Down Along the Piney by John Mort

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John Mort, one of America’s premier storytellers, served in the Vietnam War with the First Cavalry Division. His story, “Hog Whisperer,” received the 2013 Spur Award for best short story from the Western Writers of America.  Mort writes edge-of the seat fictional masterpieces, presenting characters for us to root for and cherish, as well as the other kind. They are all-American people who breathe on the page—people we wish we knew, people we do know, or people we are happy we have yet to encounter.

Mort’s latest collection, Down Along the Piney: Ozark Stories (University of Notre Dame Press, 186 pp., $50, hardcover; $20, paper) contains thirteen fine stories, including “Hog Whisperer.” Some of these tales are so lively and dense that it’s difficult to believe they aren’t novels as so much happens in the course of each story. “Hog Whisperer” is one of those stellar stories.

Another one that is rich and full of the intent and accomplishment of a novel is “Pitchblende,” the first in the collection. We are introduced by the narrator to his father, known as “the Colonel,” in the first paragraph. He is a larger-than-life character who intends to run the lives of his entire family. His wife is not up for that, so she departs.

The Colonel was gone during most of that family’s life, serving in various wars around the planet. He disgraced himself—or thought he did—in the Korean War, after which his career was as good as over due to events that were beyond his control. That is often the nature of war. No more promotions were there, so the old man left the military and spent the rest of his life trying to strike it rich finding uranium in the form of pitchblende.

He dug big holes in the ground with his Cat, which was as close to his old Sherman tank as he could get on his property, which becomes known as Bald Mountain because of what he and his Cat do to the surface of the land and to the trees.

My favorite sentence in this story is: “That’s because they ain’t no uranium in Missouri.” Just sticky, old soft coal that’s worthless.

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John Mort

The story’s hero graduated from high school, joined the Army, and learned to fly helicopters.

“I was a warrant officer,” he says. “I was a pilot, and twice I was shot down. Who knows why, but the bullets flew all around me, and I was never touched.”

There’s lots of war in the stories in this fine book, including the Vietnam War. “Take the Man Out and Shoot Him” alone is worth the price of admission.

If you have even the vaguest love of fine short stories or want to read great stories about people and war, buy this book. It will not disappoint.

—David Willson

The Hardest Part by Bruce I. McDaniel

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Bruce McDaniel enlisted in the Army in September 1967 and spent a year as a medic with the 198th Light Infantry Brigade in Vietnam. He wrote about that experience in a 2016 memoir, Walk Through the Valley: The Spiritual Journey of a Vietnam War Medic, which we reviewed on these pages.

In  Homecoming Stories from the Vietnam War (Lulu.com, 64 pp., $8, paper) McDaniel uses those experiences to create a group of short stories that explore his feelings about the challenges of returning to America after his tour of duty. He did not anticipate the troubles he would encounter.

McDaniel’s service as a medic saving lives in the Vietnam War did not make him popular in the civilian world when he returned home.  Some of the stories he uses to explore what it is like to be back deal with a Vietnam veteran on leave who chooses to travel in his uniform because of the advantages he thought that would give him as a traveler.

The story I appreciated most was about a veteran who enrolls in college with his war wound dogging him, but not a wound that is readily identifiable. He lacks one eye, which was damaged by a tiny piece of shrapnel. He’s actually told by a fellow student that it served him right for being in Vietnam.

Nobody has told me that about my Agent Orange-connected disability, but the world has changed a lot since 1968. The story made me wonder, though, if the occasional person might have that thought. It wouldn’t surprise me.

These stories frequently provoked me to fits of thinking, which is what one hopes for from good fiction. There are far fewer than seventy-five pages is this little book, but it packs a punch.

In fact, it packs several punches, and I highly recommend it to all veterans. I believe the stories would be especially helpful to read and discussed by a group of veterans dealing with stubborn, painful issues that have refused to fly away into the clouds.

I appreciate that Bruce McDaniel used his memories and imagination to produce these powerful stories.

—David Willson

How Stevie Nearly Lost the War by Marc Levy

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Marc Levy served as a medic in the 1st Cavalry Division in Vietnam and Cambodia in 1970. How Stevie Nearly Lost the War and other Postwar Stories (Winter Street Press, 154 pp. $12, paper; $2.99, Kindle) is a small book of powerful short stories and essays that hits like a hand grenade ignited in a closet full of secrets.

Full disclosure: I was a stenographer in Vietnam, so I don’t really know exactly what happened out in the field. Imagining that grenade blast is as close as I wish to get to it.

The special power of language is immediately apparent in the book’s first two stories in which Marc Levy pulls no punches. These stories, in fact, are a punch in the gut.

Here, for example, are a few lines from the beginning of “The Thing They Will Always Carry”:

VA Shrink:  Were you in Vietnam?

Vietnam Vet:  Yes.

VA Shrink:  When were you there?

Vietnam Vet:  Last night.

Yes. He was there last night. I totally get that. I was a steno in Vietnam, and when I napped briefly this afternoon, I was back there. I was not typing or taking shorthand. I was interviewing a black guy in Long Binh Jail. Did I ever do that? Yes. But it was much scarier in my dream than it had been in real life—if that is what my tour of duty in Vietnam was.

In his book Levy describes a “safe rear job” in his story “Meeting the New Lieutenant.”  He writes of “clean clothes, showers, real beds, reinforced bunkers, fresh food.” All of that is true. Levy doesn’t mention that the water we showered with was saturated with Agent Orange. Just a small thing to overlook, but there it is.

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Marc Levy in Vietnam

Marc Levy’s great talent is his ability to reach the reader at a personal, intimate level with his poetic whispers and shouts. We are lucky he has chosen to take the time to communicate with us.

His book speaks to all who read it. Please do so.

You owe it to yourself and to your loved ones.

—David Willson

The author’s website is medicinthegreentime.com

Foreign Correspondent by Patricia L. Mosure and Stephen G. Patten

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Foreign Correspondent: A Journalist’s True Story by Patricia L. Mosure and Stephen G. Patten (Lee and Grant International, 401 pp., $17.95, paper) focuses on Patten’s experiences over a forty-year period. He served as a Captain in the Marine Corps from 1962-68, including a short tour (three weeks) in Vietnam in 1967. He then was a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, the Far East, and Central America. The authors also devote one chapter to the current war on terror.

Steve Patten and  co-author Mosure also recount their meeting a Catholic nun, Sister Linh, who was running an orphanage in South Vietnam. She told Patten that “if the Communists come, they will kill me.” In 1975, with the fall of South Vietnam imminent, Patten flew there to try and rescue Sister Lihn. The mission failed and he never saw her again.

That incident spurred Patten’s interest in the POW-MIA issue. Several chapters are devoted to discussing the 83,120 who remain missing from World War II, the Korean and Vietnam Wars, the Cold War. and Gulf War. Especially poignant are the stories of five returned POWs: Angelo Donati (Laos), Ed DeMattos and Phil Nadler (World War II), and Paul Galanti (Vietnam).

The book gives a realistic view of what life as a foreign correspondent entails. The authors’ stories include accounts of South Vietnamese refugees (the boat people) fleeing communist rule, the Plain of Jars in Laos, Pope John Paul’s visit to South Korea, guerrillas in El Salvador,and interviews with Mother Teresa and India’s Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

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Steve Patten

Several chapters are devoted to Patten’s struggle to clear his name after being fired in 1984 by CBS following allegations that he was a CIA agent. Patten worked briefly for NBC, but was fired again when the CIA rumors resurfaced.

The authors suggest the CIA rumor was planted by the Israelis to discredit him because of his critical reporting of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. The book follows Patten’s fight all the way to the CBS Board of Directors in 1990, but does not reveal if a settlement was reached.

I found this book very interesting and would recommend it to anyone with an interest in war reporting, POW/MIAs, and the history of our most recent wars.

—Mark S. Miller

 

The Jake Fischer Stories by Stewart Bird

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Stewart Bird, the author of The Jake Fischer Stories (Dog Ear Publishing, 176 pp., $12.97, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is a novelist (Murder at the Yeshiva), a TV documentary writer/producer (The Wobblies, Coming Home, et al.), and a member of Vietnam Veterans of America.  I suspect his military history is similar to that of the stories’ protagonist, Jack Fischer.

Bird has produced a baker’s dozen of short stories of varying lengths with the protagonist Jake Fischer, as the title indicates.  Jake is drafted into the Army and ends up as a psychiatric social worker at the Michigan Army Hospital during the Vietnam War.

Some of the titles of the stories are:  “Basic,” “The  War at Home,” “Coming Home,” and “Chicago 68.” The stories reflect the titles. All are interesting and well-written. “Basic” takes place in the fall of 1965 at Fort Hamilton, Brooklyn and then moves to Fort Dix in New Jersey. “They took everyone with a heartbeat,” Bird writes.

The story “War at Home” is mostly about drugs. Bird refers to Robert S. MacNamara as “the systems analyst who planned and ran the Vietnam War:  The face of death.” He certainly captures my feelings about the man.

The reader gets references to LBJ and how many kid he killed today, as well as to Scarface, Full Metal Jacket, Ron Kovic, Bob Dylan, Catch-22, and President Nixon looking like a cattle rustler in a John Ford Western. There is a lot of wit and some humor in these serious literary stories. I enjoyed all of them.

I highly recommend this collection of short stories to anyone who wishes to read finely written short fiction about the Vietnam War era.

The author’s website is www.stewartbird.net/the_jake_fischer_stories_125234.htmu

—David Willson

Eating With Veterans by Michael Lund

Michael Lund served in the U. S. Army as a correspondent in Vietnam, 1970-71. He is the author of a memoir, Route 66 to Vietnam: A Draftee’s Story, and a book of short stories, How Not to Tell a War Story.  Lund’s latest book is Eating With Veterans (BeachHouse Books, 268 pp., $16.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle), a book of twenty serious short stories.

Lundh, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, holds a PhD in literature from Emory University, so I expected his stories to be literate and well-written. I was not disappointed.

Most of the characters in these fine stories are aging veterans, mostly of the Vietnam War. Often these veterans and their companions are eating, drinking, and talking. Occasionally a story will seem like a deliberate homage to Raymond Carver, for instance “The Soy Bean Field.”  I intend this as the highest of compliments.

Most of the stories communicate an atmosphere of social unease. Many take place, at least in part, in South Vietnam, and give us insights into the lives of soldiers who served there in communications. Some of the titles are: “The Rules of Engagement,” “Drugs Away,” “Blood Drive,” “The Death of Short-timer Sam,” and “Counterinsurgency. ”

Some of the stories that have non-military sounding titles are the ones that contain the most overt military scenes, for instance Lund’s Tet Offensive story, “Magician.”  We get a reference in that story to the school at Fort Benjamin Harrison, where the correspondent was trained—and where I was trained as a stenographer. I am always pleased when I read a book that deals with what the 80 to 90 percent of us did in Vietnam: not take part in combat. This is one of the best books yet that deals seriously with that aspect of our war.

Lund uses the phrase “rear echelon troops,” and the derogatory term “REMF” does not appear. It’s a term, by the way, that I never heard in Vietnam, but trip over endlessly in Vietnam War combat books, both novels and memoirs.

Lund does deal with some war-horse items such as Agent Orange, and he does have a story that mentions the oft-related tale of returning soldiers being spat upon and called baby killers. But he also includes  “Hadrian’s Wall,”  a rare story dealing with the Coast Guard’s role in the Vietnam War. Jimi Hendrix, one of my favorite Vietnam War era veterans, gets more than a mention—he gets an entire story, “Look Alike.”

Michael Lund

In “Camp Hoover” Lund captures an elusive feeling that I have tried to put into words, but failed to do so: how the past and the present can get intertwined and confused. It’s a great story and the saddest one in the book—perhaps one of the saddest stories I’ve ever read.

I highly recommend the stories in this book to all those drawn to serious writing about the Vietnam War and to seekers after the whole story—not just a narrow story told over and over again.

—David Willson

Night Flares by Robert M. Pacholik

Robert M. Pacholik’s Night Flares: Six Tales of the Vietnam War (Action-Adventure Press, $3.50, e book) is a work of fiction “based on eye-witness accounts of real events,” as the author puts it.

The great cover was designed by Emma Grisske. The book is dedicated to “the E-1s through E-5s of the American Army, the backbone and soul of the nation, and to the officer corps, who failed us.”  Hear hear.

Pacholik, a native of Chicago’s Southside, served two tours in Vietnam as an Army Field photographer and military journalist from 1968-69. These six stories, he says, “examine the micro-personal experiences of men in combat: the fear, the loss, the moments of overpowering events and how they struggled to cope with the inferno that was Vietnam for the common soldier, sailor, airman, marine or coast guardsmen who served there.”

The author tells us that in December 1969 in the San Francisco Airport, a woman of about twenty walked up to him in his brand-new Army uniform and spat in his face. She said not one word to him. That’s the reason Pacholik wrote this book, he says, because when “they tried to return home, veterans were met with a sense of loathing unheard of in our history.”

That’s true. No one, however, spat on me or at me. But I did experience that loathing from my family and their Greatest Generation friends when I tried to go home again.

The book’s Saigon stories take place about six months later than the Saigon I knew and roamed around in. They are set before, during, and after the 1968 Tet Offensive. This Saigon—on or near Tu Do Street—is much different than what I knew; it is tough, dangerous, and totally believable, a place a grunt or a clerk could easily die if he let down his guard or was unlucky

Pacholik (above) allows us to get to know, like, and root for a character, a short-timer, Ron, a Spec4. But Ron gets blown away for no good reason, and also gets name-called by a dumb-ass LT who gives Ron no credit for his bravery.

That’s the Vietnam War this author presents us: a hard, bloodthirsty war with no justice, where old drunk NCOs survive and a teenage draftee dies.

John Wayne gets a couple of mentions in these fine short stories, as does Country Joe and the Fish. Operation Ranch Hand and Agent Orange get the attention they deserve and the rear-echelon gets a whack or two. On the other hand, Jane Fonda is only alluded to as a “pampered, cynical, barely-starlet photographed on the gun carriage of a Russian Anti-aircraft battery giving …aid and comfort to those proud fighters…”

The six stories in this book are different from all the hundreds of other stories I have read that take place during the Vietnam War. Plus, they are well-written and often witty.

But this book contains much more than just six stories. There is an extensive “Prelude,” which explains the title and places the stories in context.  At the end is a long and cogent history of the Vietnam War.

The author is to be congratulated for his clear and well-organized thinking. His book deserves a place on the shelf with the half dozen classic collections of single-author Vietnam War short stories, which include John Mort’s Don’t Mean Nothin and Rob McGowan’s Nam: Things That Weren’t True.

Buy this one today and read it. I did and I raced through it, eager to get to the next page.

—David Willson

Loose Ends by Jim Zitzelsberger


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.

—David Willson

Redeployment by Phil Klay

Phil Klay is a former Marine who served in Iraq. He says the dozen stories in his new best-selling, critically acclaimed book, Redeployment (Penguin, 304 pp., $26.95), are partly autobiographical.

These are not Johnny-one-note stories, all using the same point-of-view, or showing us the same protagonist. These are stories about war told from many angles and with many different voices. All are convincing, interesting, and spell-binding. Klay is a master storyteller.

This is not an all-male war book. There are well-imagined female characters in the book, including a soldier who spent the war filling potholes until she got blown up and disfigured.

These stories make the innocent reader aware of the horrors of all wars—including the Vietnam War. In one story a female veteran who is severely injured  in Iraq, says, “My dad was in Vietnam.”  And her granddad was in Korea. She thought of Platoon and Full Metal Jacket when she went into the military. Her dad had been a REMF. But she was out in the shit.

Her friend comments about the films: “I’ll bet that more Marines have joined the Corps because of Full Metal Jacket than because of any fucking recruitment commercial.” He goes on to say that there is no such thing as an antiwar film. I agree. They all make war seem like an adventure.

We get the stories of a Lance Corporal grunt, a Mortuary Affairs Marine, a chaplain, and a young foreign service officer assigned to bring baseball to Iraqi street kids. Another story deals with veterans in a bar who take part in an interview for a school project, one of them so badly burned that he looks like a horror show villain.

In the story “Unless It’s a Sucking Chest Wound” there is a Fobbit, or REMF, who says:  “I went for an MOS that wouldn’t put me in harm’s way. My Iraq War was a stack of papers.”

Phil Klay

The Vietnam War continues to pop up. One of the best stories, in fact, is entitled “In Vietnam They Had Whores.”

The narrator tells us: “My dad only told me about Vietnam when I was going over to Iraq.”  The story “Psychological Operations” contains one of the funniest jokes about Vietnam veterans I have encountered, and I thought I had heard them all.

It starts with “How many Vietnam vets does it take to screw in a light bulb?” But I won’t ruin it by telling you the punch line. It is a good one, and true.

There is humor in the book, and I often laughed aloud. But it is dark humor. One example: the plague of herpes that infests a platoon where there are no whores available. Finally it is tracked to the serial use of an infected and unclean “pocket pussy.” Funny stuff, but very dark.

Redeployment has been compared by reviewers to Tim O’Brien’s The Things We Carried. That’s fair enough as a quality comparison, but the book is more like John A. Miller’s Jackson Street or John Mort’s Don’t Mean Nothin or even Robert Olen Butler’s A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain.

The great strength of the book—aside from the fine writing and the dark humor—is the honesty and how the stories are presented from a kaleidoscope of experiences. Klay generously thanks a long list of folks who helped him, but he must get the final credit for this powerful book of people at war who then try to survive after their war.

No book better makes us aware of the butcher’s bill of modern war.

—David Willson

Nightmare Range by Martin Limon

I can’t say it better than Lee Child:  “Martin Limon is one of the best military writers ever. His stories are addictive entertainment today—and valuable slices of history tomorrow.”  The two protagonists on the seventeen stories in Limon’s Nightmare Range: The Collected George Sueno and Ernie Bascom Stories (Soho Crime, 400 pp., $26.95, hardcover, $14.95, paper; $12.99, Kindle), and also of Limon’s series of gripping novels, are in their early twenties, full of juice, and self-described “rear echelon pukes” in early 1970’s Korea.

These Army CID agents are an odd couple; George was raised in a series of foster homes in East L.A. and Ernie is from an East Coast family with money and education, stuff he’ll have nothing to do with. Ernie Bascom is a Vietnam veteran who did two tours in Chu Lai where he acquired some bad habits. He has long since kicked heroin. But he’s still addicted to the U. S. Army—three hots and a cot, etc.—as well as the adrenaline rush of fighting authority and chasing bad guys. George is that rare American who can speak enough Korean to get along, and Ernie has a gift for fitting in with the dregs of humanity, no matter how low.

They are perfect for undercover operations as Army C.I.D. agents, mostly wasting their time chasing down housewives who do black market deals. But they also get the occasional murder. Limon’s peerless credentials include ten years in Korea and twenty years in the Army, as well as a singular talent for story telling, especially stories of the rough and tough, back-alley brawling type, with some occasional deep thinking and mystery solving by his super bright Agent George Sueno.

Martin Limon

I’ve loved every one of Limon’s novels and each of these short stories packs as much punch and excitement as most writers’ full-length novels.  If you are a reader who hungers for stories of an exotic and dangerous world where there are beautiful women and killers down every alley, these stories of Korea where a protracted war that has never ended continues to kill, maim, and soak up billions of dollars a year, this collection of stories is for you.

Martin Limon gets the U. S. Army right on every page: the language, the details of assignment and training, the subtle differences of rank, the drinking and gambling, all of it. If you are tired of authors who just don’t seem to know what Army life is all about, and you have yet to read the works of Limon, wait no longer. Martin Limon ranks right at the top, along with James Jones.

My favorite quote from these stories is: “In the Army, the less you know, the safer your career prospects.” You said it, Mr. Limon.

—David Willson