Tom Conti’s My Cross to Bear (Janet Conti, 280 pp., $16.95, paperback), his self-described “novel’s narrative,” is awash with misspellings, grammatical errors, and unsubstantiated Vietnam War “facts.” The book does have meaningful passages and humorous anecdotes, along with tragic war recollections as it ebbs and flows randomly between the author’s truck-driving missions in the war and his present- day ministry as a chaplain to veterans and his Gospel of Jesus Christ ministry.
Conti’s reliance on his memory and his in-country journals are the strong points of this historical—and occasionally hysterical—work. Entering Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut Airport in October 1966 he spotted a sign saying ” Welcome to Vietnam—over 500,000 Americans are vacationing here this year.”
Conti was assigned to the Army’s First Infantry Division as a light supply truck driver. He kept a daily diary of his year in country, providing the basis for this book, as well as the strongest, sometimes comical, writing.
For instance: ” I came across a photo of a soldier sitting on a bunker somewhere in Nam. There was a sign on the bunker that said, ‘This Place Is No Place. This place is no place for there is no place on Earth like this place, so this has to be no place.'”
Recalling his truck convoys Conti writes: “By far the most dangerous cargo was troops. One day while loading troops the first one in slams his M-14 down. The bullet went through the truck cab and instantly killed the driver.”
Among the author’s wartime memories are several unauthorized procurement missions .”It was discovered that one of our trucks had a pallet load of Heineken beer, the personal stash of General Dupre,” Conti writes. “A hole was made in the camouflaged box which covered the beer labeling it as tomato juice to discourage theft. Well, it was a long convoy but we saved the General a six pack.The supervising Sergeant went ballistic but there was nothing he could do. Score one for the troops.”
Conti took more than forty years to write this “novel.” I hope he will write a sequel as he suggests. If he does, I encourage him to include more on events such as this second one involving Gen. Dupre:
“One Sunday we heard shots from a shotgun, not a common thing. A couple of us, curious enough to check it out, saw General Dupre and some ‘Bird Colonel’ breaking clay birds on the perimeter. The friendly Sergeant Major was throwing them up with a hand-held device. Only in Nam.”
Conti credits “Jesus and his Angels” with saving his life in Vietnam so that he could become a minister after his discharge and live on to complete this book.
Thinking back on his Army career, Conti writes: “After all is said and done I would not change too much. This was the hand I was dealt at the time and I had to play it to the best of my ability, with God’s help”.
Tom Conti took his honorable Army discharge and eventually became a veteran chaplain and ordained minister. He describes his life from 1968-1985 as “my closet years.” When he “came out” as a Vietnam veteran he became a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America and served as a State Chaplain for VVA in New Jersey.
I encourage him to think about compiling an anthology using his war diary and possibly organizing them as essays in lieu of chapters.
I would also urge other veterans to take inspiration from Tom Conti and put into your own words what you have experienced to share them with generations of readers to come.
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