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To hell and back: Vietnam memories in art and book


It was 1968 and the Vietnam War was raging. Young men were drafted in droves, tens of thousands per month.

Laguna Woods resident Jim Gibson was among them.

Gibson was barely out of high school when his nightmare began: a humiliating pre-induction physical in Los Angeles to determine whether he and his peers — standing in endless lines, stripped and referred to as “girls” — were fit to serve.

Gibson recalled his 14-month experience in Vietnam, and the events that led him to being there, in his book “Not Paid Eleven Cents an Hour to Think,” which he wrote during the two-year pandemic shutdown.

The book is based on Gibson’s recollections of serving as an Army combat medical corpsman and ambulance driver in places like Long Binh Post and Bearcat Base. He tells of doing his utmost to help wounded fellow soldiers survive.

Adding to the book’s impact are short letters Gibson wrote to his parents in Anaheim, a few photographs and paintings illustrating the grind of battle, Viet Cong soldiers commonly called “Charlie,” and the innocents — old people, villagers and orphans.

Also striking is a painting of three of the politicians — Lyndon Baines Johnson, Robert McNamara and Dean Rusk—who brought the United States into the morass to ostensibly save the region from communism.

Gibson wasn’t buying what they had to say

“This war wasn’t just about saving people from communism,” he said in a recent interview. “It was about preserving a capitalistic economic order in the region.”

A 1969 letter home suggests a thoughtful 20-year-old convinced that the war is wrong. Gibson also expresses to his parents that those protesting the war have salient points and are entitled to express them as long as they don’t resort to violence.

“About the situation over here; I want you to know that I think it is wrong,” Gibson wrote. “We shouldn’t be here and if I had my way, I’d load every GI up and send him home as soon as I could.”

By then Gibson clearly knew that he had earned the right to express himself honestly to his patriotic parents.

Gibson maintains his matter-of-fact honesty throughout the book. He writes of GIs fragging (intentionally killing or wounding) incompetent or unpopular officers, and rogue soldiers killing civilians, including children, for sport. In the face of the constant danger, racial tensions among soldiers both ebbed and exacerbated, and attempted suicides abounded.

Gibson comes across as intelligent, albeit very young, and maintains a steady voice as someone intent on saving fellow soldiers while hell-bent on surviving and getting home.

So how did a young man who so opposed the war wind up in Vietnam?

Gibson said he tried to get into Canada, but the process wasn’t easy. At the time, Canada did not embrace the hordes of American draft dodgers.

“I lost heart and came back,” he recalled.

With a staunchly conservative World War II veteran father who believed that going to war for the country was a patriotic duty, along with the inability to secure a college deferment due to too few amassed units, Gibson landed in Vietnam in 1968.

The book’s title refers to the fact that conscripts were paid 11 cents an hour while being admonished that thinking was not part of their job.

In a witty passage, Gibson uses that fact to get back at an arrogant young officer who asked him what he was thinking while committing a comparatively minor infraction: Gibson had left his rifle unattended in his foxhole to get lunch. He reminded his superior that his job description prohibited thinking.

Scrolling forward through Gibson’s account of 416 days of hell, readers learn that there might have been reprieves for combatants, but not so for medics and ambulance drivers.

“We were always exposed,” Gibson said.

When he was finally sent home in January 1970, Gibson – a once carefree California surfer boy, pot-smoking and LSD-imbibing hippie, talented and motivated artist and convinced conscientious objector – was a PTSD-afflicted wreck.

Except no one called it PTSD back then. Soldiers returned scarred, with psychological wounds that left them drug- and alcohol-dependent, anti-social and disoriented in a society that, largely set against the war by then, took it out on the returning kids in uniform.

“While still there, I was depressed most of the time, just trying to survive, to block out fear,” Gibson recalled. “I could not leave my house for weeks after coming back.”

Miraculously, he was not physically wounded.

“I am not religious, I am spiritual,” Gibson said. “I attribute my survival to karma. I went to Vietnam not to kill but wanting to help as many as I could.”

On the upside, his war experience brought him closer to his dad. Smoking cigarettes and sharing a bourbon or beer, the two were now equals in arms. But it was also during that time that his father unexpectedly died.

Gibson’s older brother, Bill, drafted as well, also lucked out, he writes in his book. By some stroke of military administrative fortune, Bill was shipped not to Vietnam but to Berlin Tempelhof, where he became a military police officer and lived, by the standards of the times, a charmed life.

Once adjusted to home, Gibson re-enrolled in Fullerton College on the GI Bill and then transferred to Humboldt State University as an art major in 1973. At Fullerton, he met his future wife, Gale, with whom he had two children.

To support his young family, Gibson took on menial jobs, which he describes in his book with a trace of humor. Ultimately he wound up back in the medical field, working with a Los Angeles physician who was keen on hiring vets with his sort of experience.

Gibson put his art on hold while everyday life held sway: a stint as an ambulance driver in Los Angeles, a job in the burn ward at the L.A. County USC Medical Center, the opening of a print shop and, most important to him, political activism as an anti-war veteran and social activism in conjunction with an Anaheim Unitarian church. A solo bicycle trip to Seattle and Canada provided respite.

At the pinnacle was Gibson’s return to Vietnam on a peaceful mission accompanied by fellow veterans. He carried business cards with his name and membership in Veterans for Peace, along with the quote: “I am here as an American war veteran to put the American war behind us and find peace and reconciliation between our two nations.”

Extensive therapy freed him from the yoke of PTSD.

Evolution of an artist

Today, Gibson is a 17-year Village resident. He has resumed his art and is an active member of the Art Association, having served as its president in 2016.

“I was born with a crayon in my hand,” he said.

Gibson’s book has several images of paintings he made inspired by his Vietnam memories. The originals were recently displayed at the annual Art Affair at Clubhouse 2.

Two of his portraits of horses at the Equestrian Center can be enjoyed in the Community Center lobby.

Gibson maintains a studio/teaching space at the Open Market OC, an arts and crafts emporium at the former Laguna Hills Mall, with fellow artist and longtime partner Docia Reed. Stylistically, he tends toward photorealism, but, as subjects go, he’s all over the map, he said.

During his early years, he said, he wanted to paint like Andrew Wyeth but later also found merit in Andy Warhol. “Portraits have remained my strength,” he said.

At the time of this interview, Gibson was in abstract mode.

“I’ll go into anything that makes me work better,” he said. “Besides, any painting can become an abstract; everything we see is intrinsically abstract.”

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