We Walked Right Into It: Pennsbury High and the Vietnam War, by Terry L. Nau. 242 pp.

This is Terry Nau’s second book about Vietnam, the first being a personal memoir of not just his service in Vietnam, but his life before and after. He titled that one Reluctant Soldier...Proud Veteran: How a cynical Vietnam vet learned to take pride in his service to the USA.

In his second book, which was inspired by his oncoming 50th high school reunion, Nau tells the story of 15 classmates who served—and died—in the Vietnam War. For good measure, he’s also tracked down 25 survivors, and their stories appear here, too.

You probably don’t know anyone in the book (I’ve known the author since the mid-1970s when he was cynical), but if you’re between the ages of, say, 60 and 80, you know their stories. There are the enlistees and the draftees, the parents who lost their only son, the young wives who became widows, children who never knew their father, the subsequent medical problems (remember Agent Orange?), the survivors, some of whom were reluctant to talk in detail and others who ignored Nau’s request for information.

Nau gets the book’s title from one of the survivors who, surprised by the high number of deaths from Pennsbury High, says: “We walked right into it, I guess.” Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, many in the United States, veteran and civilian alike, would probably say that today. I served in the Navy from 1963-67 and the closest I got to Vietnam was working with some Marines who were about to be shipped there.

As he did with his first book, this one is also self-published. As a shameless self-publisher myself, I’m only too glad to promote the act—and the art. A lot of good stories would never get told if we had to rely on profit-making publishers (who do fill a niche).

The only zinger from me is the book’s lack of an index. I wanted to review some stories and I could recall names, but without an index, I couldn’t locate the people. So for all you self-publishers out there, there are people who can help you format your manuscript, including an index. Use them.


On Deadline

I’m not sure how old I was when I calculated the year of my death. Let’s just say I was between 35 and 40 (I’m now 70), and I figured, based on the age my grandfathers were when they died, that I would die at 75 in 2020. You have to admit that the year has a nice balance to it.

But then my father lived until he was 84 and my mother died a month short of her 98th birthday so it would appear I have longevity genes on my side. Unfortunately, I also inherited a condition that killed my father and my eldest sister. Fortunately, I found out in time and was able to have corrective surgery done on my heart.

But the surgery not only gave me a new lease on life, it also gave me a new deadline because the new aortic valve came with a 15-year life of its. So that puts my due date at 2026 when I will be in my early 80s. And that’s only if the aneurysm they discovered during surgery doesn’t require an intervention. (My cardiologist checks it annually.)

The good news is that I can always get a new valve, and there’s a decent chance that the surgery won’t be as traumatic as the original in which I was opened up, attached to a machine to keep me alive, and then dealt with recovery and several complications that kept me hospitalized longer than normal.

But there are other factors that may come in to play. I realized this when a friend in his early 80s died after declining surgery. He had a couple of medical issues beyond the one the surgeon might—might—have fixed and his quality of life was not the best. It was possible he would come out of surgery alive but not by much. And so he chose to die.

I write this not to be morbid, but to be clear-headed about what lies ahead for me. When my valve’s due date arrives, what kind of shape will I be in? If I am not able to get out and photograph, produce books, write pithy letters to the editor, enjoy wine and scotch, share a decent life with my wife, I just might opt out.

And that’s why at this point I see myself as on deadline. I used to think that anything after 2020 was a bonus. If I’m lucky, I’ll get six bonus years.

Gotta go. I have things to do and only so many years left to do them.


The Shortcomings of Memory

When I taught in China in 1994, I had a dust-up with an associate dean in the China School of Journalism. I decided later, maybe even a year or two later, to write something about it, although for the life of me I don’t remember why I waited so long.

I took pen in hand and began what was a very damning piece about this dean. I painted him in the most negative of terms and showed myself to be one fine fellow.

Then I found the notes I had made right after the dust-up. Turns out, it wasn’t quite the dramatic situation I had penned and the dean didn’t look all that bad. I think I was still the heroic figure, but more subdued. (Every man’s a hero in his own story, I like to say.)

I write about this in the context of what’s going on with Brian Williams, the anchor of NBC News. Various sources have come forth to undermine Williams’ telling of a helicopter attack in Iraq in 2003. When he first told the story, he was not in the helicopter that was under attack, but as the years moved on and he repeated the story, the story got more dramatic and less credible.

Let’s face it: Stories, cheese and wine get better with age. But in the case of stories, you should always check your original notes. I bet Williams wishes he had.


Rewards and Handouts

The Armory at Penn State, since torn down.
I’m not sure where I’d be today without an education, but I suspect it wouldn’t any place enviable. I probably wouldn’t even know what the word “enviable” meant, except I learned it in high school during the 1950s when a good public education was to be had by many.

Still, I am looking askance at President Obama’s proposal to provide free tuition for 9 million students attending community colleges nationwide. The president argues that education helps individuals rise to higher economic levels, which is in turn good for the country. The more you earn the more you spend and the more you pay in taxes.

But the proposal is fraught with problems. As The New York Times’ story reports, not everybody needs it, but everybody would get it. In order to keep it for the three-year maximum, a student would need a 2.5 average, which is trending toward a B minus. In other words, it’s a high C plus. Why not demand a B, a 3.0?

The problem goes deeper than that. It puts the faculty member in the position of deciding who continues on the gravy train and who doesn’t. We had a situation like this during the Vietnam War when males with high grades didn’t get drafted and faculty became the equivalent of draft boards.

I went to college with a government subsidy that had I not had would have meant 20 years in the Navy. But because of the G.I. Bill, I earned four years of tuition and got an undergraduate degree.

And that’s what’s missing from the president’s proposal: There is no requirement that the person getting the government largess earn it in the first place. Taxpayers might find the idea more palatable if they saw it as a reward for service rendered rather than a handout.


Santa Claus in Cuba

A street artist in downtown Havana
One of the comments you’ve read more than once about President Obama’s overtures to Cuba is that the embargo hasn’t worked so it’s time to try something different. In a way, though, the embargo has worked: It has demonstrated once again that a Communist government serves only itself, not the people.

And as some commentators have pointed out, Cubans realized a long time ago that Castro had failed and that it was his fault, not the United States’.

The way the embargo failed, of course, is that it did not result in regime change. The same brothers who were running Cuba a half a century ago are still in power. And the other day, brother Raul declared that Cuba was not abandoning communism. Whether or not that was for internal politics or not, change is in the air, but I would suggest it will come slowly, a victim of bad decisions made decades ago.

I like to compare Communist China and Cuba. China under Mao was once a closed society with no middle class and a lot of  people thinking socialism was the life of Riley. But that changed when China opened the door; the country I first visited in 1994 has changed dramatically. In 1994, the streets of Beijing were dimly lit. Today the city beams like Las Vegas. There’s a middle class. Some of my 1994 students own their own apartments and cars. In 2005, one of them admitted to me that he never saw that coming in 1994.

But will the same thing happen in Cuba?

The Castro boys nationalized businesses and chased investors. The Bacardi family still makes rum, only in Puerto Rico, a commonwealth of the United States. Hershey still makes chocolate but gets its sugar elsewhere. In general, Cuba not only chased the very businesses that could be used today to employ Cubans, the government dismantled the infrastructure.

Unlike China, which could offer cheap labor, Cuba has nothing to offer the world other than the climate. It can become a tourist mecca—or you can enjoy the same climate and stay in the United States by visiting Puerto Rico—but a country built on one industry has a shaky infrastructure. If somebody sneezes after visiting Cuba, will tourists stay away?

Loosening restrictions was a good move by Obama. Benefits will accrue to the United States down the road. The losers will be the Castro boys and communism.

And if you look to Beijing today, consider that one of my former students tweeted: “Spooky to see so many Santas on the streets of BJ. Even spookier when a taxi app announces Santa's coming to get you.”

Mao who? Fidel who? In the end, it's Santa Claus.


One for the Marines

Whenever I meet a Marine veteran, I like to tell him about my last two years in the Navy. That’s when I served on a commodore’s staff in the amphibious Navy and we would take Marines to the Mediterranean on six-month deployments and relive D-day landings at all of the important World War II sites.

Toward the end of my second and last cruise, several of us had a chance to take a group trip from a port in Italy to Munich. We went by train, of course, from Italy through the Brenner Pass in the Alps, through Austria and on to Germany. (I was hoping they’d rename the pass in my honor, but that hasn’t happened yet and we’re nearly 50 years out from my trip.)

I was one na├»ve sailor. At the time there was a rule that you were not allowed to bring civilian clothes on a ship—so I didn’t. But when we boarded the train for Munich, all in uniform, it wasn’t long before everyone in our group was in civvies. There were two exceptions—me and a Marine.

It was really no big deal until we got to the border checkpoint at Austria. A border guard walking through the train said that military were not allowed in Austria and that the Marine had to remove his blouse. The result would be a guy in khaki trousers and a T-shirt, which is not military uniform.

Sitting next to the Marine, I immediately offered to take off my jumper.

The guard shook his head no.

“Military only,” he said.

I was crestfallen. I wasn’t military.

Then again, why would anyone in landlocked Austria consider the Navy military?


What We Don’t Need in Pennsylvania

Voters decided the other day to oust an inept Republican governor in favor of a Democrat and to increase the number of Republicans in the State Legislature. It almost looks like a mirror image of Washington.

Let’s hope that the new governor and the legislators work for the benefit of Pennsylvania, not their political bases, and help bring the Commonwealth out of the dark ages. We do not need—or want—gridlock in Harrisburg.

Compromise is not a dirty word. It is the art of the possible.

R Thomas Berner
Benner Township