When Green Beret H. Lee Barnes came home from his tour of duty in Vietnam, he was discharged at the Oakland Army Terminal and given an airline ticket. He had some time to kill before his flight, so he headed to the nearest bar at the San Francisco Airport.
The Army had confiscated his military I.D. prior to his release, so when the bartender demanded proof of age, Barnes had nothing to show. The bartender looked at three rows of ribbons on Barnes' uniform and said: "Well, general, you may have won the war, but if you can't prove you're 21 you can't drink here."
It wasn't the words so much as the tone that infuriated Barnes and made him realize that he and the bartender were separated by experiences that could never be reconciled.
Yet reconciliation is exactly what Barnes is aiming for in his first published collection of short stories, "Gunning for Ho" (University of Nevada Press, 2000, $15). "These stories are intended for that bartender," he said.
The title story, "Gunning for Ho," is the last of seven in the collection. The title refers to a drunken idea tossed around by three guys in the Special Forces: "Let's go to Hanoi, find Ho Chi Minh and shoot him. War's over." In this story a brilliant but unbalanced soldier takes the idea to heart and tries to carry it out, with far-reaching consequences.
A novella, "The Tunnel Rat, " the best in the collection, explores an unusual friendship between two men.
"A Lovely Day in the A Shau Valley" will probably become a sports classic. It features a strange baseball game between the Viet Cong and their American counterparts, played during a long one-day truce called just to play ball. And two of the stories feature fathers who are trying to come to grips in different ways with the deaths of their sons in Vietnam.
The collection includes an afterword by John Clark Pratt, a veteran and expert in American literature on Vietnam. With more than 700 novels and short story collections published about Americans fighting the Vietnam War, Pratt assures us that Barnes has something new to say.
"Perhaps because of his emotional maturity, perhaps because of the distanced perspective he has on his subject matter, Barnes' fiction is quite different from that of other Vietnam War veteran writers," says Pratt. Those writers were largely realistic, gritty and highly critical of nearly every aspect of the war. Barnes' work, on the other hand, is characterized by an acceptance of the war and a willingness to use it as a vehicle to explore larger issues.
"I want to be a writer, not a Vietnam writer," said Barnes in a recent phone interview.
Barnes, now 56, has been a resident of Las Vegas for more than 30 years. After collecting myriad experiences as a deputy sheriff, narcotics agent, private investigator, martial arts instructor and casino dealer, he is now an English and creative writing instructor at the Community College of Southern Nevada. Of course he loves "Gunning for Ho" and hopes that his book will be available to every veteran who wants to read it.
"These are not just my stories but stories that I heard from other vets," he said. "I'm giving voice to stories that on one would listen to, no one wanted to hear."
And Barnes has hopes that his Vietnam novel, "A Medal for Joey," will be published one day.
But he also has two other non-Vietnam related novels and a collection of non-fiction essays on the casino business making the rounds at publishing houses.
Barnes may have gotten a somewhat late start in the writing business (he got his MFA at Arizona State University in 1992 although he began publishing in the '80s) but he's making up for lost time now.
"I've made a commitment to it, the writing life," he said. "I tell my students it's not a sprint but a marathon."
And certainly he doesn't regret any of his earlier experiences or what would he have to write about today?
"I've always found the world of the written word fascinating," he said. "Even police reports are narratives. I've always loved language and story-telling."
He loves John Steinbeck ("unquestionably my favorite author") and hates the movie "Platoon" ("no two sergeants would try to kill each other like that").
The bitterness he once felt is now gone.
"The teaching life has its own challenges and demands," he said. "It can be very compatible with my writing life, but then sometimes things pile up. For the past three weeks I haven't written anything of my own...and then I get irritable."
But not irritable enough to throw a punch at a bartender.
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