by Cendrine Marrouat on Examiner dot com 10/29/2010
John Podlaski served in Vietnam in the early 1970’s and received numerous military recognitions (Combat Infantry Badge, Bronze Star, two Air Medals, and a Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry). He is a member of Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 154 and lives with his wife, Janice in Sterling Heights, Michigan. In this interview, you will learn more about this author and his first novel, titled Cherries.
Cendrine Marrouat: Hello John, thank you for answering my questions. Tell us a little more about you.
I attended Catholic schools and after graduating in 1969, a close friend’s father pulled some strings and got me a job with an automotive parts supplier. I was working sixty hour weeks – making good money, and struggling through 12 credit hours in my first college semester. After 10 weeks of school, I was frazzled and had to choose between a weekly pay check and a college education. I chose the money and dropped out of school just before Thanksgiving. Unfortunately, it didn’t dawn on me at the time, but dropping out of school immediately terminated my college deferment for the military draft; my lottery number was low and it didn’t take the government long to find me. In February, I found myself in the U.S. Army – spending the next twenty-two months in active military service – including a year in Vietnam.
After my honourable discharge in December, 1971, I immediately returned to my former job – the company was mandated by Federal Law to hold my job until my return. On my first day, the Personnel Director, impressed by my military leadership skills and awards, promoted me to a shift supervisor position, which I held for the next seventeen years.
In November, 1989, my company reorganized and released fifty percent of its employees – I found myself as part of that group. I’ve continued working within the automotive industry and held various management positions within several companies. My wife, Janice, and I just recently celebrated our 39th wedding anniversary. It’s our hope to retire in one year and then travel throughout the U.S. and Canada.
CM: Cherries, your first novel, focuses on young teenage soldiers who were thrust into a nightmarish scenario in Vietnam. What made you decide to write a book on the topic?
JP: During the late 1970s, movies depicting the war in Vietnam (i.e. The Green Berets, Apocalypse Now, and The Deer Hunter) were not realistic interpretations of my time during the war. The movies were filled with bravado and didn’t touch upon the innocence, naivety and fear that most of us endured while in Vietnam. None of us were heroes with goals of personally bringing the war to an end within the next few months; we were scared teenage boys trying desperately to fit in and survive. My mother saved every letter written home from Vietnam and gifted them to my wife and I several years after my return home. We spent hours reading through them and sharing new discoveries. We had also come across a pocket diary that I kept during the war; each page had either summarized the events of the day, or shared an inner thought or concern. At times, the handwriting was scribbled and almost unreadable – entries made during a stressful day. Jan was in awe and soon realized that she was seeing a side of me that she’d never known. She suggested I use all the material and write a story about the experiences. Jan thought it would be good therapy and also allow her to learn more about my hidden side. Neither of us ever thought it would become a published novel.
CM: What is the story behind the title?
JP: The manuscript was initially titled The Ingenuous Soldier because I was focusing on the naivety and innocence of teenage soldiers when we first arrived in Vietnam. After a year of soliciting the manuscript to hundreds of publishers, I located a company that was interested in my work, but wanted me to change the story from first-person to a third-person perspective. This editor was also a Vietnam Veteran and knew that new soldiers were dubbed “Cherries” when arriving overseas, so he suggested it as a new title for the rewrite. It was perfect!
CM: How has your personal experience influenced the writing of the book?
JP: My memories and thoughts of the war were buried deep for many years. The letters and diary brought it all back to the surface – making it easier to write a story about the day’s events. I use a protagonist, John Kowalski (aka Polack) to tell my story. The actual names of fire bases and operating areas were used throughout, but the names of characters were all changed to protect their privacy. Converting the story from first-person to third was difficult and taxed both my memory and imagination. Thankfully, I was allowed to embellish in some areas to help with the flow of the story. This is why it’s categorized as historical fiction.
JP: This is a page of chapter six when I spend my first night in the jungle:
… John covered up with the poncho liner and tucked it in over his head. It was enough to keep out the swarms of flying insects, but the buzzing around his ears was unbearable.
“Hey, Polack, get up, it’s your watch,” someone whispered in his ear.
He sat upright and tried focusing his eyes in the now pitch-black darkness. It was no use, and he wondered if it was possible to have gone blind while asleep.
“Who’s that?” John whispered.
“It’s Scout,” the same voice replied. “Take hold of my arm, and I’ll guide you to the watch area.”
He picked up his rifle and ammo then snatched a handful of Scout’s shirt, following him like a blind man. In spite of his best efforts earlier to memorize landmarks, John was very unaware of his location, which caused a feeling of total helplessness.
“Are you going to be alright, Polack?” Scout asked, sensing something was wrong.
“Scout, I think I’m blind. I can’t see shit,” John whispered.
“Give it a couple of minutes. Just sit down and I’ll stick around until your night vision comes to you.”
John sat quietly with Scout. After a few minutes, he could finally make out the shadows of a few bushes and trees to his front. When John turned to face him, he could see the sharply defined profile of the Cherokee soldier nicknamed ‘Scout’ sitting next to him in the darkness.
“Okay, thanks, I can see you, so I’ll be fine now.”
“I’m glad. It is always a bitch when you first wake up in the bush. It happens to everyone. Oh well, at least I still have forty-five minutes to get some sleep. Here’s the radio handset,” he said, holding it out and tapping him on the shoulder. “I’ll see you later.”
He vanished into the darkness, leaving John alone at watch.
John sat perfectly still, straining to see. He held the handset to one ear and tried to listen in on the eerie jungle sounds with the other.
“Thank God it’ll be light in half an hour,” he said to himself…
CM: How long did it take you to write the book? What was the most difficult part?
JP: Cherries as you see it today took thirty years to complete. Let me explain…
I started this project in 1980 – using a manual typewriter, the first version was completed in four years. Editing the work was a painstaking experience as changes required complete retyping of the whole chapter in order to keep the pages properly formatted. In the mid-1980s, I purchased an Atari XL with a word processing application. Then, I spent the next three months duplicating every keystroke into my “first computer” and saved the entire manuscript on twenty-five 5.25-inch floppy disks.
The third-person rewrite consumed every spare minute and lasted almost a year before I quit. Only half completed, the new manuscript already exceeded the number of pages in the original. I was burnt out and quickly lost interest in continuing; I was more interested in spending time with my young daughter.
Jump forward to 2009 at my 40th high school reunion, it’s been twenty years since seeing these folks. Once we took our seats, several former classmates inquired about my book and what had become of it – this surprised me! I soon learned that many of them had read the original first person manuscript, which I had donated for their feedback at the 20th reunion. Many voiced their disappointment in my abandoning this great memoir and urged me to continue, volunteering to help wherever possible. Finally giving in after a couple weeks of prompting, I took everything out of storage. I reassembled all the components of the Atari system, and was surprised it still worked; it took two days to print both versions on my dot matrix printer.
My daughter, Nicole, volunteered to retype both versions into Microsoft Word and presented me with USB thumb drive three weeks later. With a renewed spirit of excitement, I spent every free moment during the next nine months working on this revision. After finishing, both my wife and daughter helped with the editing, and finally Cherries was born on April 20, 2010.
CM: How have people reacted to Cherries so far?
JP: Cherries is getting excellent reviews on Amazon.com and also on my personal blog. I am finding that many spouses and children of Veterans are reading the book out of curiosity because the father/husband will not talk about his war experiences. I’ve even heard from a few Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who said they can relate to many of those experiences and not much has changed during the last forty years. Here are some examples:
“Vietnam was my era, I had many friends that fought in Vietnam and we also had cousins that survived that life altering experience. Reading your book painted an image in my brain of what faced you all when you hit the ground there.
What horrible experiences that our young men go through and how rapidly it makes them grow up. They are sent to fight wars they had no part in creating, yet they suffer the consequences.
Our Dad fought in WWII and he only told us the funny stories, seldom any of the traumatizing events that shaped him as a man when he returned home. After reading your book I have a little better understanding of why he never wanted to relive those days in the retelling.
It is easy to understand how such horrible things as occurred in Vietnam continue to haunt those men who left pieces of their hearts and souls there. Thank you for a well told story!”
“I just wanted to say thanks for the opportunity to share your experiences in Nam. I was there in ’68 and ‘69. The book tells the story that everyone needs to hear. Great Job!
Many have never understood why those times affected all of us so greatly both then and now. Reading your book would help them all understand. Your words have brought it all into the proper perspective. Welcome home my Brother!”
“I’ve always been fascinated by the American experience in Vietnam and hold a soft spot in my heart for the young men required to fight there. Your book John, was an excellent read as I felt I was there with “Pollack”. I recall “playing” at army at age eighteen but did not have to experience the things you went through. I often wonder how I would have responded in similar circumstances but thankful for not having to find out. Thank you for sharing your experiences through your story and thanks to your wife and daughter for helping get this book out.
As a Canadian, I also appreciate your recognition of my countrymen who volunteered for that conflict. It is interesting that it takes an American to provide that acknowledgment and I am sure that the Canadian Veterans appreciate it.”
CM: The other day, you mentioned to me that Canadians had fought in Vietnam. Tell us a little more about that.
JP: ***Many Americans believe that Canada played no part in the Vietnam War, and that is false. Though the Canadian government tried its best to remain neutral, about 30,000 Canadians volunteered to fight in Southeast Asia. Among the volunteers were fifty Mohawks from the Kahnawake reserve near Montreal. One-hundred ten Canadians died in Vietnam, and seven remain listed as Missing in Action.
Like Vietnam Vets in the U.S., Canadian Vietnam Vets also returned home to despicable treatment. This was especially noticeable in Toronto and Vancouver where U.S. draft dodgers had settled. These large cities were often the sites of anti-war hostility.
No Veterans Administration Centers existed in Canada to assist the returning men or the families of those who had died in Vietnam. The Royal Canadian Legion did not welcome these men as they did men from other wars. This began to change with the completion of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC.
Canadian Vietnam Veterans began to form their own organizations in 1986, and today a loose coalition of groups exists in most major Canadian cities. In 1995, the North Wall found a permanent home in Windsor, Ontario. It is a great tribute to those Canadians who served and sacrificed all for what they believed in.
[***Taken in part from an article written by Mary Alward – © 2002 Pagewise]
CM: What do you wish to achieve with your book?
JP: I want people to see the non-glorified side of war. These boys were naive, fearful, and even their worst dreams could not prepare them for Vietnam. As such, they were hardly ready to absorb the harsh mental, emotional, and physical toll that the conflict would eventually take on them. These teenage soldiers not only had to fight against elusive and clever enemy soldiers, but they also fought personal battles with the many insects, reptiles, arachnids, rats, wild boars, tigers, and other beasts in the jungle.
The backdrop for this story might be Vietnam, but there have been “Cherries” in every war! Even today in the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan, the soldiers are better trained than we were in Vietnam, but they will also experience the same fears, awe, doubt and concern about survival as those young men did in Vietnam. Perhaps after reading Cherries, a person will have a better appreciation for the young soldiers that go to war, and understand why they are so different upon their return home.
CM: Where can people find more information about you and Cherries?
JP: On my blog site: <a href=”https://cherrieswriter.wordpress.com”>Cherries Website<a/>
JP: When working on your story, write whatever is in your head as it comes to you. Don’t try to edit or work on structure until you have completed at least a chapter. This process takes a lot of time and requires patience. Do not give up! There is no greater feeling than holding the first copy of your published book in your hand.
CM: Any last words?
JP: Thank you so much for your interest in Cherries and for taking the time to schedule this interview. I wish you continued success and hope your article is able to spread the word through Canada about this special story. Of course, Cherries is dedicated to all soldiers past, present and future.
CendrineMarrouat is a writer, published author and translator living in Canada. Official Website: http://www.cendrinemarrouat.com
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