Al Bumbry

February 1, 2008

Born in the USA

(continued from Bob Jones)

Chapter Three

“The Iraq thing has the feel of a potential quagmire where we just get deeper and deeper and deeper involved, and when that happens it’s harder and harder and harder to get out. There’s also the similarity with the difficulty in finding the enemy. In Vietnam, we couldn’t find the V.C., they were blended in with the population, and we’re having the same problem in Iraq . . .” –Tim O’Brien, author, from a 2003 interview

Today in Iraq two severely retarded women were outfitted with remote control explosive devices and sent into a popular outdoor market where animals are sold. According to an AP report by Kim Gamel, the blasts killed at least seventy-three people. Many others were wounded. Many others saw things they will probably never leave behind.

“I just remember the horrible scene of the bodies of dead and wounded people mixed with the blood of animals and birds,” said a market vendor named Ali Ahmed. “Then I found myself lying in a hospital bed.”

In his classic work of Vietnam War literature, The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien, who served in Vietnam in 1969 and 1970, describes a memory so vivid it had the power to rip him out of sleep twenty years later. In the memory that O’Brien can never leave behind, a mine has just blasted a member of his platoon into a tree.

“The parts were just hanging there,” he writes, “so Dave Jensen and I were ordered to shinny up and peel him off. I remember the white bone of an arm. I remember pieces of skin and something wet and yellow that must’ve been the intestines.”

“It was indelible,” recalls another person who was in Vietnam in those years, a North Vietnamese child named Tran Luong who witnessed the aftermath of the 1972 Christmas bombings of Hanoi. The aerial attack, which came just after the United States promised to withdraw its forces from South Vietnam, killed 2,196 civilians.

“The morning after the bombing, I went to Kham Thien Street with some older children,” Tran recalls in Christian Appy’s oral history of the Vietnam War, Patriots. “I saw pieces of hair and scalp hanging on trees.”

Al Bumbry was a platoon leader in Vietnam in 1969 and 1970. He won the Bronze Star, which is given to soldiers for “heroic or meritorious achievement or service,” then he came home and made significant contributions as a speedy slap-hitting outfielder for the excellent Orioles teams of the 1970s and early 1980s.

He is shown here in the middle of that career, his hunched stance and his facial expression creating the impression of a man guarding private hurt. An earlier Bumbry card in my collection, from 1975, shows on the back his minor league years and the interruption in those years signified by the statement “In Military Service.” But on the back of this 1977 card there are only his major league statistics. It’s as if enough time has passed for certain more complicated elements of the past to have faded, the gap in the soothing progression of numbers gone, the wound healed. I don’t know if Al Bumbry believed in that kind of anesthetic forgetting. But the country he’d returned to seemed to believe in it. There were no victory celebrations. There were no parades. There was just a general desire to forget the whole thing ever happened.

So what was the weather like in Iraq today? It’s not usually something I concern myself with, preferring to fill my head with baseball, but information about the weather came out in the AP story about the homicide bombing mentioned above, probably because it correlates to the body count.

“It was nice weather today,” reports the hospitalized market vendor Ali Ahmed, “and the market was so crowded.”

It was nice weather on a certain day a few years ago. I was living in Williamsburg, a Brooklyn neighborhood just across the East River from Manhattan. I got up early to beat the crowd at a nearby laundromat. It was a tiny place, and if you didn’t get there early the whole day was shot battling hipsters and middle-aged Dominican women for a free drier. I wrote in my journal a couple days later about what happened next:

I was folding laundry at the laundromat on Bedford Avenue when a man came in and said the World Trade Center was hit by an airplane. He was a loud black man with a slight boozy chuckle and blurriness in his voice, so my first thought was that he was a street person and crazy. The Asian man who owns the laundromat turned on the television and the World Trade Center was burning, smoke pouring out a black gash near the top. I thought: accident. The adjacent tower exploded a few minutes later. I did not see an airplane flying into it and thought somehow the first building produced an explosion in the second. The television screen went blank. The Asian man tried to fix the television. I finished folding my laundry. . . .

All of us in New York have been breathing in dust and smoke and dead bodies for three days. I worked at the book store yesterday and had arguments with three coworkers, then late in my shift Abby called to tell me they were evacuating midtown. They were telling people to run toward the river. I thought: nuclear bomb. I am afraid of dying. The evacuation turned out to be based on a hoax, but for a few minutes I was waiting for the flash. I stole some post cards from the store that had the World Trade Centers on them. I went to Queens after work to see Abby and I was shaky and hollow and scared. I wanted to fuck but we were breathing in dead bodies then I didn’t want to fuck anymore.

I finally put away my clean laundry yesterday. The folded shirts and balled-up socks. I vacuumed the rug. I swept the kitchen floor.

A couple days later I met up with my brother in Manhattan. We went to a bar on Seventh Avenue and Nineteenth Street, the Peter McManus Cafe. There were a lot of off-duty firefighters and other rescue workers there, guys who’d been told, maybe even forced, to take a breather. One of the guys was next to us at the bar and something in him had snapped. He was a big guy and very strong and he kept grabbing onto us, clawing at us. He told us he’d served in Vietnam, special forces, and his training had gotten him onto a list of people called in to help with the rescue attempts at Ground Zero.

“I just can’t do it no more,” he said. “I can’t pull out no more bodies. When’s it gonna end?”

He kept repeating versions of these statements. Grabbing us, clawing us. He also said all the bodies he was pulling out were women. And a couple of times he said, “I’m back.”

I’m back. 

It’s OK, we kept trying to tell him. It’s OK, it’s OK. It’s over. But he was inconsolable. He was trapped pulling out bodies of dead women from the rubble. He had been in Vietnam. He was back.

“When’s it gonna end?” he kept saying.

(to be continued)


  1. 1.  It will never end, we are a flawed race. Everyday, somewhere in the world the same act gets repeated day after day. They may not equal the magnitude of 9/11 but when you add them up the consequences are the same.

    I don’t know how the Al Bumbry’s get through their days. The vets I know are all heavy drinkers. I thank this sweet earth that I never had to kill for religious, political or material purposes. I’m childless for many reasons but the stuff your writing about is at the top of my list. If I had spent 18 years raising my child only to see a crazy despot put some patroitic zeal into his heart and watch him sail off to a foreign country and proudly die serving his country, I’d be an empty shell and no bronze medal would help ease the pain.

  2. 2.  thank you. I am enjoying this series very much.

  3. 3.  I was curious to know what you meant by “two severely retarded women,” up above? Were they literally retarded, because if that was the case, then those who recruited are beyond cowards. Either way, it sucks.
    I wonder if these presidents and dictators who send so many off to these undefined wars to die, eventually realize the magnitude of their decisions? I would have a hard time sleeping at night for the rest of my life knowing that I made that final decision. That is so much blood they are responsible for. Garcia-Marquez wrote a few great novels that explore this.

  4. 4.  3 : As reported in the AP story that I linked to (and also in all the other reports I’ve seen), both women had Down syndrome. The strong speculation (impossible to prove at this point, I guess) is that the women were unaware of what they were doing. (The bombs were remote-controlled.)

  5. 5.  Bravo Josh. Just great writing. Everytime I come here I’m just enraptured.

    1 and I will add that I have 2 children for many reasons but the stuff your writing about is at the top of my list. You can’t be a cynic; you’ve got to have hope!

  6. 6.  4 That is just beyond surreal to have been in that bazaar and to have seen two retarded girls walking around and suddenly they just blow up. That is like a bad heavy metal video or something. My god.

  7. 7.  I never knew this about Al Bumbry, but I’ve always felt an odd connection to him. When I was in grade school, this guy John Repp was a big Orioles fan, and he got me into the team. He would go around singing this song he made up, “My name is Al Bumbry / What is yours?” over and over, and that song enters my mind whenever John or Al’s name comes up, which isn’t very often.

    John is the reason I am an Orioles fan (second to the Mets, of course). It was even easier because my brother was a Pirates fan back then, so we had some good battles.

    I also went through a period where I read so much about the Vietnam war, oral history after memoir after oral history.

    Awesome job bringing these together.

    And 9/11 too.

  8. 8.  I used to play slow-pitch softball with the scout who signed Al Bumbry to his first contract. I always enjoyed the after-game beer drinking because he’d tell us tales about his successes and failures in tracking down talent…both athletic talent and barstool talent. You know, it gets real lonely out on the road all the time. I tended to believe most of what he said because I’d known him for years, and he’d always been a good guy. When I was 11 years old he worked for a sporting goods store who supplied equipment for a semi-pro team that he played for in Jackson, Mississippi. He gave me my first baseball bat, a broken Nellie Fox model with an incredibly thick handle. I nailed it back together, taped over the small nails and swung it for years in sandlot games.
    The only other scout I ever met was an old man scouting Rodney Gilbreth for the Atlanta Braves. My high school coach let him sit in the dugout with us during a game so he could get a closer look at Gilbreth. Being the only baseball nut on the team, I struck up a conversation with him and I discovered that he had played in the big leagues a long time ago and I wouldn’t know who he was. I quickly deduced that he was an old bench warmer, probably during WW II when all the good players were gone to the armed forces.I asked his who he was, figuring on hearing a totally unknown name. It wasn’t. Dixie Walker, the people’s cherce in Brooklyn, former batting and RBI champion (during WW II, hah!)of the National League was sitting in my dugout. Jesus H. Christ!

    My softball teammate, who sure as hell never played major league baseball, was a better scout, though, than rumpled old Dixie Walker. He has signed many players who were solid major leaguers, but he said he had never scouted anybody poorer or nicer than Al Bumbry, who lived in a shack that had sunlight coming through cracks in the roof. Bumbry always sent the scout used equipment to pass on to other young kids, and was generous with his advice to them.
    I always wondered if Dixie Walker, who wasn’t pleased to have Jackie Robinson join his team in Brooklyn, would have made that same connection with a young black player.

  9. 9.  8 : Great story. Thanks for sharing that.

  10. 10.  from the Al Bumbry entry in the 1980 Complete Handbook of Baseball (Zander Hollander):

    ” … he is still haunted by the memory of the death of his platoon sergeant … Refused to accompany his teammates to the movie, The Deer Hunter …”

  11. Happy Veterans Day, Al Bumbry! Thank you for your service!

  12. tscastle:
    I second that emotion. Happy Veterans Day to all the many Cardboard Gods who served (the last generation of baseball players to do so in large numbers).

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