Hey, Hey, LBJ! is only David Kleinberg‘s second solo theatre piece. But the 71-year-old has been preparing for his first Capital Fringe show his entire life. Once upon a time, the chant referenced in his show’s title continued, “How many kids did you kill today?” Half a century later, the scars of America’s most divisive foreign war remain.
At Fort Fringe Tuesday evening, Kleinberg wears a series of military ribbons on the left side of his chest and two round buttons on the right side. I ask him about the ribbons first.
“Those are just basically for being in Vietnam, but I like to consider them my medals of honor for serving in Vietnam,” he says. “And then on the other side I have my medals of honor for coming home to protest the war.”
The buttons are both faded with age. I have to lean in close to see that one of them reads “March with G.I.s Against the War, April 8th” — 1968 was the year, he says — and the other says “G.I.s and Vets March for Peace Oct. 12th”. Kleinberg spoke on the steps of San Franciso’s city hall on that date. His show includes a short video clip from that speech.
Kleinberg says he was in favor of the war when he arrived in Vietnam as an Army Combat Correspondent in 1966. His experiences had already began to change his mind before April 10, 1967, when a VC rocket struck the tent he was living in, killing and maiming several of his friends. Kleinberg was spared because he was on leave in Bangkok, Thailand the night of the attack. “I was engaged in other activities,” he says with a knowing look. One of the survivors of the rocket attack plans to attend one of his five Capital Fringe performances, he says.
Kleinberg was stationed with the Army’s 25th Infantry Division at Cu Chi — now a major tourist destination in Vietnam because of the extensive underground tunnels the Viet Cong were living and traveling in. “We didn’t know about those back then,” Kleinberg says.
A lifelong resident of San Francisco, he spent more than three decades as a writer and editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, retiring in 1994. He was pushing 60 when he decided to try his hand at stand-up comedy. “Comedians basically don’t like to work with anybody else,” he explains, making solo theatre an appealing next step.
Earlier in the day, he’d stood near the entrance of the Vietnam War Memorial handing out postcards to promote his show. He notes he did not approach anyone standing in front of the wall, a “reverential place.”
“People were constantly coming up to me to thank me for my service,” Kleinberg says. “That’s wonderful, and I appreciate it so much. But from where I am today, 50 years later, the service I am doing with this piece, to me, is just as important. It demonstrates how war taints everything it touches.”
Hey, Hey, LBJ! opens at the Goethe Institut Main Stage tonight at 8:45. Tickets, and a complete schedule of performances, are available here.