Steinbeck in Vietnam
On a stultifying October day in the Central Highlands, I sought refuge from the swarms of tiny flies and the pitiless midday sun in the almost airless shade of the press tent. Perched on a footlocker while pecking out a news release on my dusty portable, a sudden shadow fell across me. Looking up, I caught the silhouetted figure of a tall man easing past the mosquito curtain. He paused in the entrance while his eyes adjusted to the murk, and I saw that he was in late middle age and bearded—and therefore must be a civilian. He wore hiking boots and cargo pants, with a tailor-made jacket resembling the old style of Army fatigue shirts, but in a different shade of green.
Obviously, he was new to Vietnam.
"Hello," he said, spotting me and taking a step forward. "I'm John Steinbeck."
I had met Winston Churchill's grandson. I had dined with six Pulitzer Prize winning newsmen, played bodyguard, driver and factotum to S.L.A. Marshall, America's most respected—and feared—author of military histories. I had escorted actor Robert Mitchum around the division and in the field, chatted at length with ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and ran interference for pop superstar singer Bobby Rydell. At 25, with three stripes on my sleeve, I was no longer in awe of celebrity.
Even so, I was startled. John Steinbeck, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist? In Vietnam? In An Khe? In the First Air Cavalry Division press tent? In my office?
"The John Steinbeck?" I said, getting to my feet.
"Oh no," he chuckled. "John Steinbeck the Third. There must be quite a few John Steinbecks."
I giggled. Steinbeck sat down on a rickety field chair, and soon I was telling him where I was from, and about my duties. That I was a combat photographer who had recently been promoted into a job that required writing and editing, and that I was still feeling my way. So disarming was Steinbeck's manner that I soon tucked away all awe; we were merely two guys, one very young and the other aging, worldly but unassuming, sharing bits of our lives with each other. I offered him water from my canteen, and as he sipped I finally asked what had first came to my mind: What was he doing in Vietnam?
"I'm with Newsday," he said, and when I looked blank he said that this was a daily newspaper serving Long Island, New York.
"I never knew that you were a reporter, too," I replied.
"More of a special correspondent,” he explained. “Came out mostly because Mr. Johnson asked me to have a look around," he said, and then my boss, Major Phillips, arrived to whisk him off to meet the commanding general.
Half an hour later the phone rang: Nick Palladino, calling from Saigon. Until a few months earlier, he had worked for me. Then Nick volunteered for another six months in Vietnam for a chance to work for Armed Forces Radio & Television in Saigon. Nick was my personal back-channel to Saigon's rumor mill, and he was calling now to share another, more interesting reason for Steinbeck's sudden appearance: The novelist's eldest son, John IV, an Army broadcaster on Armed Forces Radio, was in hot water for smoking dope. Nick explained that young John had gone on the air, “stoned out of his gourd,” to rant about his unit commander and various other individuals whom he identified by name. He had taken the precaution of chaining the door to the studio shut; to get him off the air, the Army had to shut down the transmitter.
Scuttlebutt on the senior Steinbeck, said Nick, was that he had come to Vietnam to remind the brass that it was his son that they had arrested. (Many years later, the younger Steinbeck would write a salacious, self-indulgent book about his Saigon experiences in which he bragged about using marijuana in Vietnam but omitted mention of his arrest. He died in 1991.)
Steinbeck returned the next morning in the general's jeep, and Major Phillips told me that I was to show the novelist around, take him anywhere he wanted to go, arrange for helicopters, meals, billets, if available, answer his questions to the best of my ability, and above all, not let him get killed.
The general's driver took us to the Golf Course, as our enormous grassy helicopter landing field was known, and as we waited for a pilot, Steinbeck moved close. In a low voice, he said, "Two things. Don't introduce me by my last name. People don't recognize my face, but they will know my name. I didn't come all this way to talk about myself. I came to hear what they have to say about themselves, and the war."
I nodded, yes.
"And remember what I said yesterday about Mr. Johnson?" he asked.
"You said that he asked you to have a look around."
"Right. Now please forget that I ever said that."
Only then did I realize that the Mr. Johnson he'd mentioned was Lyndon Baines Johnson, the 36th President of the United States, and the one then in the White House.
If I never knew with certainty what brought Steinbeck to Vietnam, his visit to the Air Cav was easy to divine: We had pretty much invented helicopter warfare and thanks in part to Phillip’s predecessor, Major Charles Siler, and his wise guidance, we were the most publicized outfit in the war and arguably the most glamorous. In the Pentagon view, as our fortunes went, so would go the war. And just then, things were going well.
The first thing Steinbeck wanted to do was go on an air assault. He hopped a Huey with as much spring in his 65-year-old legs as the mostly teenaged grunts we rode with and we roared into the sky, headed for a jungle clearing hacked out of a mountain shoulder. We rode the third ship in; for once I was not playing door gunner. The operation was a dry hole, no enemy contact. Only Steinbeck seemed disappointed.
I soon realized that he was a brilliant interviewer; few of his subjects fully grasped that they were being ever-so-gently interrogated. He guided conversations with a few deft questions, listening carefully, saying little. He took notes, but usually later, rarely in view of a subject. I never saw what he wrote, but I suspect that he was out for atmosphere, looking to assess the moods and motivations of those fighting the war. Like the best reporters, he preferred the company of privates and noncoms, men whose occupations brought them the greatest risks. Back at base camp, he often joined a battalion or brigade commander for an evening of off-the-record conversation, an enterprise from which I was, alas, excluded.
I was still very much a novice writer; most of my published work was heavily edited. Nevertheless I clung to the expectation that I’d eventually learn better techniques. So one day, riding next to Steinbeck in a twin-engine Caribou, I screwed up my courage and asked him about writing. I found it terribly hard, I said. I was intimidated by the blank page. I feared making stupid mistakes. I knew that I should edit my copy more, that I should rewrite stories again and again before submitting them, but I wasn’t sure how to proceed. Worse, by the time I finished a piece, I was mentally exhausted by the whole process, sick of the material and anxious to move on.
He grinned. “It’s not brain surgery,” he shouted, over the roar of the twin turboprops. “It’s a craft. Not much different from carpentry.”
I frowned, not getting it at all.
“Carpenters make all sorts of different things," he explained. "Forms for pouring cement. Tables. Cabinets. Boxes. Even violins. Each requires a different kind of wood. Sometimes more than one kind.”
I shook my head, still not there.
“Think of words as wood. Choose different kinds of wood—words—for different kinds of writing. Short, simple words for news. Longer, more complex words for maybe a critical review or an essay. Get it now?”
Comprehension slowly dawned. I nodded, yes. But then what?
“Carpenters use all sorts of tools. Different saws for different kinds of cuts. Different planes, files, sandpaper, depending on the job, the finish required. Different kind of sealants—varnish or shellac or paint. Different types of nails, different kinds of hammers to drive them.
“Writers tools are techniques. Read different writers—many, many different riders. See how they use their craft to handle similar situations. Think of yourself as a carpenter, not an artist. If you make a mistake, fix it. Throw a sentence away, like it was a piece of wood that you’d ruined. So what — it’s just a piece of wood! Get another piece and go back to work.”
I sort of got it. It was a lot to think about. I wanted to talk more, to ask more questions, but I never again found the right moment in our time together.
When Steinbeck was ready to leave, I drove the section jeep to the Golf Course. Baking in the late morning sun, we watched his plane float down. Steinbeck shook my hand. "Thanks for everything," he said. "I mean it."
"Just doing my job," I replied.
"Then thanks for never asking me what I meant on page thirty-seven of Tortilla Flat or the last paragraph in Of Mice and Men. I appreciate your discretion."
I inspected imaginary mud on my boots. "I had to read The Red Pony in the ninth grade," I said. "Aside from that…"
Steinbeck threw back his head and roared. "They told me you'd been chosen specially for this job," he said. "I didn't understand how that worked, but I do now!"
My face was a boiled lobster. "I haven't been to college yet," I protested, and then the twin-engine C-123 taxied up, its fierce turboprops making conversation impossible.
We stood watching as the rear hatch slowly opened.
The first man off the plane wore a cream-colored safari suit, a bulky redhead who looked around anxiously, then approached me, the only sergeant not scurrying about.
"I've got to wee-wee!", he bellowed—just as the near engine shut down. Heads swiveled toward his famous and unmistakable baritone.
I pointed at a cluster of four-foot-long gray plastic shipping tubes angled up from a gravel patch. Once they had held aerial rockets. Now they served as a pissoir. A grimy strip of canvas, intended for user privacy, lay crumpled nearby, long since blown over by prop blast.
"There?" objected the redhead. "But everyone will see!"
Steinbeck hefted his bag and started toward the aircraft. He came back to shake the newcomer's hand. "John Steinbeck," he said.
"Arthur Godfrey," returned the redhead, unnecessarily.
Godfrey was the host of a variety show syndicated nationwide on radio and television, a man more famous, in that era, than many movie stars.
"And I've really got to wee-wee," he added.
In the months to come, safely stateside, I hunted up a copy of Steinbeck's The Log From The Sea of Cortez in a used-book shop. I found it fascinating; to this day its imagery lingers in my mind. As the years went by, I read Steinbeck’s novels, one by one, losing myself in the sweep of East Of Eden, feeling pity and outrage through The Grapes of Wrath and weeping over Of Mice And Men. I learned much about my craft from Steinbeck's lean, careful cadences and his use of apparently simple language to convey fine subtleties. Every now and then I came to a phrase or a thought that conjured up a moment that we had shared in Vietnam, the way he cocked his head to listen to somebody, or the look in his eyes when he contemplated a mangled body in black pajamas.
And when I came to some particularly humorous line, I often flashed on my last glimpse of Steinbeck, climbing the steep ramp of the C-123 as the pilot restarted the engines, then shaking his head in mirth while dozens of soldiers and airmen gaped at a fleshy, red-headed man standing at a piss tube, his clothing soaked by a propeller-driven hurricane of his own essence, a surreal vignette that became my personal metaphor for a war that I still struggle to understand.
© 2000 Marvin J. Wolf
10/25/2019 03:55:04 am
If you remember it, it happened for real. It may have only happened in the dream setting. It doesn't mean it did not happen. Maybe it never occured here in on Earth but if it took place inside your head repeatedly, it's as good as real in a sense that it would be enough to either punish or kill you or heal you from whatever is bothering you as of the moment. We should all learn to accept things we don't see with our naked eye as existent. If it crosses your mind, it happened for a reason.
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FROM Marvin J. Wolf
On this page are true stories, magazine articles, excerpts from books and unpublished works, short fiction, and photographs, each offering a glimpse of my life, work and times. Your comments welcome. © Marvin J. Wolf. All rights reserved.