I began writing this in early April,2007. The original title was going to be, My Heros Have Always Been Writers and I was going to discuss Hemingway, London, Vonnegut, Halberstam and others. However, after really thinking it through, I decided that my hero's have for some time been David Halberstam. The title has been pilfered from the country western song by Willie Nelson, My Hero's Have Always Been Cowboys. On April 23, 2007 David Halberstam, writer, author, historian, political commentator, and war correspondent was killed in an automobile accident in California.
I first experienced David Halberstam's writing in his book The Best and the Brightest. He had me in rapture with the opening sentence, "A cold Day in December. Long Afterward, After The assassination and all the pain, the older man would remember with great clarity the young man's grace, his good manners, his capacity to put a visitor at ease." Halberstam wrote as though he was there in the room with subjects. A fly on the wall watching history in the making. I read this 700 page tome over a period of two days, enthralled, not able to set it down.
I do not recall how I learned of a short novel he wrote, One Very Hot Day. I read it. It touched me deeply.It is a story about an American Advisor in the early days of the Vietnam War. He knew the story well. He had been a correspondent with an ARVN unit operating out of My Tho, South Vietnam. I knew the territory as I served with a U.S. Navy Riverine Division in that area during 1968 and 1969. His writing was so descriptive it transported me back to that place and time. He also explained very succinctly why the war was such a mess. This was no small task, as if anything, the Amercian involvement in Vietnam is very complex and fills many books the size of The Best and the Brightest and One Very Hot Day. The book was published in 1968 and was soon out of print. It was a time of too much media saturation of the real war and Vietnam War fiction wasn't selling.It was published again in 1984. In the afterward of this book Halberstam writes "..... I retain a secret affection for this book, probably the least known of my works on Vietnam. It still seems to me now, on rereading, what I had wanted it to be when I first wrote it -small and true". As for myself, I have re-read the book many times and it is always worth it.
He wrote many articles and books on sports and politics, 9/11, and post 9/11. . I read an op-ed piece which was printed in the Oregonian some time after 9/11. I was watching alot of the 9/11 coverage, quite frankly, thinking I would like to take a missile and personally deliver it to one of two Osama body orifices. I knew that wasn't going to happen and felt somewhat helpless in not being able to do something meaningful. Halberstam was writing to me when he described his own feelings of helplessness from his vantage point of Manhattan, NYC. He said, "We do what we do and I write". He then wrote a book about the Firehouse next to his residence, which suffered the most losses of any 9/11 Firehouse in the city. I thought, I do social work. The Red Cross was looking for Disaster Mental Health Counselors, so I signed up went through training, and deployed to Manhattan where I served the needs of the community for two weeks. I no longer felt helpless and was grateful for the opportunity to help at that difficult time in American history. Although the work that I performed in NYC was the most exhaustive of any I've performed in mental health I continue to look back on it as very personally and professionally satisfying work. I would not have gone had I not been for being inspired by David Halberstam.
One day in October, 2002 my wife was reading the activities/entertainment pages of the Oregonian and found out that he was coming to Portland State University on a speaking tour following the release of his 2001 book, War In A Time of Peace, which is about global politics during the Cold War. I went. My that time I had his book on the firehouse on my reading table and dug out my copies of The Best and The Brightest, War In A Time A Time Of Peace, and One Very Hot Day. I thought I would take them to get autographed. Then I thought," geez isn't that a little like an infatuated groupie", so I stuffed the small paperback novel in my pocket and ventured off to listen to his speech. I ran into several friends and felt even sillier about the autographs. I sat with them during the speech. I was struck with how Halberstam carried himself, he seemed speaking to a group of mostly intellectuals. He just seemed to be so much in a different league than the correspondent who 38 years earlier had been wading through paddies in South Vietnam. From my perspective he was in that rarified atmosphere, the arrogance, of the east coast elite. He was talking to his people and doing it very nicely, like a dance, very personable. The audience was asking such intelligent questions and his responses waxed of eloquence. Following the speech I was waylaid by my friends who wanted to talk about something which I don't recall, no matter, it was irrelevant to my mission that day. I ended up in the back of the line to get autographs and feared that because I hadn't bought a boat load of books he was selling I would not be admitted. I clutched my paperback in my left hand as I approached him. He was seated and smiled as I approached. He looked exhausted. I introduced myself and asked if he wouldn't mind signing the little gem he might not recognize. He said that he hadn't seen the book in a long time and smiled broadly and perked up.
I volunteered, "I was there".
" Where?" he said.
"The Delta," I said.
"Damn," he responded, his facial expression now turning more serious. "Where in the Delta?"
"Shit", he smiled seemingly surprised, "when?"
"You poor bastard", he blurted out, Vets know that 1968 was not a good year to be in Vietnam. "what unit?"
"Navy Riverine" I responded , realizing that he had left the eloquence and intellectualism of the previous hour.
"Jeez Chrise", he was becoming very animated.
"I worked with the ARVN", I added. He knew the implication of this statement, In A Very Hot Day he chronicled the why of the ARVN ambivalence to the war, which on the surface represented a reluctance to fight and frustrated many American troops.
"Oh fuck," he blurted. I was thinking ok, he's still got that grunt thing working for him. He had now placed his head in his hands with elbows perched on the table and looking at me sideways was shaking his head back and forth. No pretense, just being with his emotions about the war.
We talked awhile about the war, My Tho, and the Delta. I felt fortunate that I was the last in line, as I was able to spend some extra time with my writer hero. I was also happy that I brought this book for him to sign. However, we both seemed to forget that our mutual mission was for him to sign that book.
He told me that he was happy that I made it back ok, " you did make it back ok didn't you?" We were now there like a couple of Vets, and I was feeling more comfortable talking with him.
I told him that I thought I did. As I started to walk away I remembered the book in my hand and turned to him. He smiled and signed it, "For Bob, with best wishes, David Halberstam, Oct 22, 2002." By this time he was standing and as I turned to walk away he gave me a pat on the back and we bid farewell. As I left the lecture hall the campus I felt really good, as though I had encountered an old friend and we had reminisced about a shared experience which is never far from the emotional surface and consciousness. I thought, as I walked away, that I forget to talk to him about New York.
This probably would have been the end of the story had he not been killed in the accident. He was working on a new book, The Game, about the 1958 NFL championship game between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants, often called the greatest game ever played. I regret that I will never be able to read the book, it sounds like a good one. We now have 24 hour cable news and it certainly hasn't covered his story very much, but I have learned way more than I want about all the losers on the TV entertainment program American Idol. I wish he would be around to write about that phenomena.