August 19, 2019

Lent with John Prine: Sam Stone

Lent with John Prine
Sam Stone

There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes
And Jesus Christ died for nothin’ I suppose
Little pitchers have big ears — don’t stop to count the years
Sweet songs never last too long on broken radios
Mmm….

One of John Prine’s saddest songs — heard with a new resonance today in the midst of our nations’ opioid crisis — is his ballad of Vietnam veteran turned junkie Sam Stone. The song, originally titled “The Great Society Conflict Veteran’s Blues,” was chosen as one of the ten saddest pop songs of all time in a Rolling Stone readers’ poll in 2013. Its unforgettable line, “There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes,” is a haunting reminder of the cost that everyone pays when drug abuse takes over.

In 1971, when this song was released, Prine was singing about a specific drug problem that grew out of the Vietnam War, the conflict which divided our nation and caused many to doubt our true commitment to its ideals. In 1965 Deputy Secretary of State George Ball answered a question asked by President Johnson about whether we could win the war with these prophetic words: “I think we have all underestimated the seriousness of this situation. Like giving cobalt treatment to a terminal cancer case. I think a long protracted war will disclose our weakness, not our strength.”

When veterans came home from Vietnam they were not always treated well and soon forgotten because of the war’s unpopularity. Many vets felt isolated from American society as though they had carried back some contagion from the front lines. Class distinctions added to the resentment many veterans felt. Most who fought were from poor and working-class backgrounds while many of the protestors were college students who had gotten deferments favoring the wealthy and well-connected. 250,000 Vietnam vets were unable to find employment when they returned home, and the government gave them a meager $200 a month.

And then, of course, there was the cost of the fighting itself. The ratio of wounded to killed was higher in Vietnam than in earlier wars. Advances had made it possible for more to survive, but that meant a great number had to live the rest of their lives with serious, crippling injuries.

The use of Agent Orange, a herbicide used to defoliate forests, led to massive exposure for civilians and soldiers and innumerable serious health problems. Since studies on the effects of Agent Orange weren’t even begun until the 1990s, we are still learning about its impact on veterans’ health and lives.

Some estimate that nearly 800,000 Vietnam vets came back suffering from PTSD, a malady that the Veterans’ Administration did not even recognize until 1979.

And many of the soldiers were introduced to easily obtained drugs in Vietnam; serious addiction problems followed many of them home. 25% of soldiers who saw combat were arrested within 10 years of returning home, most on drug-related offenses.

Some experts have suggested that the number of suicides among Vietnam veterans was at least equal to, and may in fact be double the 58,000 killed in the conflict.

War is hell. And Sam Stone gives us a small glimpse of the price we pay for going through it.

Sam Stone came home
To his wife and family
After serving in the conflict overseas
And the time that he served
Had shattered all his nerves
And left a little shrapnel in his knee
But the morphine eased the pain
And the grass grew round his brain
And gave him all the confidence he lacked
With a Purple Heart and a monkey on his back

There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes
And Jesus Christ died for nothin’ I suppose
Little pitchers have big ears — don’t stop to count the years
Sweet songs never last too long on broken radios
Mmm….

Sam Stone’s welcome home
Didn’t last too long
He went to work when he’d spent his last dime
And Sammy took to stealing
When he got that empty feeling
For a hundred dollar habit without overtime
And the gold rolled through his veins
Like a thousand railroad trains
And eased his mind in the hours that he chose
While the kids ran around wearin’ other people’s clothes

There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes
And Jesus Christ died for nothin’ I suppose
Little pitchers have big ears — don’t stop to count the years
Sweet songs never last too long on broken radios
Mmm….

Sam Stone was alone
When he popped his last balloon
Climbing walls while sitting in a chair
Well, he played his last request
While the room smelled just like death
With an overdose hovering in the air
But life had lost its fun
And there was nothing to be done
But trade his house that he bought on the G. I. Bill
For a flag draped casket on a local heroes’ hill

There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes
And Jesus Christ died for nothin’ I suppose
Little pitchers have big ears — don’t stop to count the years
Sweet songs never last too long on broken radios
Mmm ….

Comments

  1. johnbarry says

    After all these years, all the memories, the reunions, all the introspection and trying to find my personal real feelings on Vietnam, quite simply to me it was my crucible. Whatever the national and international ramifications were and are , me and my guys are too close to the reality of our tour to really care except how it affected us.

    I do not talk in public or join in any official ceremony regarding the war but do not object to those who do. I do resent and actually hate the many, far too many men we call “posers”, men my age who pretend or greatly exaggerate their service. I have always let it go, as we can tell pretty quick who the Blumenthal types are and I really hate them.

    Then as now the war was lost in America on the political home front. We should never have been there. My first three months in country you could tell the people of Vietnam real enemy they historical feared was China.

    I did think that at least , the folly, the stupidity of getting involved in a civil war half a world away would insure USA would never commit to another war with no clear objective then the terrible incompetent G.W.Bush and neo cons got us into even a more insane mission than Vietnam. Go in , kill the leaders , set up a new regime and leave or stay out completely.

    So to be objective and I say this with reservations, the tour in Vietnam was to me , personally , a great adventure as a young man but that is looking back as an old man. In my whole life I have 2 adrenaline rushes, both in Tay Ninh province, hopping into Cambodia, which I can still vividly recall and never have experienced any thing like it again. To sum up in my life my time in the boonies made me a better person and certainly gave me a maturity and outlook far different than then the guys back in the world.

    I do not want to get into “issues” but take a lot about the Vietnam experience with a grain of salt. There are times when the old saying “you had to be there ” applies and that is about all I can say.

    When I was a kid , I use to wonder if I would have stayed in the Alamo when Travis drew the line in the sand for those wanting to leave. The 186 men of the Alamo stayed for whatever reason, I now know in my heart I would have stayed.

    Really , I got to go to college, got 400 dollars a month to do so, my Mother was proud of me, my wife, my sons and family are proud of me as I am of my sons for what they did and that is enough “reward” for me.

    We have no more reunions as we do not want to see each other get old, go though the trails of life etc. We have moved on but keeping our memories of the good and the bad but what they are they are our experience and I was glad I was there. I am more glad I am here. I do thank God for this great journey of life in this world he has given me.

    CM, had a wonderful statement in a article last week “That with God the worst thing is not the last thing”., if I recall it correctly . How true and how hard to fathom in the moment of the worse. That just seems to fit in here for me tonight.

    • Thanks for sharing your personal experience, j.b.

    • Very touching JB.

    • Christiane says

      “That with God, the worst thing is not the last thing”

      Yes, J.B., after reading your narrative, I can see why you found meaning in Chaplain Mike’s phrase.

      I am convinced that somewhere between the lies of those schemers who kept that war going
      and the deaths and terrible suffering of our valiant young soldiers, including the many who returned home wounded in mind and spirit,
      there WILL be justice on the Day of the Lord . . . . it WILL come.

    • “I was glad I was there. I am more glad I am here.” We are glad you are here too.Thanks for posting.

  2. I was still a small child when my brother came back from Vietnam in the mid sixties. I remember going to the airport with my family to meet him, and I remember how my parents, sister and I walked past without recognizing him, so much weight had he lost and so changed was his demeanor; only his fiance recognized him right away. I remember many tears.

    My brother never talked much about the war. He and his fiance got married, he found lucrative work, they had kids, now he is a retired old man. He was one of the lucky ones — there was no hole in his arm. But he told me once, years after he’d returned, about reading for the first time the new Surgeon General health warning on the government-supplied package of cigarettes he was about to open. He said he just laughed and carried on with smoking his next cigarette, a habit formed in the war that took decades to break. Constantly aware that he could be killed at any moment by uniformed or un-uniformed assailants, fighting a war in a place far away from home for reasons he had come to doubt, the health warning did not seem serious to him. My brother had no hole in his arm, but he could easily have had one.

  3. senecagriggs says
  4. 25% of soldiers who saw combat were arrested within 10 years of returning home, most on drug-related offenses.

    That’s a staggering statistic.

  5. Most who fought were from poor and working-class backgrounds….

    It has always been so. The rich find ways to avoid fighting in war, but the poor are considered expendable, and sometimes even desperate enough to volunteer.

    • Ronald Avra says

      A ugly and relentless fact.

      • Norma Cenva says

        Not always true Ronald.
        Growing up, I knew a family of Patricians.
        Their boy graduated West Point, class of 68′.
        He bought it in the A Shau Valley, July 1969.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Patricians with a sense of Duty?
          That’s what usually makes the difference.

          Otherwise, it’s pay off a doctor to 4-F you for bone spurs while you build your career and fortune.

    • Christiane says

      would be better to have a MANDATORY all-inclusive draft without ‘exceptions’ and if someone is a conscientious objector, that can be respected, as many can serve in combat roles that are auxilliary as medics, pastors, etc.

      as for combat roles, that is something that ought to be open to all Americans as an obligation of conscience and honor . . . .

      the ‘draft’ in past years was designed to favor the ‘elite’, the ones who would say ” ‘You think I’m stupid, I wasn’t going to Vietnam.’”. . . . the draft needs to be ‘updated’ and the ways of avoiding it need to be eliminated, as they have been favorable to only one class of Americans and that is an obscenity

  6. And on to the next generation. I was born in 1968, after my Dad was one of the first group to go over in 1963-1964. A poor man from the Appalachian mountains put on a cargo carrier ship going across the Pacific and dropped of on the other side of the world. He already had scars from his Father, and Vietnam added to those scars. Many of those emotional scars got passed down to the next generation.

  7. Today is the day that communist forces occupied Da Nang in 1975. I was 15 and a few years from becoming eligible for the draft. Vietnam has definitely informed my life and my thinking as it has anyone of my age. I remember being very conscious of it, watching the news and the atrociousness of it all but it hadn’t yet occurred to me, at least I don’t recall now, to imagine the possibility of myself being a part of it. I have no idea why except to think that I was still simply naive enough to have not considered myself as a potential soldier in that very real and current war. Strange. Perhaps if it had gone on for another year my eyes would have opened and real fear would have awoken.

    • –> “I was 15 and a few years from becoming eligible for the draft. Vietnam has definitely informed my life and my thinking as it has anyone of my age. I remember being very conscious of it, watching the news and the atrociousness of it all but it hadn’t yet occurred to me, at least I don’t recall now, to imagine the possibility of myself being a part of it.”

      I was 14 in ’75 and much of what you shared resonates with me, too. I was in college when 1979 rolled around and the Iran hostage crisis began. There was talk of going to war, and that’s when it dawned on me: “I’m now the age of being draft-able and sent to war, just like those poor teens were during Vietnam.” I tell ya the truth: I wouldn’t have made it home from Vietnam had I been that age and sent over; or if I HAD made it home, it would’ve just been my shell.

      • Hard to say. I would tend to think the same but I knew a Vet who was the most placid, happy guy you would ever want to meet. He seemed somehow to have managed it all. Perhaps you would have more resilience than you think. I have imagined myself in scenes from The Deer Hunter and thought surely I would lose my mind but tough to know.

    • If the war had gone on a couple more years, I could’ve been drafted too. It’s funny, but now that you mention it, at the time I was actually just a couple-three years away from that possibility, it never occurred to me. Definitely naive, and uninformed. I’m a year older than you, so I was a year closer to the possibility of being drafted, and it never entered my empty head. Not once.

      • Isn’t that odd? Maybe there was a lot of talk about bringing it to a close that was in the ether.

        • Well, I was depending on and did go to college for four years, which deferred the imminence of my draft eligibility. Funny how, even though I was the first in my recently immigrant Italian family to go to college, I never doubted while I was in high school that I would go — so quick does the presumption of White privilege solidify into a sense of entitlement.

  8. Every time I’m in DC I visit the Vietnam Memorial. So sobering…

    The documentary on its creation and its creator, Maya Lin, is phenomenal. “Maya Lin: A Strong, Clear Vision.” Highly recommend if you’ve never seen it.

  9. johnbarry says

    Rick Ro., thanks for the tip. When I first learned of the wall and the design I was very much against the design. I remember the young lady really stood her ground and glad she did. I thought it was a slight and not worthy of the those who died there. I was more for a Korean War type monument that is located on the mall also.

    However when I first saw it in person, I thought it was pitch perfect and so reflective of the war. The quiet dignity of the names etched , the reflective polish that gives the wall “life”, the fact that you have to go look a name if you know who is on the wall or you can just look at all the names and know they all shared a common bond. When we all went to the wall as a unit and looked at the names of real people we knew , we were deeply moved, more so than we thought we would be. Many of the men did not want to ever return as it is over in their mind . Personally when I visited and visit D.C. I stop by. Only once have I been there when a Mother of a “name” on the wall was there with her surviving son, it was gut wrenching , years of pent up grief spilled out of an elderly lady. Now , when I go , I go alone. I do love the location, I do like the statue of the 3 soldiers that is a traditional memorial but we all thought it to rang true.

    As long as people reflect on the names on the cold granite and know the names represent mostly young men who loved life, had Mothers and family, who had hopes and dreams but had it all taken from them . The only word that resonates with me is sacrifice. They say time heals all wounds but I do not know it that is true. Sometimes there are just no words and being there to respect and remember is enough.

    I have a happy event to attend tonight and for that I am grateful as it is time for me to move on today. At least my leg is not hurting me today and I played 9 holes.

    • –> “When I first learned of the wall and the design I was very much against the design. I remember the young lady really stood her ground and glad she did. I thought it was a slight and not worthy of the those who died there.”

      That comes out in the documentary, of course. What was cool was that many folks wanted a more traditional monument, some Vietnam vets ended up supporting her design.

      –> “However when I first saw it in person, I thought it was pitch perfect and so reflective of the war.”

      Same here. To me, it was like walking toward a big gash in the ground, a perfect visual for what that war was. But then after you enter and see the polished stone and the etched names: Yes, a “quiet dignity”… perfectly said.

  10. Burro (Mule) says

    And Jesus Christ died for nothin’ I suppose

    A close friend of my daughter graduated from one of the Evangelical colleges in the area, and we drove up for the ceremony. The contrast between the squeaky-clean campus and the Percodan World surrounding it was, to say the least, unsettling. Everywhere you looked there were the same indicators of social decay; pain “clinics”, liquor stores, pawn shops, payday loan outlets, shuttered shops, closed factories, women pushing babies in strollers down the streets avoiding the potholes. What was missing was just as telling; grocery stores, hardware shops, trendy espresso bars, slow-food restaurants.

    I’ll be honest. The tenderloin-iest black neighborhoods in Atlanta aren’t this hardscrabble/depressing. This whole community felt very much like it had a huge gaping wound in the center of it and was just stumbling about looking for a place to lie down and die.

    Inside the ceremony, the triumphalist revivalistic rhetoric sounded extremely unsure of itself. The young graduates looked bored and cynical, and their elders (my age or younger) were still parroting phrases that were threadbare when I heard them a generation ago.

    What happened to the power of the Christian gospel to change lives? Everywhere I saw churches; Holiness churches, Pentecostal churches, Fire-Baptized World-changing ‘Worship Centers’, ‘Deliverance Ministries’. None of them seemed to be making even a modicum of difference.

    I’m no fool. Orthodoxy wouldn’t, couldn’t gain a hearing here. It’s way too alien. There’s a small OCA mission here, named after a twentieth century saint who battled addiction issues. I’ll bet it’s composed entirely of disgruntled students from the Fundamentalist college who don’t want to completely abandon Christianity. I wish them well. I didn’t see any Catholics.

    We crossed the mountains into trendy, booming Asheville with its galleries, photo shops, wine bars, real estate agencies, Starbucks, and Whole Foods. I felt like I had wandered out of a John Prine song into a Zumba playlist.

    • This is a good read, Mule. Thanks for sharing it.

    • What happened to the power of the Christian gospel to change lives? Everywhere I saw churches; Holiness churches, Pentecostal churches, Fire-Baptized World-changing ‘Worship Centers’, ‘Deliverance Ministries’. None of them seemed to be making even a modicum of difference.

      A lot of what passed for “the power of the Christian gospel to change lives” in former times was false advertising. Something was false in the messaging or the expectations, or both. There was a lot of old fashioned American snake oil in it. But the placebo doesn’t work anymore, its marks no longer have the strength to believe it, and the gaping wound you describe is all that’s left.

    • Mule, sounds like my area of NE Tennessee.

    • Christiane says

      Very powerful comment, Mule.

      I reminds me of the town where my husband was raised north of Pittsburgh, where the steel mills have closed down and if the young don’t get out of there to the military (like my husband and his six brothers did), too often they end up doing that ‘stumbling around’ thing of which you speak.

    • Norma Cenva says

      Great comment Mule.
      And if not so starkly real of what is rather than what should be after all the claims of fundagelical ixtianity, it could almost qualify as a Mel Brooksian black comedy.

  11. The Ballad of Ira Hayes is something like this. I thought Bob Dylan wrote it, but it was Peter La Farge, and others such as Johnny Cash have recorded it too.

    Hayes was “only a Pima Indian” who was one of those who raised the flag on Iwo Jima in WW2, only to come home and find he was still only a Pima Indian. In prison they’d let him raise and lower the flag “like you’d throw a dog a bone.”

    Call him drunken Ira Hayes
    He won’t answer anymore
    Not the whiskey drinking Indian
    Or the marine that went to war