voice of a morning DJ, he reflects on that first meeting with Grant. “When he told me it was based on a book of poetry by a Vietnam veteran, I was kinda like, ‘I know this story. I know these people.’” McManus says his home town was one of those places where it seemed like every other guy went to Vietnam and if they weren’t in Vietnam, they were working in the mill to make the munitions for the war. He says the soldiers came back “either dead or so fucked up that they weren’t even recognizable anymore.” “The war tore the area apart and left it with a psychic wound. The place has kind of never gotten over it,” he continues. “Saigon fell in ’75 — that was 42 years ago and it’s still a fresh wound in Western P.A. It’s still the thing that you don’t bring up unless you want to have an argument at the table.” When McManus first read Eric’s poems, “five or 10 times through,” he found an enormous amount of heart in them. Intrigued, McManus wondered, “Who is this guy ripping his scars wide open and bleeding onto the page?” McManus headed up to Humboldt to meet him. He pulled into town late and stayed a few blocks from Blue Ox. On his walk over the next morning, he was struck by the similarities between Eureka and the broken steel towns of Pennsylvania. “The industry is different. The people are different. Maybe the demographics are different,” he observes. “But the wounds are all the same.” It took no time at all for the two of them to click. McManus says. “Eric starts taking me around the Blue Ox and within five minutes, I’m like, ‘I love this guy!’ He reminded me of every uncle that I’d grown up with.” Except those guys didn’t write poetry. “Where I grew up, if you talked about art, you’d get your ass kicked,” he says. “Eric’s this tough guy, and then at the same time you can feel that there’s this big beating heart there. And he’s going to show you both of these things at the same time.” McManus is animated when describing his few days getting to know Eric, Viviana and Blue Ox. “I was totally taken by the the place within hours,” he says with palpable enthusiasm. “It’s got a smell to it. It smells like sawdust and cigar and sweat. It’s as gritty as all get out and then at the same time, here comes a bunch of school kids. And he’s going to take them around and show them what it looked like to blacksmith in 1876 or whatever. I’m like, ‘Shit!’” McManus had questions about the poems, he wanted to know about the Ox,
he wanted to know the stories that aren’t in the poems. He’d had experiences with men from Eric’s era, and worried it might not be easy to get him to open up. But when the two of them hunkered down in the warm, cluttered back office of Blue Ox, Eric pulled out a few cans of warm Pabst Blue Ribbon, lit his pipe and did one of the things he does best: tell stories. They sat together for six hours at a time, “or as much as he could take that day,” McManus remembers.
Story Circles After immersing himself in the vortex that is Blue Ox, McManus and the play’s assistant director, Daniel Penilla, headed north to gather more fodder for the monologues. They hosted story circles with veterans in Medford, Oregon, and in Eureka. McManus reckons they interviewed 150 or so male and female vets from the Vietnam War, and the wars since. He jokes that the gatherings were not unlike AA meetings — with coffee and doughnuts and chairs strewn in a circle, and also a sense of brotherhood. Some vets didn’t say a word. Others spoke of their experiences for the first time. “There were always the talkers and the non-talkers,” says McManus, “and you’d wonder what the non-talkers were thinking.” “The thing that I learned right away is that whatever your preconceived notions of what a veteran is, it’s all out the door,” he reflects. “There are no monoliths. Some of them are angry as all get out. Some of them are kind as all get out. Some of them are that wonderful mix in the same person. It’s beautiful. … They’re just people. They’re trying to fall in love, they’re trying to keep a marriage together, they’re trying to not be an absolute shit stain to whoever their partner is. They’re just trying to be in the same way that all of us are trying to be. “A lot of the veterans had this idea that they may have left a better version of themselves in the desert and they’re never going to get that better or more naive version of themselves back,” McManus continues. “But they said, ‘This is who you have sitting in front of you, so if you want me to tell you what this is like, I’ll tell you what my life is like.’”
Build to edge of the document Margins are just a safe area
Identity Almost all of the monologues are about identity, the ways in which vets work to distance and redefine themselves from the person they were at war. McManus marvels at how they do it. “I have trouble getting myself out the door to go to the gym — and these folks are Continued on next page »
northcoastjournal.com • Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017 • NORTH COAST JOURNAL
Published on Nov 9, 2017