John M. Talmadge ’69
Dartmouth College Oral History Program
Dartmouth Vietnam Project
October 26, 2017
Transcribed by Karen Navarro
COLLINS: This is Riley Collins (’18) with the Dartmouth Vietnam Project. Today’s date is October 26th, 2017, and I’m recording from the Rauner Special Collections Library. With me is John Talmadge. John, would you like to state where you are?
TALMADGE: Yes, my name is John Talmadge. I’m Dartmouth Class of ’69, and I’m speaking today from my home in Dallas, Texas.
COLLINS: Perfect, thank you, John. Yeah, so why don’t we start by asking when and where were you born?
TALMADGE: I was born in San Marcos, Texas, which is about 26 miles south of Austin, in 1946, October 4th, 1946. So I was one of the first post-war Baby Boomers, along with Bill Clinton and George Bush ’43. We were all born within about three months of each other.
COLLINS: Wow. And what was it like—did you stay in San Marcos, Texas, for your whole childhood?
TALMADGE: No. I wasn’t actually there very long. Both my parents were public school teachers, and they had recently completed their studies at Southwest Texas State Teachers College in San Marcos, and my dad’s first job was as a junior high school principal—that’s what we would call a middle school today—in, just near San Antonio at Randolph Air Force Base. Back then it was called Randolph Field, and that’s where many of the pilots trained for World War II. So, my earliest childhood memories from about somewhere around age two are of Randolph Field. Now, that’s the first home I remember.
We weren’t there very long before we moved to Crystal City, Texas, which is down in Zavala County near the border. It’s about 50 miles from Eagle Pass or the Rio Grande. It’s the spinach capital of the world. There’s a statue of Popeye downtown on the square. And it is the birthplace of La Raza Unida, the workers movement seeking to improve the lot of Hispanic farmworkers. The spinach business down there was highly dependent on migrant labor, and that’s where Del Monte canned all their spinach back in the old days.
The other notable thing about Crystal City is that it was the location for one of several intern camps around the country where Japanese Americans were interned during World War II. There were some German citizens and native Germans in that camp, as well, but it was rather well-known as part of the rather dark chapter in our history where we deprived Japanese Americans of their rights and essentially locked them up in these camps. I mean, not that the camps were terribly cruel in the sense of deprivation, but to move someone away from their home, say, in California, just put them in a little shack for two or three years, it was something today we’d consider quite inhumane.
And after the war, that camp was converted, and my parents and I actually lived in one of these tiny houses that had held a Japanese family during World War II. The total size of the house was about 600, maybe 700 square feet, and consisted of two very small bedroom areas and a living area that was a combined kitchen, living room sort of thing. And none of those structures have survived today, but in Crystal City there is a monument, a marker, telling some of the history of that camp, and a few years ago I spoke with the author of a book called The Train to Crystal City[: FDR's Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America's Only Family Internment Camp During World War II, by Jan Jarboe Russell], which chronicled the stories of I believe five Japanese American families who were actually there during World War II.
My dad was a high school principal in Crystal City until I was a third grader, and when I was in the third grade we moved from Zavala County down in southwest Texas to Wharton County, which is about 60 miles south of Houston, and my dad became a high school principal in Boling, Texas (B-o-l-i-n-g), a tiny town of maybe 500 to 700 people, which today, 60 years later, still graduates about the same number of high school students every year. About 55 high school graduates come out of Boling High School every year, and have for generations now.
Boling was such a small town that it actually took farm kids from six different communities to make up that class of 55 high school students. So, the towns were Boling, Iago, as in Iago (from Shakespeare), but it’s pronounced Iago in Texas… Boling, Iago, Don-Tol (D-o-n-T-o-l), Pledger and Newgulf and Burr. Those were all little farm communities of just a handful of people, and their kids came to Boling where the high school was. So, we were all scattered out. Newgulf, Texas, which was about six miles away from the high school, was the largest sulfur plant, I think in the world at the time. It certainly was the largest in the United States and was the source of a lot of the sulphur that went into the munitions the Americans used in World War II. And so, very often in the morning if the wind was coming out of the northeast, when we came out of the house, our front yard smelled like rotten eggs because of the Sulphur plant over there in Newgulf.
COLLINS: Great. And, so you said there was 55 students. Was that a year graduating or in total?
TALMADGE: No, there were about 200 students in the high school, and we started with a freshman class of about 90, and by the time graduation came around, there were about 55 left. That’s fairly consistent with a surprisingly, what to me is a surprisingly high dropout rate in Texas schools. So, we were graduating just over half of the freshmen who came in.
COLLINS: Yeah. How times have changed, right? I don’t know if they have changed in Boling.
TALMADGE: Not much. It’s the land that time forgot down there.
COLLINS: I am curious, before we hear a little bit more about your childhood and what it was like growing up in Boling, do you have any memories of how your parents or grandparents might have talked about World War II or what it was like? I guess you were too young to really remember the Air Force Base. But just sort of the memory of World War II, how you were exposed to that as a child?
TALMADGE: It’s vivid in my memory because our parents, my parents and my mother—well, let me say it this way. My father and his brother served in the Army. My father was in the Army Air Corps. His brother was infantry in the Battle of the Bulge in Europe. My father was in the Pacific in New Guinea. My mother had two brothers who were both in the military. Both were Army Air Corps, as well. The Air Force as such didn’t exist then. The Air Force was a subset of the Army. And one of my uncles flew in Italy and the southern European, northern Africa campaigns and the other uncle flew mostly, as I understand it, in Asia fighting the Japanese. They all survived the war, came home, and as you often hear, they really did not talk about their wartime experiences very much. I would have a hard time remembering a single war story told by my uncles or my father, although I did see some pictures that were taken in New Guinea by my dad, who happened to be a photographer. He flew in B-17s and took photos, reconnaissance photos or photos on bombing runs.
So, growing up, we were really immersed in a lot of the cultural aspects of World War II as history because many of the movies, the old black-and-white World War II movies, the John Wayne movies about the exploits on Iwo Jima or Bataan or various campaigns and battles during the war, really in some ways glorifying, and in a patriotic way, the American cause. And that’s certainly understandable. I mean, it’s hard to imagine how close, I think, we came to losing the war at times.
And so then we had Korea. So, we knew veterans of the Korean War, as well, including my father-in-law, who was a little younger than my parents. Then we had our own war, the Vietnam War, come along a little while later. But, one of the things that is strikingly different today, and I see this because I have a four-year-old grandson, you know, we were raised with toy pistols and water guns and cap guns, and we played cowboys and Indians, and we played Army, and I mean every kid in our neighborhood had a closet full of toy pistols and rifles and toy hand grenades and all kinds of things. And we were really brought up looking at warfare as just a part of life and thinking it was like in the movies. And I remember when I was at Dartmouth in ROTC, and I finally was exposed to firing a weapon, being [inaudible], how different it was when it was real life. It’s like the difference between watching football on TV and actually being at the football game.
COLLINS: Yeah. And it’s amazing to hear that the first time you fired a gun was at Dartmouth, because nowadays, I mean, I’ve got a friend from Texas and he’s the only person I know on campus who has a gun. He brought it with him from home.
TALMADGE: [laughter] Well, actually, I have a story about that. I grew up with guns. My dad got me my first BB gun, I think, when I was in the first grade. And I grew up hunting and fishing and spending a lot of time outdoors, and because we were farm kids. I mean, we lived out in the country and we didn’t have video games or much on TV. And you get up in the morning and you take your dog and your BB gun and just go out into the woods and have a Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn kind of adventure.
And so, when I got to Dartmouth, I remember the two years I was in ROTC, one of the things we had to do was go to the rifle range, and we went down to the rifle range and I performed exceptionally well. Let me just say it that way. And the sergeant just was all over me about joining the rifle team, [laughter] and he said, “Son, where’d you learn to shoot like that?” And I said, “Well, you know, when you’re out hunting for your dinner, you really want to always get a head shot so you don’t mess up the meat.” And that was a lot of fun, because I don’t think the sergeant had seen very many Dartmouth freshmen who actually could handle a firearm and shoot it accurately, but it was really easy for me.
COLLINS: Very funny. Oh, I get such a clear image of that in my head. Great. Well, let’s take it back to where we left off in Boling. So, you moved there in the third grade. Did you stay put there for the rest of your childhood?
TALMADGE: Sure did. I stayed there through high school, in Wharton County, and graduated from Boling High School in ’65. And I was a decent football player, so I got a letter from Coach Blackman, [Robert L.] Bob Blackman at Dartmouth, expressing an interest in me, and that was very exciting. I think something we discussed, you and I, when we first talked was, I had actually been aware of Dartmouth from the time I was in the sixth grade. My father, the high school principal at Boling High School, had a goal. It was almost like a personal career goal. He wanted one of his boys, one of his students, to go to an Ivy League school. Most of the kids in that part of the world, especially back then, went to the University of Texas or Texas A&M. Every once in a while a really brilliant kid would go to Rice [University] in Houston. But not many people went to college out of state. In fact, I can’t remember anyone who went to college outside of the state of Texas prior to our senior year, and we had several, at least three or four in our class that went to other schools. My debate partner, for example, went to Georgia Tech.
And, so from the time I was in the sixth grade, when people would ask me, “Where are you gonna go to college, John?” I would say, “I want to go to Dartmouth.” And, of course, they would always say, “Where’s Dartmouth?” and I barely knew. I think I knew where New Hampshire was on a map, but I thought it was kind of cool to say, you know, something besides the University of Texas or Texas A&M. And every once in a while somebody would say Baylor or TCU, but people just generally were going to stay near home. And as it turned out, Christmas of my senior year I got an early acceptance at Dartmouth, and that’s how I ended up there. I was a terrible football player, as it turned out, probably one of the worst that Coach Hamilton ever saw. But it was a good experience. I have fond memories of that one season.
COLLINS: So, a couple of questions. It’s a really interesting story. How did you find out about Dartmouth at such a young age? And why did you latch onto Dartmouth instead of somewhere else?
TALMADGE: I don’t know how Dartmouth got on my dad’s radar screen, but I remember two or three of his rising seniors back then, probably when I was in the eighth grade. I even remember their names. Willard Ander and Charlie Allen were two bright young fellows who were clearly college material, and particularly Willard, who was either valedictorian or salutatorian of his class, Dad thought really could hack it in an Ivy League school. So, I knew that Dad had the ambition to get a Boling High School graduate into the Ivies, and his tremendous respect and admiration for the Ivies was contagious. I mean, I just—I was very close to my dad, and, you know, if he thought that’s where someone ought to go to school and he thought that was the best and that’s what we were going to aim for, then that was what I wanted to do.
I very nearly actually went to the Air Force Academy [Colorado Springs, CO]. He was also very fond of the service academies, and I was very close to getting an appointment to the Air Force Academy in 1964, and I failed the eye test. And in those days you had to be 20-20 to go to the Air Force Academy. So, if I had not had nearsightedness, I might have ended up a jet pilot over Vietnam, you know, years later. That may have been one of the luckiest things that ever happened to me.
COLLINS: It’s funny you say that, because my grandfather, who is about your age, also really wanted to be a pilot, but also failed the vision test, and is very thankful for that.
TALMADGE: And actually my dad failed the flying test at Randolph Field in World War II. That’s one of the reasons he knew about Randolph Air Force Base, because he went there for pilot training, and he was color blind. He cracked up a plane, and washed out of flight school, and ended up being an enlisted man, a photographer. So, yeah. You never know.
COLLINS: It’s amazing how that works. One question I had about your father, why do you think he was so interested in the Ivy Leagues in particular? Or, put differently, why were the Ivy Leagues on his radar, but didn’t seem to be on anyone else’s?
TALMADGE: I’m not sure, except that in the 1960s, it was a time of tremendous change. I remember Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. I remember seeing that on our little black-and-white TV set in that little frame house I grew up in in Boling. I recall the election of President [John F.] Kennedy, and the fact that Kennedy was a Harvard man. And I was also very fortunate to have, despite this little tiny town, my interest in history had been sparked by my parents and the teachers I had. So I was aware that there were a lot of prominent historical figures, going all the way back to Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy. You know, Harry Truman being a notable exception in terms of education. But, Harvard [University] and Yale [University] and Princeton [University] and Dartmouth and Columbia [University] were always showing up in the biographies of these folks, particularly, for example, in the history of the founding of the country.
My forebear, Benjamin Tallmadge, who was George Washington’s spymaster, was a best friend of Nathan Hale, who was hanged by the British. He was said to have stated, “I regret that I have but one life to give for my country.” Tallmadge and Hale were either roommates or just simply best friends at Yale. So, when we read American history, the Ivies have, because they’ve just been around since—you know, Harvard since the 1600s and Dartmouth since the late 1700s, they color many aspects of history going forward. So, that awareness was there.
So when you talk about Dartmouth, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and I had no idea that Harvard, Yale and Princeton were known as the Big Three. I applied to Harvard and Yale, but I got early acceptance to Dartmouth, and that was where I wanted to go. But I think that has a lot to do with it. And in response to your question, it was obvious to anyone with a sense of American history that these prestigious institutions had a great deal to do with not only the founding of the country, but the growth of the country, the development of the system of education, and on and on and on. So, is this making sense to you?
COLLINS: Absolutely, yeah. It’s a very familiar story to me. I have one more question before we get up to your college years. And that’s, you mentioned you got a letter from Bob Blackman. How did he find you? Or what put you on his radar?
TALMADGE: I think in those days what college coaches did, particularly in smaller schools, was they would blanket the country with letters to coaches, and they would include postcards. You probably have never seen one of these, but the Class of ’69, for example, still to this day mails me postcards that I can mail back to our class secretary with news. You know, we’ve been doing that since way before the internet. And I think that Blackman just mailed Coach Wendell, my high school coach, a postcard and said, “If you have any boys that can make decent grades and get a decent SAT score and tote a football, well, send me their names and I’d like to contact them.” And I remember Coach Wendell telling me he had sent my name to Coach Blackman. That was kind of cool. And it really is—it’s hard to describe how bad I was as a football player. [laughter] Did I tell you about the Rainbow Raiders when we talked before?
COLLINS: I think you might have mentioned it, but I’d love to hear it again, yeah.
TALMADGE: Well, it’s a quick story. So, we had a hundred guys in our class came out for football, so that’s 1 in 8. 85 of those hundred were captains of their high school teams. I was not. But, Dartmouth was quite a football power in those days. And, for instance, the year we were freshmen, Calvin Hill was a freshman at Yale, and Calvin Hill went on to be an NFL running back, played for the Dallas Cowboys, in fact, and I think he’s a Hall of Famer. And his son, Randy Hill, is an NBA Hall of Famer and played at Duke [University, Durham, NC], my other alma mater. So we had all these guys out for football. Everybody was a good player in their high school.
And you go to practice and the first team gets the blue jerseys, second team red jerseys, and then it goes green, yellow, brown, grey, black, up through about eight or nine sets of jerseys, 99 in all. And then there are leftover jerseys, and they go in a pile. And so, if you’re not even on the tenth team, you’re literally at the farthest end of the bench, then you go over to that pile and get whatever color jersey is left and you put that one, and those guys, including me, were the Rainbow Raiders. And we held the blocking dummies and we would walk through the Princeton offense. I mean, we were just worthless to the freshman team, and we were so far off the chart in terms of our ability. And the funny thing is that we actually all had been decent players in high school. [laughter] But that’s how good the team was at Dartmouth and how many good players came out for football.
And Coach [Earl] Hamilton, our freshman coach, did a wonderful thing. At the end of the year, he brought over, he invited over the team from Norwich University [Northfield, VT], or Norwich College, and the Rainbow Raiders got to play a game, and just the Rainbow Raiders. All those other 88 guys that were better than we are didn’t get to play. And the Rainbow Raiders played Norwich, and in that game George [E.] Anastasia [‘69], who was another Rainbow Raider, played halfback opposite me. And George threw a block on a trap play, and I scored a touchdown and we won the game 7 to nothing. So, in the last football game I ever played, we won and I scored the winning touchdown, and I told that story. I don’t think George Anastasia even remembers the game. He’s a wonderful crime story writer in Philadelphia. He’s kind of a legend in the world of journalism. And anyway, that’s kind of a…
COLLINS: Yeah, you have a 100% win rate in college football.
TALMADGE: Yeah, absolutely.
COLLINS: That’s pretty impressive.
TALMADGE: Yeah, went out a winner. And that’s so Dartmouth, as well, to think of your ragnot kids, your boys that just really can’t play worth a hoot, but to give us a chance to play, after a whole season of getting run over and knocked down and, you know, our egos were terribly bruised. It was just a great thing for them to do to let us play one game.
COLLINS: Yeah. Did you ever—did you feel like, like how did it feel to be a Rainbow Raider instead of one of the starters? And did other kids sort of like notice it?
TALMADGE: Strangely enough, I don’t think so. I didn’t feel… The really good players were at such an elite level and there were so few compared to the hundred, that there were just a lot of us that didn’t have a future in football. And I really, I felt bad that I wasn’t a better player. And by the way, I was living with—my roommates were athletes. They were swimmers and just incredible performers. They went on to be all-Ivy. And [Alan A.] Al Peterson [‘69] was trying to make the ’68 Olympics, the one Don Schollander swam in.
So, in that sense, and I think I mentioned this in our previous conversation, I felt for the first time in my life I was not the big fish in the small pond. I was a very average student. I graduated with a B average. I was not—I mean, there were some things I did that were good. But, that was my encounter with life as it really was, and it was deeply humbling. I mean, it shaped everything for the rest of my life. And it was hard. It was very difficult. Academically it was difficult. It was difficult to realize I just really wasn’t a talent when it came to sports. But, as I said to you when we first talked, I wouldn’t trade those Dartmouth years for anything. And I would do every bit of it again in a minute.
COLLINS: Yeah. That’s a good transition to talking about your freshman year in general. So, what was it like the first time you stepped foot on Dartmouth’s campus, and what was sort of going through your head?
TALMADGE: Well, I stepped off the bus right there at the corner where the Hanover Inn is, and I had been on the bus for over 70 hours. I took the bus from Big Spring, Texas, to Hanover, not the same vehicle. We actually changed buses in the Port Authority in New York City where my wallet was stolen, by the way. So that was difficult. And when I got off the bus, I was wearing blue jeans, cowboy boots and a straw hat. And, of course, they called me “Tex” now for 50 years ever since then. And I really didn’t grow up being a cowboy. I just thought if I’m coming from Texas, I’ve got to be wearing cowboy boots and a hat. And everybody got a nickname, just like in the movie, Animal House. My roommates were Boo and Yogi and BL, [laughter] and nobody went by their given name. It was very much like Animal House.
COLLINS: It’s funny, it’s still like that in some parts of campus life. Still nicknames.
TALMADGE: I don’t know if I told you this or not, but talking about Dartmouth football. Another one of the football players, who played tackle, was Bruce Hamilton, Class of ’69. And he looked exactly like Bluto in the Popeye cartoons that were popular when we were kids. He had a perpetual five o’clock shadow, he was as big as a house, played tackle, and so his nickname was Bluto. And in the movie, Animal House, the John Belushi character is Bluto Blutarsky, and that’s Bruce Hamilton. The Dartmouth guys wrote that movie, and so a lot of what you see in the movie, Animal House, is sort of straight out of—about the Class of ’64 to ’69, something like that.
COLLINS: That’s so funny. You know the real Bluto.
TALMADGE: Yeah, yeah.
COLLINS: Who, I don’t know if he went on to become a senator in real life, but…
TALMADGE: [laughter] No, he’s a real estate magnate, I think, out in San Francisco. But, we’re in frequent communication on our class email list, which is one of the wonderful things that the new technology has made possible. I get a half dozen emails from my classmates every day.
COLLINS: That’s very cool. Wow. So, you also mentioned, so you were on the football team your freshman year, and that’s sort of how you got introduced, or what brought you to Dartmouth in the first place, in some ways. And then you were also taking classes. Did you start out knowing what you wanted to study?
TALMADGE: Yeah, I started in pre-med, and that was a, boy, I’ll tell you, that was a shocker. The preparation that so many, including my roommates, so many of my classmates had was so exceptional, you know, attending elite private schools. Yogi, my best friend and roommate on the swim team, had spent a year in Switzerland, he spoke four languages. He was pre-med. He majored in comparative literature, was Phi Beta Kappa, class officer, I mean, and the nicest guy I ever knew in four years at Dartmouth. And it’s hard to live with a guy like that. I mean, gee whiz. I mean, everybody loved him. And he was good looking. Girls loved him. And he was an exceptional athlete. He was a gymnast, as well as a swimmer. And the nicest guy in the world, and just brilliant. I mean, I don’t think he made a B the whole time he was in college. And I’d come back to the room struggling with idiot math or introductory chemistry, and he’d be taking the same stuff in AP courses and acing it while he was majoring in a foreign language. comparative literature and pre-med. He was just amazing. So, you know, experiences like that really shape your view of reality and your view of yourself and everything else.
TALMADGE: And when… I remember taking my first exams in chemistry, and I couldn’t even understand the questions. And, you know, I wasn’t an idiot. I was a National Merit Finalist and I had really good SATs, not 800s but they were good, 790 in verbal and something like 680 or something in math. I mean, it was good enough to get in. And I just, I was just blown away. I remember I’d just call and call up my dad and crying like a baby, saying, you know, this is, this is, “I don’t know what to do.” I’d never had that experience before. I’d never sat down in an exam that I had studied for and just been completely incapable of answering anything correct. I made a 36 on that exam, and I think the mean was 78, something like that. So, that was, wow, that was tough.
COLLINS: And that was your freshman year?
TALMADGE: Yeah, that was first trimester freshman year. Yeah, it was still football season when I took that first exam. And when I look back on that, I am absolutely amazed. I’m amazed that I ever graduated from Dartmouth, much less went on to Duke Medical School, much less became a professor in a medical school, because I’ll tell you, I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer [laughter] by any means. But, again, I think it’s something about Dartmouth, though, that as difficult as that was, Dartmouth got me through it. And I remember professors who were just exceptionally good to me, and took care of me and nursed me through those kinds of hard times. And they didn’t stop there. I mean, I had some difficulty academically every year, because I was taking challenging stuff, and I always seemed to be trying to catch up with where my classmates were. You know, these guys had had calculus in high school. I’d never had calculus. And anyway, I don’t know how we’re—I’ve kind of drifted off from your question there, but…
COLLINS: No, definitely, that’s definitely interesting. I can just imagine, you know, you came from a very different background than a lot of the other students on campus at that time. So it’s interesting to sort of hear the different ways in which that played out. Which also, I remember asking you last time we talked what it was like being the kid from rural Texas on this campus that was full of New England prep school students?
TALMADGE: Well, I wanted to remember for this conversation to note that I grew up in segregated schools. You know, that high school my father was principal of was an all white high—well, it was white and Hispanic. And African-American kids went to school in a completely different school. And parenthetically, I might mention that I have actually through Facebook contacted some of the families, some of the African-American families that grew up in that same community, suggesting that one of these days, the Class of ’65 from those two high schools really ought to try to get together, you know, the kids that graduated from what was called the “colored school,” the African-American school, and the kids from our high school.
So when I went to Dartmouth, I came out of a very conservative culture, I had Goldwater stickers on my suitcase, and of course, as we talked about before, my whole political way of thinking transformed during my years there. I ended up working in the “Dump Johnson” movement and [Senator] Eugene McCarthy’s Children’s Crusade in ’68. But, it was really quite something to be a southerner, and from what most people would consider the Old South. It wasn’t the Deep South like Alabama or Mississippi. But, my great-grandfather was a Civil War veteran, and his name was James Little, and he fought with Hood’s Brigade from Texas. And I actually knew my great-grandmother, Elizabeth, his wife, so I was that close to someone who actually… Well, Ma Little, my great-grandmother, was married the year after the Civil War, in 1865. So, I guess what I’m trying to do here is put my generation in a context that we’ve already discussed in terms of World War II, and a little bit about World War I. But it really goes all the way back to the Civil War.
And, so the tumultuous changes that began for most of us around 1960 with the election of President Kennedy, the March on Washington, the “I have a dream” speech, and so on, were perhaps not cataclysmic, but they were certainly seismic in terms of the way our generation was changed and we were sort of ripped from the moorings of the Old South, the Civil War, segregation, racial discrimination [inaudible] and all that sort of thing. It’s one of the reasons I remember to mention what happened in Crystal City to our Asian American fellow citizens. I don’t think the typical Anglo American in World War II gave a second thought to locking up Japanese Americans. But, you know, all of these attitudes really began to change profoundly with our generation. And I don’t say that pridefully. I just note it, that we grew up in a different kind of world, and I don’t think everything we’ve done as a generation is outstanding by any means, but we’ve certainly seen some changes.
COLLINS: Yeah. Can you talk about maybe your personal political awakening, how that came about?
TALMADGE: Yeah. I think it’s fairly typical of, well, maybe not so typical, I don’t know. It became really clear to me as I got into the other aspects of my education at Dartmouth, taking Professor [Peter] Bien’s courses in literature, Professor [Francis W.] Gramlich’s philosophy of human nature course, and all, that thinking people had ideas that I really had not encountered. And what I began to realize was that I’d been raised with a set of values that in some ways conflicted with itself. For example, I remember even writing about Albert Schweitzer on my personal essay when I applied to Dartmouth. In those days you wrote about someone you admired, and I wrote about Albert Schweitzer and his concept of the reverence for life. And somehow it just had never dawned on me that reverence for life was rather inconsistent with militarism and racial hatred and that sort of thing.
So, during the Dartmouth years, these big questions came up, and they came up not as abstract concepts, but as issues that we were dealing with in our own lives, whether it was sitting over at Alpha Chi Alpha in the fraternity house talking with the few African-American students who were at Dartmouth at the time, a couple of whom were fraternity brothers of mine, or talking about politics or debating aspects of American involvement in Vietnam. And it was just clear to me, even though I was for two years in ROTC and I went to Dartmouth as a very conservative kid from the South, that our country was just making a big mistake, and there was just a lot about that war, just as there was a lot about the southern life being built around segregation that it was just morally wrong.
And I think the wonderful thing about Dartmouth was that people were so expressive and articulate and courageous that a kid like me could embrace these ideas without fear, could be a part of a community that really was standing up for what we thought was right and what we thought was good, and change that we thought was worth fighting for, that sort of thing. It was inspiring. It’s still inspiring today.
And I remember people very specifically who changed my way of thinking. I was president of our class sophomore year, and Robert Reich was president of the Class of ’68, Bob Reich who later went on to be President Clinton’s Secretary of Labor. Bob’s a famous economist or business guy. And I remember going over to Bob’s room on the Gold Coast. He had one of those really fancy rooms. I think he probably came from a family that was quite well to do. But I just sat down and said, “Bob, so what do we do? What do we do now? [laughter] We’re presidents of our classes.” And Bob, I’m sure he would have no memory of this at all, but he talked about himself as what he called a Roosevelt liberal, and he talked about his values. This is a guy who’s only maybe 20 years old. And I was just really impressed with that, and I thought, This is a guy that, you know, I could follow this guy. I could vote for this guy. I could work for this guy. This guy is brilliant. And he was, he was just brilliant. Still is. I don’t agree with everything he says, but, you know, I’ve got my own political views about different things, but see, but that’s a good example, that’s Dartmouth. He was there. That was Dartmouth. That’s the kind of, those are the kinds of people that I went to school with. And you can’t be around people who are that smart and that gifted and that wonderful, that brilliant, that courageous, and not be changed by it, unless you’re comatose.
COLLINS: [laughter] Definitely. I did want to ask about your involvement with ROTC, what motivated you to get involved with ROTC, how long you were involved with it, and besides being the top shooter, what other impressions you’re left with from that experience?
TALMADGE: Yeah, I got in late, it was about halfway through the freshman year, and I had a couple of friends who were ROTC. And I came from a family that really didn’t have any money. I couldn’t have gone to Dartmouth if I had not gotten substantial scholarship help and loan help. My parents paid for about a third of my education, and ROTC actually was a way to get your education paid for, and I saw military service as just something that a guy did as the right thing to do, so I didn’t have any reservations at all about signing up, and my parents didn’t object. But then a strange thing happened. At the end of sophomore year, that would have been ’67, there was a cutback. I’m not sure how this happened, but anyway, there was a reduction in force, and we were given the option of staying in or opting out of ROTC. And by that time, by the end of sophomore year, I had begun to change my mind about America’s role in the world and the realities of military power and presence, and yeah, I was really involved in the politics of the war and moving to become part of the anti-war movement, or the peace movement. So I was happy to have that opportunity to get out.
COLLINS: Sure. And just to ask about some concrete stuff that you did in your time as an anti-war movement person on Dartmouth’s campus, were you involved with the occupation of Parkhurst at all?
TALMADGE: I remember that night well, yeah. I wasn’t in the building, but I remember when it happened and I remember actually speaking to someone from the local Upper Valley television station. And I can’t remember if they sought me out because I was president of a class. I think that’s why. I thought it was just really very exciting and somewhat perplexing. I was not—I certainly did not consider myself a student radical. For one thing, I had a great deal of admiration and respect for Dean Seymour, Dean Thaddeus Seymour, who was an amazing man who, I’ve never quite figured out why he was so good to me. I guess he knew me because I was class president, but really there just wasn’t that much to distinguish me as a Dartmouth student. I mean, I was just about as average as anybody could be. But I did really like Dean Seymour, and so the idea of making his office the target of a demonstration just didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. The SDS, the Students for a Democratic Society, and the folks who really were campus radicals drove that occupation, and I can’t remember frankly how much it had to do with the war and how much it had to do with civil rights and improving a lot of minorities on campus. It was really kind of crazy. I think it had more to do with the war than anything else.
COLLINS: Yeah. And you never had any desire to join these organizations or get involved with sort of the student radicals?
TALMADGE: Well, I sat in a lot of meetings, but we had a joke back then. We used to say that when you’re organizing a demonstration, the first thing you have to do is you have to identify the Marxists and the Communists and the Leninists, and you have to give them something to do like running the copy machine. And you send them over to the other building to copy all the hand bills or something, because if you try to incorporate them into a meeting, they’re just gonna screw things up. [laughter] All they’re gonna do is rage and rant. And so, I think the real success of the movement, when you think about the one big march that I was in in 1969, in the fall of ’69 right after we graduated, in DC, the vast majority of this 100,000, 200,000 people, however many it was, were not radical people. These were Americans who were opposed to our country’s foreign policy and who were tired of what really turned out to be what one author called “a bright and shining lie.” We could read and we could see what was going on. And, you know, we had many professors who had made a study of these kinds of international problems. And you had William Sloane Coffin down at Yale, you had [Howard] Zinn and Noam Chomsky down at Harvard, and these were people who were respected and worth listening to, and if you had a brain in your head you could see whatever we were doing in Vietnam, it didn’t make much sense.
COLLINS: Right. So, you mentioned the March on Washington. Were you involved with that at all?
TALMADGE: Oh, I was there. I marched and got teargassed. I wasn’t one of the planners or anything. In fact, I was at Duke. That was my first year of medical school, so we came up from Durham, North Carolina, for that march. That was in November of ’69.
COLLINS: All right. Let’s fill in the gaps between your sophomore year at Dartmouth and Duke Medical School. So, I remember last time we talked you mentioned you had a mentor that was pretty pivotal on your decision, right?
TALMADGE: Absolutely. Yeah. I think when we talked before I got choked up when I was talking about Professor Gramlich and Dr. Chapman. Professor Gramlich taught Philosophy 25, Phil 25. It was the most popular course at the college, the philosophy of human nature. And it was an amazing survey of philosophical thought from the ancients to modern philosophy. I don’t know how the man did it. And I went to his office and knocked on his door and said, “Professor Gramlich, I’m in your class.” And there were about, as I recall, there were about 600 of us. It filled Filene Auditorium, that’s how big the class was. And I said, “I’m not sure what you do, but I think it’s what I want to do.” And he said, “What’s your name, son?” and I said, “Well, I’m John Talmadge. People call me Tex.” And he said, “Well, Tex, come in, sit down.” I did. And he was the nicest man. And he said, “You know, you really, if you’re pre-med, you really ought to think about staying in pre-med and going into psychiatry as a field, because then you can study human nature for the rest of your life and you can actually make a good living. And you could also be a physician and help people, which is why you became pre-med.”
So, he sent me down to the Medical School [Geisel School of Medicine] to meet Dr. Carl Chapman, Carlton B. Chapman, who was Dean of the Dartmouth Medical School, and that would be my junior year or the end of my sophomore year. And Dr. Chapman just kind of adopted me, just sort of took me under his wing. He was a brilliant man. He had been a Rhodes scholar graduate at Davidson [College] down in North Carolina, and a southern gentleman, who had come to Dartmouth actually from Texas, and he had come from [UT]Southwestern Medical School [Dallas, TX], where I am today a professor. So, yeah.
COLLINS: Full circle.
TALMADGE: Yeah, but Dean Chapman was so wonderful. Dr. Jackson, William T. Jackson, was a botanist who let me work in his lab, and that gave me a job so I didn’t have to wash dishes over in the dining hall. And Professor Jackson knew I had no ambition to be a botanist at all, but he was just so sweet, so good to me. Dr. Kurt Benirschke was a pathologist at the Medical School, and he let me work with him for, I guess, my senior year. My claim to fame is I actually figured out the karyotype of the chromosomes of the southern and northern flying squirrel. [laughter] We did that. I don’t know why we were doing it, but we did it. So, and my Dartmouth years were just rich with people like that. I mentioned Professor Bean earlier, my English professor; Professor [William E.] Slesnick who gave me a “C” in Calculus even though I didn’t deserve one.
And did I tell you that story about Professor Bien and the paper I turned in on [The] Sound and the Fury? So, I wrote a paper on [William C.] Faulkner’s novel, The Sound and the Fury, and I got it back from Professor Bien, and he said—and I remember he wrote with a red pencil, and it looked like he had bled all over the paper—and he said, “This is really one of the worst papers I’ve ever read. [laughter] But you’ve obviously worked on it so hard, I’m gonna give you a ‘C’.” And here’s the neat part of the story. He was a brilliant guy, and best known for his translations of the work of Nikos Kazantzakis, the I think Nobel Prize winning author from Greece. And Professor Bean had translated Kazantzakis. He did not translate his most famous book, Zorba the Greek, but he translated St. Francis and The Saviors of God[: Spiritual Exercises]—I can’t remember now, but… Oh, The Last Temptation of Christ, which was later made into a movie. So, when I was in my 40s, the movie, The Last Temptation of Christ, came out, and it was very controversial, especially down here, because of its portrayal of Jesus Christ, and a rather nasty review appeared in the local paper in Bryan-College Station [TX] where we were living. And so, I wrote to the editor and submitted a rather lengthy commentary, stating that the reviewer obviously had not read The Last Temptation of Christ, and really didn’t understand the movie. And the paper published it. So then I clipped out my response, my Op Ed piece, and I sent it to Professor Bien, saying, “Professor Bien, you probably don’t remember me, but years ago you gave me a ‘C’ that I didn’t deserve,” [laughter] and he wrote me a sweet letter back saying, “You’ve written a wonderful essay about The Last Temptation of Christ, and I give you an ‘A’.” And that would have been in 1985. That was almost 20 years after—well, it was 20 years after I was in his class.
So, you know what you get when you talk to guys like me is you see that what John Sloane Dickey said, that “in the Dartmouth fellowship there is no parting,” is really true. You know, here’s a guy now in mid-life, mid-career, writing to his college English professor, or to Dr. Chapman who helped him get into medical school, and that sort of thing. And when you have an experience like Dartmouth, I mean, to say it’s life changing is a cliché, it’s trite. But it’s so true. It’s the prologue of everything else that happens.
COLLINS: Absolutely, something I’m feeling strongly in my senior year now. So, let’s move on to what brought you from Dartmouth to Duke then? So, was there a reason in particular you chose to go to Duke Medical School, or did you just sort of apply several places?
TALMADGE: I remember applying, I think I applied to Harvard and BU [Boston University] and Southwestern and Duke. And I got a really quick response from Duke. I was one of the first pre-meds to actually hear back from application. It was around Thanksgiving. And a lot of people didn’t hear until January. And that was really Dr. Chapman’s influence. In those days, if you had someone like Dr. Chapman in your corner, the Dean of the Dartmouth Medical School, writing you a recommendation, while the Dean of the Duke Medical School reads that, and he’s a friend of Dr. Chapman, says, “Okay, we’ll take this kid even though he’s a ‘B’ student.” So, I have told my medical students for years I probably couldn’t even get into medical school today, much less into Duke Medical School. Now, my daughter did. One of my daughters is an internal medicine specialist, and the other daughter is a professor at George Washington University, and she’s in international relations down in DC. But, I was just incredibly fortunate, and Dartmouth made it possible for me to get into Duke, which is generally considered one of the top four or five schools in the country.
COLLINS: Wow. Very cool. And so, at Duke, you remained politically active, because you mentioned you went to the March on Washington. Was the atmosphere there similar to what you experienced as an undergrad at Dartmouth?
TALMADGE: No, I think it was really quite different. For one thing, now we’re in North Carolina, we’re in the South. It’s a much more conservative culture, and by this time, fall of ’69, winter and spring of ’70, the peace movement is really gaining steam. And I became a lot more active there. I was involved with national organizations, including the [American] Medical [Student] Association, the American Friends Service Committee, the Quakers, and other activist—I don’t want to say movements or organizations. And frankly, I neglected my studies my first year at Duke, I was so involved in the politics of all this stuff.
There was also a lot of stuff going on about race in the South in those days. And there was a lot of controversy about where the world of organized medicine fit in all that, because organized medicine historically at that point was a white male club. There were, I think, three women in my medical school class at Duke, and the rest of us were just white bread boys. So it was a different world, and it was a changing world. It was a rapidly changing world. Today, in our medical school classes here, more than half the class is women. So, there was a lot of change going on.
COLLINS: So, you mentioned involvement with the [American] Friends Service Committee. Was there a reason for that, like are you a Quaker or was it just one of the organizations you…
TALMADGE: No, I’m actually still on the roles of the Durham, North Carolina Friends Meeting. I became a Quaker, and that's what’s called a “convinced Friend.” If you’re born into the faith, as for example, Richard Nixon was, of all people—Richard Nixon’s mother. So, Nixon would be called a “birthright Quaker.” And if you join the faith, you’re called a “convinced Friend," and so I was a convinced Friend, and that’s where I got to know some of the people who really had depth and courage and philosophical intelligence with regard to the morality of the war specifically. These were not just people who were angry Marxists. These were people who were principled and educated and articulate, and willing to take a stand in the face of sometime serious consequences. And, I mean, Quakers have done that historically, well, since the colonial days.
COLLINS: Yeah, very interesting. Actually, after the interview, remind me to ask you about this, because it’s somewhat relevant to some research I’m doing right now. But, so while you were at Duke then, your freshman year or your first year of medical school, you were involved with all of these political organizations. And then, I think I remember you saying in the summer of ’72 is when you went to Vietnam to work with the Quakers at a hospital there.
COLLINS: Can you talk a little bit about how you ended up deciding to do that, and then what it was like once you were there?
TALMADGE: Yes. The American Friends Service Committee had set up a rehabilitation center in the tiny town of Quang Ngai, which is on the coast of Vietnam about 75 kilometers south of Da Nang, which would put it, I think, about 120 kilometers south of the Demilitarized Zone. It’s a little more than halfway up the curved coastline, with Saigon down in the south and then the DMZ up north. A small team composed principally of Americans, although there was a wonderful British physical therapist on the team, as well, had been working there, and two different positions had rotated through in 1970 and ’71, and then the center was without a doctor.
At that time, I was finishing my third year of medical school, and Martin Title, a fellow from Philadelphia, a Quaker from Philadelphia, contacted me to see if I could locate a physician who would be willing to go to Quang Ngai and work in the rehabilitation center. And so I talked to physicians there at the Duke Medical Center, and needless to say, to a person they all thought I was crazy. I mean, the responses I got were not ugly or cruel. They just said, you know, “Talmadge, you’ve gotta be kidding. You want me to leave my fellowship or leave my practice or uproot myself in my career and go to where the war is?” And then, after I’d had two or three of these conversations, I realized it was a pretty crazy idea.
Well, then it dawned on me that I really didn’t have to have a license to practice medicine in Vietnam. I mean, after all, it was a country torn all apart by war and conditions were really primitive. So, I thought, Well, you know, all I really need—well, not all I need to know, but if I knew some orthopedics, because what we did in the rehabilitation center was take care of people who’d had arms and legs blown off, for the most part, and we fitted them with prosthetics, and that’s what the physical therapist from England did, Roger. So, I thought, Well, if I take a rotation in orthopedics, I’ll have enough basic knowledge that I could do some of that work over there. And so, that’s what I did.
And then, I had to figure out a way to really justify the trip, and in fourth year medical school we were allowed to do a community medicine rotation, and that meant you went to a hospital somewhere else and you just worked under someone else’s supervision, and that got you credit for community medicine. So, I signed up for community medicine, and when I filled out the form, which was one of those old computer cards that had holes punched in it, for facility name I wrote “Quang Ngai Rehabilitation Center,” but then I had to write in the name of a supervisor. Well, there wasn’t a supervisor because the place didn’t have a doctor. So I went to the Duke Library and I found a Vietnamese dictionary, and I wrote down the name of the editor of the dictionary, and it was something like Nguyen van Dal, something like that, and I got the computer card and I wrote that name and put “M.D.” after it. In other words, I [inaudible] that part of the record.
And by the time all of the stuff was processed, I was already in Vietnam. And I got a letter—I may have told you this, because it’s kind of a funny story—the first three pieces of mail I got in Vietnam were from my draft board demanding to know my current address or they would reclassify me. So I sent my address as 120 2 Yo Street, Quang Ngai, Vietnam. My second letter was from my psychiatrist who said I had missed my last appointment and I would be charged for the missed appointment. And the third letter was from the dean of the medical school saying, “We have discovered what you’ve done, and we don’t approve. Since you’re already in Vietnam, we’re going to give you credit for community medicine, but this shall not be considered a precedent which other students will be allowed to follow in the future.” Not so much as one word, mind you, about my safety and well-being. [laughter] No one is saying, “We hope you survive. Take care of yourself,” you know, “Be careful. Come back to us safe and sound.” My psychiatrist didn’t say it, my draft board certainly didn’t say it, and Duke University didn’t say it. Those were the first three letters I got when I was in Vietnam.
COLLINS: That’s very funny.
TALMADGE: That’s how queer life is, it’s just crazy. So, that’s really what we did there. We patched up people. But the conditions were like nothing I’d never seen. Some of these photographs—photographs of the center were published in a couple of books, and somewhere I have a box with photographs in it. But we didn’t have lab, we didn’t have X-ray, we didn’t really have nursing staff, per se, and I didn’t speak Vietnamese. So, because I had a girlfriend at Dartmouth who was a French major at Vassar [College]—well, actually, that’s a long story, but anyway, she loved French—I had actually taken nine weeks of French when I was at Dartmouth, that Professor [John A.] Rassias’ Peace Corps French. So I had a little bit of French, and, of course, Vietnam used to be French Indochina, so almost everyone in Vietnam spoke French. And the surgical nurse I worked with, Mr. Bit, was a scholar really in French, and so that’s how he and I communicated. And he was very sweet, because as you can imagine, my French was terrible. I’d had nine weeks of French, [laughter] and now I’m trying to practice medicine in Vietnam. But, did I tell you the story about the day in the operating room?
COLLINS: You might have, but it would be worth repeating, yeah.
TALMADGE: So we were doing surgery one day, and I use that term loosely, because our surgical suite was a converted garage, and we were using discarded gowns and gloves and material from the various military outfits had left behind. We really didn’t have much in the way of what I had been accustomed to in the way of surgical instruments and things like that. But nonetheless, we were able to do stump revisions and amputations and things like that. And we actually did the surgery with the surgery textbook open on the operating table so we could see what we were doing. We weren’t highly skilled. But, no one was watching, so we could cheat and look at the pictures. We didn’t want to cut an artery or something.
And then one day we were doing a very simple procedure on a guy’s leg. He had a below the knee amputation. We were revising the stump so that the prosthetic would fit on it. And as we were doing the surgery, little bits of silvery stuff started drifting through the field where the light was focused, and then about every five or eight seconds, the table would tremble, and then more of this stuff would come off the ceiling of the garage, and it was very annoying. And I looked up over my mask at Mr. Bit and I said, “Monsieur Bit, qu’est-ce que c’est?” you know, “What is this?” And he looked back at me and said, “B-cinquante-deux.” Well, I couldn’t figure out what “B-cinquante-deux” meant. I was looking for a noun and a verb. And in the back of my head, it sounded like Lyndon Johnson trying to translate French. In my mind it was saying, “Bay sank on due,” “Bay sank on due,” What the hell does he mean? “Bay sank on due?” I don’t know what that is. And so, he could tell I didn’t understand him, and then he looked up over his mask and said, “B-52.” And what was happening was, there was a bombing run somewhere close enough to where we were, they were dropping those 500‑pounders, and it made the building shake, and then the pieces of plaster would fall off the ceiling into the field. And there were just all kinds of crazy things like that that happened.
COLLINS: Wow. That sounds really scary, and like the adventure of a lifetime.
TALMADGE: Really, there really was nothing heroic about it. It would have been heroic if I’d been there for a couple of years instead of a few months, and if I had… I just, you know, having seen heroism up close, like Mr. Bit, I mean, Mr. Bit was a heroic individual. He was a mythic figure in a lot of ways. And I was just sort of a tourist who managed to stay alive. But, well, and the guy that… Here’s the kind of crazy stuff that happened. The first death that I saw in the war—I may have told you this—I was walking to the hospital one day, or what passed for a hospital, it was just kind of a run-down building, and this gaggle of people are coming toward me and they’re saying, "[speaks in Vietnamese],” which is what the Vietnamese would call an American doctor, and this mother had her little boy in her arms, and it was a little boy probably five or six years old, and it was actually a corpse. Rigor mortis had already set in. This little boy had fallen into a well and drowned. And this distraught mother, with people all around her, you know, they run up to me, and she literally handed me the body of her little boy. And it was just, it was surreal. I mean, you’re in the middle of—and don’t get me wrong, I mean, there was a lot of gunfire and there were bombs and stuff, but it’s not like I was in combat—it just was, it was surreal to experience a death that just seemed so senseless and so meaningless. This little boy just fell into a well and drowned. That’s the kind of thing that you just don’t forget.
COLLINS: Yeah. That’s really powerful.
TALMADGE: The place was like a scene from a movie. This old junkie airplane flew into Quang Ngai, and that’s how I got back to Saigon to come home. And so, the guy that took my place got off the plane, we shook hands on the tarmac. The plane didn’t even shut the engines down. I mean, he got off and I got on, and that was the only time I ever saw him. But he didn’t come home. He was killed while he was over there. And so, you just get a sense of the fragile nature of life and the incredible random nature of existence itself. You know, how does one guy survive and somebody else doesn’t?
COLLINS: Yeah. Definitely. So, we’ve been talking for about an hour-and-a-half. I don’t know if you feel like there’s more that you want to discuss about your experience in Vietnam or anything else that you think might be relevant?
TALMADGE: No, I think that documents the overall picture, the scene. I know after we talked last time, I thought of a number of things afterward. But, I hope this narrative has been in some way informative or helpful. It may help somebody at some point who puts all of this together.
COLLINS: Well, I can tell you at the very least it’s helped me in a number of ways, both just thinking about what it means to be a Dartmouth student and learning a little bit about the Society of Friends, and just having a great conversation. Thank you so much, John. This has been awesome.
TALMADGE: Yeah, we’ll have to get a cup of coffee together somewhere down the road. That would really be fine. I think I said to you before, if you ever get through Dallas, you really got to look me up.
TALMADGE: And, did you tell me where you’re going to go after graduation?
COLLINS: Hang on, let’s wrap up the interview, and then… so I can stop recording.
TALMADGE: We can do that. But, I can’t think of anything else off the top of my head, but if anything we’ve said today prompts someone to contact me, I’d be glad to share any other observations or answer any questions that folks might have about those years.
COLLINS: Perfect. Thank you so much, John. I’m going to go ahead and stop recording.
[End of Interview.]