Guts: Combat, Hell-raising, Cancer, Business Start-ups, and Undying Love: One American Guy's Reckless, Lucky Life [NOOK Book]


“This is a memoir: a package of boasts, false modesty, flawed memories, dropped names, outright errors, and embarrassing disclosures that I think are pretty neat–but may appall you, if you’re squeamish or have an orderly turn of mind.”—Robert Nylen

The thing is, Robert Nylen should have died several times in 1968. He was a goner in 2006, and 2007 as well, and yet he survived through a combination of dumb luck and sheer perseverance. Of course,...
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Guts: Combat, Hell-raising, Cancer, Business Start-ups, and Undying Love: One American Guy's Reckless, Lucky Life

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“This is a memoir: a package of boasts, false modesty, flawed memories, dropped names, outright errors, and embarrassing disclosures that I think are pretty neat–but may appall you, if you’re squeamish or have an orderly turn of mind.”—Robert Nylen

The thing is, Robert Nylen should have died several times in 1968. He was a goner in 2006, and 2007 as well, and yet he survived through a combination of dumb luck and sheer perseverance. Of course, as you read these words, he’s already bit the dust. But let’s not dwell on that.

A self-confessed reckless jerk, Nylen spent the last four years of his life grappling with Big Diseases (cancer, diabetes), an astonishing twelve broken bones, and ten surgeries. His lifetime total is twenty-four fractures, most of which resulted from a flagrant refusal to act his age–or anyone’s age, for that matter. And yet Guts is not a mere chronicle of injuries but a sharp and wry meditation on American Manhood.

Growing up in suburbia in the ’50s and ’60s, with a father who had worked on the atom bomb, Nylen was an immature kid who was always eager for attention. In college he became a slovenly, hard-partying fraternity brother who barely graduated. Then came the realization that he was going to have to go to Vietnam. A dramatic tour of duty came to an abrupt end with multiple wounds, leading him to grow up fast. It was then that he started the real risky business: business itself. Some ventures succeeded and some failed. He exercised feverishly and often displayed a complete lack of common sense. And then he got sick, inevitably, with colon cancer.

Hilarious, moving, and riveting, this is the life of a tough guy as seen through the scope of a national obsession with toughness. Whether he was facing Viet Cong as a platoon leader in Vietnam or doing battle with venture capitalists at home, Nylen never backed down from a good fight–and he had the many scars to prove it. In Guts, Robert Nylen writes with humor and precision about the travails–and glory–of manhood.

From the Hardcover edition.
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Editorial Reviews

Meryl Gordon
You open Robert Nylen's book, Guts, with a mixture of sadness and curiosity, braced for the inevitable. Damn, he is going to make me care about him, and mourn his untimely death. I was torn between rushing through this absorbing and disjointed story or deliberately slowing the pace, aware that once the book ended, Nylen's raw, funny, urgent voice would be forever stilled…neither a whiny nor an angry-at-the-fates book, but rather a helter-skelter romp, an episodic effort to defend, explain and understand a life. In rollicking prose, Nylen exhibits pure exuberance as he throws himself into the world, a cocky, fearless soul
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

Vietnam vet, cofounder of New England Monthly and a media consultant, Nylen, who died last year, shares with punchy humor and tremendous grace his tough approach to taking risks and staring down exacting bosses as well as cancer. Cherishing such stoical role models as Don Quixote and Ulysses S. Grant (as well as his own father, who spent his prime years as a DuPont executive before a traumatic fall altered his life permanently), Nylen celebrates America's admiration with gutsiness, and his own lifetime attempts (frequently foolish) to make the "Cool Guys Hall of Fame." The bulk of this memoir is Nylen's facetious though moving account of his stint as an infantry officer in Vietnam in 1968, and the men he loved and lost-the ghastly experience, he assures readers, was never accurately depicted in popular movies. Shell-shocked, married after release from the army, "simulating a normal person" and appearing unemployable, he began his accidental career as a media ad salesman starting at Look magazine, dealing with tough bosses like Bill Dunn at U.S. News and World Report and Mike Levy at Texas Monthly before embarking on his own. Diagnosed with colorectal cancer stage III when he was 60, he endured treatments, surgeries, pain and frequent accidents of his own making, but preserves his cheerful, frank, optimistic and ever competitive spirit in the face of mortal adversity. (July)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781588368652
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 5/26/2009
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 272
  • File size: 3 MB

Meet the Author

Robert Nylen was a media consultant, entrepreneur, publisher, writer, and part-time college professor. Nylen co-founded New England Monthly magazine and He also wrote for Look magazine, was an ad manager for U.S. News & World Report, and was vice president and associate publisher for Texas Monthly. He has contributed to The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Fortune, American Lawyer, American Benefactor, Folio, Adweek, and many other newspapers and magazines. In Vietnam, he earned two Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star with V Device, and other awards. He died in December 2008.

From the Hardcover edition.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Black Ice  

A warm day in late December 2007 proved me nuts, and an idiot, again. I was in a hurry. Had to drive 190 miles south from our western Massachusetts home to take a meeting in Manhattan and then go to a party. Hastily, I gassed my car at Neighbors convenience store. As I sped away, a pretty girl at the next pump was trying to tell me something...important. She waved Gasoline spewed sideways. My sweet Samaritan retrieved her barefoot toddler and ran away to avoid being blown up. Mortified, I tried to reconnect the line to the pump. It was like trying to cap Old Faithful with a saucer. Gas soaked me, making me a potential torch. One spark and I’d be a one-man Hindenburg. I raced inside to rinse my stinging eyes with tap water. Blearily, I watched volunteer firemen assess the risk. Mere seconds after my SS Valdez had breached on dry ground, they determined that therewasn’t much chance of an explosion. The dry air had sped evaporation. The damage: roughly five hundred dollars for the pump, four bucks’ worth of kitty litter to absorb runoff, and a day out of service for Neighbors’ regular pump.  

Went home. Threw away my parka, rabbit-fur hat, and mittens. Bathed. Sniffed. Bathed again. Changed into fresh clothes. Rushed to Manhattan, eyes oozing. The sublime Ta­conic Parkway blurred by, its lovely scenery unseen. Stopped a couple of times to slather ointment on my aching face. Dabbed tears every few minutes.  

Over tea in the Soho Grand Hotel, my face afire, I told a young woman that I usuallydidn’t look like a molting cha­meleon. Not knowing my baseline of ugliness—it was our first meeting—she lied, sweet Charlize Theron to my grotesque Hellboy.  

“You look fine!”  

Next, it was party time. Beliefnet’s directors and bankers nestled in a posh Greenwich Village restaurant to celebrate the sale of the company. Steven Waldman and I had started Beliefnet in 1998 (after wecouldn’t find money to start a print magazine). We changed the fledgling project into an online medium, got plenty of money, then even more money, and then we went bankrupt. I’d quit before the company declared Chapter 11 after discovering I was both irreligious and aspiritual. Long after I’d left, Steve had reorganized, raised more money, and led the pared-down company to success.  

On May 1, 2007, Beliefnet won a National Magazine Award for Online Excellence—despite never having published a real print magazine. Steve graciously thanked me before 2,300 hundred bejeweled, bedecked media mavens, John Waters, Edie Falco, and K. T. Tunstall in Lincoln Center. Meanwhile, I was attending to my busted ostomy appliance in themen’s room. Every unpleasantness is a learning opportunity. A double-breasted tuxedo and a big, wide cummerbund effectively disguiseone’s failed artificial plumbing system. (Perhaps I should wear a cummerbund everywhere: Whole Foods, Target, the Ashfield Hardware Store, and evenings with friends: festive!) Six months later, RupertMurdoch’s Fox Entertainment had paid us a pretty penny—tens of millions of pennies—for Beliefnet, but then again,they’d paid sixty-five times more for The Wall Street Journal.  

That evening, I explained my horrid face to seven fellow board members, one by one. Like young Charlize, they pretended not to notice my ruddy, scaling skin from a potion incendiary and toxic drugs that Estée Lauderdoesn’t sell. Alone, each ingredient makes you peel in red, scabby slabs. Mixed, you look insane, too.   Back in western Massachusetts the next week, I asked Neighbors’ proprietor, Phil Nolan, how much I owed him. He said:“It’s all taken care of, Bob.Don’t worry.”That’s whathe’d said when I pulled the same stunt several years earlier. (I’m easily distracted.) Therefore, I’ll buy gas, Budweiser, Berkshire Ale, and donuts at Neighbors as long as Phil lets me. Though my ruddy face was molting like snakeskin, it was no longer as painfully fire-truck red as on Gasoline Day. I might have been healing from a bad sunburn. Having slathered cocoa butter over my sore, frazzled mug, wearing a ski mask, I walked our retrievers into the woods, singing with Fountains of Wayne on the Nano:  

The snow is falling down   On our New En­gland town   And it’s been falling all day long...  

Scaring the wildlife, I felt so darned good I would have clicked my heels if itwasn’t so hard in snowshoes. Brought the dogs back home. Invigorated, I took a spin on the handy-dandy Honda all-terrain vehicle. Fading winter sun lacquered the ground in a glowing pink-yellow. In the gloaming, the landscape looked like Taos, not the icy environs of Berkshire East. Four-wheel drive would get traction on the trail.  

Wrong. Two hours later, Environmental Police officers riding big Arctic Cats pulled the ATV from the snowbank where I’d lodged it, close enough to our cozy house for me to have slogged back for a shovel and wasted an hour trying to dig free. The ATV was irrevocably stuck. It was dark and the temperature was sinking when Trooper Dave Unitas and his sidekick reminded me that ATVsaren’t meant to go through snow deeper than eight inches. Four feet of snow and sleet had fallen in the last month, compacting into a thick, slick ice shelf.  

Weirdly, I was reprising a wintry day two years before. Back in early January 2006, my suicide vehicle had been a little truck. Snow blanketed our little town, a fine, rare powder that seldom lasts long. A shimmering gossamer quilt had floated and drifted for days. In austere New En­gland, such lily-pure, fluffy stuff rarely cossets us, so we expect to be quickly punished by sheets of nasty gray sleet, ice, and slush. On January 20, the weather had turned predictably bad, but Ican’t blame frostbite or snow blindness for my misjudgments. Warming wind had brought chilly rain. The temperature was rising, but the ground was still frozen. On impact, the rain became glare ice.  

My scary slither that morning to my truck would have convinced a wiser person to go back inside. The driveway was an ice rink. Propelled by chronic ants-in-pants, I sought coffee and newspapers. Sure, the road was a toboggan run that might send me helter-skelter, but the rain was tolerable. The temperature had reached 42 degrees. Summer!  

We find negotiating our winter roads no harder than pioneers found crossing the Sierra, so I began my journey cheerfully. My wife, Kit, knows I’m not much of a planner. Well,that’s kind: I have no long-range thoughts. I’m impulsive: slow to think, quick to act, lousy at risk assessment, and incapable of forward thinking. Oblivious, in a word—that’s me. Normal people are risk-averse. I like driving fast and partying heartily. Still, this morning, I was wary. The military crest of Bug Hill Road is 1,750 feet. That may not rival the Rockies, but Neighbors store sits in a low glen. Dropping down to the paved state road, Bug Hill falls four hundred feet in six-tenths of a mile: steep. So what I did was creep, shimmy, and skate across coarse black ice. The hump in the middle of the road that lets slush run off also makes vehicles slip-slide to the flank. I put the little 4x4 into low gear. Descending a few feet at a time, I stood on the brakes. Theroad’s sloped shoulders made my plow burrow into the snowbank. (We wriggle from trouble by shifting into reverse, then going forward, rocking gently, hoping the transmission holds up.) A small electric motor turned the hydraulic plow into a pry-bar, aiding the tranny.  

However, the third time the truck lodged in a deep bank, I started rethinking my plan, such as it was. Our driveway needed salt and sand. So I thought: forget papers and caffeine: get winter road mix from the town warehouse to help UPS, DHL, Airborne, FedEx, and George Propane deliver our wool­ens, Polarfleece, Gore-Tex, and natural gas. The steepest stretch behind me, I was committed. At some point, the road crew would come in a yellow truck strewing grit, making the road passable. When? I could wait. Sure. I could be patient. (As if!) Lifelong attention deficit disorder precludes me from simulating patience. Where was Ritalin when I was coming up? I have no off switch. When I’m not walking or running, I’m not still. Never. My body agitates and jiggles.  

Anyway, a town truck might not come for hours. Crews clear bigger roads first. At a curve in the steepest stretch of Bug Hill Road, my Tacoma skidded again. Brakes grabbed erratically. Suddenly I saw a little station wagon inching uphill toward me. For every two feet it climbed, the wagon skittered a foot back. Up, down, slide. Me, I was going down. I flashed my lights in warning, but our neighbor, nineteen-year-old Kit Adams-Henderson, was aiming for her warm hilltop chateau.  

This was the precise patch of road on which our own sturdy wagon had jackknifed in a late-night ice storm in 2003. After my wife and I had abandoned our Saab wagon, we traipsed home and called a tow truck. At two a.m., the wagon led a vehicular slide-a-thon with the tow truck and town police cruiser, all going downhill exactly where young Kit was now spinning her wheels. Her wagon sliced across the road and stopped precariously as my rusty plow slid into the right bank. I clambered out the passenger door, where crunchy snow offered traction, unlike the glassy road surface. ReachingKit’s car, I shoved. She rocked. I grunted. She shifted, accelerated, and reshifted. Pushing and shoving was unwise; my second dumb decision that morning. With each shove, a chunk of intestine protruded farther through a jagged aperture in my belly.  

My twelve-day-old abdominal hole, as big as a Susan B. Anthony dollar but less shapely, was my second ostomy. An earlier stoma had been reversed in a false recovery. (I’d get another one, a keeper, a year later.) This onehadn’t hurt all that much.* Compared to my first five-hour operation for colorectal cancer—no, rectal cancer,let’s not be coy—this was nothing, a tummyache. However, my exertions pressed guts into my two-piece semidetached personal Tupperware, my stoma appliance.  

Regardless of his wounds, aknight’s duty is to rescue distressed damsels, so I pushed up, slipped, fell down, got up, moved to the front, and pushed again, hard. Nothing. I got behind her car again, shoving upwards. Nada. Then in front, pushing down. Kit moved her car a teeny bit, sliding to and fro, until finally she lodged her car in the snowbank on the right shoulder. Traffic could pass. Whew. Peter Adams, her dad, arrived, jabbing a cross-country ski pole into the ice to stay precariously upright. When he reached our slick patch, he fell, hurtling, laughing, and sliding on his hip until he stuck like a dud torpedo in the left bank. He got up, and we all tried to rock my truck free. No use.  

Peter loaned me his ski pole. I trudged home, soaked, clammy, and shivering. I told Kit (Nylen, my wife—not every woman who lives on the upper reaches of treacherous Bug Hill Road is named Kit) what had happened. She said: “You loved that,didn’t you, you old fool?”  

You know what? She was dead on. I’m ourtown’s Don Quixote, or Sancho Panza. Yes,they’re opposites: yin/yang, idealist vs. pragmatist, delusional dreamer and hardheaded realist, but Cervantes’ characters were the human contradiction writ large. The good Don obsessed about doing the right thing. So do I, with similar results: quixotic. And just as Sancho mocked everyone, more or less fondly, well, so do I. 

  Why Am I Not Dead?  

Slogging back to the house, I wondered: why do I take such dumb risks over and again? Perhaps my restive ways could be cured, or at least understood. Why was I recapitulating previous mishaps, presaging new fixes to come? Was I an unusually demented American guy, or a typical pre–baby boomer? Mulling my busted gut, I pondered the other kind of gutsiness: toughness. Americans are famously aggressive and infamously unaware. Like both presidents Bush, wedon’t like doing the introspection thing. We make war like belligerent sixteenth-century Spaniards, yet we thinkwe’re peacemakers. I’ve mongered war myself. I’m one of a tiny, bloody band of Americanswho’ve both been shot andwho’ve killed in turn. My brethren? Crazy Horse, George A. Custer, John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, Audie Murphy, Lee Marvin, John Kerry, and Tupac Shakur.  

Even ifyou’re unscarred, perhaps you, too, act tough.You’re not alone. We love goofy, thick-skulled, get-’er-done obduracy. Sports pages, ads, TV shows, and magazines promote toughness with relentless fervor. We prefer gut checks and head butts to nuance. Americans like politicians who might have given Torquemada a tussle had they been contemporaries. The head of the Spanish Inquisition used torture to root out her­etics. Torquemada was fond of subtle interrogation techniques like foot roasting, suffocation, waterboarding, and the rack. Although RichardCheney’s interrogation tacticsdidn’t achieve inquisitorial ingenuity, tough he was. The late David Halberstam described Cheney this way: “Seemingly, he was the toughest of the tough.” In 2006, Cheney was photographed grinning crookedly as he squeezed a copy of U.S. News & World Report. The cover featuring his mug was headlined “Tough Guy.”  

In 2008, Bill Clinton argued that Hillary Clinton was tough enough for the job, and he, Hillary, and John McCain said that Obama was too soft. After she knocked back a Canadian whisky at a Pennsylvania bar, and after a RAW wrestling spoof depicted her pantsuited doppelgänger stomping on a cocoa-colored skinny dude with big ears, Senator Clinton won the Keystone State handily.  

As root words go, “tuff” is a fittingly compact fortress: four chiseled Anglo-Saxon letters, three consonants. However, “tough guys” evokes contemporary menaces like mafiosi, gangbangers, Ultimate Fighters,Hell’s Angels. A dozen current TV programs are devoted to working tough guys like ice truckers, Arctic crab fishermen, and lumberjacks. Me? I’ve never kick-boxed, tattoed my face, or yanked offanyone’s fingernails.

From the Hardcover edition.

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