Gene is a big man. And that’s not just a physical description. A Vietnam Vet who moved to Ireland in the eighties, he lives in Schull, where, with only one third of an acre at his disposal, he has developed a nursery and gardeners’ paradise. We met at his house, and he took me on a tour of his garden while he talked. I have never met anyone so relaxed, yet so alive, so enthusiastic about life. His slow, southern drawl was hypnotic, but otherwise his dreads and woolly hat, his personality seemed more Jamaican than American. While talking, he picked organic lettuce leaves from different heads for me to take home.
I was born in South Carolina. My mum had me, and three days later she went back to picking cotton. They had these bags, which they dragged along. So she just put me on the end. What did I see, there on the sack? Then we moved from South Carolina - we still have the 40-acre farm there – to just outside Philadelphia, and did a lot of migrant work, picking vegetables. So I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia. There were eight of us kids, four boys and four girls. I was number four.
Everyone was mad for Mum and Dad. They did all of this, and had eight kids, without welfare. To this day, I don’t approve of the welfare system. We didn’t even find out we were poor until we moved into town! And somebody told us, ‘you’re poor,’ and we went, ‘oh no, shit, we’re poor!’ Whereas our life was fine, we always had plenty to eat. I don’t recall crying or being underweight. We all worked on the farm, picking vegetables around the area, and Mum always packed enough, and canned enough and froze enough. We ate chicken feet and chicken necks; I still remember, ‘don’t touch the wings!’ To this day, I get the wings. It’s just like fish. We used to fry the whole fish. Bones to the left, bits to the right. No complaints.
My mum was great. I used to tell her that I was going to dress her up in a pink bikini and put her on my boat when I got custody of her! That’s the kind of stuff we used to talk. She goes, ‘as soon as I get those arms around me I’m gonna grab that pair of scissors and get that beard off your face’. The she got dementia. She was getting to the point where she didn’t know me. My sisters were taking care of her. She just passed one day. I’m the only one with good memories, because I don’t do funerals.
They knew I wasn’t coming. My brother had cancer. I went over to see him. We sat there and talked. He was washing his car and doing his stuff. Ten days after, boom, he was dead. He had prepared everything and he just went on out. His family was all there. And my mum was having the best day of her recent times. Then she went home, into the bathroom lay down and died. All I got is happy memories of both of them.
When my boys asked what happened to their Gran, I said, ‘She went fishin’. So now that’s what we say. My father – Liam is named after him - is very cool, deeply religious, overweight. He had a stroke. He was expected to die. He had fallen, was bleeding in the brain. He was in hospital, on a do not resuscitate thing. We were just waiting for him to die. Then one day he woke up, said, ’I can’t eat this food any more. I got some chicken at home I want to eat.’ And he got up and left! He couldn’t walk or anything, and now he’s made a complete recovery, he’s gotten over the trauma of losing his wife of fifty something years, and he’s great. No ill effects. Just before I came over to visit him, the family goes to him, ‘um, look, it’s pointless you dying, ‘cos Gene’s done booked this ticket!’ So you got to wait till next Thursday. Then my little brother was dying. And he goes, ‘Look. You try to copy everything I do. I’m dying, now you wanna die!’ The next time he says he’s not gonna make it, they go, ‘your niece is coming at 8.30, you have to wait till then.’ And so it went on. You can’t die without permission.
So anyway, when I was 17, the Vietnam War came up, and in 1964, I volunteered to go to the Air Force to avoid combat, and ended up in the first combat outfit in the Air Force! It was just like the movies, getting trained in the jungle, I mean, this is it, living off the land, counter intelligence, all this stuff. Because it was a new idea to have combat engineers in the air force, which doesn’t make any sense, they decided they were going to intensively train us. We were already in the military with the Air Force, so they had the navy, the marines and the army train us all again! We had six of these outfits, specially named Red Horse, which stood for Rapid Emergency Deployment of Heavy Operational Repair Squadron of Engineers! In other words, they would drop 600 of us anywhere in the world – we had doctors, lawyers, cooks, everybody – and we would build cities, instantly, for the people who were coming. So we were like, on our own in danger zones, to make ready for the ones who were going to come to protect us, afterwards!
They gave us $2 million worth of equipment. Everyone had their own vehicles, everything.
The whole place was a combat zone. So it was nothing to go to sleep and wake up in the morning and find that half of everything was blown up. We had the Russians and the Chinese versus the Americans. These two great powers with the Vietnamese in the middle.
How did you feel, emotionally, about the situation at that time?
Well, Flower Power was only just beginning to kick in. The hippies weren’t even hippies yet. It was great, we were John Wayne. We were heroes. We got to die for our country! I was 17 and this was it. No one thought of the politics. All of that was hindsight. When we left the States in ’64, everyone was throwing flowers on us. Everyone was there, your parents were hugging you, your friends…when we came back everyone was throwing rocks at us.
Did you ever kill anyone?
Probably inadvertently. There was no hand-to-hand shit. Forget all that stuff. If anything, everyone runs in the opposite direction anytime shit goes down. But by loading the planes, by calling in for help or something, you were just as involved whether or not you actually saw it. I’d say everybody did like I did. If you heard someone shooting at you, you shot back as many bullets as you had, and you hoped it got quiet before you got hurt, you know? When you really, really got scared, you wanted to get hurt. Not badly. Only in the leg, in my arm, just to get out!
There were 50 to 60 000 guys a month, rotating there. So there were millions. I came back when the momentum shifted during the Tet offensive. The Chinese New Year. There was an all out reversal. They attacked us to the point where the Americans decided to leave. I made it. I got home. My brother didn’t make it.
Were you there together?
No. There was actually a law called the Sullivan Law, whereby brothers never went out at the same time. All of the Sullivan brothers died on one ship. So if there’s no one to carry the name on, you don’t have to go. But they hold you on the side so you’re next. So they gave us the choice that if he did go, he could ask for whatever he wanted. So he got to be a pilot. And he got killed.
In my neighbourhood, out of say a dozen guys I knew, three, four, five of them were killed, a couple were wounded, a couple never talked straight again. The neighbourhood I came from was devastated. It wasn’t devastated to a point where it didn’t regenerate, but 12 or 14 guys you grew up with, were gone. Aged only 17 or 18.
I do think human beings are stamped and set. The people who were affected mentally, would have been affected mentally in another situation. You can bury a little, but, basically, if you got up and started working, you would end up somewhere. As far as control goes, you have to try and get to a point where you can make decisions – do you turn right, or left - there are still decisions to make, still different outcomes.
After four years in Vietnam, I came back. I had done a lot of growing up in a very short space of time. Then I went to university. I took art. What happened was, when you went to Vietnam, your education was free after you got out, and you got paid x amount of money a week, just to go to school. And sitting around after Vietnam was kind of mild, like you don’t have your machine gun, you don’t have your hand grenades, you don’t have a licence to kill if necessary…
In the military I was an aircraft mechanic, specialising in metals. Anything that broke or snapped or cracked, that was my job. You come into a place like the military at age 17, they send you off to school, and they teach you. Then there you are, an 18 year old in charge of a 30 or 40 million dollar plane, and it’s your word to say what to do. You have a gun, you have all this stuff. What a head sweller. Then when you get out, now they don’t like what you did in hindsight. Me I just go on. I developed a tolerance for whatever people want to do.
What did you do after the war?
I signed up for evening classes and I had a lovely job on the garbage truck. I did that for seven years, and went to university nights. I really enjoyed it. I took glassblowing, sculpture, painting, English, photography. You accumulate sixty credits, and then you declare your major. You do it the way you want it. So I did all the things I wanted to do.
Tell me about the garbage job.
In the States all the black guys used to work on the garbage trucks, that was the low life job. So in this private company the Mafia had taken over, there would be three guys on the truck. And the incentive was you got 1000 houses to do and when you got done, you got a day’s pay. Now if you did it like this…(trudges along slowly) you’d be out there for 10 hours. But if you did it like this (races around the room) you’d be done by 12.30!
You’d be on the back of the truck. The driver would pull up to the trashcans, stop and put the mechanism on. And by the time he’s done that, you’ve grabbed the two cans, taken a step around and there’s a bar on the back of the truck, which you’d use, bring the cans upside down, smash them down, the trash would fall out, you’d take a step back, set the cans back up, and grab onto the truck before he takes off. Whole thing, three steps. Onto the next one. And all these black guys out there would be singing and sweating, talking shit, and you’re laughing and carrying on, and by 12.30 we’d be done, and sitting out under the trees. And I did that like for 7 years. It was a real no brain job. Then the job turned out to be so well paid, most of the whites are on it now. For years, my truck was always the first one in. Once you got back, they’d pay you $15 to go out again. And you could go and make $15 in an hour. You had to take it to the dump. They had machines where they’d push it in. big mounds of stuff, so you could get stuck. You had to know what to do to avoid a breakdown. And these guys respected that I never had a breakdown.
But then I got bored one day, called my younger brother to come by (he just died last year) and I says, ‘Gerry, here are the keys to the house, I’m leaving’. And then I went to Florida.
I used to play football and go diving and jogging, all the beach fun stuff. I was about 28. And I just met this Irish girl called Alyn who was living next door, with the weirdest, funniest, accent! And being a brother you talk all this kind of shit, like, ‘hey baby, what you doin’? And we used to sit out there and have fun. She and her boyfriend broke up and me and my friend Craig and Alyn became the three. And we’d just hang out. That was in 1979, and to this day we’ve never stopped hanging out together!
She was a pretty little delicate thing. And the most amazing thing is it’s all these years later, and it’s still the same. There’s nothing that I wouldn’t do for that little girl. And she’s not afraid of this big guy. So it’s like, OK. Whatever you wanna do, babe, it’s fine. We go everywhere together; everything’s still exciting to us. I watched her take up her first pencil, go to art school, get her arts degree, start the arts festival. I love watching her do it, just like I like watching my son do music, write and all that.
How did your relationship with a white girl go down with your family?
Well, the tolerance with black people is different. Blacks don’t have the same prejudices. Prejudices only happen to people who have something they don’t want to lose. And growing up in the north with people who had tolerance, it was no big deal. It wasn’t a big deal with me. But we met in Florida, in the south. So there, actually to be with someone with a different race, you were still looked at as though you were weird. We just passed it on by.
I’ve always had a pretty steady head. People do what they want to do. I don’t mind. I’m fine, just coping with the world.
As a black, you were classified as an animal in those days. But in the army you met people from all walks of life. It was a lot more open, because so many blacks joined up to get out of the ghetto. So there was a hell of a different shift in balance.
Later, you felt it, coming back from a combat zone and then not being able to get a cup of coffee because you’re the wrong colour.
Did you get into the civil rights movement?
No, I didn’t want to get into all that. People like Bill Hogan over here, he’s an ex American and he said they turned the dogs loose on him. I admire those guys. I wouldn’t have put my life on the line and gone to Alabama or Mississippi and ended up in some ditch. With mace or stun guns. It didn’t interest me. After the war there was no way I was getting into any kind of shit. You learn to walk away. I used to be great for confrontation. I’m still great for it, but verbally. I log it in properly and get it right before I take action now.
You’re a gardener now. How did you get into it?
Well, we were raised growing vegetables. It’s in my blood. But how it happened professionally was like this. We have a great redundancy policy in the States, so in the winter when you don’t work you get almost all your money. So there I was sitting at home in Philadelphia and earning this money, playing cards every day with my friends. I was happy! But then my wife came home one day and said to me, ‘I’ve found the perfect job for you. Teaching gardening to children.’ I said, ‘wow, how’d you get me that job?’ and she said, ‘I didn’t get you the job. It’s advertised in the paper. But it’s yours if you want it! You just have to go down there!’
So I got down to this interview and there were sixty people with degrees. I couldn’t spell horticulture if you asked me to! I didn’t realise what I was doing. So after the third interview I said to the people, ‘look this is not what I want, I don’t like driving down to the city, and if you did give me the job, I wouldn’t take it anyway, unless’n I could do it the way I wanted to.’ And they go, ‘well that’s why we called you down, we’re hiring you.’ So I said, ‘so what do you want me to do?’ and they go, ‘well you said if we hired you, we couldn’t tell you what to do. So, it’s your programme!’
So I started working with thirteen troubled kids. I ended up working with 300 kids. I was on TV, on the radio. I worked with the handicapped. And I was still done by 2pm! The way they approached it was administrative, administrative. I just went in there and got results. I go, ‘OK I’ll tell you what, I’ll bring you ten of the best shovels around, and ten kids to use them. ‘ And there’d be ten kids standing there, and we’d be doing the garden. I would go to neighbourhoods where the police had guns to guard the schools, where other people would never go. Didn’t make that much difference to me, because I was part of that kind of thing. I just grew up with the idea, ‘you talk nice to me, I’ll talk nice back to you.’ So that’s the way I did it. So I ended up teaching the teachers and the kids at the same time. So that was great.
So they had plans for me! And then Alyn’s mum died. And we came home here. I just walked, after four years.
How did you feel about coming to Ireland?
I wanted to come here. I mean, this is rural. I grew up in a rural place. When you ask people their impressions of the States, they think it’s one city. It’s fifty countries! And each one of them has a populated city, but mostly it’s rural. So I wanted to come here. And when I got here, I just grabbed my little bag, my seeds and my tools and my trays and I went into the schools. I taught at all the schools around, and at the college there, for two years. After the holidays, I went back, and the kids had all these tables, pumpkins, and all kinds of stuff.
And I said, ‘wow, where did all this come from? And they said, ‘You gave us the seeds!’ Usually you don’t expect kids to do that during their holidays! And it was in the paper here. One of the headlines read, ‘children gave up their chip money to buy seeds’!
I grow traditional. I grow things with the best knowledge and information that I’ve got. I don’t use chemicals per se, but I don’t necessarily use organic seeds. If something comes along and I want to try it, I try it. But I do everything with conscience, the Steiner method. Everything is planted to create a canopy. In the Steiner method, you create a garden of approximately 100 square feet, and in that space you should be able to raise enough food for a family of four. A canopy conserves the moisture, and there are very few weeds. You don’t pull the heads of the lettuce up. You just take what you need off of it. So I can pick two leaves off a few different heads, and it’s enough. And it never goes away.
I got here and I just wondered why there are no trees here. And they said to me, ‘they won’t grow here.’ ‘They won’t grow here?’ I said, ‘but the climate’s fine.’ And I found that you could grow trees here. People didn’t grow trees because they didn’t want trees! They just wanted grass for cows!
So I started growing trees. All of what you see here has been grown from seeds. A lot of the stuff I grow is new, so there aren’t pictures available. I take photos and put them on the computer, and sometimes on my website (www.thestandingstoneschull) and Alyn shares it with her paintings. There’s a lot of rare and different stuff here that takes a long time to grow. People come by who are plant collectors, and they all go crazy, because they will say, ‘would you have any kind of fruiting trees, and I’ll say, ‘ the cactus fruit, there’s pecans, walnuts, macadamias, hazelnuts, hickory nuts um…and they go,’ ‘What about fruit?’ And I go, ‘There’s cherries from Barbados, a wild peach from Africa…’ and then they say, ‘do you have anything that can make preserves, and I go, ‘Quince, cidona…’and it goes on! It’s like a plant collector’s dream.
But you ask me anything about a petunia or a rose, and I’m lost! All I know is what I grow.
Do your kids feel Irish or American?
They know they’re American, because they have both passports. But they live here, they grew up here, so their heart is here too. I’m hoping they’ll travel the world and then end up back here, ‘cause it’s a safe haven. I mean America, for all its faults is still a fantastic place, and they can come and go, as they want. And I think they should hang out there, do whatever they want. Shannon probably will do university there. As good as the education is here, it’s limited.
What other aspects of life here are different to life in the States?
In the States, Shannon for example if he was outside in the yard and I couldn’t see him, I would rush outside. That ‘s the difference between there and here. Here he could just do his thing. Liam now is into electronics. Cian is into tools. The rope. He’ll take it, hook it round his waist and drag it around. He has really learned how to use the beach. Here, the kids can play on their own, which is a really good thing to be able to do. There were eight of us, and mum would say be home before dark. And we would just get home in time to get something to eat. And that was it.
What do you think of the Irish?
I think they’re great. They don’t really have prejudice for black or for white, but for religion. I really like it here. They’re inquisitive but not too nosy, inventive, but not energetic! They’re like Jamaicans. They’ll pay you what they owe you…soon. In this part of the country they’re quite happy just to go with life. I went into Skibbereen to buy some wallboard and thought the price would be cheaper. It was €70 and I told him I’d pay it later. He just wrote it down.
I’m quite sure racism is coming though. And it won’t just be the arrival of foreigners; the Irish moving back here will bring it with them. The population is about to double here. People want to leave cities and move back from London to get away from the trouble and the crime and all that, and don’t realise that they’re the trouble. They’re going to bring all that stuff back here, their kids throwing rocks and all that. This is how countries are built. They just better watch out ‘cause what’s gonna happen is that those kids are going to go to their school and marry their sons and daughters and everyone’s going to be half Czech and half Irish, and half English and it’s gonna be beautiful! A black kid with an Irish passport speaking Czech!
What kind of reception did you get from the locals when you arrived?
Oh yeah, here’s a good one. Jimmy Reilly’s father used to have the coal shed down by the pier. I used to go down there. ‘Good morning,’ I’d say. He goes, ‘Hi, how are you?’ I go, ‘Fine.” He goes, ‘Are you here on holiday?’ I go, ‘No I live down at the standing stone, and he goes, ‘oh yeah, you’re Japanese!’ And he’s 80 something so we have the same conversation every day.
When I got here it was so nice. I’d go walking down by the pier. These guys go by in a boat and go, ‘hi. You visiting?’ And I go, ‘yeah’. And they go, ‘you want to come over to our place?’ And they took me off to Long Island. I go down the street and people open their doors and go, ‘come on in and have a cup of tea’. I’d just disappear all the time around here. I don’t distinguish between the doctor and the farmer. I’m liable to come home with muck all over me, or come riding home with the mayor, anybody. I talk rubbish to all of them. I’m quite comfortable here, and people have gotten used to me. This guy said to me the other day, we were at the pool, he said, ‘are you here on holiday?’ and this other guy goes, ‘can’t you see he’s Irish?’ People ask me, where are you from, and I go ‘Schull’.
So this is home to you?
Of course. Home is wherever you’re comfortable. It’s all the same lonely planet.
The Vietnam War, which lasted from 1959 to 1975, was the longest military conflict in U.S. history. The hostilities in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia claimed the lives of approximately 58,000 Americans. Another 304,000 were wounded. During the conflict, 3 to 4 million Vietnamese on both sides were killed, in addition to another 1.5 to 2 million Lao and Cambodians who were drawn into the war.
From 1946 until 1954, the Vietnamese had struggled for their independence from France during the First Indochina War. After this war, the country was divided into North and South. North Vietnam came under the control of the Vietnamese Communists who had opposed France, and who aimed to unify the entire country under communist rule.
The South was controlled by Vietnamese who had collaborated with the French. In 1965 the United States sent in troops to prevent the South Vietnamese government from collapsing. Ultimately, however, the United States failed to achieve its goal, and in 1975 Vietnam was reunified. In 1976 it officially became the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.