A Baseball Reminiscence

Spring comes to America and one thinks of fathers playing catch with sons and daughters. Often, words are not involved. A person with eyes closed can tell a lot about the relationship—the sound of the baseball in the gloves, the cadence of the exchange, the pauses, the imagined life of an unseen baseball and the partners who throw it.

I think of playing catch with my father. He loved to play catch, loved baseball; Lou Gehrig was his boyhood idol. I think, no I know, he would rather have been playing ball instead of doing what he did—his job. And that’s saying something when you consider that a significant part of his job was making love on the movie screen to actresses such as Ginger Rogers, Barbara Stanwyk, Jane Wyman, Rita Hayworth, Betty Davis, Ann Sheridan, Olivia De Havilland, Virginia Mayo and other lesser known film companions. Beyond baseball, my father’s great love was singing, and he was more fulfilled while singing in musicals than he would have been even playing first base for the Yankees. The titles of musicals which featured his fine tenor voice include The Desert Song, Shine on Harvest Moon, My Wild Irish Rose, One Sunday Afternoon. Dennis Morgan was his stage name and he appeared in 52 films between 1938 and 1958, mostly in starring roles.ALIVE Media A Baseball Reminiscence Stan Morner Dennis Morgan and Ronald Reagan

Back to baseball. Morgan, whose real name was Stanley Morner, batted left handed and threw right. Taught me to do the same. Made sense in those days. Now we’ve got switch hitters galore. That’s even better. But he could hit with power, my father. “I knocked one over the fence in Wrigley Field,” he told me. I might have been seven years old at the time. I believed him. Years later, I found this time-worn article in one of the scrap books my mother kept; it confirmed his home run where it was 339 feet down the foul line in right field. This occurred in one of the mock baseball games that featured Hollywood celebrities. The one in which Morgan hit his home run packed 25,000 people into that Pacific Coast League park.

My father, Dennis Morgan, and his co-worker at Warner Brothers studio, Ronald Reagan, played some of these mock baseball games. They had been made stars by the Warner Brothers publicity department in the same year, a ‘class’ of five actors and actresses who were introduced as ‘stars’ together. One other member of that class was Jane Wyman, who would become Reagan’s first wife.

Dennis Morgan and Ronald Reagan would often be cast in the same kind of film roles, at least once, simultaneously. The day Reagan was given the role of Custer and showed up in the Costume Department at the studio to try on the uniform, he found Dennis Morgan’s name attached to the coat. Reagan learned a profound message about how studios manipulated actor’s careers. It turned out there had been a change of mind, and the two contract players happened to be the last to know.

Reagan and Dad had both been athletes and took their parts even is such tomfoolery with some seriousness. So on one play, Reagan actually slid into second base at full speed. Dad was either playing short stop or second base. He told me he heard a crack. As Reagan writhed on the ground in pain, other actors came running out saying to themselves, “What a funny gag Ronnie just pulled off. Look at that. He’s making it seem real. Great actor!” They were going to get him up and join in a laugh with the audience. Dad pushed them away and didn’t let anyone touch the man who had just broken one of his legs and not in the show biz sense, but for real.

Reagan always remembered Dennis Morgan’s act of perception and kindness. Many years later when my father and mother were driving from the SKJ Ranch to visit their family in the Bay Area, they had a near fatal automobile accident on Highway 5. While they were in the hospital in Tracy in critical conditions, I was flooded with phone calls from their many friends. One of the first calls came from the White House.

Dennis Morgan had disappointments and successes both in his career and in baseball. Here are the stories of one such disappointment and one success.

Here is this actor who is as close to a natural for the part of Lou Gehrig as one could find. Here’s a guy who hung out and practiced with ballplayers: who knew the game; who would not have needed a stand in or trick photography to hit the home runs left-handed the way Gehrig did. So what happened when they made the Lou Gehrig story into a move? Morgan got shut out. They picked Gary Cooper, a right-handed batter who was known for many acting skills, hitting and throwing a baseball not among them. They had to use trick photography to make it look right and they hired Babe Herman to do the action scenes. It was just like when MGM did “A Pretty Girl is like a Melody” with Dennis Morgan lip-synching Allen Jones’ voice, when Morgan had a better voice anyway.

But in the end, Dad threw a smoking strike down the middle of the plate, something that came out right not just for my father but for community. He created something he called “The Two Strike Series.” There existed in the 1940s, in the Los Angeles area, an informal organization of major league baseball players who met as “The Hot Stove League.” This consisted of league baseball players and those connected with major league baseball that lived in the Southern California area. Remember that there was no major league baseball in California or the western states at that time. Dennis Morgan had many friends in this group; Leo Durocher, Lefty O”Doul, Bob Lemon, and others whose names might not be familiar to readers today. They included batting champions, base stealers, top players.ALIVE Media A Baseball Reminiscence Stan Morner Dennis Morgan and Ronald Reagan Bob Lemon 2

The idea for The Two Strike Series came when my father saw a safety poster of a boy who had been hit by a car. He decided that “any child who had to play in the street had two strikes against him and the third strike could be getting hit by a car.” He conceived the idea of staging baseball games using Hollywood personalities and his friends from the Hot Stove League. They would play fun games that were mostly meant for entertainment, show case celebrities and major leaguers, and sell tickets. These games played in 1946-7. The money they made enabled the community to build Two Strike Park, a facility which still exists on the five acres of land purchased in La Crescenta. I had the privilege of being the batboy for these games when I was fourteen years old, something that included playing catch with major league baseball players.

More than 40 years after he donated the land for Two Strike Park, the late Dennis Morgan was finally recognized for his contribution to the community. His granddaughter, Mara Morner-Ritt, accepted the award for him. In the words she spoke, Mara said, “He was just a decent family man. That’s what I liked most about him.”

Playing Catch

I’m playing catch with Dad
one last time. He tosses.
“It’s getting to be the late innings.”
The ball smacks our worn gloves.
“What do you know about death, Dad?”
He rifles a hot one my way.
“You just kind of stay around.”
I think of Dante,
The Tibetan Book of the Dead,
Greek shadows hanging around Hades.
This staying around thing bothers me.
I flick a lazy curve his way.
It bothers me a lot
because he’s dead.
Probably knows something I don’t.
Bothers me even more
because he was a Christian
the last time I saw him.
I slip him my best slider.
That pitch has some bite to it.
“Do they play baseball in heaven, Dad?”
I’ll be darned if the old guy isn’t smiling.
“Sure they do. That’s the good news.”
“What could be bad about baseball?”
“You’re set to pitch tomorrow, Butch.”

After three years as an officer in the U.S. Air Force, Stan Morner spent a career as a high school English teacher, most of it in the Mt. Diablo Unified School District. Mr. Morner is a vice president in The Ina Coolbrith Circle, a literary organization founded by California’s first Poet Laureate, Ina Coolbrith. He has been a swimmer with the Walnut Creek Masters Swim Team for nearly 30 years and is a member of the Lafayette Orinda Presbyterian Church. Stan Morner was born in 1934 in Wisconsin and came to California when he was nine months old because his father had been given a contract as an actor/singer with MGM. His father, AKA Dennis Morgan, made 52 films in Hollywood as a leading man. Stan Morner has published poetry, fiction, and essays in a number of periodicals, including California English, Kansas Magazine, Anais, an Iyternational Journal, Collages and Bricolages, and The San Jose Mercury News, Bulletin of the California State Library Foundation. Mr. Morner is currently working on a book concerning his family’s experiences in Hollywood. “Playing Catch” is a shortened version of one of the chapters in this work in progress.

And Then I Wrote…

The Father / Son Competition Never Ends

On December 4, 2015 my age numbered exactly 84 years, 10 months, and 2 days. While that number, 84-10-2, does not usually call for celebration, it bears great importance to me. My father lived 60 years, 10 months, and 1 day. So on December 4, therefore, I beat the “old man’s” longevity by twenty-four years. (For those attempting to do arithmetic on their fingers, I will be eighty-five February 2, 2016.)

Each year since 1991, when I tied and then passed Dad’s days, it has led me to take stock of my life and examine where I have been, what I have done, and, to some extent, what I should have done, as well as what I should not have done. Frankly, I avoid the latter searches because history is history and while we may alter the telling of the facts, those facts remain what they are—like it or not. As the years pass, I have become more and more introspective.

My mother died at 73. On my upcoming birthday I will have outlived her by 11 years, 5 months, and 29 days. Mother/son relationships, however, differ greatly from those of father/son. Freud, of course, would call the nurturing mother and competitive father relationships “Oedipal.” Whatever one calls it, I do not mark the time of my mother’s death the way I do Dad’s.

Father and Son Arm WrestlingAfter two years in the Army, three in community college, and three to get my B. A. and teaching credential, I was just two months into my first full time job, teaching drama and English in high school, when he passed away. I deeply regret that he did not get to share any of my achievements and successes that I experienced as a professional adult.

He did not live to see me obtain an M. A. then a Ph.D. He did, however, get called to schools to ascertain why Edwin, that’s me, scored so highly on standardized test scores while doing average, at best, work in school. Nor would he ever have predicted that I would author eight books, two full length plays, and I do not know how many short works of research, opinion, and literature. Would he appreciate that I became Principal of an American school in France, as well as Chair of the Academic Senate at a major university? He had just a sixth grade education, so he probably would have had difficulty understanding my literary pride and academic success.

He did not get to see the joy I found with my wife, two children, and five grandchildren. He did, however, get to be exacerbated and frustrated by my surly, introverted, angry, and unresponsive attitude as a teenager. (Can you imagine a surly, introverted, angry, and unresponsive teenager? Never!)

As a four year-old child he emigrated from England to Scranton, Pennsylvania. He was in his fifties when we as a family moved to California. He did some, but quite limited, travel. How would he react to my having visited every country in North and Central America, as well four countries in Asia, three in South America, two in Africa, and fifteen or twenty in Europe, plus Israel which is in the Middle East?
After immigrating he lived in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and California. How would he relate to my having visited forty-nine of the fifty states, missing only ND? I also had mailing addresses in eight states: PA, NJ, CA, GA, WA, MI, IN, and VA.

He might have understood and related to my high school and university teaching, writing, and administrative work. He knew about the twenty or so part time jobs of my youth, but how would he relate to my falling into the greatest “gig” in history; lecturing about American Musical Theater on cruise ships (eight times), as well as teaching it as a full semester course at Purdue, at the DVC Emeritus Program and at Elder hostels?

My favorite all time job—actor—required great energy, devotion, and dedication. Pop always regarded acting as a complete waste of time and energy and insisted that I should have a profession or career “to fall back on.” He was 100% right on that one, as I later learned. Still, I would like to have shared some of my better, and even the not so good, performances with him.

Pop and I did share one great passion: Baseball. He had played what was then called semi-pro ball. When I was a teenager I heard from people who had seen him play that he was an excellent hitter. Hitting was the weakest part of my game, but he would never teach or help me improve. Instead, he would ridicule. That hurts to this day, but it was what it was.

My proudest and happiest moments, however, concern my wife, two children, and five grandchildren whom he, of course, never met. I will not bore you with stories about the grandkids. (It would take at least twenty-three pages.) I choose to think that they would have given him a great deal of pleasure; especially the boys who played soccer, baseball, and basketball.

The song “My Way” states: “I’ve loved, I’ve laughed and cried, I’ve had my fill, my share of losing.” It would have been nice to share both the winning and the losing with him as adult to adult. That, however, was not to be. Instead I count the number of years that I have outlived him, “outlived” in longevity, but also in the sense of the delight a rewarding life can bring. So instead I count years, months, and days in a meaningless, one contestant, long-since decided competition. Suffice it to say that on February 2, 2016, I will be eighty-five years old. Let’s leave it there.

So now you know almost everything about the relationship between my father and me, or at least what parts I am willing to put on paper. Will I be around to beat to beat by 25 my father’s life span of 60-10-1 years next December 4? Twenty-six in 2017? Obviously, none of us, fortunately, knows. I hope I shall, of course. I also hope that anyone who has the gumption to read all of this will enjoy life as much I have and still do. I wish Dad were here to read and discuss it with me.

The Valentine’s Day Advice Column

As Valentine’s Day approaches, many men are filled with a certain amount of anxiety trying to find just the right token oftheir love and affection for their wife, girlfriend, or partner. A card is expected, as is flowers and chocolates in some cases, but what about lingerie, dinner out or jewelry? Just to clarify, those last few items are only required if you’re crazy in love, dating or recently married. The question of the month is: Do we really need to succumb to the overwhelming holiday pressure of St. Valentine? Is it mandatory that we purchase some traditional Hallmark paraphernalia to convey our feelings of admiration and affection for the significant other in our lives, and do we expect something in return?

Red Valentines Heart CardAllow me to assume the advice columnist role and answer all of the Valentine’s Day inquiries I get every year around this time. My goal is to provide my male readers with some clarity and enlightenment in an attempt to bring you all the love and appreciation you desire. Please address your questions to Doctor Valentine’s Day or just Dr. VD. No…wait, that doesn’t sound quite right. Captain VD? No, I’m not a Superhero unless you consider my “love” skills to be… never mind. Mr. VD? That’s better.

Dear Mr. VD: I’m as romantic as the next guy, but my wife never seems to appreciate my Valentine’s Day gifts. Every year, I do my best to find my wife something special, but it never fails that I somehow let her down. Is a George Foreman grill or a Paula Dean crock pot such a horrible gift? She loves to cook and I love to eat. Am I not, technically, bringing us closer together? Signed, Kitchen Casanova

Dear Kitchen Casanova: You’re driving the right car, but just heading down the wrong road. Even Guy Fieri and Gina De Laurentiis enjoy a meal out from time to time. Pick a cool little restaurant to take her to (Baci in Danville, Salvadote Ristorante in Walnut Creek or Casa Orozco in Dublin) and tell her the food won’t compare to what she makes for you on a nightly basis, but you wanted to give her a night off to show your appreciation. You might want to take your dessert to go, if you know what I mean?

Dear Mr. VD: I go all out every year with the gifts. Victoria’s Secret, the Shane Company and FTD Florists know me and my credit card intimately. That said, in return I usually get some lame coupon book for free hugs, a foot massage and a “day off” that I’ve never once tried to actually redeem. How do I get some gift appreciation this year? Signed, Even Steven

Dear Even Steven: I hear ya bro! You obviously take good care of your woman when it comes to the cool love-swag department. Going on the assumption that she just needs some gift ideas, I’d suggest making a list and have one of the kids pass it along to her. Golf lessons, Warriors tickets or a gift card to Buffalo Wild Wings shouldn’t be expecting too much. I bet once she gets some ideas, she’ll go “all in.”

Dear Mr. VD: Because I’ve always bought my two daughters cards, flowers and a little token of my fatherly love, they think Valentine’s Day is like “Christmas-light.” Granted, Cupid is a younger, shorter, diaper-wearing version of Santa, but Santa-like none the less. At what age do I remind my teenage she-devils that the little man is also armed with a nasty Hunger Games type crossbow and if they don’t start acting more appreciative to me and my baby mama they might just get an arrow in the a….. ah backside? Signed, Cupid Claus

Dear Cupid Claus: You’re stuck brother. The bond between father and daughter is precious and should never be broken, even if it costs you a little scratch (aka money) on a bogus capitalistic holiday created by greedy retailers. Buy your flowers at Safeway, your cards at Party City and as for gifts, KISS – Keep it Simple Stupid. Thirty-seven fifty, max per kid. Gift cards or cereal are always good options. The little monsters will eventually come around and see what a great dad they have in you.

Dear Mr. VD: My gal has a smoking hot bod and I’m all about the lacy nighttime apparel, but sadly she never buys me anything sexy. Granted, I’m 5’6” and tipping the scales at about 263 pounds, but I like to look pretty too. It hurts my feelings that she never gives me a set of silk boxer shorts or a satin robe when I’ve maxed out my Frederick’s of Hollywood charge account on little things for her. Signed, Sad Sack

Dear Sad Sack: I feel your pain. I’m not the Calvin Klein underwear model I used to be either. That said, I like to look good for my lady when we have some romantic alone time. Maybe if you drop her hints, perhaps leave the computer logged on to the Lingerie Diva website. They have a dynamite men’s page. I know this because of a little thing called research. Hopefully she’ll get the message and pick you up something thongtacular this year.

Dear Mr. VD: My life partner and I have always exchanged heartfelt handwritten cards and small gifts that have some sentimental significance in our lives. We make an effort to do something together; such as see a movie or go for a hike and then in the evening we have a family dinner with the kids. Is that wrong? Should we be doing more on this romantic holiday? Signed, Simple Life

Dear Simple Life: You and your partner are my Valentine’s Day heroes! You’ve got exactly the right idea of what this “holiday” should be about and signify. We don’t need to load up with See’s candy (although I do love See’s candy) and cheesy cards to express our love. As busy as our lives are, sincerity and togetherness means more than a heart-shaped Mylar balloon, a bouquet of rose-shaped chocolate-chip cookies or a mangy stuffed animal. Heart on my brothers, heart on!

Obviously, I’m not a real advice columnist. I only play one in the magazine. However, if I was, I would say that it’s been reported by many sources that spouses (and kids) spell LOVE, T-I-M-E. Time together is the most important way to spend a holiday whose theme is love. Love who you love and let those that you love know how much you love them by being present not giving presents. See what I did there?

Take it from Mr.VD, Valentine’s Day done right can leave a lasting impression the rest of the year… or at least until St. Patrick’s Day. Then it’s all about drinking to excess, celebrating with that deranged little leprechaun and kissing the Blarney Stone. I can’t wait!

Salami and the White Horse

Book Review by Robin Fahr

Being an ALIVE Magazine book reviewer as well as a television talk show host, I’m in the enviable position of getting to read great works, both fiction and non-fiction, and then getting to interview their authors, face to face. When I interview someone I really like, I automatically love their book, but in the case of Vietnam War Veteran Kenneth Levin, whose third book, Salami and the White Horse, has just been released, I’m fairly certain I would have loved it anyway.ALIVE Media book Cover Salami and the White Horse Vietnam War Veteran Kenneth Levin

Levin is the author of the novel, Crazy Razor, and a short story collection, The Many Deaths of Comrade Binh, both fictional yet based on actual events that occurred during the Vietnam War. Salami and the White Horse is his first non-fiction work, based on an army doctor’s Vietnam diary, discovered nearly five decades after the last entry.

Levin is the doctor’s brother, who read the diary and reluctantly started a journey which has taken him from the late 1930’s to today, from Chicago’s West Side to Vietnam, from birth to death, from tears to laughter, with plenty of painful and warm memories along the way. Salami and the White Horse describes this journey where interpersonal relationships, family, sibling rivalry, narcissistic brilliance, love, and humor are presented in a bittersweet, unvarnished, and gritty narrative – a roller coaster ride of tears and laughter.

Levin just returned from his National Book Launch in Miramar, where his wry style and quick wit appealed to audiences of all ages, with special emphasis on veterans and their families. We recently caught up in-studio and again in-livingroom:

ALIVE Magazine: After a novel and then a collection of short stories of war and Vietnam, your third book, Salami and the White Horse, recently premiered in Florida, ground zero for Veterans, it seems. The launch was a huge success, attended by all ages, perhaps because Salami is as much about family and history as war and Vietnam. Is this a shift in your writing?

Kenny Levin: Shift? Maybe so. Probably more like a burp. It is non-fiction through and through, whereas Crazy Razor and The Many Deaths of Comrade Binh are fiction. Or at least they have thin veneers of fiction layered on top of cores of fact and reality. There is no veneer on Salami.

AM: You take your readers for a ride on an emotional roller coaster. I laughed and cried. What compelled you to write a book like this?

KL: If my writing can produce tears and giggles, I’m satisfied with my work. What first compelled me was what I thought would be a good book for very little effort on my part. I had my brother’s diary from his time as an army doctor in Vietnam. I thought that all I’d have to do is transcribe it, add a bit of narrative between entries and, voila, an instant book. That was one of my dumber moves. It was so boring. Then I found the diary of a North Vietnamese doctor who set up a clinic not far from where my brother was stationed. I turned the book into a comparison of the two diaries. Still boring.  So then I added a bit of the two doctors’ history, and it was a little bit better but still lousy. It was at this stage where one of the early draft readers, a clinical psychologist, suggested I focus and expand on the family dynamics that I had brought in as part of my brother’s history and add more about the politics of the time. That transformed the book. By the time I finished, catharsis and telling a tale of family were the compelling factors. The easy book with little effort on my part was long dead.

AM: How did you come up with that title?

KL: Before I started writing Crazy Razor in 2009, I read a “how-to-write-a-book” piece put out by some writers’ workshop. The first direction was to pick a title before you start writing. That is possibly the worst advice you can give anyone who wants to write. When I start to write – and I’m not alone in this – I have only the vaguest of ideas where my writing’s going to go. How could I name a book before I know what the book is about? Salami and the White Horse went through two complete revisions and then 13 drafts. It went from a transcription of a doctor that just happened to be my brother’s war diary, to a comparison of two doctors’ war diaries, to a book of family dynamics and political history, until finally it became a combination of all of that. The focus of this unfocused book is three men: my brother, my father, and me. My dad was a salami fiend. He could live on salami supplemented with chocolate and be quite happy. My brother was the crown prince of the family. Brilliant, charming, good looking. And what did a crown prince travel on? Certainly not an Oldsmobile. Prince Charmings sit astride a white stallion. Hence the title.  I was worried about the editors’ take on my choice of title and they did change it. But just a bit. I submitted Salami and a White horse. They changed it to Salami and the White Horse. Imagine if I published the book in a scratch-n-sniff format, like one of those children’s books. Garlic and horse manure.

AM: Yes, except I imagine the manure of a prince’s white horse doesn’t have much smell. What about your shift from the fiction of the novel and short stories to non-fiction?

KL: That was an eye-opener. Because I want all my writing to be realistic and credible, I spend more time researching and fact-checking than actually writing. With the first two books, if there were gaps in my research or I had written myself into a corner, all I had to do was create filler for the gaps or write a door to open to get me out of the corner. But with non-fiction–at least by my own self-imposed rules–I did not have the option of creating filler or doors. So, the salami book has a gap or two–such as why did a Vietnamese general vote to censure himself? I could not find the answer to that. Finding myself in an awkward corner that I couldn’t write myself out of was just something I had to live with, embarrassing or not. I’ve heard that the difference between fiction and non-fiction writers is that non-fiction writers keep the names and dates the same but change everything else for the sake of their writing. I won’t play that game. If you’re writing non-fiction, write the facts and let the gaps and cracks show. I won’t describe impossible dreams as facts.

AM: Salami is an intimately revealing book. Was it hard for you?

KL: Yes. But it probably saved me several thousands in psychotherapy. As I did my research, especially my family’s history and looking at family dynamics, I realized I was turning a hero into a jerk, respect into disrespect, and strength into fragility. With the help of my sisters and nephew, I was digging through family history, turning over long forgotten rocks as buried memories and emotions squiggled into the light. Midway through the book I started referring to my eldest son by my brother’s name and vice versa. Freud would have a good time with that one. In the words of one of my sisters, “This is like pulling off scabs.”

AM: Why didn’t you just stop?

KL: I did. Several times. Obviously, I restarted one more time than I stopped or this would be one boring interview. When I decided to try writing several years ago, I realized I was sticking my rear end and ego out the window and asking everyone to take a shot. If I didn’t want to take that risk, I’d better not write. When you ignore both the safety of your ass and your ego, you can keep on writing.

AM: Both you and your brother went into the military and to war. In Salami and the White Horse you describe being raised in a crucible of family patriotism. Do you think your brother’s early death was due to his war time experience? ALIVE Media Salami and the White Horse Vietnam War Veteran Kenneth Levin

KL: No. I’ve asked that question of several doctors. No bullets, no shrapnel, no parasites, no Agent Orange.

AM: You were twice wounded and exposed to Agent Orange. Are you bitter?

KL: No, I’m not. I was doing the job I wanted to do. But today somewhere in Hanoi or PhuCuong sits a Vietnamese about my age and probably half my weight with a voodoo doll of me and a bunch of rusty pins. He’s sticking these into the doll and saying, “Levin, you son of a b#*@! You came over here to kill me and my people then went back to your cars and super markets and big-busted women. But you can’t really leave.” Then he sticks a few more pins into the doll. If I ever get my hands on that guy, I know where I’m going to shove that doll. But I’m not bitter.

AM: Not going to buy him a beer?

KL: Robin, I probably would. Comrade in arms, that sort of thing. There’s a terrible irony to this. I was blown up and shot by weapons made in Vietnam or China or Russia and fired at me by the guys I was trying to kill. Those wounds have healed and scarred over. My good life went on despite the wounds. But the most prevailing physical pain and limitations in my life are not from those bullets and explosives and shrapnel. They’re from the after effects of Agent Orange, the defoliant made in America and used by Americans – not the Vietnamese we were fighting. We did it to ourselves.

AM: When you wrote Crazy Razor you modeled the character of a North Vietnamese female doctor after a woman doctor you found in your research on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Five years later, in writing Salami and the White Horse you discovered that very doctor’s diaries. If you had access to the diaries when you wrote Crazy Razor, would the woman doctor on the Ho Chi Minh Trail be a different character?

KL: Yes, I would have written a character more like the actual doctor. The character I did write, however, is one of my favorite creations in Crazy Razor and I would have lost her. Fortunately, I did not discover the diaries until long after the first book was published. Crazy Razor is better for that.

AM: You’ve compared the first and last entries of your brother’s diary to the Vietnamese woman’s diaries. Talk about that, please.

KL: Sure. Two docs at war. In my brother’s diary, the last entry is written in Hong Kong on his way out of Vietnam to start civilian life with his family and begin his medical residency. He complains that the lousy weather in Hong Kong is not letting him shop for souvenirs. He lives for another decade. The woman doctor’s last entry tells of her waiting to be evacuated by North Vietnamese soldiers while American soldiers search for her clinic. Two days later, she is killed by an American bullet. In my brother’s first entry, he complains about the delay in delivering his foot locker and he doesn’t have enough fresh socks. She describes in her first entry operating on a soldier’s gut with only Novocain for an anesthetic.

AM: The very last chapter of Salami and the White Horse is a short two paragraphs. You describe a conversation after the French defeat in Vietnam between a French and Viet Minh officer. Why did you do that?

KL: The Viet Minh tells the Frenchman that the weapon he feared most during their war was a doctor who would treat the peasants and villagers without regard to their politics or nationality. He didn’t fear bombs or napalm or bullets. Maybe if instead of sending troops down the Ho Chi Minh Trail or putting US marines and soldiers and sailors and airmen in-country, or blockading sea-lanes and bombing, and both sides instead sent care givers – doctors, nurses and teachers – there would be no wall in Washington DC with nearly 60,000 dead American names chiseled in that smooth, beautiful, black marble. Maybe. Maybe not. Probably not.

AM: And finally, you put your cousin’s Lokshen Kugel recipe in the Glossary. Why?

KL: Three reasons. One, it’s mentioned in the book. Two, it’s really good. And three, why not?ALIVE Media Salami and the White Horse Vietnam War Veteran Kenneth Levin 3

Kenneth Levin is a decorated naval officer, twice wounded and retired due to blindness. Salami and the White Horse as well as Levin’s other two works, are available on Amazon, BarnesandNoble.com and on his website, BlindmansPress.com.