Don Shanley – July 31st, 2009

101_0006I met with Don Shanley – known as ‘Shanley’ to his friends – a couple of Saturdays ago at his house just south of Navarro. After a quick tour of the garden we sat down to talk in his spacious office from where he runs his business, ProSeed, specializing in landscape and erosion control.
Don was born, the youngest of three boys, in 1944 in San Francisco, moving as an infant to what is now the last “fixer-upper” in Ross on Shanley Lane in Marin County. His father was an Irish immigrant from New York City and his mother from a long-time San Francisco family who had settled there in 1844, before the Gold Rush, when it was still called Yerba Buena and there were cows grazing on what is now Haight Street. When he was seven years old Don’s parents split up and a few years later his mother married Bud and the family moved to Chicago. “Bud was really my father in the sense that he was the male influence in my life – and what an influence he was. He was a Yale graduate (1923) and lived in  Chicago where I was to attend junior high and high school. He kicked me in the ass and pushed me to be a better student. It was a big change for me, a much more formal existence – I had to leave my buddies and our B.B. guns and fishing in flip-flops and t-shirts to wearing a tie at dinner and serious study, although he also encouraged my swimming… Bud was excellent influence on us, a very cool guy. He even installed a bullet trap in the basement so I could continue to shoot – that made me cool with the other kids. Bud was very sarcastic and had a well-defined sense of irony. He was an old school gentleman, well educated but not a snob.  His college roommate at Yale lived next to us in Marin and he’d come and visit his buddy and met my mother that way… Looking back if he had not come into my life I would probably have ended up as a surfer with a broken surfboard living under a bridge on Stinson Beach!”
Don attended New Trier High School which he enjoyed overall “thanks to the great teachers who went out of their way to encourage creativity.” He was an average student but a very good swimmer at a school known for its swimming program. He was not very social and when not studying or swimming he preferred to write poetry. This came about after reading Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ which came out in 1956 and caused quite a controversy. He graduated in 1962 and decided he wanted to see if his adequate academic achievements and swimming talents could stand up to the high standards at Stanford in Palo Alto. “I found out quite soon that I was out of my league. The swimming and study regimen that I maintained kept me focused but perhaps, with hindsight, it made college less fun than it might have been.” With a degree in history Don graduated in 1966 at a time when the Vietnam War was heating up. “The country was undergoing a very unsettling time. I had history professors in 1963 who lectured that JFK was on the right track establishing the Special Forces to fight insurgencies.  I was reading Hemmingway and wanted to experience the “social calamity” of my times.  I had a romantic view of war at that time.”
Don entered U.C. Berkeley Graduate School in the fall of 1966 to do his M.B.A. He finished his quarterly exams and soon after, with the draft taking 45,000 soldiers every month, his status went from 2S to 1A and he realized that he’d be signed up as a private in the army in thirty days time if he didn’t enlist to be an officer. He applied for the navy but was told there was a wait so “in the only truly existential act of my life” he crossed the hallway and applied for the Marine Corps Officer Candidate School where they signed him up immediately. “My brothers were both in the service and in my naivety I wanted to ‘see the war.’ After my training in Virginia I came out as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Marines and was given command of a Rifle Platoon.” Soon thereafter Don was on the front lines in Vietnam. It was December 1967, the month before the Tet Offensive of 1968. “What followed was not one of the best years of my life.”…
“I have many inconsistent views and thoughts about the war and don’t want to go into too much detail here. Another time perhaps. I do know that I had really terrific men and we were professionals. We were in the bush for eight months, running patrols and ambushes. We were between Laos and Khe Sanh, on Hill 861 Alpha, during the seventy-five day siege of Khe Sanh – we were on a small promontory surrounded by the 325th Infantry Division of the North Vietnamese Army, rumored to be 20,000 strong. They were very tough professional soldiers – they had walked from Hanoi. We had 42 men, backed up by another 120 or so a little way behind us. We were nowhere near to any villages and you knew that whomever you saw was the enemy. It was never a case of having to work out who were soldiers and who were the villagers. I never did see any Vietcong during my tour. We were overrun on February 5th, 1968 but Khe Sanh held and ultimately the siege was lifted.”
“There was such a difference between being in the bush and the rear. There were fifteen men in the rear for every one in the bush with his rifle, a little ammo, and a few grenades and two canteens. We were poorly supplied – little water, ammo running out, and insufficient medical supplies. When men returned to the rear after a fifteen-day patrol, filthy and stinking, they would steal whatever they thought they would need. If some Army Major said on a Tuesday that there was no milk available until Thursday these guys would tell the major to get out of the way and just take the milk. We were not to be messed with and seeing the guys in the rear, well fed and with cold beers, did not make us happy. I am not whining – it was our job; we would do our very best. I only became pissed off years later”…
“People talk about the drug use amongst the soldiers. I never saw any at all in the bush. We just wanted new boots every three months and spent the time concentrating on covering each other. I lost most of my men, killed, wounded, or transferred in the thirteen months I was there. I am in touch with a few of them but the only reunion I attended was for my class of 2nd Lieutenants – we had suffered the highest casualty rate in the Marines Corps history – my class arrived just before Tet 1968 and was involved in some of the most intense fighting of the war. I was very lucky to only suffer a minor wound…I was not a career military guy and wanted out even though they tried to keep you in. For a time after my thirteen months ‘In-Country’ I had a good gig in the Mediterranean dealing with paper work and payroll but started to upset people with my stance with the Vietnam Vets against the War. This speeded up my eventual departure out of the service in March 1970. When Nixon invaded Cambodia — it was “what the hell are we doing that for?’ It put me over the edge and I started to question it all.”
“I just wanted to get as many of my men home as possible. I was twenty-two with a lot of responsibility. Most of my men were under twenty. When I got out I did not want to be some sort of ‘poster marine’ attacking ‘the system’, but after Khe Sanh I had become disillusioned. We had been trained to go up the hill, down the hill, through the hill. Here we were, being bombarded in rain-filled foxholes all day and under infantry attack at night. We were rarely on the offensive. It was all very mixed-up in my mind.”
“I have seen the Vietnam films and most have some redeeming qualities but ‘Apocalypse Now’ is the best. Although the film is full of hyperbole, the soldiers’ dialogue written by Michael Herr is very realistic; to me as a grunt he captured the vernacular very well indeed. ‘Platoon’ isn’t bad, and some aspects of ‘The Deer Hunter’ are good too…The war doesn’t go away from you but it can be put aside and you have to move on. I am incredibly privileged that I am alive and that my brain functions – even on my worst days it’s good to know no one is shooting at me.”
After leaving the military, Don settled in Stewart’s Point on the west Sonoma County coast where he spent “a very reflective and meditative year, smoking a lot of dope.” He worked for a time in a lumber mill pulling green chain, dove for abalone, grew a garden, and was even a lifeguard for the Sea Ranch clubhouse. He also hitchhiked across the country three times in that year. He found more steady work as the gardener at the Little River Inn where he stayed for five years. “My Mother, who will be 99 in November, said at that time, ‘Donald – four years in college, half a year at Graduate School, three years in the Marines – and you’re still mowing lawns’.“ During this time Don became the County’s first organic certified gardener in 1972 and sold his produce to various restaurants etc. He also worked as a prep cook at the Café Beaujolais in Mendocino…
He and partner Susan Waterfall really got into the back-to-the-land movement and had bought four acres in 1971 on Albion Ridge. “We nearly bought what became the Handley Cellars property in Anderson Valley. I had been in the Valley as a child when my family would stay at Rays Resort in Philo – I actually learned to swim in the Navarro River in 1948! Anyway, Susan was a classical pianist, amongst many other things, and thought she would get more piano students on the coast, so we bought there instead. I worked as a garden designer/landscape contractor for ten years but could never get anyone to do the hydroseeding on my landscape garden jobs. As a result, many years later, in 1983, I eventually founded ProSeed specializing in restoration, erosion control and hydroseeding… Susan and I split up in the mid-seventies and I moved to Westport for four years and also lived on Greenwood Ridge but kept working in the same field. During these years I was writing and giving public poetry readings—my favorite one was at the Club Fort Bragg in 1978 that was critically acclaimed and could be said to be an important part of my local past…  By 1980 I had become caretaker for Kris Kristofferson’s ranch in Elk – I still am. My ‘hermit’ period came to an end.  That was a great place to live. “
Don had thought he’d never get married – ‘I’d spent many years in the seventies in very volatile relationships and traveling a lot. There was lots of drama and risk taking. I’d take risks for fun and that is not really the way to go. I was living quite a reckless life, involved in the film business, and traveling all over the world.” In the mid-eighties, having known Laura Quatrochi for a few years but only by phone in a business context – she is a botanist who grew and sold wildflower seeds for oldest American seed producer in Lompoc in southern California – they finally met and fell in love. They were married in 1991. “We lived on the Kristofferson Ranch before buying this property in the Valley in 1989.  We worked on the roads, the pond, clearing the brush, and planting trees before moving here almost full-time in 1992…. Laura puts up with me. She is brilliant and has enormous energy – we both do. We didn’t have kids – never had the time it seemed. Our two cats died and we never replaced them because we love the birds and lizards around our home – I swear the lizards know me. We’d love to get a dog but travel too much at this point so it would not be fair to the dog.”
Don’s company, ProSeed, continues to be a success. If you see guys working on repairing/restoring the land following any highway, bridge, creek, pond, etc work in these parts (and ten other counties!) then it is very likely Don and his crew. “We bid for work from the State, the Feds, and private land owners and I love the scale of our jobs. It’s exhilarating to see fifty acres recovering from some construction project, covered in native grasses, lupines, willows, poplars. I’d do it until I was ninety if I could and I still learn something virtually every day. My crewmembers are union workers and earn good money. I love the camaraderie we have. I am on every job and we bust our ass and do a good job. The guys get it – we are professionals and that’s very important to me. I suppose I do get a little ‘marine corps’ on them sometimes but they understand me and hopefully my enthusiasm rubs off on them. It has been very satisfying to see all the hard work pay off, for both myself and for Laura in her business too.”(Wildflowers International, Inc./Bloembox.com)
Don continues to shoot skeet with friends, dive for abalone, and occasionally ‘harvest deer’ – “it’s not really hunting around here… I also love the air here and as a runner that’s important. I love the mix of cultures we have and there is a good community here to be a part if you want that, but if you wish to live a more secluded lifestyle then nobody will bother you either. There is little to dislike here although the traffic has increased greatly and the gossip is a little too much occasionally but it’s sort of funny I must say. I sometimes think there is an attitude held by some people here that it is not ‘right’ or politically correct for businesses to do well – just a thought.”
I asked Shanley (I think I can call him that after being at his home for a few hours!?) for his responses to various hot-button issues that Valley people frequently discuss…The A.V.A. newspaper? – “I have always been a supporter and was very disappointed when Bruce left for that period a few years ago. Sometimes what is written is not necessarily true although I seem to be on Bruce’s side of any topic 99% of the time. He did pick on some people unmercifully but again I agreed with most of what he wrote. The paper is a terrific service to the Valley and I love the Valley People and Turkey Vulture local pages. When I think of what is sometimes written I agree with Walt Whitman who said it was ‘the duty of writers (poets) to cheer up the slaves and horrify the despots.’ “…The wineries? – “Well, I’ve always liked a good Pinot Noir…No, seriously, the big issue is the water – it is not just a cliché, it is a serious issue. I was an avid steelhead fisherman and while it’s not all the wineries’ fault, they have been getting their water from somewhere and the fish have gone. They must pay greater attention to where their vines go. I drink wine and we have some wonderful wines in the Valley. Their being here has driven up the price of housing and their tasting room employees cannot afford to buy homes in the area, not to mention the families who work in the fields. Teachers can’t either. However I’d rather see one more winery than another Holmes Ranch with seventy or whatever parcels of twenty acres each with the all the roads this would require for retired dentists to get around. Sheep and apples are great but are no longer viable. I guess I’m a mixed bag of opinions on this.”… KZYX & Z local public radio? – “I really don’t listen; may be once in a while. It is sort of a pesky fly on my ear. Shouldn’t there be some sort of workshop for the presenters to learn how to present a show and work the equipment? It does remind me of the radio club in school.”…
Knowing that he had pretty much traveled the world apart from sub-Sahara Africa, I asked Shanley if he thought he might live somewhere else in the future. “When I’m really old, stumbling around, maybe I’d move to San Francisco. I also love the Mediterranean countries and Buenos Aires in Argentina would be a good place for the final days if I were terminally ill. However, if I was in good health then Anderson Valley would be great.”
To end the interview, as I have being doing each week, I posed a few questions to Shanley, many of which are from a list originally devised by French Interviewer and Culture “Expert”, Bernard Pivot, and featured on television’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton”…
What is your favorite word or phrase? – “That’s tough for someone who likes to play with words. I guess I like the word ‘enthusiasm’ and all that it can mean and lead to.”

What is your least favorite word or phrase? – “Racial expletives do not go real well with me.”

What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally? – “Absolute silence. I do like a couple of days to myself now and again – some quiet time with no agenda.”

What turns you off creatively, spiritually or emotionally? – “Passive aggressive people – I’m afraid I don’t have any pithy, crackling replies for some of these questions.”

What sound or noise do you love? – “All water noises, particularly really major, scary storms and the rushing of a river…The sounds of the ocean too.”

What sound or noise do you hate? – “Wounded people dying. It is not crying, it is a stammering, guttural sound before they die. And there is no worse smell on earth than that of rotting human flesh… On a vastly lesser level, more nauseating than hated, it would be boom boxes or a malfunctioning piece of equipment on day one of a big job.”

What is your favorite curse word? – “I have really tried to cut back on this, I used to say the ‘f’ word a lot but it’s probably ‘oh shit’ more these days.”

Is there a film/song/book that has greatly influenced you in some way? – “I love Bach; early Dylan affected me as did the ballads of John Coltrane – they have always been really good for my brain; the lyrics and voice of Leonard Cohen; the country/folk music of John Prine and Kris Kristofferson… ‘Birth of a Nation’ is a film I always remember and Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s ‘Apu Trilogy’ of movies – full of amazing artistic moments; ‘Apocalypse Now’ of course…As for a book, any poetry by William Carlos Williams has stayed with me, as have the writings of poet Gary Snyder”…

What is your favorite hobby? – “I love to run, to shoot, to dive and snorkel, and to read, in no particular order.”

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? – “An arbitrageur – in economics and finance, it is someone who takes advantage of a price differential between two or more markets: striking a combination of matching deals that capitalize upon this imbalance, and realizing the profit from the difference between the market prices…Or maybe just a fishing guide in Idaho!”

What profession would you not like to do? – “A 2nd Lieutenant in Vietnam!… No, err, any kind of job involving me being in a cubicle – I’d end up in the Federal Penitentiary in weeks, it would be torture to me”…

What was the happiest day or event in your life? – “Well, I was extremely happy when I got on a plane and left Vietnam for good. Actually I did return to Khe Sanh a few years ago with the Peace Trees Movement – clearing out unexploded ordinance and planting trees. I planned to go up Hill 861-Alpha, now a coffee plantation, but something told me not to – the irony of being blown up over thirty years after being in combat there was not lost on me and I decided to observe from the base of the hill. The visit was quite something and I am still processing it…On a daily basis waking up and knowing I am with Laura makes me very happy indeed.”

What was the saddest? – “I have rarely been sad exactly but I have had lengthy periods of depression and melancholy…I was not sad at losing men in the war, rather it was very hurtful. Losing my Grandfather (he was 104) was also hurtful…I would be sad if Laura was not here.”

What is your favorite thing about yourself – physically/mentally/spiritually? – “My enthusiasm.”

Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? – “Shanley – are you kidding?”

P.S.
Don was in some ways reticent to talk in great detail about his Vietnam experience but since our meeting I discovered this insight. The editor of ‘Red Clay’, the magazine of the Khe Sanh Veterans Association has written, “I was privileged to have fought alongside Don Shanley when our position on Hill 861A was attacked by a large NVA force on 5 Feb 1968. His heroic actions are the sole reason that so many of us were able to return home to our families. For that, and for his work in Vietnam with Peace Trees, I want to say “Thanks.’

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Published in: on August 12, 2009 at 5:01 pm  Comments (13)  

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13 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I lost a good friend, Jack Bogard, on that fateful 5Feb68 on Hill 861Alpha. I’ve written to Don Shanley and several other Marines that fought that night. I’m satisfied that they all fought the best they could, and the lives that were lost died heroically for their fellow Marines.

    God bless them all!! All correspondence will be appreciated.

    Dave

    • Dave,

      May I ask how you knew Jack Bogard?

  2. hello uncle Don,greetings from dallas. mom & kerrie both send their Love ? do you still have that old green truck that burned more oil than gas ? enjoyed the article very much kirk 972 672-4681

  3. Don :Thank you for all your poets heart has created.( i appreciate your efforts in organics.. long time from Chris buying the land to grow hay..the late 80’s in elk were magical, (before cable came into town and made the change to the valley of ten thousand little ills) the greenwood watershed, and the personality’s blessed, recognized and cherished all… in the summer of 1988 i was stranded in elk and took the opportunity to become myself. i am nothing special just an x town board member tangled in the old elk store and the greenwood pier inn, Hawaii etc. 9Grins) and a friend of “Andy”
    who worked for you…thanks Don from someone who will always recall your name as a fellow vet etc. communicate if it is your will. Fairbanks AK..

  4. if you can catch me up on mendo coast stuff.. appreciated. currently working on six book set of applications of ethnobotony, heirloom plant varieties, nutrition and human potential enhancing supporting diets from pre natal to geriatric….
    true thought is silent, language is not thought, we are born thinking, language is learned…(laughter is natural)

  5. Lt. Shanley…..this is Dave Norton – I was in 1st platoon when you arrvied @ Echo Co.
    I was wounded and medevac 2/5/68…..my trusted buddy Joe Molettiere was KIA and Martin Rimson also in my squad was badly wounded and died on the filight to Danang.
    I glad to see you are doing well and enjoying good health….continue to live for the moment.

    Dave Norton

    • Hello Dave, Just today I see your email….sorry so slow to respond. I remember you in Cpl Mutz’s squad–you were a fire team leader–2nd squad–you guys took the worst hit of assault—Molettiere, Rimson, Smith KIA’s & almost your entire squad wounded. A rough night I’ll never forget & I’ll never forget that it was all of you that stood & fought & saved our asses that night. Sam Gomez a M-79 man I think was in your squad? He died in my arms 20 Feb after being hit just jumping into my CP hole. Stone & Bargas were hit that day too—do you remember them? The years pile up & race by & I do think often how damn lucky I was to serve with such fine men—you all kept a green Lt. above ground & I’ll always have “what ifs?” to deal with but did the best I could.
      You might want to emaill Capt Earle Breeding our CO of Echo on 861A…I’m going to visit him in Albuquerque 22-25 April—

      • My email cut off as incompleted: Earle Breeding’s email is skipper861a@gmail.com
        Send me your email as I would rather not have my comments posted on this “interview” public page…..Thanks.
        Don Shanley

      • G’morning Don….it’s great to hear from you, sorry I missed the brief reunion at Major Breeding’s home in April I had a business commitment.My email is nortondavid@earthlink.net

  6. PFC Jack Bogard is my father KIA 5FEB1968 861

  7. Hello Kevin,

    Your email was just forwarded to me. I want you to know loud & clear that your father, Jack Bogard, is one of only a few Marines I remember very well. His HUMOR & SPIRIT were a tremendous source of morale boosting energy during a time when
    all of us on that hill faced death every moment of every day & night.
    Although his fighting position wasn’t in direct line of sight to my fighting hole I remember him shouting every morning when he aybe was off “watch” & had a couple hours sleep, “Good Morning Vietnam!”—-It was only years later when I saw Robin Williams in the movie, “Good Morning Vietnam” that I figured out Jack had access to “Radio Vietnam”—Jack Bogard was a damn fine Marine, a fire team leader, who was killed in combat, fighting to support his fellow Marines

    • Thank you for your response, always look forward to hearing stories that include my father.

      Thanks again

      Respectfully

      Kevin Bogard

  8. Don – I didn’t know if you were aware of the passing of Billy Drexel on 2/19/15. He was in mortars attached to 1st platoon…lost both legs on 861. I hope you are doing well and are in good health.


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