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 

The Secret of Hoa Sen by Nguyen Phan Que Mai

Nguyen Phan Que Mai, the author of The Secret of Hoa Sen (BOA Editions, 208 pp., $16, paper), was born in 1973 in a small village in what was then North Vietnam. She has published many poetry books and has won many honors.

I could not read the Vietnamese versions of her poems, but had to depend on the translations she did with Bruce Weigl, who also translated this volume. Weigl, who wrote Song of Napalm (1988) and other books of poetry, served with the 1st Air Cavalry in Vietnam from 1967-1968. He is one of the most honored poets who took part in the Vietnam War.

In The Secret of Hoa Sen we first get a poem in Vietnamese and then, on the next page, the English translation.  Many of the poems deal, directly or indirectly, with the American war in Vietnam.

“With a Vietnam Veteran, for BW,” is my favorite in this small book. Two people are eating pho with chopsticks, and steam rises from those bowls of hot noodle soup.

“He can’t explain the reasons for the war

the reasons why my relatives had to fall,

and why so many children are imprisoned

in the pain of Agent Orange.

Nguyen Phan Que Mai

“Quang Tri” is another powerful one, a poem of loss and death. It should be read by those who are ignorant of the human cost of the war for the Vietnamese.  “Babylift” also brings home, in a hard-hitting but poetic way, how good intentions often sow tragic consequences.  “Vietnam Veterans Memorial” mentions Agent Orange, as well Nick Ut’s iconic photograph of Phan Thi Kim Phuc, aka, “the girl in the photograph.”

I agree with the poet that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is “Black, silent,/the silent answer for thousands of questions.” But the questions must still be asked.

Poetry is an effective and beautiful way to deal with the horrific aspects of war that have marked all of us. Those who have been avoiding Vietnam War poetry should try this book. You might find it surprisingly affecting.

—David Willson



All They Left Behind by Lisa A. Lark

All They Left Behind: Legacies of the Men and Women on The Wall (M.T. Publishing, 120 pp., $37.50) is a tribute to sixty-one American servicemen and women who died in the Vietnam War. This handsomely produced coffee-table-sized book was put together by Lisa A. Lark in conjunction with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.

Lark, a high school English teacher and community college writer instructor in Michigan, spent more than two years working on the book. During that time she interviewed more than 500 Vietnam veterans, as well as family members and friends of the men and women she profiles in the book. Arranged chronologically by casualty date (from 1962-75), the profiles consist of well-crafted mini biographies augmented with photographs of the men and women before and during the war, as well as with other images, including illustrations and photographs of things left at The Wall.

Lark interrupts the chronological narrative to include an essay on the men who died in Vietnam from Dearborn, Michigan, where she lives. “Fifty-seven sons of Dearborn, the hometown of Henry Ford, gave their lives in service to their country during the Vietnam War,” she writes. “These boys were children of the fifties, coming of age in a city that, despite being one of Michigan’s largest, still behaved as a small town.”

Lark includes includes profiles of six of the Dearborn men (Dennis Stancroff, Earl Smith, Raymond Borowski, David Antol, James Davis, and James Huard) in the book, along with snapshots of forty-two the others.

—Marc Leepson