By Dickson Mercer
Thursday, March 11, 2010; SM19
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.
Karlin's book takes the reader back to the shooting, to Steedly's early life in a farming town in South Carolina, to the battles he waged as a platoon leader in Vietnam and to the years after his return -- years fraught with post-traumatic stress disorder. Gradually, Steedly decided he wanted to contact the family of the man he had killed in Vietnam.
As the book recounts, in 2008, Karlin accompanied Steedly during Steedly's first trip to Vietnam since the war.
As explained in "Wandering Souls," most Vietnamese believe that the spirits of those killed away from home wander the Earth aimlessly. If a person is buried away from home, the family can take personal mementos to the site so the spirit can be at peace. Without certain artifacts, such as Dam's journal, his family was never able to recover his remains or find his gravesite.
Nearly 40 years after Dam's death, his family, with his journal and documents in their possession, conducted a funeral. When Steedly walked into the family's home in Thai Giang, a small village southeast of Hanoi, he found Dam's sister sobbing.
"But then I soon realized that this was a family that was so glad to know what had happened to this man and so thankful that I had preserved the documents," Steedly said in a telephone interview.
Karlin, who has edited an anthology of Vietnamese authors, occasionally infuses the narrative with the viewpoints of some of the writers.
"You are seeing what the world looks like to someone who is seeing it through a different lens," he said. "At the same time, you are realizing all the familiarities with yourself. It becomes the opposite of what war does; it becomes a way of really accepting the humanity of someone else versus dehumanizing them."
Steedly found his return to Vietnam therapeutic.
"I guess I just didn't remember what joy was," he said. "I can look at a sunset now and see the real beauty in it."
Karlin felt good about that. But he also says in "Wandering Souls" that his own "sense of completion" was shattered shortly after he returned from Vietnam by the news that Sgt. Ryan Baumann, a St. Mary's native, had been killed by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan. The daughter of Karlin's neighbors was Baumann's fiancee.
"Wandering Souls" comes to rest at Baumann's funeral.
Sitting on a couch in his living room, Karlin became silent as he looked out at his neighbor's property through the front window. "I don't know how to explain it any other way than how I wrote about it in the book," he said.