Ralph Beer served for three years in the U. S. Army during the Vietnam War. He spent much of that time at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. He then was sent for a year to the “super-secret complex” at Nakhon Phanom Air Base in Thailand, Beer writes in Afternoon Light: A Memoir (Casey Peak Press, 340 pp., $14.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle). He goes on to tell the reader that the Vietnam War “was the event of my generation, whether we think much about it now or not.” He’s right.
Every chapter of this fine memoir is saturated with the Vietnam War. “The suffering it caused the Vietnamese and the American people,” Beer writes, “was biblical in scope and hellish in its lasting pain.” This book deals with the impact of the Vietnam War on Ralph Beer and his love, Sheila, and also with how difficult is to sustain love during times of trouble. And all times are times of trouble. Don’t doubt that for one moment.
Beer includes a long quote from Larry Heinemann’s classic war novel Close Quarters. He also gives a major nod to James Crumley, who has written as seriously about the Vietnam War as both Heinemann and Beer have. I hope that a book will be forthcoming from Beer about his time in the Army, preferably set in Thailand. It seems unlikely, as Beer makes the point in this book about how old and infirm he is.
Before his military service Ralph Beer ran off to British Columbia with Sheila—and with scarcely any preparation for the adventure. Things didn’t go smoothly. They filed a Canadian government mining claim and worked very hard to make a go of that project.
Beer failed to confront the realities of citizenship in Canada, though. That led to a disastrous interview with a Canadian immigration official who accused him of every crime short of mopery.
The couple returned to the USA and Beer made things right with his draft board. That led to his service in the Army. Does the relationship survive? Spoiler alert: it does.
Ralph Beer spent much of his life working “for almost nothing” on his grandfather’s Montana ranch. He’s written four books dealing with that experience. They have not made him rich or famous. Far from it.
Beer’s final word on the Vietnam War: It “can only be seen as a tragic and senseless waste for us all,” he says.
He took the words right out of my mouth.