Wars begin where you will, but they do not end where you please. — Machiavelli
I recently listened from start to finish to Black Virgin Mountain: A Return to Vietnam, a Vietnam memoir by a former acquaintance of mine, Larry Heinemann, now deceased. Normally I would have said “read,” but listening to books instead of music on the trail is something I do these days when I’m hiking with Iris, my six year-old Irish setter.
Some books are better than others for listening. I avoid mysteries or anything with flashbacks, copious footnotes or long digressions that might require backtracking several pages. The mind wanders. It cannot be helped, especially if a pack of unleashed dogs thunders near, or you encounter a friend you haven’t seen in awhile, or find yourself and your dog in the middle of a bog. But there was no straying on the path with Larry. It was as if he was speaking to me from the grave, as he read in the same slow cadence he used in conversation—a writer carefully choosing every word. I felt compelled to listen and then bear witness, as I am now doing.
Larry was a Vietnam veteran who at age 43 won the National Book Award in 1987 for Paco’s Story, an unsettling novel about the sole survivor of an infantry platoon, battered in body and spirit, who in his mind is visited by the ghosts of his mates. This was his second book about the war, which I vividly recall discussing with him over beers on my backyard patio long before it was published. A signed copy of his first book, Close Quarters, a fictionalized account of his tour as a soldier with the 25th “Tropic Lightning” Division, was on the dining room table.
Close Quarters re-entered my thoughts not long ago when my son, Alex, forwarded a commentary in the New York Times by Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of the novel The Sympathizer. The son of Viet Nam refugees, Thanh Nguyen leads his piece by recounting how Close Quarters and its graphic portrayal of the war broke his heart as a 13 year-old. The book is a fictionalized autobiographical account of Larry’s tour as an army draftee operating armored personnel carriers in Tay Ninh Province, northwest of Saigon. Thanh Nguyen initially believed that Close Quarters, with its brutal descriptions of combat, dehumanized the Vietnamese people and had no place in the school library. But while working on his own novel, he re-read Close Quarters and realized that Larry was projecting unvarnished truth.
“The novel was a damning indictment of American warfare and the racist attitudes held by some nice, average Americans that led to slaughter and rape,” Thanh Nguyen wrote. “Mr. Heinemann revealed America’s heart of darkness.”
Moreover, censorship has no place in a democracy, he stressed. Banning books limits experience and denies us choices as a free people.
Alex had no knowledge of my connection with Larry, as he was only two when Larry came to dinner that first night, and a kindergartener the only other time they’d met. His interest in the commentary was Tanh Nguyen’s stand on censorship as it related to the Vietnam War, during which I served in the Mekong Delta, 1968-69. However, after reading the piece and learning of his death, I quickly followed the Times’ link to Larry’s 2019 obituary that I’d somehow missed. In it, the writer returns several times to Black Virgin Mountain, which is considered the third installment in Larry’s Vietnam trilogy. I had purchased the book, but never read it, for reasons I cannot recall. The obituary also lands heavily on the book award, which was highly controversial at the time, as Paco’s Story beat out The Counterlife by Philip Roth and Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which won the Pulitzer Prize that same year and is today considered one of the greatest of all American novels.
The impact of Larry’s victory on the literary world was profound to say the least. The Times report of the award ceremony led with, “In a stunning literary upset…” and followed with: “When Mr. Heinemann's name was announced, a brief silence gripped the ballroom, followed by uncertain applause.” Next came the first words out of Larry’s mouth at the podium, once the scattered applause died away: “This is an interesting surprise.” He then admitted that as a finalist he’d only come to party, thrilled to be in such luminous company and fully prepared to eat, drink and be merry. With victory, the only added indulgence was an “expensive cigar,” he told me a few weeks later.
There was plenty of hand wringing in ensuing days.
“WHAT happened? That was the question everyone was asking last week…” wrote Michiko Kakutani, the Times book critic. Perhaps it was the result of a rising “Vietnam chic,” which was manifest in the acclaim and awards bestowed upon Oliver Stone’s Platoon earlier in the year, she suggested. A former infantryman, Stone’s unit fought alongside Heinemann’s during the Battle of Soui Cut on New Year’s Day 1968, which was portrayed in the final scene of the film. Kakutani then methodically dismantled Larry’s work and dismissed him as a talented, but novice writer prone to cliches…as if she knew Jack about the central theme of the book.
Larry’s response when queried was typical: Well…that’s too bad, but I’ve already cashed the ($10,000 award) check, or something to that effect.
But let’s return to the backyard patio, the Black Virgin Mountain and one of my own ghosts (that being Larry): I met him when I was assistant director of the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs in 1983-84. He’d ventured to Olympia from his home in Chicago to write a story for Harpers, drawn by reports of Vietnam veterans living “like 19th century mountain men” in, or on the fringe of, wilderness areas in the state. As the department’s director of field services—veterans benefits counseling and advocating—I was responsible for the story that hit in 1983 on the ordinarily dead news week between Christmas and New Years.
It began innocently enough. The state Senate had appropriated $125,000 to the department to spend on a Vietnam veteran event or program. Some wanted a “Welcome Home” parade in downtown Seattle, an idea we rejected out of hand. By then it was a little late to be welcoming anyone home. Those of you who were around when we returned from the war in dribs and drabs had your chance. Ironically, the first time anyone from the Vietnam era was truly “welcomed home” was when the Carter Administration told draft evaders they could return to the U.S. from Canada without penalty. The news media showered them with praise and celebrated the mass healing of a generation sundered, or so they thought. I have nothing against these people. We all had to make choices in those days and I would not wish that war on anyone. But Vietnam veterans remained as invisible then as we were when we passed through the airports and were expected to meld into the main stream, as though we’d been on nothing more than an exotic vacation to the orient.
By 1982, Vietnam veterans finally achieved recognition of sorts on the occasion of the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Pennsylvania Avenue swarmed that day with aging vets from around the country, wearing the bits of faded olive-drab tropical uniforms that still fit, marching arm in arm in a parade to the monument…to the cheers of those on the curbs.
But after the parade, life goes on. You might feel good for a few days, but then you wake up one morning and you’re still unemployed, you’re still bedeviled by nightmares and flashbacks and you still can’t find anyone who loves you enough to put up with your silence and anger. So we decided to use the money to supplement the storefront counseling programs and rap groups already underway through the federal Veterans Administration. Thanks to data gathered through an Agent Orange Hotline we’d established months before, we were able to identify where the funds were most needed: the rural areas of the state.
The program was so successful that we shot through the money in a matter of months. In need of another appropriation, I figured the best way to do that was to obtain a third-party endorsement from the press. I managed to talk a daily newspaper reporter into covering the story and then got more than I bargained for. One of the stories in his series was about a “former army assassin” who lived like a “19th century mountain man” with his pet cougar! My BS barometer soared off the charts when the reporter ran this by me before going to press, but despite my pleas for caution, the newspaper couldn’t resist. The subject had stripped to the waist, removed his shoes and socks and run into the woods, which the photographer dutifully captured from behind. The story and photo exploded over the Western world. Over the next several months, reporters from the major newspapers, networks (including those in Britain and France), documentarians and free-lance writers traveled to Washington in their jeans and waffle boots hoping to meet a “Trip-wire Veteran.” This unfortunate buzz word came from one of our own, who had implied that some vets set tripwires to warn off intruders from their compounds, which more often than not included a marijuana patch.
Did any of these media outlets find Trip-wire Veterans? Well…no, not as such. Some vets averred that they had once lived in the woods for peace of mind. But most who were interviewed were living in rural areas, on the fringe, unemployed, on food stamps, angry at the government, and with good reason. One man demonstrated his fury by slipping a dog choker chain around his neck and giving it a tug. The reporter, from CBS evening news, asked him if he would do it again while the camera was rolling. He was pleased to comply. A frustrated French film crew, running out of time and money, decided that filming a homeless soul, who was camping in a vacant lot in a hilltop neighborhood, was better than nothing. The camera stopped running only when the weekly garbage truck made its rounds less than 50 yards away.
People Magazine was the one organization that came out and, after a week in the field, gave the story a pass. Why? Because we couldn’t “produce” a genuine Trip Wire veteran, according to the writer, who then accused us of perpetrating a “fraud.” As it turned out, he wasn’t far wrong. The author of the original newspaper story later confided that he had finally learned, months after the fact, that the total military service of the assassin with the pet cougar amounted to six weeks before medical discharge.
Larry arrived after the initial rush and was less interested in the freak show the networks were seeking and more concerned with how veterans were coping, especially on the Olympic Peninsula where the story broke. You can find his piece on the Harper’s website, which is what I had to do recently to refresh my memory. He was a midwesterner, born and raised in Chicago, a city boy with city sensibilities, of medium build with a pale complexion, blue-eyes, neatly coiffed brown hair and a cleft chin, aka Kirk Douglas. He was kindly and quiet and when you locked eyes you knew he was peeling through the layers. As most vets do, we fact-checked one another: Where were you? When? What unit? What did you do? I might add, this was done without going into great depth. I would learn all I needed to know about his tour from my copy of Close Quarters. He mainly spoke about his character, “Paco,” as if he were a living, breathing entity. And in a way, he was…beyond the wildest dreams of either of us.
After leaving our offices for the field, he called several times, checking on a name or asking if a particular anecdote rang true. One guy told him that he’d doffed his clothing and run naked with elk. I’m certain that I sighed. By then he must have sensed that I was weary of storytellers thrilled by the attention and reporters who were egging them on. But we continued corresponding, even after I left the department that fall to attend graduate school, and later on when I was working as a reporter for the Bellingham Herald.
When Paco’s Story was published in 1986, Larry came to Bellingham for a visit following a promotion junket to Seattle. While he was in town I arranged a signing for him at Village Books in Fairhaven. He didn’t sell a single book, but cheerfully signed them all for the store, after which we repaired to my home for dinner. We had also invited Bill Distler, a family friend who served as an infantryman in the 101st Airborne Division, and had channeled his stress and anger into becoming one of the leaders of the local antiwar movement. A Brooklyn native, Bill favored faded jeans and flannel shirts and was leathered from the packs of Pall Malls he smoked daily over multiple cups of coffee. He was brilliant and passionate, with a keen wit that he deployed at the first sign of pretense or sanctimony. He is also no longer with us.
It was an “interesting evening,” as Larry would say. After publishing two novels and numerous articles in literary magazines, as well as attending panels and forums with other successful Vietnam veteran writers and filmmakers, Larry had become a celebrity vet whose opinions were regularly sought. This was demonstrated at the table that evening in various summary pronouncements about the veterans’ experience. One rankled especially: It had something to do with the stratification of veterans. Some vets were more qualified than others to suffer and talk about it. That was the gist of it. I did not rise to the occasion, as Larry was a guest in our house, but Bill sure did. I have never forgotten what he said, and from what he wrote in Black Virgin Mountain, neither did Larry.
“Ok, I must not be a real vet, so I can’t really say this, but my main concern is that I don’t want anyone to ever have to do what any of us did…no matter what it was,” Bill said.
Larry scooted back in his chair. After a few beats, he replied: “Neither do I, that’s why I write.”
We were all on the same side and the evening did not end badly.
I never saw Larry again, though for a few years thereafter we did share the occasional telephone call, or he would drop a quick note. Finally, we lost touch through divorces, job changes and relocations. He returned to Vietnam more than 15 times since 1990, as a guest of the Vietnam Writers Association and on his own. He describes in detail in the second half of Black Virgin Mountain the first two journeys, interspersed with his experiences as a soldier. Part One of the book is a memoir of his life up until this return, which catalogs his upbringing, surrendering to the draft, enduring basic training and the inevitable march to war. His postwar life, at least up until the publishing of the book in 2005, was not without heartbreak, as his middle brother committed suicide and he became estranged from his younger brother, who was a marine vet.
In the second portion of Black Virgin Mountain, he is careful to qualify the reasons for his return visits. They had nothing to do, he says, with catharsis or a quest for forgiveness. As with being “welcomed home,” it was far too late for that.
Unaware of Larry’s trips, I returned in 2003 at the urgings of my sister, Denise, and a life-long friend and brother vet who accompanied me. Denise is an experienced world traveler and a pragmatist. Catharsis has nothing to do with it, she implied. I should go to Vietnam before it was overrun by tourists. She had been twice by then and was especially enchanted by the Red River Valley, west of Hanoi. It is a beautiful country, the people are friendly and there’s no war, she said. She so enjoyed her time there, that after retirement she returned to teach school in Phan Phiet, a seaside town (known for its fish sauce) south of Nha Trang.
I spent just over three weeks doing many of the things Larry did, going off the beaten path to make my own discoveries, as well as returning to the places that had real meaning for me personally. As with Larry, I was especially pleased to experience the country at peace. While tramping the bluffs of American Camp with Iris, I listened to him recounting his return to the Black Virgin Mountain (Nui Ba Din) and all it signified to the Vietnamese, and him personally. It was then that I hit pause, took a break on the trail and thought about my own special places there, including the canals that criss-cross the Delta.
Here is one example from my journal:
“We were then taken on a walk along the canal on a trail that stitched together a progression of homes with garden patches and fruit trees, and barking dogs, usually tethered so they won’t chase the children riding by on their bicycles…We finally stopped, running sweat, at a combination farm and cafe, where we were served sliced fruit and cold drinks and given a rest. Our host was a South Vietnamese army veteran, who after the fall of the Saigon government was hidden in a bunker under the house. The property was confiscated, but eventually returned to his mother-in-law, whose family were the legal owners. The conversation lulled as we pondered this and other miseries brought on by the war, until a pleasant buzz from the strong beer dissolved the gloom. We had another round and celebrated our survival.”
And now, here’s Larry’s closing meditation from the temple on Black Virgin Mountain, shortly before lighting joss sticks and plunging them into a jar of sand:
“A long moment I stand there, thinking that it all comes down to this. The blessings of your life sought; discovered; stumbled upon; given to you, as if pushed into your hand. Beginning with the simple fact of your life; any soldier will tell you that. You haven’t blown your brains out; you haven’t boozed yourself to death; Agent Orange hasn’t incinerated your liver with cancer; you’re not in the Lifer’s Club at Joliet. I stand there so long, in fact, it becomes a meditation. And when I step forward, like the rest, to plant my several sticks of joss, the monk nods, signifying with a large smile and a long wink, and whacks the bell a swift and righteous lick. That hardy boom reverberates up into the smoky rafters.”
Years and miles apart, we were on the same wave length.