I didn’t serve in Vietnam. In fact, I never went into the military. I had a deferment for the four years I was in college from 1966 to 1970. Thank god. As a young gay man at the time, the thought of serving in the military, let alone being sent to Vietnam, terrified me. But I got lucky. By graduation, the draft lottery system had been put into place, and my lottery number was so I high the likelihood of my being drafted was practically nil.
My friend Chris Gaynor wasn’t so lucky. He got drafted and served a tour of duty in Vietnam in 1967. When I met Chris, long after he’d gotten out the army, we were working together in the editorial department of a travel book publisher in Beverly Hills. (Full disclosure: I had a mad crush on him from the moment I met him. He was funny, sensitive, grounded, smart, talented and really attractive—all the things I could ask for in a man.) I remember inviting Chris to go to the gay pride parade, and he sweetly declined by telling me he and his boyfriend, Paul, would be walking in the parade with a gay Asian-Pacific group that Paul had helped to found.
We continued to work together for several more years at the publishing company, even car-pooling together. The crush softened, and Chris eventually was my real-estate agent when I bought my first condo. After he and Paul moved to Seattle, we stayed in touch and still are to this day, some 30 years after we met, through email, Facebook and Christmas cards.
During all the time I’ve known Chris, I don’t remember talking much about his experiences in Vietnam. Our conversations were more about work, politics, music and all the other things that young, 30-something gay men talked about in those days.
That’s why I’m fascinated by his new book: A Soldier Boy Hears the Distant Guns—Photographs and Letters, Boot Camp-Viet Nam, 1966-1968. Besides being a classical guitarist, Chris is also a fine photographer and, as it turns out, an observant, articulate letter writer. He corresponded with his family and with Anne Blackwell, whom he describes as “my dear friend and mentor for 50 years.” Chris’s mother saved his letters, as did Blackwell’s daughter. Now, 45 years later, Chris has curated the photographs he took and the letters he wrote as a young soldier and has presented them in this touching book.
“At the heart of the book are my photographs. I took my camera with me everywhere…. After so many decades, the young man who took these pictures is something of a stranger to me, and I marvel at how so many good images were captured under such harsh conditions,” says Chris.
Don’t look for scenes of battles or epic heroics, because you’ll be disappointed, says Chris. The book really is “a portrait of a group of young men, kids, really, who bond deeply through the crucible of war. In our day-to-day life we laughed, we did a lot of posing to look tough and we counted the days until we would return to The World. We listened to Hendrix, drank stale beer and smoked the occasional joint. Not so different from our civilian peers. But, we pulled the triggers in this war, and now must live with our share of responsibility for that. I invite you to look, read and perhaps feel a little of what we felt and experience a little of what we experienced.”
Indeed. “I think I feel fear in myself and see it in others,” Chris writes on Feb. 2, 1967. In a letter written a month later, he tries to put his father at ease about living conditions in Vietnam and then asks for a particular kind of guitar string that can withstand the harsh tropical climate. In another, he describes how a buddy, mortally wounded with a severed arm, dies. And he shows a dark humor when he closes one letter with “Love from the bottom of my foxhole.”
There is no political agenda in Chris’s book, no pro- or anti-war stance. Rather, this is a simple, human story about an American soldier told through his photographs and letters.
“This is history; it happened,” Chris says. “Perhaps someday we will understand why.”
Uh-oh, I feel a crush coming on—again (sorry, Paul!).
by Stephen Dolainski6 Posted on July 8, 2013 by Stephen Dolainski · 0 comments