Pushing Limits by Ted Hill

The first meeting between Army Capt. Ted Hill and his battalion commander at Cu Chi in Vietnam in 1969 pretty much sums up Hill’s memoir, Pushing Limits: From West Point to Berkeley & Beyond (American Mathematical Society, 294 pp. $45, hardcover; $25, Kindle).

After reviewing Hill’s C.V., which included West Point, Stanford graduate school, and Ranger training, the commander rose, shook Hill’s hand, and said, “You look like a leader to me.” Hill thanked him but said he felt that he did not have the right to learn combat engineering at the expense of men’s lives.

“And if possible, sir,” Hill added, “I prefer to take part only in defensive actions.”

Ted Hill’s reward for honesty was a series of unconventional and dangerous duties, often at the shoulder of his action-hungry commander.

This insightful and entertaining book’s first half covers Hill’s military career, emphasizing the rigors of West Point and Ranger training. Hill conforms to the demands of the schools, but he does so with improvised actions that sometimes bring punishment. As often as not, however, he outwits the systems. Plus, his superior intelligence ultimately saves him from washing out. That part of the book could have been titled “How I Outsmarted the Hard Asses.”

The second half tells just about everything you would want to know about the study of mathematics at the highest levels Hill’s references to subjects such as Kolmogorov’s trong Law of Large Numbers; the law of the iterated logarithm and the central limit theorem; and Markov chains opened doors beyond the fringe of my mathematical knowledge.

After years of study and reflective thinking among “pure and applied postgraduate math majors who were the best of their generations,” and while still marching to the tempo of his own drumbeat, Hill received a PhD from U.C. Berkeley in theoretical mathematics.

After devising an improvement in state employment practices, Hill became a faculty member at Georgia Tech. His fluency in several languages qualified him as a visiting lecturer overseas.

Riding the crest of his genius, Ted Hill’s contrarian nature emerged one last time: As a whistle blower, he challenged Georgia Tech administrative practices that led to “financial misdeeds.” Years of investigations by school administrators brought some positive changes. They also brought Hill’s involuntary early retirement at age sixty.

Hill’s tendency to see many situations in life as problems to be solved enhances the book’s readability. He seeks to improve whatever he can.

His determination to pursue problems to their conclusion won my admiration.

—Henry Zeybel

 

Dreams, Vietnam by Marc Levy

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Former Vietnam War Army medic Marc Levy’s Dreams, Vietnam (Winter Street Press, 112 pp., $12, paper; $2.99, Kindle) is the most amazing and surprising book to come out of the Vietnam War. That is my opinion based on having read thousands of books related to the war.

I completely agree with the blurb on the back cover, which notes that the book “is a rare gift.” It goes on: “Using a spare style that startles with its directness, Marc Levy transforms the dreams of almost forty years into what often feel like surreal prose poems, with disturbingly realistic details of war juxtaposed with domestic details of childhood and civilian life. One minute the dreamer is in Vietnam, the next he’s in a childhood park; he’s a schoolchild, an adolescent, but simultaneously a soldier.”

The writer of the cover blurb, Martha Collings, gives profound thanks to Marc Levy for his trust in sharing these dreams with strangers. They show us how deep the wounds of war go. They cut very deep.

One example, this quote from a dream from February 22, 1999:

“I’m in a war. A plane of unknown origin flies overhead. It’s identified as hostile and anti-aircraft guns open up. The plane circles in the cloudy sky; it begins to drop bombs. The sharp explosions create fountains of earth that shoot up and fall to ground. There’s a firestorm of smoke and flame. I run but get caught in the haze. I find a clearing. I find my dog.”

I find many of the details of this dream interesting, but what intrigues me most is that it ends with Levy finding his dog. I am a dog lover, and my little dogs bring me much comfort. My dog Arlo often slumbers on my lap and enables me to get an hour or so of much-needed shut-eye despite the intense bone pain that usually prevents me from getting any deep sleep. Levy’s dreamer finding his dog brought tears to my eyes.

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Marc Levy

I found this book of dreams to be as beautiful and moving as I did the stories in Marc Levy’s book How Stevie Nearly Lost the War and other Postwar Stories.  Both are powerful and deserve to take a place among the best books of our war.

Thanks to Marc Levy for being brave enough to put these visions in print and to make them available to us in beautiful editions. His dream book also includes his excellent drawings. I would have liked to see more of them.

Marc Levy’s website is medicinthegreentime.com

—David Willson

Behind My Wings by BJ Elliott Prior

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As a stewardess for the Military Airlift Command in 1969-71, BJ Elliott Prior developed a life-long love for members of the armed forces. Back then, she served on flights that carried troops to and from South Vietnam. Often she saw the same men before and after their tours. Decades later she found Vietnam War veterans and interviewed them about their participation in the war. She  has recorded their experiences, with the help of Linda Lou Combs Wiese, in Behind My Wings: Untold Stories of Vietnam Veterans (Burkhart, 228 pp. $15.99, paper).

The stories come from former officers and enlisted men who talk about the past in similar ways: search-and-destroy missions, living in the jungle, exposure to Agent Orange, massive artillery and air firepower, emotional swings, PTSD, failed marriages. At the same time, Prior finds idiosyncrasies that give each man individuality.

She examines the apprehension of young men en route to a war they did not fully understand and the fragmented personalities of those who survived combat with drastically altered values. She describes one veteran who talked “as though part of him was left back on those battlefields.”

The book’s subtitle notwithstanding, most of these accounts add little new information about the Vietnam War. However, the mens’ observations rank beyond the ordinary when described through Prior’s innocent eyes. She suffers when they suffer and pays a psychological price along with them.

Behind My Wings is not totally gloom and doom. The MAC routing from California to Vietnam included aircrew rest stops in Hawaii, Guam, Philippines, Okinawa, Japan, Taiwan, and Korea. They provided opportunities for romance, which “was everywhere during our layovers,” Prior writes. “We were quite young, fun and wild.” How wild? Prior had “Coffee Tea or Me” embroidered on her garment bags.

Prior went on to put in a forty-year career as a flight attendant with Continental Airlines, which contracted MAC flights during the Vietnam War.

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BJ Elliott Prior

Her two years with MAC exceeded by a year the airlines’ recommended time frame for attendants’ “well being.” Afterward, in the midst of “drinking and dating to fill the void and pain in [her] life,” Prior says, she began a “journey with God.”

She accents Behind My Wings with passages from the Bible. “My story is God’s glory,” she says.

The author’s website is behindmywings.com

 

—Henry Zeybel

Brave Deeds by David Abrams

David Abrams served in the U. S. Army for twenty years and was deployed to Iraq in 2005 as part of a Public Affairs team. Much of that experience was used for his first novel Fobbit and for stories published in Esquire, Glimmer Train, Narrative, and other magazines.

His new novel, Brave Deeds  (Grove Press/Black Cat, 256 pp., $16, paper) takes place during one long day in Baghdad during which just about everything that could go wrong does go wrong. I’m much reminded of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, in which a \funeral dominates the narrative. The main difference is that in Faulkner’s novel the body of Staff Sgt. Rafe Morgan is not dragged on a long, dusty walk made necessary by the malfunction of a Humvee. As I Lay Dying is dark comedy classic, which Brave Deeds seems likely to become.

We get to know a squad of six soldiers about as well as a reader could in the span of this short book about perseverance and people being where they have no business (or proper preparation) to be. The squad’s predicament is funny or we wouldn’t be able to stand reading about young men who are lacking in what it takes to be modern day Lawrence of Arabias.

These are deeply troubled young men:  Cheever—fat and whining about his sore feet—is no worse than the other five, just more annoying and irritating.

This is a dark, deeply sad book, but mostly I recollect how funny many of the scenes were. A beat-up old van full of flowers and a pregnant stowaway who is about to give birth—very funny and beautifully observed by the author.

The six young men walk west across war-torn Baghdad, making fish out of water seem the most comfortable and positive and hopeful of clichés. How can they not all die horrible deaths?  Reading Louis L’Amour novels, going to Rambo and Tom Cruise movies, and watching “mud-streaked men straining up a jungled hill with Mel Gibson toward their deaths in We Were Soldiers” has not prepared them for this war.

David Abrams

One chapter is entitled “This Ain’t No Movie,” and my one thought upon seeing that heading was: That’s for damned sure. I’ve never seen—nor do I want to see—a movie like this book. The book is cinematic enough for me. This is the chapter in which golf gets a mention, which caught me off guard.

“Casualties of war, collateral damage, battle tally” get discussed in this fine novel of modern desert warfare—discussed and portrayed as well.

Read this book. Don’t send your children off to fight any war out in the desert. I wouldn’t do that to my worst enemy.

The author’s website is davidabramsbooks.com

—David Willson

How Stevie Nearly Lost the War by Marc Levy

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Marc Levy served as a medic in the 1st Cavalry Division in Vietnam and Cambodia in 1970. How Stevie Nearly Lost the War and other Postwar Stories (Winter Street Press, 154 pp. $12, paper; $2.99, Kindle) is a small book of powerful short stories and essays that hits like a hand grenade ignited in a closet full of secrets.

Full disclosure: I was a stenographer in Vietnam, so I don’t really know exactly what happened out in the field. Imagining that grenade blast is as close as I wish to get to it.

The special power of language is immediately apparent in the book’s first two stories in which Marc Levy pulls no punches. These stories, in fact, are a punch in the gut.

Here, for example, are a few lines from the beginning of “The Thing They Will Always Carry”:

VA Shrink:  Were you in Vietnam?

Vietnam Vet:  Yes.

VA Shrink:  When were you there?

Vietnam Vet:  Last night.

Yes. He was there last night. I totally get that. I was a steno in Vietnam, and when I napped briefly this afternoon, I was back there. I was not typing or taking shorthand. I was interviewing a black guy in Long Binh Jail. Did I ever do that? Yes. But it was much scarier in my dream than it had been in real life—if that is what my tour of duty in Vietnam was.

In his book Levy describes a “safe rear job” in his story “Meeting the New Lieutenant.”  He writes of “clean clothes, showers, real beds, reinforced bunkers, fresh food.” All of that is true. Levy doesn’t mention that the water we showered with was saturated with Agent Orange. Just a small thing to overlook, but there it is.

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Marc Levy in Vietnam

Marc Levy’s great talent is his ability to reach the reader at a personal, intimate level with his poetic whispers and shouts. We are lucky he has chosen to take the time to communicate with us.

His book speaks to all who read it. Please do so.

You owe it to yourself and to your loved ones.

—David Willson

The author’s website is medicinthegreentime.com