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This is the post excerpt.

I have been writing since I was six years old. I now have four novels and seventeen stories in print.

My first published book, Friendly Casualties, was a novel in short stories derived from experiences in the 13 years I trundled between the U.S. and Vietnam to provide signals intelligence support to U.S. Army and Marine combat units fighting in South Vietnam. The first half of the book is a series of short stories in which characters from one story reappear in another. The second half is a novella that draws together all the preceding tales.

No-Accounts came from my years of caring for AIDS patients. It tells the story of a straight man caring for a gay man dying of AIDS. I got into helping men with AIDS to help me cope with the horrors of Post-Traumatic Stress Injury. When I was with my patients, men suffering more than I was, my unbearable memories went dormant.

Next came The Trion Syndrome. It begins with the Greek Trion legend about a demigod so brutal to the vanquished that the gods sent the Eucharides, three female monsters, to drown him. The protagonist, Dave Bell, is haunted by half-remembered visions of the war in Vietnam. At his lowest point, he recalls that he killed a child. Dave considers suicide, but a young man appears and helps him. It is his illegitimate son, a child he had tried to kill through abortion, who now helps him find his way home.

Last of the Annamese was published in March 2017. I used this novel to confront my memories of the fall of Saigon from which I escaped under fire. Once again, the image of the boy-child recurs, as the protagonist, Chuck Griffin, a retired Marine, grieves over the loss of his son, killed in combat in Vietnam. He returns to Vietnam as a civilian intelligence analyst after the withdrawal of U.S. troops and encounters Vietnamese boys whom he tries to save during the conflagration.

 

No-Accounts: How the Novel Came to Be (5)

A reader asks: Is the character of Peter in No-Accounts based on a real person? Is the character of Martin based on me?

Peter’s character reflects the behavior of many gay men I met during my five years of taking care of AIDS patients. He has some of the characteristics of the more flamboyant gay men I knew. He even exhibits a few mannerisms of men that some in the gay community called “queens.” Peter is an extrovert writ large. He’s tall, good-looking, and used to being the center of attention in the gay world.  He has his own entourage of sycophants who flatter his ego.

Martin is not based on me. Some aspects of his character are an amalgam of buddies I worked with, but Martin, like me, is straight. He suffers the same hostility from gay buddies that I did. He is in many respects the opposite of Peter—introverted, quiet, lacking in self-confidence. And he has his own life problems not related to his role as a buddy.

So neither character is based directly on people I knew. I didn’t consciously create either of them. As always happens with me, they came to be as if from a muse, revealed themselves to me as I wrote, and stopped me if I portrayed them inaccurately. Both are men with obvious faults who nevertheless found the courage to meet the challenges of AIDS and triumph, even in death.

The last sentence from the blurb on the back of the books summarizes their story:

No -Accounts is a story of two men, one gay, one straight, who learn from one another how to become men by accepting loss, including, in the end, life itself.”

No-Accounts: How the Novel Came to Be (4)

At the beginning of  my novel, No-Accounts, is the following: “This book is dedicated to the men and women who fought so hard to stem the AIDS epidemic. Their courage and determination permanently changed me.”

The book, which opens in August 1985, tells the story of Peter, a thirty-one-year-old gay man dying of AIDS, and Martin, his straight middle-aged AIDS buddy.

Peter is tall and handsome—he reminds Martin of Michelangelo’s David. He has tried to make a career as a dancer but had to settle for working as a waiter. He wants to manage the disease on his own but is finally forced to ask for a volunteer buddy.

Martin is a middle-aged straight man, a music teacher at a local college. His wife has divorced him, and his teen-aged daughter won’t see him or talk to him. He’s now living in a joint house, sharing it with other men who live alone. He volunteers to be a buddy to AIDS patients after his favorite student, Johnny, dies of AIDS. When Peter sends him away after their first meeting, he decides to turn to liquor to soothe his hurt.

But Peter, out of food and so sick he can’t stay on his feet, contemplates dying without at least trying to atone for the death of Johnny, a sweet kid whom he infected. He telephones Martin and begs him to come back.

The rest of the book tells of the developing relationship between these two men who are so different from one another that they have trouble communicating. The first crisis comes when they discover that it was Peter who caused the death Martin’s favorite student, Johnny.

More tomorrow.

No-Accounts: How the Novel Came to Be (3)

During the five years from 1985 to 1990, I cared for seven AIDS patients as a volunteer buddy. All died. My team leader was diagnosed, came down with this disease, and died. By 1990, I was at the point that I couldn’t face yet another death.

Then medical science discovered ways, not of curing the disease, but of treating it so that someone infected could resume a more or less normal life. A diagnosis of AIDS was no longer a death warrant. We now knew how AIDS was transmitted—through the conduction of bodily fluids from an infected person into the body of another. People were no longer afraid to touch AIDS patients. More volunteers committed to helping patients. In effect, the crisis was over.

I moved on to volunteering for other causes. I worked with the homeless, the dying in a hospice, and sick and dying soldiers in a VA hospital.

My experience with AIDS patients had several results. First, I learned that I could face the danger of infection, just as I had faced the dangers of combat. Once when I was injecting a patient, I accidently stuck myself with the needle after it had been in the patient’s body. I waited the six weeks required for the virus to take hold, then had a blood test. No infection. A second test after twelve weeks certified that I was free of the disease. I had faced a danger as potentially fatal as combat and had come through unscathed. I had confronted the possibility of my own demise calmly.

Second, I had loved every one of my patients and had grieved over each death. Despite that, I kept going back and taking on new patients. I could face the death of a patient head-on.

Third, I learned that my biases, mostly unconscious, about gay men were wrong. These men, both the patients and the caregivers, were strong, resilient, and compassionate. The buddies, as the volunteer caregivers were called, were willing to put their own lives on the line to help the stricken. The sick faced their deaths with quiet courage and peaceful resignation.

I volunteered to help AIDS patients in part because I couldn’t stand to watch men dying alone on the streets and in part to help me cope with my own Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI). The experience changed me. While acting as a buddy helped me deal with my own unbearable memories, it also inflicted its own psychic wound. Just as I had turned to writing to get me through my struggle with PTSI, I did the same to cope with the shock and grief of seeing so many AIDS patients die. The result was my novel, No-Accounts, the story of a straight man caring for a gay man dying of AIDS.

I am a better man for having been a buddy. And what I had learned resulted in a novel. The book was recognized last year by the Eric Hoffer Awards. It is my only novel not about Vietnam. Some readers tell me it is my best book.

No-Accounts: How the Novel Came to Be (2)

None of the volunteers working with AIDS patients at the Whitman-Walker Clinic in the 1980s were medically trained. Our job was not to treat for the disease but to comfort our patients in any way we could. In effect, we were there to help them die as peacefully and painlessly as possible. To distinguish us from medical practitioners, we were called “buddies.”

We had monthly team meetings. I discovered at my first meeting that I was the only straight volunteer at the clinic. The others maintained their distance from me. I learned what it felt like to be the object of prejudice.

The purpose of the monthly meetings was to allow us to vent and support one another. More than once, I held a guy while he wept over the decline of his patient. We exchanged phone numbers and felt free to call one another when we needed to talk. By the second meeting I attended, the other buddies began treating me like one of them. Some months later, our team leader urged us to work with families of the patients and help them cope. One of out jobs, he said, was to show that even though we were homosexual, we were strong and competent men. “Take Tom, for example” he said. “He can demonstrate how a gay man is firm and dependable.” The others nodded.

The team leader had forgotten I was straight. So had the others. For the first time in my life, I felt honored to be considered gay.

More next time.

No-Accounts: How the Novel Came to Be

As noted earlier in this blog, I turned to helping others as a way of facing down my bouts with Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI). I found that when I was working with people who desperately needed my help, my hideous memories faded into the background. I worked in a VA hospital with sick and dying veterans, helped the homeless, ministered to the dying in a hospice for seven years. But I started with AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) patients. I worked with them for five years. I had seven patients. They were all gay, and they all died.

I volunteered to help these men when the AIDS crisis was at its peak in 1985. Back then, we knew of no cure or even life-extending therapies for AIDS. A diagnosis meant death. We didn’t know how the disease was spread. People were terrified of this gruesome malady. They avoided the infected. Men were left to die on the street because no one would go near them, let alone touch them.

By 1984, I had learned that if I banished my memories of combat and the fall of Saigon to my unconscious, they came back to haunt me in unbearable ways. My sole salvation in my struggle against PTSI was to face my memories head-on and learn to live with them. It was working, but it wasn’t enough. Some instinct in my soul pointed me towards helping others as a way to put my memories to rest.

At the same time, I read of men abandoned on the street to die. I couldn’t tolerate such cruelty. But maybe touching these men would cause me to contract the disease. I reasoned that if I was willing to put my life on the line to save the men fighting next to me in combat or to get my subordinates in Saigon safely out of the country, I could face this danger. I’d take every precaution, but I’d do my best to help these dying men.

I talked through the dangers with my wife. I told her that if I contracted AIDS, she would, too. She urged me to go ahead.

I volunteered at the Whitman-Walker Clinic in Washington, D.C., a health facility specifically established to help the gay community. I was immediately assigned a patient. My job was to take care of him in any way he needed. I cooked for him, fed him, bathed him, dressed him, even gave him injections. I used every safety device possible. I wore plastic gloves, showered before and after each time with him, washed my hands repeatedly. A few months later, he died. I wept at his funeral. I had grown to love him.

A medical check verified that I was free of the disease. The clinic assigned me another patient. My journey through the world of AIDS had begun.

Maryland Public Television Interview

My interview with Maryland Public Television reporter Nancy Zarroli will be aired on MPT tomorrow, Friday, 18 May, at 7:00 p.m. on the program State Circle.  You can view the MPT announcement: https://www.facebook.com/mptsalutesvietnamveterans/photos/a.943511799030117.1073741830.939363942778236/1663613857019904/?type=3&theater

If you get a chance to watch the program, let me know your reaction.

 

Where Am I Now?

Over the past two months in this blog, I’ve retold the story of the fall of Saigon, related my struggle with Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI), and written about my novel, The Trion Syndrome. The narration was as much for my own rethinking of where I am in life as it was to inform the reader.

The Eric Hoffer Award’s recognition of my novel set during the fall of Saigon, Last of the Annamese, as runner-up for first prize in general fiction, reminded me that the duty and privilege of the writer is to inform readers about facets of life they might never encounter except in books. I’ve lived through adventures and experiences—the fall of Saigon, coping with PTSI, working with the dying—few have faced. It is my mandate, my honor, my duty, my curse to let people know what each means.

My future lies in two novels I’m now working on. Josh at the Door, as one is called for the moment, explores passionate love between a man and a woman late in life. The other, Secretocracy, draws on my experience as an intelligence budgeteer who refused to approve an illegal operation and suffered the wrath of a presidential administration.

The latter was finished and ready to publish when the Trump administration took hold, and I realized I needed to reset the story to the present time. I’m now in the middle of the rewrite. The problem is that the story hinges on the Democrats’ success in the November elections, an outcome I can’t bank on.

The biggest problem I face in my writing these days is that I am a victim of my own success. To promote my books, I do presentations and readings. These events, especially my retelling of the fall of Saigon, have become so successful that I am doing more and more of them and have little time to write. Granted, I enjoy public speaking, and people who attend the presentations buy books. But my vocation is writing. One of my objectives for the month of May is to reshape my life to allow me time to write.

I’ll let you know what happens.