The Outside Lands by Hannah Kohler

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Hannah Kohler’s The Outside Lands (St. Martin’s, 304 pp., $25.99, hardcover; $12.99, Kindle) is a work of fiction and a good-sized one. The cover shouts Vietnam War: a helmet lies like a turtle on its back with a poppy growing out of it. The helmet cover is in good shape and is not ripped or blood stained. There also is a peace symbol in the shape of a tennis ball, blue and white.

Hannah Kohler was raised in England. She studied English and American literature at Cambridge and began writing this Vietnam War novel while studying for her Masters in Creative Writing at City University, London.  Kohler lives in London with her American husband. The Outside Lands is her first published novel.

It is set in San Francisco in 1968. The main characters, a brother and sister—Jeannie and Kip—are “lost and half-orphaned, their mother dead under mysterious circumstances, and their father—a decorated WWII veteran—consumed by guilt.”

Kip joins up to go fight in Vietnam. Jeannie chooses an early marriage and motherhood. Kip is accused of fragging his CO and ends up in jail. Prior to that, he was assigned to artillery, which is described as “practically in the rear.” We’re told “war is not for everybody.”  No kidding.

Along the way, there are references to John Wayne, Audie Murphy, Al Capone, Buffalo Bill, Woody Strode, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Roy Orbison, as well as to Iwo Jima, Deadwood, and Seattle. Even “Gunsmoke” and “Bonanza” are mentioned. We’re told about friendly fire, that Marines don’t leave their dead behind, and the revolting nature of ham and motherfuckers.

I expected more anachronisms, but was happy they didn’t appear. Except for M16s. Did Marines have them in 1965? I believe it was more like 1967. I know that there were problems with them and many Marines lamented giving up their M14s.

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Hannah Kohler

Kip ends up in Leavenworth in 1975. Jeannie watches the NVA takeover of Saigon on TV.  “They watched helicopters drag and fall into the ocean, their blades churning spray like smoke, their tadpole heads sinking in the water,” Kohler writes.

There are some truly unlikely coincidences and happenstances in this very literary novel that I won’t explore. The author thanks retired Marine Lt. Col. Ron Coulter, who helped with her research.

Hannah Kohler pursued a dream in writing this book.  A blurb on the back cover refers The Outside Lands as “‘an exhumed history’ of a misbegotten war.”

Aren’t all wars misbegotten?  They seem so to me.

—David Willson

 

 

Confessions of a Surviving Alien by Jon Meade

 

As a raconteur par excellence, Jon Meade possesses a huge but tolerable ego because his interactions with other people aim at betterment for all. In Confessions of a Surviving Alien: A Memoir of a Life Defined by One Word—Vietnam (Trafford, 504 pp. $39.99, hardcover; $25.95, paper; $6.99, Kindle), Meade presents a long, highly detailed account of his first fifty years of life, four with the Marine Corps that included a 1966-67 tour in Vietnam.

The middle half of the book deals with Meade’s time in the Marine Corps. In it, he talks about many events that were new to me, such as a USO Nancy Sinatra performance for his unit that turned into a riot; the life and death of a nine-year-old Vietnamese prostitute; and a Marine killing another Marine, practically in front of him. Meade clearly distinguishes between what he saw and hearsay.

Meade wanted infantry duty, but instead was sent to Vietnam as a welder with the Ninth Engineer Battalion near Chu Lai. He did get to be a perimeter guard, but never engaged in the higher level of combat that he desired.

A twist of fate made Meade an orderly for disfigured combat casualties. Concurrently, he learned that many of his boot camp comrades had been killed in their initial combat encounters. A realization that luck had kept him alive created life-long survival guilt.

He spent his final two Marine Corps years as a military policeman at Lemoore Naval Air Station in California. Stories from that period center on his determination, along with Vietnam veteran coworkers, to maintain discipline among sailors, frequently through intimidation or force. What he saw as unnecessarily harsh punishment for twelve of his fellow Marines for drug use shrouded his honorable discharge.

Growing up in Minneapolis with parents who acted unpredictably, Meade found excellent role models among relatives and friends. Most of the stories from his teenage years involve mental and physical confrontations between males with overabundant testosterone levels. He boxed and lifted weights and grew quick and strong for his age.

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Jon Meade

A sort of controlled turmoil filled Meade’s post-Marine life: Marriage, journalism school, boxing, buying and selling houses, four children, separation from the woman he calls “MyWife,” changing jobs, a reunion with “MyWife,” Mr. Mom duties, divorce, more conflicts with “Ex-Wife,” many romances, good and bad jobs, absent-father guilt, minor roles in movies, and more romances, all amid commuting in California, Utah, and Minnesota.

Jon Meade offers more than his life story. He presents strong opinions about life and labor in an honest and orderly fashion. He also has a strong desire to help other people, despite the heavy demand required to help himself cope with guilt for living through the war.

All things considered, Jon Meade impresses me as a good guy to have on your side.

—Henry Zeybel

Duty Is Ours, Results Are God’s by Randall Jansen

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Randall Jansen, the author of Duty Is Ours, Results Are God’s: A Marine’s Story of Duty and His Search For Truth (Tate, 189 pp., $12.95, paper: $10.99, Kindle), wanted to be a career Marine. In his book, Jansen succinctly tells his life story, including his belief that God’s plan for him included formal Bible study, theology, and becoming a Chaplain after his discharge.

Jansen’s transition from helicopter pilot to sky pilot began on April 29, 1966, when he was wounded near Chu Lai. On his 24th birthday, three days later, aboard the hospital ship U.S.S. Repose, a Navy doctor told him, “After surgery, you will have limited use of your arm, and your Marine career is finished.”

Jansen had joined the Marines in 1961 after deciding he was unprepared for college. He soon met his first Marine DI, who emphatically told him, Jansen writes, that “if I ever did anything again without permission he would jump onto my shoulders and unscrew my head. I was no longer in charge of myself.”

Having graduated from Marine Aviation Training and Officer Candidate School, Lt. Jansen’s first assignment was on the U.S.S. Donner for a six-months Mediterranean cruise. It included stops in Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Holland, France, and Greece. “I was having the time of my life,” Jansen writes. “I would have made the cruise for free.”

His next assignment took Jansen to the Caribbean on the helicopter carrier U.S.S. Guadalcanal for three months. His squadron spent six months in Okinawa before arriving in Da Nang in October 1965. The first thing Jansen saw was “an H-34 helicopter (the type I had spent the last twenty-two months flying) parked on the ramp. It was riddled by bullets. The instant I laid eyes on it, I knew without a doubt that I was going to be hurt.” He was correct.

In February 1966, Jansen received his first Purple Heart. Ten days later he was hit again while flying—and had another close call with death. If the bullet that hit him had been a “quarter of an inch front or back,” he writes, “it would have entered my right buttock and traveled through my heart and lungs.” Jansen credits God for the fact that the survived 248 missions in Vietnam.

He was wounded the last time soon after returning from R&R. That led to his discharge in 1970. As a civilian Jansen found himself incensed by the government, protesters, and the media. “My anger was eating me up,” he writes. “Finally I came to my senses and told the Lord that I forgave everyone. The lesson was simple. Forgive everybody for everything, because God forgave us much more.”

In his early forties, however, Jansen found himself out of work and “the peace and joy I had known most of my life was evaporating.” He began to question why there is evil in the world, and had deeper thoughts about truth, evolution, and the place of science in the origin of the universe.

He found his answers in his strong Christian beliefs.

—Curt Nelson

Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson

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Jacqueline Woodson, who was born in 1963, is a prolific, award-winning author who specializes in books for children and young adults. Brown Girl Dreaming, her 2014 best-selling memoir, won a National Book Award. Woodson’s latest book, Another Brooklyn (Amistad, 192 pp., $22.99), is an adult novel with a strong sexual focus.

Much of it deals with what eight-year old August views of her neighborhood while caring for her little brother in Brooklyn in the 1970s. The scene from her third floor window often reminded me of the Hitchcock movie, Rear Window, both in tone and content.

August is befriended by three other neighborhood girls—Sylvia, Angela and Gigi—and the sexual tone intensifies. The main thrust of their conversations and concerns is the peril they are in due to their developing bodies and the unrest this causes in the men of all ages they who surround them.

The Vietnam War is often mentioned in this slender, dream-like book, and never in a positive way. One of Woodson’s most graphic images is of a returned veteran who is armless but who has taught himself how to shoot dope using his teeth.

“A man who used to be a boy on our block walked the streets in his Army uniform, armless,” August says. “My brother and I watched him from our window, watched his head dipping down like a bird tucking itself beneath its own wing.”

Wartime Vietnam is where the men who took advantage of the young girls went to die. The girls went south with their pregnancies, not to return. No mention of birth control is ever made in this book.

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Jacqueline Woodson

I could give many more examples of how the Vietnam War makes an appearance in this small book, but the one I described hits so hard, I will only offer only one other. “As the damage of the war staggered, strung-out and bleary eyed along our block, Miss Dora greeted every ex-soldier who passed,” Woodson writes. “Glad y’all made it home, she said. We’ll see my boy in the by and by.”

As a blurb on the back of the book by Ann Patchett puts it, this is a fever dream of a book. It’s probably not aimed at my demographic, but I couldn’t put it down.

Every page reeks with danger, and I found myself glad that I spent the early seventies in a very different place. Seattle had its problems, but African-American girls there were aware of birth control. I was a welfare caseworker then, so I know of what I speak.

—David Willson

Secret Choices by Tom Puetz

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Tom Puetz’s Secret Choices (Dragon Tale Books, 232 pp., $14.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is a book of fiction. But Puetz draws heavily on his own personal history for the meat of his narrative. He grew up on a farm in Indiana, served as an infantry sergeant in the Vietnam War, and was honorably discharged in December 1969.

He shares with the main character, Tom Warden, an employment record of twenty years of random jobs of all kinds, until he found stability. The book alternates chapters between his time in South Vietnam and 1984 in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, at his high school reunion. The book ends in 1970 in Freeland, Indiana, when Tom has been back from Vietnam for two months and attending Indiana University in Bloomington.

He’d made this plan because that was what he was going to before he got drafted. But Tom can’t stick to a plan made when he was a very different man. Then comes twenty years of trying to find himself. The black dog of rage follows him everywhere. He keeps a sidearm with him at all times and an ice cooler of beer in the back of his pickup truck.

This is one of the rare Vietnam War infantry novels in which the return-home section is well developed. Tom Warden gets involved in an interesting and believable subplot involving numbers running and murder. He handles himself well and does not become a patsy. I won’t become a spoiler and say any more.

Secret Choices is a worthy, well-written novel. Both male and female characters are fleshed out and engrossing to read about. This reader cared about the people on these pages.  The cover—which is misleading to say the least—is striking nevertheless.

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Tom Puetz

Secret Choices explores serious issues such as the treatment Vietnam veterans received when they returned home and realized that their country was lost to them. I remember the aloneness I felt when I returned to Seattle from Binh Hoa—something Puetz effectively evokes in the last chapters of the book. This makes Secret Choices much more than just a thriller, which it also is.

Thanks to Tom Puetz for a very good first novel.

His website is secretchoices.homestead.com

—David Willson

Kissing the Tarmac by James Hansen

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James Hansen in Vietnam in 1968

The wonder of it all never ceases: Young men go to war, survive unimaginable trauma, come home emotionally troubled, and struggle to get on with their lives. Draftee James Hansen’s memoir—Kissing the Tarmac: Winning the War With PTSD (Stories To Tell, 164 pp. $14.95, paper)—is the latest book written by a veteran who found it difficult to understand how and why he deserved to live through the Vietnam War.

During nine months of search-and-destroy missions, Hansen says that he accumulated a burden of “sorrow, regret, shame, and guilt.” Forty-nine men from his unit —Charlie Co., 2/501st Infantry, 101st Airborne—died in action during 1968-69 when Hansen served

Luck played an inordinate role in Hansen’s survival, a fact that he fully recognizes. He graphically describes how men died around him and in his arms while he remained relatively untouched physically. Every death, however, added to the emotional toll. Decades passed before he began to understand and work on the psychological effects of his post-traumatic stress disorder.

In civilian life, Hansen filled all the squares: He married, found success in his work, and built a family. At the same time, though, he felt restless, frequently changed jobs, moved from town to town, drove his wife to a divorce, and abandoned his family.

Hansen wastes no words in recalling the past. He tells what he did and what he saw in combat without seeking sympathy or understanding from the reader. He takes a similar approach to his PTSD. Overall, the book fulfills its goals: first, to cure Hansen, and second, to offer a plan of relief for others confronted by PTSD.

“There’s nothing groundbreaking here in the field of PTSD research,” he writes, “but these ten steps worked for me.” Writing the book was a big part of the treatment that helped to rid him of suppressed anxiety.

Hansen also wrote the book for his two sons and three grandsons, with whom he “never shared anything about the Vietnam War until now.” An in-country diary that he calls the Little Red Notebook and 224 letters  he wrote home served as guides to his recalling the war as part of PTSD counseling. That material had sat untouched in storage for decades.

It is easy to find interest in Hansen’s accounts of searching for the NVA. He jumps from one sudden, unexpected action to another. Although he describes much that has been written about before, he presents those events in a unique voice that makes them special to him. The mercilessness shown by men in his unit appalled him, for example, and yet he admits to having behaved in equally merciless ways.

In Vietnam, James Hansen was a young man within a man searching amid chaos to find an identity. He ended up lost and required most of his life after coming home to reach that goal.

For ordering info, send an email to hansen22769@aol.com

The author’s blog is jameshansen.wordpress.com

—Henry Zeybel