Oct 5, 2014

Book Review: "Blue-Eyed Boy" A Memoir, by Robert Timberg

There are two types of courage, both equally worthy of our respect and admiration. We all know the first; it's the battlefield courage that enables John Basilone on the 'Canal, Dan Daly at Belleau Wood, and Jason Dunham in Western Anbar to rise to the occasion. It's the second type of courage that's perhaps more difficult; it's looking into a mirror at 0355 and seeing your shattered visage staring back as you wonder who might hire you, will anyone ever love you, and if life is worth continuing – and then stubbornly pushing though another day. That's Bob Timberg type of courage.

“Blue-Eyed Boy” is Robert Timberg's story, and one of the best memoir's you'll ever read. The story of his life since being catastrophically burned outside of Danang in January 1967, Timberg presents a story that is simultaneously funny, sardonic, and painfully honest. A short-timer with only 13 days remaining in Vietnam, his story begins when his Amtrac rolled over a landmine outside of Danang “I felt myself lifted from the top of the Amtrac, as if in the eye of a hurricane, except in place of wind and rain I was being carried aloft by flames.”

Timberg survived, but needed to rebuild both his head and his life. In painfully vivid writing, he describes not understanding the severity of his injuries until overhearing a nurse casually ask “where's The Burn?” when referring to him, the 35 operations he endured (one without anesthesia that saved an eye), and learning how his skin would not only never grow back, but would instead contract his face with thick, ropey, hideous scars. The only constant in his life besides post-operative pain, and an increasing depression, was the unflagging attention and love of his wife Janie. He also writes how after 18 months of constant operations of finally accepted reality; that he was “horribly disfigured and plastic surgery could only do so much.” But Timberg's time as a casualty was coming to a close; the Marine Corps discharged him as 100% disabled (calling his wounds 'highly repugnant'), while the hospital prepared to discharge him. It was “nut-cutting time,” he wrote; “how would skills such as shooting Expert with a .45 handgun or field-stripping an M14 translate into a civilian job?” And a job was suddenly important; his wife was pregnant.

Call it Fate, call it Opportunity, or call it constant reinforcement from his wife, but Timberg threw a dart and it landed on Journalism...he was accepted at Stanford and despite the fact he couldn't even type; Timberg quickly discovered he could surely write. Stanford also taught him tolerance, and forced him to begin to confront the inequalities of the Vietnam War. Few American males fought, fewer volunteered, and as a disfigured Marine combat veteran on a liberal campus, Timberg had little in common with either the students or the professors. But surprisingly, he developed a respect for anti-war protestors like the former Stanford student body president David Harris. Instead of fleeing to the cushy confines of Sweden or Canada, or faking a sanity issue like chickenhawk singer Ted Nugent, Harris refused his draft notice, was arrested, and jailed for three years. That worked for Timberg, who believed 'there was no free lunch...you had to put yourself in peril, in either the Big House or the Boonies.” Guys like Harris were OK by Timberg.

Life was becoming a series of benchmarks for Timberg: an initial job at Annapolis's Evening Capital where he quickly discovered that when in the field interviewing cops and citizens for a story he had no sense of being disfigured – one hurdle successfully negotiated. Timberg soon discovered he was a very good reporter – another hurdle jumped. A new job as the Baltimore Evening Sun's political reporter...and in the Spring of 1979, after nine years working as a reporter, Timberg was selected as one of Harvard's prestigious Nieman Fellows, an award given to a dozen promising American mid-career journalists annually. It wasn't a Pulitzer, Timberg writes, but a recognition that he could excel in his chosen field. “I'd broken the plane of the goal line...I knew now I could run with anyone.”

In “Blue-Eyed Boy” Timberg recounts scoring a game-winner with his first book “The Nightingale Song,” the New York Times Notable Book of the Year in 1995. Written following the Iran-Contra scandal in which Marines Ollie North, and Bud McFarlane, along with Admiral John Poindexter, were accused of trading weapons for hostages with Iran, Timberg finally realized there was no reason for him to think of himself as a victim of the Vietnam War; that he was a national-class author and journalist. This awakening was due in part to his new friendship with then-junior Senator John McCain, who decided that his life would not be directed by his time as a POW, and insights from fellow Vietnam Marine (and Sect of the Navy) Jim Webb, who also had a respect for the anti-war protestors like Harris who went to jail for their beliefs.” The book enabled Timberg to come full-circle, he wrote, “he'd fought a war, became a casualty of that war, and was now chronicling the impact of his generation's uneven response to it.”

Although written by a member of the Vietnam War generation, “Blue-Eyed Boy” is a book worth reading by everyone, especially those many thousands wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. As Timberg says, and every Marine will understand, 'what I needed to do was not to hide from the world, but to take it on.” Well done, Capt Timberg; “Blue-Eyed Boy” is the ultimate example of “Keep Attacking!"

Blue-Eyed Boy A Memoir by Robert Timberg Penguin Group, 2014 ISBN # 978-1-59420-566-8 $ 27.95

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