By Richard Bermack, based on interviews with Linda Wilson in 1990, updated in 2019.
San Francisco, 1989
Over calamari and white wine at the Clam House on Bay Shore, a popular seafood restaurant in an industrial section of San Francisco, Linda’s brother mentioned that he was having problems with his kidneys and that the prognosis was kidney failure. He said it with a bit of embarrassment, and after a moment of self-consciousness tried to go on to another topic of conversation. But Linda immediately understood the implications of what he was telling her, both for her brother and for herself. Like the big sister she had always been, she took charge of the situation, coaxing her brother to consider his options and to begin preparing for what they would both have to do.
When she asked him what they thought the causes were, he said that the doctors weren’t sure. There was no family history of kidney failure or other medical conditions that normally lead to kidney failure. When pressed, one doctor finally said, “Well, I see from your record you were in Vietnam. Were you exposed to Agent Orange? But if you were, don’t tell anyone. Just say, ’cause unknown.'”
Linda sipped from her glass of dry white wine. They had picked the seafood restaurant because her brother couldn’t get fresh squid in the Midwest, where he lived. Looking at her brother, with his curly red hair and beard, she never would have guessed that he was in danger of dying. He seemed healthier and happier than ever before. The stormy relationship of sibling rivalry and family conflict of their youth was finally transforming into a warm relationship between two adults.
“The doctor told me that if I said it was due to Agent Orange, my health insurance would get cut off — they’d claim it was a pre-existing condition, and the VA wouldn’t do anything for me.” That damn war again, the same war that had caused so much conflict between her and her brother and her family, will it never end? Linda thought to herself. The wine warmed her body and helped her manage both her resentment and her fear about what she knew she would have to do. Things had been so pleasant a moment before: the atmosphere of the Clam House, and her younger brother buying her dinner.
Many months later, Linda was in the hospital preparing to have her kidney removed and transplanted into her brother. While laying in bed, Linda felt satisfaction from her feeling of martyrdom. All during the Vietnam War she had watched the men around her as they were forced to come to grips with their lives and make sacrifices. This was her sacrifice. This was her stand, her moment of heroics.
The Vietnam War first entered Linda Wilson’s life in 1962, while she attended teachers’ college in Kansas. Half-Irish and half-Cherokee, Linda was born during World War II, while her father was away fighting in Japan. Her mother wasn’t yet ready to take on the responsibility of being a parent, and Linda was raised by her grandmother on a reservation in Oklahoma until she was 14. Then she moved to Kansas to live with her mother, and after high school graduation she enrolled in the local college, where she met her first husband. The two of them were members of a circle of artists and writers who ran a cooperative gallery. Their mentor was a graduate student, Victor Komski (not his real name). Besides being a nationally acclaimed ceramic artist, Komski was a master of Slavic languages. Of Polish decent, he emigrated to the United States along with his wife. Both were passionate anti-communists, and after graduation Komski turned down several teaching offers and joined the US army. Komski arranged with the recruiter to use his Slavic language skills to help people who, like himself, were immigrating from Eastern Europe.
There was a grand going away party for Victor at the gallery. His friends imagined Victor involved in international intrigue, helping Eastern European intellectuals who escaped the gulag archipelago. When his first letter arrived from overseas, the group gathered at the gallery while his wife opened a stuffed manila envelope and began to read. But the excitement soon chilled. Instead of Europe, the letter was from a country few at the time had heard of, Vietnam. Instead of tales of philosophical conversations with cultured Eastern European refugees over espressos, their Slavic language master was crawling on his belly though the jungle at night, dragging back the bodies of wounded Asian soldiers. Rather than providing an opportunity to use of his language skills, as the army had promised, they gave him a quick first aid course and sent him into combat to treat wounded and dying soldiers. Instead of a grand adventure, he described a terrifying nightmare. Instead of joining the almighty army of the free world, he had somehow ended up in Southeast Asia, with a bunch of what seemed to him were inept, poorly trained troops, involved in a war that made little sense.
His patriotic Polish wife couldn’t even finish reading the letter. How could he criticize their country, which had done so much for the two of them? As his subsequent letters got more desperate and critical of the army and the war, she refused to even open them. She dismissively turned them over to others in the group. She returned to Newton, Kansas, a Polish enclave, where she filed for divorce. The next Linda heard of Victor, he was in a hospital ward strung out on prescription narcotics, his skilled ceramic hands shaking with spasms.
After that, few of the men in Linda’s circle wanted to join the military, although not many of them would talk openly about it. Near the end of 1963, Linda and her husband moved to California to attend the San Francisco Art institute. While they had lived in Kansas, to criticize the war or the government meant being labeled unpatriotic pinkos or communists, but in the Bay Area the morality of the war soon became the focal point of public discussion.
When Linda’s husband received his induction notice, he filled for conscientious objector status. A reader of Camus and Gandhi, he believed personal integrity and dignity were based on taking responsibility and making choices. He was determined not to be part of a system that was murdering people, and he met with a minister who helped him write a religious statement expressing his anti-war beliefs. When he told his family of his decision, his father, a retired army sergeant, telephoned the son’s draft board and told them not to believe anything that his son said, that he was a liar and a coward, and that they should draft him immediately. It would take almost ten years before the father and son would even begin to repair their relationship.
In Linda’s family things were different. When her 18-year-old brother joined the Marines, it was her father who tried to talk him out of it. Even though he supported the war and the government, her father had seen the Marines in action during World War II. “They are a bunch of inhuman butchers. You don’t know what you are getting into,” he screamed at his son, and then bitterly described the atrocities he had witnessed in the Pacific: Marines torturing and mutilating their Japanese captives.
For Linda’s brother, joining the Marines was not a long, thought-out decision. The night of his senior prom, his girlfriend jilted him. Feeling humiliated, and in an attempt to regain a sense of manhood, he joined what must have appeared the ultimate male fraternity.
But his father’s warning turned out to be correct. This sensitive, intellectual younger brother soon regretted his decision, and a few months later he unexpectedly arrived at Linda’s apartment in the Haight. His body shaking and voice trembling, he described to Linda the racist attitudes of the other recruits he was forced to live with in his barracks and their sadistic pranks, such as closing people into lockers. It was not until the next day that he admitted that he had gone AWOL from Camp Pendleton. That night Linda took him to a concert at the Fillmore to hear Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention along with the Electric Flag.
Linda’s apartment building was typical of the times; doors were left open, and people floated from apartment to apartment. It was 1966, the beginning of the flowering of Haight-Ashbury, and there was a utopian feeling in the Haight. Most of the other men in the building were either negotiating with their draft boards or were draft resistors. They were compassionate to her brother, whose military haircut contrasted with their lifestyle. There was a feeling that by just being who you were, you could change the world. No one argued with him or questioned why he joined the military. They took pride in explaining their feelings to him about the war.
The building was filled with artists, political activists, radio personalities and, of course, members of a rock ‘n’ roll band. One of Linda’s memories is of the woman singer who was constantly berating the other band members for taking too many drugs and not practicing seriously enough. Linda would have had as much difficulty imagining that this tiny, barefoot, homely southern girl, Janis, with bells around her ankles and a German shepherd, would in a few short years become a world legend, as she would have had comprehending that 20 years later, the events of the next few days would ultimately cost her a kidney.
After a few days, it became obvious to Linda that if left to himself, her brother was incapable of resolving his situation. He would just look at her with wide eyes as if he wanted his big sister to make the situation go away. Meanwhile, others in the building were starting to get nervous about the heat a military deserter could bring down on them and their own tenuous situations. Her brother needed someone to talk to who could understand what he was going through in the Marines.
Linda remembered an article in Ramparts magazine. The author, Donald Duncan, was a former member of the Special Forces in Vietnam who had resigned and now wrote for the anti-war publication. So she called up the San Francisco office of Ramparts and asked for his help. He agreed to meet with her brother, but warned her over the phone that not only was her brother in legal jeopardy, but by harboring him, she was too.
The February 1966 issue of Ramparts featured a cover photograph of Duncan, in his Special Forces uniform with a chest full of medals from 10 years of service in the military, including several missions behind enemy lines in Vietnam. A distinguished soldier, Duncan had once advised then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara on the role of the Special Forces in Vietnam. The article was titled, “‘The whole thing was a lie! I quit.’ — Memoirs of a Special Forces Hero.“
Like Victor Komski, Duncan joined the army a militant anti-communist. His stepfather was born in Hungary, and Duncan was raised hearing stories of the horrors of communism. Soon after joining the army, the Soviet Union invaded Hungary and Duncan volunteered for duty in the Special Forces. He was accepted in 1959.
But if Duncan was ready to give it his all, to “be all you can be,” he found the military fell far short. His first assignment after completing training was to “procure” other members for the Special Forces units. He was shocked when the officer in charge gave one last instruction: “Don’t send me any niggers. Be careful, however, not to give the impression that we are prejudiced in Special Forces.” In response, the third person Duncan recruited was black.
Vietnam was even worse. American bars were segregated to the point where he saw black soldiers physically ejected from white bars and near race riots. However, racism was not all that offended him. After serving 18 months in Vietnam it was clear to him that the United States didn’t care at all about the Vietnamese people or what they wanted. He saw decisions being made that cost soldiers their lives based not on military tactics but on how they would affect the United States presidential election. He witnessed the futile and barbaric bombing of civilian areas, murder, torture, and atrocities carried out by the U.S. military and the forces that we supported. By the end, despite his hatred for communism, he came to a bitter truth: that the majority of the Vietnamese people supported the Viet Cong and were opposed to the United States supported regime, which was a brutal dictatorship. His Ramparts article concludes, “…once the Red film is removed from the eyes, we aren’t the freedom fighters. We are the Russian tanks blasting the hopes of an Asian Hungary….We have allowed the creation of a military monster that will lie to our elected officials; and that both of them will lie to the American people.” In the pursuit of anti-communism we had corrupted democracy. And not just in Vietnam, but in the United States as well.
Duncan turned down a field commission to the rank of captain and left the army. He began writing because he wanted to spare other young men from making the mistakes he had in choosing a military career.
Duncan picked up Linda’s brother late that afternoon and took him out to dinner. As they drove around San Francisco, going from coffeehouse to coffeehouse, Duncan listen to the frightened young man. What he heard was the confusion, immaturity, and feelings of someone in deep over his head. Duncan was caught in the same dilemma as was Linda: He would have liked to save the young man from the military, but there was no easy out. “The Marines are not like the Army or even the Navy; they pride themselves on an iron-clad reputation. They won’t let you transfer out or discharge you just because you’re emotionally upset.” He explained to her younger brother, and then later, over the phone, to Linda: “They will come after you and find you if you stay here.” As Duncan discussed the options of going to Canada or going underground, they were beyond the young man’s comprehension. It was obvious that he lacked the cunning or will power to successfully survive underground, or even to face exile in Canada. If caught, he lacked the conviction to mount a political defense, and even if he did, his case was very weak.
The young man had barely survived basic training; facing a court martial and doing time in a Marine Corp brig would destroy him. Her brother just wanted to take the path of least resistance. Finally, Duncan suggested that they go back to Camp Pendleton together, and Duncan would talk to the commanding officer. They kept on drinking until last call, and Duncan dropped Linda’s brother off back at her apartment in the Haight after 2:00 in the morning.
The next day Duncan arranged clearance to bring Linda’s brother in and to discuss the matter. Then they began the long drive to Pendleton, which is outside of San Diego. Duncan was successful: he explained to the base commander how the young man was a university type and that his enlistment was a mistake. Whether it was his personal contacts, his decorations, or the veiled threat of publicity, not only did he persuade them to drop the AWOL charges against Linda’s brother, but they changed his barracks, promoted him to an MP position, and assigned him to a desk job.
Linda lost touch with her brother after he returned to Camp Pendleton. Her next memory of the matter is of visiting her parents in Kansas and packing cardboard tubes with potato chips and M&Ms to send to her brother in Vietnam. These family visits were becoming increasingly strained; as the war ground on, anger and frustrations grew. Discussions frequently ended with heated exchanges. Although not hawks, her parents couldn’t condone Linda’s husband stating that he would break the law rather than go in the army, and Linda was critical of their acquiescence to a government that was murdering people in Southeast Asia. Her father would listen, but tell her she was ungrateful for all this country, the greatest on earth, had done for her. Her mother was less tolerant. She would scream at Linda to shut up, that her stand against the war was a betrayal of her brother. Her family no longer invited the relatives over when Linda came to visit.
Painting banners and going to demonstrations fill Linda’s memories of those times. Looking back, she questions how much the demonstrations accomplished, but they were a way for her to let out the tremendous anger and frustration she was feeling as the war tore apart the lives of everyone she knew. Chants like, “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” or the poster, “Where is Oswald now that we need him,” testified to the rage and estrangement people felt. But anger and frustration over the war was not always aimed at the government. Even in the Bay Area, being called a “dirty communist” or “coward” for wearing a peace sign or long hair was commonplace. Friends were beaten up by sailors walking down the street. And once you left the Bay Area, you were open game. Wearing a peace sign and long hair was grounds for being thrown out of restaurants or refused service. It was like dying your skin black.
Linda’s brother returned from the war angry and disoriented. Linda got a ride to visit him in Kansas in a Green Econoline van. She was traveling without her husband. He no longer had reason to visit anyone in Kansas. By the time she got to her parents’ house in Wichita, she was shaken. Her trip from San Francisco to Kansas across the heartland of America had had its moments. Once they left the Bay Area, even getting gasoline had been an adventure. In one town, a middle-aged man with a fishing hat had merely ignored them, and then told them his gas station was closed. But their “close call” was in Salt Lake City.
They were sleeping inside the van in a park when a gang of teenagers began throwing beer cans and bottles at their vehicle and then began rocking the van, nearly tipping it over. The driver frantically started the engine, and they barely made their escape. They drove all night, but the next morning their van broke down. The garageman in the small town they were stuck in shut his door as they approached, and they were getting the cold eye from passersby.
Linda took charge of the situation, telling the guys to wait at the van. She walked around for a few minutes to gain her wits and approached a woman working in a drug store. She introduced herself to the woman and explained that she was on her way to visit her mother in Wichita, where she grew up. “Well, I have a daughter your age. I guess I better get one of the men to help you,” the woman finally responded.
Despite the tension over lifestyles, this time Linda’s parents were very glad to see her. The day before her brother had drowned a newborn kitten in a styrofoam cup. That night, while they were eating dinner, her brother walked out of the basement with a rifle and drove off in her father’s car. He had told them he had a date. Their worry increased when they telephoned the woman he was to go out with and were told he never showed up. He finally returned late that night. The next morning Linda’s father took the gun and gave it away. Her parents were at their wits end.
Her brother was especially hostile towards Linda. Did he hold her to blame for not saving him from the Marines? Did he feel her disappointment that he hadn’t chosen to go to Canada or to jail? Or did he perhaps feel her moral condemnation for what he must have done in Vietnam? She asked him about the war. “I never want to eat rice again!” He gritted his teeth and glared at her as he said it. But then he softened up and asked her if she would like to go for a ride, just the two of them.
The family’s gray Plymouth glided along through miles of yellow and brown fields. The sky was bright blue and a mild wind undulated the corn and wheat stalks. For a few moments Linda felt at peace, before her brother tensed up and started driving faster and faster, until the car started shaking. Was he trying to kill both of them? Fear was overtaking her, but she understood it was something he had to work out, and she didn’t want to oppose it. Finally she asked him softly, “Mike, could we slow down a little?” And eventually he stopped.
1989, twenty years later.
Michael and his wife had just adopted a baby from Honduras. When he started getting fatigued, they thought he must have caught a disease from their trip to Central America to pick up the infant. But hospital tests revealed that his situation was much more serious than an infection.
“Any diabetes? High blood pressure? Instances of kidney failure in the family?” The middle-aged, white-coated doctor was about the same age as Michael. He looked up after asking each question. And when Michael answered no to each one, the doctor grimaced. The doctor had just informed him that in a few months he could have total kidney failure. Michael was perplexed as to the cause. Finally the doctor asked him hesitantly, “Were you in Vietnam?” And this time, when he answered, the doctor didn’t write anything down.
Linda’s brother had just turned 40. The Vietnam war seemed a lifetime ago. He was happily married, with a daughter, a new baby, and a job he enjoyed as a computer consultant for non-profit organizations. Everything had been going great, he never felt better, until he started getting these pains and fatigue.
Soldiers such as Linda’s brother were exposed to the herbicide Agent Orange, which was used to defoliate the jungles of Vietnam. In October of 1961, General Maxwell Taylor reported to President John Kennedy that the regime of Premier Diem of South Vietnam was in danger of losing to the National Liberation Front guerrilla movement. Under Kennedy’s orders, the United States military developed a counter-insurgency program. It was clear to the designers of the program that in a country that was two-thirds dense jungle, like Vietnam, a guerrilla army would have plenty of places to hide and maneuver. According to Michael Uhl and Tod Ensign, in GI Guinea Pigs, a central aspect of the United States’ original strategy for fighting the war in Vietnam was to use chemicals to “defoliate” or destroy these forests that provided shelter for the indigenous fighters. They would also use the chemicals in certain cases to destroy enemy food crops. The United States began spraying even before US fighting troops arrived, while Americans were still officially acting only as “advisors.” Over a nine-year period one-third of all the forests and fifteen percent of all the crop land of Vietnam would be sprayed. The herbicide of choice for killing these forests became Agent Orange, in which the active ingredient is dioxin. Over 11.2 million gallons were sprayed. The plan was first called Operation Hades, but for political reasons they quickly changed the name to Operation Ranch Hand. The motto of the 12th Air Commando Squadron in charge of the operation was a picture of Smoky the Bear with the legend, “Only We Can Prevent Forests.”
American soldiers were exposed to these chemicals while conducting the spraying operations, when they conducted maneuvers in the sprayed areas, and when planes sprayed the areas around American bases. The first American critics of the program were not so much concerned with the health hazards as with the wide-spread ecological damage, or “ecocide,” the United States was committing. The Vietnamese were the first to complain that the spraying was causing illness, miscarriages, birth defects, and later cancer. In 1966 a resolution was brought before the United Nations accusing the United States of violating the 1925 Geneva Protocols against chemical and biological warfare. The United States fought the resolution and dismissed the claims of health hazards from Agent Orange as Communist propaganda. They issued a statement in March 1966 that “the herbicides used are nontoxic and not dangerous to man or animal life. The land is not affected for future use.” World opinion did not agree, and in 1969 the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution condemning the United States program as chemical warfare and a violation of international law.
But the United States continued spraying Agent Orange, claiming it was harmless, until 1969, when Ralph Nader’s Raiders got hold of and released a suppressed FDA study conducted in 1965 connecting the chemicals in Agent Orange with cancer. According to a White House source, the government had suppressed the study for almost 5 years because “disclosure of the report would have fueled the antiwar movement and fed international criticism of American chemical warfare,” according to Peter H. Schuck, in Agent Orange on Trial.
The first study directly linking Agent Orange exposure to health problems in Vietnam veterans was conducted by a heroic bureaucrat. In 1977, Maude DeVictor, a 39-year-old black woman claims worker for the Veterans Administration in Chicago, was disturbed when the VA refused the claim of a widow who alleged her husband died of cancer resulting from herbicide exposure in Vietnam. On her own initiative, DeVictor began an informal survey of Vietnam veterans for symptoms of dioxin poisoning. Dioxin is the active ingredient in Agent Orange. But as soon as she started turning up a significant number of veterans with the symptoms, she was ordered by her superiors to stop recording information. Angered, she released her findings to a local TV news anchorman. The resulting one-hour documentary brought on a flood of cases. After the show, hundreds of veterans called up the Chicago VA to complain they were suffering from symptoms discussed in the report. The VA released a denial and transferred DeVictor to a back office job where she wouldn’t have access to the public. They then sent a memo to all case workers warning them against classifying disabilities as Agent Orange related.
For the next ten years, the VA aggressively fought attempts to link serious health problems to Agent Orange. It took a class action lawsuit to force them to begin giving disability compensation to Agent Orange victims. Some speculate that part of the reason for the government’s intransigence is that to admit that Agent Orange is harmful to humans would be to admit the Vietnamese charges that the United States engaged in chemical warfare and violated the Geneva conventions. Others speculate that the government is trying to protect the multi-million dollar pesticide industry, led by companies such as Dupont and Monsanto.
Linda’s brother was having trouble urinating, and sometimes he would pass out. His doctor had told him to keep quiet about Agent Orange being a possible cause of his illness, and he took the advice. It was enough for his body to fight for its life, let alone fight the government. And besides, there was little to gain. His health insurance was paying for the operation, and he was in no position to risk losing that. His medical payments would have cost him his house.
Spending the rest of his life hooking up to a dialysis machine was a hard reality for her brother to accept. It was like a bad dream. He was relieved when Linda offered him one of her kidneys. Once she consented, he kept begging her to do it as soon as possible. But she was forced to wait a few months until the summer, when she could arrange leave from her job for her recovery time after the operation.
Linda was shocked at her brother’s appearance when he met her at the Saint Louis airport: the grey color of his skin and the terrible circles surrounding his eyes. He wasn’t supposed to go to the airport, but he was so grateful at the chance to have a working kidney that he went anyway. Her brother could barely walk; every few feet they would have to stop to let him catch his breath and balance himself. His wife was crying as they left the airport. Linda’s brother was on the verge of death.
The family lived in a multi-story red brick house in the upper-middle-class part of Saint Louis. The house was well furnished, and Linda was impressed by the substantial quality of her brother’s lifestyle, in contrast to her own artist’s existence. On the second floor was a large sun room that her brother’s wife had refurnished as a bedroom for Linda during her recovery.
The few days before the operation were the worst. She had hoped to spend the time reminiscing with her brother and getting to know his wife, but instead they were days of medical tests, which ranged from having to hold uncomfortable positions during sonograms to extremely painful exams probing inside her body. Linda asked her brother’s wife to get her a Saint Louis Cardinals’ nightshirt to wear in the hospital. She was warned by a friend to conceal her Bay Area residency. The identification of San Francisco with AIDS was so strong that there was outright hostility toward people from the Bay Area, and San Franciscans were the butt of jokes. Linda felt protected in her long red nightshirt with its baseball emblems. The Cardinals were a real hometown team.
Finally the moment came. Everything seemed very green, as they prepared Linda for surgery: green walls, green hospital jackets, green pants, even green booties. Linda was laying in a long hospital bed, which the orderlies rolled along until they stopped in the anteroom with doors leading to different “operating theaters.” She felt like a plane waiting for take off. Then they rolled up her brother. There must have been 20 doctors administering to the two of them. They were all very official, introducing themselves to her, I’m Dr. Green, I’m Dr. So and So. Linda never felt closer to her brother than during those moments they spent next to each other, waiting. They were both the center of all this attention, and they were about to go through this incredible experience together.
She felt a tremendous bond growing between them, but then another set of feelings took over: the full impact of the operation hit her, and for the first time she became scared for her life. They were going to put her to sleep, and what if she never woke up? It was too late to stop, and Linda became aware of her fists tightening up and her heart pumping in panic. Then the anesthesiologist readjusted Linda’s IV. She removed the needles the other nurses had placed and then effortlessly replaced them in Linda’s arm. “You’re really good at this,” Linda remarked to her. “Needles and drugs are my specialty,” she replied. Her anesthesiologist was a brassy New Yorker with a sense of humor. Linda felt comforted by her, as opposed to the serious Midwestern demeanor of the hospital staff. “Promise me you’ll stay with me during the operation and until I wake up,” Linda asked her. The anesthesiologist also agreed that she would tell Linda the outcome of the kidney transplant. If something went wrong, Linda wanted to hear it from a medical professional, so she could brace herself for her brother’s wife and her father’s grief and disappointment.
The doors to the operating room opened, and she waved to her brother as they were each rolled away to their respective theaters. When they got into the room, the anesthesiologist told her, she was going to put her to sleep. And suddenly her anxiety about the operation was replaced by a euphoric feeling as the drug took effect. So this is why people like heroin so much, Linda thought to herself. The feeling of the drug was so powerful and wonderful, especially compared to the pain of the last few days and the fear and apprehension.
It seemed like only a few moments later when Linda woke up, back in the waiting room. “What’s the matter, aren’t they going to do it?” she asked the anesthesiologist. The brassy New Yorker laughed. “Honey, it’s all over,” she said. “We did it.” Then Linda asked about her brother. “You see that bed they’re bringing out, that’s him. He’s still asleep but everything went real well. Your kidney started working about 15 seconds after we got it in, and he started urinating. Everything is fine.” Hearing that, Linda clapped her hands.
After the nurses left and things quieted down, Linda walked over to her brother’s room. He was lying there semi-conscious, sweating and shaking. That was the worst moment. She thought he was dying and that the whole thing had been a mistake. But then a nurse came over and assured her that he was doing okay.
For the next month Linda and her brother lay around the house reading and watching TV. As the hospital drugs wore off, Linda became aware of the trauma her body was going through. “The migrating whales,” her brother called them as they moved around the house—big bloated things that moved so slowly, while everyone got out of their way. They watched Perry Mason and mystery movies until late at night, and when her brother’s wife tried to get them to go to bed early, they would tell her to shut up. Linda was reading West of the West and feeling home sick; her brother was reading a book about the Kennedy assassination. People in the Midwest loved conspiracy theories, especially about the Kennedy presidency, which many felt was a conspiracy by the Pope for Catholics to take over the country.
The two of them were like two sick kids staying home from school. Linda was savoring her new relationship with her brother, but at the same time she missed people who shared her world view. While in Saint Louis she watched a story about a toxic leak in a neighboring suburb. One of the TV news crew lifted a shovelful of dirt and lit it with a match. The dirt was so saturated with oil it caught on fire. An industrial plant had been leaking oil. But what amazed Linda most was the attitude of the town people. They weren’t angered or threatening to picket the company. Their response was, “Oh, now we know what that horrible smell was.” At least that was what was portrayed on the TV.
The adults thought it was all very funny, a shovelful of earth burning. They were watching it during a family get together. But the younger kids were upset. They knew what an oil spill was. They cried when they saw pictures of animals killed in ecological disasters.
Despite all the medical facts to the contrary, the family insisted that her brother’s kidney failure was a result of his trip to Honduras to adopt the new baby. There was no way they could accept that the Vietnam War and the US government had some responsibility. For Linda to suggest that would have been rude and impolite. Her brother’s daughter was a conscientious recycler and a vegetarian who wouldn’t allow her father to use pesticides in their garden. She would have been heartbroken if told that her father’s illness was from cancer-causing chemicals that her government had used to destroy the rain forests in Vietnam. It was much easier for Linda’s in-laws, some of whom worked for Monsanto, one of the producers of Agent Orange, to blame his illness on the sin of adopting a non-white baby. The racism of her brother’s wife’s family offended Linda.
One of the enticements of the trip to Saint Louis was a visit with one of Linda’s childhood friends who, like Linda, was part Cherokee. Linda’s friend lived in Springfield, and on the way back they passed Times Beach. As they whizzed by on the freeway, Linda caught a glance of what looked like a modern ghost town, middle-class houses boarded up with chain-link fences and caution signs separating them from the freeway. Linda wanted to stop, but her friend’s husband refused. A conservative businessman, he didn’t want to acknowledge what had happened. In 1983 the United States government bought the entire town of Times Beach and declared it unfit for human habitation. The mishandling of chemical wastes from the production of Agent Orange in the 1970s had contaminated the town with dioxin, forcing its evacuation.
Nine months after her surgery, Linda uses a TENS machine, which uses electric current to neutralize the pain she still suffers from the operation. The doctors told her it would take at least a year before her body would be completely recovered. Her brother is back to work, but he is very weak and depressed, having trouble accepting that he will never get his health back. The medication that they give transplant recipients to keep the body from rejecting the foreign organ suppresses the immune system. Transplant recipients suffer the same problems as people with AIDS; even a slight cold requires them to be hospitalized and can result in death. Her brother’s house was once the center for the neighborhood kids; now he can’t even be around his own daughter when she has a cold. No other kids can be allowed in the house for fear they might be carrying even a minor infection. The drugs also affect the patient’s appearance. Her brother has the typical transplant recipient look: moon-faced with stick-like legs and arms, from facial swelling and deteriorating muscle tissues.
Every Tuesday Linda attends the after-transplant drop-in support center at the UC med-center, for a blood test to make sure her remaining kidney is functioning properly. A camaraderie exists amongst kidney transplant survivors and donors, but one thing always strikes Linda about her fellows at the center: the majority of the recipients are Latino farmworkers from the San Joaquin Valley or white males her brother’s age. Although she has never asked the Latinos if they handled pesticides or the men if they are vets who were exposed to Agent Orange, she figures she could guess what the answers would be.
In a strange way Linda was almost glad to give her brother her kidney. “As a woman I was never forced to make the choices the men all around me had to. I went to demonstrations and joined the Peace and Freedom Party, but I never had a draft card. I never had to face the induction center. I never had to make a choice that could have meant going to jail. When I think back about what guys went through to get out of going into that war. They took drugs and did things to their bodies, emotional breakdowns, marriages they didn’t want, kids they weren’t prepared for. They would just do anything. My husband intentionally messed up his hearing to flunk the physical. It took years out of his life. He couldn’t concentrate on school or anything else. And then after he got himself out, he worked to keep others out.
“And now, once again, you have the government forcing all these men to lie, just like they had to back then to avoid the draft. All because of this stupid war that everyone hated, and the government’s arrogance, ineptitude, and deception. And now they won’t even take responsibility for what they’ve done.”
Linda’s brother Michael passed away in March 2004. He died of throat cancer resulting from severe acid reflex caused by the drugs he was taking to prevent his body from rejecting the kidney.
Linda Wilson is a photographer and part of the art community in the San Francisco Mission District. She worked with the Eye Gallery, Intersection for the Arts, and El Tecolote, the bilingual Latino newspaper in the Mission.