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By Daniel C. Lavery (reviewer)
by Jim Richardson
I am the lucky Vietnam Vet who reviewed Jim Richardson's marvelous fictional book on the Vietnam genocidal conflict where he served from 1970-71. Although Jim only ordered 200 copies and some may still be available from the author, he seems satisfied with the project which he admits has gone viral.
No wonder, Jim brings to the page the skills of a college graduate, artist, writer, photographer, expert sailing enthusiast, and athlete, whose metaphors jump off the page and place the reader in every intense or resplendent scene enhanced by his exquisite artistry. Surprisingly, Jim says in one of his brief articles about the book he didn't believe he could write a memoir, so he made up fictional characters based on the people he came to interact with intimately on his riveting journey in the Army. His first draft was so long he whittled it down to half the original giving us 280 pages that capture the struggles of soldiers in the jungle, in sand dunes, on liberty reveling with buddies, or even in Cambodia when Nixon caused a major uproar invading a neutral country that caused widespread protests back home.
His first assignment is in Chu Lai with the Americal Division reporting to the Information Office, 23rd Infantry Division, filling the seat of the information officer who photographed the victims of the infamous My Lai massacre that resulted in more than 500 unarmed Vietnamese villagers killed at close range by machine guns cutting down men, women, children and babies. Not surprisingly then, one of his leaders immediately informed them their main job was to "kill gooks!"
His main three characters, among a host of others, form extremely close bonds as college grads who determined early on to spend the least amount of time in Vietnam with engineering, history, and artistic or writing backgrounds. Fortunately, each kept as close contact with each other as possible even though they were often separated by assignments.
Lost in his first battle experience due to boils on his feet preventing him from starting with the group on an early mission, he panicked when he noticed two trails, not knowing which one his unit had taken. When he recovered control in the steamy jungle, he was soon attacked by mosquitoes, and jungle critters, always afraid of hitting a land mine. We feel the extreme frustration, and fear Holt (the fictitious character closest to resembling the writer) and his comrades (McGregor, and Petrini) felt as the reader is carefully led into each scene. Soon numerous body bags contain many dead combatants after a large Viet Cong attack killed them the day after he played volleyball. Eventually, a fragging of an obnoxious officer reveals the hatred some men felt for a supposed leader who exposed them to unnecessary lethal harm.
Learning Petrini was dealing in a lucrative black market, drugs, whores, or enjoying rock and roll bands drunk and stoned was a daunting surprise. Soon we find numerous Black soldiers who refused to fight against what they called their yellow brothers and avoided combat playing cards while waiting to be court-martialed, got drunk, and stoned on grass or heavier drugs. Ford, a soldier in the new office Holt worked with, offered him a marijuana cigar laced with heroin that caused extreme incapacity in a war zone that could easily have injured him seriously, or killed him. Luckily he escaped from the horrendous scene. All these and many others bring a harsh reality to many deadly threats and even extreme racial tensions that were exacerbated by this unpopular war.
He even noticed helicopter operators shoot Vietnamese fishermen or other civilians in free fire zones, unknown to the victims, while others in his group torched entire villages forcing the poor inhabitants to seek shelter elsewhere or be hurried into holding cells.
Soon he purchased a Nikon 35mm camera, rolls of color film he strapped over his shoulder, and placed his sketchbook and pens in the outsides of his pant legs, as he recorded his surroundings with film or his sketchbook. Later he would use these sketches noting the required color: meridian blue for the ocean, cyan for the sky, and red ochre for the earth in watercolors.
Like my father in WWII and many others in battles, although not religious, Holt recited the Twenty-Third Psalm there after considering his plight and felt connected to something larger than himself as he lit a stick of incense and remembered a fallen friend. He and his buddies made a plan to take a two-week vacation to Australia, but that required agreeing to an extension Holt feared.
On one journey he wandered to an abandoned little shrine on a cliff for a place of solace that contained a brass urn. There he met an eleven-year-old Vietnamese boy, Quang, who loved drawing and wanted to become an artist. Not far away Holt saw a beautiful sailboat, Middle Blue, whose owner is a soldier soon to leave Vietnam but not until Holt showed him what a sailing lover Holt was and how well they maneuvered that craft through the water as a team!
This extraordinary story has many more adventures I promise will astound the reader that make it by far the best book this reviewer has read on Vietnam since becoming a member of VVAW in 1969, thanks to Jim Richardson.
Jim Richardson's novel, Middle Blue, can be purchased for $18.00 by contacting the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dan graduated Annapolis, navigated a Navy jet, was carrier qualified, and earned NAO wings in Florida, and then a ship to Vietnam. He resigned, turned peace activist, joined VVAW, and became a civil rights lawyer. His memoir, All the Difference, describes his change from a pawn in the military to a crusader for justice. http://www.danielclavery.com