Nearly 50 years after the infamous Vietnam War, Ken Babbs has written WHO SHOT THE WATER BUFFALO?, his novel about helicopter pilots in that conflict. A writing class contemporary of Ken Kesey, Larry McMurtry and Robert Stone, Babbs is the last of that group to have his book published. According to author Tom Wolfe, Babbs stored the pages in a cardboard box on his garage floor. Himself a USMC helicopter pilot who served in Vietnam, Babbs writes his main character, Major Tom Hucklebee, as "leathery as any Texican come crawling out of the sage." His counterpart, Major Mike Cochran, is a "Loquacious, Ohio gangster." Together they train to become Marine chopper pilots.
Hucklebee narrates the story, beginning each chapter with psychedelic ramblings in conversation to a doctor. In pain, he recalls details from the beginning of flight school as a junior Marine officer, where he trains with Cochran. Hucklebee stems from a long line of Army veterans, while Cochran gets himself booted from a college ROTC program but signs up for Marine Officer Candidate School before his military family can object. Both consider themselves family renegades. Over many a bar drink, the two become friends. Cochran is a self-subscribed word-hound, loudly spelling any lengthy word that will elevate him as an intellectual. Hucklebee seems okay with the designation as "illiterate," but takes comfort in a backseat position to Cochran. In Florida, they lease a beachfront bungalow from a retired Admiral and his southern-belle wife. The Admiral and his wife are closet alcoholics, providing some sideline entertainment. Sharing a hurricane's fury with their landlords, the young pilots declare that they both will become chopper pilots. The admiral declares them "numbnuts."
The italicized narration carries the story to California, where the pilots will train at a former blimp base from WWII. Cochran, Hucklebee and Lt. Carl Emmett share an "escape and evasion training" exercise in the desert for five days. Nobody in the squadron has made it to the pickup point without being captured: a simulation of a Viet Cong prison ordeal. Hiking from the opposite direction, the three make it to the checkpoint. Training completed, the squadron, designated at the Hammering Eights, awaits orders.
The Long Beach Officers Club is trashed, compliments of a squadron party. Their C.O., known as The Hammer, is awarded a scarlet flag, decorated in the middle with a winged gold claw hammer. In scarlet letters on a gold field, the pennant blazes: THE HAMMERING EIGHTS. During the riotous melee, they receive orders for Vietnam. Like boy scouts, they pack off for an underestimated war in a misunderstood land.
Again, the italics front the chapter, this time with a raw historic background sketch of Vietnam. Simplistically, Babbs concludes that atheistic communists run the North while Papists control the south country. He questions whether it is a holy or unholy war. In keeping with Hucklebee's Catholic upbringing, the author quotes much Latin clerical phraseology: "Misere nobis. Have mercy upon us, we who are under the bullet."
The summer of 1962 finds the Hammering Eights in the Vietnam Delta, at Doc Trang. They carry South Vietnamese troops, known as ARVNs, to lead-off points in the jungle. Supplies fill the bellies of the monstrous choppers they pilot as well. The camp is primitive, tents that draw water like sieves, bath facilities that barely suffice and diets full of c-rations. Digestion, or lack of it, becomes a problem. Dysentery is a rule more than an exception.
WHO SHOT THE WATER BUFFALO? is a man's book. Having but a brief skirmish with the culture of the '60s, my understanding of the era is more of an overview than one who lived it in the trenches. The idealism that fomented the culture, from its music to its protests to its patriotism, flows throughout Ken Babbs's novel. For me, rambling passages slowed the content, but a conclusion and afterword tidied up the loose ends. For Vietnam-era enthusiasts, WHO SHOT THE WATER BUFFALO? should be an enlightening read. Long in production, Babbs's debut develops characters who show the realities of their era. One wonders how much of the story is autobiographical.
Reviewed by Judy Gigstad on May 16, 2011