Read the Book
A book signing for “First Light,” written by The Dalles Mayor Steve Lawrence, a decorated Vietnam veteran, will be Saturday, Dec. 6, at Klindt’s Booksellers and Stationers, 315 E. Second Street.
The novel about a soldier’s deployment to Vietnam in 1968 is also available on Amazon, and Nook by Barnes and Noble under the name S. Elliott Lawrence.
When Army Second Lieutenant Kenneth McKenzie stood watch in the jungles of Vietnam, he learned to dread the interval between night and dawn.
While his spirit reached out to the beauty of the rising sun, his eyes swept the perimeter of the outpost for signs of a stealthy enemy moving in for the kill.
The officer had learned after only a few weeks in the field to expect an attack when his men were sleeping and most vulnerable.
Sometimes the threat didn’t come from men — McKenzie and soldiers with First Platoon of Delta Company were once stalked by a tiger in the dense underbrush. And there were plenty of fire ants and scorpions scurrying about, as well as vipers slithering through the shadows.
Equally treacherous was some of the vegetation, like the “Wait a Minute” vine with its backward-facing thorns that would hook a passing soldier and halt his progress. Or Elephant Grass that sliced through the skin, setting the stage for a nasty infection in the humid environment and filthy living conditions.
“Childhood fears, thought to be eliminated by adulthood, could revisit a man in such a stifling, pungent jungle,” thought McKenzie at one point.
“After all, this was an army of boys, trying to be men, drafted or recruited away from their adolescence, with no adult experience to weigh in against those fears.”
He saw the platoon as a microcosm of the American army in Vietnam that was being asked to seek out an enemy who had spent generations learning to live and fight in its own backwoods. A tough Asian army that moved and lived comfortably in the darkness with none of the western fears. The native soldiers had defeated the Chinese, the Japanese, the French and now, maybe, the Americans.
Sometimes the fear was so great that it was almost unbearable; intense sudden pressure on McKenzie’s chest that felt as heavy as an elephant and forced him to fight for air.
One night, while setting up an ambush, McKenzie heard the faint sound of a Vietnamese voice nearby.
“He could not immediately tell what direction it was coming from. He stopped breathing. The smell of his own sweat seemed to permeate the night air. He was certain the moon had decided to get brighter at that very moment, making the ambush visible. He could feel his own fear so hard his hair tingled. His eyes began to burn as he strained to look for the origin of that voice,” reads a passage from “First Light,” the tale of McKenzie’s 1968-69 deployment.
The novel is based on the war-time experiences of Stephen Lawrence, mayor of The Dalles, who is the author. He published the 102,000 word book under the name S. Elliott Lawrence in order to avoid being mistaken with the famous American singer and actor.
“I wrote this as a novel with the characters based on real people because memories are not always accurate and I might be remembering something differently than another soldier. So, I wanted to depict the people who were important to me as I saw them,” said Lawrence.
He used the journal that he kept from the year in Vietnam to jog his memory of events and admits that it was often painful to recall the deaths of friends and men that had become his brothers in the trenches.
During Vietnam, the life expectancy of a lieutenant could sometimes be measured in hours. So it was unsurprising, if heartbreaking, to lose three of the men who had gone through officer training with him. One of these men, 1st Lt. James Claybaugh, had been the best man at his first wedding.
He admits that sometimes the tears flew freely as he sat at the keyboard for two hours each morning to write.
When asked how long it had taken to complete “First Light,” Lawrence replied, “Forty five years.”
The actual mechanics of chronicling his memories as part of the Army 1st Air Cavalry Division began in 2007 when he compiled folders of events that he had jotted down over the years.
Two years later, he set to work to expand the short story “The Volunteer,” written in college about his time at war that had been praised by an English teacher.
He felt confident about his ability to create a literary work after getting a short story titled “Hat Point Lookout” published by the Library Association of Eastern Oregon.
“I think the book is cathartic,” said Lawrence. “You just don’t worry about the emotions, you just write.”
McKenzie is the name assigned to his character and was chosen because it ties to his Scottish heritage. Other names closely model those of the soldiers he served with, including Pvt. James Wight of Tacoma, Wash., who has the last name “Wright” in the book.
Only the name of Major General George Forsythe remains unchanged.
“He was a true gentlemen and really cared about his men,” said Lawrence. “I decided to use his name because he has since passed and I felt the representation of him was accurate.”
In the first chapter of the novel, a brassy Wright meets McKenzie on a plane headed toward Vietnam in June of 1968.
“So, what was Officer Candidate School like, Lieutenant?” asked the soldier who seemed young at 19 to McKenzie, who was 22.
“Why do you ask?” he questioned.
“Oh, I thought about going to OCS once, but after basic training I decided I didn’t need any more harassment.”
McKenzie’s reply was terse: “You better hope that kind of harassment saves your butt, soldier. It’s meant to weed out the weak hearts and to make sure you get an officer who won’t break under fire. You’re infantry. You ought to know that.”
That interplay was telling as chapters unfolded and McKenzie took on incompetent commanders — some of whom had never been in battle — to protect his men from poor judgment calls.
He followed advice given by a superior office back in the states: “Take care of your men and they will take care of you. The chain of command won’t.”
Wright wished McKenzie good luck before they went their separate ways at the airport in Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam. They reconnected weeks later when Wright joined Delta Company and greeted McKenzie “as if he’d just seen his oldest friend and grinned ear to ear.”
Days later, Wright was shot and killed during a fierce firefight with North Vietnamese fighters.
A mournful McKenzie noted that the young man had no face left and wondered how his broken body was going to be repaired enough for viewing by his family.
“He was standing there trying to remember Wright’s face when Sergeant Koop knocked him to the ground as a mortar round exploded about 25 meters away,” wrote Lawrence of that experience.
He continues with, “The Medivac chopper came in out of the bright sky, blades popping. It was not Wright they laid out across the chopper floor. McKenzie had sealed off that memory. Three hundred and forty-four days left and whatever he felt was so politically important about the war had suddenly vanished. He had lost it. He looked up at another UH-1 slick hovering to the side as the Medivac bird lifted away.”
Despite the primal living conditions and horrific dramas playing in battle Lawrence portrays, through McKenzie, the importance of keeping some remnant of a polite society. For that reason, he cracked down hard on men who took war trophies, such as one soldier’s collection of ears, or otherwise abused the corpses of their enemy.
“I felt it was my job to be the last line of civilization,” he said.
That earned him the wrath of commanders who saw this brutality as an outlet for the incredible stress of an animalistic existence. Much of the narrative about problems within the command structure revolves around the character Lt. Colonel Fishmuth, who wages a vendetta against McKenzie.
Not only does he arbitrarily move the lieutenant to several different units, he denies McKenzie the mandated formal medal ceremony for a Silver Star. The third highest military honor was earned by McKenzie for taking action under direct fire to get two injured men off the battlefield.
“I felt like that commander had his boot on my cheek and was holding me down,” recalled Lawrence. “I told him, ‘Let me do what I know that I can do here and quit interfering with me.”
He said it is common in the military for a junior officer to have to work around the edicts of bad commanders. But it is not that common to have those stories told, so he sees that educational element of the book as important.
“That was another reason that I wanted to write this story as a novel,” he said. “The chain of command is a jealous mistress that you have to deal with and try to keep happy while you get the job done and do everything you can to protect your men on the ground.”
He said it is not important to have the “malevolent” officer who made his life miserable in Vietnam read “First Light.”
“I don’t really care. I just wanted to tell this story, get it published and move on,” said Lawrence.
He said one of the most difficult things to write about, and remember, was the day that Sgt. Koop had his leg shredded by a bullet and was flown off the battlefield. The seasoned soldier “looked like a walking cadaver, gaunt and tattered,” and spoke in a soft Southern drawl. He seemed invincible because he never became flustered no matter how fierce the battle got around him.
He quietly taught McKenzie how to be a leader that soldiers would respect and follow to hell.
One day in the field, Koop taught the lieutenant how to brew a hot drink comprised of coffee, hot chocolate and three packs of dry cream that boosted his energy level — and morale.
“There a bunch a things like this, LT, including recipes for C rations and LRRP meals that you will learn in time. Fields of fire ain’t nothin’ more than watchin’ and usin’ your instincts, but if you can’t fix your own food or forget to take your malaria pills or put purification tablets in your water, you’re not gonna make it anyway,” said Koop over a cup of the concoction.
Also dealt with in the novel is the death of a forward observer in a fiery helicopter crash that is still disbelieved by the soldier’s wife. She insists her husband is missing in action or on some type of a secret mission and has refused to give credence to Lawrence’s eyewitness account of the tragedy.
Before returning to the states in 1969, Lawrence earned two Bronze Stars for merit and valor. He came home to find himself addicted to the rush of adrenalin, a common aftermath of combat for warriors.
As an outlet for this need, he took up bareback bronco riding — and quickly was cured of the addiction.
“All it took was me getting stomped by a horse and I thought, ‘I’m done,’” said Lawrence, who became a trial lawyer and enjoyed a milder form of an addiction rush while fighting for his clients.
“First Light” ends with McKenzie’s arrival in San Francisco, Calif., while still in uniform. He encounters a hippy couple, who shrink away from him as if he is a monster.
“So this was how it was going to be…” writes Lawrence, who will pick up on that theme in his next novel, which is a work in progress that he expects to complete next year.