St. Mary's author tries to put wandering souls to rest

By Dickson Mercer
Maryland Independent
Thursday, March 11, 2010

As he took a visitor into his home office in St. Mary's County recently, Wayne Karlin stopped in front of a photograph from the Vietnam War.

A comrade -- "the guy I shared that hole with," he said -- took the photo while they enjoyed a calm moment during a mission in southern Vietnam. The sun is shining and Karlin is shirtless, lying by his tent. He's reading a book. His machine gun is within reach.

"What I like about the photograph is that I'm choosing the book over the gun there," said Karlin, who has been an English professor at the College of Southern Maryland since the 1980s.

The author of seven novels and three works of nonfiction, Karlin, 64, enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1963 and served in Vietnam from 1966 to 1967, mainly as a helicopter gunner. His experience there has informed much of his work, including his latest book, "Wandering Souls: Journeys With the Dead and the Living in Vietnam," which was published late last year.

The book recounts Army 1st Lt. Homer Steedly's quest to find peace for himself and for the family of Hoang Ngoc Dam, a 25-year-old Vietnamese soldier Steedly killed in Vietnam.

Karlin last wrote about Vietnam in "Marble Mountain," a novel published last year. He also has written a novel set in the 17th century and a spy novel set in Eastern Europe.

Karlin said his experience in Vietnam defined his youth.

"When you're a writer, you write about the things that are significant in your own life," he said. "If that happens to be parallel with the things that are significant to your country's life, then it would be criminal not to write about it."

The point of writing about the war, he said, was to chronicle history and perhaps even to stop history from repeating itself. But he says he sees history repeating in Iraq and Afghanistan, and after finishing "Marble Mountain," he had no intention of broaching the subject again.

But after hearing Steedly's story from Tom Lacombe, a friend and fellow writer who knew Steedly, he found the story too compelling to ignore.

The story starts in 1969, when Steedly comes face-to-face with Dam, a soldier and medic. Dam is armed; when he sees Steedly, he reaches for a gun slung over his shoulder. Steedly's weapon is at his waist. He draws it and fires, killing Dam instantly.

Steedly collected Dam's notebook and other documents, and after getting them back from intelligence services, mailed them to his mother in South Carolina, who stored them in an attic for decades.

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