We March at Midnight

Yesterday, the Washington Independent Review of Books published my review of Ray McPadden’s We March at Midnight (Black Stone Publishers, 2021). You can read it at http://www.washingtonindependentreviewofbooks.com/bookreview/we-march-at-midnight-a-war-memoir

Just before taking on Midnight, I read and reviewed Stephen Dando-Collins’ Conquering Jerusalem (Turner Publishing Company, 2021—review at http://www.washingtonindependentreviewofbooks.com/index.php/bookreview/conquering-jerusalem-the-ad-66-73-roman-campaign-to-crush-the-jewish-revolt). Both books detail the bloodthirstiness of war at the very moment I’m reading in the press of death and destruction in Afghanistan. All these reminders have made me think back on my own record on the battlefield. Much of the time in my 35 years of government service was spent assisting U.S. and friendly forces in combat on the battlefield by providing information on the enemy derived from the intercept and exploitation of his radio communications. Although I never once fired a weapon in combat (I carried a 38-caliber revolver), I was, nevertheless, complicit in the killing.

I remember that during the Vietnam war we rarely found enemy bodies after a battle. The North Vietnamese always cleared the battlefield of their own dead. On the few occasions when I did see bodies, I was struck by the tininess of the Vietnamese. They were so small that it felt like viewing the remains of children. The GIs always referred to the Vietnamese as “the little people” for good reason.

I forgive myself for my participation in combat by reminding myself that my purpose was not to kill but to save lives. I was there to help my comrades avoid death by warning them of what the enemy was doing, where he was, and what he planned to do. I did in fact save many lives, although sometimes my warnings were ignored and men died as a consequence.

More next time.

Hair, Hair, Everywhere Hair (2)

Here are the rest of the words to the song, “Hair”—from the hairiest man you’re ever likely to meet:

I want it long, straight, curly, fuzzy

Snaggy, shaggy, ratty, matty

Oily, greasy, fleecy

Shining, gleaming, streaming

Flaxen, waxen

Knotted, polka-dotted

Twisted, beaded, braided

Powdered, flowered, and confettied

Bangled, tangled, spangled, and spaghettied!

Oh say can you see

My eyes if you can

Then my hair’s too short

Down to here

Down to there

I want hair

Down to where

It stops by itself

They’ll be ga ga at the go go

When they see me in my toga

My toga made of blond


Biblical hair

My hair like Jesus wore it

Hallelujah I adore it

Hallelujah Mary loved her son

Why don’t my mother love me?

Hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair

Flow it, show it

Long as God can grow it

My hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair

Flow it, show it

Long as God can grow it

My hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair

Flow it, show it

Long as God can grow it

My hair

Hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair

Hair, Hair, Everywhere Hair

I’m the hairiest man I know. I have hair everywhere. Now that I’m getting older and it’s turning white, the hair isn’t so obvious as it used to be. But when I was younger, I got lots of looks for the hair showing over my collars and under my cuffs. So when the musical Hair came out in 1967, I immediately latched onto it. I bought the score and the recording from the original production.

The words from the title song say it all. I quote them below:

She asks me why

I’m just a hairy guy

I’m hairy noon and night

Hell that’s a fright

I’m hairy high and low

Don’t ask me why

Don’t know

It’s not for lack of bread

Like the Grateful Dead


Gimme head with hair

Long beautiful hair

Shining, gleaming,

Streaming, flaxen, waxen

Give me down to there hair

Shoulder length or longer

Here baby, there mama

Everywhere daddy daddy

Hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair

Flow it, show it

Long as God can grow it

My hair

Let it fly in the breeze

And get caught in the trees

Give a home to the fleas in my hair

A home for fleas

A hive for bees

A nest for birds

There ain’t no words

For the beauty, the splendor, the wonder

Of my…

Hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair

Flow it, show it

Long as God can grow it

My hair

More next time.

Cooling Down

As if on cue, the weather cooled noticeably on the day September began. In the last three days, we have had temperatures as low as the fifties. This morning, it’s in the sixties. But summer doesn’t end until September 22. What’s the hurry?

As noted earlier in this blog, I am a hot-weather person. I got that way during the thirteen years I spent more time in tropical weather of Vietnam than I did in the U.S. I became so acclimated to hot weather that any temperatures below 85 degrees feel downright cold. When the weather is where I want it to be, in the upper eighties and lower nineties, I go shirtless and wear shorts. I have never much liked clothes and always wore as little as possible. I probably would have joined a nudist colony had there been one available to me.

The lowering of the temperatures and the need to add more clothes feels melancholy to me. I associate cold weather with sadness. Winter, to me, is a time of gloom, and I always want to escape back to that place—Vietnam—where it never got cold. Walter Huston captured my feelings well in his “September Song”:

Oh, it’s a long, long while from May to December

But the days grow short when you reach September

When the autumn weather turns the leaves to flame

One hasn’t got time for the waiting game

Oh, the days dwindle down to a precious few

September, November

And these few precious days I’ll spend with you

These precious days I’ll spend with you

Global Warming

As I noted some weeks ago in this blog, global warming is no longer a future threat—it’s here now. Now a report just out reveals that the world must reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 to avert climate catastrophe. As a result, we have wildfires in the Pacific northwest; flooding in Europe; unprecedented heat waves in the U.S., Asia, and at both polls; rising sea level threatening low-lying communities; and hurricanes like Ida ravaging our coastlines.

Despite the emergency, we are doing almost nothing to slow down the devastation. Coal burning goes on worldwide, with the U.S. in the lead. We continue to drive and manufacture automobiles with gasoline engines that pollute our air. How bad does it have to get before we wake up and change our ways?

Part of the problem is that belief in the threat of global warming, like mask wearing and getting vaccinated, has become politicized. Republicans, led by Donald Trump, pretend that climate change, like covid-19, doesn’t exist. Just as refusing to wear a mask or get vaccinated has become a political statement, good Republicans deny that the earth is getting so hot that we are in danger. Being a Republican is rapidly becoming ignorance writ large.

So I call upon all, especially Americans, to step up and take on global warming. We have proven historically that we can change the course of history through our joint efforts. Let’s do it again.

Fiction Craftsmanship (2)

Yesterday afternoon I did my workshop on fiction craftsmanship in Elkton, Maryland—as I indicated I was planning to do in yesterday’s blog. I had only two participants. That’s not unusual. Not many people are willing to devote themselves to an art that pays poorly and is famously difficult. Both participants were dedicated writers who wanted to sharpen their skills. Both, as far as I could tell, benefitted from the workshop.

I was surprised, as I often am, that so much of the workshop’s content was new to the participants. As I say in the introduction to the presentation, fiction craftsmanship (sometimes called technique) is a neglected subject. We apparently assume that there is nothing to know about formatting, word usage, and sentence structure peculiar to fiction writing. That’s why I call fiction craftsmanship “the forgotten discipline.”

This offering of the workshop was especially difficult for me. It required an hour-and-half drive both ways, and on the way home I was caught in the aftermath of hurricane Ida. And yet, it was well worth it. Watching enlightenment dawn on the faces of the two students as I explained how they could write better made it all worthwhile.

Fiction Craftsmanship

Later today, I will be offering my workshop on fiction craftsmanship at the Palette and the Page in Elkton, Maryland. The workshop is intended for fiction writers who want to improve their skills.

Each time I do the workshop, I am struck again by the contrast between the techniques that make for good fiction and those best for nonfiction. Fiction, a form of literary writing, is an art and depends for its success on the creativity of the writer. Nonfiction is more like a profession, with brevity and clarity its most important virtues. Even the editing rules for fiction are different from those for nonfiction. The differences are small—e.g., whether to put a space before and after an em dash (you don’t in literary writing), when and how to use commas—but important enough to get one’s work rejected.

The final editing authorities for literary writing and journalism are different. The Chicago Manual of Style (University of Chicago Press, 2003) is the rulebook for literary writing including fiction; The Associated Press Stylebook (The Associated Press, 2010) lays down the law for journalism. Both are thick volumes (957 and 465 pages, respectively) and spectacularly detailed.

But editing rules are a small part of the difference between the two kinds of writing. Journalistic writing demands simple, straightforward, focused prose, whose purpose is to convey information. The goal of literary writing, on the other hand, is to entertain and create beauty. That means its creators are given much wider boundaries on what is proper.

My own fiction in the six books and seventeen short stories now published depends more than most on telling of events that actually happened. I fictionalize the story by attributing the actions described to fictional characters rather than to myself or people I knew. For example, every event related in my novel Last of the Annamese, the story of the fall of Saigon, actually happened.

Because fiction is an art, my writing borrows from poetry many techniques and devices. I search for the right word to create the emotional flavor needed in a moment of the story. I vary the size and structure of sentences more according to the logic of music than that of grammar. I create images with words to move readers.

As a result, when I offer my workshop on fiction craftsmanship, I emphasize that the rules I’m stressing will not result in successful fiction—only creativity will do that. All the application of fiction craftsmanship will do is avoid immediate rejection for failure to follow the rules.

The class is scheduled for 2:00 p.m. at the Palette and the Page, 120 East Main Street, Elkton, MD 21921; (410) 398-3636. If you’d like to attend, call and let the proprietors know.

Planes Flying into the Sunset

I live in Columbia, Maryland, a few miles east of Baltimore-Washington Thurgood Marshall Airport, which everyone calls BWI. From my deck on the northern side of my house, I regularly see airliners flying west out of BWI and others flying south then heading east to land there. Because the view from my deck, looking across a pond surrounded by mature trees, is so beautiful, I eat all my meals on the deck, weather permitting, and spend as much time as I can enjoying its splendor.

That means I see many planes coming and going. Before the pandemic, flights were constant, every few minutes. Covid-19 didn’t stop them altogether, but they become much fewer. Now they’re increasing regularly.

The outgoing flights are much higher and much louder than the incoming ones. My guess is that planes heading out and climbing require much more power than those descending and preparing to land. At times, planes flying eastward are so far up that I can barely see them, but they are still thunderous.

My favorite time to watch the outgoing planes is as the sun is setting. The planes heading out appear to be flying directly toward the sinking sun. Best of all are those moments just before twilight when the sun is so low that it shines only on the very tops of the trees. At those times, the airliners glow and shimmer as the sunlight floods them from below.

I am among the most fortunate of men, living in a beautiful place and surrounded by the magnificence of nature at its most resplendent. But nothing is more beautiful than planes at twilight flying into the dying sun.

Why Capitalize Marine?

Readers have gently pointed out to me that “marine” doesn’t need to be capitalized any more than “soldier” does. But I always capitalize the word when it refers to a branch of the U.S. military or a member of that branch.

Why? To show the enormous respect I have for the U.S. Marine Corps and its members. As I have noted frequently in my blog posts over the years, much of my professional life before I retired was spent on the battlefield supporting friendly troops in combat. I have reported how army commanding officers sometimes refused to act on the intelligence I was able to provide. I even coined a term for that dilemma: the Cassandra Effect. But never, not once, did the Marines fail to exploit of the information I was able to give them.

One of the reasons for the Marines’ willingness to use signals intelligence was the influence of an officer named Al Gray. Al started out as an enlisted man, went on to become an officer, a general, and, finally, commandant of the Marine Corps. Early in his military career, he was a signals intelligence specialist, so he knew the discipline well. When I first me him in the early 1960s in Vietnam, he was already a captain commanding combat forces. Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, I kept running into him as we both crisscrossed Vietnam. When Saigon fell in 1975, it was Al Gray, now a colonel, who rescued me. He was kind enough to stay in touch with me after he became a general and even after taking over command the Marine Corps.

The two top priorities of General Gray—I stopped calling him “Al” when he became commandant—were his unit’s mission and the welfare of the men serving under him. He was famous for never asking his men to do anything he wouldn’t do himself. He was a beloved leader and one of the most effective commanders that Marine Corps ever had.

In all my years of working with the military, the Marines gained my greatest respect. Not only did they exploit signals intelligence to the hilt, they proved over and over their effectiveness on the battlefield. They remained humble and civil even in their victories and moments of greatest glory. So I capitalize their name as a sign of my deep respect for them.