Monday, June 15, 2015

When Writing Takes a Back Seat. Part 2

In Part One, I wrote about Robin Moore's book, The Green Berets, and how it saved my life, or better yet, saved the life of my manuscript.  Despite the analytical and precise military aspect of its subject, Moore's work contained unexpected emotional undertones my characters' story needed.  This was the extra layer missing from Stanton's resource book. And for me a stroke of luck. Perhaps The Fates intervened after all (wink) so I would find my way to the 1999 edition.

Let me first explain to the men in the room, if any are present, this is not a syrupy or sappy book. The collection of stories are raw, straight to the point, and combat gritty.  In fact, Mr. Moore had to undergo the full,  first generation Special Forces* training before he was allowed to write a single word about the Berets.  
"We don't have any shortcuts in this business... If you really want to understand us, you should be able to go through our training.  Then you'll begin to see what this green beanie means."  The Green Berets, 1999 Skyhorse Publishing.
I was laughing at this point.  Poor Mr. Moore had no choice but to attend Jump School in Ft. Benning. If he passed, his next hurdle was a three-month guerilla warfare course, which included night jumps, swamp exercises, hand-to-hand combat training, and, of course, the obligatory two to three-mile daily run.  In addition, some maneuvers which I erroneously believed were exclusive to the Navy SEALs, such as HALO-SCUBA infiltration and Sky Hook, were also part of the Berets curriculum, and explained to the reader.  The world of the Army's Special Forces slowly opened up.

For my research, this was invaluable information.  Not that I had planned to include all of the above operations in the manuscript.  Even though war comes right up to the reader, Destiny's Plan is still a story of love, war is the constant background music.  It helped a great to deal to see/feel the setting and hopefully give it authenticity.  Moore invites the reader and I took advantage of his offer to visualize the conditions and training Matthew and his buddy Brian, would experience during Part One of Destiny's Plan.  

I can already hear the question in the air, why didn't you ask permission to visit military bases? Believe me, the thought entered my mind.  For a current story, this is the ideal option.  I know a few writers who accomplished their research at training sites.  But not for a novel that takes place in 1967 through 1969.  How could I possibly replicate or return to that moment?  I couldn't, not without a time machine tucked away in a closet somewhere.  

The 1960's was a crossroads era.  An era when our nation lost its innocence.  It was modern, and not.  It was a whirlpool of social and life changing events for some groups while others clung fiercely to time-honored traditions.  I could not rely on my memory and the slightly one-sided opinions at home.  I was a young person, and when you're young the scope of attention is usually limited to seven feet around you, more or less.  Even if we had a good all-around sense of political awareness, chances are some of us do not remember President Johnson's 1964 address to the nation regarding the Gulf of Tonkin incident, nor do we remember our parents' opinion or the media's reaction and commentaries.

I will go on the record saying I recall the event.  But in no way did I grasp the full ramifications for the U.S. and its citizens, especially what it meant to the men eligible for military service.

 BTW,  this is an excellent  link to  PBS, Gulf of Tonkin Incident.

For all intents and purposes, I missed the early 60's and the events leading up to the war.  This knowledge slapped me squarely in the face a few years ago when purely by luck, or The Fates again—see the pattern here?—  I came across Mel Gibson's film, We Were Soldiers.

The movie is based on the book written by reporter Joe Galloway and Lt. General (Ret) Hal Moore (No relation to Robin Moore of The Green Berets) who led the battle at the valley of Ia Drang in 1965.  Here, at LZ X-Ray and LZ Albany the Army's 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment and 8th Battalion, 66th Regiment sustained catastrophic losses.

The movie has received conflicting reviews about the historical accuracy of some events.  But that was not the point for me and I am not going to debate them.  The point was, it happened, it was critical, pivotal, and I didn't know anything about it.  I was ill prepared for Destiny's Plan.  This put the final stopper on the bottle. (cliché but appropriate)

For the technically-minded and history buffs, this is excellent: Article U.S. Army/Infantry Magazine 

And so, except for email and household business, computer and keyboard were set aside.  I am reading, deeply engrossed in Mr. Moore's narrative, I finished the first story, A GreenBeret—All the way.  Then it hit me, the names may have been changed, but these men were not products of anyone's imagination.  They were once flesh and blood, with their problems, their stories, their difficulties at home, and their losses.  Sgt. Kornie, and his conflicts with superiors who didn't understand or approve his Special Forces' ingenuity, was real.  Sgt. Schmelzer died in the attack portrayed in this chapter.   Sgt. Al Stebbins lost his life fighting in the Delta for additional Combat Pay.  I had used the "fiction" category as some form of subconscious protection against the harshness of war and Moore had now torn it down with a light hand.  It had become personal.
 "Mr. McNamara did not want the American people to realize what a disaster we were in."  The Green Berets, 1999 Skyhorse Publishing.
Indeed, the nation had no idea the horror and sacrifice these men, and women, were about to endure. As the physically and spiritually broken-down vets and body bags returned home, they were not received kindly.  An abysmal rift divided our country.  Matthew and Brian were about to engage in a most difficult enterprise. If I were to do them justice I had to learn a lot—quickly—and get my facts straight.

Next week, Part 3. Locations, a new book, and a real life interview.

*First generation Special Forces is the term Robin Moore used to differentiate the Green Berets of the Vietnam War era from subsequent generations.



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