02 September 2010

Review: 'Rock and Roll Soldier: A Memoir'

"Rock and Roll Soldier: A Memoir" by Dean Ellis Kohler with Susan Vanhecke

When I was in grade school in the 1970s, I went through a stage in which I read a lot of books about the military. In second grade, for example, I routinely checked out from the school library a series of glorified picture books authored by C.B. Colby. There were titles such as "Leatherneck" and "Frogmen" and, yes, even "The Signal Corps Today."

Each page illuminated various weapons systems and aspects of military life in glorious black and white. It wasn't exactly high art and literature; basically, it was a Department of Defense stock photo and large caption on each page. It would've made a good blog.

Later in grade school, I started reading World War II histories. I may not be able to remember specific titles, but I can recall some of the topics even today:
I mention this all as evidence that putting history in the hands of a young person can have long-term influence. Don't get me wrong, I read my share of pulpy fictions when I was younger, too--wizards and werewolves and space creatures, oh my--but meat-and-potatoes history probably got me further than did consuming all that literary junk food.

All this personal past, however, is prologue to this review. I recently discovered Dean Ellis Kohler's Vietnam War memoir on the new acquisitions racks at my local library. I picked it up because it seemed like an easier read. I liked how the chapters were short, and the language was accessible, plain-spoken, and matter-of-fact.

It was only later that I discovered the book had been published by the HarperTeen young adult imprint of Harper-Collins. I had picked up a juvenile title!

(In my defense, I guess the lack of sparkling teen vampires on the cover had thrown me off. I thought all Young Adult books today had to feature such blood-thirsty creatures.)

I am pleased to report, however, that the book was everything that I'd hoped it would be: A straight-forward account of how one young man went to war and came back, and the people he met along the way.

As a guitarist, Ellis nearly had a record deal when his draft number came up. He shipped off to Vietnam as a military policeman. His unit found conditions rustic, but improved with hard work. After his quirky captain learns about Ellis' musical talents, he's tasked with starting a rock band.

Enter the (ahem) "Swinging Banana," later renamed "The Electrical Banana," in hopes of avoiding doubling too much entendre.

The Electrical Banana turns out to be good--good enough to get picked up by Army Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (M.W.R.) services, and good enough to warrant a few gigs closer to the front lines.

They get to carry guitars. Sometimes, they get to carry weapons, too.

Parents of all stripes will enjoy the apolitical tone of the book, as well as little flourishes like the forward by Graham Nash. Young people will probably enjoy that their parents could once go to war with rock'n'roll in their hearts, too.

Discovering Ellis' book was reason enough for me to violate my own "only books applicable to Afghanistan" book-reviewing rule, if for no other reason than it's opened a new area of potential literary exploration for me. Up until now--my kids and I are still on Dr. Seuss and Dora the Explorer--I was unaware of how Young Adult (Y.A.) publishers might be serving readers interested in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I'll look forward to seeking out Operation Iraqi Freedom/Operation Enduring Freedom memoirs targeted toward the YA market, such as Ryan Smithson's "Ghosts of War: The True Story of a 19-Year-Old G.I.".

There are YA fiction titles also on Iraq or Afghanistan themes, such as Walter Dean Myers' "Sunrise Over Fallujah" and Patricia McCormick's "Purple Heart."

Meanwhile, if you have any suggestions of memoirs and historical novels young people might helpful in exploring a loved one's past or present deployment, please let me know. You can e-mail me at Sherpa [AT] redbullrising.com, or add a comment to this post!


  1. LOVED the CB Colby books. Wow- blast from the past

  2. I'm glad I'm not the only one to remembers C.B. Colby! (Actually, I now haunt both online and bricks-and-mortar used bookstores in search of one particular Colby tome--I have an image of a beret-wearing soldier on U.N. peacekeeping duty burned into my brain, and would like to find out if I'm remembering it correctly.)

    Months ago, I started work on an essay regarding C.B. Colby. Last night, as I was readying this post, I realized that there's a potential treasure-trove of information about him at a university IN MISSISSIPPI! (Where I've been occasionally traveling this summer.) I'll have to see if I can get a few hours to check it out!

    Thanks for your comment, for reading Red Bull Rising, and for validating C.B. Colby's (good?) influence on young people, back in the day!

  3. I can't remember how I found your blog now, maybe from Words for Warriors? But have been reading it for your open, or should I say refreshing, style of writing. I know for sure that I did not read the same books as you, although I did grow up in the 70s, from which I recall my brother's Sgt. Rock comicbooks... it is weird the things I remember.. Out of curiousity I googled CB Colby and found a huge list of books, so here's the link: http://www.goodreads.com/author/list/148976.C_B_Colby Hope you find the one you are looking for.

  4. @ Spockgirl: Thanks for the link! One of the problems with having an out-of-focus photographic memory is that I can't remember exactly which title my possibly faulty mental picture might be in. Would a peacekeeping photo be in the Army book, a Marine book, etc.? I've been flipping through random books--it's amazing how pictures can bring childhood memories zipping into present day--but have yet to find the image in question.

    By the way, when I was in second grade and reading and re-reading C.B. Colby books? I was also the only recess-time Mr. Spock at Ocean Breeze Elementary School. I got to be Spock, because, in my peer group, I could fold the best "communicators" out of three-hole notebook paper. Little did I know that might presage a life in communications!

  5. Sherpa, I think you may be looking at a niche that needs filling. I'm a "little" older than you. I grew up watching Vietnam on the nightly news. And going to high school in the late 60's it was a huge part of my life and everyone I knew. Now cut forward to 90's, my oldest daughter was in her high school history class with a history book that had 5 pages on Vietnam. ONLY 5! Luckily, her history teacher was smart enough to send all the kids home to interview their parents to gather real information. Now cut forward to Iraq and Afghanistan. Because of the internet, excellent blogging such as yours and some of the excellent books that are out, there is no way that this era will be so woefully under recorded. However, someone will need to gather real facts and make it ready for future generations is young minds. You possibly? I read and thoroughly enjoyed "Kaboom" by Matt Gallagher, but it's not really for kids. I really like stories about your little warrior princess, you have a gift. You'd be good at stories for kids! Think about it?

  6. Perhaps you have the right picture in your head, but the wrong author?

    Re: Spock and communicators:
    Fascinating... and sadly funny.

    Lastly, I second the comment by Ria about writing stories for kids. (I read Three Cups of Tea earlier this summer and found out that there was also a "young readers" (7-9) version published, which I think is a great idea.)

  7. @ Spockgirl: I'd forgotten about the young readers edition of Three Cups of Tea. I think I came across it when I searched for Mortensen's book at the local library. Thanks for the tip!

    @ Kia: Thanks for the great ideas and concepts! I think my own '80s-era high school texts only got as far as Korea! I haven't yet read "Kaboom," but I've met Matt Gallagher on the Internet, and he is as funny, insightful, and supportive as he is/was on his blog. And your suggestion of directing writing at kids or teens is a compelling one. I hadn't played with that concept much, until I tried to put the reasons why I was going to Afghanistan in terms my 5-year-old might understand ... I'll have to see where that concept might lead me.

    @ All: Thanks for reading Red Bull Rising, and for your comments. I always learn a lot through these conversations!


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