HOMINY – Three dozen inmates in gray prison togs filtered into a room at Dick Conner Correctional Center and sat down to listen to a visitor.
Bill McCloud stood in front of them and read poetry for almost an hour.
An atmosphere of mutual respect seemed to be fostered because the communication was veteran to veteran.
An Army vet, McCloud was in Vietnam from March 1968 to March 1969, serving as flight operations coordinator for the 147th Assault Support Helicopter Company based in Vung Tau.
At one point during McCloud’s Vietnam stint, he was summoned to a first sergeant’s office and got ripped “up one side and down the other” because he went a month without writing a letter to his mother.
Mom, worried by the lack of correspondence, wrote to the company commander to ask if her son was OK. The company commander didn’t want to be subjected to any more letters of that type, so McCloud was instructed — in salty terms — to have a letter ready to go every Monday.
Nearly 50 years later, letters McCloud wrote before and after the scolding have become source material for a project he wants to share with the world.
McCloud rummaged through the letters to spark his memory and wrote more than 80 short poems, which, when combined, tell a big-picture story about his military and Vietnam experiences. He said he hopes to find a publisher willing to collect the poems into book form.
A self-described “everyman” of the Vietnam War, McCloud said his story isn’t interesting because it’s unique. He said it’s “basically the story of so many of us.”
Folks in the “us” group were in the audience at Dick Conner Correctional Center.
The prison has a veterans club whose members contribute to charitable/patriotic causes and participate in facility enhancement projects. Inmates who have served the country or whose family members served the country are in the group.
McCloud, an adjunct professor of American history at Rogers State University in Claremore and Pryor, was asked to speak to the club by sponsor Teresa Stites, who knew McCloud had written a 1989 book “What Should We Tell Our Children About Vietnam?” That book was a collection of responses from individuals (among them: Jimmy Carter, Barry Goldwater and Timothy Leary) who took a stab at answering the question in the book title.
McCloud chose to bring his new material to Hominy, which means he got personal.
‘Let’s Drop Out’
McCloud’s journey to Vietnam began with a car ride and a spur-of-the-moment decision.
He was a pup from Ponca City who was carpooling to college with four other students. One of them (“not necessarily the smartest one”) suggested they drop out of school and join the Army.
“We saw it as an adventure,” McCloud told the DCCC Veterans Club. “We thought it was a lot better than cracking books at school.”
“Let’s Drop Out” is the lead-off poem in McCloud’s Vietnam collection. Poems are presented in chronological order. The initial poem is light-hearted, but he told inmates the poems aren’t the “la de da” type and said the collection ends with “Disability,” which is about his type 2 diabetes being linked to Agent Orange, which was used for herbicidal warfare.
“One thing that most wars have in common is that they all seem to keep on giving,” McCloud said, reciting a line from the poem.
McCloud flipped through his binder and read selected entries. He told the club his basic training experiences included being taught to de-humanize the enemy to make it easier to take a life. He said one of the men in his company shot himself in the foot in a futile attempt to get out of the military. The shooting led to conversations about whether it took courage for a man to shoot himself.
McCloud said the coolest thing he owned at the time was a big peace symbol necklace. Someone stole it. He kept his eyes open for the perp, “but I never saw a soldier advertising for peace at Fort Gordon, Georgia.”
One of McCloud’s parents shed a tear when he was sent off to war. He got a payday playday in San Francisco before flying to Vietnam, but someone stole his wad of bills while he showered. “Hope when I get to Vietnam I don’t need any cash,” he wrote.
McCloud considered himself lucky because he was assigned to what he was told was the safest place in Vietnam. On his 75th day in the country, he learned Robert Kennedy — someone he admired — had been assassinated. McCloud said there were as many tears shed in Vietnam as anywhere in the world and, in the aftermath, he wrote to his mother he wasn’t sure he wanted to come home. McCloud realizes now that was a terrible thing to write to your mother.
While in Vietnam, McCloud had a dream about Bob Dylan winning the war. That’s interesting in hindsight because McCloud’s wife, Deana, is the executive director of the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa’s Brady Arts District. Guthrie was among Dylan’s biggest influences.
But Dylan didn’t win the war, and McCloud penned poems about the loss of innocence and the body count in Vietnam. A hot December prompted him to write that it looks like “we’re moving closer to hell.”
McCloud twice took cover when Russian-made rockets slammed an airfield. He said he was wounded only twice in Vietnam — once when a kid hit him with a rock and once when a barmaid bit him.
“It took two guys to get her off my bicep,” he said.
McCloud doesn’t know why she bit him, but the next time he visited the bar, he noticed she had been subjected to a beating. Mama-san dealt the beating. Biting a customer is bad for business.
A more upbeat poem recapped a meeting with Ann-Margret, who said, among other things, “I hope I get to see you when you come home.”
Years after returning home, McCloud went to see the movie “Platoon” with his mother. “I could not relate to that movie any more than she could because that was not my Vietnam experience,” he said.
McCloud told the club he received one medal for his service in Vietnam. He doesn’t have it anymore. He put it in his father’s coffin.
McCloud’s visit to Dick Conner Correctional Center took place June 24. He wasn’t concerned about how he might be received.
“It was a club of veterans. I had been invited. I’ve never had a sense of looking down at people in prisons. Other than the extremely violent ones, I think there’s often a pretty thin line between those whose actions put them behind bars and the rest of us. I wasn’t going in with any sense of moral superiority, and I figured that would be obvious. For most of the time, I honestly forgot that I was in a prison, speaking to medium-security inmates. These men, for the most part, were my brothers.
“As for how they would accept poetry, I also wasn’t concerned. It’s just a different way of relaying information that I thought they would find interesting.”
McCloud didn’t just want to talk to club members. He wanted to listen to them and acknowledge their military service and maybe even elevate their self-worth. He thanked club members for the opportunity to share his poetry. They applauded and many lined up for handshakes.
“Some of them just wanted to thank me for being there,” he said. “A couple thanked me for my service. Some had questions based on my reading of the poems. They wanted more information about what happened in some of them. That was good.
“A couple were proud of their grandfather or great-grandfather’s service and told me about that. But the ones that really connected were the ones who had been in Vietnam and could share information with me about their own time there. We could compare our experiences.”
Said club commander Gary Doby: “He brought some real life to these guys.”
The club’s members were among the first people in the state to be introduced to the Vietnam poems. On June 6, McCloud used Skype to discuss seven poems with eighth-grade students at a college prep school — the University School of Milwaukee. The school makes use of his 1989 book in English and history classes.
McCloud also test-drove his poems with people in the literary world like author and Vietnam War bibliographer David Willson, who said he has read hundreds — probably thousands — of Vietnam War-related poems.
“I have read McCloud’s entire collection of Vietnam War poems,” Willson said in an email to the Tulsa World. “They are an excellent collection, one of the finest. If they were published as a book, they would rank at the top of such collections. His poems are unlike any others, as he writes in a singular voice, all his own.”
The collection includes poems McCloud crafted about his post-Vietnam experiences and feelings. He wrote poems about how he was too young to buy beer after coming home and how he once put his fist through a window for no reason.
On Monday, the Vietnam vet will celebrate Independence Day with family, and he’s looking forward to seeing the grandkids’ expressions when fireworks light up the sky. July 4? Active participant. April 1? Not so much.
One of McCloud’s poems is titled “April Fool’s.” It’s about a fellow soldier who approached McCloud in Vietnam and told him “It’s all over. We’re goin’ home.”
McCloud allowed himself to get his hopes up before the soldier said, “April Fools!”
McCloud read the poem during his visit to the correctional center and said this: “Now I like a good joke as much as the next man. But I don’t do April Fool’s anymore.”