Tag Archives: Short Story

Gonna Stick My Sword in the Golden Sand

Sergeant Holmen and Sergeant Heald

Sgt Holmen and Sgt Heald 1970

Forty-five years ago this month, I was in transition. I was leaving a line company of infantry in Vietnam where we slept under the stars in the mud and amongst the critters for the life of a LRRP (Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol) that would offer a barracks and hot meals but also hair-raising scouting missions into hostile territory. Even after this lengthy passage of time, I’m not sure of the wisdom of that decision, but it was what it was.

This spring, during a California book tour, I visited my best friend from those long-ago days, and we discovered that time has stood still for our relationship–we jumped straightaway into discussion of religion, politics, sex, and all the philosophical musings and questioning that we first experienced as young men on late nights in the barracks as the sun was setting on the tumultuous sixties.

G-pa Holmen and G-pa Heald

G-pa Holmen and G-pa Heald 2014

A few years ago, I wrote several short stories based upon my army experience–some of you may have read the compilation entitled Prowl– and my recent visit with Gary inspired me to finish that project. Thus, I have edited and revised those stories, woven them together, and added some new material. All this is to say that I am pleased to announce that Gonna Stick My Sword in the Golden Sand: A Vietnam Soldier’s Story has just been released.

The title comes from a stanza of the gospel traditional, Down by the Riverside, with its refrain–“Ain’t gonna study war no more.” I would like to think that there are echoes of earlier classics of war fiction. Like The Red Badge of Courage, Golden Sand recreates the fear of the soldier facing battle; like All Quiet on the Western Front, Golden Sand confronts the banality of war for the weary soldier.

Golden Sand coverGolden Sand is a bold, dark, and intense retelling of the Vietnam experience through the eyes of an army scout, the point man on a camouflaged and face-painted four-man LRRP team inserted by helicopter into remote and unfriendly territory to search for “Charlie,” the North Vietnamese soldiers who travelled the mountain gullies of the Ho Chi Minh trail. Golden Sand is less about patriotism and heroism than about the gut-wrenching reality for the Vietnam combat soldiers who are celebrated for simply doing their best to get by, not as superheroes, but as young men who often acted heroically but sometimes foolishly in circumstances not of their own choosing. One reviewer of an earlier short story commented, “The bond and the folly of immortal combat ring loud and clear from the page, and the story’s told with all the realism, language and pathos of experience.” The mood of Golden Sand is dark and somber rather than triumphalistic: a hauntingly honest and brutally true retelling rather than a glorification of the Vietnam experience.

Others commented after reading the short stories:

Gripping stories, unquestionably authentic, well written.

You read along on everyday books, then open one of these up and its like being smacked in the head. They just open up and tell it to you like it is. I love it.

The tension in the individual stories leaps off the page but the author manages an injection of black humour.

This story is a page-turner, the reader will not be left bored or yawning.

Characters and place come to life with the words, dialog is pitch perfect, and there are haunting comments I’ll remember long after the story’s done.

Click here if you’d like an autographed copy, or go to Amazon.com for either a print paperback or eBook. For $0.99, you can download an individual chapter on Amazon to check it out. Here’s the list of chapter titles:

Eleven Bravo

Humping

Here Comes Charlie

Cat Quiet

Whiskey in the Rain

Chasing After Wind

Elijah Fire

Donut Dollies

Down by the Riverside

Ah, ha, ha, ha stayin’ alive

March 12, 1978.

I spent the late winter Sunday in the Burtrum Hills, west of Upsala, Minnesota.  My dad was in his mid-fifties, and he and mom had not yet retired to the snowbird’s life.  So, if you live in Minnesota in the wintertime, you either hibernate or you adopt a wintertime hobby—snowmobiling & ice fishing were two of dad’s favorites, but that winter he spent making wood.  He bought stumpage rights to a 40 acre parcel of hardwoods.  Now, there was no practical reason why he made wood—after all, his business was as the fuel oil distributor in Upsala—but it was something to do to stay active.

There was a man who had two sons.  The younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.

We brought a six-pack along, as always.   Dad would work the chain saw, and I would split logs.  Then I would gather the lopped off small branches and heave them atop the bonfire started earlier with glugs of fuel oil.  Flames must have leaped twenty feet in the air.  His transistor radio blared the number one song of the day by the Bee Gees.

Well you can tell
by the way I use my walk
I’m a woman’s man
no time to talk
Music loud and women warm
I’ve been kicked around
since I was born

I had my own wintertime hobby.  And summertime too.  I drank.

When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.

We finished up as the red sun dipped behind a stand of white pine.  We covered some of the gear with a canvas tarp and piled ourselves into his pickup.  Mom had chili cooked back in Upsala, which I washed down with a couple more beers.  Soon my wife, six-month old baby daughter, and I headed to our own home along the Mississippi River north of St. Cloud.

And now it’s all right, it’s ok
and you may look the other way
We can try to understand
The New York Times’ effect on man

Lynn put Karin to bed while I chipped some ice for a Beefeater’s martini.  I was a classy drunk.  I only drank the best.  I rolled a joint.  Before long, I was exquisitely high, and Lynn looked away.  She knew it was pointless to say anything.

I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you;I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”

But this night was different.  I had a secret plan.

Whether you’re a brother
or whether you’re a mother
you’re stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive
Feel the city breakin
and everybody shakin’
and were stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive
Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive
Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin’ alive

The next morning, I went early to work as a young associate at the leading St. Cloud law firm, and I placed a letter on the senior partner’s desk.  Then I drove a few blocks to the St. Cloud hospital where Karin had been born the previous fall.  The lady at the information desk said the Alcohol & Chemical Dependency unit was on 2 South.

So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.

The folks at the nurse’s station weren’t quite sure what to do with me.  They didn’t usually get Monday morning walk-ins in pin stripe suits.  I called Lynn and told her where I was.  She came as soon as she could arrange a babysitter, and my boss showed up too.

Well now I get low and I get high
And if I can’t get either, I really try
Got the wings of heaven on my shoes
I’m a dancin man and I just can’t lose

You know it’s all right, it’s ok
I’ll live to see another day
We can try to understand
The New York Times’ effect on man

Life goin’ nowhere
somebody help me
Somebody help me, yeah
I’m stayin’ alive…

That was thirty-four years ago, and I’m still clean and sober.  Saplings that we left on the slopes that day are pretty high by now.  Karin’s three years sober herself.

But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate;for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’

Eleven Eleven Eleven

The eleventh day of the eleventh month of the eleventh year happens once a century.  On November 11, 1911, the progressive former President Teddy Roosevelt was discovering that the increasingly conservative Republican Party no longer welcomed his moderate views about regulating corporations.  Hmmm.

Coincidentally, today is also Veteran’s Day, which derives from the signing of the peace at the conclusion of WWI on the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” of 1918.

Romeo 18I don’t remember Veterans Day in 1969, and I doubt whether my fellow soldiers in Vietnam paid much attention.  By then, the drawdown of troops had begun even as the war protests in the US accelerated.  On November 3rd, President Nixon had delivered his famous “silent majority” speech, and on November 15th, over a quarter million protesters descended upon Washington for the largest anti-war protest in US history.  Just as we were oblivious to Veteran’s Day, my comrades in K Company Rangers stationed at Camp Enari near Pleiku paid little attention to speeches and protests back home.  We had more immediate issues, and for us the geo-political ramifications of the war were of little concern.  It was around that time in 1969 that Ranger team 18 was formed—call sign Romeo one eight–consisting of (left to right) Billy Powers, yours truly, Mark Estopare, and Gary Heald.  The four of us stayed together as a team for four or five months.

Prowl paperbackSome of you know that I have published five short stories based upon our experiences, and today I announce the release of a compilation of the five in a book entitled Prowl.  Prowl is available as a Kindle eBook or paperback here, or in other eBook formats here.

The title is based upon the following passage:

Survival depended upon stealth. The black and brown stripes smeared across our faces matched our tiger fatigues, and we prowled silently and slowly. Unseen and unheard, we would be hunter and not hunted.

In slow motion, I lifted my combat boot over a rotting branch and gingerly stepped to the soft ground on the opposite side. Momentarily straddling the fallen limb, I scanned the brush from left to right before dropping my gaze to the forest floor ahead to plan for my next footfall. When I was satisfied, I shifted my weight forward and lifted my trailing foot over the branch. Again and again, the methodical process was repeated as I silently crept through tall ferns, low-hanging vines, and suspended air plants of a mountain valley in the central highlands of Vietnam. Behind me in five to ten yard intervals, my three Ranger teammates mimicked my actions. LRRPs on patrol.

We stalked men from the north, soldiers of the North Vietnamese Army, searching for signs of their highways or hooches, hidden from the eyes of our helicopters by triple canopy jungle. But who stalked us?

In the branches above, a noisy flock of flycatchers bobbed and weaved for bugs, while the seed-eating finches flitted here and there in the low grass and brush; the birds didn’t notice us nor we them. Birdsongs and chattering squirrels said all was as it should be; silence would sound an alarm.

Memorial Day Memories

Allow a post of personal privilege.

My Dad was a Navy vet of WWII, a “Tin Can Sailor” who served aboard a destroyer in the Pacific.  His ship narrowly avoided diving kamikaze aircraft off Okinawa and later sailed into Tokyo Harbor as part of the fleet that would accept Japanese surrender.  His ship was the 2nd in line and entered in full alert, the crew manning their battle stations, unsure if the promise of surrender was just a ruse.  Growing up, I remember well the Japanese carbines and bayonets he had returned with as souvenirs.

Upsala mapI also remember well the Memorial Day parades down main street of small town America in the days of Ike and Elvis and my dad’s snappy new Chevy Impala with air-conditioning and a continental kit on the trunk.  The American Legion led the way, bearing arms and carrying the flag, and there was my dad.  A church had a big patch of grassy lawn right next to the general store, and that’s where the Legion ended up for a twenty-one gun salute.

“Ready, arms!”

“Ready, aim!”

“Ready, fire!”

Three times the squad fired blanks into the sky over the roof of the general store.  As soon as the Legionnaires would march away, the young boys, including my brother and me, would rush onto the lawn to claim the spent shell casings.  One of those boys I grew up with would later became a Major General.

I ended up a buck sergeant, E-5, and I spent Memorial Day 1970 in base camp near An Khe in the central highlands of Vietnam, waiting impatiently for the last couple days to pass before my return to Minnesota at the completion of my tour of duty.  There would be plenty of friendly faces to greet my return: my fiancé (we’ll celebrate our 40th anniversary in a few weeks), Mom and Dad, my two younger sisters, but not my brother who was embarking on his own tour of duty in Vietnam.  Our reunion would come later.

I remember my arrival in Fort Lewis, Washington, and the call home.  Mom couldn’t talk, she just sobbed.  After preliminary processing, I went to the 24-hour steak house and ate my welcome-home steak alone.  After more processing, I was finally on my way to Sea-Tac airport and a standby ticket on a Northwest jet to Minneapolis.  The plane was barely half-full, and a young woman asked to sit next to me although she could have sat anywhere.  She bought me a drink and thanked me for my service and listened to my stories until I drifted off to sleep.

Readjustment was not difficult for me, but jet lag was.  I remember waking up about 4 am and riding a bike around the deserted streets of Hopkins, Mn where I was staying with my fiancé who lived with her sister.  The sunrise was glorious as the neighborhood came alive.  But I was angry later when we visited a Sears store, and I saw plastic guns, replica M-16s, in the toy department.  War was not a game for kids to play.

I also remember two events back home in Upsala.  Dad took me to a regular meeting of his Lion’s Club.  When I was introduced, they gave me a standing ovation.  Bud, the small-town grocer, was the first to stand.  I gave the eulogy at Bud’s funeral a couple of years ago.  Two guys from Upsala died in the Vietnam war.  The funeral for Jerry Kalis occurred that June while I was home on leave, and I attended in my dress uniform.  I had attended the funeral for Jim Theisen before I entered the service.

Thanks for listening to my memories.  Click here for a prior post about Memorial Day and here for more info about my service as a Ranger (LRRP) and the short stories I have been writing the past couple of months.

UPDATE: I HAVE CREATED A SEPARATE WEBSITE ENTITLED “LRRPS OF VIETNAM”, AND I HAVE ALSO PUBLISHED FIVE SHORT STORIES BASED ON MY NAM EXPERIENCE.  THE SHORT STORIES, ENTITLED PROWL ARE AVAILABLE AS AN EBOOK FOR $6.99 OR PAPERBACK FOR $9.95.

Series of Vietnam short stories to be published

Obie with over-underI was discharged from Army active duty on Christmas eve, 1970, and I enrolled for winter term at Dartmouth College less than two weeks later.  I had spent 2+ years at Dartmouth before the military, so when I returned as a junior, I already had a circle of friends.

I also had Super 8 movies from Vietnam.  I had purchased a Super 8 camera from the An Khe PX and filmed about ten rolls (3+ minutes each) and sent them home without developing.  By the time I was back at Dartmouth, the films had been developed and spliced together to form one movie of about 30 minutes.  In those days, “cut and paste” was literally how you edited film.

One Saturday evening while hanging out at my favorite fraternity, I mentioned the movie, and we decided to watch it in a private room upstairs.  As curious passersby poked their heads in, we ended up watching the movie three times that night as word spread and more and more folks came to see.  This college crowd was genuinely anxious to know more.  The movie and my stories kept the swelling crowd spellbound, and at the end someone said, “You ought to write a book”.

Forty years later, I am finally taking that advice.  I have started to write stories based upon my Vietnam experiences, stories that are based on fact but which are embellished to make for good reading.  A year ago, I published a novel (A Wretched Man, a novel of Paul the apostle), and through that experience, I hope I have developed some of the writer’s craft (scene & setting, plot, character development, tension, etc.), and I have applied the techniques of storytelling to my Vietnam stories.  Thus, I call them “autobiographical fiction”.

Since most of the stories relate to my role as a “LRRP” (Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol), the series will be entitled LRRP Rangers Vietnam.  A “lurp” was the Vietnam equivalent of a cavalry scout; instead of mustangs, we rode helicopters to remote and unfriendly territory.  These stories will be published as eBook short stories, one at a time in serial form.  The first two are now published.  Be forewarned, the language is realistic and thus more than a little salty.

Eleven Bravo, the opening short story in the series, refers to the Army’s 11B designation for the combat infantryman.  After an brief scene in Tiger Village of Fort Polk, Louisiana (the primary training center for Vietnam-bound infantry), the story opens as a young soldier arrives in Vietnam while Neil Armstrong walks on the moon, and the story concludes nearly a month later as soldiers celebrate to the music of Jimi Hendrix at the same time the rock star is performing live at Woodstock.  Read more …

The second short story in the series is entitled Here Comes Charlie.  The soldier has now departed Alpha Company and volunteered for recon duty as a LRRP.  Themes of self-preservation and moral ambiguities, introduced in the first installment, are advanced as North Vietnamese soldiers unwittingly file toward four lurps hiding in the tall grass.  Read more …

The eBooks will be available in all formats at your favorite online eBook bookstore.

FYI, the movie was transferred to video tape years ago through the cumbersome process of using a video camera to record the movie from a screen.  Later, the videotape was converted to a DVD and now has been converted to online video formats and may be viewed on YouTube and here.