Last Train Runnin by Ronnie D. Foster

Ronnie Foster sums up his opinion of the Vietnam War with words he attributes to his protagonist in his novel, Last Train Runnin (R.D. Foster, 415 pp.; $21.25, paper):

Oh the rich kids went to college

And the poor boys went to war.

They were soaking up the knowledge

Of beer and sex and cars.

We were shootin’ folks and dying,

Didn’t even know what for.

The rich kids went to college,

And the poor boys went to war.

Foster experienced his share of combat in Vietnam with the Marine Corps. In this novel of the 1960s, Foster tells his war story through the eyes of Everett Blalock, a Navy Corpsman with a serious case of fear. The young man was a renowned folk singer in Austin, Texas. After the wealthy parents of his sweetheart arranged for his induction into the Army through the draft, he enlisted in the Navy to avoid becoming an infantryman. That plan did not exactly work.

The story begins with Everett in bloody combat southwest of Da Nang. The sole survivor from an ambushed eight-man squad, he receives a Bronze Star and Purple Heart.

Thereafter, he watches many men die while he survives helicopter assaults, search and destroy missions, costly firefights, and rocket and mortar attacks. Homesick over his shattered relationship with his girlfriend, he writes songs—which are in the novel—about the good parts of life that he and the men around him are missing. Between battles, he teams up with a harmonica-playing sergeant and they create and perform music.

Alternating chapters present the life of David Duncan, an antiwar University of Texas rich kid in his sixth year of a college deferment. As a newspapers trainee, he receives an assignment to learn what became of Everett Blalock, who dropped out of sight after rock and roll took center stage from folk music. An out-of-control boozer and druggie, David staggers through a self-defeating series of life-changing events regarding protest, love, wealth, and war.

Ronnie Foster in 1987

His assignment takes him to Vietnam. The results of his quest and meeting with Everett have repercussions that extend decades beyond the end of the Vietnam War.

Along with writing books, Ronnie Foster has been a singer, songwriter, and musician since leaving the Corps. Foster’s One Day as a Lion is a tribute to twenty-one men from rural Collin County, Texas, who died in the Vietnam War.

Foster offers hundreds of pictures from Vietnam and a highly specialized brand of music and humor on his web at ronniefoster.com

—Henry Zeybel

One Day as a Lion by Ronnie D. Foster

Ronnie D. Foster has written a thoroughly researched and most interesting book, One Day as a Lion: True Stories of the Vietnam War Heroes from Collin County, Texas ( Entry Way Publishing, 242 pp., $16.95, paper; $6.99, Kindle). The title is taken from an ancient Tibetan proverb: “It is better to have lived one day as a lion than to have lived ten thousand years as a sheep.”

The author grew up in McKinney, Texas, just north of Dallas. He served twenty months in Vietnam with the U. S. Marine Corps. Like many Vietnam veterans, after he came home Foster tried without much success to suppress his thoughts about friends who gave up all of their tomorrows in the war zone.

Some three decades years later, he was in his hometown speaking with some other veterans when the discussion turned to the Vietnam War. Foster was dismayed to learn that those veterans did not remember his friend from high school, Bill Bryan, who received the Navy Cross for his heroism at Khe Sanh during the battle for Hill 861 North in 1968. That was Foster’s motivation to tell the story of every Collin County veteran who did not return from Vietnam.

Foster’s book covers all twenty-one Collin County servicemen: thirteen from Army, seven USMC, and one Navy man. One of the men, Army 1st Lt. Russell A. Steindam, received the Medal of Honor for sacrificing his own life by falling on an enemy grenade to save his comrades. Other combat awards received by members of the group include a Navy Cross, three Silver Stars, a Distinguished Flying Cross, and six Bronze Stars. Eighteen received Purple Heart Medals (the other three died from non-combat related causes).

Collin County, Texas, Medal of Honor recipient Russell Steindam (1946-1970)

A prodigious amount of research went into ensuring the accuracy of each veteran’s story. The author and his two research assistants relied upon sources such as The Virtual Wall website; official After-Action Reports; high school yearbooks; letters mailed home; newspaper articles; medal citations, personal interviews with battle survivors and family members; and condolence letters from commanding officers.

That research paid dividends: All the Collin County veterans Foster writes about become real humans, not just statistics.

One Day as a Lion was awarded the Silver Trophy as a finalist at the 2009 North Texas Book Festival. In this reviewer’s opinion, it should have been awarded the Gold.This gem of a book is a must read.

The author’s website is www.ronniefoster.com

—James Coan