That Novel I Mean to Write

Some novels simmer until, I dunno, something happens to spark them into being or nothing ever does. My simmering novel is about life as a medic during the Vietnam War. I thought I wanted to write about serving on the Intensive Care Unit at USAF Hospital Clark in South East Asia for a year and nine days – a record, the previous holder had been sent home strapped down to a stretcher. Me, I got tired of blood dreams and walked into the hospital commander’s office one morning over the objections of his secretary and plopped into the chair next to his desk. Luckily, Colonel Hernquist had people skills. He looked up from his paperwork and asked, “What can I do for you son?”

I told him who I was, where I’d worked for how long and that I was not going back there.

“Where would you like to work?”

“OB. It’s full of life.”

“Report to OB in the morning.”

I thanked him and left. (A year later, I was rousted out of a tent early one morning in Kwangju, South Korea -the North Koreans had just stolen our spy ship, the Pueblo. Me and three others were stood in a line and up walked some general officers and the Secretary of the Air Force, Harold Brown. Harold pinned some kind of medal on me “for saving lives, etc. while at Clark.” So, that year and nine days had been time usefully spent.)

The stories never go away. Hence, the simmering novel. Not just about the grisly but very much about how we coped. I ran with two other medics and we coped -well, probably the ways young men and women have always coped with casualties of war. Here’s one true example:


“I was taking a guy to x-ray in a wheelchair. Shot-up, just off a medivac. We go by the gift shop and he says, ‘Stop! See that nurse? I want to eyeball-fuck her.’” He shrugged. “I stopped.”

“Who was she?” Captain Kelly asked with bright humor in her eyes.

“Jenkins, from O.B.”

“Oh. That didn’t take him long then.” She turned serious. “I understand. You see death, you want life.” She pushed her chair from the table and looked at the floor while she sucked in a breath. Then she stood. “Back to it.”

He took in the blonde walking away. Kelly was on the dialysis team and regularly watched young men die because their kidneys had been left on the battlefield. When she was on call at night, Captain Kelly was notified by waking the doctor on call that night. He shook his head. Would he ever meet another woman he could tell this story? She would have to be the woman that Captain Kelly was.


Last week, my lady picked up the ringing phone and looked at me. “Do you know a David Miller?” And suddenly I was back there, in Clark Hospital in 1967. David Miller was one of the two that I ran with. He’s suffering from Parkinson’s now but his memory is sharper than mine. His wife found me and with her help, we are going to write some of our stories.


15 thoughts on “That Novel I Mean to Write

    • Thanks, Carl. But life experience is difficult to get into perspective. I’m not sure how to go about writing it. Pure, never experienced fiction is much easier.
      I’m leaning towards a series of related stories, kinda like Catch-22.
      And any suggestions would be appreciated!

      Liked by 3 people

  1. We’ve talked about this before, privately. God knows I’m no expert on writing memoir lightly fictionalized as “the-names-have-been-changed-to-protect-the-guilty” truestory, but here’s what I would suggest: Write those incidents down. Just get ’em down on paper, or notecards, or computer file and then shuffle ’em around. I think that in the process of creating and then ordering this material a through-line may emerge. Or not. (If it doesn’t, the fractured nature of your narrative may serve to underline the horrors and psychological trauma you and others endured in that unit: raw, jagged-edged shards of narrative defying orderly structure, subverting expectations, denying closure. You’ve hinted of divers, manic “acting-out” incidents that may not play well with a reading audience, for various reasons. I say: If it’s truth; lay it out there. Let people understand anew how young adults react in various inappropriate ways under unbearable pressure. Editor Maxwell Perkins reminded his authors: “You’ve got to throw yourself away when you write.” BTW: You could always publish posthumously.)

    Good luck with this intense and harrowing project. I smell literary gold. . . .

    Liked by 5 people

  2. Yes, I hope you find a way to put it all together, GD. Do you know the series Forgotten Voices? Published by Ebury Press in association with the Imperial War Museum. I only have the one, about the Blitz and the Battle for Britain, but there have been several. It’s a collection of memories from many different people strung together in brief paragraphs. Might be a way to think about it.

    Liked by 5 people

    • Thanks for that tip, Curtis. I did have an old volume of stories written by soldiers during WWII. They were reprints from Yank, the U.S. Army weekly magazine. I gave it to a group of WWII veterans. But I remember how fresh? authentic? those stories sounded.
      Interesting… write the stories to sound authentic. Well that’s gotta be easier said than done. I may try Mimi’s suggestion and post a short one here and ask for a Jay Greenstein Critique 🙂

      Liked by 4 people

  3. victoracquista says:

    GD, I know you like sci fi and philosophy so let me quote Yoda: “Do or do not. There is no try.”
    I suggest listing the anecdotes/memories you want to share and then focus on a single one of those and write it down; tell that single story. Then pick a second from your list and write it down. Add and subtract from your list as you see fit, but don’t be worried about the compilation, just focus on the one story you are telling at that moment.
    I don’t know if it’s a good suggestion, but there is no harm in trying despite what Yoda said.
    As I am writing this message, I keep thinking of “All Creatures Great and Small”, James Herriot’s wonderful memoirs of his work as a veterinarian.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. Thanks Victor. I’ve just discovered that talking with my old friend who was there and will be in most of the stories re-freshens my memories. His perspective makes them new and brings the stories into focus.
    Maybe, anyone struggling to write from personal experience just needs to freshen the memories by talking with someone else who was there?

    Liked by 2 people

  5. DocTom says:

    GD, if you write this I will definitely read it. Even the short snippet you posted kind of reminded me of Michael Herr’s ‘Dispatches’ which I read many, many years ago.
    It’s also true that personal ghosts are the most difficult to write about. John Gardner blamed himself for years over the death of his younger brother when they were children. He couldn’t write about it until he was in his forties, when he finally put it into a short story.
    Carl and the others can give you the best literary advice. Mine is simple – pour yourself a glass of bourbon, sit down and start writing.
    You can always hit delete in the morning.
    Then again, you might not.

    Liked by 4 people

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