Looking for Flyboys by Tom Messenger

After saying he enlisted for three years in the Army, Tom Messenger takes only eighteen pages to reach Vietnam in Looking for Flyboys: One G.I.’s Journey: Vietnam 1970-1971 (Hellgate Press, 209 pp., $16.95 paper; $4.99, Kindle). Virtually every one of those pages contains touches of humor, revelations, and the author’s resignation to the inevitable. Fortunately, Messenger’s clever touches do not end there and run through the entire book. I read several passages aloud to my wife, and together we laughed or shook our heads in wonderment.

Messenger says he created this book as part of his treatment for PTSD. If so, then the task completely cured his malady: He now views his past with his eyes and mind wide open. His buoyant personality has a presence on every page and makes him as visible as his six-foot-seven-inch height.

Twenty and single, Messenger enlisted in the Army to avoid the life of a nine-to-five Chicago mortgage holder. Flying in helicopters was all he wanted to do. The only Basic Training classes he enjoyed were the grenade pits and the rifle range. He took a nonchalant approach to the rest of it.

Messenger’s next stop was the Fort Eustis School for Aviation. He worked conscientiously before going to Vietnam with the goal of earning a flight engineer rating in a CH-47 Chinook.

His first in-country flight convinced him that he had done the right thing. “The pilots started the engines,” he writes. “The blades were turning and we taxied down the runway, and I can honestly tell you it was the best high I ever had.” His helicopter took ground fire and, by returning it, Messenger warped the barrel of his M-60—a perfect way to bust his combat cherry.

After a short time as a gunner and crew chief, his dream came true. Messenger (above) upgraded to become a flight engineer of a “beautiful new ship,” a “reconditioned B model made into a Super C with new and more powerful Lycoming engines.” He picked his own crew chief and gunner, and lived for his machine, which Messenger describes as “the fastest and most powerful helicopter in the free world at the time.”

His year in the Vietnam War was crammed with action that provides one good story after another. Flying out of Camp Holloway and Phu Bai, Messenger took part in Dewey Canyon II; Lam Son 719 in Laos; an unnamed, large-scale emergency rescue of refugee women and children from Cambodia; the relocation of Montagnards in Vietnam; and many other missions.

Messenger also gives women—Vietnamese, Australian, and American—their due. Chapters such as “Old Girlfriends Are Just That” detail his youthful adventures in the world of romance.

This guy—Ex Spec5 Tom Messenger—can write. Sparkles of wisdom periodically flash out of the text. To wit:

—Some guys could take a lot of trauma, which is another name for combat.

—Your close friends kind of held you together. Everyone needs somebody to put things in perspective. We all need a mental twitch from time to time.

—You mask [cowardice] with self-medication, such as booze and drugs; mine was bourbon. But most of all you mask it with silence and denial…. Another weapon was anger, sort of like a controlled rage.

—Then it was my turn to say, “Are you fucking nuts, sir?” You can say almost anything to an officer if you put “sir” at the end of the sentence

Messenger, by the way, now lives near Chicago with wife, kids, mortgage, and lots of bills. But part of his heart is still in that Chinook.

—Henry Zeybel

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