By Lawrence McAuliffe
Upper Access had never published a work of fiction before, but when we read this manuscript, we couldn’t resist it. It’s one of those powerful stories that you can’t put down, and people who read it love to debate with each other about what it all means. If you have a book discussion group, Purple Sun is a perfect selection.
The story begins in 1968 in Vietnam. Master Sergeant Isaiah Ross and Lt. Patric Gallo don’t have much in common, but they share mutual concern about a twice-wounded young soldier who, they suspect, abandoned his unit while under enemy fire one night in Vietnam. Is it possible that the young man, whose name was Billy Kern, could still be alive?
After returning to civilian life, Ross and Gallo keep in touch for the next 30 years, finally deciding they must return to Vietnam to find out what really happened to Billy Kern. Their guide, Truong, is a former Viet Cong soldier who carries his own scars and memories. Their journey takes them to the Monastery of the Purple Sun, then back around the world to the mountains of Wyoming, where a small-town newspaper editor becomes entangled in the mystery. The plot takes as many twists and turns as the mountainous trails, with a surprise outcome.
PaperbackReduced Price Scuffed Cover
About the Author
Lawrence McAuliffe is a writer of stories and plays who lives in Boston with his wife, Marilyn. He is the stepfather of six children and grandfather of eleven. In 1968-’69, as a former Marine lieutenant, he returned to serve in Vietnam as a chaplain up along the DMZ, and is a disabled veteran of that conflict. Emerging from that experience, after years of reflecting on the suffering, meaning and worth of that long-ago war, is this redemptive, purgative story. It is a story of our time that may lead many to rethink their concepts of heroism.
What People are Saying
“A hell of a good book!”
—Alan Lupo, Columnist for the Boston Globe
Purple Sun is a thoroughly captivating saga, one of those reads which are so easy to pick up and so hard to set down.”
—Midwest Book Review, August, 2003
“From the same time period [as other reviewed titles] comes Purple Sun by Lawrence McAuliffe. The author is a disabled veteran from injuries suffered while serving as a chaplain in Vietnam. He explores the issues of life, death, war, peace and heroism, themes as relevant today as then. This book is well worth reading, not just for its story, but for its spiritual message as well.”
—Alan Caruba, Bookviews.Com, August, 2003
“The enduring antagonism between two men who served in Vietnam, one a black career Sergeant from the deep South, the other a young Lieutenant drafted and indifferent, even disdainful of the military, is drawn with harsh integrity, and their voices will stay with me.
“How to deal with mortality is an infinitely important theme, which McAuliffe stitches together admirably in the concrete lives of these memorable characters and their emotional and moral struggle with each other and with themselves. The confrontation of unlike religions and philosophies that for the most part abhor each other, although coming from different directions can sincerely converge on the value of life.
“McAuliffe portrays a young deeply religious Marine who, after months of combat, intentionally shoots to death an old Buddhist monk chanting prayers in the ruins of Hue in 1968. The enduring aftermath—what drives the Sergeant and Lieutenant to return together to Vietnam 28 years later—is wonderfully, mysteriously, and believably portrayed, and builds tension to its final unexpected consummation. This is an enriching book, one that nourishes a reader.”
—Jonathan Shay, MD, PhD, author of “Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character,” and “Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Coming Home” (both published by Scribner)
“Purple Sun is a gripping tale that portrays on the deepest human level the enduring influence of the Vietnam experience—an experience that still challenges so many Americans on what the heart of our nation is in spirit, and should continually strive to be.”
—Dr. James Reckner, Director of the Vietnam Archives, Texas Tech University, Lubbock, Texas
Table of Contents
- The Lady
- The Sergeant
- The Editor
- View from Jebediah Blvd.
- The Journalist
- A Memorable Meeting
- Duty as He Sees It
- The Mystery Deepens
- Back in the USA
- Years and a Day
- Burdens of Mind and Heart
- A Strange Puzzle
- A Sad Goodbye
- Time and Memory
- Eye to Eye
- The Return
- The Way
- Ready to Die
- Through the Valley
- Climb to the Puple Sun
- The Beginning of the End
- The Man
- It is Finished
- The End of the Beginning
In the darkness of a Vietnam night, the corporal swayed and rocked in a drunken rhythm, heading he knew not where, nor did he care. To forget was all, to forget all forever. The thought of a bullet to his head or heart rolled back and forth in his drowning brain as babbled words and spittle dribbled from his mouth and down his chin.
With a sudden movement, he pulled the U.S. caliber .45 pistol from the holster at his side but in the darkness dropped it. Falling to the ground, he groped blindly. To lose your weapon was a “sin against tradition” that had been pounded into him.
Part of him prayed that he would not find it, but he did. Leaning back on his haunches, he slowly raised the weapon with shaking hands until the barrel pressed against his forehead beneath his helmet. One hand fought the other. The right hand won and he stuffed the weapon back in its place. For the corporal knew too deeply he had no right escaping that way, no right at all. In his drunken haze, he wondered, though, why the Lord he had come forward to accept into his heart forever at the age of fourteen, four long years before, would want him to live after what he had done.
Standing and staggering, his head fell back, and all the eyes of night stared down upon him. Spreading his arms, he slowly began to turn in circles as the light of the universe swirled and came together like an arrow aimed at him, and he cried out in the night with all his heart, “God let me die, let me die! Let me die!”
Black bile, excrement, and urine surged and soiled as the boy fell back and rolled over and over, sliding toward the darkness of death.
Chapter 1: The Lady
The old woman, curved like a black crescent moon and mumbling guttural sounds to herself, stood at the edge of the muddy ditch and wondered. With her stick, she poked the sprawled body in the smelly water. She poked a second and third time. It was one of them, she knew. Her head tilted slowly from side to side as an ancient woeful moan emerged from her toothless mouth. Dead, she thought. Another one, like the rest. She poked once more.
The upper body of Lance Corporal Billy Kern flipped up stiff and straight as if shouted to attention. Vomit gushed from his mouth as the thunder and lightning of an instant storm crashed in his head. His cracked red eyes opened suddenly, snapped a picture of a vision, and closed again with a wail as he sank back into the mud and oblivion.
The old Mama-san, in her cone straw hat and faded black pajamas hanging on her scarecrow frame, prodded again, but neither sound nor quiver came from the half-sunken body in the ooze. She shrugged. She tottered over to the wire fence surrounding the big men’s camp and rattled her stick between the prickly strands as she continued yakking in a rising and falling rhythm that expressed both eternal dismay and humor at what a day could bring.
Master Technical Sergeant Isaiah Ross of the United States Army, dressed in a faded brown T-shirt and with blue shaving cream on his face, stuck his head out from a tent flap and yelled, “Mama-san, what do you want at 0:500 in the morning? Didi! Didi! Go away. I’ve got nothing for you, old woman.” Motioning her off with his razor and a scowl, he ducked his head back behind the flap.
The little bent figure with dirty bare feet rattled the wire again, cawing like a starving crow with a cold.
“Damn indigenous!” the sergeant muttered angrily to himself, shaking his head. “They never give up. Always want someth’n from you.”
He grabbed his .45 from its holster and, wiping his face with a brown towel, stepped outside and waved the weapon at the old Mama-san. “Go home, you old hag! Go home,” he shouted as he wiped the last of the blue shaving cream off and walked toward the wire with his natural stern look and gait. “You’re getting nothing from me today old woman. Do you hear? Nothing! Didi! Didi!”
With the determination of a mother, the old woman motioned with her hand for him to come and, pointing with her stick toward the ditch, she gurgled that strange sound that always baffled, humored, and humbled the sergeant.
Despite his irritation, he had a warm feeling for the old people of this land. The hint of sparkle hiding in their sunken eyes reminded him of the ancient mamas of his rural South Carolina who walked the roads and sat in the little old wooden churches, gumming their tunes as they fanned and prayed to a Lord they knew would hear them and understand. You had to respect that look when you realized what it meant and what it had cost them.
He approached the wire, cursing himself and the woman, and cursing that he should be waving a .45 at an old granny scrounging for scraps of food in order to survive in her native land. A resigned trace of a smile came to his lips. So it is, he thought. So be it.
After twenty-four years in the military, Isaiah still felt uncomfortable when he thought it necessary to push people around with the power he had. Even the hardness formed by generations of Southern fieldwork could not totally hide the sensitivity in his black eyes and his gentle nature.
Holding his .45 not quite casually, he came to his side of the barbed wire. Even at 5:10 in the morning, he could feel a hint of the day’s heat from the flattened red ball rising in his face. He knew it would be a hot one, a day that would whirl up wave after wave of dust from the roaring trucks and churning tanks going down the dirt road and swirling clouds of the stuff from the pounding choppers that are always overhead. Every drop of sweat on you would be covered with little brown blankets by 8:00 a.m., he knew.
“You shriveled, gummy old sister,” he said to the jabbering, pointing Mama-san. “You should be home sit’n on your wobbly porch sip’n something from a jug and croon’n sad tunes to the Almighty. Why you bother’n me with your groan’n so early in the morn’n?” He stopped when he saw the sprawled body, half buried in the muddy ditch.
“So it is. So it is,” he muttered quietly as the woman looked at him and then back at the fallen human form. She went over and poked gently with her stick, moaning in an ancient melancholy tone. They both gazed silently at the motionless body, as if it were a sculpture displayed in the rotunda of a national museum.
The sergeant recognized it to be a young American soldier. He was floating on his back—his long, bony face and head slumped sideways and covered with muck. His helmet floated near him like a turtle. He was not dead, though, the sergeant knew. He had seen dead soldiers before, with their grotesque stiffness of limb and twisted faces. This young man was sprawled in a trance of deep sleep and appeared almost peaceful in his careless repose. The old Mama-san, leaning on her stick, tilted her head and cooed as if she wanted to cuddle that figure sunk in the mud.
The sergeant went to his tent and returned with four cans of C-rations and a couple of packs of cigarettes. He tossed them over the wire to the woman and yelled, “Didi, Didi old granny. Get ya bones away from the wire and out of here pronto.” She put the cans in a sack that hung by her side and the packs under her cone hat and turned away to look for more food, satisfied that the big dark American would take care of her find.
Isaiah removed an engineering stake and swung back a section of the wire. He went over to the ditch and knelt down, recognizing the Marine uniform on the unconscious body to be that of a young corporal who reeked of booze that had gone down and come up with a rush. He shook his head; the kid was fortunate he had not choked on his vomit and that the Mama-san came along when she did. Most likely he was a grunt who overstayed his day in Da Nang and was not too eager to get back to the bush.
He dragged the boy out of the ditch, cursing his youth and the innocence that challenged death in so many stupid ways. “You’re one dumb son of a bitch, you know that,” he muttered under his breath, as he smelled all that clung to the carcass. Heaving him over his shoulder and picking up the helmet, he carried the youth back inside the wire of the supply base. He propped him up under the outdoor shower by his tent and cleaned him off as best he could. Stripping him, he soaked him again and noticed the raw, hot scars on his flesh that might not fade with time. The boy had seen some action, Isaiah could see, and possibly had his reasons for ditching himself for a night or two.
The sergeant carried the youth into his tent and laid him on his cot. The shower had not awakened this lank of bone that looked as pale as a corpse on a slab, a soldier still young enough to sleep like an innocent. Such looks of innocence no longer deceived Isaiah, though. The boy has to come out of it, he thought, and face the days ahead. No one can do it for him. The problem had nothing to do with him; it’s a burden the youth will have to carry himself. “You mess up, you own up, and stand up and take what’s com’n to you,” as he remembered hearing the old preacher say in a prophet’s voice back when he was a youth. The memory made him smile uneasily.
Master Technical Sergeant Isaiah Ross went about his duties of the day, moving guns and shells to places where they were needed. From time to time, he looked in on his guest and found him sleeping like a child who did not want to wake up.