“The sad part is other guys are going there, and if I knew this, I wish I could tell them to be prepared. But I never knew this was going to happen. I never knew that I was going to have nightmares for the next 20 years. I didn’t know that this was going to happen. This is unbelievable,” veteran Arthur T. Baltazar once recounted of his time during the Vietnam War and his subsequent PTSD. Assigned to Engineer Hill, located near Pleiku City in the central highlands, the then 19-year-old was plopped right down in a combat zone, unaware of exactly how damaging the experience would be. “I watched buildings or barracks get rocketed,” he said, depicting the bloody ravages that would tear apart lives and haunt him for decades to come. “I found out when I would go to sleep, my body is here…in the United States. I’m in Chicago in my bed sleeping, but my brain is over in Vietnam.”
Post-traumatic stress disorder (affecting nearly 31 percent of all Vietnam vets) manifests in many forms. Sometimes the effects are minimal, but too often the individual loses a sense of reality, resulting in self-loathing and a lack of meaning or purpose. The spiral outward, often referred to as moral injury, disrupts one’s cognitive and behavioral states and ability to maintain healthy relationships. Singer-songwriter Ronnie Eaton, originally from Post, Texas, just south of Lubbock, draws upon his personal life for a concept album titled The Hand That Mocked Them and the Heart That Fed, which illustrates a marine’s return home after war and inevitable conflicts with family, friends and himself. “He tries to find spirituality and the people to help him find his purpose,” Eaton explained in an interview, adding the album’s core themes boil down to the tormented fragments “of the human condition.”
Initially intended as a collection of acoustic-style demos, the meager nine-track record reverberates off the narrator’s tortured memories, needled through stark production choices, mostly of guitar, oscillating drums and penetrating piano chords. Producer Aaron Dick (who also plays keyboard throughout) slams the listener with subtly, exchanging shrill rock uppercuts for gentle swerves and refined layering. “Just play,” Eaton told a band of players, which include Flatland Calvary’s fiddle and violin player Laura Jane Houle, Zoe Carter, Brian Duhan (Sugarwitch, The Goners), Craig Tally (The Hogg Maulies), Thomas Walker (The Shane Rogers Band), Jonathan Dunlap (formerly of No Dry County), Christa Atchison and Callie Weaks.
The album renders the cold brutality of war in an intimate space, Eaton singing through cracks of the narrator’s mental capacity and bearing the weight of re-traumatization and unsuspecting triggers. “I try to numb the pain / So, everything feels the same,” he confides on “Another War,” which was inspired by a friend’s disconcerting admission (“He said, ‘I would just feel more comfortable in another war,'” Eaton recalled). The narratives are framed to be as disconnected from himself as they are strangely personal ⎯⎯ Eaton’s encounters, reality and personal truth coloring in-between the lines of a much richer and poignant storyline. “I lost my wallet in Nashville / Lost my soul there to,” he observes on “Sleeping in Hell,” a glistening ditty serving to hammer home his unease with the world around him, foreign but familiar as it is. “I took a bottle of pills / Try to ease the pain,” he later details over glassy violin before admitting to spending a night in a Fresco jail cell, one of many barbed anecdotes Eaton shares on the record. “With all the wrong I’ve done, feel like I’m always on the run,” moments later he mourns on “We Sang Hallelujah,” a somber, gospel-tinged ballad. “We’re living proof that the good die young,” he sings in his quest for redemption from a higher power.
“Down Wind,” the album’s most malevolent structure, harkening to classic Townes Van Zandt, sees the singer clashing with his mental anguish and attempting to bury his demons once and for all. “This whole town’s bathed in blood,” he repeats periodically throughout the song, chilling and heartbreaking. “The houses made of gold / The murder of crows / Down wind,” he mutters against growling guitar licks, toying with the listener’s own disquiet and underlining the gravity of his mental state. “Ache and Longing” works as a sweet counterbalance, musically at least, lighter and fluffier, but maintaining a sturdy sinister bite. “Kill me with kindness / You know I won’t mind / Like lambs to the slaughter, we all say goodbye,” he sends up, prayer-like into the misty swirl of production. “To the mothers and the fathers that left us behind / There’s an ache and a longing / And a judge for your crime.”
“Inhale and exhale, it’s so hard to breathe / I’ve broken my ribs, and I’ve tasted defeat,” he cries out, willingly accepting his fate. A prominent theme threaded throughout the record, religion often arises through cloying uncertainty, doubt and dalliances with various vices ⎯⎯ “I’ve been holding on so tightly to things that I can’t see / Praying to the good Lord nightly, even though I don’t believe,” he concedes on “Devil in my Suitcase,” another brooding tune stacked with cutting guitar playing and burnt, charcoaled ends. Much to his effort to stop the vicious cycle, of abandonment, disorientation and turmoil, even with “Stars in Your Eyes” (a lamentation that home will only ever be “moving four walls,” he supposes over the rustle of cymbals and heady drums) and “South Hampton Rain” (“Everything is going to be OK,” he reminds himself), Eaton’s orbit is doomed to repeat.
The story has no ending, and the listener is left as melancholic as from the start, taking on his burden as their own and left to juggle the remnants of deep thought and humanity. The Hand That Mocked Them and the Heart That Fed is a solemn and earnest and genuine examination of a post-war veteran, and it is Eaton’s conviction that is most affecting of all.
Grade: 4 out of 5