Vietnam vet reads from book in progress at Winthrop Library
Before Tom Allen began his talk about his experiences in the Vietnam War, he asked his audience not to expect “Apocalypse Now.”
But then Allen went ahead and described a real-life Col. Kurtz—the rogue officer played by Marlon Brando in Francis Ford Coppola’s movie.
“He was not at heart a villain,” Allen said of his protagonist, referred to only by his initials, “D.B.”
Then again, Allen said, “It wasn’t clear to me which side D.B. was on.”
Allen’s 90-minute presentation, on July 3 at Winthrop library, moved briskly between chapter readings of his book in progress and slide shows of photographs he took during the war. The story, ultimately, is his own: A naïve 21-year-old from “cloistered Bellevue” went to Vietnam in 1969 to teach soldiers in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam how to use radar.
Allen and his fellow instructor, dressed in shirt and tie, flew to the war in a DC-8 loaded with soldiers in fatigues. As soon as they landed hard on a rutted airstrip, they were met with Viet Cong artillery.
Heading for cover, Allen said he heard an explosion and turned around to see if the plane had been hit.
“Get your ass moving! This ain’t the movies,” Allen heard someone yell at him.
“I didn’t have enough sense to be scared,” Allen said. “That came later.”
Allen avoided combat duty after being drafted into the Army because he tested well. What he described at his reading, however, was just as compelling: The battle lines in this conflict were far more complicated than Americans had been led to believe.
D.B. worked as a supply sergeant for a field hospital. He had taken up residence with a family in a Saigon slum. Allen admitted that his memory of events from 50 years ago was incomplete, but he recalled what his old friend looked like when he first saw him in Vietnam: fatigue pants, white T-shirt, unshaven, hung over.
D.B. kept Pabst Blue Ribbon by the pallet-load. He was trafficking in the local currency by the suitcase-full. His close associates in the slum sported new, American boots and rifles.
No wonder, then, that Allen saw fit to ask his friend how exactly he fit into the big picture of South vs. North.
“It’s not like Husky football, with two sides and a line of scrimmage,” D.B. was said to reply, in what also was an apt critique of American media’s depiction of the war as it was unfolding.
D.B. went on to describe the many “little armies and gangs competing with each other for their share of the graft” in Saigon: the Viet Cong, the South Vietnamese army, the mayor’s guards, the MPs, the CIA, the Australians, the Chinese, the Koreans.
After D.B.’s tour of duty ended, he tried to return to Vietnam with the Army but was turned down. He did end up going back, as a private contractor for an engineering firm. Allen lost track of D.B. after 1975.
As for Allen, he wound up as a long-haul truck driver living in a school bus at the end of a dead-end street in east King County. Eventually, after some college, he became a technical writer for US West, Microsoft and other electronics and tech companies. Currently, Allen has homes in Seattle and on West Chewuch Road.
When it was brought to Allen’s attention after his reading that the entire audience had been about his age, he said he wasn’t surprised.
The war, Allen said, “was indeed an experience for our whole cohort … people who were of the age to be subject to the draft.”
“People who are a little bit younger … don’t have that sort of understanding of the schisms that exist in our society today, that are based on that time.”
Nor do people who didn’t see the war firsthand fully understand how complicated it was. Allen said he is still trying to unravel it.
“That whole business in Indochina was so complex,” he said in an interview. “The media over the decades has tried to oversimplify it, and they just can’t do it.”