Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Things That Go Click in the Night

 HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN:  It's Veterans Day, this week, of course, and we all have our thoughts and memories and gratitudes. What better week to invite Sharon Wildwind, a dear pal, and a person who has a special place in her heart for such thoughts. For her, every day is Veterans Day. And that's exactly how it should be.


Things That Go Click in the Night

I fell in love with photography when I was four. I loved the click that my father’s camera made when the shutter opened and closed and asked him repeatedly to let me push the button. It was a while before I made the connection between that clicking sound and the pictures we got back from the drug store, but when I did, I was hooked.

When I went to Viet Nam with the U. S. Army Nurse Corps, I took a camera with me. It stopped working four days after I arrived in-country. Which was kind of okay because I’d already decided to bring home a good camera. The Post Exchange even had a catalogue that offered great prices.

I coveted a huge Nikon, but even at the PX’s reduced prices, that was far too expensive for a Lieutenant’s salary, so I bought my second choice. As it turned out, I got exactly the camera I needed. When I finally held someone else’s Nikon, I discovered that it was too big for my hands.

Once a month, as soon as I was paid, it was back to the catalogue for a new toy. Lenses. A tripod. A carrying case. Filters. Photography books. Off-duty hours passed slowly and film was cheap. Processing became even cheaper when I learned to do my own developing in one of the photo reconnaissance labs.

I shot rolls, and rolls, and rolls of film.

Some pictures composed themselves, like this Montagnard man sitting outside of our emergency room, waiting for a ride.

Night shifts were great. On slow nights, I practiced light and shadow studies, like this one of the deserted emergency room. No casualties tonight.

Or, on my way back to my hootch at the end of the shift, I might catch something like this first light shot of the Dustoff  helicopters on a very wet field.


Okay, sometimes I ran out of subjects. This is part of my barbed wire series. What can I say, I was bored.

Occasionally, I’d hand my camera to someone else and let them take a photo of me.

I came home with over a thousand photos and about half that number of color slides. The slides were no problem, I’d seen them when I developed and mounted them, but I had never seen most of the photographs, except in very tiny thumb prints. When I developed the negatives, I’d make a contact sheet of the prints, but since chemicals and photo paper were scarce, I’d never made prints. It would be twenty years before I saw them.

In the early 1990s an arts organization gave me a grant for enough money to print all thousand photos. When I picked them up from the photo shop they filled a cardboard box. I came home, dumped the packages in a pile on the floor and sat, literally, surrounded by memories.

I remembered not just faces, but a surprising number of names, and what they did, and where they were from, and what had happened to them. I remembered weather and smells and that the dress I wore in Bangkok on R and R was white with blue piping. I knew I had to write about what I was looking at.

It has been a rollicking ride. One non-fiction book  and five mysteries later, it’s time to put those photos away again. One of the cool things that has happened since I started writing my Viet Nam veterans mystery series is that, occasionally, I get an e-mail that starts, “You probably don’t remember me, but ...” It is so much fun to be able to reply, “Not only do I remember you, but I have a few photos of you.”

Today is the release date for, Loved Honor More, the fifth and final Elizabeth Pepperhawk/Avivah Rosen Viet Nam veteran mystery. I’m okay with that. The characters told me that they were more than ready to live their lives without me looking over their shoulders or creating bodies for them to find.

Here’s Loved Honor More’s blurb
If the first casualty of war is truth, the last is hope. Soldiers die even on the last day of a war. For Elizabeth Pepperhawk, one of those soldiers was her lover, Darby Baxter, a West Point graduate who loved honor more than life. Reeling from the emotional fallout created by the disastrous U.S.US withdrawal from Saigon, three Viet Nam veterans are certain of one thing: people are lying about the Vietnamese infant Darby saddled them with. Whose child is it? Whose honor is at stake? Has Viet Nam finally invaded Pepper’s North Carolina homestead?

I’d like to give three readers a book from the series. First book, last book, or one in the middle, your choice. 

HANK: Well, thank you. And not just for the books. Reds, tell us a VietNam memory. If you weren't born then, that's okay. When did
you first know about it? Hear about it? What were you told? And for those of us who lived through it..there's a lot to say.  Three commenters will get a book of their choice from Sharon.

Sharon Wildwind is originally from Louisiana. More decades ago than she cares to admit, she spent a year in Viet Nam as an officer in the U. S. Army Nurse Corps. She can still remember exactly where she was the day that Saigon fell. When she’s not writing, Sharon keeps a journal, is a mixed-media artist, and teaches writing workshops. Her web site is


  1. Sharon, the photographs are amazing . . . thank you for sharing them and best of luck with your newest book.

    The thing I remember most about Viet Nam is that many returning home after their service there were treated unkindly and unfairly, Nowhere were there welcoming banners, cheerful faces, grateful citizens happy to see them return. No one said, “Thank you.”

    We seem to have gotten better at recognizing the sacrifices made by those who serve in the military, but that does change the hostility that many of the Vietnam-era service members met when they returned home. Hopefully, it’s never too late to say, “Thank you for your service.”

  2. Sharon,

    It's interesting that for me the starkness of your barbed wire picture reflects in many ways the boredom you were feeling. I too share your ability to remember a great deal about a place or time based on a single photograph.

    I protested against that war and have lots of memories from the period. Perhaps the one that has shaped me most was while I was completing a Conscientious Objector application.

    I had the required references. I had honed my responses to the questions. I had prepared for the draft board interview. Yet I held off sending the form in.

    Finally, I realized the reason for my delay was I could not honestly say I objected to military service for all wars, although I certainly objected to the one we were in.

    I'm a little slow sometimes, but that day I went from seeing the world solely in black and white to understanding it's mostly filled with grays, and reasonable people can disagree about gray.

    ~ Jim

  3. Sharon,

    Thank you for your contributions - for your service and for your books. I am glad to add them to my TBR list.

    I have so many Vietnam memories. Just a few...

    1. In 1960, our school got its 50-star flag. I was 9. The principal asked me and an 8th grader to pose in front of the new flag and point out the 2 new stars for a newspaper photo. I still have the laminated print. The "big kid", a boy named Tommy Loughran, later became the first soldier from our hometown killed in Vietnam.

    2. For many years, I wore a POW bracelet for Murray Borden, shot down in (I think) 1968. A few years ago I was in DC and went by myself to The Wall for the first time. I found the panels displaying the names of these two heroes of mine. All alone, I cried like a baby. A vet, about my age, came over and spoke to me. It was a remarkable experience.

    As a college Freshman in 1970, I participated in the Moratorium and held candles for peace. I had friends and relatives over there. I remember that time really well. These were my high school and college days. Very formative.

  4. Sharon, Hi!!!! (Big waves from your biggest fan!).

    I've been an advocate of this series since Book #1, SOME WELCOME HOME. I've said more than once how I feel Sharon's writing is some of the best writing out there right now and this series is one that should have, in my opinion, gotten LOADS more attention than it has. I can't wait to read LOVED HONOR MORE and I know I'll cry because it's the last in the series. That makes me enormously sad.

    Photos can be quite powerful, and these most especially. That they bring with them so many memories is, I suppose, both a blessing and a curse, but I'm thankful for them - selfishly so because they're what moved you to write a series of stories that resonate and will live in my heart for a very very long time. Thank you, for so much. (Hugs, my friend!) Can't wait to see what's next in your life of wondrous creativity.

  5. Thank you for sharing those pictures. I wasn't born until 1975. Since we had to start with Christopher Columbus "discovering" America every year in history classes, we hardly ever got to anything as recent as Vietnam. I know very little about this time (except that I wore some hideous plaids as a baby...), and everything I think I know has come from the History Channel or PBS.

    I believe my dad tried to enlist but was rejected (he had had too many concussions playing football!) and that really devastated him. The impression I have always gotten from my folks was that those years were very tumultuous and a little scary, even in small-town Iowa, so it isn't something they talk about much. I'm really looking forward to reading the comments today to see some other perspectives.

    And, of course, Sharon, I'm adding your book to the teetering pile of TBR.

  6. I was in college during the war and had friends who served. Combat changed every one of them. But I don't think I began to appreciate the scale of the war, or what it meant to lose someone to it until I went to DC and visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

  7. seems like such a long time ago...I guess that means I'm lucky.

    I was a radio reporter in 1970--and I remember doing the news, announcing troop withdrawals.

    There was a big scandal in our town, too, of high school kids who found a doctor who would mark them as medically unfit so they would fail their physicals and not be inducted in the draft.

    And yes, Jim, sometimes putting it on paper does crystallize our thinking..

  8. Sharon, I can't think how I've missed finding your books. I'll have to get them all and read them right off. I'd love to see those photos someday.

    I have a big Vietnam novel that I keep researching and will write one day. I want to show the war itself and the war at home. I believe this war cut such a swathe across my generation that it's still the defining event for us. My father, brother, brother-in-law, two lovers, and my late first husband were all Vietnam vets. I've held men shaking with tears and fear after nightmares and flashbacks. My high school class lost several members in Vietnam. I also have a Vietnamese sister-in-law brought back after much effort on our behalf here in the states on one of the last choppers out of Saigon with my brother-in-law, who would have stayed past the fall of the country if he couldn't bring his wife out.

    At the same time, I was protesting the war, teargassed more than once. It was a time of real turmoil, and I think many of the political problems that plague us today had their roots in that time.

    My gratitude for your service, Sharon, and that of all the others who served during this war. It was with Vietnam that we stopped really taking care of our vets when they came back, a sad trend that continues to this day.

  9. I remember my boyfriend Scott. We were students at The Newman School in Boston. During senior year we walked on the esplanade during break. One day we sat on the edge of the empty shell holding hands, and he told me he'd been drafted. He'd turned 18 and was not considered full time. He was due to graduate in June, just a few months from then. They would not let him finish high school. He had to go. He never finished high school.

    Thank you for the pictures, Sharon. I recall Scott in still shots. Sailing his boat in Maine with his dog... their hair blowing in the wind... my favorite.

  10. I remember the war through the lens of a junior-high girl with a crush on her math teacher: Mr. MacDonald. Just a few months into the school year, we'd be wearing POW bracelets with his name etched on them.

    Thanks, Sharon, for bringing this memory to the forefront: it's just one of many that has me thanking veterans any time I see them, not just on Nov. 11.

    All the best with your next chapters,

  11. Sharon, I think I have Mr. MacDonald's bracelet, too. I'll have to find it later to check. It's in a chest of drawers I can't reach until my son gets up.

  12. TFJ - Sharon - sorry... that was to TFJ.

  13. Watching the draft numbers chosen on TV, my mother with a note pad with the birthdates of my brother and the many male cousins ...

    My entire 4th grade class writing to our teacher's brother, on a ship in DaNang Harbor. He and his shipmates wrote back and we corresponded all year ...

    singing in the funeral choir for a boy from my brother's class ...

    getting a POW bracelet -- Ariel Cross, from Iowa, never located to my knowledge ...

    the school sec'y's son's Vietnamese wife coming to our 6th grade class, in her long dress, to tell us about Vietnam -- playing a tape of a song so sad it made her cry ...

    Not as stark as that barbed wire, but just as vivid.

    Thank you, Sharon, for sharing your pictures and a lovely post.

  14. Ah, you all are making me cry. Thank you. It so underscores why we cannot forget..

  15. I had a bracelet, too . . . it was a joyous day when he came home and I mailed it to him.

  16. Sharon, like Linda, I can't imagine how I missed your books. I'm going to search them out now. Even had I not been hooked by your fascinating and moving account, such a glowing recommendation from Kaye Barley would put your books on my must-read list.

    Vietnam... boys a couple of years older than me in highschool were drafted. Some joined up rather than waiting for the lottery, but no one WANTED to go. It colored everything, and, I agree, changed so many of our perceptions. How shameful that we did so little to honor those that came home...

  17. Oh, Joan, that must have been amazing! Is there more to the story?

  18. Sharon, I'm in awe of your accomplishments. Like Deb, I'll now be looking for your books.

    My memories of the war? I was in high school, in a small town in northern Arizona (actually lived 40 miles from town), no TV. Very, very insulated. My best friend's boyfriend joined the Army--not drafted, volunteered--during our junior year. Mother began reading my sisters' letters about their husbands and my brother out loud, keeping us informed about our active duty sibs' safety. It began to be personal.

    A month before graduation, I met a tall, striking man, fell head over heels in love, and married him. He'd recently returned from his tour of duty in Viet Nam. I learned first hand how combat changes people.

    He didn't talk about it. It was his reactions. I learned to never walk up behind him and touch him without telling him. The only time I did, he came within a hair of decking me--out of sheer reaction. I learned to wake him by calling his name; again, no touch until he was alert and ready. He did finally admit that the nights I moved out of bed because his arms were constantly moving, he was dreaming of stacking body bags. It was a rare admission. Looking back, I know he had mild PTSD, but he maintained his Marine Corp ingrained control. By then, the Viet Nam war had become very, very personal.

    I became angry when returning soldiers were treated like trash and called foul names. Fortunately, in our area, it was seen more on TV than in person. To me, treating the survivors with respect had nothing to do with whether this was a "just" or "unjust" war, rather a matter of treating our veterans well because they had had the courage to survive and try to return to normal life, some more successfully than others.

    Again, I'm in awe of you, Sharon. You went into harm's way, found a tool that kept you sane, and expressed your hard-won knowledge in a series I can hardly wait to read. Well done, from one ANC to another.

  19. Thank you all so much for sharing your memories. The Viet Nam era was really something shared by everyone.

    Hugs all around, Sharon

  20. Hank:
    There's not really much more to the story --- I wore the bracelet until the day I found out he had been one of the fortunate ones to return home . . . I mailed him the bracelet along with a letter letting him know how glad I was that he had come home. He sent a nice letter, thanking me for wearing the bracelet and praying for him.

  21. A high school friend...we went to different schools but were friends through a youth group...was killed in Viet Nam. Such a brilliant and gifted young man.

    My nephew's godmother is a nurse and Viet Nam vet. I don't know what branch of the military she was in.

    My favorite of your photos is the one of the barbed wire. It seem to say so many things.

    I am sorry that I did not hear of your books until today. I will be on the lookout for them.

  22. Sharon, your photographs are beautiful. I'm looking forward to Loved Honor More. The entire series has been wonderful.

  23. Wonderful to virtually meet you, Sharon. Like Linda, I can't believe I've missed your books!

    I was a little kid during the Vietnam War, but I remember when it entered my neighborhood. A little friend's much older brothers came home--totally wrecked. I mean human shells. They were scary to me, and now I realize they had PTSD and drug problems. One of them was an amputee.

    I remember how dark my friend's house became--literally, curtains closed, voices hushed--as if they were all in mourning even though the sons had come home.

    I remember the back bedrooms where the two brothers slept, and lived most of the time, and how I was not, never, no how, supposed to venture back there.

    I remember the way the brothers would jump out of closets at us, scaring the bejeesus out of us.

    I remember that they broke into my house while we were away on a family vacation, ate our food (leaving it out for us to find) and stole anything worthy.

    They were devastated souls, of course, but to my four/five/six-year-old self, my friend's brothers were monsters, and they turned out that way because of this scary thing call the "Vietnam War."

  24. Lisa. Oh, my gosh. That is chilling..

    And Joan, "not much to tell"? I think that's a wonderful story..think how he must have felt!

  25. Hi Hank,

    "Chilling" is a good word. Saddest thing: my little friend? She didn't fare well either. She started wetting the bed, stealing, smoking early. She became a lost soul too.

    The early 1970s was a weird time, just generally.

  26. Terrific post, Sharon--what a treasure trove! We wish you so many sales...

  27. Thank you for your service to our country! I'm going to look up your books - how have I missed them? My first VietNam thought is always about a classmate's younger brother who is MIA. It still brings tears and a lump in my throat. And then the classmates who didn't make it home...

  28. A friend came back with shrapnel in his lower spine, near his neck, and in his head--from three different events. At a certain point in the war, a severe wound no longer qualified you to come home, and they started sending grunts back to the front lines after medical leave in one of the hospitals. They sent him back three times. The last one, where he was wounded in the head (partially deafening him), he was the only survivor of his platoon. He walked out of camp AWOL and hid in the hills with Vietnamese families for quite a while until the Army found him and jailed him. The Army gave him a psychological discharge eventually and refused to give him any disability for his physical problems because of that discharge. And by the time he got home, he had turned into a dark and dangerous person. Not at all the same sweet guy who went over there. He was never the same.

    It's really shameful what we did to those who served. A lot of the homeless guys around the country have been Vietnam vets, and now they're being joined by Iraq and Afghanistan vets. Red Julia has written one of the best examinations of how we let our veterans down in her ONE WAS A SOLDIER.

  29. TFJ, if that was Capt. G. MacDonald, I wore his bracelet, too.

  30. I so remember Viet Nam. It colored my college years and the years after. A boy from my town was killed, and I have a rubbing of his name, Henry Schulte.

    I remember that every night, when my husband was in law school in California, he would turn on the radio at exactly 3 a.m. to hear the casualty numbers. They were overwhelming. The memorial honors those numbers well.

    My brother was a Marine during that time, but never went to Viet Nam. He had his "nervous breakdown" stateside, and spent many years in Veterans hospitals before he died, too young.

    I think our nation let those boys down in numerous ways -- by sending them to that war, by not providing adequate treatment as they came home. I believe that the mistreatment of Viet Nam era vets is much bigger than any one instance of a rude protester yelling an obscenity.

    I am very grateful to hear about these books, and will definitely read them. I taught a 5th grade YA novel about a little girl whose father was a Viet Nam vet. She decided to do a school report on the war, and, at first he would not cooperate. It was beautifully done. Another great YA novel about Veitnam is "Fallen Angels" by Walter Dean Myers.

    Thank you, Sharon.

  31. Thanks everyone! Sharon will pick winners and let us know..

    See you tomorrow for--well, a choice. A pretty hilarious choice.

    A hint? Okay, two llittle words. Chicken poop. You heard right.


  32. Interesting story Sharon! All that stuff you use in your story seems alive to me. I not only read it but feel as well. Keep on amusing us with this kind of stories.

  33. Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your memories. Wishing you a Happy Thanksgiving next week.