The Unique Truth of Dink Wells

About Dink Wells



As a Drill Sergeant once said to me, “It’s war, baby, war, baby, war, baby, war.”

But that was then, right? A long time ago, right?

We don’t think much about the American wars these days, do we? They’re seldom on the front pages of the

 newspaper, even though there are at least two of them going on right now.

Some of our dear troops fortunate enough to walk away from the battlefield will find themselves in the grip of

 another enemy, a shadowed foe often more terrifying than anything they saw in battle. This enemy has iron hands

 and napalm breath. It hollows out your head, leaving you to wander a world of bruised light and razor winds, a world

 filled with threats—threats that, to the ordinary world, look like common trees.

This enemy can’t be killed. This enemy never goes away.

Harry Unger went to war, and someone else came back.

Johnny I hardly knew you.
With your drums and guns and drums and guns, hurroo, hurroo
The enemy nearly slew ye.
Oh my darling dear, Ye look so queer
Johnny I hardly knew ye.

But he wasn’t a soldier when I first saw him in the fall of 1964.

He wasn’t even Harry.

No, he was Steve then. Steve Unger folksinger on the stage of King Chapel at little Cornell College in Mount

 Vernon, Iowa.

Maybe Harry was trying to change his identity. I don’t know.

Though I do know that this: Steve Unger was the coolest guy I’d ever seen.
He was a tall and lanky James Dean in his vest, blue jeans, and black engineer boots. He clomped into the

 spotlight of the freshman talent show and began strumming that big Gibson flat-top guitar with the floral designs on

 the pick guard. You can see what he looked like in one of those pictures over there.

His singing—his very presence—blew the room away.

Somehow, in the magic part of the 1960’s, this incredibly talented folk singer had landed here in our midst. Our

 own Bob Dylan. I was thrilled by what I heard. The hairs on the back of my neck lifted when Steve sang.

Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, where have you been, my darling young one?

For some reason, Steve and I became good friends.

I’m not sure why. We were an improbable pair. Steve seemed like an authentic bohemian to me, kind of dangerous,

a child of Whitman, his head full of songs, waiting for his moment to head out on the open road. Me, I was trying to

 escape a working-class town, a faux preppie in my starched Gant shirts and ironed MacGregor chinos. Me—my head

 was mostly filled with scenes from The Dick Van Dyke Show.

Maybe it went this way. Steve offered me a glimpse of the artistic world, and I gave Steve the solidity of an

 ordinary life.

Steve was certainly braver than I—over there is a picture of Steve somewhere in Alabama encouraging blacks to

 vote in 1965. White boys from the north were beaten and killed for doing that.

I think Steve had more nerves than the rest of us.

Steve had a date with perhaps the cutest and most popular girl on campus. She was a cheerleader, a sorority

 girl. She was classy and gorgeous and, for someone like me, totally unavailable, but she had called Steve for a date.

 Steve was just that cool. Women chased him, and yet this charming Steve was terrified and asking me, Mr. Dick Van

 Dyke, for advice as I helped him tie his necktie, probably the only real service I could bring to that party.

Steve was shaking. I could feel pure terror. I remember trying to calm him down. That’s when I realized that

 Steve had more nerves than the rest of us. Nerves that could make him talented but also nerves that could slice his

 psyche into little pieces.

Over there is a picture of those days.

Steve and I playing chess during the winter of 1964-65. That’s what we looked like then. Clear-eyed, no wrinkles.

Easy smiles. Two young men. Boys, really, playing chess and smoking cigarettes, imaginary Marlboro Men too young

 to die, immortal as only young people can be.

I suspect that Steve had some inkling of the terrors ahead. Me, I was concentrating on my next move.

Where are your eyes that were so mild, hurroo, hurroo
Where are your eyes that were so mild, hurroo, hurroo
Oh Johnny, I hardly knew you.

I was so busy getting those Gant shirts ready for college that I missed the rumor of war that August of 1964,

 maybe a month before Steve’s debut at Cornell. Some 8000 miles from Mount Vernon, Iowa, in the Gulf Tonkin, one

 of our warships was supposedly attacked on August 4th, an attack that prompted Congress to pass the Gulf of

 Tonkin Resolution and President Johnson to begin a full-scale war in Vietnam. Long after the fact, we learned that the

 attack was a fiction. As The New York Times put it, the “American ships had been firing at radar shadows on a dark


Oh, what did you see, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what did you see, my darling young one?
I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it

For some reason, the horror of those times drew Steve in. Maybe he wanted to sing about those days, to be a

 real folksinger out there in America, though maybe he was also mesmerized by the lurid Goddess of War and her

 Ten-fold Terrors.

Whatever the reason, Steve decided to drop out of college, which meant that he was certain to lose his draft

 exemption and end up in the Army. His friends begged him not to, warning him that he would be sent to Vietnam.
“I might as well get it over with,” he said.

He couldn’t have known that he would never get over it.

With your drums and guns and drums and guns, hurroo, hurroo
With your drums and guns and drums and guns, hurroo, hurroo
With your drums and guns and drums and guns The enemy nearly slew ye
Oh my darling dear, Ye look so queer Johnny I hardly knew ye.

I lost track of Steve then and found myself, in spite of all my good advice, going in the Army myself three years after

 Steve did, sucked in by the same vortex that had taken Steve.

Now at midnight all the agents
And the superhuman crew
Come out and round up everyone
That knows more than they do
Then they bring them to the factory
Where the heart-attack machine
Is strapped across their shoulders
And then the kerosene
Is brought down from the castles
By insurance men who go
Check to see that nobody is escaping
From Desolation Row

Steve . . . Harry Steve didn’t put on any airs when he was down on Rue Morgue Avenue.

Harry stayed out there, a Rider on the Storm, a man of his time, and a man brought down by his times, the great

 idealism of the sixties becoming the horrors of Vietnam, “We Shall Overcome” turning into someone screaming “The

 purpose of the bayonet is to kill, sir.”

I think in morning Harry I, at least, morn myself—and not just my lost youth, but the youth of a country that

 believed we would all work together, that we would make things better together. ‘Oh, deep in my heart,” we all sang, “I

do believe. We shall overcome some day.”

Yes, Steve sang that song, didn’t he, but maybe it was Harry who sang that other song:

Oh, what’ll you do now, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what’ll you do now, my darling young one?
I’m a-goin’ back out ’fore the rain starts a-fallin’
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten
Where black is the color, where none is the number
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall .

Rick Ryan