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In That Time tells the story of the American experience in Vietnam through the life of Michael O’Donnell, a bright young musician and poet who served as a soldier and helicopter pilot. O’Donnell wrote with great sensitivity and poetic force, and his best-known poem is among the most beloved of the war. In 1970, during an attempt to rescue fellow soldiers stranded under heavy fire, O’Donnell’s helicopter was shot down in the jungles of Cambodia. He remained missing in action for almost three decades.
Although he never fired a shot in Vietnam, O’Donnell served in one of the most dangerous roles of the war, all the while using poetry to express his inner feelings and to reflect on the tragedy that was unfolding around him. O’Donnell’s life is both a powerful, personal story and a compelling, universal one about how America lost its way in the 1960s, but also how hope can flower in the margins of even the darkest chapters of the American story.
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LETTERS FROM PLEIKU
If you are able
Save for them a place
Inside of you…
And save one backward glance
When you are leaving
for the places they can
no longer go…
Be not ashamed to say
you loved them,
though you may
or may not have always…
Take what they have left
and what they have taught you
with their dying
and keep it with your own…
And in that time
when men decide and feel safe
to call the war insane,
take one moment to embrace
those gentle heroes
you left behind…
MICHAEL D. O’DONNELL
1 January 1970
A NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR
In the process of writing this book I have often been asked about my relationship to the subject of the Vietnam War and, more specifically, to Michael O’Donnell. After all, I was too young to serve and had no need to worry about the draft since the war ended when I was in my early teens. To be perfectly honest, like most people of my generation, the war in Vietnam cast a shadow over much of my childhood, and I was all too eager to see this enduring catastrophe fade from memory sooner rather than later. Moreover, I have spent most of my career in universities and museums as an art historian with expertise in the European Middle Ages and the classical world, not in twentieth-century American politics, military history, and popular culture. Finally, I never knew Michael O’Donnell. Why then have I decided to write about a young helicopter pilot I never knew, who was lost long ago, in a war few want to remember?
The answer is complicated, but I will say that I didn’t really decide to write this book—I felt compelled to. I first encountered the outlines of O’Donnell’s story and his most famous poem within the pages of Harold Evans’s magisterial The American Century. I was deeply moved by the poem “Letters from Pleiku,” which O’Donnell had written on New Year’s Day in 1970. Unlike the Greek warrior Achilles, who eagerly sought eternal glory through sacrifice in battle, Michael O’Donnell was in that poem asking for something more modest and poignant: that we simply remember the people who sacrificed everything for a cause that meant so little. Even if the war should be consigned to oblivion, those who were left behind—on its battlefields, in its swamps and jungles, and even its VA hospitals—should not. In writing these words about Vietnam, O’Donnell was among the first to ask us to recognize that the controversy of the war was a thing apart from the human tragedy of the soldiers conscripted to enact it.
After reading the poem, I was drawn to learn more about its author and perhaps something of the circumstances in which it had been written. This did not begin as a book project, but rather as an act of curiosity, and a modest response to the poet’s plea that we take a moment to remember. Yet, the more I learned about Michael O’Donnell, the more compelling his story became. It was a story about the life of a vibrant young man during a tragic time; a story that in its telling reveals much of what happened to America in the 1960s. The more I learned about his life, his war experiences, his personal sacrifice, and the legacy of his poems—not to mention his impact on the people he left behind—the more I began to understand the magnitude of his loss, and ours.
There is another, perhaps more timely reason that I have written this book. I wanted to understand how a democratic government, presumably with all the best intentions and led by people who considered themselves honorable, effectively decided to sacrifice the lives of its own citizens to advance an ill-considered and poorly developed political idea. If we understand the taking of life to be the ultimate human transgression, we need to understand how such decisions are made—in this case without a substantive understanding of purpose or consequences. Before the Vietnam War was over, the United States had sacrificed 58,220 of its citizens. The Vietnamese lost millions more.
By the time Michael O’Donnell was sent to Vietnam in October 1969, it was widely (if not publicly) acknowledged—by several US presidents both past and present and other government and military leaders, the soldiers doing the fighting, and the general public—that there would be no satisfactory outcome to the war. Yet, there was still no plan to prevent further casualties and death. Despite massive protests on college campuses and in city streets all across the country, the war would continue with thousands more casualties before the ignominious evacuation of the last Americans in Saigon from the rooftop of the US embassy in April 1975. One of those casualties would be Michael O’Donnell.
Within a few months of his arrival in Vietnam, Michael O’Donnell understood—as only a soldier can—that he was unlikely to survive, and that the sacrifice of his life would not alter the course of the war nor matter to his country. Through his poetry, written in the evenings after experiencing relentless days of trauma and death, all around and even within his helicopter, O’Donnell reflected on what was happening, even as he recognized that he was merely counting the days.
As I learned more about Michael O’Donnell and what happened to our country in the 1960s, I became committed to sharing his story. Perhaps it was because I grew up in the shadow of Vietnam and saw firsthand the destruction it wrought on individual lives and on the nation as a whole, that Michael O’Donnell’s words struck so deeply in me. Although I was not particularly aware of the politics at the time, even as a middle school student, I was taken aback by what I perceived to be a dishonest government engaging in a pointless cause at the expense of real lives. The 1960s was a watershed era, with consequences that continue to resonate today. No longer do we assume that our government leaders are to be trusted, and no longer do we presume that they will do the right thing. To the contrary, we expect little from them and are usually not disappointed. Finally, largely through the devastating experience of the Vietnam War, the American people are far more skeptical about the concept of “American Exceptionalism,” the idea that the United States is a unique force for good in the world.
I have carried Michael O’Donnell’s story with me for many years. I have accumulated a great deal of material, including letters, poems, and even recordings of songs he made while at war. He was a very good singer and, in my view, a terrific songwriter. Over the years, I have also come to know many of the people closest to him during his brief life, including his sister Patsy McNevin, his closest friend Marcus Sullivan, his fiancée Jane Mathis, and many others. They have become good friends. I am grateful to them for sharing Michael and their own stories with me.
Michael O’Donnell died in battle 50 years ago, his unrecovered body left behind. His service to our country cost him everything; a sacrifice made all the more painful because he was sure it would be pointless. This book is first and foremost a story about loss and reconciliation, for an individual and our nation, but it is also a gesture of respect. For me and those who learn about his story, Michael O’Donnell was not left behind.
For everything there is a season,
and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.
AN ICE CREAM SEASON
Ideal voices and beloved
of those who have died, or of those
who are lost to us like the dead.
Sometimes, within our dreams, they speak;
sometimes the mind can hear them in our thoughts.
And with their sound for an instant return
sounds from the early poetry of our life—
like music in the night, faraway, that fades.
—C. P. CAVAFY, ”Voices,” 19101
In my ice cream season I’ve shared a lot of words and songs and easy laughing…
—MICHAEL D. O’DONNELL, 1968
To have come of age in the decade between the end of the Korean War and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy was to have experienced the most sustained wave of economic prosperity in America since the presidency of Calvin Coolidge. Not that Michael O’Donnell or any of his classmates at Shorewood High School in Milwaukee were likely conscious of their economic good fortune, any more than they were of the real dangers being stirred up by the Cold War. Most Americans had been alerted to the potential for global war, and perhaps even nuclear Armageddon, by the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962; but in the spring of 1963, when Michael graduated from high school, they were far less aware of the circumstances that had led by then to the gradual deployment of more than 16,000 American troops to Vietnam. And why would they be? Among the top 100 popular magazines published in the United States in 1960, there were collectively only 15 references to Vietnam, the majority of them brief citations in the weekly news magazines. Although the inexorable process of war making had already begun in the Eisenhower years, neither the press nor the American public was paying attention. The escalating conflict in Vietnam had not yet become a story of consequence. In the spring and summer of 1963, for Michael O’Donnell and his friends, the world was a welcoming place filled with promise and excitement.
Michael Davis O’Donnell was the quintessential postwar baby. He was born on August 13, 1945, just one week after the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and four days after it dropped another on Nagasaki, killing more than 220,000 people in all and prompting Japan’s unconditional surrender and the end of the Second World War. In that same eventful month, the Communist revolutionary Ho Chi Minh and his nationalist militant supporters, known as the Vietminh, launched an insurrection against French rule in Indochina. But to Don and Bette O’Donnell, and to so many other American families in the years following the Second World War, the Communist rebellion in Southeast Asia was a distant and irrelevant matter. They were busy putting war behind them as fast as they could, and enjoying the postwar peace and prosperity.
The veterans of the war had returned to civilian life as heroes, celebrated by a nation grateful for their service and sacrifice. With the aid afforded to them through the GI Bill, many were able to return to school or begin families, and low-rate veterans’ loans allowed them to purchase homes in newly emerging suburbs. There was, for the so-called greatest generation, a direct and tangible connection between their service to the nation and access to the American Dream.
Don O’Donnell, born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, studied psychology and labor relations at Ohio State, earning his room and board at the Catholic fraternity, where he was their champion boxer. There he met Bette Davis, a bright and attractive student from Grandview, Ohio. Shortly after they were married, they settled in Columbus, where their children were born: Patricia in 1943, followed by Michael in 1945. Although Don had been drafted in 1943, when Patsy was an infant, he had been unable to remain in the army due to chronic allergies.
The family moved several times in the next decade as Don pursued professional opportunities and advanced in his career as an industrial psychologist.
By the time Patsy and Mike were in their teens, the O’Donnells had settled in Shorewood, Wisconsin, an upscale suburban community offering almost everything a family, and especially teenage children, could desire. The O’Donnell home on East Kensington Boulevard was spacious and comfortable. The family had a beloved German shepherd with the unlikely name of Helsies Indiana William, known affectionately as “Bill,” who, along with the kids, had the run of the neighborhood. Patsy would later recall the Shorewood years as happy ones for Mike and the family. Surrounded by supportive parents, many friends, and his beloved dog, Mike was an active teenager; he was popular with his peers, a member of Shorewood’s cross-country and wrestling teams, and an avid reader. He was, however, then and later, an indifferent student.
Mike first encountered folk music in the corridors of Shorewood High, where, as a freshman, he met Bill Peckinpaugh, a classmate with a guitar, musical talent, and a keen interest in the folk music scene. With Peckinpaugh and others, O’Donnell began to explore a new world that became increasingly fascinating to him. He set out to learn the guitar, started writing songs and, with his new friends, formed a folk music group called “the Coachmen.” For the first time in his young life, Mike had found something that completely absorbed him, that he loved, and that called on him to make a significant effort.
Later, Michael O’Donnell would title a collection of his poems and songs from this period, “An Ice Cream Season.” The title was meant to reflect his feeling that this had been a carefree and joyous time in his life, but also one in which he was passionately committed to something difficult and personally meaningful. Although his interest in music was already keen in high school, it was during his years as a student at Whitewater State College, where he enrolled in the fall of 1963, when O’Donnell emerged as an accomplished songwriter and guitarist. From his first days in college, his primary interest would be outside of the classroom: in writing songs, playing his guitar, and participating in the vibrant folk music scene he found on campus.
Michael O’Donnell first met Marcus Sullivan on the Whitewater campus in the winter of 1963. Marcus, a talented musician and singer, was a sophomore who with his own folk group, called the Kingsmen, was performing folk standards by the Kingston Trio; Peter, Paul and Mary; Pete Seeger; and Odetta, among others. Marcus remembers vividly the first time he encountered Mike O’Donnell. “I was with the Kingsmen performing covers when I first heard Mike onstage at the Whitewater Student Union,” he told me. “This was in December 1963. Mike had written a song about the very recent assassination of John F. Kennedy, called ‘When You Think of Freedom,’ which really knocked me out. The song was terrific, and it was written by a guy who understood before the rest of us that he had something to say.” In short order Marcus Sullivan and Michael O’Donnell were performing together, and became close friends. “Mike was funny, talented, charismatic, and smart,” Marcus said. “He was usually the center of attention, but he was generous and kind. He was good-natured, liked practical jokes, and he sometimes got into jams. He was always willing to lead the charge, but because he was so likable, he got out of most of them pretty easily.”
Marcus Sullivan, born in Arkansas, had moved with his large family to Whitewater while he was in middle school. His father was an itinerant carpenter, and the family had to move often as he pursued prospects for work. But the move to Whitewater brought good luck, and the family was able to remain in one place long enough for Marcus not to have to change schools. His family was musical, and Marcus, also an accomplished track athlete, had been singing all his life. He had long been recognized as a talented vocalist, and singing became an important part of his life in high school and especially in college.
Soon after Sullivan and O’Donnell connected, they recognized that theirs would be an epic friendship. They shared a passion for folk music and, even better, they harmonized well and collaborated seamlessly. With O’Donnell writing the lyrics, the pair worked closely together to set out the music. Early on they performed their own songs, rounding out their sets with covers they admired, including Odetta’s “It’s a Mighty World” and a new song called “The Sounds of Silence” by two relative unknowns called Simon and Garfunkel. O’Donnell was particularly taken with the earlier folk version of the song that had been released on the album Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. and saw great promise in this young duet from New York. Of course, like everyone else, Sullivan and O’Donnell were also influenced by Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and the folk superstars Peter, Paul and Mary.
Like many of their generation, Sullivan and O’Donnell were interested in folk music because for them it was more authentic, socially conscious, and politically charged than rock and roll. The folk movement began to blossom on college campuses, first on the two coasts, and then all across America. The genesis of the folk revival of the late fifties, and its mass-market appeal in the early sixties, can largely be traced back to 1948 and the formation of the Weavers, the first mainstream American folk group. Because of their socialist politics, the Weavers’ popularity was curtailed by boycotts during the McCarthy-era Red Scare, but by the early 1960s, Pete Seeger, one of the founding members, enjoyed great success on college campuses nationwide, and his music captured the attention of the young musicians at Whitewater. During this period, Seeger played at San Francisco folk clubs such as the Cracked Pot and the Hungry Eye, and then went on to New York’s Village Vanguard and the Blue Angel.
- "Poignant...Weiss brilliantly evokes O'Donnell's fatal mission and the toll his MIA status took on his loved ones...As a précis on the tragic place Vietnam holds in the American consciousness... this slim book succeeds admirably."—Publishers Weekly
- "a stunning book... well written and presented. Weiss, the president and CEO of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is an accomplished researcher and writer. He has produced a nicely constructed offering that threads a historical narrative of the Vietnam War into the story of Army Capt. Michael D. O'Donnell...I enjoyed this book. I recommend that it become a staple in high school curricula as a resource during the study of the Vietnam War."—VVA Veteran
- "So many years after the Vietnam War, Dan Weiss has written an elegiac book about a soldier and poet who died when his helicopter went down in the jungle. A tribute to all soldiers who died in Vietnam, it's also a reminder that soldiers die at the will of people who may or may not understand what they are sending them to die for."—Frances Fitzgerald, author of Fire in the Lake
- "This is a brilliant reflective recreation of Michael O'Donnell's Vietnam and the insistent questions in his sacrifice."—Harold Evans, author of The American Century
- "They called it the pucker factor--the helplessness you felt riding in a chopper taking fire from below. It took half a century to dull those memories. Dan Weiss brought them back in one chapter."—James Sterba, Vietnam correspondent, New York Times, 1969-1970
- "Dan Weiss has told a compelling story about the creative and artistic spirit of one soldier, but learning about Michael O'Donnell forces us to remember that there were more than 58,000 such stories of lives cut short; wives, parents, and siblings left behind; children unborn; songs not sung; and poems not written. Each of these deaths is like a jagged scar on the soul of our nation, made all the more infuriating for having occurred as part of a poorly explained and inconclusive war. In That Time reminds us what happens when leaders fail, that at the end of every bullet is someone's son or daughter, someone like Michael O'Donnell."—William S. Cohen, secretary of defense, 1997-2001
- "In That Time rescues a young man's life from the jungle ravine where his helicopter crashed during the Vietnam War and was left undiscovered for decades. Like thousands of other soldiers whose lives had barely begun only to be squandered in that war, Michael O'Donnell had his hopes and dreams, family and friends. His poems about the war are still shared by veterans. Weiss examines O'Donnell's loss with meticulous and civic compassion."—John Balaban, author of Remembering Heaven's Face
- On Sale
- Nov 5, 2019
- Page Count
- 224 pages