Year of the Rooster by Ben Wanderin

Larry D. Goodson served two years in the U. S. Army and then returned to his home in the Pacific Northwest in 1970. The cover blurb of Year of the Rooster (CreateSpace, 250 pp., $15.95, paper) tells us that it is “mostly a short story collection from the memories of a combat veteran of the Vietnam War mingled with present day thoughts and actions ”  This book—written under the pseudonym “Ben Wanderin”—didn’t read like any short story collection I have in my collection.

In 1969 the main character is nineteen years old and is from the Pacific Northwest—somewhere near Seattle, perhaps, which is where I was living when I was drafted into the Army and where I returned when my war was over. I feel a kinship with this author for that reason and quite a few others.

I part company with the main character when he says, “the last thing he wanted was to feel like he had avoided the draft.”  I would have been okay with that.

Goodson uses a progression of emotion-distancing names for his main character. He starts as Cherry Boy. Next he is called Rifleman. Soon he is Gunner. Eventually he becomes Survivor. And also REMF.

Our hero describes his arrival in Vietnam in familiar terms. As he “stepped from the air-conditioned freedom bird into the blast furnace of the dry season, the stench had hit his nose like a fist.” Soon after that he gets a detail during which he burns shit in a steel drum. He says, “If you’ve never stirred burning shit with a stick…”  Thank you, I have done that.

At Cu Chi, our hero joins his unit, then heads for Trang Bang, then Fire Base Pershing, and then Firebase Stuart or Stewart. Both spellings are used.  “Cherry Boy would come to believe that the squad he joined was made of the greatest guys in Viet Nam, maybe in the world.”

As Rifleman, his main assignment is to be part of a squad that clears mines. “The idea was to find the mines in the road and keep the convoy from being ambushed while bringing supplies to the little sandbag fortress called home to some 105 howitzers, plus 4.2 and 81 MM mortars.”  With less than three months in the field, our hero becomes the machine gunner and senior man of his squad.

He becomes disillusioned and thinks that perhaps he wasn’t in Vietnam to “protect the people of South Vietnam from those evil communists he had been hearing about since the day he could hear anything at all.”  It seemed likely that we were, instead, “creating enemies every day out of neutral or friendly people.”

The Gunner is transferred to Cu Chi where he has a better chance to survive. This is when his name is changed to Survivor. And then he becomes a REMF.

“They were a part of the ten to one ratio of people in support of the one to ten outside the wire being referred to as combatants.” He becomes a combat correspondent.  For “a healthy person with all his marbles the job would have been a dream come true.”  He wasn’t that person.

Our hero’s time in Vietnam hits him hard.  “By now about the only things he really felt were fear or rage and most of the time he couldn’t tell the difference.”  He goes on to say, “Killing people is a fucked-up business to be in, but if it’s the job you’ve got, you’d better pay attention or you’ll be the one not telling your friends anything.”  I appreciated that piece of wisdom.

On the plane home, the so-called Freedom Bird, Survivor thinks, “people would respect him for what he had survived.” Think again, Survivor.

This novel reads like an elegy—an elegy for lost innocence, lost youth, and lost lives—both American and Vietnamese. While reading this book, I kept thinking of The Red Badge of Courage. Year of the Rooster has more in common with that classic than with any Vietnam War book I’ve read—both in tone and in distance.

Year of the Rooster is well-written and accessible. I would like it to be required reading in high schools, especially by those who think that joining the Army will result in a happier life.

—David Willson