Column: Wars

by Terry Adkins

The Fiery Watering Hole
And when He opened the second seal, I heard the second living beast saying, come and see. And I saw, and behold, another horse, a red one, went forth; and to him who sits on it authority was given to take peace from the earth, and that men should slay one another; and to him a great sword was given. New Testament Book of Revelation 6: 3-4

World War II veteran Robert H. Adkins (1927-1995) never knew the horror of mortal combat. His war stories were not about the heroics of brutal solidarity but instead picturesque recollections of his first-ever trip abroad and the thrill of experiencing the world anew through the sights and sounds of Italy. He enlisted in peacetime at Richmond, Virginia, on January 31, 1946—as a mere teen—and was transferred to Naples as a U.S. Army Private First Class serial number 43047969 in the officially segregated unit of the Military Police Occupation Forces. Their primary responsibility was to oversee the welfare of German prisoners of war. He often spoke fondly of the city, its people, and of its culture, as having much in common with his own. Yet he also recalled the intrusive gazes of inquisitive Neapolitans who had been fed disparaging rumors about American Negro soldiers being half monkeys who bore misshapen wooly tails discretely coiled under their uniforms. Warnings were circulated that these dark and grisly liberators were to be avoided at all costs.

The wide-eyed military zeal of my father’s youth did not blind him to the genocidal parade of war in later years. On the eve of the February 2, 1972 Selective Service draft lottery that would determine who among eligible 1S status college students would be inducted for duty in Vietnam, he called me in Nashville with instructions to be prepared to steal away to Canada as a consciontious objector should my number come up. The next day I discovered that although I had been spared, some of my close friends and older cousins were not so fortunate. They later returned from multiple tours in Vietnam as forever wasted ghosts of themselves. Even when prodded, they never uttered a single word about what they had done, felt, or seen in Indochina. The vehement stutter of war, protests, assassinations, and riots that once preoccupied my flashing thoughts of this turbulent period are by now very faint. And while phantoms of these incidents still linger—cloaked in distant memories of the silvery hiss of black-and-white television—it is the epiphany upon my first hearing the Jimi Hendrix Experience that remains the most salient.

Hendrix’s avant-garde electronics, esoteric poetry, and studio wizardry mesmerized me. His imaginative descriptions of otherworldly vistas and multiple states of being expanded my consciousness. His compelling magnetism and progressive politics ushered in my manhood. From the greater deeps of Atlantis, he broadcast the rising tide of mounting dissent within a racist and mercenary America. His rousing “Star-Spangled Banner” is both a mockery of hollow patriotism and a pledge of allegiance to the courageous gesture of 1968 Mexico City Olympians John Carlos and Tommie Smith. “Machine Gun,” Hendrix’s unflinchingly brave rallying cry, valiantly proclaims that war is murder—that only love and the power of soul can bring about a peaceful end to the carnage-for-profit that was wrought in Vietnam then, as it has been elsewhere with unbridled fury ever since.

Teenage encounters with the law forced Hendrix to choose between imprisonment and military service. He enlisted on May 31, 1961 and was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, for paratrooper training. A year later he was honorably discharged on the basis of unsuitability. Hendrix cited the musical benefits of this short-lived stint, crediting the bracing rush and flotation of skydiving as a triggering influence on his early experiments with stereo imaging and the outer limits of sound. Inspired by the peculiarities of this cue, I staged a recital in 2012 at Zidoun-Bossuyt Gallery in Luxembourg entitled The Principalities. It combined sculpture, photography, and video that treated aspects of divine intervention and air warfare filtered through notions of peaceful dissent and rising violence. Hendrix was recast as an angel from the first order of the third sphere of heavenly soldiers called The Principalities, as envisioned by Dionysius the Areopagite in his De Coelesti Hierarchia. These guardians of the princely realm of nations bequeath influential blessings of germinal ideas to the material world that inspire the arts and sciences.

The photographic heraldry of the works in The Principalities teem with the insignia and accoutrements of militaria coupled with dense black-and-white optical patterns derived from gravesite geometry at Luxembourg American Cemetery. Their recurring oscillation means to evoke the chemical atmospheres of illusory diversion and utter destruction associated with Hendrix and the war torn Vietnamese era; purple haze, agent orange, cannabis sativa, napalm. Material and sonic references to a peaceful firmament plagued by deadly conflict also occur throughout; a stereoscopic video of barrage balloons set to the sounds of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam sermon and Hendrix’s “Machine Gun”; feather-crowned supply parachutes atop microphone stands; allusions to the massive assaults at Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the hovering presence of knee-jerk racism in the armed forces; an altered airfield photo of parachute training taken by Hendrix himself.

The creative thrill of embedding layers of meaning into The Principalities paled in comparison to the recovery of brimming memories that arose during the process. “Your main man bit the dust,” my father proclaimed as he handed me the Washington Post bearing news of Hendrix’s tragic demise on September 18, 1970. I was devastated—dad was stunned; he too had become a fan. In his honor, I invented four playable sculptures called Akrhaphones in 1995. These monumental 18-foot long horns entitled Last Trumpet were based on imagery from the Book of Revelations. Whenever they are played as one sound, I am reminded that the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are all monstrously entwined. The fiery watering hole of war is abundantly replenished by the eternal stream of conquest and forever nurtures the ravages of famine and death.