Hitting its Stride – R&T’s Vintage Year

Let’s go back in time to 1988.  Why?  Just because I happened to read a couple of car magazines from that year (I promise to get back to the normal, more literate style of this blog in the next post, but today, we’re doing car mags again – here, here and here are the earlier installments of this series) and I wanted to keep my thoughts about them more or less all together before I forget what I was going to say.

It’s one of the prices of getting older, but aging also has its advantages.  I get to look at thirty-year-old magazines and judge them with a future perspective.

So, 1988.  I read The final pair of mags in my pile: Road & Track Exotic Cars: 7 and the regular monthly magazine from September 1988.

Road & Track Magazine September 1988

The first thing one notices is that the two mags appear to have been designed by two different graphics departments.  The monthly magazine feels very much a product of the eighties, while Exotic Cars looks forward to the nineties, a departure from the earlier installments in the series, which looked much more similar to the magazines.

The Exotic Cars series was one of Road & Track Specials, which explains the discrepancy, a series that was run by Thos L. Bryant, the man who later–as from January of 1989–became the editor of the regular magazine.

This one was, nostalgia aside, much better than the early installments of Exotic Cars.  The selection of cars was mature, the design was excellent, and the writing engaging.  It was a solid effort which was easier to read than its predecessors.

Road & Track Exotic Cars 7

The regular magazine looked a little dowdier, but that impression only lasts until you flip open the front cover.

Once you do that, you are transported to different world.  Not the world of 1988, though.  Road & Track in the late eighties bore little relationship to the universe of Gordon Gecko and the Coca-Cola Wardrobe (remember that piece of eighties awfulness?).  Instead, you’re almost transported to the Scottish moorlands somewhere around 1975.

This might not have been seen as a good thing in 1988, but it’s certainly wonderful reading these old pages today.  The words flow comfortably, and the reading never becomes a chore.  It’s a warm pleasure from cover to cover, like conversation with an old friend.  It was literally one of the most pleasurable reading experiences I’ve had in a long, long time.

Of course, in the eighties, warm and fuzzy was on its way out and, as I’ve mentioned, December 1988 was the last month under John Dinkel, the man who edited this issue.  The January 1989 issue had adopted the design of the specials and looked bang up to date.

The writing, however, was still essentially the same.  It would take a few years to iron out the quirkiness that made 1988 a vintage year.  Bryant was an excellent editor who brought the magazine upscale while keeping its personality alive.

So, for some time, we lived in the best of both worlds.  And I was luck enough to be thirteen in January of 1989…

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose most recent book is entitled Ice Station: Death.  You can check it out here.

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Exotica Continued

Last week, we looked at the beginning of Road & Track‘s Exotic Car Specials.  As you’ve probably surmised from our long-running project to watch the 1001 films you must see before you die, in order, we don’t do things halfway here at Classically Educated.  So today, we continue the Exotic Cars series with numbers 3 and 4.

Road & Track Exotic Cars 3

Our main criticism of 1 and 2, read so close together was that the editors seemed to be severely limited in the menu of cars they could choose from, which caused some repetition.

This is also true, to a much lesser extent in volume 3, although it’s clear that the editors made a conscious effort to minimize the effect.  They began to add German tuner cars, which I suppose is reasonable, but also included a couple of sedans that, even though they were a Mercedes and a BMW, I’m not entirely convinced qualify as exotic.

A lot of what is good about this issue has more to do with the fact that they had two new Ferraris to discuss, which is always a boon to people putting together a magazine dealing with exotica, than to the efforts of the staff…

Nevertheless, a hat must be doffed to whoever decided to include the Morgan (probably Simanaitis) and especially to the lunatic who decided to road test a Lola race car modified for street use.

The result, though still not quite mature, showed signs of steering the series in the direction that I remembered from my youth.

 

Road & Track Exotic Cars 4

In volume 4, the process extends even further.  Despite the inexplicable fact that the Maserati Biturbo, a car that was later reviled by almost everyone (I like it, but I think I’m the only one) was included again, making it a perfect four-for-four in these magazines and the head-scratching decision to include a Ford Scorpio, this one is the best yet.

Even though they didn’t have any major launches, the editors managed to juggle the usual suspects, mixed in with tuners and obscurities like Marcos and TVR to create a well balanced issue that is the best of the lot so far.  Another good decision was to drop the Road Test section.

But beyond the critical discussion of what is good and bad about these magazines, the fact that, just after the fuel crisis of the late seventies, and in the midst of regulatory upheaval that was making cars worse each year instead of better, Road & Track had the balls to launch a magazine celebrating cars whose only purpose was to go fast, look good and be enjoyed is laudable.

And among todays rash of humorless responsibility where any display of excess or wealth is frowned upon, these magazines are a joyful reminder that life exists to be enjoyed.  These cars are an expression of that fact, and should be celebrated, even if only by reading magazines devoted to them more than thirty years ago.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer best known for his far future science fiction novel Siege.  You can check it out here.

Stealing Your Happiness… The Most Communist Movie Ever

In watching the 1001 movies in order, I will admit that, every once in a while, you come across a film that makes you ask why anyone would film it.  Did the director hate other human beings?  Did he belong to some sect that believes that humanity can only be saved it it falls into the deepest pit of utter despair?

The answers are never forthcoming, but all I can say is that Vittorio de Sica‘s Ladri de Biciclette (The Bicycle Thief) is one of those films.  It took me a couple of days to drag myself out of bed after watching it (OK, I’m exaggerating, but not all that much).

Ladri de Bicicletti

An Italian realist film in the mold of Roma, Citta Aperta, it has little of that film’s historical interest.  This one does have some interesting shots of postwar Rome, and looks at the lives of its citizens, but that’s about it.

What it does have, unfortunately, is melodrama by the trowel-load. Heaping one “woe is me” cliché onto the next, it meanders from suffering to suffering until it ends with a walk-away scene lifted straight from The Little Tramp.  Subtle, this thing was not.

Don’t believe me?  Let’s glance at the checklist.  Father who needs a job to support his young family?  Check.  Supportive wife who does everything she can to help, but is about to fly apart under the strain? Check.  Young boy who puts a brave face on everything, both the stuff he understands and the stuff he doesn’t, and also helps to support the family by working 12 hours at a service station?  Check.  Indifferent world that crushes everyone under its wheels?  Oh, yeah.

Ladri de Bicicletti Film Poster

Critics, of course, loved it.  They called it the best movie ever, and have been calling it one of the best since (which scares me a bit, because the fact that it lost first place must mean there’s something even more depressing out there).  They called it a very adult movie (which I kind of agree with; kids would be ruined by it forever) and also the most communist movie ever (which is interesting since communism is something more associated with idealistic adolescents than with adults).

Anyway, unless you’re planning to be a film director, give this one a miss and do something less depressing.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose debut novel, Siege, has garnered good reviews (and one notable terrible review).  You can check it out here.

Exotica!

On Wednesday, we looked back at the very first Road & Track magazine.  It was an interesting start to a publication that later became an icon in its field, and if I can find the second volume, I’ll be having a look at that, too.

But in the meantime, I’m moving through a stack of Road & Track publications and came across the first two volumes in yet another innovation that they tried.  Namely, a Road & Track Special entitled Exotic Cars.

Now, most people wouldn’t have given these mags a second glance if they’d encountered them in a used bookstore, but I have a history with them.  Back when I was thirteen or so, and an avid R&T reader, I came across an edition of this special (I think it was number 8 in the series).  To my teenage eye, it was to the regular magazine what the Big Mac is to a regular McDonald’s cheeseburger (I was going to make an analogy involving the Moulin Rouge and today’s adult film industry but I stopped myself because I don’t want to give too much away about my teenage years…).

It was an object of pure desire, mainly because it held absolutely no news about economy cars or stuff your mother might drive.  It only held cars you lusted after, or utterly hated (continuing the Big Mac theme, those would be the pickles), gloriously photographed and described by people who, like yourself, couldn’t care less about the socially irresponsible message this kind of excess sent.  In your world, cars that went a bazillion miles an hour and cost a bazillion dollars were perfect, and why such a miserable vehicle as the Toyota Tercel existed was a mystery.

Long story short, I bought the magazines, and a bunch of others which I might discuss some other time.

Road & Track Exotic Cars 1

The first of these, released in 1983 was a very nice first effort and showed just how far R&T had come since its humble and unprofessional beginnings.  29 articles showcased 30 cars.  Sure, there were a few road tests culled from the pages of the magazine itself, but, for the most part, the articles were pure celebration of exotics with gorgeous color photography (most of the regular magazine was black and white in 1983).

I’d give this one near top marks for a first effort, and apparently the market responded well, because a second volume was soon to follow:

Road & Track Exotic Cars 2

This one landed on newsstands in 1984 and it was a mistake.  A beautifully produced and probably successful mistake, but a mistake.

The reason it’s an error was that, being released a year after the first, the editors had little time to dig for new veins of exotica.  Remember that, 35 years ago, you couldn’t go onto the internet to look up whether some little cottage industry in Denmark was building the vehicle you needed to beef up your magazine.  Also, coming out of the fuel crisis, there were fewer companies building amazing cars.

So there’s repetition… a lot of repetition. Of the 27 cars featured in articles or road tests from the main magazine, fully 14 were either tests of the same car as one that had been featured in Volume 1 or slight variations (perhaps a convertible version or a model-year upgrade) of the same.  Another couple were basically the same car with significant differences, so I didn’t count them.

To be fair, the editors seem to have realized this and created a segment about the carrozerias of the City of Turin, a nice little segment, but it wasn’t quite enough to mask the issue.  They also dug up a couple of new cars and some stuff they’d neglected the first time around… but the sense of “I’ve seen this before” was predominant.

Now, I read these in the space of three or fur days, which is not the way they’re meant to be read.  That year between editions should have been enough for people to forget what they’d read about where and make the content seem relatively fresh… but it didn’t hold up well over the years.

In spite of this, readers apparently enjoyed it and the series continued for several more years.  I’ll return to the subject soon.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest book is Ice Station: Death.  You can check it out here.

The Beginning of a Classic Magazine

Road and Track June 1947

Those of us over about thirty years old will remember a time when a lot of our information about hobbies and interests came from reading magazines.  Today, magazines still often give us information that we can’t get online, so imagine how much more we relied on them in the early days of the net or even in pre-internet days.

Those of us that like cars will likely accept that, until fairly recently, Road & Track was the magazine of choice for the most discerning enthusiasts.  On one hand it was had a high-class, globalized outlook with one eye on Europe and Japan, while on the other it also commented on the American auto industry in depth.  In this sense, it achieved the best overview of the world scene… and it was the 500 pound gorilla in the room regardless of whether you were American, European or, as in my case, from  South America.

Yes, magazines like Car & Driver in the US or any number of local mags in Europe might have had more readers in their respective countries… but no one did it better globally.

So it’s interesting to pick up the first ever issue of the publication and see where it started from.

It’s surprising to say the least.

In 1947, many publications were less sophisticated than they are today, but Road and Track’s first issue is…

Well, it’s terrible.  You could tell they put the thing together on a shoestring and grabbed whatever articles and pictures they could find.  A nationalistic technical article by the great Laurence Pomeroy kicks it off–impeccable credentials, but the article itself was useless–and then a hodgepodge of other things, including a race report of a very minor hillclimb, the description of a foreign car dealership and a few photos.

These last are interesting, especially as they include pics of the Wilmille production car, but the overall effect gives the impression that they knew the starved postwar audience would pay for any kind of content, and grabbed what they could get, published it and called it an issue.

Interestingly, the mix of street and race cars continued into the 21st century… and probably contributed enormously to the publication’s success… interesting to see that it came about almost by mistake.

BTW, if you’re interested in seeing it for yourself, these mags are still pretty reasonably priced on Ebay and similar, and the first few issues were reprinted in facsimile editions (keeping everything, including the original advertisements, which are wonderful windows into the time), which makes it even cheaper to study a piece of history.

I’ll be looking at a few more of these over the next couple of weeks, as I find it interesting.  Hope some of you will come along for the ride.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer.  His novel Outside deals with the possible ultimate consequences of the current transition from physical media to digital…  You can have a look here.

A Tale of Two Lions

A couple of years ago, I read one of the most delightful nonfiction books I can remember: A Gentle Madness by Nicholas Basbanes.  So it was with enormous pleasure that I began his second major volume.

Patience and Fortitude by Nicholas Basbanes

Patience and Fortitude, as most people are aware, are the names of the two marble lions that guard the entrance to the New York Public Library, which makes the title of this book particularly apt for what turned out to be (I intentionally avoided reading any synopsis) a history of the evolution of the library in the Western world, told in Basbanes chatty, anecdote-sprinkled style.

As with the first Basbanes book, I found this one engrossing.  It has the advantage that it deals with a subject that has a much wider appeal than insane book collectors but, at the same time, loses a little bit of the charm that the quirkier topic brought with it.

Nevertheless, it’s a wonderful volume which, in a mere 550 pages, gives you an overview of how ancient knowledge was stored and replicated and reached us, as well as telling us what a modern library looks like, and the issues facing it in the future (as seen in 2001, when the book was published).

It’s a good one, and it’s portable size allows one to read it anywhere but, for my money, the best book about libraries I’ve ever read is still this one.  Kinda hard to lug around on the subway, though.

I’d say the Basbanes is the right volume for those who’s like to read character-driven history of libraries.  The Campbell – Price for those who are a bit more visually oriented.  Both are wonderful, so don’t chose one or the other, buy them both and enjoy them.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  The plot of his thriller Timeless centers around a book and an ancient monastery, but it still manages to avoid resembling The Name of the Rose in any way.  You can check it out here.

Writing Life: Gustavo Bondoni’s Guide to Surviving Rejection

So, you’re a writer.  Congratulations.  And condolences.  While it’s one of the most rewarding things you can do with your life, it can also be extremely discouraging.  One of the daily realities of writers’ lives is that we deal with rejection all the time.  If you’re serious about writing, and your work is out there, you’ll need to learn how to deal with rejection on a daily basis.  More likely on a many-times-a-day basis.

What?  How can this be? I hear you asking Don’t you sell and sell and sell, all the time? What’s this about rejection?

Hmm.  Apparently I have to give away a dirty secret of the writing world, but first, I need you to do something for me: go look at a couple of writer’s blogs or websites.

Done?  Good.

You’ll probably have noticed that none of these people are mentioning rejection.

That’s because blogs and websites are the highlight reel.  Everyone gets to see our highlight reel, but we keep our blooper reels to ourselves (or maybe commiserate with other writers about it when no one else is listening).  We don’t tell you about our rejections because an image of success often breeds more success.

But behind those facades, rejections still happen; there’s too much talent competing for too few publication slots.  Something has to give.  That means that they happen a lot, and if you want to be a writer, you have to know that there will be some days when the rejections will grind you down to the bedrock.  Whether or not you continue as a writer depends on your capacity to ignore them and move on.

So, I will assume that your story is polished and all those other things everyone always blogs about and, without further ado, I give you my six secrets to surviving rejection:

1. Don’t pin all your hopes on a story that you’re sure will be your breakthrough.

It will most likely be rejected from the breakthrough market, not because it’s bad but because no matter what stage you’re at in your writing career, there are likely huge numbers of other talented writers who view that same market as their breakthrough.  That means that most times, things get rejected.

The hardest blow to get up from is usually the one that all your hopes were tied to.  The best way to avoid that is not to tie your hopes to any one response.  It’s hard to do, but it’s a critical survival skill.

 

2. Don’t pin your hopes on it, but send it to The New Yorker anyway.

It’s much better to be rejected than to wonder forever if they might have liked it if you hadn’t chickened out before sending it over.  This same thing goes for the dream literary agent.  Some people are making it through the door.  Why not you?

But don’t get your hopes too high!

 

3.  Write something else while you’re waiting.

The new story, the one you just finished writing, before you even edit it, is your new blue-eyed-boy.  It’s the bright star in your firmament and the apple of your eye.  I could go on with the clichés, but you get it.  Its shininess is what makes the rejection of something older seem less serious.

When you have something new to show, you can say: “So what if they hated the old crock I sent them two months ago?  Wait till they see this.”

 

4.  But if the old crock comes back with an email that contains the word “unfortunately” in it, get it back out there immediately.  It was once your blue-eyed boy, and if it’s good, it will sell.  If you trunk it, it won’t.

Besides, the act of sending it back out erases the rejection.  It becomes something to hope (without overdoing it, see point 1) will sell.

 

5. Celebrate everything.  For a good chunk of your writing career, rejection will make up the majority of your communication with the wider literary world.  So you need to raise a glass to anything that isn’t a rejection.

Sold a story? Agent asked to see your full MS?  Jump with joy!

Agent offered representation?  Faint… then jump with joy.

Got a story accepted to a non-paying market?  Celebrate it.  You will eventually move away from these, but it’s still an achievement.  They reject stories, too, and getting in is a sign that your writing is pretty good.

A book or magazine containing one of your stories was published?  Hooray!

Ditto a cover reveal!

Got a good review?  You’re buying the drinks today.

A bad review?  Celebrate anyway.  Reviewers don’t read just anything.  The fact that someone bothered to mention your work means you’re out there.

I think you get the point.

 

Bonus Advice, especially useful to those breaking in.

6. A rewrite request is something awesome.  Put it on top of your priority list.

Yes, I know you’re the second coming F.Scott Fitzgerald and the editor didn’t get the amazing artistry of your piece.  And yes, I know the rewrite they’re requesting will ruin the story.

You’re going to do the rewrite anyway.  The editor controls access to the market, and they knows their readers better than you do.  If you lose a sale because you didn’t want to do the rewrite… you’ve just made a career mistake and added another rejection to your list.  And the whole point here is to maximize the occurrence of everything that isn’t a rejection.

Besides, you’re not the second coming of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

 

 

Well, that’s my list.  Will it help you feel better about rejections?  Honestly?  Yeah, it does, but it won’t completely inoculate you against them.  You’ll still feel the sting, and sometimes, repeated application of that sting will grind you down.  When it does, the only thing that will save you is the quality of that bedrock I mentioned earlier.

The real writers, the ones that eventually work (or luck) their way into a career, are the ones that get up one more time than the literary world knocks them down.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His best-known work is Siege, which you can check out here.

A Decade of Growth that Ended Horribly

Le Mans 1930-39 - Quentin Spurring

Le Mans 1930-39: The Official History Of The World’s Greatest Motor Race is certainly an impressive title.  But this is an impressive book.  It’s a race-by-race, team-by-team and car-by-car chronicle of what I consider to be the best race in the world, and while I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to the layman, it does go well beyond the pure racing aspect and give a glimpse into the lives of the characters behind the race.  (If you want to see my review of the first book in the series, it’s here.)

In today’s world of polished multimillion-dollar (or Euro or Yen or Yuan) operations with corporate backing, the colorful character is all but absent in many aspects of motorsport, especially in po-faced F1 paddocks.  Le Mans is, to a certain degree an oasis where millionaire playboys right out of a Sidney Sheldon novel still drink champagne well into the small hours, but even this paragon of individuality can’t hold a candle to the way it used to be.

In the thirties, the cast of characters included rich boys, yes.  But it also included rich girls in numbers never seen before, backyard mechanics, British Nazi sympathizers, a slew of Italians who’d moved to France to escape Mussolini, the might of Hitler’s industrial complex and, of course, hundreds of thousands of wine-drinking spectators (those are still there).

With that volatile mix of people–has there ever been a more interesting case of such mixed social and political beliefs coexisting peacefully even while trying to beat each other?–the races themselves became almost a backdrop to the characters.

Almost.

This is Le Mans, and even when everything around it is a circus, the race forces you to take it seriously.  Heavily-favored cars break down.  The glorious Alfa coupe retires from the lead.  People die.  Others celebrate.  For a day, the outside stuff is forgotten, reduced to noise.

But eventually, the race ends and you have to get back to real life.  And when the 1939 race ended, it would be another 10 years before the next was run.  Quentin Spurring reminds us gently of what was to come, telling us that this or that race was the last for one or another of the drivers.  Especially powerful were the mentions of men who fought or flew in the War to come, or, in the cases of Robert Benoist or William Grover-Williams, men who joined the Resistance and where executed for it by the Gestapo.

Ignore the spoiled, millionaire crybabies of today who count a sprained ankle while training their greatest fear (witness the halo on F1 cars).  Racing drivers should be lions, men who live outside of society’s timidity and who, when the occasion calls for it are capable of great acts of courage, even outside the cockpit.

The best part of this book is probably that it reminds us that this is what they once were.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His latest novel, Ice Station Death is not likely to help him win the Nobel Prize for Literature… but it is guaranteed to entertain.  You can check it out here.

Naughtiness through the Centuries

The language of love is probably French, or maybe Italian.  It’s no coincidence that so many of histories great romantic figures have had a Latin background.  Casanova.  Valentino.  Don Juan (all right, he was a literary invention, but you get the idea–he wasn’t Mister Jones or Herr Helmut).

But there’s also a tradition of erotic literature in English that might have become a bit of a “mommy-porn” joke on the literary side thanks to the antics of a certain Mr. Grey, (although I suspect that EL James is laughing all the way to the bank, because the books are big business).

But there was a time when erotic literature was not a laughing matter, and publishers and authors could face real consequences for dabbling in the genre, anything from fines to imprisonment or, more recently, to literary ostracism.  But the pull was always there, and the books got written.

There are likely uncountable reams of bad erotica sitting on dusty bookshelves, but there are three books that, to me, have always been the landmark classics of English language lewdness: Fanny Hill, Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Tropic of Cancer.

You’ll probably recall that I wasn’t terribly impressed by Lady Chatterley‘s erotic content, so when I picked up Fanny Hill, a book published nearly 200 years before the Lawrence.

Fanny Hill - John Cleland

Man, was I in for a surprise.

John Cleland, unlike Lawrence, doesn’t just describe sex as a mechanical activity, but actually brings eroticism to bear.  You can tell the author, even in the first half of the eighteenth century, took the time to research his subject exhaustively, and then went on to describe what he’d learned.

Free writing tip: if you’re writing erotica, this is probably the the most enjoyable approach.

As a piece of pornography, Fanny Hill is infinitely more successful than Lady Chatterley.  To be fair, Lawrence wasn’t just trying to write himself into obscenity law history but also to make a statement about class distinctions in Britain.  The reason the Cleland is a better book is because Fanny Hill is unconcerned with politics–pushing your politics as a central theme of your book is a sure way to soporific stultification (see what is happening in the science fiction genre today for a vivid example of politics making it difficult for literature to shine).

Is Fanny Hill a great book?  Simply put, no.  It’s a great bit of pornography, and I’m not surprised that it’s now considered a classic because it’s very good at what it does.  I think the next well-written pieces of literature to do it so well (at least in English) were produced in the middle of the twentieth century.  But like pornographic movies, it gets a little repetitive after a while because the underlying story is paper thin (despite the fact that Cleland was clearly a gifted writer).

Also, as a purely modern critic, there is very little sexual variety in the book, which, even if you updated the sometimes archaic language, would date the book to a less adventurous era.

Still, hats are off to the spirit of Mr. Cleland for setting the bar so high that it would take Henry Miller two centuries later to surpass it.  Of course, that’s an assumption that I need to get my hands on Tropic of Cancer to confirm.

I suspect I’ll enjoy that.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer who isn’t afraid to put a little heat into his books.  Timeless is an excellent example of this, and you can check it out here.

We Must Stand or See the Promise of Two Centuries Tremble

Tentatively titled A Citizen of London, Stacy Danielle Stephen’s work-in-progress excerpted here began twelve years ago as a fictional account of the last person killed in England by a V2 rocket but has since become a twentieth century history in the form of a war correspondent’s memoir.  Ms Stephens captures the sweep of history with intimate glimpses into personal moments ranging from the teenage Nikita Khrushchev arriving in the filthy bustle of Yuzovka to the day Eva Braun met Adolf Hitler.   Today, we feel the human cost of LBJ’s commitment to the defense of Viet Nam.

 

In his play, We Bombed in New Haven, Joseph Heller talks about a list, insisting that every name on that list is your son. He’s right about that.

* * *

battle-of-ia-drang

After Jan Masaryk’s death, in 1948, I had a nightmare, and when George Orwell died, in 1950, it became a recurring nightmare. Most of the details will vary, with a few remaining much the same.

I’ve ascended several flights of stairs, arriving at a garret apartment, probably Jan’s, although I’d never actually seen it, and it won’t always be the same apartment, although it seems never to be a different apartment, either. Consistently, the furnishings will be nondescript, yet vividly striking, particularly since they’re lighted by the firestorm raging outside the window. The brilliance of that horrifying illumination makes each thing inside, each and every object, a distinct shadow with a bright face turned toward the terrifying light, and I go toward that light, and stand at the casement window framing it, grasping the handle of the latch, turning it, and pulling, and always surprised that the suction of the firestorm holds it shut. It seems I can only watch, and yet I pull at the window frame with all my strength, and this added strain shatters the glass, which the suction pulls outward, more often than not pulling me out as well, although if it doesn’t, I will lean out until I fall into the acrid scorching winds. Either way, I swirl between the downward pull of gravity and the irresistible updraft, and drops of my own blood swirl, too, pelting me like a driving rain. And either way, I always get to the bottom of it, the white-hot, sky blue flame at the heart of the endless sacrifice, and always I know the burnt offering is an infant no longer living, wrapped in bandages, the outer layers of them scorched. I wake as I begin peeling them away.

In Pleiku, those first two weeks of November, I was waking to this almost constantly, seldom sleeping more than an hour at a time. I had covered the Blitz twenty-five years earlier, covered the war in Italy, covered the dirty war when French generals were determined to engage and destroy their communist enemy at any cost. I knew better than anyone what we’d be seeing in the days ahead, and how much of it we’d see, and how long we’d go on seeing it even after we turned away from it.

* * *

Battle of La Drang

Unprecedented numbers of casualties began arriving early in the evening of November 14th. Three US Air Cavalry Battalions and their supporting artillery had encountered and engaged two regiments of The People’s Army of Viet Nam, informally known as the NVA, at an arbitrary rectangle drawn on a map of the Ia Drang valley and labelled LZ X-Ray.

Although they were outnumbered nearly three-to-one, the Americans had two significant advantages; the more obvious being virtually unlimited air support. More importantly, those two regiments had no interest in defending their position, or in holding the mountain where they had dug in. They, too, had been sent to seek out, engage, and destroy the enemy. And they had travelled two months on foot, and on short rations, specifically for that purpose. Although their determination fell short of a death wish, each individual going into combat against these Americans was profoundly committed to the unification of Viet Nam and hell bent on accomplishing it through the immediate and eternal defeat of their enemy at whatever personal cost was necessary.

* * *

In the majority of divorce cases, custody hearings are not, as they purport to be, about the children; rather, they are a forum in which parents attempt to hurt each other, to engage and destroy their enemy, and the war in Viet Nam, whether it was the French war or the American war, wasn’t about the mountains and valleys of Southeast Asia, or about finding and establishing the best way to govern the people living there. It was never about preserving democracy from the threat of communism, as both France and the United States had discarded Vietnamese democracy when it proved detrimental to their war against Ho Chi Minh’s goal of a unified and independent Viet Nam. That Ho was in fact a communist provided his opponents, whether military or political, a convenient pretext for their opposition to him, since it could hardly be justified for any other reason. That a majority of Vietnamese living south of the sixteenth parallel preferred not to be ruled from Hanoi, nor to be part of a communist state, was also a happy coincidence for anyone who wished to oppose Ho, although the inconvenient truth that few South Vietnamese had ever wished to be ruled by Bảo Đại, or Ngô Đình Diệm, or Nguyễn Văn Thiệu had to be ignored.

In this context, the battle of Ia Drang valley is emblematic of the American war in Viet Nam. Any sane person who saw the casualties of that battle would be hard pressed to declare it a victory for anyone. Wounded and dead alike had been shot, burned, and dismembered, although the Chinook helicopter loaded to its limit with rotting fragmented body parts gathered from trees–all those were dead. And like Goya before me, I can say that I saw it. This happened. Infinitely worse than that, what happened was no accident, no mistake, but the very object sought by both sides. They had engaged and destroyed their enemy, left their enemy burned and bullet-riddled. In fragments. Hanging from trees. So both sides could rightly and honestly claim a victory, for which there can be no substitute in war.

* * *

By November 16th, Peter Jennings was interviewing Lieutenant Colonel Hal Moore for a segment to be broadcast on the ABC Evening News. Jennings was among the Chinook-load of reporters flown into LZ X-Ray that day; Lieutenant Colonel Robert McDade, commanding 2nd Battalion of the 7th Cavalry Regiment, could hardly be blamed for thinking the battle was over. His unit had arrived at LZ X-Ray just ahead of the reporters, and in the morning (17th), he was ordered to move his battalion to LZ Albany, not quite three miles away, where they were to be airlifted out and returned to their base camp.

However, what the Americans expected to be an authoritative dénouement, a simple exit, stage left, would prove to be something else entirely, and the day, like the battle it wrapped up, would also prove to be consummately emblematic of the American war in Viet Nam. As with the Tet Offensive twenty-six months later, when the Americans believed the war was nearly over, and woke to learn that it was not, and likely never could be, on November 17th, 1965, the Americans learned, or should have learned, that a resilient and determined enemy can be depended upon to bring Murphy’s Law home to you at the worst moment, to shock and surprise you, to spring out and hit you when you least expect it.

There were two NVA battalions waiting at LZ Albany.

* * *

Although there are now numerous articles detailing McDade’s “tragic blunder” the fact is, he never faced a court martial for taking his unit into an ambush that day. Statements of men present at the battle suggest he was in shock, but neither his courage nor his competence were ever brought into doubt, and he was among the more experienced American officers serving in Viet Nam at the time, having commanded a platoon in the Pacific during the second world war, and a company in Korea during the police action there.

While the communists in Viet Nam, whether north or south, had good intelligence, they also had sense enough to put two and two together. They knew a landing zone when they saw one, and they knew what it was for. Simply waiting quietly would surely prove to be worth the time spent.

Arriving at the LZ after several hours of walking with full packs through elephant grass, the Americans dropped their gear and sprawled out to rest before setting up a perimeter which, under the presumed circumstances, was only a formality. Two Vietnamese sleeping in the vicinity were taken prisoner while a third ran away. The prisoners claimed to be deserters, and the Americans saw no reason to believe otherwise. While that third man may have alerted his comrades to the presence of the Americans, their reconnaissance helicopter circling overhead would have done so just as well. Either way, early in the afternoon, the NVA attacked the scattered and unprepared Americans. The surgical hospital in Pleiku began receiving the wounded around ten-thirty that night. The helicopter unit bringing them in–not Medevac–had taken battle damage during the evacuation, but no losses.

* * *

Triage is a French word, which means sorting. It comes from an earlier French word for plowing, where a triangular blade broke the soil. Coincidentally, perhaps, in triage, the wounded are sorted into three groups. The first are those who must be helped first. The second are those who can wait to be helped. The third are those who are beyond help. A War Correspondent is most immediately concerned with the third and second groups. In twenty-five years of reporting war, I’d been in any number of medical facilities, ranging from hospital buildings to aid stations, where I’d seen any number of wounded men, more then a few of whom died as I watched.

* * *

A hundred years earlier, when the telegraph brought news of President Lincoln’s death, Americans vividly remembered for the rest of their lives sharply detailed images of what they were doing the moment they heard. Likewise when just two years earlier Walter Cronkite let us know that President Kennedy had died in Dallas. In this same way, I suppose, I remember the concrete floor of the corrugated steel Quonset, and the radio tuned to 820 AM, Armed Forces Saigon. And the recovering wounded, waiting to be sent to An Khe, or Qui Nhon, or Tokyo, or sometimes back to their unit in just a few days. And some carried out in body bags.

* * *

I thought of him as the thirteenth man, although I don’t know what order, if any, really, they arrived in. There were thirteen of them, the last collection of wounded from LZ Albany, gathered from among the many dead outside the initial perimeter, where they had waited, whether physically unable to move or prudent enough to stay put until the LZ was secure and they could be safely brought back. During the night, many of the wounded Americans bled to death, and many who hadn’t were quietly killed by NVA who had come to retrieve their own wounded. Among the few who survived the night, a few more were killed by the artillery or napalm which forced the NVA withdrawal, allowing the men inside the perimeter to move forward and retrieve anyone still alive beyond it.

This thirteenth man had been shot several times and perforated by shrapnel. His arms had been removed by an exploding artillery shell, technically friendly fire, and the man he’d been arm in arm with on the ground had become fragments scattered among the trees around them by that same explosion. Then he’d been severely burned by napalm.
He’d been given more than the usual dosage of morphine, and I knew what that meant. I waited with him, already knowing what he was piecing together in his personal haze amid the fog of war. He told me about a bayonet stopping a knife, and clinging together in the bitter cold of near death with Brooke Brookfield. “Aint that a goofy name?” he asked me rhetorically. I didn’t tell him I recognized that name, or that I had known Brooke’s mother. It was Brooke who had been blown to fragments scattered in the trees around them moments before the napalm.

My thirteenth man was quiet for several minutes. Gathering strength for the end, for his closing statement. I’d seen this before, and waited.

“My mom was a reporter,” he said. “Dad told me she drowned covering the flood.”

“When you were six years old?” I asked.

“Yeah. How did you–”

He had no more breath, and no more strength to breathe.

* * *

What had possessed me to ask that? And why had he responded as he did? Could he be? I hadn’t asked his name. When had I quit asking names? I was tired, and there had been so many, arriving so suddenly, and I had stopped asking who they were.

Almost all the boys who had come into this Quonset were nineteen; the same age as Ollie, my son, whom I hadn’t seen since he was six years old. I remembered the intelligent look in his eyes as he moved around the living room, listening to the radio, engaged in the action and actually seeing something without staring at anything. Could this corpse, burned and mutilated, be that same little boy?

“No,” I said. A nurse heard me, and asked if he had passed.

“His name,” I said, pointing at him. “Where was he from?”

“PFC Oliver Eggleston,” she said. “Omaha, Nebraska. Did you know him?”

I didn’t answer, but she didn’t wait for an answer.

* * *

I must have watched as they placed him in a bag and carried him out; I don’t remember.

I was still sitting there hours later, I suppose, when I heard a Chinook approaching, heavily loaded from the sound of it. I assumed reporters were returning, and felt that I needed to be among a crowd of my peers, so I went outside. As it descended, I noticed a hardened rivulet of blood beneath the lower edge of the rear gate, where it had dried en route while pouring out through the hinges. In a few minutes, without a word or even a thought, I began helping some sorry sons of bitches unload the largest pile of rotted body fragments any of us had ever seen. This was the conclusion of Ia Drang, and for me, the end of Viet Nam.

 

Stacy Danielle Stephens is editor of the anthology She Blended Me With Science and author of the police procedural novella The Dog Who Knew Too Much (Publisher Website | Amazon).