Aboard the spy ship U.S.S. Argosy in the war-tossed waters off the coast of Vietnam, three young American sailors form an unlikely bond. Each has fled an America they were raised to love but somehow no longer understand in the tumult of the late 1960s. When forced to choose whether to face combat or stay and fight the war in the streets, they sign up for a war that reflected the conflict that raged inside each of them. The one thing of which they were certain was that the only people in the world that they could depend on were each other.
In the tradition of Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” Denis Johnson’s “Tree of Smoke,” and Phillip Caputo’s “A Rumor of War,” “The Candlestickmaker” recalls a Vietnam that seared disenchantment into a post World War II generation who learned to question authority at all levels. A coming-of-age story bookended by shocking revelations that shatter illusions about patriotism, government and the nature of modern warfare, “The Candlestickmaker” takes readers on a voyage that will guarantee they never read the Mother Goose nursery rhyme in quite the same way again.
Targeted Age Group: all ages, veterans, 50+,
Genre: military and war
The Book Excerpt:
Brigham pulled into his parking slot, gathered up his briefs, motions, and file folders, and he hummed “Light My Fire” as he pushed through his office door. A black woman whose obvious bulk was shrouded by a great red and green cotton caftan sat in the reception area.
“Mr. Brigham,” said Linda, the bright young law student he’d recently hired as a secretary. “This is Miss Jones. She insisted on waiting to see you.”
He frowned at Linda, who had been instructed a dozen times to send walk-ins packing. Brigham’s soft touch reputation among thieves, meth dealers, drunk drivers, hookers and the occasional innocent had made him a favorite of the newly accused. What he saw in Miss Jones was yet another aging single welfare mom come to rescue her baby from yet another felony rap of which the youngster was totally innocent. He managed a smile.
“Miss Jones.” He opened the door to his inner office and held it for her.
She pushed herself to a standing position then labored mightily to shuffle through the door. She gripped a handbag like a football beneath one arm, while arthritic hips aggravated each step, but she kept her head high. As she passed, they made eye contact.
“Ernie Brigham,” she said. “That right?”
Her eyes were determined and she smelled of rosewater. Brigham smiled at her familiarity. A more businesslike “Ernest” would prevent future billing problems. But her face was pained and pleading, and there was ineffable nobility about the woman which Brigham seldom saw among the disenfranchised heirs of LBJ’s Great Society.
“Sure,” he said.
“I am Samantha Jones,” she said, offering her hand. He took it expecting a flounder but found a vise. “I am Wilson Jones’s aunt.”
Brigham flushed. His hand remained paralyzed in her grip. “Jonesy?” he said.
“We never called him that,” she said.
“Bashful,” said Brigham.
She smiled and relaxed her hand. “You knew him then.”
“I have to sit.” She moved to a chair beside his desk and gently settled her great bulk.
“Those are yours?” she asked, pointing at a pair of framed photos on the desk.
“They’re my daughters,” he said. “Julie Anne’s a psychologist and Lea’s in P.R. Works for Sony, actually.”
She picked up the frames and studied each portrait. “They’re way beautiful,” she said. “That’s what my own babies would say. Way beautiful.” She glanced at Brigham’s naked left hand.
“Divorced,” he said, covering the left with his right. “So you’re Auntie Sam. What brings you to see me, Mrs. Jones?”
“Miss,” she said. “Never got myself married.” Her eyes wandered, coming to rest on a pair of framed drawings past Brigham’s left shoulder. He twisted in his seat to see where she was looking.
“The one on the right is Mt. Fuji,” he explained. “And the other is your nephew’s. ‘Three Men in a Tub’ by Wilson O. Jones.”
Aunt Sam rose with effort and moved to the drawing of a Vietnam era aircraft carrier with its odd collection of antennae rising like a small forest from one end and three sailors – one black and two white – standing in the foreground. She ran her fingers over the glass. The signature in the corner read ‘Hamza Hassan’.
“Tha’s my baby,” she said, recognizing the artist’s name. She shook her great jowly head. “My babies is all my sister’s children and grandchildren. I pretty much raised ‘em up after she died.” She rummaged in her purse and located a snapshot of a man with shy downcast eyes. He wore a Marine uniform and a thoughtful frown. “Tha’s Tyler. He the youngest.”
“I remember. Jonesy …,” he began, but caught himself. “Wilson used to talk about him. And you.”
“He was a good boy,” she said as she fished inside the purse. She produced a folded envelope, withdrew its contents and smoothed out the letter on the desktop. Brigham could see the address was the Veterans Administration. “This come in last week’s mail.”
The envelope was addressed to Mr. Wilson O. Jones, but the form letter inside was to a Mr. Peter Chandler. Beneath the name was a reference line that read:
Re: Department of Defense 1968 tests SHAD, project 112 off the coast of Vietnam.
Dear Mr. Chandler:
As a participant in Operation Babylon, you have been accorded certain benefits under a recently enacted Executive Order. You are urged to contact your nearest VA administrator or facility, or write care of the Naval Medical Research Institute. Bring or attach a copy of this letter when making contact.
No signature appeared, but there was a second page – a form to fill out – and an address in Bethesda, Maryland.
“I called ‘em up and got the runaround,” said Aunt Sam. “The lady I finally get says they don’t take no inquiries on the phone. Says I gotta write back ‘cuz they gotta verify who they talkin’ to – make sure I be Wilson’s aunt. I try to find out about this Operation Babylon, but she ain’t sayin’. I tell her about the mix up with the names and she still don’t tell me nuthin’. Just fill out the form and send it back, all she say.”
Brigham scanned the questionnaire, which seemed the sort of mini-medical history a life insurance company might require. Several questions regarding mental health – breakdowns, institutionalizations, drug dependence.
“I try callin’ every Peter Chandler in the phone book,” she continued. “I know he was one of you three always stuck together while you was in the Navy ‘cuz Wilson was always writin’ home about you. Nobody knowed what I was talkin’ about.”
“Peter lives outside of Washington D.C.,” said Brigham. “At least he did five years ago.” It made little sense to give her the rest of the address. Even if Chandler were able to answer, it wouldn’t be what she wanted to hear.
“Well, I wouldn’t pay it much mind except I don’t know what benefits they talkin’ about,” she said. “Lord knows we could use us some benefits. I checked Wilson’s papers and that service number and Social Security number that they print under Peter Chandler’s name is sure enough Wilson’s. So’s the address. It come right to my house, maybe ‘cuz I ain’t never moved in 40 years. But how they get his name so wrong?”
Brigham’s brows narrowed. “I can’t say,” he lied. “I could look into it.”
Her face brightened. “Could you?”
“Sure. No charge,” he said. “Not for Auntie Sam.”
She beamed. “You a saint, Mr. Ernie Brigham,” she said.
“How’s Tonette?” he asked.
“She dead ten years now.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, and meant it. “How?”
“Accident. She drivin’ home from Water and Power where she workin’.”
“Jesus. Tonette. What about …”
Auntie Sam smiled. “Little Ernie? He mine now. I tol’ you all the babies gets to be mine sooner or after. All growed up, finish UCLA on a athlete scholarship. He a wrestler, you know. He the one tell me I need to come find you.”
“I…” Brigham began, and words failed him. He froze as if a witness in a murder trial, when all his rehearsed sound bites fled and left him speechless before a jury of his peers.
“You busy,” said Aunt Sam, scribbling her phone number on a scrap of paper and struggling to her feet.
“No, I just…”
“It’s all right,” she said. “I know a man when he busy. You jus’ call me when you find out somethin’. That okay?”
He nodded. Leaving the phone number and form letter at the edge of the desk, she helped herself to one of his business cards then made a crescendo of “thank you’s” as she backed out the door. Brigham meant to follow her but found his legs no more functional than his tongue.
After she’d left, he swiveled and stared for a long while at the painting of Three Men in a Tub. He was unsure how much time had passed before his intercom burped.
“Your 11 o’clock is here,” said Linda.
Brigham slapped the button. “Cancel,” he said.
He switched on his computer and Googled “Operation Babylon.” The first dozen entries detailed a recent battle involving Taliban insurgents, where the blood and mud and horror were reminiscent of firefights and rage and rice paddies a generation earlier. Three pages into his search, he found the Wikipedia entry he was looking for:
In the late 1950’s, Dr. Nicholas Bercel became the Timothy Leary of Sunset Boulevard, a Jungian caught up early on the possibilities of LSD. When Bercel administered the hallucinogen to spiders, they spun asymmetrical webs. Dogs chased their tails for hours until they fell over exhausted. Cats cringed at the sight of a mouse. Fish leaped from their aquariums. A colleague once dosed a bull elephant with 200 milligrams and the beast went stone still then keeled over dead. Bercel published his findings in medical journals and, in March of 1958, he received a call from the CIA.
The military had been at work since World War II on a truth serum to extract information from enemy agents. At first known as Operation Chatter…
“Babble on.” Brigham smirked. “Clever.”
The more he read, the clearer it became. Operation Babylon was intended to extract state secrets from Bolsheviks, but LSD didn’t work that way. So the government had a second request: Could a reservoir be dosed, reducing the populations of entire cities to blithering psychotics, cringing at the sight of troops? Brigham scrolled further down to a declassified Operation Babylon memo, dated May 5, 1965:
…there is also the possibility of contaminating the water supply of a bomber base or, more easily still, that of a battleship. Our current research strongly suggests that LSD-25 will produce hysteria (unaccountable laughing, anxiety, terror) and the consequences on a warship’s crew would be severe…
Brigham pushed back from his computer and stepped to his bookcase, removing a thin volume which he kept high above his law books three shelves up. He leafed carefully through the USS Argosy 1968 Cruise Book.
An array of unfamiliar brown faces grinned beneath a headline reading “Stewards’ Division,” followed by three pages of formal officers’ headshots. They all had first names too which helped to soften their stiff poses, as well as Brigham’s memories.
The only uncredited photo in the entire book was back on page 39, and Brigham himself could not remember who took it. Slightly out of focus in their Donald Duck uniforms, all three leaned against the flimsy railing with the migraine sun and the South China Sea at their backs. There were no names, but Brigham didn’t need any. From left to right, he smiled upon the blissed-out faces. Before pulling a bottle of single malt from his bottom drawer, Brigham read aloud the nursery rhyme printed beneath the photo:
Rub a dub dub, three men in a tub
And who do you think they be?
The butcher, the baker,
And all of them gone to sea.
He filled his glass with three fingers and sipped it slow. It was not yet noon. Serious drinking usually began late, coinciding with his dark evening brood. Brigham tasted and swirled and shut his eyes. Today would be an exception.
With the upcoming publication of “Dylan: The Ultimate Biography” (Turner Publishing, May, 2014), Dennis McDougal has authored a total of eleven books and hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles in a career that has spanned over 40 years. Currently, he is working on “The Acid Chronicles,” a book and documentary film about the renaissance of LSD as a powerful tool in the treatment of mental illness.
To learn more, please visit: http://www.dennismcdougal.com