Saigon Slumgullion

July 24, 2015 § 2 Comments

slumgullion

Howie Anderson, Floyd Roger, John Ropp – War Zone C, 1969, photo by Tom Vinceguerra. (Note the spices in John Ropp’s hand.)

The One String Violin, the book I am working on with Mark Smith, is almost finished. Finally I put all the sections together and added up the words: way, way too many. Even our most devoted readers might think we had overestimated their patience. So I set about to edit. First to go are all the extra words, of course, but there weren’t that many. I had to cut whole incidents, entire thoughts. Happily, we plan a website where the outtakes will find a home but until I create that I will put a few things here. This is from my epilogue, in which I talk about the process we went through that made it possible for such different people to write a book together.

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Mark and I share a disdain for stories that focus only on one aspect of the war. Too many books and movies hit only one emotional note –  all horror, or glory, or fury or brutality. Mark says war was 10% terror and 90% boredom. To me, 10% terror is plenty but there is that 90%.

So I learned about the ordinary. I learned about shipping film back and forth and what happens to clothing and skin in the heat and humidity. I learned about the way helmets were decorated and that the letters Mark received from home did not survive because he simply could not carry them around.

I learned, though, that dried spices were worth carrying because they could turn dreary C-rations into a kind of stew they called “Saigon Slumgullion.”

The war was filled with ordinary moments but nothing I could do would make them ordinary to me.

“I’m scared.”

June 9, 2015 § Leave a comment

The last stages of any writing project, and particularly the book I am writing with Mark, involve a shift from the solitude of writing and editing to the idea that this project will be public, that other people will read it and have opinions, and will be affected. This means I have to learn a new way of engaging even casual conversations. For instance:

I met a woman last week, an assistant in an oral surgeon’s office. She looked to be in her 40s, so a generation younger than me. She asked what I did. I said I was a writer and mentioned I was going to Vietnam in November.

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Prologue

May 26, 2015 § 1 Comment

I spent Memorial Day trying to get the prologue to Mark’s book right. Like any good writer, I managed a dozen words, deleted seven of them, and then checked Facebook. But my newsfeed was filled with official announcements … “we pause to remember …” and I would think, “who is ‘we?’ Veterans don’t ‘pause’ to remember anything. From veterans the message is ‘never a day goes by …'” and then I would have to go back to the writing and try to make it fit the task and not get overwhelmed by the very gap between civilians and veterans I was trying to write about. « Read the rest of this entry »

“Memories that refuse to die”

April 30, 2015 § 2 Comments

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Augustus Saint Gaudens, Adams Memorial, 1891.

It is 40 years since what we call “the fall of Saigon” and we are still struggling with memory. Forty years since the North Vietnamese reunified their own country and we still don’t know what to make of it. The military is trying to find as many heroic stories as it can to somehow recast the whole war as heroic. Anti-war activists are jumping on their anti-war horses to make sure that doesn’t happen. Most people just want to think about something else, everyone is confused and meanwhile, memory persists. « Read the rest of this entry »

Saturday People

April 4, 2015 § Leave a comment

candle-flameIt is the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, a strange day, liminal time. It was always hard for me to know how to feel on this day. Ever practical, I would be properly solemn on Good Friday but on Saturday I would say I knew how this story turned out and there were things to be done – eggs to be dyed and braided bread to be baked and, in the time when I was going to church, candles and lilies to be arranged and potted flowers to be put out for the children. « Read the rest of this entry »

Truth. Then Reconciliation.

March 26, 2015 § Leave a comment

My Lai. Photo by Mark Smith.

My Lai. Photo by Mark Smith.

Buried within Seymour M. Hersh’s look back at the massacre at My Lai, The Scene of the Crime, published in The New Yorker, there is the account of a poignant exchange between the director of the My Lai Museum, Mr. Pham Thanh Cong, and an American veteran who had been one of the perpetrators.

The American, Kenneth Schiel, says he wants to “apologize to the people of My Lai,” but that is as far as he goes. “I ask myself all the time why did this happen. I don’t know.”

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Reporters

February 12, 2015 § 2 Comments

Morley Safer, CBS News

Morley Safer, CBS News

I never thought I would say this: the controversy about Brian Williams has made me miss the Vietnam War. I miss the reporters who really went there, went there to report. I miss the visceral feeling I had when I saw the grass waving under the choppers and the sound of the blades that still alerts me, all these years later. I miss the reporters ducking and running. I miss being made to feel horrified and grief-stricken about events that deserve horror and grief. « Read the rest of this entry »