The Slate columnist has long based his skepticism about spitting incidents on the research of Jerry Lembcke, a College of the Holy Cross professor who likens spitting stories to urban legends. Lembcke is a Vietnam vet who became active in the anti-war movement after coming home. He contends the myth took hold in popular culture several years after Saigon fell.
Shafer made contact with Delmar Pickett Jr. , a Vietnam vet from Kansas who was interviewed by CBS TV newsman Morton Dean. Pickett told CBS he was spat upon at the Seattle airport while in uniform -- a story he repeated for Shafer last week. The CBS broadcast aired on Dec. 27, 1971, before the war ended, and long before the professor published his research casting doubt on accounts of spitting.
"Pickett's personal history challenges the work of Jerry Lembcke, the author of the 1998 book Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam, who holds the spat-upon-vet story is an 'urban myth' that took root in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It also challenges the half-dozen columns I've written in support of Lembcke's thesis."
That's Shafer, who added the spitting stories had "greater currency in those early years than Lembcke allows." He was respectful of Pickett, who recalled some of the details, but not all, because the passage of time had influenced his memory a bit. Said Shafer:
"I have no reason to believe Pickett is lying, even if his two recountings of that day in 1971 don't match up perfectly. I'm no human lie detector, but his telephone manner seemed remarkably relaxed and candid for somebody getting a call from the press out of the blue. What argues in favor of Pickett's claim over say, Minarik's (another vet from the era), is that a document shows that he made it in the year in happened. And unlike Minarik, he's not making any political hay with it. It's just one soldier's story."
Anyhow, Pickett put it best about rooting around memory banks and recapturing what it was like to live through a time when the nation was more sharply split than today over the prosecution of an unpopular war.
"Memory tends to blur. Things you think happened didn't. Things you think didn't, did. Time softens everything."
H/T BizzyBloglog and the proprietor, Tom Blumer, for passing along Shafer's follow up in Slate.