Bacque's new e-book tells war stories from Vietnam
LAFAYETTE, La. (AP) — In a lifetime marked by public service, Odon "Don" Bacque's greatest service may have been in Vietnam 1968-70 and as a Louisiana legislator 1988-92.
The climate was brutal, hot and oppressively humid. Corrupt officials had the government by the neck. Walking down the streets of the capital city, Bacque couldn't distinguish the allies from the enemies.
And that was Baton Rouge. Think what Vietnam must have been like.
So that's not a great joke. Bacque does better in his new e-book, "A Walk in the Park: A Vietnam Comedy."
Available from Amazon, "A Vietnam Comedy" has none of the irony and cynicism with which classic military comedies like "M(asterisk)A(asterisk)S(asterisk)H" and "Catch-22" have stamped the American perception of war. Bacque is too earnest, and finds too much wonder in the experience, to follow that path.
But like Hooker and Heller, Bacque makes a point that isn't always obvious to those of us who haven't served: When America decides to send millions of young people overseas on a killing mission, supplying them lavishly with the latest in destructive technology, strange things happen.
Sometimes those things are tragic. Sometimes they're funny.
"My experience wasn't heroic," Bacque said Wednesday in an interview. "It was comedic. . Those things that we did to occupy that time is what most young people do when they're in a crazy situation."
And crazy situations large and small crop up throughout the story, starting with Bacque's premature departure from law school in 1968, which did away with his draft deferment.
Bacque was assured that his poor eyesight would keep him out of combat duty. But, taunted by friends in Officer Candidate School, he wrote "airborne" and "Special Forces" atop his "dream sheet" of requested assignments.
"Realistically, I'm afraid of heights," Bacque said. "There's no way if you asked me to jump out of an airplane cold turkey that I think, 'That's a great idea.' It was horrifying to me."
But Bacque, service life being what it is, was assigned to airborne training. He managed to get his wings and wound up in that place he was never supposed to go: South Vietnam, in a portion of the country where he was assured — again — that enemy activity was lightest.
Bacque spent much of his war delivering piles of piasters, the Vietnamese currency, to Montegnard villagers who were supporting U.S. efforts to beat back the locally raised Viet Cong guerillas and North Vietnamese Army regulars. The Montegnards, a mistreated minority in Vietnam, are tough, they know how to drink, and they expected Bacque to know his way around a bottle, too.
Later, we're introduced to Ricky, the giant snake that Bacque and his fellow officers named after their commanding officer. And there was Bacque's big helicopter adventure.
Think of "Apocalypse Now," the "Ride of the Valkyries" scene, when Huey and Cobra helicopters sweep in low over the ocean. Now imagine the scene again with most of the soldiers replaced by hogs: fully grown, partially tied, pot-bellied Vietnamese pigs.
You've heard the phrase "when pigs fly." As it turns out, even when presented with the opportunity, the pigs don't really care for it.
Bacque figures that of every 10 servicemen who went to Vietnam, one served as a front-line combat soldier. The rest worked in support roles. .
"The book really started in Vietnam," Bacque said. "When I was there, I thought to myself, I'd like to write a book about my experiences because I thought my experiences were different from most people's.
"But I always struggled with: How do you write a book? How do you start it? Where do the stories come from? As the years passed, those stories became fainter and fainter."
A couple of events coincided to resurrect the memories and put them into writable form. One happened a couple of years ago, when Bacque and wife Cookie moved to a new home. They'd been married before Bacque left for Vietnam in 1968, and in the move they found the letters he'd written her from Vietnam.
"And so I was able to reconstruct those stories through the letters," Bacque said.
The second bit of motivation came from Carl Bauer, who encouraged Bacque to join him in Kim Graham's Life Writing class at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
"That gave me the tools to be able to start writing and be able to craft a book out of those letters," Bacque said. "I had the discipline because I had to turn in a story every week. So what I would try to do is write a chapter a week. Then it was critiqued by the group. When it was finished, I was able to put it together into a book."
Writing the book also encouraged him to look up friends from Vietnam with whom he'd been out of contact. It might have finally put to rest some of the loneliness that Vietnam-era soldiers felt.
"You went to Vietnam alone," Bacque said. "And you came home alone."
He's also been back to Vietnam twice since the war ended, and joined fellow vet Rudy Bourg in 1983 in promoting a "Welcome Home From Vietnam" event at Cajun Field. It attracted Armed Forces Radio personality Chris Noel and Ron Kovic, whose story was told in "Born on the Fourth of July."
"As I look back, the thing that strikes me as a writer is the miraculous set of circumstances that were completely beyond my control," Bacque said. "It just happened. The people I met. The places I was assigned to. The tasks that were given to me. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought any of that could have happened.
"And what strikes me the most is how lucky I was through this whole process, the whole endeavor. Some people would say it's fate. Some people say it's the grace of God. But there are things you can't control in your life, some good and some bad. And for me, it was, looking back on it, a miraculous experience."