Monday, September 12, 2016

War Story

War Story - 
    In my latest book, Carrying Albert Home, I make something of Kismet as the driving force behind the journey my future parents took when they carried their alligator from West Virginia to Florida. Kismet might also be called destiny but it is a little more mysterious than that. Kismet is mixed with forces that control us even when we think we are fully in charge. We make decisions to do things or we have things happen to us, all of which we think are simply either free will or random accidents.
    But they aren't. They're Kismet.
    Kismet made me a writer and to explain it, I have to tell you a war story.

    It was late summer 1968 and I was a first lieutenant in the 4th Infantry Division heading up a support contact team.

     My battalion called and told me there was an M48A3 tank broken down somewhere in the boonies and I was to get out there with my M-88 recovery vehicle and bring it in.  When I asked what was wrong with it, I was told a blown engine.  I was told further the busted tank's crew had hooked a ride on another tank and left it just sitting there, waiting for whoever got to it first.  Since battalion suspected it was probably best if it was the proper owner of the tank, that being the United States Army, I was ordered to get in gear. I therefore rounded up Spec 4 Cooper, my M-88 driver, and his helper, an ex-grunt named Blue, and we all climbed in the big armored vehicle (known formally as a VTR for Vehicle, Tracked, Recovery).
     It took a while to find the tank which was so far back in the boonies, it made me wonder why the armored unit was out there in the first place.  That particular outfit mostly guarded the convoy roads, not often barging through the countryside where they might be easily ambushed.  It occurred to me after we got there that what I'd done was pretty dumb.  Instead of rushing to the site, I should have insisted on a tank or two going out with me but, no, I'd just charged off and put us in a pretty hairy spot.  The tank was up to the top of its tracks in mud which explained its burned-up engine and also made me doubt we could complete our mission.  A VTR can pull a tank for a short distance but I doubted it was going to be able to pull this one out of all that sticky goop.  Even before we got started, I thought we probably needed two VTR's for the job.
         Still, we were there and we had a job to do so I got my guys going to hook up the tank.  We were just about ready to see if we could pull it out when a young Vietnamese man stepped from the trees.  I noticed him right off, mainly because he was carrying a rifle, and also because he was soon joined by a dozen other young men, similarly equipped.  They were mostly wearing uniforms of dark green shirts and pants.  My first thought (or hope) was these were ruff-puff troops which was what the irregulars trained by our Special Forces were called, the ruff for RF or regional forces, the puff for PF or popular forces.  Generally, ruff-puffs were a tough bunch but, also, in general, they didn't go around wearing uniforms.  I had to accept what we had here was most likely main force North Vietnamese Army troops.  This explained why the armor was out in those woods in the first place.  They had been looking for these fellows and now I had found them.
      Nothing happened for the next few eternities (which were probably seconds).  I was standing beside the M-88 radiator, Cooper and Blue were just a step away from the tank.  Had I a little time to think about it, I'm certain I would have concocted a plan for us to dodge behind the armored vehicles and then one of us scramble up on the M-88 and get behind the fifty caliber machine gun.  I like to think I was within a heartbeat of making that move (yeah, right) when the men simply melted back into the forest, disappeared, with neither sound or trace.
     Kismet. We were alive.
     "Let's get out of here!" Blue said, his voice cracking, and I concurred with his assessment.  We unhooked the tank, jumped on the M-88 and spun tracks with me on the fifty, swiveling it back and forth in case I heard that flitttt sound of passing rounds I'd heard a number of times before.  Blue took a short cut and about thirty tons of roaring armored vehicle threw itself up on the road, bursting from the jungle like a crazed green water buffalo, scattering Lambro motorized tricycles, motor scooters, mamasans, bicyclers, chickens, and pigs.  We kept going until we got back to the firebase.
     Later on, the armored unit would go out and retrieve their tank with a couple of VTR's, three tanks, and two armored personnel carriers filled with troops.  They reported it untouched and some snide comments were hurled in my direction about me bugging out.  My response was, well, you guys called me without telling me why you left your tank out there in the first place and it might have been nice if you would have mentioned, oh I don't know, the North Vietnamese Army was out there! All I got from the tankers were grins and aw shucks. Got to love 'em.
       Anyway, I reported to the intelligence guys what I'd seen, they duly noted it, promised to be on the lookout, and I went back to work.  A couple of nights later, our little firebase was attacked.  My unit had responsibility for one end of the small oval-shaped perimeter and reported people in the wire, meaning somebody was trying to go through the concertina barbed wire, most likely for nefarious reasons.  I threw on my flak jacket, grabbed my M-79 grenade launcher, and made for the sector.  Flares were being tossed up, tracers were flying, claymore mines were being detonated, and everybody was having a mad minute of shooting. I flung myself atop a sandbagged bunker and started punching grenades out into the darkness.
       It was a long night.  Every time we'd stop firing, they'd start up again.  Eventually, so persistent were the people in the wire, I had to call in close air support, meaning Cobra helicopters. They had probably been itching to get into the fight because within minutes they swept in, rockets spewing with more than a few on our side of the wire which was plenty scary.
     After the choppers left, things quieted down.  I began to think we were going to make it to sunrise without any more attacks but then we heard something in the wire again. I unlimbered my grenade launcher, punched out a round in the direction of the sound, it exploded, and then nothing was heard again.  When the sun finally came up, we began to see what looked like dirty laundry pitched on the concertina. But it wasn't clothes. It was people.
       Grunts and medics were rolling in on armored personnel carriers to collect the bodies.  I walked down to the wire and, frankly, was not feeling good about what had happened.  Oh, I was glad to be alive and I was glad none of my guys had been killed but this was gruesome and I wished at that moment Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara and all those "best and brightest" folks back in Washington could see what I was seeing and smell what I was smelling.  If only those folks who decide on wars would have to fight them, I suspect there'd be far fewer of the blamed things.
     But something else was bothering me. These were people in the wire. People who'd been alive just a few hours ago. People who had family and friends. I could reach out and touch them. Shouldn't I be feeling some emotion other than an intellectual detachment and an interior discussion with myself on war in general? 
      I walked to where I thought my last grenade had landed and was startled to find a little deer.  Its eyes were red fly-filled clots and blood was coming from its nose and mouth.  It was just lying there on the other side of the wire at the same place I'd launched that grenade. I had killed it.
      Without warning, the tears began to flow.  Pretty soon, my face had rivulets cutting down my cheeks through the mud and sweat. I couldn't stop.  Turning my head away so nobody could see, I walked quickly into the firebase, got into my jeep, and drove into Ban Me Thuot, pretty much hiding from everybody for the rest of the day.  I parked at a shot-up Esso station, and watched the Vietnamese people walk by.  I hated that they were caught up in this war. But I started to think, really think, about who I was and what I wanted to be. I'd been thinking about making the Army my career but what happened that night in Ban Me Thuot with that little deer told me I wasn't really cut out for it. 
      A few weeks later, they gave me a medal and it was time to go home.
      The flight back to the states gave me hours to think more about what I really wanted to do with the rest of my life. Stories kept coming to me, stories about where I'd grown up and my parents and the noble coal miners and preachers and teachers of my boyhood. I realized I wanted to tell about them and what I really wanted to do was to be a writer. It was the only thing that made me feel whole. The kind of stories I wanted to tell were about brave and good people, people who made a difference with their lives, people who weren't perfect but people who, when it came down to cases, would always come through and do the right thing.
       Later, as I walked through the airport in uniform to go to my next duty station, a young woman in tie dye and bell bottoms spotted me, hissed something, and gave me the finger and applied the F word in my direction.
       Welcome home, soldier.
       I just looked through and past her.  What she thought, what she felt, didn't matter to me in the least.  I was someone she could not possibly know, not after what I'd seen and done and thought and felt.  And now I felt maybe all that hadn't been in vain. It had taught me something and it had taken me to a different place and a different way of thinking. I knew now what I was always meant to be.
     I was going to be a writer. Although I had been trained as an engineer and that might be needed to keep home and hearth together for some years, I knew that writing was what I had to do. As I like to say, I wanted to be an engineer but I had to be a writer.
    So I began writing. I wrote articles for magazines about my travels and about scuba diving and anything I could think of that might interest the editors. I wrote for years for any magazine that would publish me and kept honing my craft. Although I had my day job with the Army and later NASA, writing is what kept me going. In 1989, I finally had my first book published, a non-fiction history of the U-boat wars along the east coast titled Torpedo Junction (still in print, by the way, and recently optioned for a movie).

     After that came Rocket Boys, Back to the Moon, The Coalwood Way, and Sky of Stone plus twelve other best-sellers all the way to Carrying Albert Home.

      Without that night on the firebase, without that poor little deer, would I have stayed in the Army? Or would I have been an engineer and been satisfied with that? Had that little deer changed me so fundamentally?
     I don't know. Writing is such a huge force for me, I don't know if anything could have stopped it.
    Yet... that night did it. It made me stop and think my way through, to accept what I really wanted and needed to do. To tell stories of good and noble people, even when they don't know they're being good and noble.
    I call it Kismet.

    Homer Hickam -

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Some perhaps contrarian thoughts on To Kill a Mockingbird upon the passing of Harper Lee

Some Perhaps Contrarian Thoughts on To Kill a Mockingbird upon the Passing of Harper Lee
Homer Hickam

            With news of her passing, we now accept that we live in a world without Miss Nelle Harper Lee. Although sad, it won't change much for most of us. In some ways, Miss Nelle's been gone for a long time. After the dizzying success of To Kill a Mockingbird, she tucked herself away in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, and wrote no more. Yes, we heard that she occasionally made secret trips to New York, and there walked incognito through its bustling streets as some sort of literary ghost but, for the most part, she had long since gone away for reasons that only she would ever know, but about which the rest of us are free to speculate.
            My speculation is that Harper Lee became a recluse, not for any contrived purpose, but because she had an instinctive sense that to add anything to her masterpiece, even her opinions about things that had nothing to do with it, might disrupt the sense and power of the story as she told it. In effect, she allowed herself to be a blank canvas on which we could paint our own portrait of Mockingbird's author, thus not clouding in any way the text itself except in the manner in which we personally understood what it meant. Yes, yes, I am aware of Go Set a Watchman but I believe, as long as her mind was clear, Lee wouldn't have allowed that book to be published. Like most authors, I have books in my filing cabinet that require more work to get ready for publication than I think they're worth, or I have come to accept were part of my growth as a writer, their value only to me and not to my readers. Watchman, I believe, was never meant for the rest of us.
            With her passing, a ripple in time most of us will not feel beyond a vague knowledge of the fact, we are still left with that most important thing Harper Lee accomplished, the writing and publication of To Kill a Mockingbird. For years to come, academics will dissect this classic novel and try to determine why and how it is an important part of literature and where it fits in the lexicon of books that define our civilization. This is well and proper. After all, according to most of its acolytes, To Kill a Mockingbird is a brilliant book about social injustice. Perhaps, but I take a somewhat contrarian view. I think the brilliance of Harper Lee's novel was that it managed to accomplish the most astonishing and improbable deed: It made the vast majority of Americans who read it, and indeed the citizens of the world who turned its pages, come to love characters who were Southern white people.
            Ever since the Civil War, Southern white folks have been the objects of a certain amount of derision from people who reside outside the boundaries first established by the Mason-Dixon Line. Indeed, it has been perfectly acceptable, and often considered clever, to refer to and think of white Southern males as rednecks, meaning rough, angry, and bigoted, and white Southern females as belles, charming, perhaps, but ultimately vacuous. Their proclivities, amusing and frightening all at once, are evident in such matters as their outrageous affection for the Confederate flag, their tendency to be Bible thumpers, their honey-dripping mannerisms, and their general love of firearms. To those of us who were raised in the South, it's just the Southern way and certainly doesn't define our souls. To outsiders, however, our souls and even our hearts are indeed defined by these things and in a way that isn't good. Yet, in To Kill A Mockingbird, the people who embrace Southern civilization are not only good but even admirable.
             If a writer wanted to do it, I think it would seem an impossible task to write a novel that would refute the stereotypes placed upon Southerners for nearly two centuries, but Miss Nelle did it with astonishing ease. There are people out there right now who are afraid to set foot in Alabama lest they be set upon by a mob of cross-burners, and think General Robert E. Lee the worst rascal who ever strapped on a sword, and also think every southern politician is a George Wallace of some stripe. Yet, these same people swoon over Harper Lee's novel and have even been known to name their children after its characters! With her remarkable talent, she managed to make heroic the most unlikely of folks, the people of Maycomb, Alabama, the progeny of those who fought for the Confederate States of America.
            How did Miss Nelle accomplish this remarkable feat? She did it primarily by allowing her readers, as Atticus Finch recommended, to walk around the streets of Maycomb and in the shoes of its people. In Mockingbird, even the bigots are made understandable and nearly sympathetic, as when the Jewish store owner reflects about that time when the KKK came to his house only to be reminded by him that he'd sold them their sheets, thus causing the hooded mob to sheepishly slink off without doing any harm. Bob Ewell, an ignorant, perhaps incestuous creep, is presented ultimately as a victim of the society in which he was raised and, although we shed no tears when he is killed, we are made to understand his impotent rage by having to wear his ragged clothes, feel his empty pockets, and suffer beneath the grinding, pitiless pity of his white betters. In contrast, black people in Miss Nelle's world were downtrodden but psychologically the freest people in town because they were allowed to be who they were without the weight of societal opinion. After all, they already knew that opinion and couldn't do anything, good or bad, to change it.
            By resting awhile with Harper Lee on the porches of Maycomb, and watching her people go by and even entering into their company, we begin to understand their perspective, that perhaps it's best to take what life has given us, mind our own business, be brave when it counts, but not to do anything too outrageous which might upset the communities on both sides of the track. That doesn't mean, however, that we shouldn't work to lift our heads high enough to hear the angels sing. Yes, that's in To Kill A Mockingbird, too. You just have to feel between the lines.
            And that, I think, is the genius of the entire enterprise. The author of this classic novel made us feel and care for a people who, if only observed from the outside, might otherwise be thought of as nothing but cornpone racist rascals. Atticus Finch, a graduate of the University of Alabama, is noble because he acted nobly when put to the test. Before that? The jury is out. He's nice to his children, is kind to his black housekeeper, takes care of the poor whites who need his help, but we're not sure what else he believes deep in his heart past a wish, we suspect, that Alabama would win every football game it ever played. Nonetheless, when given the task to defend a black man, he takes it on even if, as we learn, it will be to the detriment of his reputation. That's why the black preacher stands when Atticus passes, not because Scout's father has defended an innocent black man, but because the preacher knows he has risked the scorn of his white peers. Atticus has heard the angels sing, although they may be far away and not exactly singing the chorus we hope we're hearing. Sheriff Tate confesses he's a bad man but he, too, lifts his head to hear the angels sing as he recommends a crime be ignored because otherwise a greater crime, this one moral and not of the law, will be committed. All of Maycomb ultimately hear the angels sing, even those miscreants who found guilty an innocent man. Through Scout's telling, we sense their shame and understand that the jurists perhaps finally understood that when they found Tom Robinson guilty, they also found themselves guilty and thus began their long, hard road toward redemption. Our personal discovery, through the tale as it is told, is that we are all on that same long and hard road, whether we are from the South or anywhere else, and thus the novel's true value.
            So goodbye, Miss Nelle, and thank you for the gift of To Kill A Mockingbird. May your novel forever remind us that people are people, even when they're not us, and that we should always try to walk around in their shoes before making a judgment about them. You have done your job, the one you were meant to do, and I trust now you are resting easy as you should.