Red Rivers in a Yellow Field Edited by Robert M. Craig

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Jimmy Durante used to say, “Everybody wants ta get inta da act!”

A new Vietnam War memoir fulfills that want on a large scale. Vietnam War veteran Robert M. Craig’s Red Rivers in a Yellow Field: Memoirs of the Vietnam Era (Hellgate Press, 526 pp. $29.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle) contains autobiographies of thirty-four Principia College graduates from the sixties who served in the war. Only one woman contributes her experience: Elizabeth Pond, a journalist captured in Cambodia by the Khmer Rogue.

The book evolved from conversations at a 50th high school reunion. Craig, a professor at Georgia Tech for forty years, took charge as editor of the project with support from the Principia staff.

Red Rivers in a Yellow Field is exceptional because it highlights the effects of a civilian education that guided people to behave positively in war or in peace. The graduates willingly served in America’s armed forces with deep dedication to duty. Many easily transitioned into successful marriages and business dealings.

Half of the thirty-four Principia grads filled combat roles in Vietnam. Their first-person shoot-’em-up reminiscences are revelatory and spellbinding. The veterans coolly speak about combat—which is to say, they faced ultimate dangers with determination and poise. The actions they describe reflect unselfish heroism.

The variety of their duties—platoon leader, swift boat commander, helicopter pilot, among others—provides insightful views of the inner workings of the war. Slightly more than half of the graduates served in the Navy; the rest were in the Army, Air Force, and Marines. By far, the majority were officers. In Nam, they often met by chance, and shared tight bonds.

Tradition significantly influenced the men’s decisions. Nearly every one of their fathers had served in World War II or Korea, with several family histories extending back to earlier American wars.

Before I read this book, I was unaware of Principia College, which Craig describes as “an independent kindergarten through college school for Christian Scientists; the K-12 campus is located in a suburb west of St. Louis; the college overlooks the Mississippi River, about forty-five miles northeast of St. Louis.”

It is not unusual for students to attend both campuses for sixteen years of education. Many family members attend either or both campuses generation after generation.

“[Principia’s] founder Mary Kimball Morgan held the firm conviction that the purpose of education is to develop self-discipline, character, and the ability to think vigorously, fearlessly, and accurately,” Craig says. He credits dedication to Christian Science for the graduates’ ability “to accomplish whatever was their duty to do, without being harmed or fatigued, and to stay healthy under all conditions.” Post-traumatic stress disorder is not mentioned by anyone of them as a problem.

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The school’s graduates were not robots, however. Some who served during the Vietnam War declined to contribute to the book for “both universal and personal” reasons, Craig says. Their resistance reminded others of the war’s “full picture,” he adds.

As a man without a favorite religion, I admire the Principia graduates portrayed in Red Rivers in a Yellow Field. They met every intention of their school’s training and their familial backgrounds to serve our nation to the fullest.

—Henry Zeybel

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Abby and the Old Guy by Robert

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Robert Quinn’s Abby and the Old Guy (Independently Published, 500 pp. $14.99, paper)is a massive male-fantasy romance novel. The time period is November of 2007 to February of 2009.

Quinn is a lawyer and financial services professional who served in the Air Force in Vietnam from 1969-70 and is a member of Vietnam Veterans of America. His main character, Matt Flynn, is also a Vietnam veteran and a “part-time attorney and part-time financial guy.”

Flynn—a great name for a hero, by the way—meets Abigail McKay in a New England coffee shop on the first page. If this were a movie, at this point we wouldn’t be through the opening credits. The 61-year-old Flynn, widowed for ten years, and the 26-year-old grad student immediately fall in love.

We follow the lovers through a dialogue-driven novel that also includes lots of descriptions, mainly of meals, clothes—and of the two main characters undressing each other.

It’s a work of male fantasy because Abby loves the body of a man who has thirty-five years on her, and because she invites him into her apartment on their second day together. Whereupon they have glorious sex.

It’s a work of male fantasy because Abby, whom Flynn he calls “Beauty,” is constantly saying things any older man would love to hear. That includes that she finds him more interesting than guys her age.

It’s also male fantasy because Flynn, whom Abby lovingly calls “Old Guy,” is an extremely virile man. They make love their first eight, at least, days together. And they don’t stop there. After the first month they calculate—yes, they keep track—that they’ve made love 130 times. After eight months the number reaches almost a thousand, which works out to an average of “four times a day.”

The novel covers fifteen months in which Flynn and Abby meet, fall in love, move in together, get engaged, get married, and have a child. They also make love 1,481 times. That’s mathematically possible because when her pregnancy causes abdominal cramps she believes she will feel better if they have sex, which they do nearly up to the day she delivers. The book ends with the suggestion that their new baby is not going to slow them down any.

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Bob Quinn

Flynn’s Vietnam War experience plays a small part in the story, primarily in a short section when we learn that Abby’s family respects him for his military service.

Bob Quinn is a hell of a writer and this giant novel is immensely readable. But not all that much happens and Flynn’s one-way “conversations” with his deceased wife early on in the book were a little off-putting.

I guess if you buy the book’s main premise, you’ll by okay with what transpires. If you don’t buy it—and I didn’t—then not much of the novel will work for you.

—Bill McCloud

Vietnam to Thieves’ Island by Jim Collins

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Reading Jim Collins’ Vietnam to Thieves’ Island (Partridge Singapore, 188 pp. $28.35, hardcover; $16.08, paper; $3.03, Kindle) is lots of fun. As a memoir, the book overflows with free association, but never completely loses control. Collins’ throwaway asides are inventive gems.

An Australian, Jim Collins recollects his travels and jobs starting in the mid-sixties when he became head engineer of the construction of the Saigon Metropolitan Water Plant in South Vietnam. His rendering of his life as a civilian in a war zone differs significantly from the usual Vietnam War memoirs. In particular, few if any Vietnam War memoirs include accounts of the nationwide ransacking of American-built projects.

Amid disasters, he discovers humor and lessons.

After Vietnam, Collins tell us of his adventures sail-boating the seas of Southeast Asia, Australia, and the Middle East. He meets an array of spellbinding people and describes their seafaring vagabond lives that are as fascinating as his own.

Well into this century, these encounters occur at such places as the Sungei Unjung Club, an hour’s drive south of Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, to Sharm Rabigh on the Red Sea some twenty miles north of Jeddah in Saudi Arabia. The world is open to those who seek it, he seems to say.

Collins’endeavors range from Herculean engineering tasks to merely beating customs officials out of a few dollars—or significantly more.

Reading this book resembles listening to a raconteur who says whatever next comes to mind from a bottomless well of experiences. The stories have good and bad endings; several involve visits to “gaols.”

Vietnam to Thieves’ Island has no true beginning, chronology, or ending. Like the story of Jim Collins’ life, it just is.

—Henry Zeybel

Wolf by the Ears By Alan Armstrong

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West Point graduate Alan Armstrong served in Cambodia during the last stages of the American war in Vietnam. He fought with the Cambodian government against the Khmer Rouge, and was particularly close to Gen. Lon Non, the brother of Cambodian President Lon Nol. Armstrong flew out of Pnom Penh in 1975 on the last helicopter with American Ambassador John Gunther Dean.

Alan Armstrong is a well-educated person. The title of his new novel, Wolf by the Ears (BookBaby, 338 pp., $16, paper; $6.99, Kindle), shows it. The words come from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote John Holmes in 1820: “As it is, we have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him nor safely let him go,”  Also, the first paragraph of the book contains two words—“absara” and “sampot”—I had never encountered before.

Armstrong tells a strong and interesting story, and his book was fun to read. The language is strong and very much in the vernacular. Expressions such as “shit weasel,” “whack a mole,” and “pseudo-analytical fartlets” are much in evidence. Shazam and Captain Marvel get a workout as well. Even Howdy Doody and Chief Thunderthud make appearances.

The Fog of War also comes at us like a platoon of spinning anvils, and one of the characters speaks in a Japanese-cum-John Wayne voice. REMFs take a beating in a long rant. I believe this is the most thorough beating we rear-echelon Remington Raiders have been subjected to in recent Vietnam War literature.

The most enjoyable aspect of this novel was the treatment of food and diet. Our hero, Maj. DeRussy is confronted at one point with a main dish of turtle at a state dinner. Most of an entire short chapter is devoted to dealing with DeRussy trying to get this dish down his gullet. DeRussy talks to himself as he tries to eat the dish:

“Get tough, Big Guy. Don’t flash in your plate. Pretend its pasta. DeRussy singled out a piece of something and tugged. He had to wrap his fork around whatever he had latched on to and tug more than once before it snapped up, looking like a piece of strozzapreti.

“It felt like a tapeworm sliding down his throat, the front gaining momentum, the end grudgingly going along. After he swallowed, it occurred to him that anything that fine probably wasn’t a part of the original turtle but was most likely some species of parasite. He hoped that none of it or any of its pals has survived the heat to set up housekeeping inside his head, heart or eyeballs.”

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U.S. Ambassador John Gunther Dean (carrying flag) arriving at Utapao AFB in Thailand, April 12, 1975

This passage evoked memories and fears that I’d brought back with me from Vietnam, where I’d been much more brave than smart when it came to enjoying the meals that were easily available at little sheds alongside backstreets. The food smelled so good, but we were warned that it was deadly. But here I am, more than fifty years later, still alive—not healthy, not even marginally well, but still alive and functioning. If I had it to do over again, maybe I’d be more safety conscious. Maybe not.

I highly recommend Wolf by the Ears to anyone who is curious about what life was like in Cambodia during the Vietnam War. The Khmer Republic of the 1970s comes alive on the pages of this novel. Armstrong has a rare gift for making alien cultures interesting and vibrant.

—David Willson

Emmet and the Boy by Terence O’Leary

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Terence O’Leary’s Emmet and the Boy: A Story of Endless Love and Hope (Swan Creek Press, 241 pp., $12.99, paper; $8.99, Kindle) is a work of fiction written for young adults as were many of O’Leary’s earlier works. This book is every bit as strong as O’Leary’s 2017 novel, Bringing Boomer Home. There is a lot in the new book about the process of dying from cancer and Hospice. Since I am currently dying from cancer, I found a lot to identify with.

The Old Man, the main character of this story, suffers through the lingering death of his wife, the love of his life, and tries to find the will to go on living. His grandson was abandoned by his father following his parents’ nasty divorce, and is hiding in a fantasy world.

Somehow, the mismatched aspect of their generations makes it possible for them to communicate. They hide out at Grandpa’s lakeside cabin way out in the Michigan woods. The Old Man, Emmet, tries to help the boy, Colin, heal, as he himself begins to heal by getting over the death of his beloved wife.

The book consists of simple short chapters. Some are just discussions between the Old Man and the boy about the meaning of life or past experiences. My favorite chapter comes late in the book when the subject of war rears its ugly head.

“You were in the Army?’

“Just for a couple of years.”

“Were you in a war?”

The Old Man does not want to talk about the war, but he goes ahead and does so. He’s asked if he killed anyone.

“I was a medic. My job was to try to save people, not kill them.”

“That’s cool.  I bet you were good at it.” 

The Old Man goes on to discuss further the Vietnam War. 

“They say time heals all. It doesn’t. The memories of Viet Nam are still with me like ghosts in the corner.” 

I highly recommend this sensitive book to young adults, and to those who are not so young. O’Leary is one of the best writers currently writing to this audience.

The author’s website is www.terenceoleary.com

—David Willson

The Life of an Airborne Ranger by Michael B. Kitz-Miller

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“I wanna be an Airborne Ranger; I wanna live a life of danger.” So cadenced our Basic Training Drill Instructor all those years ago. In The Life of an Airborne Ranger: Donovan’s Skirmish (Koehler Books, 332 pp. $29.95, hardcover; $18.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle) Michael Kitz-Miller presents us with what he calls a “work of fiction” that appears to rely heavily on the lives and stories of people he came in contact with during his time in the Army. A better description of this book might be “autobiographical fiction.”

The book follows protagonist Jack Donovan’s exploits from early childhood, through a stellar and bemedaled military career, to his quick marriage and his next assignments, which apparently will be chronicled in the next two offerings of Kitz-Miller’s proposed trilogy.

I was struck with the thought that young Jack Donovan may be the re-embodiment of Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy of the popular radio serial of the 1940s, in that he’s just too good to be true. He also could be the Audie Murphy of the Vietnam War. He has Dr. Ben Casey-style healing and recuperative skills, as well as just off-the-charts expertise in all things military, including being an expert marksman with every weapon he picks up and uses.

Donovan leaves high school, goes through dead-end jobs and a truncated college effort, and then joins the Army. He finishes at the top of his classes in Basic and AIT. And he does very well in Recondo, Ranger, and Airborne schools. He sees action in the decade prior to the run-up of the Vietnam War. Then Donovan earns a chest full of medals serving in Vietnam, including the Medal of Honor for heroic, life-saving actions during an engagement that becomes known as Donovan’s Skirmish.

He also plans and executes large-scale operations anhqdefaultd develops ARVN training programs during his first tour. After recuperating from many wounds, he takes time away from the military to complete college, and while he’s at it, joins an ROTC unit so he can graduate as an officer. And he meets his future bride, the wonderful Mary Clarke.

In his Author’s Note, Kitz-Miller suggests that “If there are mistakes, inaccuracies, errors they are certainly mine.” Disregarding the book’s literary qualities, this was a tough one to work through because of misspellings, incomplete or missing punctuation, incomplete sentences, and syntactical errors.

One hopes Michael Kitz-Miller will seek better editorial help with his next literary project.

–Tom Werzyn

Through the Valley by William Reeder

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Through the Valley: My Captivity in Vietnam (Naval Institute Press, 256 pp., $29.95, hardcover and Kindle) is a well-written chronicle of Army Col. Bill Reeder’s time as a POW and his struggles adapting back in the “real world.” The book came out in hardcover in 2016, and Naval Institute Press has just been published in paperback ($21.95).

In 1971, Reeder returned to Vietnam for his second tour, and was assigned to fly Cobra helicopters for the 361st Aviation Company, aka the “Pink Panthers.”  On May 9, 1972, Reeder’s Cobra was shot down. He survived the crash and for three days hid in the jungle, before being taken prisoner. The majority of the book recounts his treatment as a POW. He had a broken back, three types of malaria, three varieties of intestinal parasites, an intestinal disease called tropical sprue, and a broken tooth.

After his capture, Reeder was marched for three months to Hanoi. He was released with the other POWs who were held in North Vietnam on March 23, 1973. It is said that he was the last American POW captured who survived the ordeal.

In the book Reeder includes an image of the actual telegram from the military to his wife informing her he was missing in action. Many of the POWs, including Reeder, ended up divorcing. He is now happily married to his third wife and is on good terms with his children and ex-wives.

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Col. Reeder

The last chapter is an account of what happened to many of the POWS who were with Reeder after they were released. I found this chapter fascinating. Reeder did a huge amount of research to compile this chapter and track these heroes down.

This is an outstanding memoir and I highly recommend it.

—Mark S. Miller