Love and Work

Sigmund Freud, the German founder of modern-day psychology, famously observed that the two dominant activities of humans are love and work. He concentrated his study and writing on the former, especially the sexual aspect of it. That earned him fame and blame over the years. And despite my dislike for his obvious fascination with sex, I have to agree that he named the two dominant factors in human life.

Love and work have shaped my long life. Love brought about my relations with the people I care most about, my four children and four grandchildren. And work, done for the love of it rather than to earn a living, gave me a life full of rewards. Never once, after my impoverished youth, did I ever have to worry about income. Because of my devotion to my work—assisting troops in combat with signals intelligence about the enemy using the seven foreign languages I knew and later leading rather than managing my subordinates—I was promoted repeatedly until I reached the top levels of the Senior Executive Service (SES) of the federal government. I retired as early as I could so that I could write full-time and now have published six books and 17 short stories.

These days my work is my primary fulfillment. I especially enjoy giving my four presentations with slides on the fall of Saigon (which I escaped under fire), the 1967 battle of Dak To in Vietnam’s western highlands (I was very much involved), how to cope with Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI) which I suffer from, and fiction craftsmanship. Meanwhile, I continue to write and do blog posts (like this one) every day.

A man couldn’t ask for a much better life. And to Freud’s credit, it is all due to love and work.

Sexual Bigotry

I’m more and more disturbed by the bias I see against people who depart from the dominant sexual norms—gays, transsexuals, and transgenders. My sense is that the sexual role one wishes to play is one’s personal business and not mine. My job is to treat all people with respect.

Part of the reason that I’m so accepting is that at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, when I read news reports about men dying on the street because no one would touch them or help—due to fear of being infected—I volunteered to take care of dying AIDS patients. Over a period of five years, I cared for seven gay men dying of AIDS. Only when science found a way to avoid AIDS fatalities did I move on to other volunteer work.

I learned that my unconscious anti-gay bias had no foundation. The men I helped were as noble and respectable as straight men I worked with every day. All of them were intensely grateful for my help.

To do that kind of work, I volunteered with the Whitman-Walker Clinic in Washington, D.C. The clinic’s mission was to assist gay men were ill. It was, indeed, a gay organization. At the weekly meetings I attended, I was the only straight man there. But I was accepted by one and all. The clinic is still operating today in D.C.

The lesson I draw from my experience is that sexual preference is unrelated to human failings, achievements, or morality. My guess is that a good many of the saints we revere were in fact born gay. We’ll never know.

So my job as a man is to honor all men and women, regardless of the instincts they were born with. And in return, they honor me.

Fall of Saigon Presentation for Veterans

Tonight, I’ll be giving my presentation on the 1975 fall of Saigon—from which I escaped under fire—for fellow veterans, members of an American Legion post. As I have reported here before, I feel a strong bond with other veterans, especially those like me who experienced combat. The big difference between us is that they were serving in the military during their time in combat whereas I had completed my military service and was a civilian under cover as military. As an employee of the National Security Agency (NSA), I had unique skills (I spoke seven different foreign languages) that allowed me to provide signals intelligence support during combat, and I, unlike other civilians, was willing to risk my life on the battlefield.

So when I tell my story, veterans understand better than most others the dangers I faced. I see the look in their eyes, I see them nod in agreement, I sense the lump in their throats as I relate the losses of comrades. They are with me all the way.

So I am more than honored by the opportunity to share my experiences with veterans. These men and I are brothers in a way far stronger than mere shared parentage.

Day of the Book at Kensington

I spent most of last Sunday selling and signing copies of my books at the Day of the Book at Kensington, Maryland. I always enjoy the opportunity to speak with my readers, and I’m particularly pleased to talk to people who approach my table to tell me that they bought a book the last time I was here and thoroughly enjoyed it. I usually sell the most copies of my most popular book, Last of the Annamese, but Sunday my novel The Trion Syndrome, about Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI), from which I suffer personally, sold more copies than Annamese.

I had on both sides of me authors who recognized me from previous book fairs, but I didn’t remember them—the older I get, the less reliable my memory. We didn’t have much time for chat because we were so busy talking to prospective customers.

It was a chilly day, and it rained toward the end. I found myself shivering in my light jacket—I had read a weather forecast that said it would be in the upper sixties and didn’t dress warmly—but that didn’t hinder me in my talk with readers.

As always, I had a good time. I take pleasure in meeting and talking to readers, actual or prospective, and nothing interests me more than my books.

Nothing Words

I have developed the habit over the years of spewing words that mean “nothing” when I am frustrated at the lack of something. Here are the words I use and their background:

Zero: the arithmetical quantity of nothing. The Online Etymology Dictionary says the word originated in English around 1600, derived from French zéro or directly from Italian zero, from Medieval Latin zephirum, from Arabic sifr “cipher,” translation of Sanskrit sunya-m “empty place, desert, naught.”

Zilch: As I reported in an earlier post, Merriam-Webster defines the word as meaning zero or nil. According to the Online Etymological Dictionary, the word, meaning “nothing,” originated in 1957, but its meaning of “insignificant person” goes back to 1933, “from use of Zilch as a generic comical-sounding surname for an insignificant person (especially Joe Zilch). There was a Mr. Zilch (1931), comic character in the magazine ‘Ballyhoo,’ and the use perhaps originated around 1922 in U.S. college or theater slang. Probably a nonsense syllable, suggestive of the end of the alphabet, but Zilch is an actual German surname of Slavic origin.”

Nada: a state of nonexistence. The Online Etymology Dictionary says it first appeared in Ernest Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” set in a Spanish café, borrowed from the Spanish nada, meaning “nothing.” The Spanish nada derives from Latin (res) nata—a small, insignificant thing, literally “(thing) born,” from natus, past participle of nasci—to be born, which in turn is from Old Latin gnasci), meaning give birth, beget.

Niente: the Italian word for “nothing.”

Nulla: another Italian word for “nothing.”

Nichts: the German word for “nothing.”

Rien: the French words for “nothing.”

I have nothing to add.

The American Legion

On the third Thursday of every month, I attend the monthly meeting of my American Legion Post. The Friday before that, I join my fellow members in the monthly luncheon. I feel at home with other members, all veterans like me, men (and a few women) getting on in years who know what it means to put their lives on the line for the good of their country. I and many of the others are men who joined the military during the years before the draft was eliminated in 1973. And a sizable number, again like me, know the rigors of the battlefield and have experienced the death of men fighting by their side. They’ll tell you, as I would, that they fought not for God or country or patriotism but to save their buddy fighting next to them.

The biggest difference between them and me is that I had finished my enlistment in the army before I faced combat. After the end of my army service, I went to work for the National Security Agency (NSA) which, because of my linguistic skill (I spoke Vietnamese, Chinese, and French, the three languages of Vietnam) sent me to Vietnam to support troops in battle with signals intelligence, the intercept and exploitation of enemy radio communications. I worked under cover as an enlisted man in whatever unit, army or Marine, I was supporting. I lived with the troops, slept beside them on the ground, ate C-rations sitting with them in the dirt, and went into combat with them.

One of the miracles of my life is that I was never wounded despite repeated work on the battlefield in combat. My best guess is that the enemy took aim at the man shooting at him rather than the guy carrying radio equipment.

So I feel at home with combat veterans. The oddity is that those of us who survived the battlefield recognize each other. A look, quick thump of a fist to an arm, and a knowing smile is all it takes. And we share both a pride in our achievement and a recurring secret sense of horror at what we went through. I’m sure that all of us, to some degree, suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Injury.

We know that our experience changed us, not always for the better. But we know we’d do it all over again if asked.


As I have mentioned before in this blog, I go out of my way to maintain a healthy lifestyle. That means, among other things, that I don’t allow myself extra pounds and I lift weights every other day for a couple of hours.

But for the last year, I’ve run into a series of problems that prevented me from exercising. First, I had eye surgery to correct lazy lower eyelids. Then I came down with pneumonia. Next, I developed a severe cough in the aftermath of the pneumonia that prevents me from doing anything that makes me short of breath. The end result is that I’m not exercising. Even going for a walk makes me pant and cough.

And, blast it, for the first time within memory, I’ve developed a slight paunch. That amazes me because I watch my diet so carefully, stressing fruits and vegetables with almost no meat or fats. I do allow myself two homemade toll house cookies each day, one after each of my two daily meals. But other than that, sweets are verboten.

So as soon as I am able, when my cough finally goes away, I’ll resume working out. That includes, among other things, leg lifts and sit-ups, both of which develop stomach muscle.

Meanwhile, I’ll do the best I can to dress in ways that conceal my paunch.  


As I move further and further into old age, I find my thoughts returning more often to the inevitable end: death. That is the ultimate fate of every living creature.

We Americans, unlike other nationalities I’ve lived among, avoid the issue, almost as if it didn’t exist. Like bodily functions and sex, death is something we simply don’t talk about. It’s what we call a “taboo subject.”

I’m less paranoid about death than most Americans simply because I have seen so much of it on the battlefield, first in Vietnam and later elsewhere (still classified). So my focus is less on the horror of death and more on extending my life to the maximum and making the most of the time I have left.

That almost certainly means one or more books still to be written. It also means writing posts (like this one) and doing public readings of my books and presentations, especially the one on the fall of Saigon which I survived and escaped under fire. These are stories I want to tell. I want people to know what really happened.

I am determined to live well past a hundred years old, and the evidence so far is that I’ll make it. I live an extremely healthy life with a diet of almost entirely fruits and vegetables, plenty of sleep, lots of water, and regular exercise. I’m almost the only person I know of my age who is not overweight. And I look much younger than my years.

Looks like I’m going to make it to past a hundred.

Working with the Dying

In the early 1980s, I read newspaper accounts of men dying of AIDS on the street because no one would go near them or touch them from fear of being infected with the disease which was, back then, invariably fatal. I had faced death repeatedly in combat and watched men die. Working with the dying didn’t frighten me as it did most people. So I volunteered to care for those dying of AIDS despite the threat that I might come down with the disease. Over a period of five years, I helped seven men die a dignified and largely painless death. Eventually, we discovered that the disease was transmitted by the exchange of bodily fluids. Then, when science discovered a means of preventing death for AIDS patients, I moved on to helping others. I spent two years working with the homeless and, after that, seven years of working with the dying in the Gilchrist Hospice. When I got too old and feeble to lift my patients to their feet—a requirement when working with the seriously ill and the dying—I had to quit.

Now I am getting old enough that I must face the likelihood of my own death. Evidence available thus far is that I’ll reach my goal of living to be over a hundred, despite temporary setbacks like my current bout with pneumonia-induced lung congestion and coughing. So far, so good.

These days, I’m too old and frail to help people die. But I still do what I can by contributing money regularly to Gilchrist. And I am content knowing that I did more than my share. I am proud of my willingness to help others to die in peace.