It was 1968 and the Vietnam War was raging. Young men were enlisted en masse, tens of thousands a month.
Laguna Woods resident Jim Gibson was one of them.
Gibson was barely out of high school when his nightmare began: a humiliating pre-induction physical in Los Angeles to determine if he and his peers — standing in endless lines, stripped naked and called “girls” — were fit to serve.
Gibson recalled his 14-month experience in Vietnam, and the events that led him to be there, in his book “Not Paid Eleven Cents an Hour to Think,” which he wrote during the two-year pandemic shutdown. year.
The book is based on Gibson’s memories of serving as an Army combat medic and ambulance driver at places like Long Binh Post and Bearcat Base. He says he did everything he could to help his injured comrades survive.
Adding to the impact of the book are short letters Gibson wrote to his parents in Anaheim, some photographs and paintings depicting the hubbub of battle, the Viet Cong soldiers commonly referred to as “Charlie” and the innocent – old people, villagers and orphans.
Also striking is a painting of three of the politicians – Lyndon Baines Johnson, Robert McNamara and Dean Rusk – who dragged the United States into the doldrums to ostensibly save the region from communism.
Gibson wasn’t buying what they had to say
“This war was not just about saving people from communism,” he said in a recent interview. “It was about preserving a capitalist economic order in the region.”
A letter home from 1969 suggests a thoughtful 20-year-old convinced that war is wrong. Gibson also expresses to his parents that those who protest the war have salient points and have the right to express them as long as they do not resort to violence.
“About the situation here; I want you to know that I think this is wrong,” Gibson wrote. “We shouldn’t be here and if I had the choice I would load up every GI and send them home as soon as I could.”
By then, Gibson knew clearly that he had earned the right to speak honestly to his patriotic parents.
Gibson maintains his down-to-earth honesty throughout the book. He writes about GIs who hit (intentionally kill or injure) incompetent or unpopular officers, and rogue soldiers who kill civilians, including children, for sport. In the face of constant danger, racial tensions between soldiers both diminished and heightened, and suicide attempts abounded.
Gibson comes across as intelligent, though very young, and maintains a firm voice as someone determined to save his comrades while determined to survive and return home.
So how did a young man so anti-war end up in Vietnam?
Gibson said he tried to enter Canada, but the process was not easy. At the time, Canada did not welcome the hordes of American dissenters.
“I lost heart and came back,” he recalls.
With a staunchly conservative World War II veteran father who believed that waging war for the country was a patriotic duty, as well as the inability to get a reprieve from college due to too few units amassed, Gibson landed in Vietnam in 1968.
The title of the book refers to the fact that conscripts were paid 11 cents an hour while being warned that thinking was not part of their job.
In one witty passage, Gibson uses this fact to exact revenge on an arrogant young officer who asked him what he was thinking when he committed a relatively minor infraction: Gibson had left his rifle unattended in his foxhole to go to lunch. . He reminded his superior that his job description forbade thinking.
Reading through Gibson’s account of 416 Days of Hell, readers learn that there may have been reprieves for fighters, but not for doctors and paramedics.
“We were always exposed,” Gibson said.
When he was finally sent home in January 1970, Gibson – a once carefree Californian surfer, a pot-smoking and LSD-soaked hippie, a talented and driven entertainer, and a staunch conscientious objector – was a wreck with PTSD.
Except nobody called it PTSD back then. The soldiers returned scarred, with psychological wounds that made them drug and alcohol dependent, anti-social and disoriented in a society that, largely opposed to war, lashed out at returning children in uniform.
“While I was still there I was depressed most of the time, just trying to survive, to block out the fear,” Gibson recalled. “I couldn’t leave my house for weeks after I returned.”
Miraculously, he was not physically injured.
“I’m not religious, I’m spiritual,” Gibson said. “I attribute my survival to karma. I went to Vietnam not to kill but to help as much as I could.
On the other hand, his experience of the war brought him closer to his father. Smoking cigarettes and sharing a bourbon or a beer, the two were now equal in arms. But it was also at this time that his father died suddenly.
Gibson’s older brother Bill was also drafted, equally lucky, he writes in his book. By a stroke of luck in the military administration, Bill was sent not to Vietnam but to Berlin Tempelhof, where he became a military police officer and lived, by the standards of the time, an enchanted life.
After adjusting to home, Gibson re-enrolled at Fullerton College on the GI Bill, 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 odd jobs, which he describes in his book with a touch of humor. Eventually, he ended up in the medical field, working with a doctor in Los Angeles who was keen on hiring vets with his kind of experience.
Gibson put his art on hold while daily life prevailed: a stint as an ambulance driver in Los Angeles, a job in the burn ward at the LA County USC Medical Center, opening a print shop and, most important to him, political activism as an anti-war veteran and social activism working with a Unitarian Church in Anaheim. A solo bike trip to Seattle and Canada provided respite.
The highlight was Gibson’s return to Vietnam for a peaceful mission accompanied by veterans. He carried business cards with his name and his membership in Veterans for Peace, as well as the quote: “I am here as an American veteran to put the American war behind us and to find peace and reconciliation between our two nations.
Intensive therapy freed him from the yoke of PTSD.
The evolution of an artist
Today, Gibson has been a resident of the Village for 17 years. He has resumed his art and is an active member of the Art Association, of which he was president in 2016.
“I was born with a pencil in my hand,” he said.
Gibson’s book contains several images of paintings he made based on his memories of Vietnam. The originals were recently displayed at the annual Art Affair exhibition at Clubhouse 2.
Two of his horse portraits at the equestrian center can be enjoyed in the lobby of the community center.
Gibson maintains a studio/teaching space at the Open Market OC, an arts and crafts store in the old Laguna Hills Mall, with fellow artist and longtime partner Docia Reed. Stylistically, it leans towards photorealism, but, depending on the subject, it’s all over the place, he says.
In his early years, he said, he wanted to paint like Andrew Wyeth, but later found merit in Andy Warhol as well. “Portraits have remained my strength,” he said.
At the time of this interview, Gibson was in abstract mode.
“I will go into anything that allows me to work better,” he said. “Besides, any painting can become abstract; everything we see is inherently abstract.