“In the months after I got back the hundreds of helicopters I’d flown in began to draw together until they’d formed a collective meta-chopper, and in my mind it was the sexiest thing going; saver-destroyer, provider-waster, right hand—left hand, nimble, fluent, canny and human; hot steel, grease, jungle-saturated canvas webbing, sweat cooling and warming up again, cassette rock and roll in one ear and door-gun fire in the other, fuel, heat, vitality and death, death itself, hardly an intruder.” Michael Herr, Dispatches. (New York: Knopf, 1977.)
Anyone who has lived beneath the incessant thumping blades of an urban helicopter knows the powerlessness and rage that attend such an alien visitation. First there is the sense of faceless bureaucratic incursion – an elite piece of technology hovering in the sky, coolly taking your measure. Then there is the outrageous flouting of gravitational law – a still black point in a sky normally defined by fluid motion and emptiness. The city copter is like a small death star, an artificial planet that is not your friend, checking your every step without showing its human face. Finally, there is the implication that one has done, or is about to do, something wrong. At zero degrees elevation this sense of something about to go wrong is immediately transposed to the hovering black dot overhead. The helicopter is the thing out of the ordinary, the trespasser, the blight on an otherwise blue or gray day. The awe that some men claim to experience before such technology only adds to the bewilderment — really, I suspect, it is that they don’t know what to say and find pseudo-historical, math-like admiration to be a slightly drier emotional alternative to outright fear, vexation and sadness.
The Bell UH-1 helicopter (originally designated HU-1A and thus its nickname of “Huey”) first arrived in Vietnam in March 1962. It would immediately become the workhorse of that insane war — if not its central imaginative image — and would find itself tasked with everything from medical evacuation and provisional support to forward assault and the unmitigated destruction of lands and people. Michael Herr’s beautiful and lurid description of the hot greased machine that compiled itself in his memory is, I think, a perfect model for the kinds of aggregate archetypal monsters people develop to cope with traumatic memory. For one, it is a “perfectly balanced contradiction” (or aporia) for which only something as fearful and unlimited as the human unconscious is prepared to accommodate. (Surely there is no airport hangar, definitive military history, or grand tarpaulin vast enough that it can be expected to contain Herr’s sensuous and ineffable meta-chopper.)
The mind dreams after the fact, splitting and rejoining events and sensations into the stories we tell ourselves at night. As children we are told, just before bed, stories that promise a certain coherence and moral order in our universe. There may be injustice or evil in the course of the tale, but not without — at the very least — some melancholy bit of compensation. As adults we find ourselves at the mercy of ourselves as bedtime storytellers. Dreams are the drunken admixture of you and C.S. Lewis: a glorious lion is slain upon a stone tablet while your ex-lover or Glenn Beck shouts out “die homo-nigger terrorist!” at the eviscerated, weeping corpse. Remember that in dreams you are every character – or, rather, that every character is a figment of your own unique experience.
Go ahead, create your own bedtime story/frustrated human experience psychic cocktail. Call it “Sex on the South China Sea Beach.” For that is what we have done in advertising, in our own historical compromises, and in our national narratives. We have tried to strike a balance between what has happened and what we can stand to remember. At a certain point in one’s emotional development, the meta-chopper of experienced reality begins to come even with that of the quantifiable lived reality. Like a truck jack-knifing. At which point, who can say what is accurate?
I was not in Vietnam during the American war there. I have no idea what it feels like to be either below or within a twin-engine turbine helicopter that is raining out death. And yet I do, because since I had language I have seen or heard about helicopters as these terrible, badass things that fuck shit up and get fucked up. From every bleached television set and in every movie house; from sad kids in camouflage jackets in middle school with gone vet dads; from the upended Venice sky in the early 80s. They are all around us, like dirty green angels with trembling missile teeth. Look into my aviator sunglasses. I can be your best friend or your worst nightmare. The decision is entirely yours.