The Vietnam I Remember
By r g cantalupo
The Vietnam I Remember
by Steven Curtis
(CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2017)
Over these many years, I've realized there are as many Vietnams as there were soldiers who spent a tour there. The Vietnam I remember as an RTO in an infantry company for the 25th Infantry from 1968-69, was a Vietnam filled with tragedy, trauma, and terror. It was my Vietnam, but it was only a snapshot in an enormously complex and multifarious war.
I never spent time with a "boom boom" girl.
I never befriended the Vietnamese, and the only real contact I made with civilians was on "search and destroy" missions, or tossing candy bars to kids as we were humping along Highway 1 from Trang Bang and back.
What I remember most is calling in 500 pounds and napalm bombs, or running to take cover from mortars, or snipers, or ambushes.
So it was with great surprise and pleasure to read Steven Curtis' The Vietnam I Remember, a book that describes with humor and illuminating detail and photographs a world that most of us missed or never saw.
On the front cover is a photograph of a group of smiling combat Marines interspersed with Vietnamese children.
On the back cover is a photograph of Steven Curtis cradling a Vietnamese baby in his arms.
Between these two iconic photographs, we discover Curtis' story written and photographed with tenderness, respect, and sardonic humor.
There's the harrowing experience of what it felt like to arrive in Da Nang on the first day of the Tet offensive, January 31, 1968. Curtis describes with a fine eye, the fear and chaos of those first few days in country, and what it felt like to be a newbie.
There's the heartbreaking and profound story of Bon Song, a young Vietnamese "boom boom" girl, who shows such affection and warmth for Curtis that he is overwhelmed by sadness and loneliness.
There are stories of birthdays, Dear John letters, the deaths of good buddies, R&R, a mascot named "Boner," the battle in Hue, racism, war trophies, politicians, Navy Corpsmen, and monsoon rain among others.
Each story is gifted with surprises, irony, tragedy, humor, and often profound insights about the war and human nature. And each is embellished and enhanced with terrific photographs that capture scenes and experiences with a keen photographic eye.
I can't say I loved reading Curtis' remembrances or gazing at his photos. It's hard to love revisiting a place and time filled with so many bittersweet memories and feelings.
But what I did love was Curtis' attempt to show us a Vietnam we've rarely seen, or have glossed over in our own tragic narratives of the war. And the balance, clarity, and humor in which he portrays through words and pictures the most common experiences of Vietnam veterans.
I highly recommend The Vietnam I Remember for anyone who wants to discover a larger, more well-rounded perspective of the American War. The combination of photos and narratives gives the book a cinematic feel to it, and the large format, 9" X 11", allows the reader a sense of space and openness that is rare among Vietnam memoirs.
rg cantalupo (Ross Canton) was an RTO (Radio Operator) for an infantry company in the 25th Infantry Division, 1968-69. He was awarded three Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star with a Combat V for Valor for courage under fire. His memoir, The Light Where Shadows End, was published in May 2016.