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Don Shanley (Interview by Steve Sparks)

(Ed note: We are reprinting this 2009 Steve Sparks interview of Don Shanley, a long-time resident of the Anderson Valley who survived, just barely, some of the most intense combat in Vietnam.)

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I met with Don Shanley, known simply as “Shanley” to his friends, in 2009 at his house just south of Navarro. After a quick tour of the garden we sat down to talk in his spacious office from where he runs his business, ProSeed, specializing in landscape and erosion control.

Don was born in 1944 in San Francisco, the youngest of three boys, moving as an infant to what is now the last “fixer-upper” in Ross on Shanley Lane in Marin County. His father was an Irish immigrant from New York City and his mother from a long-time San Francisco family who had settled there in 1844, before the Gold Rush, when it was still called Yerba Buena and there were cows grazing on what is now Haight Street. When he was seven years old Don’s parents split up and a few years later his mother married Bud and the family moved to Chicago. “Bud was really my father in the sense that he was the male influence in my life — and what an influence he was. He was a Yale graduate (1923) and lived in Chicago where I was to attend junior high and high school. He kicked me in the ass and pushed me to be a better student. It was a big change for me, a much more formal existence. I had to leave my buddies and our BB guns and fishing in flip-flops and t-shirts to wearing a tie at dinner and serious study, although he also encouraged my swimming. Bud was excellent influence on us, a very cool guy. He even installed a bullet trap in the basement so I could continue to shoot. That made me cool with the other kids. Bud was very sarcastic and had a well-defined sense of irony. He was an old school gentleman, well educated but not a snob. His college roommate at Yale lived next to us in Marin and he’d come and visit his buddy and met my mother that way. Looking back if he had not come into my life I would probably have ended up as a surfer with a broken surfboard living under a bridge on Stinson Beach!”

Don attended New Trier High School which he enjoyed overall “thanks to the great teachers who went out of their way to encourage creativity.” He was an average student but a very good swimmer at a school known for its swimming program. He was not very social and when not studying or swimming he preferred to write poetry. This came about after reading Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ which came out in 1956 and caused quite a controversy. He graduated in 1962 and decided he wanted to see if his adequate academic achievements and swimming talents could stand up to the high standards at Stanford in Palo Alto. “I found out quite soon that I was out of my league. The swimming and study regimen that I maintained kept me focused but perhaps, with hindsight, it made college less fun than it might have been.” With a degree in history Don graduated in 1966 at a time when the Vietnam War was heating up. “The country was undergoing a very unsettling time. I had history professors in 1963 who lectured that JFK was on the right track establishing the Special Forces to fight insurgencies. I was reading Hemingway and wanted to experience the ‘social calamity’ of my times. I had a romantic view of war at that time.”

Don entered UC Berkeley Graduate School in the fall of 1966 to get his MBA. He finished his quarterly exams and soon after, with the draft taking 45,000 soldiers every month, his status went from 2S to 1A and he realized that he’d be signed up as a private in the army in 30 days if he didn’t enlist to be an officer. He applied for the Navy but was told there was a wait so “in the only truly existential act of my life” he crossed the hallway and applied for the Marine Corps Officer Candidate School where they signed him up immediately. “My brothers were both in the service and in my naiveté I wanted to ‘see the war.’ After my training in Virginia I came out as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Marines and was given command of a Rifle Platoon.” Soon thereafter Don was on the front lines in Vietnam. It was December 1967, the month before the Tet Offensive of 1968. “What followed was not one of the best years of my life.”

“I have many inconsistent views and thoughts about the war and don’t want to go into too much detail here. Another time perhaps. I do know that I had really terrific men and we were professionals. We were in the bush for eight months, running patrols and ambushes. We were between Laos and Khe Sanh, on Hill 861 Alpha, during the 75-day siege of Khe Sanh. We were on a small promontory surrounded by the 325th Infantry Division of the North Vietnamese Army, rumored to be 20,000 strong. They were very tough professional soldiers. They had walked from Hanoi. We had 42 men, backed up by another 120 or so a little way behind us. We were nowhere near any villages and you knew that whomever you saw was the enemy. It was never a case of having to work out who were soldiers and who were the villagers. I never did see any Vietcong during my tour. We were overrun on February 5th, 1968 but Khe Sanh held and ultimately the siege was lifted.”

“There was such a difference between being in the bush and the rear. There were 15 men in the rear for every one in the bush with his rifle, a little ammo, and a few grenades and two canteens. We were poorly supplied — little water, ammo running out, and insufficient medical supplies. When men returned to the rear after a 15-day patrol, filthy and stinking, they would steal whatever they thought they would need. If some Army Major said on a Tuesday that there was no milk available until Thursday these guys would tell the Major to get out of the way and just take the milk. We were not to be messed with and seeing the guys in the rear, well fed and with cold beers, did not make us happy. I am not whining. It was our job; we would do our very best. I only became pissed off years later.”

“People talk about the drug use among the soldiers. I never saw any at all in the bush. We just wanted new boots every three months and spent the time concentrating on covering each other. I lost most of my men, killed, wounded, or transferred in the 13 months I was there. I am in touch with a few of them but the only reunion I attended was for my class of 2nd Lieutenants. We had suffered the highest casualty rate in Marines Corps history. My class arrived just before Tet 1968 and was involved in some of the most intense fighting of the war. I was very lucky to only suffer a minor wound. I was not a career military guy and wanted out even though they tried to keep you in. For a time after my 13 months ‘In-Country’ I had a good gig in the Mediterranean dealing with paperwork and payroll but started to upset people with my stance with the Vietnam Vets against the War. This speeded up my eventual departure out of the service in March 1970. When Nixon invaded Cambodia — it was, ‘What the hell are we doing that for?’ It put me over the edge and I started to question it all.”

“I just wanted to get as many of my men home as possible. I was 22 with a lot of responsibility. Most of my men were under 20. When I got out I did not want to be some sort of ‘poster Marine’ attacking ‘the system,’ but after Khe Sanh I had become disillusioned. We had been trained to go up the hill, down the hill, through the hill. Here we were, being bombarded in rain-filled foxholes all day and under infantry attack at night. We were rarely on the offensive. It was all very mixed-up in my mind.”

“I have seen the Vietnam films and most have some redeeming qualities but 'Apocalypse Now’ is the best. Although the film is full of hyperbole, the soldiers’ dialogue written by Michael Herr is very realistic; to me as a grunt he captured the vernacular very well indeed. ‘Platoon’ isn’t bad, and some aspects of ‘The Deer Hunter’ are good too. The war doesn’t go away from you but it can be put aside and you have to move on. I am incredibly privileged that I am alive and that my brain functions. Even on my worst days it’s good to know no one is shooting at me.”

After leaving the military, Don settled in Stewart’s Point on the west Sonoma County coast where he spent “a very reflective and meditative year, smoking a lot of dope.” He worked for a time in a lumber mill pulling green chain, dove for abalone, grew a garden, and was even a lifeguard for the Sea Ranch clubhouse. He also hitchhiked across the country three times in that year. He found more steady work as the gardener at the Little River Inn where he stayed for five years. “My Mother, who will be 99 in November, said at that time, ‘Donald — four years in college, half a year at Graduate School, three years in the Marines — and you’re still mowing lawns’.” During this time Don became the County’s first certified organic gardener in 1972 and sold his produce to various restaurants, etc. He also worked as a prep cook at the Café Beaujolais in Mendocino.

He and partner Susan Waterfall really got into the back-to-the-land movement and bought four acres in 1971 on Albion Ridge. “We nearly bought what became the Handley Cellars property in Anderson Valley. I had been in the Valley as a child when my family would stay at Rays Resort in Philo. I actually learned to swim in the Navarro River in 1948! Anyway, Susan was a classical pianist, among many other things, and thought she would get more piano students on the coast, so we bought there instead. I worked as a garden designer/landscape contractor for ten years but could never get anyone to do the hydroseeding on my landscape garden jobs. As a result, many years later, in 1983, I eventually founded ProSeed specializing in restoration, erosion control and hydroseeding. Susan and I split up in the mid-70s and I moved to Westport for four years and also lived on Greenwood Ridge but kept working in the same field. During these years I was writing and giving public poetry readings. My favorite one was at the Club Fort Bragg in 1978 that was critically acclaimed and could be said to be an important part of my local past. By 1980 I had become caretaker for Kris Kristofferson’s ranch in Elk. I still am. My ‘hermit’ period came to an end. That was a great place to live.”

Don thought he’d never get married. ‘I’d spent many years in the 70s in very volatile relationships and traveling a lot. There was lots of drama and risk taking. I’d take risks for fun and that is not really the way to go. I was living quite a reckless life, involved in the film business, and traveling all over the world.” In the mid-80s, having known Laura Quatrochi for a few years but only by phone in a business context. She is a botanist who grew and sold wildflower seeds for oldest American seed producer in Lompoc in southern California. They finally met and fell in love. They were married in 1991. “We lived on the Kristofferson Ranch before buying this property in the Valley in 1989. We worked on the roads, the pond, clearing the brush, and planting trees before moving here almost full-time in 1992. Laura puts up with me. She is brilliant and has enormous energy. We both do. We didn’t have kids, never had the time it seemed. Our two cats died and we never replaced them because we love the birds and lizards around our home. I swear the lizards know me. We’d love to get a dog but we travel too much at this point so it would not be fair to the dog.”

Don’s company, ProSeed, continues to be a success. If you see guys working on repairing/restoring the land following any highway, bridge, creek, pond, etc work in these parts (and ten other counties!) then it is very likely Don and his crew. “We bid for work from the State, the Feds, and private land owners and I love the scale of our jobs. It’s exhilarating to see 50 acres recovering from some construction project, covered in native grasses, lupines, willows, poplars… I’d do it until I was 90 if I could and I still learn something virtually every day. My crewmembers are union workers and earn good money. I love the camaraderie we have. I am on every job and we bust our ass and do a good job. The guys get it. We are professionals and that’s very important to me. I suppose I do get a little ‘Marine Corps’ on them sometimes but they understand me and hopefully my enthusiasm rubs off on them. It has been very satisfying to see all the hard work pay off, for both myself and for Laura in her business too.” (Wildflowers International, Inc./

Don continues to shoot skeet with friends, dive for abalone, and occasionally “harvest deer.” “It’s not really hunting around here. I also love the air here and as a runner that’s important. I love the mix of cultures we have and there is a good community here to be a part if you want that, but if you wish to live a more secluded lifestyle then nobody will bother you either. There is little to dislike here although the traffic has increased greatly and the gossip is a little too much occasionally but it’s sort of funny I must say. I sometimes think there is an attitude held by some people here that it is not ‘right’ or politically correct for businesses to do well. Just a thought.”

I asked Shanley (I think I can call him that after being at his home for a few hours!) for his responses to various hot-button issues that Valley people frequently discuss. 

The AVA? “I have always been a supporter and was very disappointed when Bruce left for that period a few years ago. Sometimes what is written is not necessarily true although I seem to be on Bruce’s side of any topic 99% of the time. He did pick on some people unmercifully but again I agreed with most of what he wrote. The paper is a terrific service to the Valley and I love the Valley People and Turkey Vulture local pages. When I think of what is sometimes written I agree with Walt Whitman who said it was ‘The duty of writers (poets) to cheer up the slaves and horrify the despots’.”

The wineries? “Well, I’ve always liked a good Pinot Noir. No, seriously, the big issue is the water. It is not just a cliché. It is a serious issue. I was an avid steelhead fisherman and while it’s not all the wineries’ fault, they have been getting their water from somewhere and the fish have gone. They must pay greater attention to where their vines go. I drink wine and we have some wonderful wines in the Valley. Their being here has driven up the price of housing and their tasting room employees cannot afford to buy homes in the area, not to mention the families who work in the fields. Teachers can’t either. However I’d rather see one more winery than another Holmes Ranch with 70 or whatever parcels of 20 acres each with the all the roads this would require for retired dentists to get around. Sheep and apples are great but are no longer viable. I guess I’m a mixed bag of opinions on this.”

KZYX public radio? “I really don’t listen; maybe once in a while. It is sort of a pesky fly on my ear. Shouldn’t there be some sort of workshop for the presenters to learn how to present a show and work the equipment? It does remind me of the radio club in school.”

Knowing that he had pretty much traveled the world apart from sub-Sahara Africa, I asked Shanley if he thought he might live somewhere else in the future. “When I’m really old, stumbling around, maybe I’d move to San Francisco. I also love the Mediterranean countries and Buenos Aires in Argentina would be a good place for the final days if I were terminally ill. However, if I was in good health then Anderson Valley would be great.”

I posed the usual few questions to Shanley from a list originally devised by French Interviewer and Culture Expert, Bernard Pivot, and featured on television’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton.”

Favorite word or phrase? “That’s tough for someone who likes to play with words. I guess I like the word ‘enthusiasm’ and all that it can mean and lead to.”

Least favorite word or phrase? “Racial expletives do not go real well with me.”

What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally? “Absolute silence. I do like a couple of days to myself now and again. Some quiet time with no agenda.”

What turns you off creatively, spiritually or emotionally? “Passive-aggressive people. I’m afraid I don’t have any pithy, crackling replies for some of these questions.”

Sound or noise you love? “All water noises, particularly really major, scary storms and the rushing of a river. The sounds of the ocean too.”

Sound or noise you hate? “Wounded people dying. It is not crying, it is a stammering, guttural sound before they die. And there is no worse smell on earth than that of rotting human flesh. On a vastly lesser level, more nauseating than hated, it would be boom boxes or a malfunctioning piece of equipment on Day One of a big job.”

Favorite curse word? “I have really tried to cut back on this, I used to say the ‘f’ word a lot but it’s probably ‘Oh shit’ more these days.”

Is there a film/song/book that has greatly influenced you in some way? “I love Bach; early Dylan affected me as did the ballads of John Coltrane. They have always been really good for my brain. The lyrics and voice of Leonard Cohen. The country/folk music of John Prine and Kris Kristofferson. ‘Birth of a Nation’ is a film I always remember and Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s ‘Apu Trilogy’ of movies — full of amazing artistic moments. ‘Apocalypse Now’ of course. As for a book, any poetry by William Carlos Williams has stayed with me, as have the writings of poet Gary Snyder.”

Favorite hobby? “I love to run, to shoot, to dive and snorkel, and to read, in no particular order.”

Profession other than your own you’d like to attempt? “An arbitrageur, in economics and finance. Someone who takes advantage of a price differential between two or more markets: striking a combination of matching deals that capitalize upon this imbalance, and realizing the profit from the difference between the market prices. Or maybe just a fishing guide in Idaho!”

Profession you’d not like to do? “A 2nd Lieutenant in Vietnam! No, er, any kind of job involving me being in a cubicle. I’d end up in the Federal Penitentiary in weeks, it would be torture to me.”

Happiest day or event in your life? “Well, I was extremely happy when I got on a plane and left Vietnam for good. Actually I did return to Khe Sanh a few years ago with the Peace Trees Movement, clearing out unexploded ordinance and planting trees. I planned to go up Hill 861-Alpha, now a coffee plantation, but something told me not to. The irony of being blown up over 30 years after being in combat there was not lost on me and I decided to observe from the base of the hill. The visit was quite something and I am still processing it. On a daily basis waking up and knowing I am with Laura makes me very happy indeed.”

The saddest? “I have rarely been sad exactly but I have had lengthy periods of depression and melancholy. I was not sad at losing men in the war, rather it was very hurtful. Losing my Grandfather (he was 104) was also hurtful. I would be sad if Laura was not here.”

What is your favorite thing about yourself, physically, mentally, spiritually? “My enthusiasm.”

Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “Shanley? Are you kidding?”

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Don was in some ways reticent to talk in great detail about his Vietnam experience but since our meeting I discovered this insight: The editor of ‘Red Clay,’ the magazine of the Khe Sanh Veterans Association has written, “I was privileged to have fought alongside Don Shanley when our position on Hill 861A was attacked by a large NVA force on February 5, 1968. His heroic actions are the sole reason that so many of us were able to return home to our families. For that, and for his work in Vietnam with Peace Trees, I want to say ‘Thanks’.” 

One Comment

  1. Andy Jones June 7, 2021

    Thanks for the reprint of this interview Steve! I missed it in 2009.

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