At the age of twenty-eight, Guy Clark went to Vietnam as a U.S. Air Force flight surgeon. During his 1966-67 tour of duty, Clark flew more than eighty-six combat strike missions in the back seat of the F-4C Phantom and kept a daily journal.
Sharkbait: A Flight Surgeon’s Odyssey in Vietnam (Weeping Willow, 628 pp. $42.50, hardcover; $3.03, Kindle), which overflows with Guy Clark’s exuberance for flying and appreciation for knowing the skilled and courageous pilots with whom he faced death, is based on that journal.
The fifty-year delay in transcribing his journal has not blunted Clark’s opinions. From June 1966, for example, Clark (the medical director of The Osteoporosis Institute and The Arthritis Institute of Santa Barbara) recalls that he had reached “the high-water mark in my lifetime search for adventure! Life is exciting!” At that point, he still had eleven months to go in Vietnam.
To gain a more complete picture of the war, he opted to fly to small and remote outposts by hitching rides in what he calls a C-130 “cattle box car” and other aircraft. Once he flew on an AC-47D Spooky gunship during a strike.
Point of order: Those of us who flew C-130s called them “Trash Haulers.”
In counterpoint to his enthusiasm for dropping bombs and napalm, Clark also writes of his disgust for war, coupled with compassion for those who lose their lives as a consequence.
Beyond his flying stories, Clark establishes himself as a war observer who is distraught by everything going on around him—except for people who cater to him. At the same time, he maintains a mental detachment through devouring books he always wanted to read and by writing his journal and letters to his wife.
Clark describes what he saw and did while stationed at Cam Ranh Bay practically down to each heartbeat of each event. His writing recipe demands details and more details based on his experience, historical facts, quotations (including words from Leonardo da Vinci, Lenin, and Churchill), and random dashes of poetry. He stirs together insights from nearly every day of his year in Vietnam.
The result is a memoir that gives readers an opportunity to learn more than they ever expected (or perhaps wanted to know) about F-4C Phantom and Air Force operations, for starters. Among other topics, Clark covers wasteful military practices, governments, shrews (the animal), the Vietnam War’s purpose, revolutions, lepers, the Air Force and Navy’s work with ground forces, William Faulkner, danger, and personalities—to name a few—along with many admonitions.
His breadth and depth of explanations reminded me of the old joke about the guy who tells you how to build Big Ben when you only want to know the time of day.
To his credit, Clark recognizes this rhetorical weakness and professes that, to him, “there is no such thing as useless knowledge.”
Fundamentally, he searches for truth but understands the difficulty in finding it. In doing so, Clark reveals himself—whether or not the light is favorable. Facing the facts recorded in his journal puts the older Clark in an eye-to-eye confrontation with his youthful, cocksure, egotistical self. Can either man deny the other?
Clark’s prose is so distinct that it frequently made me smile. His sentences can be diagram-defying marvels of construction. He masterfully belittles people, places, and practices that he dislikes. He possesses a world-class intellect, but occasionally repeats himself.
Despite the drawbacks, Clark’s six-hundred-plus-page memoir provided captivating reading over many long stretches. His feats continually raised the high-water mark of adventure that he set during his first month in country.
The author’s website is guyclarksharkbait.com