Calm Frenzy by Loring M. Bailey, Jr.

 

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Deploring the deep-seated dependency of Vietnamese on American aid, Loring M. Bailey Jr. wrote: “I’m enough of a youthful socialist to admit that not everybody can pull themselves up two hundred years by the bootstraps, but there’s such a thing as burdensome assistance. Enough. As the oriental sun sets gently over the snipers and touches its last golden rays to the olive Claymore mines, we bid adieu to Vietnam, land of mystery and mangled civilians.”

A booby trap killed Bailey on March 15, 1970, five months after he arrived in Vietnam at LZ Liz, near Chu Lai, and joined the Americal Division. Spec 4 Bailey had been a radio-telephone operator for both his platoon leader and company commander during what was to be an eight-month tour to finish his enlistment. Under the battalion’s policy, companies spent three weeks in the field and then one week at Liz.

Loring “Ring” Bailey died at the age of twenty-four, but his spirit lives on in Calm Frenzy: One Man’s Vietnam War (Red Barn Books, 175 pp., $15.95, paper). The book is a collection of letters that Bailey wrote to his wife, parents, and three best friends. Chip Lamb adapted the letters into a stage play before they became the basis for this book.

Bailey was a literary magician—a man who plucked the right words from thin air at exactly the right moment, often as a grunt in mud and rain. His sense of humor was enviable. For example:

“Just a dreary way to spend a hot, moist night, sitting, listening to your rifle rust.”

“I have a new fantasy—I pretend that I’m a Belgian mercenary and this isn’t my war, I just work here.”

After he adopted a duckling: “When he made his pitiful little squeaks, I agreed with him.”

To his wife, Maris: “You’re  nice to love and hard to be away from, better than Dinky Toys and bigger. You must be real.”

Through Bailey’s eyes, we see a Vietnam War in which the American quest was futile, yet he persevered. He found a close parallel between the Americans in Vietnam and the British in the Revolutionary War. To wit: “We’re really having asses made of ourselves and paying well to have it done.”

Bailey’s reflections on his activities contained a philosophical tone mixed with touches of poetry and surrealism. His crisply written, sometimes convoluted, scenarios challenge a reader’s imagination and lead to unexpected conclusions.

He seldom spoke directly of combat. His greatest concern was for civilian casualties, particularly women and children. Yet Bailey foreshadowed his own death by noting: “Three of our third platoon people were killed by a booby trap while setting up for an ambush; one lived nearly a whole, precious, peaceful day, afterwards.” And soon thereafter: “More booby traps and such in evidence now.”

The book provides no account of Bailey’s death.

When I turned the final page, I grew teary eyed. I believe Ring Bailey would agree that he qualified as a poster boy for “The Waste of War.” He died just when he was beginning to live—like all the other young KIAs of Nam.

The author’s website is www.calmfrenzy.com/book.html

—Henry Zeybel

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Flying Into the Storm by Bill Norris

Bill Norris is a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War. The cover of his book, Flying Into the Storm (Nekko Books, 272 pp., $24, hardcover; $12.99, paper; $4.99, Kindle), makes it look as though it is about a helicopter pilot, but Bill Norris was not a pilot during the war. That came later, after Norris returned home and became a private pilot.

This novel is centered on Jared Christopher, a young man who leaves college during his first semester and volunteers for the draft. A year later, in January 1968, he finds himself in South Vietnam’s Quang Ngai Province “following orders and taking lives.” The enemy, Jared says, “proved to be a crafty, evasive and determined.” 

Jared is in the Americal Division and often patrols in an area known as Pinkville, which later was made infamous as the scene of the My Lai Massacre. Jared is not involved in that event, but he comments that he easily could have been.

Norris does a particularly good job evoking the everyday activities of an infantryman. “It was part of the Viet Cong master plan to hit us and disappear, ambush us and merge into the landscape and booby trap us relentlessly,”  he writes. “We seldom saw the enemy, no matter how thoroughly we searched.” This is the war that we see Jared and his platoon fighting.

The whole Quang Ngai Province is enemy infested. It is hard to take a step without fear of encountering a booby traps such as punji pits or bamboo spear racks hung in trees. “This was definitely Viet Cong territory,”  Jared says. “We decided that our job to ‘fight communism’ was a farce.”

Bill Norris

He encounters a desolate land, done in by what he calls “orange death”; that is, the widespread spraying of the extremely toxic herbicide Argent Orange.

“I had a bad feeling just walking through the area,” Jared says. “Even the air smelled musty and tainted.”

He prophetically wonders how these chemicals might affect him and the Vietnamese people who lived in the area.

Jared becomes close friends with a few of the locals. He befriends an orphan, Quang, and determines to adopt him and take him home. His comrades call him “gook lover” because of this. Jared’s request is approved by the U.S. Army, but turned down by the South Vietnamese who didn’t want to lose potential manpower for the war.

Jared returns to America and encounters demonstrators with signs at SeaTac Airport. Long-haired hippie-looking people scream obscenities at him and call him a baby killer. “We returned but the parades forgot to show,” Jared says.

Bill Norris, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, has created a character in Jared Christopher who is a compassionate man, who is gentle with children, and who understands how the Vietnamese people were caught between forces they couldn’t possibly contend with.

Jared also is a fine leader of men in combat. He always does what he can to help his men stay alive and in one piece. He is a realistic character—despite all his good qualities. I enjoyed reading about him.

—David Willson