Flashback: A Journey in Time

Flashback: A Journey in Time, © 2000, John Michael Finn, 1stBook Library

How to get the book

ISBN 0-75961-291-9 (paperback)
(also available as glossy hardback and e-book versions)

From the foreword

Flashback is a collection of 200 short stream-of-consciousness recollections, vignettes if you will, the kind that you might share with a close friend on a camping trip. I adopted an impressionistic style, a hybrid of prose and poetry, somewhat akin to a storyteller in a pub, teasing the audience along. Together, these recollections describe the Second Vietnamese War from the perspective of an American soldier of the time, a draftee struggling to make sense of what he saw.

The writing of this story caught me by surprise. The death of a friend in the summer of 1998 had triggered a creative urge within me. I penned a poem, my first in over thirty years, for his burial service. This chance occurrence led to the unusual form that my account took. I started to sketch a few snapshot images for my children, to give them a feel for what the Vietnam experience was like. My awakened memories flooded my consciousness with all the force of a flashback. It was overwhelming. I was writing down ten stories a day, and I couldn't keep up with the images.

In Vietnam, although fighting was intense, it was also sporadic. This gave me ample time to reflect on what was happening. As I recollect my experiences some thirty years later, I begin to grasp how they all contributed to defining my character and shaping my destiny. I have tried to handle the material in a way faithful to my memories. The flashbacks portray real experiences and real feelings. Like real life, the events don't follow a plot line. They simply unfold. You'll have to take from them whatever you find.

There are more stories, but I feel that I have written enough for now. Some stories are best left untold in any event. There are areas of memory where, I have to admit, my conscious mind refuses to probe. And things told in confidence should remain so. Moreover, this kind of stuff can be intense. No wonder some guys get stuck in a feedback loop. Memories thirty years old can also be selective. Try as I might, I can't honestly say that I recall seeing a single untreated battle wound, although surely I have. The images simply refuse to come, and yet, somehow, the good memories seem as present as ever.

Images and Poems

I lost all my mementoes from Vietnam in a house fire. Fortunately, after the book was published, a number of the guys from the old unit contacted me and sent me pictures from the time. Below is a sampling of these, interwoven with sequences from the flashbacks. I hope others enjoy them as much as I have.


Ovie was my best friend as an infantryman. Ovie may be his initials rather than a nickname for all I know, I never knew his full name, or else I've forgotten it, like so much of the war. When I returned home, I didn't stay in touch with the other guys in my unit, partly as a self-conscious choice on my part to put the war behind me. I had seen too many returning Vets trapped in a time warp.



By 1969, units in Nam were mostly filled with replacement troops, draftees for the most part, serving a one-year tour. Unit cohesion and discipline suffered. A few senior sergeants were all that held us together. This photo of our top sergeant was taken by Doc Barnes.



Doc Barnes was my chess buddy and confidant. As a conscientious objector, the war was especially hard on him. I enjoyed nothing better than joining Doc on his med cap visits. He features in several of the flashbacks, including a debacle called The Drinking Game , where the Montagnard villagers invite us for some local hospitality with them. Without realizing it, we find ourselves in the middle of a drinking game, the rules of which, we have not a clue. (picture from Doc Barnes.)


Light Show

Our mission was to intercept NVA units crossing the border, and we saw plenty of action in the jungle. When the planes dropped their loads, we would watch the "light show." Here, I have superimposed a word portrait of one such display with a photo I found on the web. It was taken from inside Camp Holloway, Pleiku, at about the same time that I was viewing my own light show from a jungle firebase some miles away. Could it have been the same action? Possibly, I remember two planes circling in the sky that night. Photo from http://www.megsinet.net/~cjlsr/index.html

Light Show over camp Halloway

Drifting Smoke

Drifting Smoke was written for Barbara Sorborne, producer of a moving documentary of the widows of the Vietnam War, told in the voices of the women themselves, called Regret to Inform . Sorborne lost her first husband in a friendly fire incident. In summer 2000, she was a student in Lady Borton's section of Joiner Center Writer's Workshop. The associated photo, of an unrelated scene, taken from inside a Papa Charlie by Barry Prowell, shows what artillery and rocket fire looked like. We lost three men in this rocket attack.

Drifting Smoke

The Jungle is Dark and Deep

Not all poems need graphics to enhance them. The jungle is dark and deep is a short poem in Flashback, one of several dealing with my fascination with the Jungle. I use this image as a part of a screen saver slide show.

The jungle

Remembering the cost of war

131 The sacrifice that they had made

I brought a sense of normality,
when I flew in,
just an old friend, dropping by for a chat,
offering to record their messages home.
The guys were always surprised to find
that I had actually asked to be with them.
Perhaps things weren’t so bad after all.

By the campfires,
I did my best to amuse them.
I recounted my silly escapades.
My encounter with Old King Cobra
always was good for a laugh.

But when the talk turned serious,
I shut up and listened quietly
to their stories of the horrors
that they had seen.

The things they told me
in the dark of night
are secrets that I have buried deep
and will never repeat.
I wanted to reach out
to take away their pain.

I could feel their sense of abandonment.
No one but their folks back home
cared whether these men lived or died.
They, no less than the Montagnards,
were only pawns in some great power game.

Then my heart went out to them.
I knew that some would never be whole again.
And I wondered if anyone
would ever appreciate
the sacrifice that they had made.

190 I never met any better

The men of the 2nd of the 8th were magnificent.
I never met any better.
They were a microcosm of America.
They represented our hopes and aspirations.
They shared our fears and failings.
They were our fathers, our brothers,
and, to some, our children.
They were the best of us.

If a few are lost in time, paralyzed by events long ago,
don’t laugh at them. They paid the price for our freedom.
If some are bitter, if they feel they paid too high a price
for their country’s call, who is there to say that they didn’t?

America is at its best when it embraces its sons,
when it cares for the common good,
when it opposes oppression,
when it metes out justice.

God help us all
if the self-absorption of this commercial age
becomes the America of our dreams.
If cynicism, rather than civic virtue, becomes the norm,
then America is no more.

186 Yes, let us praise the generals

Yes, let us praise the generals.
There are times when they are useful after all.
If we must fight, give me a general, like Patton or Grant,
who knows how to fight. Let some other poor citizen
die for his country, not I.

Yet every general must someday confront
that moment of helplessness that comes late at night,
after his best-laid plans have been put to rest.
When morning comes, will his men stand and fight,
or will they break and run?
Only they know the answer to that.

And let us not forget, in this moment of praise,
those politicians that seem to spring up everywhere,
the slick-tongued liars, the spinners and deceivers,
those provocateurs of divisiveness who so inflame the public
that they lose all reason and are driven mad with hate.

Where are the statesmen when needed,
the voices of reason, the men of common sense?
Vengeance is best served cold
If fight we must, then it should be with our heads
turned straight and our hearts set right.

Better yet, why not make an end to war?
Take a knife and stab it through the heart.
It would do the same to you.

Earth is too small a ball
to continue kicking about this way.
Why not make a covenant,
binding on all generations yet to come,
to preserve our home world for all time?

The 2nd of the 8th Photo Gallery