Sideman by Gus Willemin

Former Marine Gus Willemin’s Sideman (Dancing Moon Press, 175 pp., $5.99, Kindle) is a beautiful novel that tells the story of Michael Harker, a Marine Corps Vietnam veteran. Better known as Sideman, Harker shows up in Newport, Oregon, after a ship sinks and pollutes the coastline with oil, which needs to be cleaned up. This event happened in 1983, and the book follows the family of a toy store proprietor and Sideman, who becomes a friend of his family. Sideman plays a saxophone under a bridge and in other public places.

Gradually the reader finds out more about Sideman, and so does the family who befriends him. He served one enlistment in the Marines. He has chosen to live in Nye Beach, Newport, Oregon.  He gets a $450 monthly disability check from the VA for PTSD. He served in South Vietnam in Northern I Corps along the DMZ.

When Sideman came back to the United States, he avoided close relationships for years.  Eventually he became close to Dulcie, whose brother had died in Vietnam. Sideman’s sleep patterns were disturbed since Vietnam. He spent time at the VA Hospital in Portland as an inpatient in the alcohol/drug unit. He talked about how the VA family fed and clothed them. He also talked about how he left for Vietnam alone and returned alone.

The novel gradually builds to a dramatic event that dominates the final section. When Sideman is playing in public and money is put into his saxophone case, meth addicts attempt to take his sax, probably to get the money they think is in the case. This results in Sideman killing one of the meth addicts with a knife. Sideman is arrested and tried for homicide.

Gus Willemin

“I’ve become conditioned to react in ways that served me well in combat,“ Sideman explains, “but are detrimental to me in society.”  The only thing he said when arrested was, “It don’t mean nothing,” which the author explains is a mantra that Vietnam veterans often intoned in country and at home.

Sideman ends up being convicted, as he refuses to allow anything bad to be said about the young man who assaulted him. He is sent to prison for twenty years where he dies at the age of sixty-one after thirteen years of incarceration. Sideman dies playing his horn in the music room with “a look of peace and contentment on his face.”

When Sideman first went into prison he found many Vietnam veterans there. They formed a support group. Later, when veterans of the recent wars in the Middle East started showing up, the older veterans tried to help them adjust to prison. Many were too angry to listen.

I highly recommend this powerful book. It made me think about how lucky I’ve been to avoid incarceration, and how easy it is to end up in prison, especially if you are a veteran.  Sideman’s defense attorney says, “His generation of vets is now in graves, in prisons, in mental institutions, or on the streets waiting for the ax to fall. They are not usually within our view or in the forefront of our minds.”

I’ve been in one of those categories, and am a ready candidate now for the first one, so this book really hit home. Many veterans will find this an important book to read.

The author’s website is http://guswillemin.com/wordpress

—David Willson

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