Al Boright witnessed his first casualty in 1969, shortly after he arrived in Vietnam as an Army lieutenant. The 58-year-old Middlesex-based legislative counsel -- who was 23 at the time -- describes the experience in his new one-man show, Woodchuck Warrior: Journal of a Vietnam Vet. The show is a change of pace from both of Boright's regular jobs: by day, he writes Vermont's laws -- he personally produced six 100-page drafts of permit-reform legislation. By night, well, he's better known for his theatrical antics, playing a radio host in the semi-annual comedy variety show, The Ground Hog Opry.
In the two-hour Woodchuck Warrior, Boright weaves together anecdotes, letters, journal entries and songs to explore his mixed emotions about the war he fought more than 30 years ago. His witty narrative captures the moral ambiguity of war from a wisecracking soldier's perspective -- a particularly powerful and timely piece of theater as the country grapples with another controversial conflict, this time in Iraq.
Boright's memory of the first fallen soldiers he saw in Vietnam is typical of most of his recollections of Army life -- there's nothing black-and-white about it. He tells it as an anecdote, sitting on a chair in the center of the stage surrounded by a few props: a fold-up Army cot, the several hats and shirts he uses as costumes, and his guitar. He doesn't use any toy guns. "I don't have a rifle," he comments in an interview before the show's debut last weekend in Waterbury. "I hate guns."
He explains that the deadly firepower display was part of his unit's orientation. They watched as soldiers demonstrated the artillery, which might be called in to shell the enemy during battle. The explosions disturbed Boright, who opposed the war, but they also awed him. "It was a combination of Thunder Road and the Fourth of July," he quips.
He acknowledges that, at the time, he felt gratitude for the massive American guns. He recalls thinking, "This firepower might get me back to Vermont someday." But as a Blackhawk helicopter roared overhead, he saw it bank too steeply into a turn. It crashed. Both of the men on board were killed.
Telling this story, Boright leans forward in his austere wooden chair, his old soldier's face dominated by a mop of gray hair, a gray mustache and bushy eyebrows. Staring straight into the audience, he doesn't tell us what to think about it or how to interpret it. He says, simply, "Welcome to the front. Welcome to Vietnam."
Boright revisits this incident at the end of his show's first act, which details how he got to the war zone.
A Morrisville native, Boright won a scholarship to Harvard. During his senior year there, in 1968, he learned that his was the number-two name on the draft board list back home. He decided to enlist rather than be conscripted, in hopes of delaying his entry into the war. Despite his reluctance to fight, Boright never considered refusing to go. He explains that, as a Boy Scout, he had learned, "When you're put in a line, you stay in line... and when your turn comes, it's your turn."
Most of the show's funnier moments occur in the first act. Boright elicits laughs when describing his Army physical -- including an inspection by "the pecker checker." And he's not above resorting to physical comedy -- he pulls down his pants during the physical scene to reveal some white boxers covered in red lips and the word "Kiss."
Most impressively, he gives an athletic song-and-dance rendition of highlights from a musical he wrote during Officer Candidate School called "My Favorite Smart-Ass Candidate." Boright, who wrote his first musical in fifth grade, penned the lyrics while sitting on the backs of troop trucks. He dons several different hats during the mini play-within-a-play, to sing his own versions of "These Are a Few of My Favorite Things" (rewritten to include the Army's 14 traits of good leadership), and "If I Only Had a Brain" (a song about career Army officers, known as lifers).
But the comedy contrasts sharply with Boright's letters and journal entries. He reads one from February 13, 1969, in which he meditates on the assassination of Robert Kennedy, and confronts his own mortality. "I've been thinking lately about the possibility of actually dying," he writes.
Boright wisely places this heavy scene between a funny anecdote about watching patriotic training films and the performance of his mini-musical. The juxtaposition makes the piece both entertaining and poignant.
The second act has fewer comic interludes -- once Boright got to Vietnam, there was less to laugh about. In Act II, he describes the very unfunny process of planting Claymore mines, and explains how to call in artillery fire. The big downer is that he gets seriously wounded. Not surprisingly, though, he manages to find some scatological humor in his long recovery process.
He follows up the anecdote about his shooting with a song he wrote during his sophomore year at Harvard. "Oh, Daddy, Daddy, tell me," he croons, "what does it mean to kill? / Oh, Daddy, Daddy, tell me, what does it mean to die? / Our leaders can't be wrong, because God is on our side."
It's chilling to consider that as Boright sings about the past, U.S. soldiers are facing similar situations overseas. He says the timing was entirely coincidental.
Two years ago, his sister gave him some letters he sent her while he was in the service, and he started to write down some of his memories. The Ground Hog Opry was on hiatus this year, so he had time to put it all together. He says he didn't consciously intend the show to comment, even obliquely, on the war in Iraq, but he concedes that a comparison is inescapable. "I haven't been overtly current-events-focused," he insists, "but it's interesting how some of the stuff I wrote back in those days seems relevant today."
But Boright would prefer not to interpret Vietnam, or the current political climate, for his audience; he wants them to draw their own conclusions. "We're all trying to figure out what Vietnam means," he says. "I'm still trying to do that, too. Maybe just sort of putting my experience out there might add to the discussion. Maybe people can find meaning in it for themselves."
Vermont Supreme Court Justice Marilyn Skoglund, who has performed with Boright in The Ground Hog Opry, plans to see the show. She got to read most of his material in book form before he started performing it, and she describes it as both "hysterical" and "horrifying."
"It was stuff I had never known about him," Skoglund says. "It was, like, laugh-out-loud funny and then, like, 'Oh my God.' ...I'm assuming this is going to be a fantastic show."
Ground Hog Opry founder George Woodard helped Boright stage his performance. "It's pretty easy to stay with it," the plain-spoken farmer/actor says of Wood-chuck Warrior, "and -- it's not lawyer-talk at all." Woodard notes that, for someone like him who never served in the armed forces, it's "interesting to listen to."
Audiences will have a chance to catch a show over the next four weekends, as Boright marches his Woodchuck Warrior to Chandler Music Hall in Randolph, Mont-pelier City Hall and Hyde Park Opera House.
The Vermont vet hopes that by sharing his experiences, he'll be able to create something positive out of one of the most difficult times in his life. And regardless of how audiences react to his show, it's inspiring that he hasn't lost his sense of humor. Even after an emotional two-and-a-half-hour rehearsal performance, he can't resist cracking a joke about his solo sojourn: "I think the cast party is going to be just a drag."