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Steve Mason, 65; Vietnam Veterans’ Poet Laureate

Times Staff Writer

Steve Mason, considered the poet laureate of the Vietnam Veterans of America, whose searching blank verse was read at the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, has died. He was 65.

Mason died of lung cancer Wednesday at his home in Ashland, Ore.

California Assemblywoman Patty Berg, who on Friday requested that the Assembly adjourn in his honor, said that although Mason was a proponent of Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act and had qualified for a lethal dose of barbiturates, he did not hasten his death.

Mason, who had lived in San Diego before returning to Ashland last year, testified in February before the Assembly Committee on Aging and Long-Term Care on behalf of a bill proposed by Berg, (D-Eureka), and Assemblyman Lloyd Levine, (D-Van Nuys,) to allow doctors to prescribe medication enabling terminally ill patients to hasten their own death. Oregon is now the only state with such a law.

“This isn’t suicide,” Mason told Time magazine in April when he described his legal acquisition of the Nembutal he never used. “I’ve lived my life with dignity. I want to go out the same way.”

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Never embittered by his service in Vietnam, Mason nonetheless struggled to make sense of his year of combat duty. Poetry became his method of expression.

“The Wall Within” was presented at the 1984 dedication of the Vietnam Memorial -- a long wall inscribed with the names of those who died in the war -- and was read into the Congressional Record. It said in part:

Most real men

Hanging tough

In their early forties

Would like the rest of us to think

They could really handle one more war

And two more women.

But I know better.

You have no more lies to tell.

I have no more dreams to believe.

Mason published three well-received books of poetry, “Johnny’s Song: Poetry of a Vietnam Veteran” in 1986, “Warrior for Peace” in 1988 and “The Human Being -- A Warrior’s Journey Toward Peace and Mutual Healing” in 1990. He also co-wrote with Joan Mahan a 1974 volume of love poems, “Moths and Violets of Vito and Me.”

The former soldier combined everyday words and striking metaphors to express deep feeling in a free verse, stream-of-consciousness style.

A Chicago Tribune reviewer described Mason’s poems in 1986 “as taut and graceful as they are soulful.”

“Though his poems tell stories,” she wrote, “rich in the daily details of war -- picnicking in the rain on lima beans and canned ham by the side of the Ho Chi Minh Trail for example -- they are essentially reflections on Vietnam’s moral lessons and imperatives.”

Mason often said, “The truth is, the only message I’ve taken from war is peace.”

With no rewrites, he churned out his poetry on an old Underwood typewriter, usually in a single sitting. But the seemingly quick writing was deceptive, he said, because the poems had been writing themselves in his head for years. The long poem “The Last Patrol” technically required only 14 hours to put on paper, he said, but had actually taken 17 years and 14 hours to create.

A private man, Mason disliked discussing his personal life with the reporters his literary fame attracted.

He was born in Brooklyn to musician parents, and moved about the country in his youth, joining the Army in 1960. He went to Vietnam six years later, and returned to the U.S. in 1967 determined to go back.

The Army sent him to officers’ training school, promising another tour in Vietnam. He became a captain, but in 1969 -- with no second tour in the war zone -- he left the Army.

The soldier had gotten divorced, blaming the breakup on post-traumatic stress disorder. Although he said the war gave him no alcohol or drug problems, he spent nearly two decades brooding in a Washington, D.C., ghetto before remarrying and turning to poetry.

Mason is survived by two daughters.

No services are planned.


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