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"Karlin is one of the most gifted, passionate and powerful writers of his generation."-George Garrett
Wayne Karlin's memoir War Movies recounts his return to Vietnam as scriptwriter and actor in the award-winning Vietnamese film Song of the Stork. On his journey, Karlin lives in two worlds-the world of postwar Vietnam and the world of film. Past and present, illusion and reality, humor and sorrow blend as he works on the film and converses with his former enemies. Particularly powerful are the contrasts between ...
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"Karlin is one of the most gifted, passionate and powerful writers of his generation."-George Garrett
Wayne Karlin's memoir War Movies recounts his return to Vietnam as scriptwriter and actor in the award-winning Vietnamese film Song of the Stork. On his journey, Karlin lives in two worlds-the world of postwar Vietnam and the world of film. Past and present, illusion and reality, humor and sorrow blend as he works on the film and converses with his former enemies. Particularly powerful are the contrasts between the young and old generations of Vietnamese and the meditative quality of the narrative as Karlin explores the ironies involved in bridging the gap between past and present. For example, we hear the story of the coward who became the national poster boy for patriotism because he is photogenic, and we chuckle when the only extras the director can find to play the American GIs are Russian students. What is reality? What is fiction? What are the consequences of former sacrifice? These are some of the underlying themes explored in the course of this intriguing narrative.
Wayne Karlin has previously published six novels and a memoir, Rumors and Stones. As American consulting editor for Curbstone's Voices from Vietnam series, he has edited and adapted translations of writers from Vietnam. A professor of language and literature at the College of Southern Maryland, he also directs the fiction program at St. Mary's College.
Standing by for missions, he always has the feeling he is being centered in the lens of a movie camera. Flight suit and sunglasses, focused in sharply by the magnifying clearness of the Danang air. A loud buzzer sounds with dramatic insistence. A long shot: the crews running self-consciously to the helicopters, loading machine guns competently, talking flight talk, sticking their thumbs up. Switch to the interior of the helicopter, the lens zooms in for a really fine shot of his sweaty, grease-stained face framed over his machine gun by the open port. Then a full shot of the interior: the black crew-chief pumping the A.P.E, then running forward to his gun, black and white at the opposite ports, the subtle impact of the scene: no racists in foxholes, by God.
The sun sinks as the helicopter rises. The gunner looks at its fall and feels powerful and full of height. In its wake, the sun begins sucking the colors out of the ground, and the earth seems insignificant to him.
The crew talks on the intercom, the cords on their helmets and their voices linking them in the darkness. They are flying towards Dong Ha. Hastily to Hastings, the gunner thinks. Operation Hastings. Where did they get the names? He is trying to slide his sight through the darkness, looking for flashes, for tracers, for anything. For today's trick we will clear the DMZ with Norman cavalrymen. They must be catching shit, he thinks, to be calling for planes on secondary alert. Means the choppers already at Dong Ha are very full, and the crews will be cleaning out the insides with hoses, washing away any spare bleeding parts left sticking on the helicopters' decks.
The trap door of a gallows suddenly opens, right at the moment when he is counting on more time. A drop and a wait for the noose to snap his neck.
The helicopter falls, then seems to catch itself and circle down more lazily. Leaning out of his port, he can see the flashes of the strobe the grunts are using to mark the landing zone, but the light doesn't illuminate the terrain. The aircraft drops into darkness. The noose never tightens.
The helicopter lands hard and the rear ramp drops heavily. The gunner stays at his gun while the crew-chief runs back to help with the wounded. Looking over the barrel, he can just make out part of the circle of infantrymen around the Zone. Their green backs look tense and they are mud-spattered and somehow fragile-looking in their hardness. They don't look as if they'd stepped off a tapestry. Backs and saggy asses and legs and boots. Too normal for Normans.
The wounded come through the open rear hatch, touching the sides of the helicopter with gentle, bloody hands. They are already a race apart, consecrated in the eyes of the unwounded, receivers of blows meant for the unhurt. Some intact Marines are carrying those unable to walk and laying them out on the deck. The helicopter is filling up and its blades beat the air insistently as if feeling the danger and straining to go. The wounded are twisted into one another, holding onto each other; softly bleeding into each other's wounds. The gunner strains for comparisons, sees a pile of soiled laundry, cloth arms and legs locked into impossible positions. Or pudding. Bleeding pudding. Hastings pudding.
The ramp closes and the helicopter lifts. A corpsman moves among the Marines, shooting morphine into them. Many haven't been treated at all yet. We must have landed right in the middle of something, the gunner thinks.
A Marine, his torn trousers showing shredded meat, is trying to stand up next to the gunner, leaving more room for the worse wounded. He puts his hand on the gunner's shoulder to steady himself, then looks at him apologetically. The gunner turns away for a second, and notices the black man lying near his feet. The man seems to have a red gelatinous mass growing from the side of his neck, twisting his head and strangling him. His eyes bulge.
All this in a second, a split second, for he is dutifully looking out of the port and doesn't miss the flashes below and the green tracers flying up at the helicopter. He fires his guilt down at the flashes and feels it leave him in violent spurts through the machine gun barrel. Just shooting at our noise, he thinks; they're too far. His own tracers flash red. Maybe I hit an NVA, he thinks, and he's being dragged off on a hook by his buddy: Who's feeling guilty the hook ain't in his own pudding neck. Fucking fool. The firing stops.
Then they are dropping towards Dong Ha, and are down, and the ramp drops again.
The corpsmen come in with some service troops who have volunteered to carry stretchers. See what they've been missing. The bearers are in respectful awe of the wounded, but try to act as nonchalant as the corpsmen. The walking wounded begin walking and the gunner helps the man who had been leaning next to him walk out, then turns back inside.
The corpsmen are going through the men lying on the deck, quickly, competently, placing two enchanted fingers on wrists, bestowing life or death. The stretcher bearers begin lifting one man; the corpsman is still touching his wrist. Save it, the corpsman advises, he's bought it. The dead man is a big blond boy.
"Save it," the economical corpsman says, and gestures impatiently at the volunteers. "Get'm out quick; he can't feel nothin'." One of the bearers grabs the man's ankles and drags the body out. The head bounces up and down on the ramp as the body slides, then thuds dully on the ground.
Save what? The gunner thinks.
He goes out and walks away from the fuel lines and tries to catch a quick smoke before they take off again.
After I'd gotten through customs at Don Maung, I went out to the taxi queue in front of the terminal and gave the first driver the name of my hotel. I had a one night stopover in Bangkok before going on to Hanoi. The taxi sped down the elevated airport expressway, exited onto a side street that I knew would take us to Sukhumvit Road, then nudged itself into a slow stream of farting taxis, jitneys, Mercedes, and motorcycles. The city squeezed in on me. The driver began his litany. You want massage? You want a girl? A boy? Young? Old? Once, on another trip, I had been asked if I were a sadist. There was no leer, nothing judgmental about the question: the driver merely establishing what his potential market was, though at first I'd heard "dentist," which would involve a kind of perversity I couldn't begin to imagine. A what? You know, to hit, to whip. A sa-dist.
Oh. No, I'm a writer.
"The hotel's at Soi 11," I said to the driver's neck. It was the same place my travel agent had booked for me the last time I'd come to Bangkok; when I'd checked in then I'd realized, with no particular shock at the synchronicity, that I was two blocks from the hotel where I'd stayed when I'd first come to Bangkok on R&R, in 1966. We looped under the expressway, where it formed the cave-roof for a netherworld of stall-like bars, huddled in dusty pools of shadow, their interiors lit in a dim reddish glow that reflected against the underside of the road and turned the bar girls perched on their stools into caricatures of bar girls in a caricature of hell. Emerged into the blazing light again and began to inch up Sukhumvit, past the Indian and Arab tailor shops, the crust of sidewalk stalls selling switch-blades, compasses, rolling suitcases and overnight bags, t-shirts, watches, brand-name counterfeits. Thai office workers, students and business people, cell phones clamped to their ears, walked by briskly, ignoring the old Western men, their faces chalky and cadaverous in the strong light, being led like the dead on leave by the teenaged whores whose arms encircled their waists. Two streams of existence twisting around each other, but as separate as if they moved in parallel dimensions. Soi Cowboy was outside my window now, lined with more open-air whore bars. I could glimpse the hotel where I'd spent my week off from the war. The city had grown up around it. The old men might have been representations of all those who hadn't. I felt suddenly trapped. As if I'd never left. The sensation I have from time to time that my life since the war is only a dream I'm having during the war. Of all the places to spend the night, I told myself. I should have just stayed in the airport.
We stopped dead, the traffic clotting into a solid mass. I looked out at the sidewalk.
The woman stood in the classic stance, one hip thrust out, a hand splayed on it. Probably too old for the bars or massage parlors. A veteran. She was wearing what seemed a green jacket-tunic from a businesswoman suit, but only the tunic, her hand sliding the bottom edge up an inch or so to show stained buttocks. It was her only movement. She stood still as an exhibit representing something l felt too tired to learn, or re-learn, next to an overflowing trash barrel. Staring unblinking at the motionless vehicles that stood like other exhibits, post-apocalyptic statuary, her eyes so void of light or life they could have been painted on her skin. Then she moved over a foot or two, into the exact same stance. She was parallel to my window. If I met her eyes, two vacuums would meet, form some vortex that would suck us both in.
A teenaged Thai girl walked by, stopped, and grinned incredulously at the sight of the whore. She was slim and beautiful and wore every ripped-off brand name stacked on the tables that lined Sukhumvit Road like altars in a cargo cult: Guess t-shirt, Gucci belt, tight Klein jeans. Though they may have been, for all I knew, the real items, the girl a child of privilege, just back from four years of polishing and globalization at Sarah Lawrence or Smith. I felt a sudden and irrational surge of anger at her innocence, at her arrogance, and then, as I sat insulated and air-conditioned behind the closed window, at my own.
Still smiling, the girl suddenly began circling the whore, bringing her face close, drawing it back, some snake dance. Laughing out loud. I waited for the older woman to reach behind, draw a razor from her hair. But she stood as before, indifferent, looking through the kid. The girl danced up to the garbage bin. Began rummaging inside it, throwing trash on the sidewalk, drawing out a plastic bag that looked like a removed breast implant, its bottom sagged and heavy with some brackish yellow liquid, a straw sticking out of its bunched top. The girl put the straw to her mouth and began sucking in the liquid. Cheeks going hollow. Her hands were powdered with dust. Looking closer, I could see that her hair was caked with filth, her pupils dilated. She looked quite mad. When she opened her mouth, I saw blackened stubs. I saw a face from a story the man sitting next to me on the first leg of the flight here had put into my mind, a vengeful wraith come howling out of the past, out of the door of my R&R hotel, the zombie-hollow remains of all the women's bodies we'd filled with ourselves in order to know we could still feel something, that we were still alive. She continued to dance around the whore, the whore's stillness suddenly part of the choreography, a pivot, and all of it framed and somehow focused by the window through which I stared. And then, suddenly, so was I, as trapped in some internal dance as she was, flapping in helpless circles.
"How long you stay in Bangkok?" the driver asked me.
"Just a day. I'm going to Vietnam."
His eyes, in the rearview mirror, widened, as if in disbelief. "What for, man?"
"Working on a movie."
He grinned and nodded, as if that made everything all right.
Time always cracked and spilled odd bits and pieces of the past into the present whenever I traveled to Vietnam, as if I was violating a law of nature by going back. Returning seemed to link and magnetize some scatter of debris in my soul that drew charged, serendipitous situations and people to me like filings. As if it was all happening to teach me something. A dangerous notion to carry around in one's head when it was connected to Vietnam. Especially for the Vietnamese.
I was on my way this time to work on a movie, a joint Vietnamese-Singaporean film about the war called Song of the Stork. The day before, after I'd checked in for the flight that would take me to Los Angeles, where I'd catch another flight to Bangkok and yet another to Hanoi, the airport p.a. suddenly stopped informing me that my unattended bags would be disintegrated and began crackling words I couldn't be sure weren't echoing only in my mind: "Will passenger Nguyen Ky please come to the ticket counter." The request was repeated until my flight was called for boarding, the name of the Prime Minister of South Vietnam when I was in Vietnam chanted over and over, like an insistent nudge from my memory, calling up the slim playboy in his purple scarf, black, tailored flight-suit, his female clone, in identical flight suit and Ray-Bans, stapled to his arm. I suppose the person being paged could actually have been Nguyen Cao Ky. It was altogether possible he was passing through or living in Washington: the city was rimed with layers of leftover Cold War archaeology. I had never actually seen the man or his wife in the flesh, only their images in magazines and on posters that the Ruff Puffs, South Vietnamese home militia, would fasten to the walls of schools and pagodas in the villages near our perimeter. The villagers would look through the posters as if they weren't there, the same way they looked at us. Often the posters were torn down at night, though once I noticed one that had been soaked with urine, Ky's face pissed out, the walls dripping. From the amount of piss, the activity seemed communal. It also seemed a particularly dedicated act, to piss that high, especially for short people like the Vietnamese.
I was thinking of Ky as I boarded the plane and walked down the aisle to my seat. When I found it and settled in, I nodded to the man in the next seat. He nodded back, sighed, and slipped a book into the pouch net in front of him, then closed his eyes. My gaze went to the title showing above the lip of the pouch: About Face: the Odyssey of an American Warrior, ex-colonel David Hackworth's memoir. Something like excitement or dread or both stirred in my stomach. I wasn't sure what to call the feeling, only that I knew, more than getting on the plane, the succession of coincidences-Ky and now this-signaled the true beginning of the trip.
I eye-balled the man furtively. He was the right age, close-cropped hair, white short-sleeved shirt, a slight paunch. A double-dipper with a service pension and a civil service or contractor's job, something technical. I thought of saying something about the Hackworth book-I'd read it, liked-it but stopped myself. The man, given age, appearance, choice of reading material, had to be a vet, or a wannabe, and one was never sure what directions such conversations could take. In fact, at second look, he resembled a boy from North Carolina, from race-car driver Richard Petty's town, Randall, whom I had known in the Marines-or at least he looked the way I imagined that boy would look if he'd made it to middle-age.
I glanced at the screen on the bulkhead in front of the center rows of seats. A camera mounted on the front of the plane gave me the runway rushing under us, dropping off, the real estate developments and corporate Chichen Itzas of Northern Virginia miniaturizing, then vaporized by clouds. I looked away, my stomach lurching. Dozed. When I awoke, the screen showed our position on a map: somewhere over the Great Lakes. If I stared at it, I was sure, we would remain frozen in place. The watched kettle. An attendant walked down the aisle, offering headphones. I declined. The man next to me said, "no thanks," and pulled the book from its pouch, clicking on the overhead light. Its beam fell on the pages. I gave up. The book seemed to demand acknowledgement, a nod towards its link with my destination.
Excerpted from WAR MOVIES by Wayne Karlin Copyright © 2005 by Wayne Karlin. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted January 22, 2009
A Marine helicopter gunner in the Viet Nam War, Karlin returns to Viet Nam to work on the film 'Song of the Stork' being made by young Vietnamese filmmakers. The film aims to recapture their parents' experiences and memories of the War. Accompanying Karlin are a group of young American filmmakers trying to make sense of the war fought by their older generation. Karlin finds that many memories are keenly awakened. Working on the film and recalling--visualizing--his own wartime memories seem equally as real. But it's not as if he's editing his past--for that would be to try to distort it. Rather, he works to recall his memories clearly; while at the same time, he is involved in the art of film-making. But Karlin does not become disoriented. The book does not wander into a postmodern miasma of the hopelessness of knowing anything significant or meaningful about history or personal experiences; nor does Karlin become seduced by the siren call of his own memories, as many writing memoirs do these days. Karlin is the author of six novels. With this author's skill, discipline, and reflective capacities, 'War Movies' illustrates how memory and art each in their own way and also symbiotically make the past and play into its vitality when one does not shrink from it.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.