CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- I just finished re-reading "Chickenhawk," Robert Mason's memoir of the year he spent flying helicopters in Vietnam and the nine months of flight training he received before his arrival there.
I'd been thinking about this book from long ago, yet I could recall only a few specifics. What I remembered was that I'd been moved by it. I'd also admired the writer for his independent thinking and for his vivid descriptions of combat.
Like so many stories, this one begins in innocence. Mason was 20 and he wanted to fly helicopters. It was 1964, still early in the campaign and many months before the huge troop build-ups began. He thought the chances of being sent to war were slim, so he joined the Army and soon entered flight school.
You might say he was naive. When he graduated, to his surprise, the orders he received were for Vietnam. There he flew Hueys, the ones called "Slicks," the troop-transport configuration of this versatile and eventually iconic helicopter.
He flew infantrymen, eight at a time, into landing zones and then flew them out again when the enemy had disappeared into the jungle, or when the fight was over, or when they needed to escape under fire. He also hauled the dead and wounded. In 1965, assault by helicopter was a novelty, a brand new way of moving an army around, and Mason was there, flying a Huey and present at the creation of this tactic.
And here in this book, once again, are all the terms and names and places I'd partially forgotten or suppressed: Da Nang, the domino theory, ARVN, Marshall, Ky., grunts, Medevacs, Charley, Pleiku, NVA, DMZ, the P-38 can opener, the daily head count, bloused boots, Tan Son Nhut airbase, the generation gap, hot LZs, Madame Nhu, Maxwell Taylor. All brought instantly back to life.
Among its many complex features, this book captures the easy camaraderie of military life and the surprising and uniquely droll sense of humor that exists throughout the ranks in the Army (and which is often missing in accounts of our troops in wartime).
Mason mentions an Army Major who has been ordered to check on Navy reports that a massive number of mattresses have been stolen from a transport ship, one which just delivered large numbers of infantrymen to Vietnam. Standing beside a pile of these very mattresses, the Major calls a platoon to attention and orders them to report any stolen mattresses they may have noticed. No one says a word, and then the officer responds with the Army straight face, "Very well. The Navy must have misplaced the mattresses. Platoon dismissed."
But Robert Mason's story, which begins on such a promising note, ends in disillusionment, heartbreak, chronic post-traumatic stress, and in the wreckage of his personal life.
Many Americans suffered losses during and after the Vietnam War, even if they didn't go to Vietnam, even if it was only a damaged bond between a World War II father and a Vietnam-era son. You turn on your TV to discover that the Ohio National Guard, controlled by Gov. James A. Rhodes, has just fired a volley of .30-06 rounds into a crowd of unarmed Kent State students, killing four and wounding nine. M-1 rifles. 67 rounds.
There are many ways one can be traumatized, and we notice that the stresses taking Mason apart by degrees are the same tensions and fractures that were taking our country apart. He was a daily witness to the truth about Vietnam, and a daily participant. He was literally hovering above the truth, looking down, and what he experienced and what he saw had little in common with the public statements of those running the war.
While going back through "Chickenhawk" I kept thinking of other distortions of this decade, such as the cartoon image of the '60s (more accurately the period between 1963 and 1973) that has taken shape within our popular culture. You'd think it was all cannabis smoke, acid trips, promiscuous sex and anti-war sentiment on our college campuses and in our communities, when actually the majority of people were either indifferent or supported the war, kept their hair short, and drank alcohol instead of smoking pot.