Harley Tracks by Mike Rinowski

 

If you like motorcycles, Harley Tracks: Across Vietnam to the Wall (Tracks Press, 263 pp., $29.95) has to be your next book. True to his subtitle, author Mike Rinowski describes practically every mile of an amazing journey he took on a Harley Fat Boy.

Over four years beginning in 2008, Rinowski traveled 41,000 miles on a solo pilgrimage to honor those who fought in the Vietnam War—or, depending on your viewpoint, the American War in Vietnam. He visited most of the battle sites, including those from the French War, including Dien Bien Phu.

Despite the author’s intent to honor warriors from the past, Fat Boy steals many of the scenes. The Harley “added a new tune to the atmosphere” and attracted attention everywhere, which helped Rinowski meet many people, including veterans from both sides. Hotels frequently gave Fat Boy privileged parking—inside their lobbies.

Fat Boy and Rinowski conquered all: close calls, treacherous roads, monsoons, overzealous police, mechanical difficulties, collisions and spills, along with other unpredictable problems. Every day was an adventure.

The writing is crisp, detailed, and flawlessly edited. Rinowski can turn a phrase for the rare sight, such as: “I passed a flea-sized girl about five years old who carried a swoosh stick to command a giant ox and its calf along the trail.” For grandeur: “Dark rock towered to snow and glaciers that disappeared in a blanket of clouds. Avalanche remnants stuck in crevices, and fallen sheets of snow froze, as if to reach and claw back to the top.”

And for danger: “I leaned harder into the turn, and before the front tire hit sand, I cranked on the throttle. In a blink of time, the rear tire slung sand and spun the back of the bike through the turn. My right foot shot down for a quick step and push, while my hands pulled for a bit of lift.”

Forty pages of colored photographs are flawless. They show people, cities, and landscapes with vividness and clarity seldom found in a memoirist’s photography.

Rinowski also rode across Kashmir and through the Himalaya Mountains on a rented machine. As he traveled, Rinowski occasionally updated the status of his business ventures as a golf course builder and superintendent.

Mike Rinowski

Rinowski presents pro and con history lessons about the war. He offers his opinion of the war’s necessity and discourses on the casualties still caused in Vietnam today by unexploded ordinance, as well as birth defects from American defoliation tactics. His brief analyses tend toward broad conclusions. He excuses these shortcomings by saying, “The nature of combat lay beyond my imagination.”

Born in 1953, Rinowski entered the Army and ended up serving in Germany as the fighting in Vietnam wound down.

Rinowski fulfilled the promise of the book’s title after returning to the United States. In 2013, Fat Boy and he joined the Memorial Day rally that ended at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

When a stranger asked where the essence of Rinowski’s travels originated, he said, “It comes from my free-spirited nature.”

Mike Rinowski’s preference to travel alone—the most dangerous way to ride—distinctly confirms that essence.

The author’s web site is http://harleytracks.com

—Henry Zeybel 

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Creating the Vietnam Veterans Memorial by Robert W. Doubek

Robert W. Doubek says he is “blessed and cursed with a sharp memory.” I totally believe him after reading his Creating the Vietnam Veterans Memorial: The Inside Story (McFarland, 324 pp., $35, paper).

Bob Doubek tells the story from his recollections and personal notes, calendars, photos, and news clippings, supplemented by material from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund Collection archives, as well as public records including those from the Library of Congress. Consequently, the depth of his account appears limitless.

After much controversy involving Maya Lin’s design, the Wall was dedicated in 1982. The book is a good read because Doubek, who was an important player in the Memorial’s early history, describes the fervor, as well as the pettiness and rancor ,displayed by those for and against the design, himself included.

As executive director of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, Doubek was “in charge of building the Memorial,” he writes, “participated in every major decision and event.” Differences of opinion between him and co-VVMF founder Jan Scruggs, as well as with another early proponent of the Wall, Jack Wheeler, were practically a daily occurrence. All of the men were Vietnam War veterans; each had a highly personalized perspective of the Memorial’s purpose.

The biggest problems during planning and building were finding sponsors, raising money, and determining the Memorial’s design. The earliest sponsor was Sen. John Warner of Virginia, who later played a crucial role in resolving many stalemates. H. Ross Perot also took an early interest in the project. The Memorial’s most important boost came from President Jimmy Carter when he signed into law a bill that provided a site on the Mall for the Wall in Washington, D.C. Money accumulated slowly but at an ever-increasing pace of public contributions.

In the book’s longest chapter, “Our Opponents Take the Field,” Doubek objectively presents the opposition’s resistance to the design. James Webb and Thomas Carhart were the major voices against the design. They enlisted the support of Perot, who had changed sides. Targeted were Maya Lin and the jury that selected her plan for the Memorial during a nationwide contest. Opponents tried to discredit them with false accusations and prejudicial arguments.

The media split on the topic. Doubek likens a face off between Lin and Perot to Bambi Meets Godzilla, but for once Bambi survived. Throughout the dispute, by the way, Vietnam Veterans of America endorsed the Memorial’s design.

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Jan Scruggs, Maya Lin, and Bob Doubek with a model of Lin’s design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Doubek, Scruggs, and Wheeler stood together against the opposition. After the compromise of adding a statue and a flagpole to the site, groundbreaking proceeded as planned.  Nevertheless, the design debate raged until the dedication ceremony. Even after the dedication, there were disagreements about where to place the statue and flagpole.

One factor not discussed by Doubek is the tremendous psychological and spiritual impact the Memorial has exerted on Vietnam War veterans. In dozens of memoirs I have read, veterans cite visits to the Wall as turning points in their lives. In a somewhat magical way, the sight of the Wall and the visitors surrounding it gives many veterans a clearer understanding of the war and their involvement in it.

To me, this effect above all else validates the construction of the Memorial.

—Henry Zeybel