Book Review by Lorraine Sturm
Writing is hard business even when a story flows like it's being dictated or memories are vivid and fresh. Writers can understand and appreciate good work when they read it. It draws you in. You want to know more about the characters and what happens to them, what makes them tick.
The bonus while reading Dick Barth's "Shadows from Can Tho," was the evolution of his thinking about: the Vietnam War, his fellow soldiers and the Vietnamese people. The Perry native has carried the story inside himself since he was a combat helicopter pilot in the 191st Assault Helicopter Company in Can Tho, Vietnam from May of 1970 to May of 1971. Three years ago, his family wanted to know more about his service career. So began his research. It now fills a large notebook that includes pictures of the people and places Barth knew. Social media helped him connect with old friends along with the traditional letter-writing and phone calls.
"Shadows from Can Tho" is about the people "because they mattered," Barth said. Its title was chosen because his memories of fifty years ago "persist in connecting me with that time and that place," and because ".what goes around, comes around." 120 letters he wrote home from Vietnam were saved by his first wife. They helped with the chronology. Every story in the book that he wrote over the past 2 ½ years is as he remembered.
"Those things are printed in my memory as images," says Barth.
The sounds of the '60s and '70s are part of it, too. Song titles preface every chapter. Gordon Lightfoot's song, "If You Could Read My Mind," contains the line, "In a castle dark or a fortress strong." Barth titled his larger story, "A J.R. Barth Memoir, 1963-2013, A Castle Dark," from those lyrics. Lightfoot's famous words, "I don't know where we went wrong but I just can't get that feeling back," Barth said is the environment the federal government created. Think "domino theory" and how the nation went to Vietnam to stop the spread of Communism. That stoppage resulted in 3 million Vietnamese and 2 million Cambodians killed. "I had to think how 'castle dark' is in every story of the book," he said. As for 'a fortress strong,' "how do we get back to that?"
Barth and his "old stick buddy," Tom Yost, traveled to Vietnam in February. Americans are not hated despite their nation's legacy of that war - unexploded ordnance and landmines. Since 2006, the Mine Advisory Group (MAG) has funded projects to remove more than 2,791,372 shells and cleared over 7 million square meters of land previously contaminated by unexploded ordnance. That enabled more than 1.8 million people to farm their land, build their homes and let their children play safely without fear of injury or death from accidental explosions. MAG's Clear Path International program has assisted over 12,000 survivors of accidents involving landmines and bombs in 16 provinces in Vietnam. Barth is an unofficial ambassador as he raises awareness of the issue through his book and his talks. He feels obligated to convey the ugly truth about war then and now.
Barth is back in Vietnam where he will teach English at Quang Binh University. "It's a bit coincidental because the university is in the 1st province north of the DMZ and [it] had the hell bombed out of it," Barth said. It is one of the provinces MAG took Barth. "The serendipity is I've been there and am going right in the middle of it to teach. The connections are unbelievable to me." It has led to some pretty profound thinking and conclusions. "In the book, I tried to establish what we did then is plant the seeds [of violence]. You can't avoid harvesting those seeds - and have a bitter crop that's come home to roost." The shadows do not end.