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.
I had the piano appraised. It’s price, new, was $85,000.
I learned later where Susan got the money to buy that piano. It came from her share of her mother’s estate. The house I had bought for our family in Crofton, Maryland, was the only thing of value my ex-wife still had at the time of her death—she had long since gone through my savings she acquired during the divorce. It was a lovely large home at the end of a cul-de-sac on an oversized wooded lot that backed onto the Crofton golf course. The big yard gave the children plenty of safe space to play in. During our years in that house, I had worked hard to improve it. The result was an increase of its value.
As I learned later, after I left the marriage, my ex-wife neglected the house. When the time came for the children to sell it, its value had declined due to disrepair. They sold it as-is because none of the four of them had the time or money to restore it.
Susan used the money she inherited from her mother, from the sale of the house, to buy me the Steinway. She’s never told me why, but I think I’ve figured it out.
At the time of the divorce, one of my four children sided with her mother. The others, Susan included, were either neutral or sided with me. I speculate that when Susan found out that her mother had arranged for her sister to be brought into the courtroom just as I took the witness stand and I refused to testify against her mother, she was angry. My conclusion is that Susan used her share of her mother’s estate to buy me the Steinway as a way of evening the imbalance.
The end result is that I own the most beautiful grand piano I have ever played.
More years passed. One day, my daughter’s husband called me and asked me to come to their house right away. I explained that I was in jeans and a tee-shirt and would have to bathe and dress. No, he said, come as you are. He gave no explanation.
Alarmed, I hurried to their place. As soon as I arrived, they told me to get in their car. We were going somewhere. No explanation of where.
We drove into Washington, D.C., and I remarked that we were getting close to the Kennedy Center. Once there, my daughter and her husband escorted me through the stage entrance to the Eisenhower Theater. The theater’s stage was filled with Steinway grand pianos. I learned that the Kennedy Center was replacing its pianos and was selling off the old ones.
My daughter urged me to try the pianos and decide which one I liked best. The prospect of playing all those pianos excited me, and I set to work. I found one that thrilled me with the beauty of its sound. I tried others but kept coming back to that one. I realized that this was the instrument I had played in the lounge and fallen in love with.
That piano now sits in my living room. Susan had brought me there to select my favorite which she then proceeded to buy for me.
I mentioned several days ago that my daughter, Susan, bought me my piano, a magnificent six-foot Steinway. That story of how that came to be is worth retelling.
It starts with my divorce from my first wife, the mother of my four children. During the hearings, my wife had testified about me and offered evidence why she should be awarded the lion’s share of out joint holdings. I had just taken the witness stand to tell my side of the story and recount her misdeeds when I spotted a neighbor coming into the courtroom with one of my daughters. I clammed up. I wasn’t about to narrate my wife’s considerable failings and egregious acts before one of her children.
I learned later that my wife had arranged for one of my children to be present during my testimony. She believed, correctly, that I would not level severe criticisms against her with one of her children listening. The end result was that I lost everything. My wife was awarded all our property, and I had to pay alimony. I was destitute. I was reduced to living in a rented attic in a joint house with five other men.
Over the years, I gradually regained financial equilibrium. Then my ex-wife died suddenly. I was free of the onerous alimony.
Meanwhile, my oldest daughter, Susan, now an adult, and I subscribed to the ballet series at the Kennedy Center every year. Often, before the performance, we would visit the opera house lounge. We would arrive early in the evening before the hired pianist was on duty. I’ve never been able to resist a playing a piano sitting idle and waiting for attention, so I asked if I could try the Steinway grand that was in the lounge.
Over the years, I tried a number of different pianos. One I played enthralled me. It had the most beautiful sound I had ever encountered. I played it before each of the performances that season. The next season, it was gone—replaced by another piano.
Today, I return to my series of posts on music and the peace it brings to me.
I try to carve out time from my overloaded schedule to play the piano every day. I favor Mozart because of the excellence of his music. I’d play more Bach, the greatest composer who ever lived, if I could, but his music is for the most part too difficult for me, and I don’t have time to practice the hours required to play him well. I also play Beethoven, Satie, Chopin, and some of my own compositions.
Listening to music brings me peace and an escape from the torments of Post-Traumatic Stress. But playing music lifts my soul. The process of using my hands and feet to make the notes on the page in front of me come to life transforms me. I become totally absorbed in the ebb and flow of a master’s aural creation. The panic attacks, irrational rages, nightmares, and flashbacks are left behind.
Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI) I have always with me. It will never fade or weaken. But my soul is stronger than the disease. I rise above it. And making music gives me a peace and fulfillment available nowhere else.
I interrupt my series on Music and Peace to go back to a subject of a few days ago. I expressed my outrage at Trump’s suggestion that a mass shooter did the deed because he suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI), commonly referred to as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). As I explained, I call it an “injury” as opposed to “disorder” because it’s a condition caused by an external wound to the soul, not the mind going awry from internal malfunctions.
Today the New York Times published an op-ed on the subject. I quote it below:
|Lauren Katsenberg. At War editor
|Last Friday, while speaking to reporters about the Thousand Oaks shooter, President Trump insinuated that the gunman’s actions may have been a result of military-related mental-health issues. “He saw some pretty bad things,” Trump said. “And a lot of people say he had the PTSD. That’s a tough deal.”
|People within the military and veterans community were angered by the president’s comments, which risked reinforcing stereotypes about veterans being ticking time bombs, susceptible to committing violent crimes. We asked readers to tell us about stereotypes they have encountered about veterans and post-traumatic stress disorder and the ways in which they have challenged them. Below is a selection of responses.
|People Can Be Dismissive of the Severity of His Illness
|My husband has PTSD. Together, we own a small business, so we have many opportunities to show what PTSD can look like. People expect him to look unkempt, confused and messy in dress and appearance. When he doesn’t fit “the look,” people, including health care providers, can be dismissive of the severity of his illness, so we are to be more open about our private struggle. While we have so far been reluctant in sharing too much, we are increasingly trying to discuss these issues with our children, as well as their teachers and peers. — Niki Leffingwell, Missoula, Mont.
|Most of Us Are Dealing With PTSD Pretty Well
|I keep my PTSD to myself for the most part, because people seem to clam up when I let it out. What people don’t realize is that most of us are dealing with PTSD pretty well, even if it sometimes takes drugs and therapy to get by. But it is sometimes very hard to watch the world go about its business as if nothing ever happened, when there’s a whole group of people who are suffering in relative silence and watching the rest of the world be happy and get rich. — Roger Johnson
|We Serve Our Nation Out of Uniform, as We Did Before
|I am a combat veteran who, by virtue of my role in health care, saw the impact of violence and war every day I was deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. I have PTSD, yet I have an incredibly meaningful life after service without issues of violence. I have many friends who have served as well and who also have PTSD. We continue to serve our nation out of uniform, as we did before. Many of us have shifted to saying “PTS” and removing the “D” to eliminate the “disorder” and move to the cause of the stress. That’s a simple but practical example that anyone can do to take a stigma and help eliminate it. — Richard Morton, Ponte Vedra, Fla.
|We Are Just as Human as You Are
|I see no connection between the service and violent crime myself, but I can easily see how uninformed people can make that knee-jerk connection. Just because you have familiarity with a tool, people can presume you are prone to using it, and this is not true. We are just as human as you are; we just have a different and more professional experience with life and death, all of us. I talk about what it was I did, particularly the places and events, because those bring meaning to people who have an ability to listen. I draw intentional comparisons between the military and the first responders whom people are around everyday and trust with their safety and security. It’s no different, this relationship, save for the fact that the police, E.M.T.s, doctors and car companies kill far more people than the military does, year in year out. — Chris McFarland, Toms River, N.J.
|I Am Open and Honest About My Experiences
|I believe a lot of people see combat veterans as “damaged goods.” They look at servicemen and servicewomen as a certain warrior class, and once veterans are done with their time in service, they are seen as a liability. I am open and honest about my experiences. My past has made and almost broke me. I have received inpatient mental-health therapy and given speeches with the president of the United States in attendance. I received a diagnosis of PTSD, but with help from the V.A., I was able to work for a United States senator and finish my undergraduate degree. I currently work for the National Park Service, am married, have a beautiful son and am enjoying life. — Joe Bykowski, Westhampton, Mass.
|I’ve Had People Ask if I’m Scared He Will Hurt Me
|I’m married to a decorated disabled combat veteran with PTSD. I’ve had people ask if I’m scared he will hurt me, ask if I’m afraid he will “snap” and make statements implying that they believe because he’s been in a war zone and has PTSD that he must have violent tendencies. I always respond that the only thing I ever fear is that he will take his own life. Veterans are more likely to die by suicide than to harm others. — Page G. Whorl, Cambridge, Md.
My captivation with music continued throughout childhood. I taught myself to play the piano before I was ten and finally scraped together the funds to buy an ancient upright as a teenager. In college, I began with a major in theater—I wanted to be an actor—but soon switched to music. I composed reams of pieces and studied composition, voice, and conducting. After college I formed and directed folk groups in churches. I was attracted to the folk genre primarily because I found the standard hymns mostly to be stodgy and of low aesthetic quality. I learned to play the guitar so I could lead the players, and I arranged the music we played and even composed new folk hymns. On the wall of my office is a photo of one group I led. It shows thirteen people including three of my daughters and a complement of instruments that includes guitars, a flute, and a clarinet for which I wrote arrangements.
During my thirteen years on and off in Vietnam, my devotion to music never flagged. I even formed folk groups for the small English-speaking Catholic congregation in Saigon. After our defeat in 1975, I came to depend more than ever on music to help me cope with Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI). I found that the complexity of Bach and the grace of Mozart did more to soothe my anguished soul than any other remedy I tried.
Some years ago, my oldest daughter, Susan, bought me a six-foot Steinway grand piano. Where she got the money is another story to be told here at another time. That piano is the most glorious instrument I have ever played—I selected it from a collection of Steinways. It has been the source of much peace and joy ever since.
Throughout this blog, I’ve often mentioned my struggle with Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI). I’ve talked about my methods for coping with the malady. I’ve written about my success in living with the condition. What I haven’t mentioned is the contribution of music.
My fascination with music goes back to childhood. Quite early, I came to realize that the logic inherent in music does not apply to any other facet of human life. That discovery paralleled my learning that language rules varied from one tongue to another—Italian and French, languages I taught myself as a child, used systems of thinking similar to each other and to English but not identical. My appreciation for the variance in language logic ballooned when I studied Asian languages.
What I didn’t understand as a child was the common factor of sound and pitch that music and language shared. Only when I worked with tonal languages did I comprehend that, for example, the meaning of the sentence “That’s right” depended on the intonation of the speaker. That is, a rise in the voice on the word “right” altered the meaning from a statement to a question.
In other words, I discovered as a child that the rigorous rules of logic changed depending on the milieu. Mathematical logic was accurate for dealing with numbers but didn’t work for aesthetic or spiritual reasoning.
In short, music and language taught me as a child that the rules for accurate thinking varied with the subject of thought. Only later did I realize that music can offer peace.