Jim Zitzelsberger served as a Navy Seabee. The stories in his book, Loose Ends: Stories Started During the Vietnam War (Moki Lane, 210 pp., $19.95, paper: $9.99, Kindle), are mostly lighthearted, semi-autobiographical tales of Seabees in the Vietnam War.
Death, however, often intrudes.The hero, Henry James Barthochowski, nicknamed “Cow,” is a sort of stand-in for the author. He is stationed in Quang Tri. The book’s hero, like the author, did two tours in Vietnam before turning twenty-one.
This is that rare Vietnam War book of fiction that not only mentions General Westmoreland, but contains an entire story with the general as the main character—a story in which Westmoreland is making his exit from Vietnam after guiding the war since 1964.
Cow, our Seabee hero, is near the bottom of the military food chain. He realizes that his orders are to defeat the Viet Cong and stop the spread of communism, as the general points out to the troops, but he’s skeptical that “a difference was being made and the war was being won,” as Westmoreland wanted the troops to believe.
Cow’s enlistment begins in March 1966, under the Delayed Entry Program. He goes on active duty one week after graduating from Hilton High in Wisconsin.
The author assures us this book is a collection of fictional short stories. I believe him. In fiction is where the truth resides. And all of these short stories ring with truth.
The fictional main character is one of my favorite figures in the literature of the Vietnam War. He is mild, eternal, and as memorable as Yossarian in Catch-22. The stories in Loose Ends, in fact, teach us many of the same lessons about war that Catch-22 tried to teach us.
Americans seem to need these lessons taught over and over, and yet they still never seem to learn. I guess we are slow learners about the futility of war.
Loose Ends was an eye-opener. Until I read it, I knew little or nothing about the role of the Seabees in the Vietnam War. Now I know.
Every story brings home the daily life of a lowly enlisted Seabee in Quang Tri and Danang; whether he is driving a truck, standing guard, welding a water tank, or doing any of the myriad crappy duties that the low-level Navy man must do. Many of them, of course, are chickenshit duties that put him in constant threat of conflict with lifers who are more an adversary than the VC or the NVA.
Much of the book involves “monkey business as only young men can make it.” Said monkey business is always fun to read about.
Henry James Barthochowski will always live in my memory because the author brings him alive on every page. This Wisconsin farm boy in the Navy in Vietnam is ”a listener, observer, and anything but a cheerleader for military decorum.” His observations lead him to conclude that “the theater of war is more the theater of the absurd.”
The story that makes this point best is the one in which Cow is showering and three pretty Vietnamese girls come in to clean the shower room. They giggle and pretend they don’t see him. Funny stuff. The same thing happened to me in Vietnam at Tan Son Nhut more than once.
Cow’s homecoming is also familiar. He comes back to his small town in Wisconsin and is castigated for his long hair, quickly grown when he returns to college. The local American Legion lets him know that they do not want him as a member as he had not been to a “real war.” Vietnam, to the members of the Greatest Generation, was merely a “conflict.” Guadalcanal was part of a “real” war.
We encounter Agent Orange, ham and lima beans, shit-burning details, and short-timers’ calendars. I was sad to learn that Navy guys did not have it as cushy as we Army guys always liked to believe they did.
They do have a commanding officer witty enough to use a recording of the Animals’ “We Gotta Get out of This Place,” for morning reveille. That beats anything in the Army I served in. But I would still rather do one tour in Vietnam with the Army than two with the Navy. I learned that much from this fine and funny book.
Read it, and you will learn plenty too, and have more than few laughs.