From Memoir to Novel – the metamorphosis of a manuscript about war as hell – Part 1/3

I started writing my next novel “Running With the Enemy” in 1981 as a memoir of an American Marine serving in Vietnam in 1966.

In 1981, I was working toward an MFA in 20th century American literature/writing at Cal Poly Pomona where I earned a teaching credential in 1975 – 76.

I never finished the memoir and only wrote about 200 pages. In fact, the first forty pages took several months to write. It was on page forty-one that I arrived in Chu Lai, Vietnam by climbing down a boarding net into a landing craft in one of the Marine Corps last major amphibious landings.

However, later in the 1980s, I brushed the dust off that unfinished manuscript and enrolled in UCLA’s extension-writing program. My workshop instructor was Marjorie Miller and she recruited a few of her students into her off-campus workshops held in a small room above an Italian restaurant in Westwood near the UCLA campus. For several years on Saturday mornings, I drove 135 miles round trip to attend Miller’s workshop

There was a big difference in the quantity and quality of writing among twenty or more students in a UCLA classroom and the five or six writers around that table in a rented room above an Italian restaurant—same instructor with fewer writers meant more time for each writer.

After I read the first chapter of my Vietnam memoir, Miller said it was not going to work and I should consider writing it as a novel.

Miller was a tough taskmaster with a short fuse. She was NOT an advocate of fluffing up a sense of false self-esteem with warm fuzzies and was not into, “Let’s all have fun and follow our dreams.”

She was a tough and sometimes harsh critic. Miller understood that for most individuals to stand a chance to achieve his or her dream would require dedication and discipline in addition to never stop learning the craft of writing.

I recall that I revised one chapter more than thirty times and Miller lost patience more than once with me for taking so long to fix the problems in that chapter.

Moreover, I wanted to include as much reality as possible in the novel, so I borrowed from my experiences in Vietnam, the experiences of my fellow Marines, and what I discovered about the war later.

For example, early in 1966, a Marine in my unit, a cook, murdered the father of a Vietnamese adolescent that he either raped or paid to have sex with him. The cook claimed that he found the girl working in a rice paddy and offered her fifty US dollars to have sex with him. He said she agreed and while they were in the act, the girl’s father caught them. Later, the girl would identify the cook as her father’s murderer in a lineup, and he was convicted and sentenced to twenty years to life in a federal prison. At least, that’s what we were told, and then the cook was gone—shipped out.

That cook wasn’t the only American soldier to rape and/or murder innocent Vietnamese citizens.

Continued on June 21, 2012 in From Memoir to Novel – the metamorphosis of a manuscript about war as hell – Part 2

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Lloyd Lofthouse, a former U.S. Marine and Vietnam Veteran, is the award winning author of The Concubine Saga.

His latest novel is Running with the Enemy. Blamed for a crime he did not commit while serving in Vietnam, his country considers him a traitor. Ethan Card is a loyal U.S. Marine desperate to prove his innocence or he will never go home again.

And the woman he loves and wants to save was trained to hate and kill Americans.

To follow this Blog via E-mail see upper right-hand column and click on “Sign me up!”

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A Morning Burst of Anger

I woke up this morning and wanted to hit something. In the 1960s and 70s, I would have smashed a hole in the nearest drywall.

This is what set me off: “In the past six weeks, you’ve had the Fort Hood attack, the D.C. Five and now the attempted attack on the plane in Detroit … and they all underscored the clear philosophical difference between the administration and us,” said Rep. Pete Hiekstra (R-Mich.), the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee.

http://news.yahoo.com/s/politico/20091228/pl_politico/31016

The Republican spin machine is trying to score points blaming Obama for what almost happened last week on Northwest Flight 253.

Why did I get angry? Because I immediately flashed back to an incident in Vietnam.

We’d been out for hours on a night patrol slipping silently through the rice paddies that surrounded our hill, and we were returning as dawn arrived—tired but alert as we straggled along the dirt road that climbed into the hills where our Battalion CP was located.

A washed out blue sky was spreading from the east and it was still dark in the west. Then the ground trembled as if an earthquake were taking place.  The sound of the explosion blew over us. We stopped and turned to see flames and a thick spire of black smoke rising into the sky from where the airstrip was located. One of the jobs the 1st Marine Division at Chu Lai had in 1966 was to protect that airstrip and the jet fighters that used it.

One Vietcong had slipped past an entire Marine division and made it to the airstrip where he managed to blow up a large portion of the stored jet fuel. That Vietcong didn’t just slip past one defensive line, but several.

I “hate” dirty politics—the same kind that started wars like Vietnam and Iraq so young men as I was then, in our patriotic zeal, would fly off to war believing we were serving a just cause when in the truth, we had been lied to.

It is almost impossible to stop an individual from doing something like what happened on that airplane a few days ago just as an entire Marine division couldn’t stop that Vietcong from infiltrating our lines.

There were 300 people on Northwest Flight 253. For sure, someone will suffer some PTSD symptoms and have trouble sleeping as they relieve the moment they thought they might die. Some may never fly again.

If you agree with Rep. Pete Hiekstra, then George W. Bush is responsible for what happened on September 11, 2001.

Instead of pointing fingers of blame looking for a “scapegoat”, Republicans and Democrats should be looking for ways to do a better job than the Homeland Security our current president inherited.

Discover more about PTSD?

_______________________

Lloyd Lofthouse, a former U.S. Marine and Vietnam Veteran, is the award winning author of The Concubine Saga.

His latest novel is Running with the Enemy. Blamed for a crime he did not commit while serving in Vietnam, his country considers him a traitor. Ethan Card is a loyal U.S. Marine desperate to prove his innocence or he will never go home again.

And the woman he loves and wants to save was trained to hate and kill Americans.

To follow this Blog via E-mail see upper right-hand column and click on “Sign me up!”

Mosquitoes Before and After the bloodsuckers Attack

For a few days, some of the Marines in my company, including me, were sent to a hill on the perimeter at Chu Lai to watch over an infantry company’s equipment while they were in the hills chasing North Vietnamese ghosts.

There weren’t many of us–just enough for two Marines to man each of the smaller bunkers near the foot of the hill.

Rice paddies surrounded the hill. When night came, the hum of mosquitoes sounded like waves of alien flying saucers, then the rest of the night was a battle against the bloodsuckers.

Several Marines scrambled into the largest bunker at the top of the hill—a two-story model with iron boiler plate for a roof.  They thought they would be able to escape the bloodsuckers in there. But as fast as they went in, they came out screaming. The bunker was full of rats and as the first Marine put his boots on the floor, the rats started climbing his legs.

During my watch between midnight and four, I heard a rustling noise near the wire. There would be long stretches of silence (if you don’t count the sound of distant firefights and flares), then another rustling as if someone were crawling up the hill. I couldn’t see anything and thought it might be a small animal.

When my watch ended, I had to visit the latrine. It was a screened, plywood box with a four-hole plywood bench inside. It was black as ink in there. Under the bench were four half-empty, fifty-five gallon metal drums with several inches of diesel fuel in each one. In the mornings, the drums would be dragged out from under the plywood bench and set on fire. When day came, hundreds of columns of black smoke would drift lazily into the morning sky over Chu Lai.

I had cramps—what I call green apple trot.  I leaned my weapon just out of reach against the three-foot high plywood wall in front of me and sat. Above the plywood was a screened in open space that allowed air to flow through. There was a tin roof. On both sides was a line of tents where the grunts (infantry) kept their gear and slept.

That’s when the grenades started to go off.  I glanced to the left to see a shadowy figure running along the line of tents tossing a grenade through each opening. I reached for my weapon as a wave of cramps doubled me over. I thought I was dead.

No one died on that hill that night. The tents were empty because the grunts were in the hills and we were in the smaller bunkers near the concertina wire. I was closer than anyone in my unit but was fortunate the latrine was ignored.

How many events like this does it take to acquire Post Traumatic Stress? What happened to you? What do you remember?

_______________________

Lloyd Lofthouse, a former U.S. Marine and Vietnam Veteran, is the award winning author of The Concubine Saga.

His latest novel is Running with the Enemy. Blamed for a crime he did not commit while serving in Vietnam, his country considers him a traitor. Ethan Card is a loyal U.S. Marine desperate to prove his innocence or he will never go home again.

And the woman he loves and wants to save was trained to hate and kill Americans.

To follow this Blog via E-mail see upper right-hand column and click on “Sign me up!”

The ambush, the king cobra, and the water buffalo

Often, the memories wake me in the dead of night, and I listen carefully to every sound. Sometimes, I remember one rainy night with the King Cobra and the water buffalo.

If you have never been in combat, you may not understand what happens for a soldier to develop PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress). I wrote about one event in the short story, A Night at the Well of Purity. I’ve written about others here and in a few of the poems I’ve posted on Authors Den.

It was 1966, and the rain was coming down hard as we left the safety of our base camp. The First Tank Battalion sat on a hill centered on the First Marine Division’s perimeter at Chu Lai, a spit of sand jutting into the South China Sea. Concertina wire, bunkers, and a platoon of flame tanks protected the camp. There were two adjoining hills. One held an artillery company. The third held a company of Ontos, a self-propelled, lightly armored anti-tank vehicle that mounted six M40 106 mm recoilless rifles.

Military intelligence had reported that there might be several boatloads of Vietcong moving down a canal that night near our hill. On our way to set up the ambush, we avoided the villages and moved through rice paddies instead of walking on land. The idea was to stay out of sight. As the radio operator, I was situated in the center of the column of poncho clad Marines.

When a Vietnamese farmer was seen working in an adjacent rice paddy, we squatted with the dark paddy water to our chins and propped our weapons on our helmets. The rain was coming down in sheets. That was when I saw the full sized King Cobra. It was moving parallel to our column about ten feet from my position. Its hood was open as if it were ready to strike. I watched as the head dropped into the water among the bright green shoots of rice and vanished. The King Cobra is the world’s longest poisonous snake and can reach a length up to 5.6 m (18.5 ft). It can easily kill a man with a single bite.

We had to stay submerged in that rice paddy, so I imagined that King Cobra moving below the water toward me. Every inch of my body tingled, and I wanted out but I did not move. Time slowed to a snail’s crawl.

Later, we slipped into position on the dike that ran along the canal with a BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle) on each flank. Hours went by. Marines fell asleep, then the world exploded with the roar of those BARs. Everyone joined in, and the night was filled with glowing tracer rounds.

At dawn, we discovered one tough water buffalo staggering around full of holes. There was no sign of any dead Vietcong, but that was not unusual. The Vietcong often took their dead with them.

Discover A Night at the “Well of Purity”

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Lloyd Lofthouse is a former U.S. Marine and Vietnam Veteran.

His latest novel is the award winning suspense-thriller Running with the Enemy. Blamed for a crime he did not commit while serving in Vietnam, his country considers him a traitor. Ethan Card is a loyal U.S. Marine desperate to prove his innocence or he will never go home again.

And the woman he loves and wants to save was fighting for the other side.

To follow this Blog via E-mail see upper left-hand column and click on “FOLLOW!”

Vietnam Rations and Nutrition Today

There was a mess hall in Chu Lai, Vietnam inside the company area and, of course, I ate there but not often. That mess hall served three companies. Except for Thanksgiving, the food wasn’t that good. It was powdered eggs for breakfast and similar chow the rest of the day.

Most of the time, I ate C-Rations and heated them with a can of Sterno. If I didn’t have Sterno, I opened a can of crackers or chocolate, took out the contents and vented the bottom, stuffed the can with dirt and soaked the dirt with gasoline then lit a fire and heated the main course on that makeshift stove.

When I was in the field driving a radio Jeep, I’d pop the hood and set the can on the manifold until the food was bubbling. The engine was kept running to power the radio behind the front seats. My favorite C-ration was the ham and limas. Since few in my platoon liked that flavor, I usually ended with more than one can. The chocolate was horrible–not sweet by today’s standards.

Since GIs were eating that chocolate in World War II, there must have been a lot less sugar in candy then. I’ve seen movies where WWII GIs are rolling through towns in Europe or Japan handing out United States military chocolate to kids. That C-ration chocolate wouldn’t sell well today—American kids would throw it in the trash.

Today, the average American eats (156) one hundred and fifty-six pounds of sugar per person annually, that’s thirty-one, five-pound bags. The high school where I taught installed soda machines a few years before I left in 2005. I was told that two thousand sodas were being stocked in those school machines twice a week and there were only two thousand students. I read that in 1600, sugar consumption in the UK was seven pounds per person. In 1850, that was up to fifty-two pounds. In America, diabetes has jumped more than five hundred percent since the 1950s, and kids are getting adult diabetes. Need I say more?

The C-rations I ate in 1966 were stamped on the side of the box with 1945.  Every box of C-rations came with four, free cigarettes. I smoked a few but didn’t like what it did to my taste buds, so I gave the cigarettes away. I imagine many young American men were hooked on cigarettes fighting America’s modern wars until the day came when tobacco was removed from military rations. At nineteen, I didn’t know a thing about nutrition. I’ll bet there wasn’t much health left in those cans after sitting for more than twenty years.

Discover Eating out in Vietnam 1966

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Lloyd Lofthouse, a former U.S. Marine and Vietnam Veteran, is the award winning author of The Concubine Saga.

His latest novel is Running with the Enemy. Blamed for a crime he did not commit while serving in Vietnam, his country considers him a traitor. Ethan Card is a loyal U.S. Marine desperate to prove his innocence or he will never go home again.

And the woman he loves and wants to save was trained to hate and kill Americans.

To follow this Blog via E-mail see upper right-hand column and click on “Sign me up!”

Hearing Loss thanks to the M-48 Patton Tank and the 155 mm self-propelled howitzers

The quiet was almost total this morning at 3:00 AM.

There were no crickets, and there was no sound of intruders.  I lay in bed listening for a long time, maybe an hour before I drifted off again.

The familiar static was there that is the only sound when there is no noise outside my head. I’m not sure I’ve heard total silence since Vietnam.

During early morning moments such as this, I remember one night in Vietnam when I lost my sight and hearing.

In Chu Lai, Vietnam, I was a field radio operator in the 1st Tank Battalion, First Marine Division.

The M-48 Patton had a 90 mm cannon. The M-48 was separated into three compartments: the driver’s compartment, the fighting compartment where the gunner, loader, and tank commander [TC] fought, and the engine compartment.

Above the main gun was a 1 million candlepower Xenon searchlight. This light had both a white light and an infrared mode. It was bore sighted with the main gun and gun sights so that it could be used to illuminate a target at night.

Hearing those 90 mm cannons firing may have contributed to the static in my hearing today.

However, one night, a battery of  M-109 (called the Paladin), 155 mm self-propelled howitzers gets the most credit for that static.

That battery fired a surprise mission.

At two AM, I was standing watch in a hillside bunker above the M-109s, and I was struggling to stay alert and awake.

Without warning, the battery fired.

What little hair I had on my head stood at attention, and the combined flashes left me blind for a moment with dancing spots staying longer, but the loud buzzing in my ears stayed for hours.

My head felt as if it had been stuffed with cotton. All sound was dampened for some time.

By the way, field radio operators did not ride in tanks. We had a jeep with a canvas top. A large radio filled the space behind the front seats.

When we weren’t driving around in old WWII vintage radio jeeps, we hoofed it with a radio strapped to our backs and our old batteries were often dead before we used them.

The radio we arrived with in Vietnam with was a PRC 10. There was no armor to protect field-radio operators in the field. Field-radio operators were usually the first to be shot in an ambush.

The patrol leader was the second priority target.

Discover Children as Soldiers and Weapons of Death

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Lloyd Lofthouse, a former U.S. Marine and Vietnam Veteran, is the award winning author of The Concubine Saga.

His latest novel is Running with the Enemy. Blamed for a crime he did not commit while serving in Vietnam, his country considers him a traitor. Ethan Card is a loyal U.S. Marine desperate to prove his innocence or he will never go home again.

And the woman he loves and wants to save was trained to hate and kill Americans.

To follow this Blog via E-mail see upper right-hand column and click on “Sign me up!”