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Vietnam Vets Well-Versed In War’s Pain

Deep inside the dark, cigarette-choked tavern, Ozzie Oswald cries, but not in his beer.

The black-garbed poet is framed by a huge American flag hanging on the wall behind him.

He stands before a wooden pulpit and mourns the many losses of the Vietnam War.

Loss is the theme for this night.

Loss of innocence. Loss of self-respect. Loss of lives …

“Body bags were laid in a straight line,” recites the former U.S. Navy man, his voice halting and thick with emotion.

“It ain’t nothin’. That’s a saying we had over there.”

Oswald is one of three Vietnam vets who entertain and deeply move this crowd of about 40 latter-day bohemians.

This is the third-annual veterans’ poetry reading at Mootsy’s Tavern, 406 W. Sprague.

Mootsy’s is a Spokane original. It defiantly adheres to the coffeehouse “Beat Generation” traditions of the 1950s.

Here, listening to jazz and writing poetry are the rage the way dart games and pull tabs are at other watering holes.

“I didn’t plan it that way,” says Mootsy’s owner, Rick Turner, who began holding these Sunday night open mike poetry events three years ago at the urging of a friend.

The readings became so popular that Turner bankrolled a “Mootsy’s Anthology” of photographs and poems his tavern had spawned.

The booklet debuted last week and sells at the bar for $10.

“I never wrote poetry. I never read the stuff,” Turner says, grinning at the irony. “Now I’m a big fan. It’s really interesting to hear people pour their hearts out.”

This evening’s fare is about as soft and subtle as a mortar attack or a blast of napalm:

the corps did its job,

did it well

took boys from their mothers

made them men

molded marines

a stainless steel cog

in a lean mean fighting machine

and some idiots in washington

some career assholes

whose reality

never left

the sterile confines

of some pentagon warroom

picked us up

set us down in vietnam

…and turned us on.

“This is a real heart wrecker for me,” says Stuart Polzin, a former Vietnam marine sergeant, after reciting his poem, “Lean Mean Fighting Machine.”

“I don’t dwell on the war because it drains me.”

To Polzin, reciting his poetry in Mootsy’s is more personal than attending some service group-sanctioned ceremony on Veterans Day.

Painfully personal. The giant flag on the wall was once draped over the coffin that bore Polzin’s father, Ken, a World War II veteran. The pool table in front of the podium is covered with snapshots and memorabilia from the poets’ war days.

Polzin’s medal-encrusted uniforms hang near a Marine Corps banner.

“This is perfect,” Polzin adds of the offbeat setting. “Many Vietnam vets still feel disenfranchised and disillusioned. We’re not patriotic, march-in-a-parade kind of people.”

The surprise hit of the evening wasn’t poetry, but an essay Oswald read about one of his supply boat trips on the Perfume River in Vietnam.

Draining a Pabst Blue Ribbon, Oswald tossed the beer can into the water. As it floated away, a buddy aimed his M-16 and opened fire on the empty.

Bullets rained into the water as the man fired first on semiautomatic and then fully automatic. The can, bobbing and weaving in the current, proved an elusive enemy.

Oswald opened up with his weapon. Soon the men were venting their frustration on the can, calling it every racial epithet they could conjure out of their hatred of a vile war in which they were stuck.

Still the can eluded them. Until they fired a round from a grenade launcher to blast their foe to smithereens in a noisy geyser of water.

“We were all feeling a little better,” says Oswald, finishing his story to cheers and applause and a little understanding of the hell these once-young men endured.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

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