Survival (2)

My pigheadedness served me well during my years in Vietnam, particularly during the fall of Saigon. By sheer willpower (no one was there to help, and the man in charge, the ambassador, did all he could to stop me), I got my forty-three subordinates and their families safely out of Saigon before the city fell and escaped under fire after the North Vietnamese were already in the streets.

My career as a spy after 1975 is still classified. Suffice it to say that I’d learned to live by the mantra, “Do what you have to do, whatever it takes.” I went back to graduate school and earned a PhD with honors. Turned out I wasn’t so dumb after all. I retired as early as I could so I could write fulltime. I’d been writing since I was six and wanted to become a truly professional writer. By unmitigated determination, I learned how to write well enough to get published. I now have seventeen short stories and four novels in print. I’m shopping around a fifth novel and am working on two more.

The success wasn’t without costs. I required medical treatment for exhaustion three times in my life—just before I graduated from college, after the fall of Saigon, and while I was in graduate school and working full time. I was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2015 (I’d been a heavy smoker). I underwent radiation and chemotherapy and had the upper lobe of my right lung removed surgically. But I was too headstrong to succumb, and I survived.

So in some respects I have to thank my parents for their neglect. If I’d been reared properly, I might never have developed my intractable mulishness and wouldn’t be alive today. And I used my slogan—“Do what you have to do, whatever it takes”—as the watchword of characters in Last of the Annamese who survive the fall of Saigon. It fits.

Survival

While my protagonists (Dave in The Trion Syndrome, Martin and Peter in No-Accounts, and Chuck in Last of the Annamese) all share characteristics with me, I gave none of them my bullheadedness.

My obstinacy was born in my childhood. With an alcoholic mother and a father in prison, I knew by age six that if I was going to survive, I’d have to take care of myself. I discovered how to bandage my own skinned knees and elbows, taught myself the rudiments of cooking, and learned that I could push myself past what I thought was exhaustion. I came to depend on myself and was wary of others.

One result was that I didn’t do well in school and had few friends, but I discovered I had a knack for music and enjoyed learning languages. When I graduated from high school, counselors discouraged me from going to college—I really wasn’t bright enough. That’s when my stubbornness kicked in big the first time: I was going to get a college education no matter what.

I didn’t expect to do well in college, and so I didn’t. I worked twenty hours a week to support myself, got by with the bare minimum in food and clothing, and graduated with a low B average. I enlisted in the army to go to language school for Chinese but got Vietnamese instead. It was a full-year intensive course, six hours a day in the classroom, two hours of private study at night, five days a week for a full year. I loved it. I graduated first in my class and was assigned to the National Security Agency (NSA) at Fort Meade, Maryland. I enrolled at Georgetown University for a master’s in Chinese. The faculty was hesitant—my undergraduate grades were mediocre at best—so they allowed me provisional admission. I thrived in the world of ideographs and tones and got straight As. I converted to civilian status at NSA in 1961, and in 1962, NSA sent me to Vietnam. I was there on and off for the next thirteen years.

More tomorrow.

Pity the Poor Writer (2)

Those of us who write in English are both blessed (pronounced BLEST, not BLESS-ED) and cursed. The language is rich beyond measure, in part because it has so many sources and has borrowed liberally from so many other languages. But as a consequence of its roots and its habit of shameless cadging, it is illogical to the point of whimsy.

Note the variation in pronunciation of through, though, thought, tough, trough, plough, and hiccough. “Consummate,” “wound,” and “desert,” along with many other words, change their pronunciation depending on the intended meaning. And if vegetarians eat vegetables, what does that say about humanitarians? The vagaries of the language allow a sentence like “The sixth sick sheik’s sixth sheep’s sick.”

I found a number of web sites that glory in the language’s oddities. One of my favorites is https://www.learnthat.org/pages/view/fun_facts.html

Pity the writer. But laugh along with him, too.

Fall of Saigon Presentation for the American Legion

Last week, at their invitation, I gave the fall of Saigon presentation to my chapter of the American Legion. I had given a truncated version of the talk a couple of years ago to the same group, but this time it was the full presentation with slides.

The experience was both special and strange.

Special because I was talking to veterans who know military life. Some of them had, like me, seen combat. Some had been in Vietnam. These men know the life I led. They’ve lived it themselves.

Strange because I am so different from the men in the audience. These are ordinary, down-to-earth and earthy guys. They have about them the humility, the nobility, and the quiet pride that goes with being an ordinary American guy—husband, father, wage earner, craftsman, pillar of the community. I have some of those qualities, too, but I’m also a published author, an artist, a member of the intelligentsia with a PhD.

What mattered that evening was none of our differences but the common ordeals we’ve endured. As so often happens when I give the presentation, I choked up when I talked about the South Vietnamese officer who shot his wife, his children, and himself rather than live under communism when Vietnam fell. Tears blocked my eyes when I spoke of the 2700 South Vietnamese soldiers who worked with my organization and were killed or captured when Saigon fell. My voice failed when I described how, after the fall of Saigon, despite amoebic dysentery and pneumonia, I didn’t seek medical help because I so yearned to go home.

As I told these stories, I was greeted with total silence and rivetted attention. Every eye was on me. These men were with me. They understood.

I’ve given the fall of Saigon presentation more than forty times. This time, more than any other, I knew my audience was at one with me because they all had lived through experiences like mine. These men are my brothers. We share a bond like no other.

Points of View in The Trion Syndrome

The story of Dave’s downfall in The Trion Syndrome is told from two points of view, his and that of his wife, Mary. Using different viewpoints allowed me to show varying elements of the story. Dave and Mary saw events in contrasting ways, and each knew facts unknown to the other.

The two perspectives shed light on the failure of a marriage in which the partners truly loved each other. Each wanted more than anything else to stay with the other, yet chose to separate. What each knew and saw led to their decisions.

Key to narrative was that each partner withheld critical information from the other. Only toward the end of the book when the unshared information comes to light does the possibility of reconciliation become possible.

Poverty in Trion

In The Trion Syndrome, the protagonist Dave flees. His marriage has collapsed, he’s lost his job, his children won’t see him. His life is in ruins. He runs away to rural Maine where he ekes out a living as a gas station attendant, sleeps in a storage shed, and considers suicide. He lives in poverty.

I can write about poverty. I’ve been there. When I was a child, my lawyer father went to prison for embezzling money from his client. My mother was an alcoholic. We were so poor that at times I didn’t have anything to eat. Throughout high school and college, I worked for as much as twenty hours a week at part-time jobs to survive. I suffered my first bout of exhaustion at the end of my senior year in college (University of California, Berkeley) and missed my graduation ceremony.

In short, I know whereof I speak as I write about Dave’s squeaking by on next to nothing. Exemplary is his need to replace his watch, a necessity for a working man who deals with the public. He finds the money to buy the cheapest Timex by cutting back on what he eats.

In my case but not in Dave’s, my time of being poor taught me important lessons. I learned of my own resiliency. My self-reliance, born of having to take care of myself as a child when my parents were absent or unable, was honed. I was a better man for it. That knack for relying on myself saw me through the fall of Saigon.

Thomas Mann’s Retelling of the Trion Myth

In telling Dave’s story in The Trion Syndrome, I knew I needed to bring home the meaning of the Trion myth to him in a way that would penetrate his core. So I invented an unpublished novella by Thomas Mann based on the Trion myth and told of Dave’s discovery of the manuscript. In Mann’s retelling of the story, Dave believes he sees himself in the character of Trion Kretchmar, Mann’s protagonist, but doesn’t understand why. He later learns that the painful memories of what happened in combat in Vietnam have receded into his unconsciousness. He’s haunted by nightmares but can’t remember what happened.

Using Thomas Mann as the key to Dave’s mysterious attraction to the Trion myth worked well for several reasons. First, Dave is a German scholar and familiar with Mann as one of the best German writers of the twentieth century. Second, Mann is one of my favorite writers, and many of the themes of his masterpiece, Doktor Faustus, are echoed in Trion. Third, Mann typically chose myths as the basis of his stories, and the Trion tale would have appealed to him. With all the pieces fitting together so well, the story wrote itself—Dave finds an unpublished novella by Mann, apparently abandoned because Mann rewrote much of the material into Doktor Faustus. The Mann’s retelling of the Trion resonates with Dave and eventually leads to the re-entry of his experiences into his conscious memory.