Rolling Thunder by L. Erik Fleming

The back cover blurb of L. Erik Fleming’s Rolling Thunder (Strategic Book Publishing, 438 pp., $23, paper) tells us that the author is an air traffic controller and flight instructor. Nothing is said of military experience. Rolling Thunder is a romance novel set in the time of war. 

I’ve lost track of how many books and movies about the Vietnam War have used the words “rolling thunder.” But I believe it’s a first that the first sentence any of these works is in Vietnamese. It’s immediately translated into English, but the next paragraph also contains another Vietnamese sentence.

I wondered where this book was going. The back cover blurb tells us: “Welcome to Linh Thu, South Vietnam, where the Pathet Lao strikes nightly from just outside the base. Supplies are almost gone, and comfort and security are a fading memory. Into the melee arrives a recently broken-hearted fighter pilot hoping to serve his tour and go home, but that was before it was discovered he could speak the native language.” A tortured blurb, to be sure, but one packed with potential action.

The hero is Captain Jordan. The name conjures up a character from a Hemingway novel, but the prose does not. The book and its tiny print were heavy going for me at first. Too much flight jargon and no glossary. Among other terms I encountered:  Immelmanns, barrel rolls, furballs, high g Derry turn, climbing yo-yo, overshoot, and bug out.  Some I could guess at, but others remained a mystery.

Almost two hundred pages into this large novel Jordan’s fiancée Virginia lets him know that she has moved on and that one of the reasons is “your stupid war.” This happens in a phone call during which she also indicates that she has found a lover who suits her better, especially in the financial department. Captain Jordan gets to speak to his girlfriend’s new lover, a businessman who gives Virginia the large diamond she wants—not the tiny rock Captain Jordan scrimped and saved for.

Gradually his love interest becomes a local girl, the woman in charge of a store which seems to supply everything needed in a war zone, from a tiny piece that makes an air conditioner work to parts of anti-aircraft guns to shoot down American fighter planes. We are told several times that she is the most beautiful girl in the world, but she is also a communist.

Jordan deals with that. Most American military men of that time and place would not have been able to do so. He is exceptional.

He’s convinced that Washington does not want to win the war and that it’s all about the money. I can see his reasoning. Meanwhile, his buddies are dying as their planes are shot down, or they are being captured and held as POWs. The book presents several harrowing scenes of flyers brutalized in the Hanoi Hilton or a similar facility.

The book also endeavors, with some success, to present the reader with two NVA MIG pilots, Captain Phan and Colonel Tomb, skilled fighter pilots who take part in dog fights with the American pilots. Colonel Tomb is a convincingly evil Russian who lacks all courtesy and principles and even shoots to kill American pilots attempting to parachute to safety.

The politics of this book are a surprise to this reader. The usual rhetoric about American antiwar people is there, but other than that, the book seems primarily antiwar itself, not a celebration of America’s noble attempt to stem the flood of worldwide communism.

I don’t think I’m giving away too much when I say the book takes the reader to a successful POW rescue, home to America, to the dedication of The Wall in Washington, and on a pilgrimage by Captain Jordan back to Vietnam. There he receives redemption for the bombing of civilian villages during his war, including the village where his love interest lived.

It seems unrealistic to me, but I’ve not gone back to Vietnam to ask for forgiveness for my part in the American war there. For all of you who have made that journey, or considered it, I highly recommend this romance novel. It’s one of a kind.

—David Willson

When the Lion Roars by Gil Bogen

The reader is informed on the title page of Gil Bogen’s 
When the Lion Roars (Dragon Tree Books, 394 pp., $24.99) that this is “the true story of Dr. James Allen, the world’s leading authority on dioxin, a chemical used to defoliate the jungles of Vietnam during the Vietnam War.” Bogen, a free-lance writer, served in the U. S. Army Air Force and later as Chief of Staff at the VA North Chicago Hospital. He also and founded and served as president of nonprofit veterans’ health organization. 

I started reading the book with high hopes, even though the tiny print was a struggle for me. But by Chapter four the author’s historical novelistic approach to the subject bothered me. Bogen’s background is in writing sports biography. When I was ten, reading a Babe Ruth biography, it did not bother me to read the Babe’s reconstructed innermost thoughts. But it bothered me when I encountered sentences like these in the book:

“‘Quite a crowd I’ve got today,’ the pathologist thought to himself. He checked the small microphone fixed to his gown, eyed the corpse on the autopsy table and began.”

Bogen tells us he did a lot of interviews. But I still have trouble getting my mind around the author being inside the pathologist’s head at that moment.

This book is marketed as a serious adult biography of Dr. James Allen, albeit a fictional one. I expected a higher order of writing, but a compelling narrative does gradually unfold. The book begins to read like a mystery novel with unexplained deaths of people associated with Dr. Allen by injection of poison and by car bombs.

The plot thickens when Dr. Allen himself is framed on a sexual harassment charge by a mystery woman planted in his University of Wisconsin laboratory. Bogen hints that he has been set up by the FBI, Dow Chemical, and the university itself.  Accountants go through Dr. Allen’s records and find one illegal call he made and less than $1,000 in misused federal grant funds. Soon he’s back on his parents’ farm shoveling manure. His career as one of the world’s greatest scientists dealing with dioxins is over.

The officials at the university go along with Dow because of long-standing financial connections at risk due to Dr. Allen’s research. His studies showed that no matter how low the concentration of dioxins in Dow products, they were cancer causing, both in lab animals and, presumably, in people. This was not news that the university or Dow wanted broadcast.

Gil Bogen

I read this finely printed book in pain from my own multiple myeloma, which was caused by Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam. Which is to say that I am not a dispassionate reader of this book.

I found every page painful to read. The suffering of thousands of Vietnam veterans and their offspring—not to mention hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese—was caused by Dow and by our own government, which conspired to use dioxin-laced Agent Orange in Vietnam as a defoliant. As a direct result, it condemned thousands of us to early deaths from cancer.

Bogen’s book was engrossing, but I never got used to reading this dialogue-driven work of historical fiction. I kept thinking, “Where does this dialogue come from?” The author was not present during these conversations between Dr. Allen and his Vietnam veteran friends who tried to support him throughout the tribulations he suffered due to the persecution by the FBI, Dow Chemical, and the university.

On the other hand, the intimacy of the dialogue made me feel the pain of the people who were crushed by the weight of lawyers with billions of dollars behind them. This is a large book, but there no photos. I expected the book would contain at least one photo of Dr. Allen, perhaps the famous one of him holding up a vial of pure dioxin. There is also no index and no bibliography.Those absences disappoint this ex-reference librarian. There are acknowledgments to Dr. James Allen and to Frank McCarthy for “time and knowledge.” 

The dedication is to “Paul Reutershan, Frank McCarthy and other Vietnam veterans who died to keep America safe and free.” That dedication is well meant, as is the book.

I would like to read a scholarly book that explains how Dow Chemical got away with  ruining Dr. Allen’s career. The most he was guilty of was being an absent-minded professor innocent in the evil ways of the world he was working against, and a man who never got any redress or exoneration for what was done to him.

I kept hoping the book would have a happy ending. I hoped in vain.The evil world triumphed. I’m still waiting for a million dollar check from Dow and a letter of apology, too.

—David Willson

Lamb in a Jungle by Kenneth F. Teglia

Kenneth Teglia is a decorated field artillery forward observer (FO), who served in Vietnam with the Americal Division beginning in December 1969. He was attached to an infantry company as an FO, and was later a fire direction officer and an instructor in charge of special subjects for the division.

There is plenty about all of the things Teglia did in Vietnam in his memoir, Lamb in a Jungle: Conscience and Consequence in the Vietnam War (War Journal Publishing, 124 pp., $14.95, paper), especially some inside stuff on what it is like to be an artillery FO. Teglia makes the valid point that the risks were high no matter what your job was in Vietnam. Sappers might show up anywhere; rocket and mortar attacks often would rain down upon all positions no matter how lulled into feeling secure they might be.

Teglia has produced a slender, handsome, well-written, and well-organized book. The short chapters have titles such as “Fat Chance,” “Innocence,” “Pershing Rifles,” and “Intimate Relations.” I immediately started reading the latter, thinking it might be spicy. No sex, but lots of action of the military sort.

I was highly interested in “Pershing Rifles” as my grandfather served with Pershing in the Philippines. The famed general told my grandfather that he needed a haircut—at least that’s the story that Grandpa Homer told.

This small book introduced me to the elite organization of the Pershing Rifles, which I’d never heard of. If I had heard of it, I would have run in the other direction. It was a spit-and-polish unit for ROTC officers who liked to make things hard on themselves by learning a bunch of fancy marching and rifle maneuvering.

The second thing that this book introduced me to was the crazy notion that the Americal Division had mandatory sensitivity classes. The goal was to teach respect and understanding of the culture we were destroying in Vietnam. Teglia learned how to do this from Marines who taught such classes. He was then put in charge of a program for the Americal. This was nothing I encountered in the Army during my thirteen months in-country.

Ken Teglia

He tells us that some were not convinced that what he was doing was the right thing, but he had his orders and the blessings of a general who thought it was a good idea, so the program went forward. I doubt much sensitivity could be taught to the ordinary newly arrived enlisted man in Vietnam. I encountered few enlisted men who were open to the idea that Vietnamese culture had the validity and nobility of our fine American culture, which had produced such high water marks as Coca-Cola and Mickey Mouse.

In the exceptional array of photographs in this book, there is one priceless one showing a group of newly arrived Americal troops sitting in the author’s class looking as though they’ve been poleaxed and gob-smacked. The author attributes their look to “jet lag.” He is being gracious.

This short memoir is well worth reading for its insight and glimpses into Army subjects that other memoirs have not touched upon. Of course, Teglia mentions a lot of the usual: John Wayne, shit burning, REMFs, freedom birds, baby killers, FNGs, Vietnamization, hearts and minds, snakes and leeches, friendly fire, and million dollar wounds.

The human condition and how to arrive at a more harmonious world through education are two less common concepts the author discusses.  He also makes some interesting observations about William Calley and the My Lai Massacre.

The book has a great cover for a memoir, a color photo of the author, movie-star handsome, in Vietnam. He is smiling and barefoot, and all of his equipment is strewn around him. He is obviously happy to be where he is, in the boonies, and at war.

For a matter-of-fact, intermittently exciting look at what an Army lieutenant might encounter in a year’s tour in Vietnam, I highly recommend Teglia’s book.

For ordering info, go to

—David Willson

Death Zones & Darling Spies by Beverly Deepe Keever

Beverly Deepe Keever spent more than seven years as a magazine and newspaper correspondent covering the war in Vietnam. She arrived in 1962 at age twenty-six as a free-lance reporter after having received her MA in journalism from Columbia Journalism School. She left in 1969, after writing countless articles, mainly for Newsweek, the Christian Science Monitor. and the New York Herald Tribune.

In her new memoir, Death Zones and Darling Spies: Seven Years of Vietnam War Reporting (University of Nebraska Press, 360 pp., $26.95), Beverly Deepe Keever does an excellent job of recounting her unique Vietnam War experiences. The book, she notes, is “more than just my re-reporting of the Vietnam War or my instant replay of the history that I witnessed.” In her book Keever fills out what she experienced with information that she couldn’t write about at the time—mainly from secret government documents about the war that later surfaced in The Pentagon Papers.

When Keever arrived in Saigon only eight other Western correspondents were working there full time. All were men, including Neil Sheehan, Francois Sully, and Malcolm Brown. David Halberstam arrived shortly after Keever did. When Beverly Keever left Vietnam seven years later more than six hundred journalists were on the scene.

Beverly Keever

The war was very different in 1962 and 1968 and Keever was among the very few correspondents who witnessed the massive changes that took place as the U.S. effort grew from a relatively small advisory force to more then a half million Americans troops on the ground by the middle of 1968.

Her memoir, therefore, is unique among the many first-person Vietnam War accounts by former correspondents because Keever was present and reported on the war in the early, mid,and late sixties. She was there in November of 1963, for example, covering the violent overthrow of the regime of South Vietnamese Premier Ngo Dinh Diem; and Keever was there with the Marines at the Siege of Khe Sanh in the spring and summer of 1968.

The “darling spies” Keever’s subtitle refers to are Pham Xuan An, who worked closely with Keever and other American correspondents—and after the war was unmasked as having been a VC colonel who was feeding information to the North Vietnamese—and An’s message passer, Nguyen Thi Ba, “a gray-haired vendor of children’s toys,” as Keever puts it, “who had taken up the revolutionary cause in 1940.”

—Marc Leepson

Flashes of War: Short Stories by Katey Schultz

Katey Schultz grew up in Portland, Oregon. She says in her book’s Epilogue that she has “no immediate ties to the military.” After reading her Flashes of War: Short Stories (Apprentice House, 188 pp., $16.95, paper), that’s pretty clear.

In her Acknowledgements, Schultz indicates she made a serious effort to get military details right. She thanks Sergeant First Class Warren Bockhol ”for weapons accuracy and his description of a Forward Operating Base.”  She also thanks Doug Stanton for his book, Horse Soldiers, and Karen Button, a former war correspondent.

Reading the Acknowledgements made me eager to see how this research and her thirty-one months of traveling the United States while writing the book, showed up on the page.

The military false notes that hit me are minor ones, but they did bother me a bit. In the story “The Ghost of Sanchez” a “team of Marines repelled off the sides”  The correct word is “rapelled.”  In “Deuce Out” in an Army recruiter’s office a female sergeant calls another sergeant “Sir.” Unless she was being ironical or sarcastic, no sergeant would address another as “Sir.”  Maybe the character was being sarcastic, but the usage still set my teeth on edge.

I don’t know how much research and travel Stephen Crane invested in Red Badge of Courage, but I suspect he listened to some tall tales from tobacco-chewing Civil War veterans. He wrote a great novel—a book for the ages.

This book has a great cover featuring a dramatic photo of one of those little green plastic soldiers that my sons played with when they were little—the ones that have their feet fastened to a bit of plastic so they can stand up.  This soldier appears to holding a rocket launcher over his head. He casts a big shadow, as does childhood play with such toys.

This motif is repeated throughout the book in tiny drawings as if to remind us of a connection between childhood toys and growing up and choosing to go to war. The global war on terrorism is what a character calls it in “Deuce Out.”

I counted thirty-one stories in this book. They are short, as the title indicates. The stories are an average of a bit over five pages each. Many are far shorter. For instance, the first one, “While the Rest of America is at the Mall,” is one page, plus three lines. It’s more of a prose poem than a story. It is made strong and memorable by its images. Bullets, for example, glitter “like Hershey Kisses.”

“Home on Leave” begins and ends with rhubarb pie and is note perfect in between. It’s a fobbit story, involving troops who don’t get out of their forward operating bases. These soldiers used to be called REMFs back in the day.  But the scorn that can come from veterans who saw lots of combat is still there and comes across full bore.

I found two important, overt references to the Vietnam War. One refers to the notion that in the ‘Nam you knew that things were about to get bad if the crickets stopped chirping. I always heard that referred to as frogs, not crickets. I never saw a cricket in Vietnam. They may have been there, but I never saw or heard them.

Katey Schultz

The second reference to the Vietnam War comes near the beginning of the last story, “The Quiet Kind.”  An “old-timer” wearing a Vietnam veteran’s cap and limping “like his right side carries half a pound of shrapnel” enters the hardware store where the story’s hero Nathan works. The old vet buys some “Torx head screws” and some “hurricane brackets” from Nathan, a recently returned veteran. After buying the stuff the vet mentions to Nathan that he saw Nathan’s picture in the paper and he welcomes him home. Nathan says, “Thank you, sir.”  But the Vietnam veteran does not stop there.

I feel that his next comment is meant to be negative, a putdown to Nathan, a trivializing of his war experience. The gimpy Vietnam veteran says, “That’s a different war over there now, isn’t it?  GPS units and NVGs.”

There is no more conversation, just a shrug from Nathan and Nathan’s thoughts that are shared with the reader. No thoughts about the Vietnam veteran—only about coming home and what a farce it was. The old-timer leaves and someone asks Nathan how many tours the old-timer might have had done. Nathan says that it was hard to say, “a lot kept going back.”

“Like you?” the guy asks. “Yeah, like me. Sort of.”

The other guy says, “We’re all glad you made it back in one piece,” and tells Nathan how much better he looks than the old-timer. Nathan thinks about what this means, but maintains a calm exterior and thanks the guy.

This scene is all about appearances. Any Vietnam veteran knows that the old-timer might not have served multiple tours. Maybe he was there a few days when he got hit. Or maybe the limp is due to a hunting accident or a motorcycle accident after he got back. Maybe he had polio as a kid. Maybe he did serve in the military, but didn’t make it to Vietnam, and he wears that Vietnam veteran cap wrongly, a sort of “Stolen Valor” thing. Anything is possible. We’ve encountered it all.

We never see the old-timer again in this story. After all, it is Nathan’s story.  We root for Nathan. We want him to rejoin his beloved wife and daughter and to have another child and for his life to be happy. We will never know for sure, but this story leaves us with the sense of that possibility. Most of the stories in this book don’t kid us with hope.

The thirty-one stories are all over the place, representing much more than just an American veteran’s point of view, such as Nathan’s. We hear from soldiers‘ wives and widows as well, and from the “enemy.” I was reminded of stories in Robert Olen Butler’s book, A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain that inhabit the consciousness of Vietnamese refugees in the United States. A few stories in this book also are successful with that method.

One of Schultz’s stories that haunts me is “Deuce Out” told from the point-of-view of Steph, the kid sister of Dustin, who has shipped out for Afghanistan. Steph wants to join him there, so she lifts weights, trains hard, visits recruiters, and chooses as her MOS one that involves combat support. She gets what she wished for.

The story is told from beginning to end, quite powerfully, from Steph’s innocent point-of-view. This is a story I’d like to require any young woman (or man) to read before she or he visits a recruiters’ office. This is the ultimate gloom-and-doom story, told calmly and matter-of-factly.

In “Stars Over Afghanistan,” told from an Afghan point-of-view, the phrase  “this endless war” is used. In another story, Americans are referred to as invaders. I can see how Afghans might think of war as endless, just as I can see how Americans hardly know we are at war, unless they are at the airport taking off their shoes. The title of the first story in this collection sets that tone: “While the Rest of America Is At the Mall.”

We can be oblivious because the impact on us is low. Only by making this book of stories mandatory reading can Americans become aware of the butcher’s bill of war. The cost is high, but it is mostly out of sight and mind, unless you choose to ruin your day by visiting a VA hospital or by reading these stories.

Schulz made the effort to break out of her life for thirty-one months to find out “the impacts of war inside the family home” and in “the far reaches of an individual’s mind.” We should honor her efforts by reading her book ,which bears “witness to the complexity of hope and suffering.”

That’s from the Epilogue. I saw far more suffering than hope in these stories, but it is something we need to see. Perhaps it is my Vietnam War heebie-jeebies. You be the judge.

The author’s website is

—David Willson

Dreaming Nicaragua by David Gullette

David Gullete’s first novel, Dreaming Nicaragua (Fenway Press, 257 pp., $18.50, paper), comes with a two-page loose-leaf set of instructions on how the book should be read.

Gullette is a Professor Emeritus at Simmons College, where he teaches English and literature classes. I found no information in the book or in the enclosed sheets about any military service in Vietnam or elsewhere.

We are told that Jesse Pelletier, the novel’s main character, is a Vietnam veteran, a Marine, and that the realistic portion of this novel takes place the summer of 2000 in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. Jesse’s old war buddy Tapper also appears in the story at several points and enlivens things for Jesse and for the reader.

The author cautions that parts of the novel have caused “some puzzlement, even befuddlement.” Thanks for that warning. I’m old and tired, so I took special care while reading this novel.

The cover did not cause me to expect much. It’s a color photo of a muddy, rocky beach, presumably in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. It doesn’t seem like a cover of a serious literary novel.

The book is filled with beautiful old images of Nicaragua torn from the pages of Frank Leslie’s Weekly that would have worked well on the cover. This cover looks like a travel book. It is, but just a little bit. Mostly it is not. Mostly it is about Yanqui incursions into Nicaragua from the 1850’s to the year 2000, from General Walker and Cornelius Vanderbilt to the Dry Canal.

A huge amount of the book deals with myriad plans to build a canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean across the isthmus of Nicaragua. Before I started reading this novel, I didn’t even know Nicaragua had a coastline, let alone two, and I didn’t know it was an isthmus. I couldn’t even spell or pronounce the word. Now I feel as though I’m a minor authority on the subject. My point: This book is not for those with an aversion to history, old maps, or lengthy quotes from old history books.

I loved  the book, even though in my six years of university life, I never took even one history or geography course. This book makes the subjects so interesting I found myself wishing I had. The author’s ploy of placing the “imaginary gringo” Jesse Pelletie, Selig-like at the center of Nicaraguan history worked for me. It was an involving way to bring alive those ancient days when Commodore Vanderbilt was fleecing thousands of California Gold Rush-bound pilgrims

Once the reader gets past the possible confusion that the novel contains two characters who both have the name Jesse Pelletier, and that one of them is the “real” modern-day Jesse and that the other one is an alter ego Jesse, and gets into the back-and-forth rhythm of the switching narratives and the interruptive scholarly notes (and definitions and other fun experimental narrative devices), the reader can fully enjoy a book that has surprises and challenges on almost every page.

The author uses most every device ever used by any sort of a novelist to tell his story.  One of the oldest is in the form of letters—epistolary.  Gullette bills his novel as “The Illustrated Postmodern Historical novel” and he is right, but it is all of that and still fun to read.

I found the center of the novel, narrated in this epistolary fashion by Elden, the wife of a Gold Rush miner, George, to be beautifully done, enthralling and heart-grabbing, as she tries to make her way by boat and overland through Nicaragua to join George in California.  The letters are filled with the sort of closely observed details that could only have been seen by a person who was there then and up to her ears in bad food, insects, death by fever, and lies.

Another aspect of the novel that delighted this reader is the lists. There are dozens of them—perhaps hundreds—of all possible lengths and including dazzling images and odd and strange objects and notions. The author’s juxtapositions in these lists are the primary pleasure, and I’m tempted to include a list or two to support my assertion, but in isolation from the text, they might not amuse or amaze the reader.  So you can buy and read the novel, which, I highly encourage you to do.

Not since I read John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor decades ago have I found a novel that so brings alive a corner of history about which I had not bothered to give a thought. It is not fair or right that this novel is likely to languish without ever receiving a cult following or getting a sendoff from a notable publisher. But that is how things are these days for serious literary novels. We can only hope it finds a small niche so that it does not fade and die without a whimper.

Even though this is an experimental novel, it has a story, as well as strong and interesting characters that a reader cares about, and it doesn’t really need sheets of detailed instructions to be read with pleasure by a reader looking for an exotic escape on a rainy day.

I’m a Vietnam veteran father of a college-aged daughter, so when Jesse’s previously estranged daughter, Suzy, appears in San Juan del Sur, I was prepared to enjoy the dramatics of a father getting one more chance to be a father to his only daughter. I was not disappointed.

Soon Suzy falls in love with Camilo Sanchez, “a high profile ecological agitator” who disappears after she has given him her heart, and is “presumed to be dead, somewhere in a ditch.” Or perhaps he’s holed up in the backwoods with one of his many lovers. This reader hoped he was but thought the “dead in a ditch theory” was a good one.  

The book has a lot going on: a serial killer leaving dead bodies on the beach; a thunder and lightning storm at sea that leaves Jesse, the modern version, stranded in a boat with a couple of dubious characters; and a tidal wave that almost destroys the town.

There are some similarities to John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. Trilogy in the use of collage, but I find this book much more of a delight to read. One of the blurbs calls it a tapestry, but tapestries are static and this book is anything but that. It moves on every page. I kept reading it for a lot of reasons, but mostly because I wanted to find out what was going to happen to the characters I cared about.

I was happy that the book did not go on about Vietnam veterans being labeled baby killers, but Gullette does deal with Vietnam veterans coming out of the war “feeling harassed by American history,” and suffering from “Nam heebie-jeebies.”  As a fellow-sufferer for many years, I related. When our hero intersects with the VA, the observations made are familiar ones. They do not help him.

As one more Vietnam veteran who still suffers from the “Nam heebie-jeebies” but who is doing just fine now, thank you, I loved this book and hope it will find a large and appreciative audience.

I want to make it clear to prospective readers how I feel about this book. I absolutely loved it. I loved both Jesse Pelletiers. I loved every other character, major and minor, good and evil, and I even loved Jesse’s ex-wife and her new husband when they showed up unexpectedly in Nicaragua.

I loved learning about Nicaragua—about its history, its flora and fauna, its customs and about the United States’ long entanglement with that country. The author managed the miracle of all of this without being didactic, boring or irritating. I take my hat off to him.

If I could travel, I’d get busy and buy a ticket to Nicaragua, and I’d make reservations at Jesse Pelletier’s cheap beachfront hotel, Ospedaje Gringo Pinolero, in San Juan del Sur.  But my traveling days are done, so I give thanks to David Gullette for enabling me to make this exotic journey without my leaving my Zero Gravity chair here in Maple Valley, Washington.

Reading this book brought me back, magically, to when I was ten years old in Yakima, at the old Carnegie Library reading travel books and dreaming of exotic lands that I would travel to in my adulthood. The only exotic land I made it to was Vietnam, with the help of the U. S. Army. Now with the help and genius of David Gullette, I have made it to Nicaragua.

For info on ordering, go to

—David Willson

Prelude to Reveille by S. D. Sawyer

The book cover blurb informs us that S.D. Sawyer’s first novel, Prelude to Reveille: A Vietnam Awakening (CreateSpace, 398 pp., $15.95, paper), is about “the waiting wife experience during the Vietnam War.” That was a new category of novel to me, although it shouldn’t have been.

I served in the Army in Vietnam. I was married at the time, and my wife was home in Seattle. I’d never thought of her as a “waiting wife,” so I looked forward to reading this book to see how the waiting wife did or did not resemble the wife of mine who was in Seattle while I served in Vietnam.

Disclaimer: I wrote a book about that experience, In the Army Now,(published by Burning Cities Press), which (like this book) is written in alternating sections in which the stories of each of the characters are told to the reader.

Because I tried to do that very difficult feat in my novel, I am inclined to be compassionate toward this author, her book, and the main characters, Meg and Tom Barrington. I recognize how hard it is to be fair to one’s characters and to make their experiences come alive. Sawyer does a good job of doing this.

Meg is a schoolteacher and Tom is a lieutenant in the Army. He joined up to avoid being drafted. His recruiter promised that he’d get to choose his MOS—that old familiar story.

Tom believed the recruiter, who had lied to him, and ended up Infantry.  Surprise, surprise, as Gomer Pyle would say.

The alternating stories of the two characters are told masterfully and are both equally interesting. Do not sell this author short because she is female and not a veteran. She does a great job with the Vietnam War sections and both the action and the language are realistic and are not for the squeamish.

If you don’t believe me about the language, turn to page 287 when you buy this book, which I recommend to all who wish to read a novel that deals with both sides of the story of a married couple dealing with the Vietnam War. To make things even more challenging, Meg is pregnant while Tom is gone.

The section of the book on how the army hospital handles her delivery is not for the sensitive. It really nails how unenlightened that era was in its treatment of women. Sawyer pulls no punches in this section—or in any of the others that show the Army’s ancient codes at work. She is fair minded, though, and does point out the things the Army did right.

I’d forgotten what life in the 1960s was like; this book lays it out and nails it down. Certain kinds of middle class white people had their lives prescribed for them by the codes and rules that were fast breaking down in the greater society.  For one thing, Army officer wives were not even allowed to wear miniskirts, if you can imagine that.

We encounter the usual stuff that we find in Vietnam War novels that deal with the return to America. The “baby killer” thing is mentioned five separate times. I admit it—I feel sort of left out. I never was called a baby killer one time, nor was I spat upon.

I was at the University of Washington finishing up a degree at the same time Tom Barrington was finishing up his senior year. This was in 1970, the time of the Kent State killings and Nixon’s decision to invade Cambodia.

I was heavily involved in antiwar demonstrations so it was interesting to get Meg Barrington’s point of view on all of that stuff. I didn’t give it much thought at the time. So it knocked me for a loop to read that Tom Barrington was crushed by what was going on and that it made it difficult for him to go to the campus each day to take his classes. It makes sense to me now, but at the time, I had not one thought about it.

S.D. Sawyer

The author makes the point that Tom chose to continue to look military even after he left the Army; i.e. he kept his short haircut. It is beyond me why anyone would have done that. Maybe he thought he was being true to himself or to the men he left behind in Vietnam.

It was also eye-opening to read of Meg Barrington’s frantic attempts to find counseling for her returned veteran husband and that nothing was available. The VFW,  the American Legion, the VA, and the churches had nothing going for veterans who needed or wanted counseling.

My memory of approaching the VFW was that I was told they had room there only for veterans of “real wars.” I got the point.

Most Vietnam vets figured out pretty quickly that they were not welcome at the VFW or the other organizations dominated by “old farts” of the World War II generation. Some of us swore we would not treat the veterans of America’s next wars like that.

That, by the way, is where Vietnam Veterans of America’s Founding Principle comes from: “Never Again Will One Generation of Veterans Abandon Another.”

Both of the main characters in this novel, Meg and Tom, came alive for me and I cared about both of them. I wished I had access to them and could knock their heads together and tell Tom how to make things easier for himself on campus and Meg to back off and let Tom find his way, to not be so hard on him about the souvenir gun he brought back from the war.

But, of course, I could not do that. Folks in novels (and in real life) have to be left alone to bumble along. It’s painful, but there is its. Don’t mean nothin’, as the novel tells us more than once.

I highly recommend this novel, both as a good read and as a glimpse into the lives of tormented souls, good souls who struggle to get through a tormented time and stay strong in their love.

It’s not a certainty that veterans and their wives will make it. Part of the butcher’s bill of war is the death of relationships. Sawyer demonstrates that sad fact well in this solid novel of awakening and self-discovery.

The author’s website is

—David Willson