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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.

To be published in March 2017 is Last of the Annamese. 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.

 

The Days of the French in Saigon

When I first arrived in Saigon in 1962, it was still in many ways a French city. Thousands of native Frenchmen still lived there, and French was spoken at least as commonly as Vietnamese. I even met native Vietnamese who were more comfortable in French than in their native tongue. These were principally members of the aristocracy and the royal family who grew up speaking French rather than Vietnamese, which they considered uncivilized. The main street downtown was called Rue Catinat, named after a French warship. It was lined with elegant and expensive shops and eateries where only French was spoken.

Over the years, I watched Saigon shed its French trappings. Rue Catinat became đường Tự Do, that is Freedom Street. The trendy shops and bistros were replaced by honkytonk bars and greasy spoon restaurants catering to the thousands of American GIs thronging through the city. Saigon became livelier, more crowded, down-to-earth.

I haven’t been back to Saigon since the North Vietnamese conquered the south in 1975. They changed the name of the city from Saigon to Hồ Chí Minh. Tự Do Street became đường Đồng Khởi, which I’m told means “total rebellion” or “total uprising,” but none of my dictionaries and source books verify that definition.

I watched Saigon go into decay as the North Vietnamese closed in. I watched it go into chaos as the siege began. Guidebooks now describe it as a teeming metropolis. Maybe so. It’s hard for me to imagine.

Interview at the Veteran Oral History Collection Day

Yesterday, veteran Larry Burbank interviewed me as part of the Veteran Oral History Collection Day at the Community Media Center, Carroll County, Maryland. Larry was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam while I was on the ground collecting intelligence against the North Vietnamese regulars as well as local forces and guerrillas—what we Americans called the Viet Cong or VC.

Larry asked me questions that led to the telling of the story of the fall of Saigon in April 1975 and my escape under fire. As so often happens, my emotions got the better of me at several points in the story, but Larry was patient and understanding. He asked me about the most exciting time during my nearly thirteen years in Vietnam, and I told of the battle of Dak To in 1967 and how I warned the commander of the U.S. 4th Infantry Division that the North Vietnamese had a multi-division force hiding in the hills, ready to ambush and attack the division and the 173rd Airborne Brigade which was operating with it. The commander didn’t believe me and did nothing to prepare. When a B-52 strike brought large secondary explosions near the Dak To Special Forces camp, he sent a single battalion to investigate. That battalion was all but destroyed. That led to the battle of Dak To, one of the largest and bloodiest in the war.

I was up to my hocks in the battle. When it was over, I moved south to the Bien Hoa area. Once there, I detected the same signal patterns I’d seen in the highlands near Dak To. U.S. signals intelligence units operating in the far north of the country, just south of the DMZ, reported that the North Vietnamese in that region were exhibiting identical behaviour. At my behest, the National Security Agency (NSA), my parent organization, reported North Vietnamese preparations for a country-wide offensive. U.S. military forces on the ground ignored the warning. The Tet Offensive of January 1968 took them by surprise despite our warnings.

The interview with Larry was videotaped and will be shown on channel 19, the public access channel for Carroll County, operated by the county’s Community Media Center. When I find out the date and time the interview will be telecast, I’ll alert readers here. If the interview will be available online, I’ll let you know.

Presentations in November 2017

I’ll be giving my presentation, “Bitter Memories: The Fall of Saigon,” more times in November than I ever have done in a single month in the past. All presentations are open to the public. At each, I’ll be available to autograph copies of my books and answer questions.

Rather than put out a separate announcement on each, I decided to give you the whole list in one blog. Here they are:

Wednesday, 1 November, 7:00 p.m.:

Arbutus Branch, Baltimore County Library

855 Sulphur Spring Road

Arbutus, Maryland 21227

 

Saturday, 4 November, 2:00 p.m.:

North Point Branch, Baltimore County Library

1716 Merritt Boulevard

Dundalk, Maryland 21222

 

*Monday, 6 November, 3:30 to 4:30 p.m.:

Essex Branch, Baltimore County Library

1110 Eastern Boulevard

Essex, Maryland 21221

 

Tuesday, 7 November, 7:00 p.m.:

Perry Hall Branch, Baltimore County Library

9685 Honeygo Boulevard

Perry Hall, Maryland 21128

 

Thursday, 9 November 9, 7:00 p.m.:

Catonsville Branch, Baltimore County Library

1100 Frederick Road

Catonsville, Maryland 21228

 

*Friday, 10 November, 2:00 to 3:00 p.m.:

Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab

11100 Johns Hopkins Road

Laurel, MD 20723

 

Wednesday, 15 November, 7:00 p.m.:

Hereford Branch, Baltimore County Library

16940 York Road

Hereford, Maryland 21111

 

Saturday, 18 November, 2:00 p.m.:

Reisterstown Branch, Baltimore County Library

21 Cockeys Mill Road

Reisterstown, Maryland 21136

 

Tuesday, 21 November, 6:30 p.m.:

Sollers Point Branch, Baltimore County Library

323 Sollers Point Road

Dundalk, Maryland 21222

 

Tuesday, 28 November, 6:00 p.m.:

Randallstown Branch, Baltimore County Library

8604 Liberty Road

Randallstown, Maryland 21133

 

Thursday, 30 November, 7:00 p.m.:

Cockeysville Branch, Baltimore County Library

9833 Greenside Drive

Cockeysville, Maryland 21030

________________________________________

*Slightly abbreviated presentation

The Odyssey of Echo Company

I just finished reading and reviewing Doug Stanton’s new book, The Odyssey of Echo Company: The 1968 Tet Offensive and the Epic Battle to Survive the Vietnam War (Scribner, 2017). I’ll post the URL of the review as soon as it is published.

Odyssey is the best-written book on Vietnam that I’ve read, and as readers of my blog may already have guessed, I have several shelves full of Vietnam books, going back to Bernard Fall’s 1961 Street Without Joy. Stanton possesses what I call “the gift,” that rare inborn genius for knowing how to put words together to create a text so compelling that the reader forgets he’s reading and becomes immersed in the narrative. The text, in this case, is a depiction of combat with such realism that I had to stop reading from time to time to deal with my own emotions.

My reading of Odyssey interrupted my transversal of Lucia Viti’s Dr. Tom’s War: A Daughter’s Journey (Rogue Books, 2011) and followed my reading and review of Daniel P. Bolger’s Our Year of War (Da Capo, 2017), both on the Vietnam war (I’ll tell you the URL of the review for the Bolger book when it comes out). It’s clear to me from reading these books that current writers no longer shrink from explicit descriptions of combat in all its brutality. The old unspoken authorial principle that one must spare the reader the grim details no longer applies.

That shift in writerly ethics is more than welcome. Some of my readers over the years have taken me to task for my insistence on the gruesome aspects of combat. I’ve followed that path because I want readers to know. We Americans need to understand what we’re getting into when we go to war and especially what we’re subjecting our young soldiers and Marines to. That understanding will guide us in our decisions on war.

I’m vindicated that other current writers have moved away from delicacy and now show combat as it is. Maybe we Americans will profit from a deepened understanding of the grisly nature of war.

Reading at Maryland Public Television (2)

As I promised yesterday, below is the text from Last of the Vietnamese that I read for Maryland Public Television on Tuesday. The scene takes place when Chuck and Colonel Thanh visit the highlands, a few weeks before the fall of Saigon:

With the onset of darkness, Thanh dismissed the junior Vietnamese officers but signaled Chuck, the only American, to follow him. “We go to the infirmary tent.”

Inside was an overflow of human wreckage—battered, dismembered men, alive only because death, taken by surprise, hadn’t gotten to them yet. Chuck stopped breathing to ward off the stench and locked his throat to keep from vomiting. But he couldn’t block out the screaming.

The source was a man at the far end. His skin was charred and bloody, his body a mangled parody of human form. His eyes, with no eyelids to protect them, started from his skull. His mouth was forced open to its limit. His teeth were broken and blackened.

Thanh knelt beside him. He gathered the burned body in his arms and spoke in a sing-song, almost a lullaby. The screaming stopped. The body ceased moving. Thanh straightened. He pulled a stained sheet over the man’s face. Without getting to his feet, he turned to the next mat and spoke to the soldier lying on it.

Chuck watched from the narrow aisle between mats. Thanh moved through the tent and talked to each man. Before Thanh had finished, Chuck, feeling as though he was witnessing death rituals too intimate for a stranger’s eyes, walked from the tent.

Reading at Maryland Public Television

Yesterday, at the invitation of Maryland Public Television (MPT), I went to their studios in Owings Mills and filmed a brief reading. As I entered the building, three different people, none of whom I recognized, greeted me by name. I was offered coffee and breakfast. When I turned down those kind offers, I was escorted to the studio for the filming. The eight or so people working there all greeted me, remarked on their memory of my appearance in their three-part documentary, Maryland Vietnam War Stories, last year, and embarrassed me when they said what an honor it was for them to see me again.

We did four or five takes of the reading. The director, Susanne Stahley, respectfully put me through my paces and dusted my face with powder to dry the sweat I always get when I read or speak publicly. The lead cameraman consistently called me “Doctor Tom,” acknowledging my doctoral degree and responding to my request that he call me by my first name.

As is always true when I speak publicly about Vietnam, my emotions rose to the surface as I read from Last of the Annamese. When I was finished, I told one of the women present that the scene I read was one I actually had experienced myself. She hugged me with tears in her eyes.

The video of the reading will be edited and appear as a brief sequence in the show Artworks. I was one of perhaps half a dozen local writers asked to read for the program. When I learn the date and time for showing my appearance, I’ll post it here. I’ll probably ask if any of you can record it for me so I’ll have a copy for future reference.

I was honored to be asked to do the reading. And I was moved by the respect with which I was treated. I know that respect is because I am a veteran, not because I am a writer. Everything about the filming was professional, efficient, and genial. MPT has certainly treated me and other Vietnam veterans with honor. What a change from the days we were spat upon and called butchers.

Tomorrow I’ll quote the text I read.