Backstage: Woodchuck Warrior chronicles one man’s experience in Vietnam

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(Host) In 1968, Morrisville native Al Boright enlisted in the U.S. Army. Thirty-six years later, Boright is recounting his experiences for Vermont audiences in an autobiographical performance that captures the horror – and humor – of his duty in Vietnam.

VPR’s Steve Zind takes us backstage for “The Woodchuck Warrior.”

(Zind) Al Boright’s one-man play “The Woodchuck Warrior, Journal of a Vietnam Vet” starts with a description of a meeting Boright has with his commanding officer. It’s 1970. Boright is a newly minted Army officer in Vietnam.

(Boright) “Lieutenant, I’m gonna send you to the field. You’ll never have such a chance to do things for people as an infantry platoon leader. You’ll love it! Damn, I miss combat!”

(Zind) Boright quickly makes it clear to the audience that he didn’t share the colonel’s enthusiasm. Opposed to the war in Vietnam, Boright found himself fighting in it anyway.

After describing his conversation with the colonel, Boright backtracks: briefly taking the audience from his childhood in small town Vermont to his graduation from Harvard, as he points out, in the bottom quarter of his class.

Boright says nothing in life prepared him for service in Vietnam, or for avoiding it when his number came up in 1968. The only way he could think of to dodge the draft was to enlist in officer candidate school.

In “The Woodchuck Warrior,” Boright uses songs, letters and journal entries to capture the poignancy and humor of his Vietnam experience. The set is spare. A small table and chair, a cot, a trunk and a guitar. Boright occasionally changes his shirt or puts on a hat to mark the passage of time until he arrives in Vietnam.

He describes the awe and horror he felt witnessing an air show on his first day there.

(Boright) “This is Thunder Road and the Fourth of July rolled into one and intensified. ‘Boom, boom, crash, ratta, ratta, phfsst. Kathud, kathud’. As the perfect climax for the ‘Welcome to Vietnam’ edition of the firepower display, two Cobra gunships tear over the bleachers, their rockets blasting over the roar of the miniguns that are tested on Mt. Mansfield and that can put a round in each square inch of a football field within a few seconds. It was scary. But there was a comforting aspect to the fire power display. This firepower might help me get home again to Vermont, in the summertime. Hell, I’ll take mud season. Give me a long series of days with weather so dismal that weatherman Stuart Hall’s smile splits him open to his ears. At the conclusion of the show, the two Cobras conduct a final flashy maneuver to salute us and bid us good day, but one of the pilots loses control. One Cobra crashes, killing both pilots on board. Welcome to Vietnam.”

(Zind) Boright got the idea for “The Woodchuck Warrior” about five years ago when his sister showed him some letters he’d written to her during his time in Vietnam.

(Boright, reading) “I’ve just completed a little more than a week in the Boonies. It hasn’t been bad, as I am in charge and can stop to take a break anytime I want.”

(Zind) As he went through the letters and the journal he’d kept, Boright began to remember details and events and organize them into a narrative. There’s a lot of humor in Woodchuck Warrior, along with graphic descriptions of the war and its casualties.

Boright says even when he was miserable, he saw humor around him, perhaps as a survival mechanism.

(Boright) “When you’re doing bayonet practice in basic training and you’re running with your rifle with a bayonet on the end and you’re stabbing it into rubber tires that represent a human being. That made me cry. And then I realized that some of the guys that were doing that were hilarious. There were these little wonkie guys running with their bayonets and their helmets would fall off and they’d get them stuck in the rubber tire and it was pretty funny if you could get beyond the crying.”

(Zind) Boright’s tour of duty in Vietnam ended abruptly in the jungle near the Cambodian border. At one point in “The Woodchuck Warrior” he talks about recuperating in a hospital bed halfway around the world. Suddenly he’s confronted by a beautiful reminder of home.

(Boright) “Suddenly through the haze, this absolutely beautiful blond woman comes walking toward the bed where I lay. Vermont skier, Suzy Chaffee, appeared in front of my heavily sedated face: blond, cheerful, and so beautiful I wanted to cry. She’s excited that I’m a Vermonter and so am I. And she’s nice, a total babe, even though she’s from Rutland. Just kidding.”

(Zind) Boright began working on “The Woodchuck Warrior” before the war in Iraq. He says if the message it contains is personal, not political and applies to any war.

(Boright) “This wasn’t motivated by my feelings about Iraq. But having been a soldier, you come away with some strong feelings. Someone who has had the military experience really thinks that you don’t do this except as an absolute last resort. Those are strong feelings.”

(Zind) Boright says his experience in Vietnam was valuable but if he had the chance to trade it, he would do it gladly.

(Song from play)
“Oh Daddy, Daddy tell me, what does it mean to die?
What does it mean to kill? Who does it then, and why?”

(Zind) For VPR Backstage, I’m Steve Zind.

(Song continues)
“Two different kinds of killing, one bad and one is good?
Yes Dad, I’ve heard it said
Guess I just haven’t understood.”

(Host) Al Boright will perform “The Woodchuck Warrior” this Saturday evening at Montpelier City Hall and the following weekend at the Hyde Park Opera House.

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