physical conflict that it brings, we know that at times the hardest thing to do is to take a step back, letting others fight, while we guide, mentor or train and in the Duke’s way, to inspire.
He was outspoken about people taking responsibility for their choices and the path that fate had placed them on. As he said “the need to survive drives us to compete even when we find ourselves without competition”.
I can’t say at the time, that I understood the full nuance of the many things I heard and saw; but my own life experience now fills me with some remembered kinship with him that dissolves the barrier of time that now lays between us.
When we are born, we drive ourselves to resist the act that nature has thrown into the creation of the world as we know it, we laugh, we cry, we crawl, we walk, constantly being tested, constantly learning there is a new hurdle, a new challenge in our life.
We are in a race to grow, to love, to hate, to compete against the very nature of the world itself. We race against the hormones of our youth, weighed down by the emotional baggage that they bring to us.
As we find some sense of recovery from the hormonal storm that has blasted our minds into intellectual mush, driven to passions of both the heart and mind, we find ourselves being called to be responsible, to marry, have kids, find a career and become a conscientious supporting part of our society.
What hormones did to our wants and needs in our youth, the stress and recovery from the chaos of our youth while becoming adults, does to our lives for some years to come. I do understand in hindsight what the Duke meant about waiting to vote until you were thirty, waiting to have a clearer sense of who we are and what we believe.
We are driven to compete from birth, blindly acting and reacting to the nature of our environment; knee-jerking our responses so quickly that our minds do not always catch the nature of the path, that our reactions are driving us toward.
I tend to paraphrase Winston Churchill quite a bit, when he commented somewhat the phrase “show me a young liberal and I’ll show you a person of passion, show me an old liberal and I’ll show you a mind that has been lost”.
His point was that we spend so much of our life driven by the need to compete to survive, that it becomes the driving force of our passions, all too often without regard to the objective logic of the situation at hand.
Getting away from the political inequities of liberal and conservative arguments; both being blind to balance more often than not, there is some essence of truth in the group of people Winston Churchill was referencing.
Being young, our passions rule us and learning to balance our emotions with the wisdom of time and objectivity, all too often takes a large part of the allotted time in life we have.
Our survival instincts, our innate need to compete comes from the depths of our genetics honed by the nature of our world. What the Duke was alluding to in his world wise homilies, was the need to remember that competition in life is only half of the equation.
A hunter on the African Veldt; whether today, or a hundred thousand years ago survives not just from blind competition; but the knowledge they gain from each level of competition that they survive.
It is a strong asset to be passionate about those things in life that you want to accomplish; but collectively, we survive as a species by learning to focus our competitive spirit with as much thought as action.
Our strength has always been our need to connect as individuals with each other, to protect each other against the elements, to drive our genes into the future of our people. Our morality and ethical nature as a species comes to us as the end result of as much intellectual competition, as physical competition.
Our success comes from finding a balance between our instinct to blindly compete, versus the control and focus that our empathy for one another binds us to the nature of our moral fiber.
The heroes in both thought and deed are not the infamous or famous faces we see on a television screen, in a game of sport or some such arena, but in those personalities that inspire us to compete and at the same time support each other toward common goals.
We celebrate the Marine Corps birthday, by coming together where ever we are. The oldest Marine on station and the youngest Marine on station toasting each other and the generations of Marines they represent.
This year I was lucky enough to be the youngest Marine in Southern California, the surrealism of my toast in front of hundreds of former Marines like George Peppard or Honorary Marines like “The Duke”, giving me a sense of wonder as if I existed only in a dream.
After the toast between myself and our Commanding General, I became the main focus to the hundreds of Hollywood personalities looking on. The General took a step back, representing those who were remembered this day for their past sacrifices and past efforts. I took a step forward, representing those who were new and those who had yet to become Marines that would serve our country with honor.
John Wayne patted me on the back whispering words of encouragement and reassurance; “take a deep breath, you’re doing fine son”. I could feel his smile on my back as I regained control of my breathing, raising my glass to my audience and toasting them for their support.
Marching forward, followed by the honor guard and my fellow Marines, we walked stiffly; half stepping through a gauntlet of well wishers moving as we slowly marched from the auditorium in time and in sync with the music that blared in our ears.
The Sergeant of the Guard was waiting for us at the door, helping us to our individual security posts for the evening; all of us seeking spiritual safety in something familiar away from the crowds in the dinner areas.
Standing at attention, bookends to the elite power brokers and personalities communing with one another; our presence was blessedly forgotten by most, as we took up our security duties for the rest of the evening.
Later, George Peppard and his wife came up to us, making the rounds with his fellow Marines before leaving for the night. Telly Savalas smoking a cigar, with two women on his arms winking at us as he paraded them out the door; asking us jokingly if there was anyone in need of a birthday present he could give us. This said tongue in cheek, as he pointed at his dates for the night. No one volunteered, but not as I noticed without either turning red with embarrassment as in my case, or a wishful look I saw on some of my Sergeant’s faces.
The girls laughed, even as we escorted them to their cars. The night was a blur, a culture shock that even thirty years later, still seems somewhat a dream, as my friends and I dealt with one social onslaught after another.
We stood at attention saluting the mass exodus of those who had honored us, and now retired to dinner, their homes, or in Telly’s case, to someone else’s home. He laughed with his now inebriated friends even as it dawned on me; my eighteen year old mind, how common we were in the nature of the things that drive us.
In the cigar smoked rooms where we continued to stand guard and the parties moved from room to room, we would hear snippets of conversation from those we idealized on the movie screens, the political halls of justice and politics, exposing themselves for both the good and bad people some of them were.
I remember a young woman, part of the drunken mass working their way through the rooms, tripping and falling in front of me, as we stood as part of the background decoration throughout the building.
John Wayne was passing by with the General and they stopped next to us as I helped her up. I could not help but be a little flustered at some of the lewd innuendoes that came from her mouth, the General and the Duke grinning at my discomfort.
The woman’s husband showed up to help carry her away, as I stepped back to my position of attention. The general was talking to ‘the Duke’, talking to him as the close friend he was. It was disconcerting; but yet exhilarating to realize the poignancy of the moment, the reality of the mythos turned to humanity in the blink of an eye.
There was a pause as they talked, just out of range to hear as their voices were silenced by the cacophony of others throughout the large hall. People constantly passing by, taking pictures of each other, us in our dress blues, me and all my fellow Marines on duty, retreating into our selves to avoid our discomfort in an environment we were ill-equipped to enjoy.
I had lost sight of the General and the Duke as I watched the crowd, but trying to keep them in sight without seeming to be the tourist. I tensed as a hand touched my shoulder, even as I continued to stand at parade rest, feet apart, eyes forward, hands behind my back, strict alignment of every seam, and posture.
I’m sure my eyes grew large as John Wayne stood in front of me, the General smiling, knowing my discomfort and surprise. I had snapped to attention as the Commanding General came into view behind him.
“So Marine, How old are you?” The Duke asked.
I looked the question at the Commanding General, requesting permission to answer the question as protocol required. He nodded.
“At ease Private First Class” the General said. My rank at the time, one rank below lance corporal, three ranks below sergeant; but an infinite level above the term “maggot” used for me by Drill Instructors, just a couple of months before.
I relaxed into a stiff version of attention, not quite knowing what to do. My voice squeaked a little as I answered.
“I’m eighteen sir”, breathing a sigh as I realized, that I would be happier in a Fire Fight at that moment, then where I was.
I hoped in my heart that that was the only question that I would be asked, for I had not yet learned to keep my thoughts and beliefs quiet when asked a direct question. I think a lack of tact was what my Drill Instructor use to call it.
“Do you drink or smoke” as he nudged both towards me. Not a serious offer to partake, just conversation to see my reactions. He was in a happy mood, and seemed to be enjoying himself.
“No sir I don’t” I said.
People were constantly going by, saying hello and shaking his hand as he interspersed questions to me, between conversations with my Commanding General.
“Well, at least you’re not a virgin I hope” laughing as he said this, then both laughing a little as I turned red, letting them know that was exactly what I was at the time.
“You don’t drink, don’t smoke, haven’t had sex” saying this as he turned to his friend and my boss, “Just what kind of Marines are you growing here?” It was said with good humored rhetoric.
I realized after a moment that they were not laughing at me, but more the wishful thought of wanting to enjoy being young again. Something understood now, but only a vague and hazy recognition at the time.
“I don’t even remember being that young” John Wayne said with a wistful note, reminding us all of the illness that clouded his future. A fleeting tremor of a wish in his voice, to go back and correct the mistakes of his youth, to rid himself of the blindness that we all have, as we seek clarity in our steps.
It is this introspection of the intellect; finding its way to wisdom, that is the hallmark and complement to the competitive instinct that drives us toward our common goals.
Before they left for the night, the military chauffeurs giving rides home to those whose nature was to over-indulge, the man, now no longer the myth I grew up with, turned and asked me a question.
“Son, what did you learn today?” Something I heard later, that he commonly asked of those young people he chose to have conversations with.
My response came out quicker than my mind had the ability to control. I answered not as a Marine standing at semi-attention; before a man many people almost worshiped, my grandmother included.
“I realize tonight, in a real way sir, that everyone is human including movie stars, and that my being unknown is less a trap, then that of being too well known”
I’m not sure where the words had come from, for the idea, had only been half-formed when he asked the question. I quickly bit my tongue in my efforts to distance myself from what I had just said and went back to attention.
There gazes were serious for a moment, and I was not sure that I had angered them or just surprised them by being honest about what I had been thinking about at the time.
The commanding general looked pointedly at my name tag and said “Campbell huh”, whose your Platoon Sergeant. I gave him the information, well expecting to hear about my flippant attitude the next day.
John Wayne looked at me again; smiling as he asked “explain what you mean son”. It was obvious they were checking to see the reality of my thoughts as opposed to some memorized response, which I found out later was a common trait for many people they were use to talking with.
“Sorry Sir, I intended no insult, it just seems to me as I watch someone so famous such as yourself, and all of the others I’ve seen here tonight, that being famous for whatever the reason, is something of a trap.”
“You’re hounded by people you don’t know, who you really are. Tourists constantly beg for your attention; but then insult you if you don’t have the time to give, it doesn’t seem worth it to me.”
“And how am I really?” For a moment I thought he was being sarcastic; but my mouth was writing checks I’m sure the General was going to make me pay for later.
Our conversation had started to be a real conversation, instead of just a couple of inane questions and answers. The General’s look was terse; but friendly, so I chose to answer with the truth.
“You’re a real person, like my grandmother or my father, with real pain, real emotions, someone truly worth knowing.”
“And that surprises you!” he said.
“I guess in a way, it did sir. When the General walks by, I don’t think of him as a person, just someone to avoid or react to with a salute. I know in my thoughts that you and he are real people; but it’s so easy to forget with so much hype and what little exposure we have to the real you.”
“I don’t suppose I realized until now, how much of my thoughts were based on such shallow generalizations.”
About that time there drivers showed up and they were side lined into heading for the doors, both of them looking at me and smiling with nods of encouragement.
“Son, you have an open mind and seem to have a good heart. Whatever else in life you may lose, don’t lose who you are!”
He patted me on the shoulder and headed out to his waiting car. His parting words have over the years, helped me to take a step back and recover from my mistakes, even if I was not quick enough at times to avoid them. Only many years later with more life experience did I understand those looks and understood fully what he meant.
I had grown up debating with my father concerning just about any and all subjects you could possibly name. All too often I was wrong; but the challenge of wanting to win the Father son competition of right and wrong, drove me to read, to study, to think beyond what many would not think about well into adulthood or not at all.
Being undiagnosed dyslexic even then, I was at some points in school considered to be backward; but it to drove me to think beyond what others thought, just to stay equal when talking with friends, much less strangers.
The intellectual pose for me at the time was the barrier against others knowing that in my heart; I believed what some of my teachers had said about being backward or slow; as I had heard several say, when they did not know I was listening.
I realized at the time that we all create the traps that limit our perceptions, in the nature of how we see others, and in the nature of what we project of ourselves in how we behave.
The next day I was ordered to report to the Commanding Generals office. My heart was pounding; I couldn’t catch my breath, knowing that I had ruined my career with the Marine Corps, knowing that my mouth had gotten me into trouble again.
He asked a number of questions; but the gist of it was extra duty as his driver. I didn’t know at the time whether it was punishment or curiosity on his part. Over the few months I was stationed there, I drove him throughout Southern California, to many places to see many famous people.
“With your tendency to talk, you can keep me awake while you’re driving me around.”
He said this with something of a smile as he dismissed me for the day. He chose books for me to study, ordered me to attend special classes when he realized after some time that I was dyslexic and for the most part he seemed to enjoy our conversations, as he sat in the back of the car while I drove him to the many daily appointments he had.
I saw John Wayne a couple of more times after that, overheard their conversations and enjoyed the debates that slowly developed. My mouth would get ahead of me at times; but as time went on I did realize that I was there project, there way of keeping in touch with their own youth and passing on something of their thoughts into the next generation..
There is a quote written by Jonathan Bach where he says “you teach best what you most need to learn”. Such a simple; but profound statement, one by which I understood my mentors a little more, as well as myself,
It is our competitive nature or instinct, to generalize our observations into actions and reactions for want of any real logic or understanding, into the nature of those we compete against.
It is a part of who we are to categorize friend or foe by our physical observations. Subliminal meanderings focusing on differences instead of those things we have in common.
Different means enemy, something in common means friend. It is the nature of our generalizations to give us guidance for our survival, but without guidance from our mind, our intellect breaks down so easily into attitudes, that are no longer competitively positive, but into predispositions skewing our logic into thoughts that bring us chaos and more threat than peace and stability.
Where being black or white means enemy or foe, where social differences are more than being different, they mean threats to the unfocused mind, breeding jealousies of the haves and have not’s.
In the final moment of any man’s life, there is the question of how well they did for their families, their friends and those things in life that they hold dear. My father gave me the sense of being the individual I am, finding truth in the thoughts and actions of those around me.
Meeting and learning from John Wayne and so many others along the way, gave me the sense of who my father is; that those traits I admired so much in the famous faces I met, was also to be found in the many debates I had had with my father at home.
Like the rest of you I don’t know the true nature of John Wayne, other than the bits and pieces I saw in the few brief moments of meeting him, but I do know that the man I saw believed in the things he said, believed in the nature of who he was trying to be.
All things being said and at the end of the day, John Wayne was “The Duke” and all that the name implies. Not because he always lived up to the ideals; we his many fans would hope for, but for the simple fact that he inspired generations of people to compete for a better life, to have hope when at times there is nothing else.
If you find yourself in a quandary in the nature of who to believe in, to follow or to be inspired by, look to those who drive you to think for yourself, who will push your nature to that of being the individual that turns you toward the higher road in life. It will never be easy, but it will always be worth it.
Maybe it is true that the way to become a better person is to create in our minds and in our actions the person we want to be. After others start to believe, maybe we can as well. John Wayne was “The Duke” and in the true essence of what that means, he knew the price of being human and the peace of showing us how to be more.