Our paths first crossed in 1974 when home was Chris Crozier's house in Pukalani. It was big enough to welcome farmer/writer Stu Nicholls, his wife and small son while he was looking for a house to rent. He and I had a lot in common - both from rural Illinois, a taste for the same music, both products of the same generation and both loving to tell stories about our days on Oahu.
Two big differences: He was a veteran and graduate of the University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture with every intention of returning to Vietnam. In subsequent years, our paths crossed any number of times, but I learned nothing about his demons despite interviewing him at length for a story that never got written. I forget why.
Stu returned to Vietnam as a tourist as soon as it was possible. He had to go through Mexico to get a visa since the U.S. didn't recognize The Socialist Republic of Vietnam. He wrote an emotion-based account of that visit. It was published in Honolulu magazine.
One evening, the telephone rang. It was Stu. He was in the end stages of writing a book and wanted me to take a look. Maui tradition: You can't ever say "no" to a friend. Going through the manuscript, I discovered a different Stu Nicholls.
During a 10-year period, Stu had written "Thunder Road: The Journey Home," an autobiographical novel about a man finding a kind of peace with vivid memories of his experiences as a soldier in Vietnam and how he was treated when he returned to the United States.
"Thunder Road" is the name actor Robert Mitchum gave to Route 13, a north-south highway notorious for being a popular target of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong combat forces. American convoys frequently had to fight through ambushes. "Journey Home" refers to the narrator's psychic travels.
The protagonist, Nick, was a gung-ho warrior. He volunteered for service when the Vietnam War was just gaining steam. An exemplary record in basic training led to a cushy assignment in Washington, D.C. He has a run-in with anti-war demonstrators. Impressed by his patriotic fervor, a general finally processes Nick's escape from chrome helmets and spit-shined shoes. He was on his way to Vietnam.
He landed at a time when Gen. William Westmoreland personally greeted "newbies" when they landed at Ton Son Nhat airport. Nick was impressed. The attention fueled his desire to "get some." During the first six months of his tour, Nick falls in love with a Cambodian refugee but has to leave her behind. In the second part of his tour, Nick is a grunt who usually ends up walking point when his squad goes looking for "Charlie."
Told in flashbacks, Nick's story covers his war experiences in the context of several postwar visits. Nicholls writes combat scenes in stark and unflinching detail. There are an equal number of anecdotes about camaraderie and Army idiocies, including being brought up on charges of dereliction of duty. He'd fallen to sleep on guard because he ran out of the dexedrine needed to work all day and most of the night. He's also adopted by a Vietnamese family.
Most of the novel is about Nick's postwar experiences. He was reviled and misunderstood in America. He was respected and understood by his former enemy. A pivotal scene has him sitting across a table from an NVA officer and finding out they had fought in the same bloody battle.
While farming on Maui, Nick is haunted. He begins a one-man effort to help street kids abandoned by their American fathers and Vietnamese mothers. He brings home one of those kids with disastrous results. A series of visits to the country he has come to love involve clandestine efforts to find Americans who were left behind. The search for MIAs leads to Nick sweating out encounters with hostile Vietnamese authorities.
But where is home? It turns out, home is a Vietnamese woman. He fell in love with her in Vietnam and married her on Maui. She not only worked alongside him on his farm for decades but, more importantly, was his emotional anchor.
"Thunder Road: The Journey Home" is a 468-page odyssey that Stu hopes will help explain post-traumatic stress syndrome. But, that's a sidelight. The book tells a story that's fascinating, enjoyable, and, yes, disturbing. You can meet Stuart Nicholls Saturday between 3 and 5 p.m. at the Saigon Cafe in Wailuku. He'll sign a copy.
"Thunder Road: The Journey Home" is available from Amazon.com.; $18 for the print version, $9.99 for a download.
* Ron Youngblood is a former staff writer for The Maui News. His email address is email@example.com.