Belmont Club

Twice Read Tale

Last weekend I finished reading Marshall Harrison’s “A Lonely Kind of War” in Kindle. By the third page I realized that I had read it before, in paperback, too many years ago to enumerate exactly. It is a great book. Harrison was in real life an Air Force officer,  “a regular Steve Canyon”, who in addition to his professional achievements was an extremely skilled story teller as well.

The book is basically about his days as Forward Air Controller in Vietnam, flying an OV-10 Bronco. What makes the book successful in part, is the “sea-story” tone of narrative that Harrison adopts. Although he is describing terrifying and deadly real life events, he stays in a literary voice that keeps the reader half-laughing even through all the scariest parts. That technique lets him keep the reader’s focus on the story even when he would avert his eyes.

For example Harrison describes how he killed a herd of NVA pack elephants, fully aware that like the reader, he regards elephants as cute and wholly blameless. But he kills them all the same and you are vaguely aware that it is because he can do no other. In that vignette he captures an aspect to the conflict in almost the manner of a parable.  That’s the way it is, bub and don’t sweat it. “A conscience,” he writes, “is too heavy a burden to carry around when people are trying to kill you.”

Mostly Harrison and his buddies are flying around disobeying orders when they aren’t obeying them, pulling the wool over their superior’s eyes simply to get the job done. Some he disregards simply because he feels he’s done enough, as in the chapter where he flies the Bronco ten feet above the treetops a scant twenty minutes behind a B-52 Arclight. He follows each of the three, one hundred bomb long strings dropped by the Stratofortresses into the jungle just as the impact dust is settling.

First there is the old growth forest, rising two hundred feet in the air, then there is a region of havoc where the bombs have flattened the trees to either side. By and by he comes across in the red dust what was once a battalion of NVA, lying in clumps to either side of the craters, like dead fish out to dry on the beach. Reaching the end of one string, he loops back along the path of the second string and notes where those further away from the main axis were caught by the cascade as they tried to run at right angles to the rain of bombs. Yet in that charnel house, something had still survived. He follows two pairs of footprints weaving unsteadily for the safety of distance. Like Hawkeye in the Last of the Mohicans (his metaphor, not mine) he follows their weaving path, flying only feet above the ground.

The prints totter drunkenly around insignificant obstacles, going in circles at times. Finally he finds at the end of the footprints, one NVA soldier dragging another. The sound of the OV-10 above their heads makes the last man standing despair and fall down on the ground, with his buddy almost comically head down by his side.

The NVA soldier can go no further. Maybe he is dying already. But any rate, the USAF “death from above” machine has found him. And Harrison lines them both up in the OV-10’s 4 x 7.62 machine guns. But he can’t bring himself to pull the trigger. Not while they’re like that. “Go for your AK-47!” he yells at them. “Shake your first at me. Do something!” But there’s nothing left in either soldier so Harrison flies off, the trigger unpulled.

That’s a sample of the stories he tells. The Amazon review site says that even today, pilots in the Philippine Air Force, who still fly OV-10s, photocopy dog-eared editions of the old paperback and keep it the squadron library, like some kind of holy writ. The only time Harrison really drops the “sea story” tone is at the end — when he’s going home — after he is shot down and rescued, after he rescues a MACV SOG team in Cambodia by landing the Bronco on a road and packing the team into the cargo bay with the NVA in hot pursuit like the Keystone Cops. And when finally Harrison goes all literary, it is with a light touch, with a precision and introspection that would do justice to F. Scott Fitzgerald. Do yourself the favor and buy the book, if you haven’t read it as I have, twice.

What is really puzzling is why Hollywood, which seems glutted with clunky scripts on which they’ve wasted a zillion dollars, has never found the time to turn Harrison’s memoir — or a dozen other similar recollections — into a movie. My guess is that Vietnam as Marshall Harrison remembers it is politically verboten. Its atmosphere and depiction runs against the grain of talking points. Recollecting it that way might confuse people.

But why the hell not?

Perhaps the greatest damage Hollywood has inflicted on history is substituting its largely biased and definitive version of events for what really happened. And what really happened, properly told, will always be in dispute. Korea got off better than Vietnam through the accident of James Michener. Because many people remember it through the Bridges of Toko Ri, it has attained a roundness, an idealism and yet an ambiguity that reflects it perhaps better than the didactic stuff on Vietnam.

I often think that Steven Pressfield had it right. He wrote that everyone dies two deaths. The first when they physically die and the second when they are forgotten or remembered as they never were. It is the job of those who remain alive to remember, and if they can, to write, so that while there is memory, there will be no Second Death.

The snippet that follows is entirely fictional, and based on my characters in “No Way In”. It is set roughly in that time period when the HUK rebellion was fading into history and a new Communist Insurgency was rising to take its place. I wrote it for fun. I don’t think I will ever have the time to finish it. But let it be a beginning without a proper end, in earnest of all that the tales that were once remembered and are now forgotten.


“Did I ever tell you about Uncle Pops?” asked Ramon.

“No. And what do you mean by Uncle Pops? Was he your uncle or your dad?” Alex answered.

“Neither, actually. His real name was Jubilation Jeremiah Smith. But he hated being called that and asked to be addressed as ‘JJ Smith’. Nobody called him ‘JJ’ either, and by the time I met him, he was kind of an old guy and everybody called him Pops.”

“Where did the Uncle part come in?”

“Oh, he ran a radio program in Manila called the Uncle Jim Variety Show. Had a deal somehow with a station in the US. They licensed him to play old time radio dramas, mostly from the ’40s. It was still going in the late ’60s out of a place called the Radio City on Taft Avenue. Everyone called him uncle. Eventually I called him Uncle Pops.”

“I remember that show,” Alex said. “Wasn’t he the guy who did a special on that invisible demon story at the City Jail way back?”

“The very same. Now you know how I used to hang out at the newspaper morgues and the Courts of First Instance at the Mehan Gardens? Well once I was doing some research on the HUK rebellion in the 50s. And there was damn little written about it anywhere. So there I was asking the morgue librarian if she had anything else and this old guy calls out to me from one of the tables. ‘You an American?'” he goes.

“Not on on my passport I’m not. Just looking for information on the old HUK rebellion.”

“Well pull up a chair,” he says, “and I’ll you something about it. Oh, nothing secret or such. But there’s a few stories I remember still that might be of interest to you.”

Alex walked across from his friend Ramon Delgato and perched a cushion on the partially dismantled jeep Hurricane engine that seemed a fixture of his living room. He sat on it as you would a stool.

At first he had mistaken Ramon for one of those vacationing Berkeley graduates who visited relatives in the Philippines. Later he learned that Ramon Delgato had never even visited the United States. He spoke perfect American as the result of almost continuous exposure to the Golden Age American TV that played in the black and white set in their living room. His parents were mostly out working and if Ramon had an Uncle Pops, it was only in addition to Aunt Annie Oakley and his brothers, Hoss and Little Joe. It sounded like a fairly long story. Alex made himself comfortable.

“Anyway, this guy — Uncle Pops — smoked like a chimney. Lucky Strikes, I remember. He told me that he originally came over with MacArthur’s troops in ’45 and having a gift for languages, picked up Tagalog really quickly. Through a process he never explained, his fluency in that language helped him get a job in Army radio station which actually operated out of a Navy ship moored in Manila Bay. You just went down to the dock each day and a launch took you out.

“Before you knew it he had gotten himself transferred to some civilian liaison outfit and the war ended, fixing things so he was discharged on the spot. He stayed behind in Manila and tried his hand at importing canned goods and cigarettes. Food was pretty scarce back then and business was brisk. Good enough, in fact, for Pops to get himself a place out in San Andres Bukid — he called it “Saint Andrews Fields”  — and employ a driver and a couple  as househelp to keep up the premises.

“It wasn’t more than a year after the war ended when the trouble started up again. You know the story. The HUKS had fought against the Japanese but they were really Communists. And once the Republic of the Philippines was legally independent they made their move like all the rest of them. Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, Chin Peng in Malaya. So it wasn’t long before he began getting some visitors from Americans in civilian clothes that did nothing to hide the fact they weren’t used to wearing them.

“They asked him if he could help and of course he said, ‘sure’. Since he’d already been in the Army — and my guess was that it wasn’t strictly the infantry — he knew enough to start. And they filled him in with extra training. Ran him down to Nichols Field and made him take courses in flying a Piper Cub, radio courses and stuff like that.

“By this time I was getting worried. I mean, sure this conversation was happening in the 1960s but you could tell what Uncle Pops was going to talk about consisted of feats of derring-do in the HUK rebellion. That was still kind of hush-hush. So I brought him up short and said, ‘Pops. I think I know where this is going and maybe you shouldn’t go and tell on. After all, you don’t even know me.”

“‘Well’, he says, ‘I am glad you brought that up. But I don’t rightly care who I tell and I’ll tell you why.’ And here he paused and took another puff on his Luckies, holding out the one he had lit as if for inspection. First off, I’m not going to spill any real beans. All the names in the recollections I’m about to relate are made up, or are about people who are dead. And while the incidents I will relate are mostly true, they won’t be quite. They’ll be changed enough to keep things on the safe side.

“‘And the second reason is that I’m a dead man. There’s these here cigarettes,’ he said, ‘which the doctor says have given me lung cancer. I’m headed back to the States next month. They say there’s a radiation treatment that’ll slow it down for maybe a year. But I’ll be a dead man anyhoo. My main regret is the Uncle Jim Variety Show, though. Gonna be a shame to stop that.’ And then he looked strangely at the door and back to me. “But that’s the least of my worries. For reasons that don’t concern you, I’m not going to live through the week. Unless I’m really lucky or think of something real smart. And so I thought I might help you write down some stories, that is, if you’re interested.”

Alex got up off the threadbare pillow and pulled out a ten peso note from his hip pocket.

“You just hold on there,” he told Ramon, “while I go to the store and buy half a case of San Miguel Beer. Looks like this one is going to be interesting.”

He came back in five minutes with a square wooden box divided into 24 compartments, half of which were filled with brown San Miguel Beer bottles.

“You were saying,” Alex told Ramon.

“Well, I must confess that I ran his proposition around in my head for a bit.  I had lost interest in the HUK angle. What I really wanted to know was what could be coming at a man like Uncle Pops — you could guess by now that he was as tough as they came — for him to regard his life as essentially over in a week. But since I knew he wasn’t likely to tell, I figured my best play was let him continue his story. About the HUKs. About the year 1949.

“You know Ed Landsdale and Ramon Magsaysay were the only the other guys to beat back a Communist insurgency in the 1950s. The other were the Brits in Malaya. The French had Dien Bien Phu.

“And because the Brits, bless their public school education, are such natural writers, they made the Malayan Emergency all famous. You know, ‘With General Templar in Malaya’. Or ‘The Lessons of Counterinsurgency Explained’, stuff like that. They made the Malayan Emergency so famous that everybody forgot about how some no-account guys beat the HUKs all hollow at the very same time. Well maybe if I let him talk I would find out how they did it. And then he might let slip some of the rest.”

“You sly goat, you,” Alex said. “Hope you don’t mind me asking, but did you ever find out what was after old Uncle Pops?”

“Yes I found out directly,” Ramon said pulling on a beer. “Found out that very day. Later it got me to thinking. ‘Why do we do the things we do?’ Because in the end Uncle Pops had no regrets. He came out, I think, and I believe you will agree, more than even.  Dying didn’t bother him. It was living pointlessly that did.

“Maybe all of us know that something — not necessarily Lucky Strikes — is gonna get us someday. And in that time we have the chance to do something extra; a deed from our own volition; something unforced from us by life, something of which we could say, ‘this was my gift. This was my glory.'”

Outside Ramon’s ramshackle home, to which his parents would not return for some hours yet, the shadows lengthened. A feral cat came and scattered the chickens feeding at the dry bird trough that stood abandoned in the middle of the yard. The chickens ran through the living room and sought shelter behind the jeep Hurricane engine and the two friends worked through the half case as the night came down.


Storming the Castle at Amazon Kindle for $3.99
No Way In at Amazon Kindle $3.99, print $9.99
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