It’s March 1969. A sinewy North Vietnamese soldier picks up a U.S. Army rucksack from under trees where snipers had braced their rifles. Inside, he finds the usual olive drab assortment: canteens, c-rations, lubricating oil. And a sketchpad. The soldier tilts his head with curiosity and fascination as he flips through drawings of American G.I.s relaxing, of mountains receding, of helicopters swooping.
Is the scene fact or fiction? It’s a question often on my mind.
So are these. What role does storytelling play in keeping humans at war and helping them heal afterward? How many Vietnam veterans have kept their experiences bottled up because of that war’s unpopularity?
The sketchpad definitely existed, left behind after a 1969 ambush in the Plei Trap Valley. It belonged to Grady Myers, who was badly wounded there. The firefight is at the heart of his illustrated memoir, Boocoo Dinky Dow: My short, crazy Vietnam War. I was instigator and scribe for the book, which I published last Father’s Day for Grady’s children, one of whom is also my son.
Grady and I were married during the 1980s, divorced and remained friends until he died last year at age 61.
In 1968, Grady was a big, aimless Boise teenager with a poor grade point average and a yen for adventure. At a time when many men were scrambling to avoid the draft, he volunteered. The Army, desperate for troops, overlooked his extreme nearsightedness and sent him to Fort Lewis, Washington. Within a matter of months, Grady was transformed into "Hoss," an M-60 machine gunner.
Grady's Vietnam was a place where an old man carrying a bundle of sticks posed a moral dilemma and a young man had to weigh the burden of his virginity against the dubious pleasures of riverbank prostitutes. A place where you counted on your comrades despite the real possibility their antics or bravado would get you killed. Later, in the hospital, he shared the exuberance of men whose attention was turning from amputations and fear to cars and beer … and, of course, sex.
It was another primal urge, though — to tell stories — that started our book project in the late 1970s.
Grady had just launched his art career, working in the newsroom of the Idaho Statesman. I was a young features editor. We went separately to an office party where people were supposed to dress like they did in the ’60s. My costume was a giant 45 rpm record. Grady wore fatigues and told entertaining stories about serving in Vietnam. I was fascinated. Most guys I grew up with had college deferments or high draft lottery numbers, and managed to avoid Vietnam. If they’d gone, they rarely talked about it.
I asked Grady if I could write down his stories. He said yes.
I stocked the fridge with Old Milwaukee, bought a cassette recorder and got him talking. He also poured his memories into drawings. We produced a book manuscript, which was declined by publishers. Some of them believed that Americans didn’t want to be reminded of a divisive war they lost at great expense. One literary agent told me that James Webb’s novel Fields of Fire was all that needed to be said about the war.
Thirty years later, health problems confined Grady to bed. He needed something to occupy his mind. We dusted off the manuscript. This time we could include more of his art work, including drawings that are part of the National Veterans Art Museum collection.
The need for speed was one reason I decided to self-publish. Several hundred Vietnam vets are dying every day, and I especially wanted to get Grady’s story into the hands of people who could personally relate to it.
Publication closed a chapter of my life. It also opened something — a floodgate holding back an entire generation of stories. Everyone wants to tell me what they were doing during the Vietnam era.
That preternaturally cheerful professor I know? Turns out he was a combat vet who, after zipping so many buddies into body bags, came home determined to savor each day. Another former soldier told me Vietnam was the best thing that could have happened to him, because it kept him out of the family business, which was the Mafia. Another recalled getting back to the States only to have the Army “feed us to a steak dinner and tell us to change into civilian clothes before we caught a flight home.”
A former war protestor remembers police dogs and politicians. A man who did his best to stay out of the war spent years wondering what he’d missed. A woman wrote a friend one week into his tour of duty; he didn't live to read the letter.
A co-worker’s brother survived four tours as an aerial gunner. He kept re-enlisting because he thought his talent for killing was keeping Americans alive. He returned home unscathed, became a long-distance trucker, then nearly died after a driver pulled in front of him. He married his nurse, raised a family, bought a tavern.
I can see Grady in that tavern, mimicking helicopter sounds and describing his crazy, explosives-happy comrades. And telling how those same guys, eyes wide with fear, came running to save him “just like in the movies.”
Will the day come when the phrase “my generation’s war” fades from our national vocabulary?
Much easier to imagine is that curious NVA soldier. I’ve been thinking of him since June, when news broke that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta gave his counterpart in Hanoi a diary that had been taken from a Vietnamese soldier's body. In return, Panetta accepted letters written by an American GI shortly before he was killed in action. Those priceless pieces of paper were then delivered, as if through a time machine, to the two families whose sons had died.
Grady’s wartime sketchpad was probably blasted away in combat or disintegrated soon after. It’s unlikely to be sitting in a Vietnamese home or archive. But at least Boocoo Dinky Dow provides a record of what he called a time of intensive living – a time when he was young and strong and scared and proud and fascinated with what he saw in Vietnam.
A book, after all, is a time machine of a special kind.
Julie Titone works at Washington State University. She will read from “Boocoo Dinky Dow: My Short, Crazy Vietnam War” from Nov. 10-15 at events in Yakima, Chehalis, Seattle, University Place and Olympia. For details, visit www.shortcrazyvietnam.com.