That Photo (2)

Continuing the story about the 1967 battle of Dak To and how my picture got taken:

One morning, I awoke to find all my fatigues missing. In my skivvies, I ran around the cantonment area asking if anyone knew where my uniforms were. They showed up a couple of hours later. The troops had snitched them and taken them to a local tailor and paid him to sew nametags above the two breast pockets on the fatigue jacket. One read “GLENN,” the other “CIVILIAN.” On the collars where an officer’s rank would be displayed, the number “13” was stitched (I was a GS-13—civilian rank—at the time). And all my fatigue caps now sported pins showing the 4th Infantry Division insignia.

The troops, of course, couldn’t stop laughing, and they insisted on taking a picture of me in my fatigue jacket and cap showing the nametags, rank, and insignia. When Mission BBQ asked for a photo of me in uniform, I gave them that one, the only one I had. I doubt that anyone seeing the picture will be able to read the nametags or 13s on the collar. So once again, I fool people with my cover.

For all that, the picture, a copy of which I have hanging on my office wall, reminds me of the close bond I shared with the men I was in combat with. What most noncombatants don’t realize is that men in combat fight, first and foremost, for the man fighting next to them. They will give up their lives to save their combat buddy.

The bond between men in combat is the strongest love I have ever felt. Soldiers don’t use the word “love.” Men are not supposed to love one another. But I stood ready to die to save the life of the man fighting next to me. And I knew he would do the same for me. That’s the purest, least selfish love I have ever known.

That Photo

A reader noted that in my post on Mission BBQ, I reported on the photograph of me in uniform hanging in the restaurant in Ellicott City and reminded me that I was a civilian during the thirteen years I spent more time in Vietnam than in the U.S., assisting combat forces on the battlefield with signals intelligence. When was that photo taken and why was I in uniform?

The reader is correct that I was a civilian during my Vietnam years. But most of that time—all but the last two years—I was under cover as an enlisted man in whatever unit, army or Marine, I was supporting. That meant I wore the uniform of the outfit I was with, to prevent the enemy from discovering that they had a spy in their midst.

I avoided being photographed because I was operating under cover. But once, I did allow a photo. That was in late summer or early fall of 1967 during the battle of Dak To in Vietnam’s western highlands. I was there on the battlefield supporting the U.S. 4th Infantry Division and the 173rd Armored Brigade during combat.

The troops, of course, knew I was a civilian. And they found my presence there—a civilian pretending to be one of them—hilarious. To avoid attracting the enemy’s attention, I lived with the troops, slept on the ground next to them, ate C-rations sitting in the dirt with them, used their latrines, and went into combat with them. As far as I know, the North Vietnamese never discovered my presence.

More next time.

Goose Family Gone

I have written several times here about a family of geese. They first appeared as a pair of adult geese a couple of months ago swimming in the pond behind my house and wandering through the trees and open spaces close by. Then, one day, I saw four goslings with them. A week later, there were only three goslings. Then, starting five or six days ago, I saw no geese at all. They’ve disappeared.

I know that when geese pair, they make a nest to which they return every year. So the geese near me must have made a nest in the woods close to my house, probably the first for this couple. They couldn’t have decided to move away because the goslings were still too little to fly. So in all likelihood, they were killed.

My first thought was that they fell prey to an animal. But given the size and ferocity of the adult geese, only an animal considerably larger than them could have killed them. The only animals I’ve seen in these parts that large are deer, not known for attacking other animals.

So the great likelihood is that humans killed them. Maybe someone made a meal of them. More likely, one of my neighbors decided that they were an invading nuisance and did away with them.

I miss them. I had looked forward each day to watching them swim in a row in the pond, an adult at the front and back and the goslings in a line in between. Then they would wander through the trees and into the open space to the east side of my house, pecking at the ground.

I have seen a variety of animals close to my house, everything from rabbits and foxes to deer. But none appeared as frequently or over such a long period as the geese. It saddens me that they have vanished.

Mission BBQ Lunch

I’ve found a way to jury rig my laptop computer to my system to replace my misbehaving desktop machine. So I’m able to resume posting to my blog during the interim before my desktop is repaired on Friday.

Every month during normal times, my American Legion post members get together for lunch a few days before our monthly meeting. We always go to Mission BBQ, a local restaurant that emphasizes military membership décor with photos of soldiers, sailors, and Marines covering every empty wall space. Even a picture of me in uniform is there. Because of the pandemic lockdown, we have not held meetings or met for lunch for more than a year. But the post has scheduled its first post-pandemic meeting tomorrow. Hence, our gathering at Mission BBQ last Friday.

I was surprised at how moved I was to see again all those familiar faces and spend time again with veterans—men and women who know what it’s like to put your life on the line for your country and for your fellow combatants. We are becoming a vanishing breed. There are fewer of us every year. And those of us who engaged in combat are fewer still. And we’re aging. One member who was present is a retired Marine colonel over a hundred years old. He sat next to a retired navy corpsman who is almost a hundred.

I am unique among the American Legion members because I was a civilian during my time in combat. I had completed my military service before I went on the battlefield. Granted, I was always under cover as an enlisted man in the unit I was supporting. My job was helping on the battlefield with intelligence gained by intercepting enemy radio communications. Between 1962 and 1975, because I was so good at my job and spoke the three languages of Vietnam (Vietnamese, Chinese, and French), I spent more time in Vietnam than I did in the U.S. While the troops I worked with found my presence as a civilian under cover as one of them very funny, they also accepted me as a fellow troop.

When I get together with other veterans, the feeling of brotherhood I felt with the troops I was supporting on the battlefield comes to life. I’m profoundly grateful that the lockdown is ending so I can be with my brothers again.

Historical Fiction? (2)

When I chose to use real events in my novels and short stories, I never foresaw that critics and others would begin to refer to my work as “historical fiction.” That’s defined as fiction that has as its setting a period of history and attempts to convey the spirit, manners, and social conditions of a past age with realistic detail and fidelity to historical fact.

How can stories about what I lived through myself be historical? These things didn’t happen in the far-flung past. They occurred during my lifetime. Granted, I’m getting on in age. But I’m surely not old enough that my experiences are to be considered “history.”

Or am I? So often these days, at my presentations and readings and book sales, I meet people who are grandparents but weren’t even born when Saigon fell. My presentation on my role the 1967 battle of Dak To in Vietnam’s highlands describes events of more than 53 years ago. And I’m regularly the oldest person at events I attend. Maybe I am turning into an historical figure.

And maybe I should exploit rather than downplay my age. I’m already well past the average life span of American males. But I don’t look my age and am still athletic. Each year that passes, I become more unusual.

Maybe it’s time to welcome being an historical figure. Maybe I’ll give it a try.

Historical Fiction?

Critics of my writing often point out that my novels and short stories are fiction in name only. I plead guilty. The events described in my stories really did take place. I fictionalize them by showing fictional characters—rather than myself—participating in the events depicted.

Sometimes to disguise reality, I change the time frame of events. My novel, Secretocracy, is set during the Trump administration. It tells of the president’s persecution of an intelligence budgeteer. In real life, I was that budgeteer, but it was not during Trump’s presidency. The project I refused to fund because it was illegal and violated treaties with other governments was so highly classified that I suspect few were aware of it. I, like the protagonist in the novel, was severely punished for my recalcitrance. On the president’s orders, I was stripped of my security clearances and assigned to a warehouse in the slums with no job, hoping that I’d resign in protest. I didn’t. The president’s term ended, and I was exonerated.

More typical is Last of the Annamese, my novel set during the fall of Saigon. Every incident in the story really did occur. I was there. I saw it happen. I escaped from Saigon under fire on the night of 29 April 1975 after the North Vietnamese were already in the streets.

Then there’s The Trion Syndrome. That is a fictionalized tale about a man coping with Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI), which I suffer from as a consequence of the many instances of being in the midst of combat on the battlefield while assisting U.S. and friendly forces with signals intelligence—that is, intercept and exploitation of the enemy’s radio communications. The methods the protagonist uses in Trion to live with PTSI are not the ones I used, but his experiences—including not being able to remember the events that brought on nightmares, flashbacks, panic attacks, and irrational rages—are my own.

More next time.

Smoking (2)

Eventually, in my quest to give up tobacco, I gradually replaced the nicotine gum with ordinary chewing gum. And these days, I’m slowly teaching myself to do without gum of any kind.

But I didn’t escape unscathed. In 2013, I coughed up blood. My doctor at the time told me not to worry about it. He diagnosed me with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). I brought up blood again in 2015. This time he sent me for a lung x ray. I had had a large tumor in my right lung.

After almost a year of maximum chemotherapy and radiation, a surgeon removed the upper lobe of my right lung in November 2015. I learned later that the cancer came close to ending my life, but that my overall excellent health was the key that allowed me to survive. I had been a runner and weight lifter most of my life, but coincident with the lung surgery, I had a knee replacement which the surgeon bolixed, leaving me with a slight limp. My running days were over, and I wasn’t able to resume weight lifting until 2020 when I recovered completely from the surgery. I’ve gradually gotten back into the routine. Even so, I can’t match the weights I used to lift in my twenties.

And I’ve never returned to the physician who failed to diagnose my cancer in 2013.

So I’ve paid the price levied on smokers. Thanks to my healthy lifestyle, I came through it alive. I only wish someone had told me in my teens what price I would pay for my addiction to cigarettes.

I can’t complain. These days I’m healthy as a horse. And even though I went on writing during my recovery, I lost working time due to illness. Now I have to hurry to make up the loss.

Smoking

These days, I rarely see people smoking. Pipes, cigars, and certainly cigarettes are no longer in fashion. What a blessing.

When I was growing up in the San Francisco bay area, literally every adult I knew smoked. Cigarettes were universal, pipes and cigars somewhat rare. When I turned eighteen, my parents gave me as birthday presents a carton of cigarettes and a lighter. No one seemed to have the slightest hint that smoking was bad for one’s health.

At the University of California, Berkeley, where I did my undergraduate studies, I didn’t know anyone who didn’t smoke. We even smoked in the classrooms while class was in progress. I worked part-time throughout those years, and everywhere I worked, including restaurants and coffee shops, everybody, hired help and customers both, smoked.

I enlisted in the army immediately upon graduation from college and learned that all soldiers smoked. Typical was General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who left the army (and became president) seven years before I enlisted. He reportedly smoked six packs of cigarettes per day. Every formation break was announced with the words, “Smoke ’em If you got ’em.”

Upon leaving the army and going to work for the National Security Agency (NSA), I was again among smokers. NSA immediately sent me to Vietnam where I spent most of the next thirteen years, escaping under fire when Saigon fell. Once again, every soldier and Marine I worked with smoked, and smoking among the Vietnamese was universal for men.

By the time Vietnam fell in 1975, people were finally starting to pay attention to the doctors who had for decades been warning us that smoking caused lung cancer. Chastened, I began the long, slow process of weaning myself away from tobacco. Little by little, I replaced cigarettes with nicotine chewing gum which, at the time, was only available with a prescription. Only years later could the gum could be bought without a prescription.

More next time.