The Big Buddha Bicycle Race by Terence A. Harkin

Terence A. Harkin’s The Big Buddha Bicycle Race (Silkworm Books, 446 pp., $6.99, Kindle) and its sequel, In the Year of the Rabbit, are set in Ubon, Thailand, where Harkin served with the U.S. Air Force’s AAVS Detachment 3 during the Vietnam War. He’s currently at work on his third novel, Tinseltown Two-Step, set in Los Angeles and Chiang Mai. Harkin, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, spent twenty-five years as a Hollywood cameraman. His time in the Air Force well prepared him for that job.

Big Buddha is a work of fiction, but it often reads like a memoir of Harkin’s time in Thailand. He titles the book’s segment with dates such as “April 1970-March 1970,” and provides detailed place names, such as the 136th Photo Squadron at Norton Air Force Base, California, HQ of the Aerospace-Audio Base, California, Acronym AAVS, pronounced “Avis” in Air Force speak.

The main character, Airman Leary, failed to read his USAF enlistment contract closely, overlooking the words “Needs of the Air Force,” so he ended up closer to the war than his recruiting sergeant said he would. As a result, the reader learns a lot about the real-life duties and experiences of airmen in a photo squadron.

Airman Leary, a cameraman with the 601st Photo Squadron in Ubon, decides that it is a propitious time to put on a bicycle race “to keep up unit morale” because Nixon and Kissinger are going to visit. A bicycle race of “lovable Americans riding through the countryside to win Thai hearts and minds” would send a message to the world when featured in Life magazine and Stars & Stripes.

There is some resistance from the North Vietnamese 599th Transportation Group so things don’t go quite as planned. It turns out that the race didn’t work well as a celebration of the war winding down—or, more accurately, as the war began to fail to wind down as promised. Where is that light at the end of the tunnel?  Let’s pedal our asses toward it as hard as we can and see what happens.

Harkin has come up with an enjoyable read. The book, however, offers more information about the workings of a Photo Squadron in Southeast Asia than any of us will ever need. Or want. We get some of the same popular culture references we’d expect from such a novel: John Wayne westerns, John Ford, Babe Ruth, and Muhammad Ali. But there also are some not so likely ones:  Harmon Killebrew, Pinkie Lee, Guy Lombardo, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Suzy Wong, Wilfred Owens war poems and The Anderson Platoon. 

1111111111111111111111111111

Terry Harkin

This is a perfect book for a movie lover to read if he also wishes to get credit for reading a book about our war in Southeast Asia. Did I mention that Airman Leary is a white kid from the Boston suburbs who is a drummer in a band and that he loves the music of Otis Redding, Solomon Burke, and Sam Cooke?

That adds a layer of cultural meaning to the book. Probably the one thing this book does not need is another layer of cultural meaning. Consider it a bonus.

The author’s website is http://www.taharkin.net

—David Willson

A Long Healing Come Slowly by Jim Carmichael

 

cov-209x300

Jim Carmichael is a Marine who served a combat-heavy thirteen-month tour of duty in Vietnam in 1967-68. He survived the 1968 Tet Offensive and spent seventy-seven days at Khe Sanh. He was diagnosed with PTSD in 1997. A Long Healing Come Slowly: A Novel about PTSD and its Effects on Suffering Individuals and their Families (LifeRich, 536 pp., $44.95, hardcover; $33.99, paper) is his Carmichael’s first novel. He intends to write a sequel.

The Preface describes this book as a fast read which it really is not. It is a large book that gives the history of multiple generations of a family with much involvement in America’s wars.  Also, the book has some axes to grind. For instance, the author claims that “This country is also rapidly outlawing the mention or open display of God or his Law.”  If our country has, I’ve failed to take notice of it.

In a nutshell, this novel, Carmichael tell us, is about “a family living with a veteran who has PTSD.” That is no lie, and the author totally nails what that is like, missing no nuance in describing it. He traces the origins through multiple wars as the book’s veteran characters are still alive and involved in the family. Novelists have that control.

The veterans in this novel have experienced and survived, sort of, the worst of America’s modern wars, including the Bataan Death March, and they are available and willing to testify about their trauma. Spoiler alert: I was shocked when the novelist killed off his main character. I sat and pondered and reread the chapter to make sure that it really happened. First time for me to get hit with that in a Vietnam War novel. A member of the Greatest Generation shoots himself with his pistol.

He was one of those veterans who came back from World War II and chose to work his demons to death by making a good life for his family. I am familiar with that method as that was how my father dealt with his Iwo Jima Marine Corps demons. Repression and demanding control and a smooth peaceful life. Until his war came home. His wife thought the war was over. But was it?

111111111111111111111111111111111111This novel makes the point that the war is never over. The military was not into anger management, so veterans had no idea what to do about their anger. Then the real cost of war becomes apparent. And often veterans are thrown to the wolves.

Prison is full of them. So are cemeteries.

This is an engrossing novel and I look forward to the sequel, which will, I hope, address the many loose ends left hanging at the end of this book.

Carmichael has done a superb job of showing how a veteran with PTSD can masquerade as a perfect family man, and how his cover can get blown by a disturbing incident and knock the whole apple cart of a perfect American family totally out of kilter.

Read this book and weep. I did.

The author’s website is alonghealing.com

—David Willson

 

 

For No Good Reason by Steve Banko

51ymum4z7yl-_sx311_bo1204203200_

Steve Banko dedicates his firs novel, For No Good Reason (No Frills Buffalo/Amelia Press, 318 pp., $14.95, paper), to the 1st Cavalry Division Garryowen troopers of Company D, 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry who fought and died on December 3, 1968. Banko served sixteen months in Vietnam where he was wounded six times and received the Silver Star in addition to his four Purple Hearts.

For No Good Reason is a blood and guts Army infantry novel. My impression is that Banko drew heavily on his own wartime experiences for the narrative. In the acknowledgements he informs the reader that John Holcomb, his good friend, died saving Banko’s life on December 3, 1968, and that Holcomb was awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor. Banko made it home to grow old and bald.

For No Good Reason namechecks both the usual and the unusual, including John Wayne, Audie Murphy, Sgt. York, Racquel Welch, Goldie Hawn, and Superman. Shit is burned in the rear and we are admonished to get the hell out of Dodge, and that we “gotta get out of this place.” The place is Indian Country where Pancho Villa is also making a stand. The “hurting kangaroo” I encountered was new to me. I predict I’ll not see him again.

banko_200-1af3c41ba9cac3a43226c5bca101669a20c444ac-s300-c85

Steve Banko

The writing is made up of short sentences and punchy expressions. Here is a typical example:

“I was thinking of our next move when some screaming and shooting came from our right. Our two buddies got a bead on the machine gun when he opened fire on us and assaulted from behind it. It was like John Wayne and Audie Murphy came flying to our rescue. They were shooting and screaming and acting all kinds of crazy. When one gook fell from the tree, we got the message and started shooting too. When we stopped to reload, everything was quiet.”

Banko’s prose hooks the reader and never lets go.

I recommend this war thriller to those who have not overdosed on infantry action books.  It moves right along, never stopping for idle moments.

—David Willson

Asian Stained by W. Thomas Leonard

Now that I’ve read the stories in W. Thomas Leonard’s Asian Stained (BookBaby, 235 pp., $2.99, Kindle), I believe that the title indicates the author’s hard-held belief that the Vietnam War stains (or taints or besmirches) everyone who experienced it. This book starts off by introducing two Marines I assumed would be main characters, 2nd Lts. Kevin Charles Barrett and William Francis Kelly. Both are on the plane to Vietnam for their thirteen-month tour of duty. Leonard served as a Marine lieutenant in the Vietnam War in 1968.

Spoiler alert: Don’t read on if you want to be surprised.

These two young men have been best friends since they were nine years old. They both had just graduated from Fordham, with scholarships, in 1967. Not exactly a great time to graduate from college. They both promptly enlisted in the Marine Corps and were assigned to the 3rd Marine Division, 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines, winding up in Dong Ha, in Vietnam in I Corps close to the DMZ.

The book then skips forward fourteen years to the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Two old men are at the wall—a Mr. Barrett and a Mr. Kelly. They find the names of their sons—Kevin Barrett and William Kelly—right at the top of the panel where they expected them to be. We’ve read five percent of the book, at least according to my Kindle.

The next section is entitled “Deserters.” However, we don’t get to follow Barrett and Kelly’s tours in Vietnam. I can deal with that, but what does the reader get? Lots of stories that follow. Including at least three dealing with Marines being incarcerated in brigs, with much detail about that confinement.

Twenty percent of the way through the book the reader encounters magical realism in the form of a vision or a fantasy of something that looks like a large aircraft with no wheels. It’s V-shaped and has the form of a wall. “It’s where the past, the present and the future merged,” a Marine says.  

This is a bleak book, made up of many stories, often of second-generation Americans who were raised in this country of opportunity and served in a war that horribly scarred them or killed them. The dozen or so stories are rarely happy ones, not even a little bit.

Once we get past “Deserters,” we are presented with stories in which hard-working veterans are fired unfairly or treated brutally. The stories are well-written but often hard to read. I, for one, hate to read about people who are cast into outer darkness for no reason other than the fact that someone with power can do so.

In one of the stories near the end of the book the character, Alex Kazakov, returns from his war minus his vision and three of his limbs. He is a character we get to know well, so his terrible scarring and crippling really hits home. Tears came to my eyes as I read the bad stuff that happens to him.  He’s lost everything but his mind. He learns Braille and does make something of himself, earning a Master’s in Creative Writing.

The overwhelming message of Asia Stained is a warning to everyone to avoid serving in the Marine Corps, especially in the Vietnam War. I didn’t need convincing; I am not going to recommend to my children that they join the Marines. My father was a Marine on Iwo Jima. One was enough for this family.

Read this collection of stories if you want to consume a really sad book of well-written tales about Marines. Otherwise, read something else. I’m having major trouble getting these stories out of my mind. And out of my dreams.

—David Willson

Escape from Saigon by Michael Morris and Dick Pirozzolo

51jbtcimkpl-_sx329_bo1204203200_

Michael Morris served in Vietnam in 1967-68 as an infantry sergeant in Northern I Corps, taking part in the Tet Offensive. Dick Pirozzolo served the war in 1970-71 as an Air Force information officer in Saigon where he helped conduct daily press conferences known as the “Five O’Clock Follies.”

Their novel, Escape from Saigon (Skyhorse, 264 pp., $24.99) deals in detail with the month of April 1975, during which thousands of people scrambled to get out of Vietnam prior to the North Vietnamese takeover. Lots of suspense is built in this novel as we get to know many of the various people trapped in what rapidly becomes a besieged city.

One of my favorite characters is a long-haired, hippie-looking former GI who returns to Saigon to rescue his Vietnamese wife’s relatives. One of them does not want to leave as she is convinced it would not be so bad to be in Saigon under the communists. Also, she has a lover she does not want to leave behind. Our hero speaks fluent Vietnamese, which he uses to his advantage.

wall02The American ambassador is portrayed as more than half crazy. He does not want to leave and sees no reason to do so. He takes some convincing.

The near-total confusion and breakdown of a great city is well portrayed and works well as a cliffhanger thriller. I highly recommend it to those who are interested in what it was like at the end in Saigon in April 1975.

I was safe at home in Maple Valley, Washington in April of 1975, but part of my heart was in Saigon, the Paris of Southeast Asia. I shed a tear when I heard the announcement on the radio, and I shed a few tears reading this fine thriller.

–David Willson

Creatures Born of War by Wm. Bruce Taneski

41w8m4b3oql-_sx331_bo1204203200_

Bruce Wm. Taneski’s Creatures Born of War: A Novel About the World Wars (CreateSpace, 566 pp., $20, paper) is a novel about World Wars I and II and the role of shell shock and battle fatigue.

In the front of the book we are told that “coming soon is a novel about the conflict in Korea and Vietnam.” The author’s credentials are clear—he’s a U.S. Army Vietnam War veteran who has experienced first-hand the trauma of war and PTSD, having served in recon units in the 199th Light Infantry Brigade and the 5th Infantry Division. That is not in this book.

In tracing, as Taneski puts it, “the PTSD experience of fictional soldiers, like Jimmy Costigan and Mike McMullen in WWI,” he creates a realistic picture of young men growing up in the early 1900s. Then he shows us their children serving in World War II. This is the most exciting part of the novel due to the author’s skill at showing men at war.

The Bataan Death March figures prominently in this fine novel. We relive the agony of 675 American troops as they take five days to die.

2222222222222222222222222

The author

I collect antiwar quotations and the one I garnered from this book is my favorite: “You know the assholes that allowed the first war to happen are the same assholes that set up the one we are in now. I think we will see more war in our lives. More young men will be sent away and come home screwed up.”

I couldn’t have said it better.

This is a massive book.  It is not a Vietnam War novel, but it prepares the way. The book shows that war—any war—is good for absolutely nothing.

There it is.

—David Willson

The Lawless Side of War by Terrell Reagan

61ebj2bvm0yl-_sy346_ 

Terrell Reagan calls his book, The Lawless Side of War: Making Millions in the Vietnam Black Market (BookLocker.com, 259 pp., $16.95, paper; $2.99, Kindle), a “fictional memoir.” He says that the book is loosely based on actual events, explaining that he “has taken creative liberties with many details to enhance the reader’s experience. Names, locations, and other details have been changed and fictional details and characters have been added.”

Reagan goes on to tell us that this is a story of beating the draft, as well as one about “black market transactions that I created, some that I managed and others that I witnessed firsthand.”

This book is not malarkey. I worked for the Inspector General in Vietnam and we investigated many black market schemes, including some like the ones Reagan describes in this book. In other words, I believe this author knows what he’s talking about.

He has nothing good to say about the “long-haired hippies protesting the war.” As if the University of Texas where he went to school had many of those. The author had, he tells us, 254 hours of undergrad work in math and physics in college, and tried to get into the National Guard only to discover that the Texas units were all full with guys like George W. Bush and football players. Reagan didn’t want to take his chances with the draft the way many of us did.

“Every family in the U. S. that had a draft eligible loved one, which totaled in the millions, anxiously monitored the call-ups,” he writes. Well, not every family. Mine, for one, showed no interest in my draft eligibility. Their attitude was: What’s there to worry about? My father was drafted into the Marines in World War II and served on Iwo Jima. His father served in the Philippines and his father served in the Civil War. It’s what you did. You wore a uniform and went to some place where you got shot at. I guess that notion is not universal to all Americans.

So Reagan cut himself a sweet deal and that’s what this book is about. The Inspector General chased guys like him the entire year I was in Vietnam—guys who figured out angles to beat the system. We called them black marketeers and criminals.

8748

Terrell Reagan

This book delineates black market operations from the inside out. When I was on a team chasing these guys, I found the details boring. Reading this book is no different. The author spices up the narrative a bit with dragon ladies and the like, but to no avail. Changing greenbacks to MPC then to piasters and back again is just not fun to read about. The author claims this is the only book that tells how the currency laundering and black market really worked in Vietnam during the war, and he may be right.

This book confirmed my suspicions about how some sons of the rich and entitled avoided the draft and spent the war wearing civilian clothes, drinking champagne, and eating fish eggs on toast points at soirees hosted by the ambassador. So it goes.

Reagan tells us that with the money he made in Vietnam as “a civilian project engineer,”  he came back to the States and “built a large financially diversified company.” During the late eighties all of his assets were confiscated by the U.S. government, so he moved to London where he created an investment banking company. Today Reagan lives in Dallas.

—David Willson