Features, Harbor View, People

“The value of life means a lot to me”

Calip Stephens sits on small pier in a hidden boat landing in Harbor View just off Lake Michigan on an early Friday morning. Stephens is up before the sunrise and, it seems, before the fish, as well; his two poles, two lines cast, heed no bites.

Stephens was born in 1950 in East Chicago, Indiana, about 15 miles outside Gary. Back then, he says, the fishing was a little easier. “Oh, it was boomin’, the livin’ was nice,” he says.

Formerly a heavily industrial city, Gary fell on hard times when the jobs disappeared. By the time Stephens decided to leave, it was on the decline. “The steel mills were at half-staff and the streets were riddled with drugs and murders — it was just chaotic.”

But when he was young the pay was good, things were cheap and the education was top-notch — the teachers were “of a high caliber,” says Stephens. “You learned if you wanted to learn. If you got cut short, you cut yourself short.”

Stephens and his two siblings — a younger brother and older sister — were raised in a strict Christian family. They went to church every week and were taught to “respect people no matter what race, creed or color.”

“How can I put it?” he pauses. “I can really say [it was] perfect. But I got my share of scoldings and my share of discipline.”

Though twelve years apart, his father and mother were both hardworking, “old-fashioned” parents. The both worked for Inland Steel, one of the three large industrial employers in town. His father worked in the mill but retired after 45 years as a foreman and his mother was one of the first women to work at the company in 1965.

“They provided us with the best,” says Stephens.

Though Stephens and his brother had the occasional spat as children, he says he’s grateful for the closeness his family has. They acknowledge each other’s birthday, talk on holidays and are there to help when someone needs a hand; his sister still lives in Gary right next to their mother.

“It’s just wonderful,” he says of their relationship. “My parents, man, I can just give ‘em a thumbs up all the way around the board.”

After high school, Stephens tried to get into college although he admits he “wasn’t … really college material.”

“And, when I was on my way to try to get into college, I was drafted.”

Support these stories, become a member of milwaukeestories.org

Calip Stephens sits on a pier in a small inlet of Lake Michigan.

“We were lost in the system, forgotten”

Stephens missed the draft so he had to enlist. He was in Lansing, Michigan, when he got a call from his mother — the FBI had come by their house. So, that very next Monday, Stephens went to the federal building to sign up.

“I forgot,” he says. “You know, bein a young teenager, fresh out of high school, I forgot to … register.”

“Instead of doin’ two years, I did three years.”

And, though he was trying to avoid it, Stephens ended up in Vietnam. He says when he got there his ‘MOS’ (Military Occupational Specialty), which was clerical services, was ignored and he “ended up on the front line out in the boonies,” anyway.

Eventually, Stephens was injured and ended up being a gunner for a transportation unit. “It was rough,” he says of gunning. “But it wasn’t as bad as it was when I was in the bush.”

Stephens says what sticks out the most from that time was seeing his “fellow man,” men he had never met before get killed. He remembers the friendships he made with blacks and whites, alike — the brotherhood of it — and waking up every morning to the “stench of death.”

“I still have flashbacks of the shadows lurking in the mist,” says Stephens, who is still trying to make sense of it all. But he can’t. “To this day, I still don’t know what it was all about — economics, I believe,” he says.

Stephens left Vietnam in 1971 and left the service in 1972. But, for him, the story doesn’t stop there. He went home but “stayed incognito” for about eight months, hardly associating with anyone. Stephens was unemployed for about four years.

The VA Hospital “somewhat tried to help me … to gather reality.” It kind of worked, he says. Kind of.

“The feeling was fear,” says Stephens. “When I came back, people thought of me as a baby-killer and I was ostracized, not only bein’ black but then [for] bein’ a Vietnam veteran.”

“[People] didn’t understand what we had to face, what we were goin’ through — kids tryin’ to kill us,” he says. “And … we couldn’t explain it to ‘em ‘cause we did what we had to do for survival.”

Stephens turned to drugs and alcohol — it was his “way out,” his way of coping with the pain and uncertainty. But what was, at first, an ‘answer’ for Stephens eventually ended up destroying his first marriage.

“It was just by the mercy and the grace of god that I didn’t die,” he says.

In 1994 Stephens got clean — he and his wife had moved to Milwaukee in ‘85 looking for a change of scenery. At the time, it didn’t work but he stayed.

In Milwaukee, Stephens was finally able to collect on the veteran benefits he’d had trouble securing while in Gary. In Indiana, Stephens couldn’t even get 10 percent of his benefits. In spite of injuries to his head and back, the PTSD and “a bad rash from the Agent Orange” — the defoliant used by the U.S. Army to destroy the South Vietnamese bush, which served to hide the enemy — he didn’t receive 100 percent benefits until 2012.

“It makes me feel used and abused that they knew years ago that that defoliant caused diabetes — not only that but skin rash, different forms of cancer,” he says.

Stephens says veterans developed liver and other sorts of cancer, as well, but the government continued to claim these effects were the result of drug use. Stephens also lost a child, which he attributes to the Agent Orange. “It was just terrible,” he says of it all.

Support these stories, become a member of milwaukeestories.org

Even though Stephens isn’t 100 percent, himself, he says he’s a lot better, now. “I’m still going through readjustment but I’m really a whole lot better than where I was when I first came back.”

He eventually got remarried to a woman who he describes as “[a] godsend” and who he says really helped him through a lot of the hardships he’s had to deal with. “She understands my situation,” Stephens says.

At this point, Stephens, who has found some satisfaction in traveling, is simply looking forward to making his first trip to Europe. “What I’m waitin’ on is for us to go to England when she retires,” he says. “She’s been to Paris and everything but I’ve never been [anywhere] but over to Vietnam and Japan and Alaska. I would like for me and her to go to England together, as a husband and wife, and just live it up.”

 

Did you find value in Calip’s story? If so, please subscribe to our newsletter; we publish the story of a different Milwaukeean every week.

Milwaukee Stories is a nonprofit organization that works to bring you the real stories of regular people all across our city. This work is solely supported by individual contributions from people like you. Please consider becoming a sustaining member, or make a one-time donation, today.

Patron | $3 monthly (or $50 one-time) donation
Member | $7 monthly (or $100 one-time) donation
Partner | $25 monthly (or $500+ one-time) donation