Please welcome Dee S. Knight back to Discover... She's always a good read!
When I was in high school, we were beginning to realize through the nightly news what Vietnam was all about. President Eisenhower initially sent us to the country as advisors, and then President Kennedy involved us more in the early 1960s. President Johnson increased the troop numbers greatly. As President Nixon took over and I went off to college, the war was raging—though with all the deaths it was never considered a true war. Like Korea, it wasn’t dignified with the title, though it looked like a war, walked like a war, talked like a war.
The war was personal. My dad was in the Navy, my boyfriend’s father had been a Marine, and I had two uncles in the Air Force, so I was surrounded by military bases full of young men who could be sent overseas and into what we were told was chaos at any minute. Jack was attending Virginia Military Institute by then—thankfully, because his draft lottery number was 69. My catechism teacher (and the father of the boy on whom I had a wild and crazy crush) was a pilot off USS Independence and was shot down and captured. Vietnam was there, all around us, all the time. So is it strange that many years later I used the backdrop of Vietnam as my muse for a romance?
I’ve written two romance pieces, actually, using Vietnam as the instigator of the story. In Burning Bridges (out of print now but soon to be on Kindle Unlimited), my characters met just before the hero ships out for Vietnam. Convinced they were in love, Sara and Paul share a night and swear to wait for each other. Then, Sara discovers she’s pregnant and she never hears from Paul, though she sends him letter after letter. The war burned their first bridge, and pride burned the second.
The second piece—actually, the first I wrote—was a novella called Coming Home. In it, Tom Stabler is granted a surprise Christmas leave. He leaves the muggy jungle of Vietnam to return for a week to his parents’ farm in Nebraska, his mind filled with the image of the prettiest girl he’d ever known, Susan Swenson. When Susan visits him late one night, the experience is unlike anything he could have imagined. Her lips were sweet, her body lush and warm, and her faith in him touching. After Christmas he returned to Vietnam a changed man—but not in the way he expected. Vietnam played a larger role in this story than in Burning Bridges. I think here I wanted something good to come of something horrible and seemingly without meaning.
Here’s a short excerpt from Coming Home:
With a jerk and cry, Private Tom Stabler bolted upright, his heart pounding at an alarming rate. The dream receded, and his eyes shot open, unseeing at first. His arm darted out, reaching for the rifle that was always beside him like an extension of his right arm.
The weapon wasn’t there! In sudden panic, he snapped his head to the side, hoping to find with sight what he couldn’t with touch.
Then it came to him.
“Home,” he whispered. He was safe. Not in a steamy jungle surrounded by the smell of rotting vegetation, or wading through muddy river shallows filled with who-knew-what slithering things, or straining for the welcome sound of helicopters, or…
He’d been in so many God-awful situations these past eight months he could take his pick of a different terror every night for weeks. But he didn’t want to. For this week, these seven days at home, he wanted to put Nam behind him. Why, then, couldn’t he rid himself of the tension coiled like a snake in his belly?
Tom scrubbed his hands across his face, willing his breathing to slow and his heart to return to a normal beat. He picked up his watch. Four o’clock.
When he’d said an awkward goodnight to his father and made his way to bed, the clock in the hall was chiming midnight. He’d draped his clothes over his desk chair, stripped off his skivvies, and climbed into bed.
Unbelievably, he’d pulled up the quilt his grandmother had made, snuggled into the softness of the mattress, and drifted off to sleep as though he’d never left the safety and security of his room.
Awake now, he wondered if he’d ever adjust to the feeling of safety again, ever truly believe it existed. He feared he’d always be peering into shadows for the hidden enemy or listening for the almost silent, deadly snick of a landmine trip.
Falling back on the pillow, he stared at the posters on the opposite wall, illuminated by weak moonlight shining through the window. One was for a rock concert held in Omaha four years ago. He’d wanted to take Susan Swensen, but her father wouldn’t let her go the hundred miles into the city with him. Too far, he’d said in his thick Scandinavian accent. Too much can go wrong with a car. Young people can get stranded. Alone.
The last was said with a long, thoughtful stare right into Tom’s soul. How had the man known of Tom’s evil intentions to fake a car breakdown in order to make time with his daughter? Eventually, when she was accepted into nursing school, Mr. Swensen had let Susan go to Omaha. By then, Tom had gone much farther. All the way to Hell, in fact.
The other poster hailed the Fighting Hawks, his high school football team, on which he’d been the star linebacker. Those were heady days. He’d made a great linebacker at the university, too, but a lousy scholar, which was what put his ass squarely in the middle of that worthless peninsula called Vietnam.
Now he wouldn’t even make a linebacker. He skimmed his hand down his chest and across his stomach. Lean—skinny almost. Where once had been bulk there was sinewy muscle. He could still run, though. Oh, yeah, he got lots of practice running. From firing position to firing position, from cover to transport helicopters—black birds hovering over open kill zones to lift guys out of danger or drop them in—and from helicopter back to cover. Some days it seemed he ran the whole damn time.
It felt that way now.
Tom sighed. There was no going back to sleep. Throwing off the covers, he roused himself from the warmth and sat up, looking at the four walls and feeling dislocated.
This room held the bed where he’d slept since he was six. In two days, Christmas Eve, he’d be twenty-one. After all those years, the bed should be familiar, and it was. The bed fit the room, but Tom no longer did.
Same with the house. When he arrived early yesterday morning, he’d sensed something was off but hadn’t been able to put his finger on the problem. Now he knew. Somehow, while he was gone, things had changed, and no one had told him.
His bedroom, the kitchen where he’d watched his mom bake cookies, the living room where he’d beaten his dad at chess for the first time, all felt cramped and alien, as though he’d read about them but hadn’t lived in them. Even his family was all wrong. Gray threaded his mom’s hair, and his dad moved slower. As for his grandparents, they were frail replicas of their previous selves, with wrinkled faces and almost translucent skin.
This life, these people, belonged to a Tom Stabler who no longer existed. The man he was now would have to adjust his thinking to live here again, and learning how would sure as hell take more than one week.
Loneliness clawed at his insides. Here, in the one place he should have felt a part of things, solitude engulfed him. It would have been better to stay in Nam than be here with everything wrong, no longer a part of his home, his family.
Coming Home is available for free on the Nomad Authors website to subscribers of our newsletter, Aussie to Yank (https://landing.mailerlite.com/webforms/landing/h8t2y6). If you join our newsletter and read Coming Home, I hope you’ll write and let me know what you think.
A few years ago, Dee S. Knight began writing, making getting up in the morning fun. During the day, her characters killed people, fell in love, became drunk with power, or sober with responsibility. And they had sex, lots of sex. Writing was so much fun Dee decided to keep at it. That's how she spends her days. Her nights? Well, she's lucky that her dream man, childhood sweetheart, and long-time hubby are all the same guy, and nights are their secret. For romance ranging from sweet to historical, contemporary to paranormal and more join Dee on Nomad Authors.