At the beginning of Michael Alan Shapiro’s autobiographical novel, On Thunder Road (325 pp., Booklocker.com $19.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle), main character Paul Gebhart volunteers for the draft in 1967 “to prove my manhood to the guys in the neighborhood. It was a stupid thing to do.” Having been “raised on war movies,” this New Jersey boy leaves home to receive training at Fort Carson and Fort Riley.
The last thing his father tells him before he leaves for Vietnam is, “Be smart over there and write your mother.” As the plane lifts off, a clock begins ticking in Paul’s mind as the countdown for his one-year tour of duty begins.
Arriving in-country in late 1967 he reports to Bravo Company of the 1st Battalion, 10th Infantry, in the Army’s First Infantry Division just outside Long Binh. He is immediately told: “You’re going to see some action with this unit.” Bravo Company is charged with helping keep Thunder Road open. That’s what GIs called Highway 13, which was used by most vehicles heading west out of Saigon.
Assigned to a mortar unit, he begins regularly smoking marijuana, and quickly learns that he is fighting alongside several guys who had been in trouble with the law and were given a choice between joining the Army or going to prison.
The daily routine for Paul Gebhart and his fellow soldiers includes morning patrols to sweep the roads for landmines. In the afternoon, they patrol through wooded areas and practice with the mortars. At night there’s perimeter duty. Pot smoking is part of the routine.
On one occasion outside the perimeter Paul experiences a mystical sense of being a part of a brotherhood with men who fought in the American Civil War and with Roman soldiers two thousand years ago, as well as with those who took part in the Crusades.
He learns to cut a slit in his green towel and wear it like a Mexican serape to help keep the sun off his shoulders. He also learns what it means when you see sandals that have been melted into a blackened, scorched piece of earth.
As the year rolls over into early 1968 Paul hears rumors about guys who’ve dropped acid and walked off into the jungle to make peace with the enemy. But, at the same time, he also hears rumors about guys who would pay to walk point for someone else because they want all the action they can get.
At base camp the troops continue to smoke dope. Word is that officers several steps up the chain of command are aware of that illegal activity, but allow it because when it comes time to fight the men fight.
Moving through the summer months, Paul Gebhart learns that “getting short is all about being scared.”
In this novel Michael Shapiro does a great job describing how the war changes his main character in ways that we know will make it difficult for him to escape his memories of the war after he comes home. This is a major work of Vietnam War fiction.