The Star-Spangled Banner

I’ve been at a series of events recently at which the “Star-Spangled Banner” was played. I was surprised by my own emotional response.

I know as a musician that the song is at best flawed music, and it’s difficult to sing because of the range it requires. I know as a writer that the text is overwritten. It is, in short, an imperfect national anthem. So why does it move me so deeply?

Because of what it stands for. I’ve served beside men of all services. I’m alive today because of them. Some of them are alive today because of me. We put our lives on the line for the country we loved.

I’ve come to understand that the strongest bond possible among human beings comes when they fight side by side against a common enemy. As I said earlier, we don’t use the word “love” to describe our feelings. That’s too sentimental. But it is love, the strongest love I’ve ever experienced.

And as I grow older, my understanding of myself and my country deepens. I see that part of the reason that I love the United States of America is that I fought for her. And as I watch the unfolding story of other nations burdened by dictatorship and a lack of freedom, I cherish more than ever what we Americans have.

This is where my heart is. I will always be a patriot, not because I made a conscious decision, but because my fate and the nation’s fate are one.

Post-Traumatic Stress Injury

I’ll be blogging for a while about The Trion Syndrome, so I need to revisit Post-Traumatic Stress Injury. As I explained earlier, I don’t call it a “disorder” because it’s the consequence of an externally inflicted wound, not the internal workings of the mind gone awry.

PTSI is the result of an experience so brutal that the soul is permanently damaged. I know of it from my experience in combat, but it also affects people who have been raped or tortured or faced monstrous happenings. Sometimes guilt is an element of the condition; that’s true of me.

The most common symptoms are flashbacks, nightmares, irrational rages, and panic attacks. A variety of triggers can bring on an onslaught of the symptoms—a moment of music, an odor, the color of the sky, a sensation on the skin. Sometimes an unbidden flash of memory will unleash reactions.

There is no cure for PTSI. The memories never go away or fade. They are always at the edge of the victim’s consciousness. The best that a PTSI sufferer can hope to do—in fact what he must do—is to learn to cope.

The first step in coming to terms with the unspeakable memories is to learn how to bring them into consciousness. My psyche had pushed some of my recollections to the subconscious because they were too painful to face. I had to put myself into a semi-meditative state and allow the memories to surface. Then I had to learn to hold the unbearable in my conscious mind until I could bear it. I had to train my emotions to react without going out of control.

I was fortunate in being a writer. My forgotten experiences showed up in my writing before I recalled them at a conscious level. Then I learned to write down what happened. That forced me to look the memories in the face.

Guilt is a factor for me in dealing with PTSI. I blame myself for not having done more to save other men’s lives; I feel the unfairness that men by my side were butchered while I went unscathed. I know at the rational level that my guilt is unfounded. I did all I could, and chance dictated that a stream of bullets took my buddy’s head off but left me untouched. I know all that. The guilt remains. The longer I live, the better I get at living with my guilt.

I wrote The Trion Syndrome in part to vent about my PTSI. I told Dave’s story borrowing from my own experience. But I let Dave do things I stopped myself from doing. He becomes irrational, runs away, lives the life of a bum, all because he can’t face what he has done in combat. In the end, a son he didn’t know he had finds him and leads him home.


In The Trion Syndrome, I used the German word Ungemmint because we have no equivalent word in English. The term means both unloving and unloved. It’s a quality born of evil which has no understanding of love.

The protagonist of Trion, Dave Bell, a German scholar, applies the term to himself without knowing why. For reasons he can’t remember, he thinks he has lost his soul. Something happened while he was serving in Vietnam; he doesn’t remember what.

I used the concept of Ungeminnt because it describes my own feeling about myself. For me, many things happened during the thirteen years I was in and out of Vietnam. In the beginning, I couldn’t remember some of them. Later they came back to me, sometimes in dreams. I knew that if I ever wanted to be free of being haunted, I had to bring those events into my conscious memory, face them, and learn to live with them. I had, in effect, to get my soul back.

For me and for Dave, my protagonist, it’s a life-long struggle. Dave is helped by his son. I’m helped by my writing. In telling Dave’s story, I confront my own past and find the remnants of peace.

Gay Men at Their Best

As mentioned yesterday, gay men are like all men, but the AIDS epidemic with its certainty of death for those stricken brought out the worst and the best in the gay community. Yesterday, I told of unseemly behavior. Today I want to talk about heroism and generosity.

As a buddy, I was assigned to a group that met once a month to talk and give each other moral support. I was the only straight man of the eight in the group. The group leader was a man of charisma who urged us to vent to each other, hang in there, and keep on giving. He was one of the few of us who contracted AIDS from his patient—he accidentally stuck himself with a needle after giving his patient an injection—and died several years later. He was the model for Mort in No-Accounts.

Mort is a buddy, now caring for his sixth patient, and a leader of buddies to whom Martin, the straight buddy, turns for help and reassurance. Mort lost his lover to AIDS and then devoted his life to helping those with the disease. He helps Martin get through his frustration at the shenanigans of his patient and bolsters him to face the oncoming death. Here’s a fragment of their conversation:

Martin wanted to weep. “They should get Peter another buddy. I can’t stand to be with him. I can’t stand to see him getting sicker, day after day . . .”

“Would Peter care if they assigned somebody else?”

“I don’t know. He depends on me. He asked me to be with him when he dies.”

“He must love you.”

End of quote. Mort in his wisdom knows that Peter needs Martin. In the end, he persuades Martin to go on caring for Peter.

I chose Mort’s name carefully. “Mort” means death.


Gay Men at Their Worst

During my years of caring for gay men dying of AIDS, I saw the gay community from the inside. For the most part, gay men are like all men, neither better nor worse. But the AIDS epidemic with its threat of certain death brought out qualities which otherwise would have been left dormant. I saw great heroism and generosity—I’ll speak of that in later posts. But I also saw cowardice and its consequence, ignobility.

Part of the source was, I believe, the built-in frustration of being gay. As some gay men told me in their most open moments as they approached death, they hated being gay but couldn’t escape it.

In No-Accounts, I describe a scene I witnessed more than once when a man stricken with AIDS meets with his former admirers who now pull away from him. Peter, the gay protagonist, had been at his pinnacle in the gay community. He was tall and handsome with a handful of followers who idolized him. He persuades Martin, his straight buddy, to take him to a gay bar to meet with three of his fans. Martin senses the underlying tension in the three men and their discomfort at being with Peter now facing death from AIDS. The following is the conclusion of the scene:

The conversation continued headlong. Kirk, Joey, and Ron got into competitive bar-hopping anecdotes, a can-you-top-this contest. Something phony was going on. The three were too dithery, too jubilant. Martin’s gut tightened.

More drinks arrived. Peter was flushed. He was frowning and slurring his words. He no longer joined in the laughter. Ron, Joey, and Kirk partied on.

They don’t know what a good time is, my dear,” Joey was saying. “They wouldn’t know a rush if they met one running bare-ass naked down the street.” Kirk guffawed. Peter glared.

“And that,” Ron said unnaturally deep in his voice, “is why they call us gay, big boy.”

“Gay?” Peter said, his voice raw, his face red.

“Gayer than thou, honey,” Kirk said. He poked Peter in the stomach and made a face at Ron. Hoots of laughter.

Peter gulped his wine. “Gay? Holy Jesus . . .”

Still smiling, Kirk turned back to Peter with a questioning look.

Peter slammed his glass on the table. Wine sloshed. “We’re not the gays,” he said though his teeth. “We’re the shit of the earth, biological errors, mutants, at the genetic end of the line, with no hopes, no dreams, no salvation. Big fucking mistakes. God, we can’t even reproduce.”

The laughter died.

End of quote. Martin takes Peter home. Peter is crushed by what has happened. It’s his last visit to a gay bar.

Laughing with AIDS Patients

Between 1985 and 1990, I was a “buddy”—a helper and caretaker but not a medical care specialist—for seven gay AIDS patients, all of whom died. As I reported earlier, I volunteered because I couldn’t stand watching men die in the streets because no one would care for them. I did everything for my patients—fed them, bathed them, dressed and undressed them, took them out when they were up to it, took them to medical appointments, and, in effect, helped them die.

When you’re on such an intimate footing with people, you get to know them well. I ended up loving all my patients, even the cantankerous ones and the prima donnas. And don’t kid yourself; there are an awful lot of prima donnas among gay men.

What happened with all of them was that the imminence of death became second nature. We accepted it as a given and lived as best as we could in its shadow. We came to speak of death casually, a part of life that was inevitable. One result was that my patients and I often laughed together.

A good many of the gay men I met during my years of caring for AIDS patients showed a genius for humor. They knew intuitively what would make me laugh. And I learned what would bring a smile to their faces.

That escape into humor shows up in the pages of No-Accounts. I quote below the scene on Christmas day when Martin, the buddy, has been out shopping for Christmas dinner for Peter, the patient now permanently in a hospital bed, and Roger, his father. Peter, ever the prima donna, had told Martin he was in the mood for something cosmopolitan. He proposed south American food.

Martin breezed through the door to the apartment, his arms filled with brown bags, his muffler trailing behind him. “Mission accomplished. I feel like Scrooge visiting Bob Cratchit.”

“You look more like the ghost of Christmas past,” Peter said. “You realize how long you’ve been gone? A man could starve to death around here.”

“Peter, cut it out,” Roger said.

“Let the hell cat warble,” Martin said, all grins. “If he’s not good, we’ll crank up both ends of his bed and let him practice being the letter U.”

“You’re certainly full of yourself,” Peter said with unconvincing ill humor. “What did you get, a Chilean luau to go?”

“Better than that. An Ethiopian formal dinner for four.”

Ethiopian? That’s not South American.”

“It’s not? Never was very good at geology.”

“Geography,” Peter corrected.

“Told you I wasn’t any good at it. Anyway, the Eritrean in the restaurant assured me that it was very cosmopolitan to eat Ethiopian food on Christmas.”

When Readers Know the Ending

In two of my four novels, readers know how the story will end.

In No-Accounts, one of the two protagonists is a gay man with AIDS. It’s 1985. Readers will remember that a diagnosis of AIDS in 1985 was a death warrant. So readers expect that the story will end with the death of one of the protagonists.

In Last of the Annamese, the story begins in Saigon in November 1974. Readers know that Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese in April 1975. The ending is known at the beginning of the novel.

In my other two novels, Friendly Casualties and The Trion Syndrome, the ending of the story comes as a surprise. As a novelist, I was able to use suspense as one tool in the fictionist’s toolbox.

So do No-Accounts and Last of the Annamese work as novels? Readers tell me they do. Why?

My sense is the answer is twofold.

First, both novels do have suspense.

In No-Accounts¸ the questions are: will Peter, the gay man with AIDS, accept help from a conventional, straight, and rather slow-thinking “buddy”? Will Martin, the buddy, have the fortitude and generosity to stay with Peter to the end?

In Last of the Annamese, the question is: who will escape at the end? Will the two principal Vietnamese characters, Thanh and Tuyet, survive? Will the American characters understand that the end is at hand and flee?

But I believe that the success of all four novels springs from a different aspect: all four are literary fiction. I haven’t found a definition of literary fiction that I find satisfying. To me, literary fiction explores the human condition and how human beings cope with it. I’m deeply concerned with how we humans mate, bear our children, and face death. What values drive us? What are the priorities in human life? Can love and generosity overcome self-interest and the drive to acquire? What is courage? What is love? What is honor?

Annamese illustrates my approach in a way that is more easily explained than in my other novels. The story is told from multiple points of view. Each major character is dominated by goals and desires radically different from the others. Each has to make decisions about his or her own survival that has both costs and payoffs. To my way of thinking, each of the characters demonstrates nobility and ultimately decides with honor how to deal with the cataclysmic ending, the fall of Saigon.

I write for a number of reasons addressed at various places in this blog, but the most important is to delve into the human condition and offer the reader ways of thinking and examples of how people cope with the life we are given.

That’s why, to me, fiction is great art.