Vietnam veteran Delmar Pickett Jr. stands by the story he told CBS News reporter Morton Dean 35 years ago, which you can view in my March 6 “Press Box.” Reached by phone at his home in Wichita, Kan., he speaks of being spat upon inside the Seattle airport while in uniform.
Pickett’s personal history challenges the work of Jerry Lembcke, the author of the 1998 book Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam, who holds that the spat-upon-vet story is an “urban myth” that took root in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It also challenges the half-dozen columns I’ve written since 2000 in support of Lembcke’s thesis.
In the Dec. 27, 1971, CBS News segment, Pickett tells reporter Dean, “Man, I got into the airport and these two dudes walked up—one of them spit at me.”
Today, he remembers the incident in greater detail and a little differently. Pickett says he mustered out of the Army at Fort Lewis, Wash., but wore his uniform to the airport because he didn’t have any other clothes for his flight to Denver.
The date was April 23, 1971, Pickett says. He and four other GIs dressed in uniform were walking down a corridor from the main terminal to the gate and came upon four young men who were standing along the wall. One of the young men, who Pickett says looked to be 19 years old, had long hair, and was wearing a shabby T-shirt, said something to the GIs—something about “killers”—and then spat, missing Pickett.
“I handed my hat and duffel bag to one of my guys and headed straight for that guy. He started backing up,” Pickett says, and all four civilians beat a retreat. “They were heading down through that tunnel.” Pickett says he was “combat tough” the day he was spat at. “I could have turned him into a pretzel.”
This account doesn’t completely square with the version Pickett gave CBS News long ago. In it, two men walk up to him and one spits at him. Asked to explain the discrepancy between the two accounts, Pickett offers that it might have been two men after all. Or it might have been two men and two women. He also says he gave CBS News just “a bare outline” of the incident.
At no point does Pickett display any defensiveness about his inconsistencies. Indeed, he’s philosophical about the limited powers of human beings to recall the past with any precision.
“Memory tends to blur,” Pickett says. “Things you think happened didn’t. Things you think didn’t, did. Time softens everything.”
Pickett’s story shares themes with that of Jim Minarik. In a June 2, 1971, Washington Post article, Minarik says that hours after his Dec. 10, 1968, discharge from the Army, two people spat on him as he walked an Oakland, Calif., street. Both are actually civilians when the spitting happens, but both are in uniform. Both take place in locations where soldiers are commonly encountered. I’ve failed in my efforts to locate Minarik so I could interview him about the incident. Where are you, Jim Minarik? Send me e-mail so we can talk. (See this “Press Box” for more about his story.)
That the mainstream press aired Pickett and Minarik’s accounts in 1971 show that the spitting-on-vets meme gained greater currency in those early years than Lembcke allows. But it also dispels the notion, held by many of my e-mail correspondents, that the Vietnam-vet spit stories were suppressed by the “liberal media.”
Neither the CBS News reporter nor the Post’schallenges the soldiers’ accounts. This could mean that the reporters took the allegations with a grain of salt. Or it could mean that the reporters were subtly acknowledging that the public was now so opposed to the war that it had become normative for them to communicate that view by spitting on Vietnam vets or spitting at the ground in front of them. If the latter was true, one would expected President Richard Nixon or commentariat a soul mate—Paul Harvey, perhaps—would have raised hell about it. As far as I know, Nixon and Harvey were silent on the topic.
I have no reason to believe that Pickett is lying, even if his two recountings of that day in 1971 don’t match up perfectly. I’m no human lie detector, but his telephone manner seemed remarkably relaxed and candid for somebody getting a call from the press out of the blue. What argues in favor of Pickett’s claim over say, Minarik’s, is that a document shows that he made it the year it allegedly happened. And unlike Minarik, he’s not making any political hay with it. It’s just one soldier’s story.
Measuring the truth value of the Vietnam-vet spit stories matters because the issue hasn’t receded with the passage of time; it has barnacled itself to the Iraq debate. Just last month (Feb. 15), Daniel Henninger, deputy editor of the Wall Street Journal editorial page, incorporated the spit tale in his weekly column to criticize members of the Democratic Congress who oppose the Iraq war. Henninger writes:
So horrifying are the famous images in the 1970s of what presumably were not evangelicals spitting on GIs coming home from Vietnam, that House Democrats, with every second intake of breath, spoke of the troops and their families. …
If Henninger possesses “famous images” of spat-upon Viet vets, I hope he’ll share them with us. If you can help me document a spit story, please drop a line to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Life imitating myth, or life imitating history? The Dec. 8, 2006, Post-Standardin Syracuse, N.Y., reports that a Lauren Maggi spat in the face of soldiers without provocation at the local airport. (Search for the keyword face.) (If you send e-mail, you may be quoted by name unless you stipulate otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)