Happiness is a Warm Gun by Cheryl Breo

Cheryl Breo’s memoir, Happiness is a Warm Gun: A Vietnam Story (Tellwell Talent, 68 pp., $20.99, hardcover; $10.99, paper; $3.99 Kindle), starts with a sentence about her husband that is typical of much of this small book: “He would grab me by the neck with one hand wrapped around my throat and lift me straight off the ground, my feet dangling as he pushed me up against a wall, banging the back of my head against it until it nearly cracked.”

The book, Breo tells us, is “a personal account of my life. It bears no endorsement or authorization from the Beatles or Apple Corps.” The spine of this heavily illustrated little book is made up of quotes and references to the Beatles and their songs. The book focuses on the aftermath of Cheryl’s husband Ed’s  tours of duty in the Vietnam War,  something that brought “that war home to our front door.”

The Vietnam War “and all its hell,” Breo writes, “took the man I married and made him its victim, and in turn, he made me his victim.”  In the Breo household the refrigerator was almost empty, the bills were all past due, and eventually the couple lost their house and their pets and were forced to live in sketchy neighborhoods.

“Even my Liverpool lads reminded me that ‘Happiness is a Warm Gun,’” Breo writes. And then things got worse. Her daughter had a breakdown and Breo contemplated suicide before she took the Beatles’ advice, “She’s Got a Ticket to Ride,” and she used that ticket.

So this blackbird took her broken wings and flew into the light of the dark black night of freedom. Ed Breo finally resigned himself to acknowledging that he needed help and went to the VA. But the VA didn’t help him enough. The “stigma” of being a Vietnam War veteran, Breao writes, lingered “like the stench of the treatment they received from this country when they returned home.”

Cheryl Breo

A walk through the airport, she writes, “became a war zone of its own, as complete strangers yelled vulgar obscenities at him; calling him a ‘baby killer,’ a ‘murderer.’ “

In the dedication, Cheryl Breo writes that John, Paul, George and Ringo “saved my life many times over.”

She was friends with her husband until the day he died after the book was published in 2017.

How they did that, I don’t know, but buy this book and read it and find out how the Beatles were a big part of the therapeutic treatment that enabled them to survive being treated horribly.

—David Willson

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Standing Up After Saigon by Thuhang Tran with Sharon Orlopp

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In practice, communism betrays itself when, under the guise of “reeducation of the masses,” party leaders treat their own citizens as slaves. The communist theory of equality among people vanishes amid the chaos of culling the “un-trainables,” a situation that prevailed devastatingly when communists took control of Russia, China, Cambodia—and Vietnam.

In Standing Up After Saigon: The Triumphant Story of Hope, Determination, and Reinvention  (Brown Books, 190 pp.; $17.21 Hard), Thuhang Tran, with the help of Sharon Orlopp, describes what happened in Vietnam after the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong communists took control of the nation in 1975.

A dual memoir, the book studies the resilience of one family fractured by the ending of the Vietnam War. The family’s youngest child, Thuhang, and her father, Chinh, take turns in narrating life in Vietnam under communist rule for the family members who could not leave in 1975. They also describe Chinh’s determination to make a new life in America for his family. Their recollections are inspirational.

A polio victim reduced to crawling and squatting, Thuhang—along with her mother, brother, and sister—survived fifteen years of fragile existence in Vietnam until they were reunited with her father, a South Vietnamese Air Force air traffic controller who fled as the North Vietnamese Army entered Saigon. Chinh ended up in the United States. For five years, the family believed he had been killed in a helicopter crash. Eventually, he found them. It took ten more years for him to fulfill the requirements of America’s Orderly Departure Program and get his family out of Vietnam.

Although Thuhang is the principal subject of the book, the actions of Chinh and his wife Lieu read like a manual for protecting children. Lieu guided the children through war, forced farm labor, homelessness, famine, and stark poverty. She used bribes and other ruses to keep her son out of the army, including during the 1979-89 war with Cambodia. From America, Chinh provided a flow of money and other help.

Initially, Thuhang’s life in the United States consisted mainly of surgery and lengthy physical rehabilitation that enabled her to stand and walk. She then attained American citizenship and earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas at San Antonio. She has spent many years as a software engineer in Texas and Arkansas.

Thuhang also has organized and worked with groups that aid needy Vietnamese children. Chinh has helped Vietnamese refugees ease the transition after moving from an Eastern to a Western culture.

Thuhang’s brother and sister started businesses and raised families in America. They also they have endured their share of hardship.

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Thuhang Tran as a child in Vietnam

Standing Up After Saigon provides a great amount of information about the assimilation of Vietnamese into America. It also addresses the plight of refugees and the increasingly controversial acceptance of immigrants into the United States.

Co-author Sharon Orlopp is an editor and author who retired as Walmart’s Global Chief Diversity Officer and Senior Vice President of Human Resources. Part of her job was teaching the world about different cultures.

The authors’ website is standingupaftersaigon.com

—Henry Zeybel

Saddle Up by John C. Hedley

Loyalty to the men who fought alongside him in Vietnam’s Central Highlands during 1969-70 forms the core of John C. Hedley’s memoir, Saddle Up: The Story of a Red Scarf  (A15 Publishing, 286 pp.; $24.99, paper).

Operating out of Fire Support Base St. George near Pleiku, Hedley led Fox Force Reconnaissance Platoon of E Company, 1st Battalion, 14th Infantry (the Golden Dragons) of the 4th Infantry Division. The platoon spent most of its time in the jungle and “made contact with the NVA or Viet Cong almost every time they left the firebase,” Hedley says.

Commissioned after graduation from West Point in 1968, Hedley found that running patrols and ambushes quickly taught him new decision-making skills. He challenged authority and did not hesitate to put his men’s welfare ahead of his career aspirations. And he led from the front when possible. Every meeting with the enemy taught him a lesson in survival.

He shows the depth of his concern for his men by recalling the challenges of three major encounters: a night-long battle in which sappers overran St. George; the pursuit of an NVA battalion; and the discovery of a massive NVA bunker.

Hedley did a lot of soul searching in Vietnam. He recognized his inadequacies when, two hours after receiving command of his platoon, he and his men were sent to protect a village ravaged by the NVA. A sink-or-swim situation, the assignment marked the first time that he fully understood his awesome responsibility for men’s lives in combat.

Hedley was pragmatic. His willingness to pry into his own psyche gives the book a leadership manual quality. He emphasizes the skills required for success in leading small units. In portraying the psychological and physical impact of the stress of battle before, during, and after contact, he emphasizes fear and how it can hinder a leader and his men.

Training had taught him that a leader could not show fear because it was contagious, and Hedley recalls his difficulty maintaining equilibrium following a fight early in his tour. “My hands started to shake, I couldn’t light a cigarette,” he writes. “I tried to hide the shaking and it took a while before it disappeared. There was no way I could take a much-needed drink from my canteen. I found that incredible amounts of adrenaline flow through your body when you are being shot at, and that ‘adrenaline drain’ afterward was a very uncomfortable feeling.”

His accounts of atrocities and other brutalities of war leave nothing to the imagination. What Hedley saw when Fox Force rushed to a village after it was hit by the NVA—and the efforts of his unit while defending St. George—borders on the unbelievable.

Parts of the book show the futility of America’s war effort under Vietnamization. The NVA and VC moved easily around the countryside, Hedley says, and they had support from all villagers in the area. Plus, “the night belonged to Charlie” because of his familiarity with the terrain.

The frequency with which Hedley’s men found enemy living areas, campsites, and even a hospital hidden behind a waterfall made me again rethink the grunts’ world of search-and-destroy. Why were they made to continue? The North already occupied the South. Nevertheless, Hedley’s platoon continued to count bodies, sometimes based on only bloody drag marks.

Relegated to a boring headquarters job toward the end of his tour, Hedley found relief by voluntarily rejoining his former battalion for the 1970 incursion into Cambodia. But that’s another story—or book, perhaps.

The “red scarf” in the title was worn “even in the field when on combat operations,” by men who proved their merit under fire in Fox Force, Hedley says. A few years earlier, a South Vietnamese commander, whose platoon wore the scarf, presented one to Fox Force for bravery during a combined op.

Starting in 2000, the symbolism of the bright red scarf motivated Fox Force veterans to reunite. What began as a yearly reunion evolved into frequent meetings. As a result, red scarf warriors have bonded tighter than ever before.

Hedley at a Red Scarf reunion

The book contains twenty-eight pages of then-and-now color photographs of soldiers and scenes from the war. Hedley closes with vignettes about events outside of Fox Force and “A Day in the Life…”, a chapter that summarizes how men lived in the field.

After twenty-four years of military service, John Hedley retired as a lieutenant colonel and then had a seventeen-year career with Raytheon Corporation.

His website is saddleup-redscarf.com

—Henry Zeybel

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

The Unquiet Daughter by Danielle Flood

 

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Danielle Flood wrote The Unquiet Daughter: A Memoir of Betrayal and Love (Piscataqua Press, 377 pp. $17.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle), she says, to determine if her parents were models for the ill-fated love triangle depicted by Graham Greene in his famed 1955 novel, The Quiet American.

Danielle Flood was born in Saigon in 1951. Her beautiful mother was one-quarter Vietnamese and romantically involved with two diplomatic officials: the American Jim Flood and the Englishman Mike Wilton. Her mother married Flood but, for thirty years, she identified Danielle’s father according to her mood of the moment.

Most of the book takes place in the United States and centers on Danielle Flood’s conflict with her divorced parents. Turned into a servant by a selfish mother and abandoned by an aloof father, the author made her own way in the world starting at age fifteen.

She suffered innumerable hardships beyond the slights by her parents. Nevertheless, Flood earned a master’s degree in journalism, enjoyed a career as a newspaper reporter, and found a happy marriage. Eventually she learned who her father was and they united.

Years after the deaths of her mother, Wilton, and Flood, a letter from a relative and Danielle Flood’s journalistic investigative talent brought her a clearer perspective of the 1950s Saigon love triangle.

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Danielle Flood

She wraps these findings in an epilogue that could stand alone as a short book. In it, Flood looks back at how her French and Vietnamese ancestors fared under Japanese occupation and how the Vietnamese resisted when the French retook control of its Indochinese colonies after World War II.

Within this framework, she recreates the lives of her mother, as well as those of Wilton and Jim Flood prior to her birth. In doing so, Danielle Flood portrays a manner of life that resembles how Graham Greene depicted Vietnam of the mid-1950s in The Quiet American.

Twenty-six pages of photographs with detailed captions and notes round out her memoir.

The author’s website is danielleflood.com

—Henry Zeybel

The Girl in the Photo by Gaspar Gonzalez

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Gaspar Gonzalez is an Emmy-award-winning documentary filmmaker who holds a PhD in American Studies from Yale. His brother, Nelson Ramirez, died in Vietnam in May 1968 about the time that Gaspar was born. He only knew his brother from occasional mentions by the family and from family photos.

The Girl in the Photo (Amazon Digital Services, 43 pp., $2.99, Kindle) is about Gaspar Gonzalez’s quest to recover his brother’s memory and to identify a girl in the family photo that adorns the book’s cover.

Gaspar Gonzalez does discover her name, Marilda Gandara. She and his brother were dressed up, posing for a prom-type photo, but no one in his family remembered who she was.

The Internet made it possible for Gaspar to locate Gandara, who is an attorney and community leader in Hartford, Connecticut, and to meet with her. The story has a happy ending, except that the brother, Nelson, still died in Vietnam.

Gaspar learns a lot about his brother and contacts soldiers Nelson served with. They are helpful and kind to him.

This small book packs a lot of punch and is well written and well researched. Gaspar Gonzalez reclaims his lost past and honors his brother by this search for the story behind the old family photo that he carried in his wallet for many years without knowing much about his brother—and nothing about the girl in the photo.

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Gaspar Gonzalez

Gaspar Gonzalez solved the mystery and attained some peace of mind about the loss of his brother in a war that his family didn’t understand and avoided mentioning. The family had left Cuba for a life in the U.S. that was more secure and settled, but their son got sucked into a war that many still can’t figure out the reasons for.

It’s a puzzle that has caused me much lost sleep.

I can only imagine how a recent immigrant felt about being drafted into the Vietnam War.

—David Willson

Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai

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Thanhha Lai was born in Vietnam and moved to Alabama at the end of the American war.  She now lives in Kansas with her family.  Inside Out and Back Again (HarperCollins, 277 pp. $16.99, hardcover; $7.99, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is written in free verse.  This children’s book—a bestseller that won the National Book Award when it come out in 2011— tells the story of Ha and her family’s journey from Saigon to America.

Thanhha Lai decided to use poetry to tell her story rather than a novel or short stories. It starts in Saigon in 1975,  the Year of the Cat. The reader gets a poem dated February 11, Tet, in which everyone eats sugary cakes and wears new clothes. It is a time for starting over.

The next poem is dated February 12, and the reader realizes the book is written as a journal in poetry.  At the end of the book we are on January 31, Tet, once again. In between, we get a year of Thanhha Lai’s life, her journey, and that of her family.

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Thanhha Lai

 

Here’s a brief sample from “Life in Waiting,” one of the poems that offers a taste of the author’s voice and great talent.

A routine starts/as soon as we settle/into our tent.

Camp workers/teach us English/mornings and afternoons.

Evenings we have to ourselves.

We watch movies outdoors/with images projected/onto a  white sheet.

Brother Quang translates/into a microphone,/his voice sad and slow.

If it’s a young cowboy/like Clint Eastwood,/everyone cheers.

If it’s an old cowboy,/like John Wayne,/most of us boo/and go swimming.

The Disney cartoons/lure out the girls,/who always surround/Brother Vu,

begging him to break/yet another piece of wood.

I can still hear them begging/when I go sit with Brother Khoi,

who rarely speaks anymore/but I’m happy to be near him.         

This is a fine book, both sad and funny–and not just for children.  Read it.  The Vietnamese point of view is elusive and seldom appreciated.

—David Willson