Sunday, July 19, 2009

Summer Shorts: "The bayonet end"

(top) Jim Northrup, Fond du Lac Anishinaabe, author, journalist, poet, Vietnam veteran, I Company, 3rd Battalion, 9th Marines, photo from PBS web page “Way of The Warrior”; (center)Ivan Van Laningham, Army Signal Corps:Cu Chi, Class of '70, author of the Andi Holmes stories, photo snapped at Left Coast Crime - Monterey 2004; (bottom)Army nurse Sharon Wildwind at Pleiku, RVN (Republic of VietNam) in the fall of 1970, author of the “Pepper” Pepperhawk/Avivah Rosen novels, photo furnished by Sharon for my blog 2005.

"Our feeling was, if it moves shoot it. If it doesn't move, burn it. It is what we did. We're the bayonet end of America's foreign policy and we killed ... and got killed."
Jim Northrup, quoted in PBS documentary "Way of the Warrior."

By Pat Browning

Excerpt from my blog Sunday, Nov. 11, 2007

OETA has been running war movies and documentaries for several weeks. One of the most surprising to me was "Way of the Warrior," a documentary about experiences of American Indians who fought in two World Wars, Korea and Vietnam.

I knew about Ira Hayes, who helped raise the American flag on Iwo Jima, and I knew about the Navajo Code Talkers. What I didn't know is that American Indians served by the thousands in all of America's 20th century wars.

Some Indians served for the money or the adventure. Some belonged to "warrior" clans. Others saw it as their duty to their own Indian nations and to the United States.

Wisconsin Public Television turned their experiences and personal interviews into a riveting documentary on why and how they served, and how they coped with a return to civilian life.

Returning Vietnam vet Jim Northrup dealt with his post-traumatic stress by writing about his experiences. Here's an excerpt from his poem, "Walking Point."

Movement! Something is moving up there!
Drop to the mud, rifle pointing at the unknown, Looks like two of them, hunting him.
They have rifles but he saw them first.
The Marine Corps takes over,
Breathe, Relax, Aim, Slack, Squeeze.
The shooting is over in five seconds.
The shakes are over in a half hour.
The memories are over ... never.

In "Way of the Warrior," Northrup comments that for a long time "(my wife) had to wake me up with a broomstick because I'd come out of that bed ready to kill."

Another vet, the incomparable Ivan Van Laningham (sometimes known simply as “I”) smiles from my blog today. He and his wife, Audrey, make a formidable power couple. If brain power could be used for rocket fuel, these two could keep NASA’S space program going for years.

Ivan is the only person I know who understands the Mayan calendar. He’s also a straight, married man who writes about an unmarried lesbian who also happens to be in the Army. So how did that happen?

Here’s what Ivan e-mailed in answer to my question:

“What started it? Um, she did. I went to my annual Mayan conference in Austin in, I think, 1998. It's two weeks long (or was then), and I usually read after dinner there, mostly papers and books on hieroglyphics. One night I didn't have anything I wanted to do, so I watched a Xena rerun instead of reading. Halfway through the show, Andi sat down on the other bed and started bossing me around. I didn't know anything about women in Vietnam, hardly anything about the Vietnam war even though I'd been there, I knew nothing about lesbians, despite being a feminist. She just said, ‘Better learn. We have things to say.’”

And so the character who started bossing him around turned out to be Andi Holmes, one of the most intriguing characters I’ve ever met. Six of Ivan’s seven stories about her have been published. The latest one, FINDING GINGER, is meant to be the prologue to Ivan’s novel-in-progress.

To introduce Andi, here are snippets from the first story, “The Working Girls Go By.”

Her name was Tuyen, which means angel. She was a working girl at the Sunset Grill, a run-down bar in a run-down country in a run-down war, but it was a bar that gave us the illusion of love and the hope of home. She was breathtakingly lovely, and she lived in a country that smelled like burning shit.

I'm Andi—Andrea—Holmes; in 1970, I was the battalion clerk for the 369th, on top of Big Mountain, and I was a WAC Spec 4. I wasn't interested in the working girls, or so I told myself. I told myself a lot, in those days. I was 23, the daughter of missionaries, patriotic and embarassingly close to being a virgin.

Those days were hard; I worked 0600 to 1800 Monday through Saturday, and I was expected to be Little Miss Perky every minute of those twelve-hour days. Every night, I went down to the Sunset Grill to drink myself stupid, and, when I was being honest with myself, watch the working girls.

When I went through Basic Training, enlisted women got lectures on snakes and what to do about bites; the men got training films about sex. Keep it in your pants was the message. But if you couldn't, go see the medics and get your condom ration. Prevent deadly disease, of which, they were told, there was no shortage.

Some of the guys passed on what they were told to some of us girls. I remembered the disease part. It kept me pure. It was easy for me to not sleep with men. I wasn't interested, for one thing. For another, I'm six-foot-one and carry a switchblade.

I love the way she slips in "six-foot-one and carry a switchblade." You can read all of Andi's stories and more about Ivan and the Mayan calendar at:

Another Viet Nam vet who writes about the war is Sharon Wildwind. Her first novel, SOME WELCOME HOME is excellent. Her fourth one, MISSING, PRESUMED WED will be published in September.

To introduce Sharon and her series, here are excerpts from my review posted on DorothyL in July 2005:

SOME WELCOME HOME puts a face on the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Sharon Wildwind writes from experience as an army nurse in Vietnam in the early 1970s and a year as head nurse on an orthopedic unit at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where this novel is set. Her experiences and insights give the book authenticity. Nothing seems pasted on. It's the real deal.

Opening line: "Through the slit in the closed drapes, a thin bar of afternoon sunlight fell across the soldier's chest, highlighting the dark, small bullet hole."

Such is Captain Elizabeth "Pepper" Pepperhawk's "welcome" to the Transient Officers' Quarters at Fort Bragg. The body is wearing a World War 2 uniform but his hair is long. She thinks: "Maybe he wasn't a soldier; maybe someone dressed him in a uniform. But there was something about him, even in death, that said 'soldier.' He was one of us ..."

I was reminded of Shakespeare's "band of brothers" as I read. This emotional bond, this shared experience, runs through Wildwind's story. It also drives a key character who keeps applying for combat service, convinced that her request is routinely denied because she's a woman.

So who is the dead man on Pepper's bed? We get pieces of the puzzle one at a time. The investigation begins with a World War 2 veteran who reports a stolen uniform, and leads to three lifelong friends who served in Vietnam and swore to look after one another,
no matter what.

How many of those now stationed at Fort Bragg could have been in a certain location in Saigon on January 20, 1969? Quite a few, as it turns out. A crime committed then and there has finally come to light a world away.

The arrest of a high-ranking, well-connected officer takes this complex mystery to a suspenseful ending.

You can keep up with Sharon (just try!) at her web site:


Anonymous said...

I am honored to be in this company. Thanks so much. Ivan, my husband understands the Mayan calendar, too. And knows an incredible amount about someone called---I think---13 Smoking Frog. Can that possibly be right?

Anonymous said...


You and Ivan seem to be in an exclusive company. I don't know of any other Viet Nam vets writing fiction, do you?

Maybe the wound is too fresh??? There aren't many Korean War novels either, while World War II novels are everywhere, not even counting the massive works from years ago.

Pat Browning

Jean Henry Mead said...

I lived among the Navajos in New Mexico and Arizona and and tried to learn the Navajo language. I'm fascinated with the role code talkers held during WWII.

Mark W. Danielson said...

Probably the best known Vietnam veteran author is Stephen Coonts. His book, Flight of the Intruder, inspired a whole series and was made into a motion picture. It offered a pilot's look at the frustrations of this war. We're just starting to see books on the current war in the Mideast. No doubt there will be plenty.