The Good of the Order by Gerard Shields

Gerard Shields’ The Good of the Order: America’s Last 80 Years Through they Eyes of One Tiny Veterans Club (Hilliard & Harris, 168 pp. $16.95, paper) could easily feel like a piece of nostalgia for a great neighborhood bar. But there’s so much more to this book—and to the old AMVETS club tucked into a tiny corner of a rust-covered, steel-town community in east Philadelphia that Shields and the late Joseph Vincent Manko (who founded the club) write about.

Indeed, the factories are gone. What remains are the veterans of three generations of war. And the men and women who care deeply about what happens to the kids and the poor and the neighborhood itself.

Returning home from World War II, the men and women of Kensington Memorial AMVETS Post 146 in East Philadelphia, helped—from their small corner—turn America into the greatest economic power on the planet.

There’s “Rouse” O’Brien, who could throw you out of the place so quickly it would make your head spin; legendary brawler Gus Hagan; Tommy “The Minute” Bell; Joe Dougherty, who brought a pig to the place on St. Patty’s Day and started a tradition; “Beans” Cannon; “Jocko” McGinley, whose closing-time announcements always brought a smile; “Butch” Dugan, the mayor; and John Sharkey, whose antics can’t be repeated in a family book review.

Shields talks about Vietnam War veterans returning home to find a lukewarm—if not worse—reception. But at the Philly AMVETS they were received with open arms. One veteran who had just returned home, for example, heard a knock on the door. It was a couple of guys from the club, inviting him to come on down and meet people. For him, and for many others, the club became a home away from home.

There’s also the story of Johnny Everly, a Vietnam veteran whose life was spared when the prayer card in his pocket caught a load of shrapnel. And a guy who says it always takes him two hours to leave the place because he has to say goodbye to everyone.

The book is based on recently discovered archives, photos, and newsletter stories dating to 1947. A veteran national newspaper reporter who grew up in the neighborhood, Shields loves the place and the people. He calls it a fortress and a life raft in rough times that mirrors what many veterans’ halls across the nation are facing.

“Anyone who grew up in a small American town with a tightly knit neighborhood and a club whose antics and anecdotes seemed larger than life will love this book,” said Bernard Elliker, a Korean War veteran.

The AMVETS Post 146 “personifies the highest accolade occasionally applied to such a recounting: Gee, it’s almost like being there,” Elliker said. “Its characters remain in my memory bank.”

It’s about attitude and kindness and booze and fun and patriotism and growing up tough. And kind. The club helps kids left homeless after a member’s house burns. It pays for the burial of a local family’s teenage son. And much more.

The club celebrated its 70th anniversary in November after struggling to keep its doors open. It continues to be a neighborhood force of unity. And, as always, it struggles to survive.

For the Good of the Order, we hope it remains.

—Michael Ludden

Michael Ludden is a former Orlando Sentinal Deputy Managing Editor. He’s the author of two detective novels, Alfredo’s Luck and Tate Gowdy, and a soon-to-be-released collection of newspaper remembrances, Tales From The Morgue. 

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From Enemies to Partners by Le Ke Son and Charles R. Bailey

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A look back at the chemical abuse that the United States perpetrated against the population and topography of Vietnam during the American war dictates a look forward about the enduring effects of that action. Defoliation of the countryside by the use of Agent Orange/dioxin and other toxins took place between 1961 and 1970; its effects are still apparent fifty years and several generations later.

Making amends for the use of Agent Orange has been difficult. Le Ke Son and Charles R. Bailey promote this effort in From Enemies to Partners: Vietnam, the U.S. and Agent Orange (G. Anton, 242 pp. $29.99, hardcover; $19.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle). Son and Bailey have collaborated on this problem since 2006. Son holds a PhD in toxicology; Bailey has a PhD in agricultural economics. Both men have worked with agencies such as the Red Cross and Ford Foundation on correcting the damages inflicted by Agent Orange.

From 1975-2006, Agent Orange was “an extremely sensitive and controversial subject,” the authors write. “Official views were polarized, information was scant, disagreement was rife and suspicions on both sides ran high.” They counter this situation by assembling enough data to make Agent Orange a discuss-able topic. The book highlights the contributions of people and organizations that have helped to compensate for Agent Orange’s misuse.

The thoroughness with which Son and Bailey examine the Agent Orange/dioxin situation  is spellbinding. They have assembled a wealth of data that arguably amounts to more information on the topic than may be found in any other single publication.

They open their argument with a province-by-province review, complete with charts and studies, that shows—among other things—that dioxin still exists in Vietnam. They then examine dioxin’s impact on people and the ecology. There also are charts, tables, and studies to promote awareness among Americans and Vietnamese about the problem and the needs of victims. The book ends with a summation of bilateral efforts to date and proposals for the future.

The magnitude of future problems relates to locales, expenses, and people. American bases at Da Nang, Bien Hoa, and Phu Cat were Agent Orange’s most toxic areas. Da Nang has been cleansed of poison. The cost of remediating Bien Hoa is estimated at $375-$500 million and will take a decade, the authors say. Meanwhile, several hundred thousand young Vietnamese with birth defects linked to AO exposure passed on through their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents await help, according to the authors.

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Son and Bailey argue for continued collaboration between the United States and Vietnam and urge greater funding by Americans to finish tasks such as sanitizing the Bien Hoa Air Base.

A raft of color photographs pays tribute to people who have supported the cause. An appendix cites the Ford Foundation and seventy-eight of its grant recipients. Another appendix—”Fifty-Five Years of Agent Orange: Timeline of Key Statements, Decisions and Events 1961-2016″—provides an excellent twenty-four-page summation of the book’s theme.

—Henry Zeybel

Last Chance of a Crazy Virgin by Dennis Latham

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Dennis Latham’s novel, Last Chance of a Crazy Virgin (YS Gazelle, 200 pp., $16, paper; $2.99, Kindle), is fiction, almost embarrassingly so. Latham is a Marine Corps veteran who served in Vietnam. The book’s blurbs refer to constant laughter provoked in readers by the crazy antics of the characters in this novel. I didn’t have that problem.

The plot of the novel—first published in 2009—concerns the plight of John Elvin, who is twenty-four years old and still a virgin. He is determined to change that status, but he has no idea how to go about doing that. Not a clue. The virgin he meets, Lori Anderson, is eager to help Elvin with his plight, but her eagerness does not translate to anything much happening with any dispatch.

There is a crazy Vietnam veteran in this novel, John’s brother. He was wounded in the war so that his head resembles a butt, which seems funny to everyone but me.

This book has large print and wide margins and can be read in a jiffy, but it still seemed slow going to me. It takes place the summer of 1982, “before HIV made sex an extreme risk, back when condoms were called rubbers,” Latham writes.

It was a different, primitive time. No cell phones, home computers, or satellite TV. So, I guess the book works as a cultural artifact of a certain time and place in America. But I did not find it to be funny.

—David Willson

Reflections on the Vietnam War by Warren E. Hunt

Former Army draftee Warren E. Hunt’s Reflections on the Vietnam War: A Fifty-Year Journey (CreateSpace, 142 pp., $12.95, paper; .99, Kindle) records his views of military life. It’s based on a questionnaire he received from a high school history class project.

The questionnaire motivated Hunt to recall “how he joined the military, his duties in Vietnam, his impressions of the Vietnamese, his typical day, his frightening experiences, his leisure time, and his postwar adjustment to civilian life.” Hunt’s concentrated view from fifty years after he went to Vietnam gave new meaning to the war, he says, along with his role in it—and its influence on him.

These thoughts in the book’s forward and introduction made me eagerly anticipate a flow of Hunt’s profound thoughts about war and life in general.

Initially, my expectations were too high. Hunt starts by presenting a litany of info on the draft, training, travel to Nam, assignment to a unit (in his case, the Big Red One at Lai Khe as a radio teletype operator), and the unit’s history. He also provides time-worn history lessons about how the U.S. became involved in the war and compares American military tactics to those of the North Vietnamese Army.

At best, the beginning of this book is a primer for readers uninformed about the Vietnam War.

Approaching the midpoint of this “remembrance,” as he calls the book, Hunt shifts gears and talks about the drama of the war as he saw it during his July 1968 to July 1969 tour of duty. Although he did not experience face-to-face combat, Warren Hunt went through more than enough danger to hold my attention. His duty area stretched beyond Lai Khe to what he calls the “hellhole” of Quan Loi, five miles from the Cambodian border.

Hunt’s perspective is infused with naiveté enhanced by empathy and compassion. What he did and saw registered deeply. He tells interesting and informative stories about mortar and rocket attacks, the Nui Ba Den massacre, Lai Khe race riots, fragging and associated threats, drugs, and other incidents. He explains how each event influenced his attitude toward life.

Hunt closes with a heartfelt recollection of attending the 1982 dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., when he renewed friendships with men he had expected never to see again. The ceremonies made him more active in Vietnam Veterans of America and with projects to benefit veterans.

Warren Hunt

In this slim book, Hunt repeats what has been written before. But at the same time he reconstructs events that provide fresh looks at military life under combat conditions.

One could call Hunt’s work a prequel to Steve Atkinson’s one-thousand-page Liberating Strife: A Memoir of the Vietnam Years, which focuses on Big Red One desk duty at Lai Khe in 1969-70 and includes letters from a long-distance love.

Warren Hunt’s Reflections on the Vietnam War: A Fifty-Year Journey tells a better story.

The book’s Facebook page is facebook.com/rvw50

—Henry Zeybel

A Police Action by AA Freda

AA Freda served in the Army’s 5th Infantry Division in the Vietnam War during the period immediately after the Tet Offensive. Freda is the author of Goodbye Rudy Kazoody ,a coming-of-age novel. 

The main characters in Freda’s A Police Action (Dorrance Publishing, 254 pp., $25, hardcover; $16.75, paper; $9.99, Kindle)–which also is a coming-of-age tale–are nineteen-year-old Samantha (Sam) Powers and twenty-one year old James Coppi. It’s a “meet cute,” love-at-first-sight book. And it demonstrates that love is hard, very hard, especially when the female protagonist is pregnant by someone other than the young man she is in love with.

Both of these young people are confused. It doesn’t help matters that James is headed for Vietnam as an Army draftee. Is there any hope for a couple who met in a place called Country Honky Tonk in Colorado Springs?  As the cover blurb warns us, “uncertainty is the only certainty” in this story.

As a survivor of the 1960s, I recognized that era as a main character of this story. The author has done a good job of portraying the 1960s, including the effect the Vietnam War had on the country and the young people who were knocked topsy-turvy by it.

James is something of a con man. He operates as an Army Shylock, lending money before payday to all and sundry. He goes into the Army prepared to operate this way, and has trusted relatives who wire him the money he needs to keep his dirty little business going. I kept expecting to see him dragged into an alley and get his wrists broken, but (spoiler alert) that does not happen.

James does get shipped to Vietnam and does serve his time there, being at risk some of the time although he is mostly a rear echelon trooper. Freda offers a full discussion of the role of REMFs in the war, by the way, and gives some statistics.

To wit: “There’re eight to ten rear-echelon motherfuckers for every one of us up in the front.”

The huge base at Long Binh is accurately characterized as a Little America with tennis courts, nightclubs, restaurants, hot meals, and hot showers. Body count and shit-burning details get full discussion and ham and motherfuckers and fragging get more than a mention.

Also, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s Project 100,000 program—the one that resulted in underqualified men being drafted—is discussed, and said men are called “retards.”  Not a kind label for men who through no fault of their own ended up serving in the Army.

A A Freda

Serious subjects are dealt with, but mostly this is a novel of young love in which Sam and James struggle to survive in a world out of their control. I enjoyed the novel and highly recommend it, especially to young adults.

I am one no longer, but during the period portrayed in this novel I was, and I went through much of what our young lovers did.

My heart went out to them in the course of this sensitive story.

The author’s website is https://www.aafreda.com/a-police-action.html

–David Willson

Brother Brother by Dan Duffy

In Brother Brother: A Memoir (May Day Publishers, 300 pp. $12.99, paper: $2.99, Kindle) Dan Duffy tries to reconnect with his older brother Rich who vanished in 1970.

Dan Duffy recreates his brother’s disappearance by taking the reader on a road trip across the United States. He ends the coast-to-coast journey by describing a rock concert he attended at the Atlantic City Racetrack (held two weeks prior to Woodstock, but just as wild) and an antiwar rally in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco before trying to resolve the mystery of Rich’s departure.

Dan Duffy says his story is “mostly true, part fiction” and written from memory. That’s why it might help to suspend disbelief when reading his book. Much of the story evolved from a journal that Rich Duffy wrote in 1970 while driving cross-country with his girlfriend, after which he disappeared. The journal provides a broad foundation for Dan Duffy’s imagination.

Rich’s spirit accompanies Dan on the trip. They “discuss” the rigors of life and listen to songs from the era to match the moods of their talks. At one point, Dan asks himself, “Was I really traveling with my missing brother or was I going crazy talking to his voice in my head?”

The book fits into two literary categories: road trip adventure and coming-of-age tale in which, through many flashbacks, a younger brother reflects on lessons passed down from an older sibling.

Dan Duffy

Rich Duffy served as a U.S. Marine in the Vietnam War and returned home to face PTSD. The accounts of his combat experiences do not reveal anything new about the war and have a secondhand tone. After the war, he lived a hippie lifestyle guided by a belief in God.

After tracing his brother’s tracks over five thousand miles from New Jersey to New Mexico by way of California, Dan Duffy says, “I wanted to be just like my older brother Rich. Although this changed over the years, I am still trying to understand the impact he had on my life.”

—Henry Zeybel

In Liberating Strife by Steve Atkinson

“Love and war happened simultaneously for me” in the 1960s, Steve Atkinson writes in Liberating Strife: A Memoir of the Vietnam Years: Vol. 1, The Track of a Storm (City Limits Press, 395 pp. $29.95, paper; $7.99, Kindle). This declaration sets the stage for Atkinson exhuming his memories, from a highly personalized perspective, about how that decade’s dynamics influenced him while he was a high school senior and college student from 1963-69. At that time the Vietnam War, he says, “was the root cause of most of the domestic disturbances.”

Atkinson analyzes the pros and cons of the disturbances—communism, thermonuclear weapons, racial conflict, women’s rights, Selective Service practices, illegal drug use, and the antiwar movement—along with trying to find a lifelong mate—in this memoir. He digs up minutia that ought to register a touch of nostalgia among those who lived through the era, and his thoughts might teach a lesson or two to people unfamiliar with those years.

A week after completing graduate school finals, Atkinson became an Army draftee. The book’s second half describes his military training (nothing new here except a drill instructor who becomes a friend) and gives equal time to his relationship with wife-to-be, Bev Minear. He quotes from their letters and spends a lot of time on how they opened each other’s eyes to the enjoyment of intellectual pursuits. He convinced me that they definitely were made for each other.

Suffice it to say that Atkinson did not enjoy Army life. In October 1969, three weeks after finishing AIT, Atkinson went to Vietnam. In Liberating Strife, Vol. 2  (631 pp. $36.99, paper; $7.49, Kindle) he tells the story of his role in the war.

Trained as an infantryman, Atkinson ended up as a clerk typist. During his year in-country, he served at Lai Khe with the 1st Infantry Division Adjutant General; at Di An in the Message Center; and at Long Binh with the 16th Public Information Detachment.

Initially, he worked a twelve-hour, seven-day-a-week schedule. As American units deactivated because of Vietnamization, his workload diminished to an hour a day. He filled his free time by writing letters, reading, watching movies, and listening to music. By mail, Bev and he doted over classical literature and music.

His vices were drinking beer and limited dope-smoking. He describes his gun-toting duties as follows: “Standing guard on the rear perimeter [at Long Binh] is among the experiences that I remember most vividly. I knew it was highly unlikely there would be any trouble, yet there was still the remote possibility that I might be called upon to kill a man that night—an agonizing decision.” Atkinson puzzled over how fate had put him “in this strange little corner of the world,” but was pleased that it played out as it did.

Actually, Atkinson’s heart and mind never left Minneapolis. He intersperses accounts of his activities in Vietnam with information from Bev’s letters and other hometown sources. As he did in Volume 1, he analyzes historical events pertaining to the war and the strengthening of antiwar sentiment. He frequently writes more about problems regarding Bev, his family, and Minnesota than those of the war.

“The most important and beneficial lasting legacy of the Vietnam War was the abolition of the military draft,” he writes. “The draft is both an unwarranted imposition on individual liberty and too powerful and dangerous a tool to put in the hands of our elected leaders.” He labels it “involuntary servitude.” Throughout both volumes, he offers other controversial pronouncements.

With almost the same breath, however, he says, “I can honestly affirm that I do feel a certain pride in my service. I answered my country’s call to duty amid a time of strife and ambiguity. These pages have made it clear that I arrived at that decision in the face of considerable misgivings.”

In Atkinson’s case, love conquered all: Bev and he have been married since he returned from Vietnam. Atkinson, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, focuses his book on their long-distance romance and underplays the war angle. That choice—and his job assignment— eliminated suspense and drama from his story.

The two volumes contain nearly 400 photographs, most taken by Atkinson, and illustrations, all of which were new to me. He shot large batches of pictures on R&Rs to Tokyo and Hong Kong. The collection includes more than two hundred pages made up on three scrapbooks that partially tell his story by themselves.

—Henry Zeybel