By Mark Bierman:
As I write this another steady blast of snow is landing on my roof and around the house. I’m surrounded by a cocoon of white fluffy water, but pecking away at this review, I’m warm and dry.
Today, I’m reviewing a book written by Vietnam War Veteran, John Podlaski.
John Podlaski’s encore Vietnam War novel brings back John (‘Polack’) Kowalski, the central character in ‘Cherries’, and introduces us to Louis (‘LG’) Gladwell, his irrepressible black friend. Polack and LG are a ‘Salt and Pepper’ team, best buddies and brothers in a way that only those who have fought side-by-side in a war can ever truly understand. The year is 1970, and the story follows the two soldiers – impressionable Detroit teenagers – during their long night in a Listening Post (‘LP’), some 500 meters beyond the bunker line of the new firebase. Their assignment as a “human early warning system”, is to listen for enemy activity and forewarn the base of any potential dangers. As they were new to the “Iron Triangle” and its reputation, little did they know that units before them lost dozens of soldiers in this nightly high-risk task and referred to those assigned as “bait for the enemy” and “sacrificial lambs.” Sitting in the pitch black tropical jungle – with visibility at less than two feet – John’s imagination takes hold throughout the agonizing night, and at times, transports him back to some of his most vivid childhood memories – innocent, but equally terrifying at the time.As kids, we instinctively run as fast as we can to escape imaginary or perceived danger, but as soldiers, men are trained to conquer their fears and develop the confidence to stand their ground and fight. Running is not an option.
I admit to not having read the first in this series, “Cherries.” I cannot speak for the plotline in that book. The plotline in, “When Can I Stop Running?” was not what I expected, but in a good way. The story is written from the perspective of John ‘Polack’ Kowalski and delves more into the internal battle with fear, rather than the physical war John and so many others were dragged into.
The emotions are raw and reveal a perspective that only one, ‘who’s been there,’ can accurately depict. In spite of the nightmare in which John and his partner, Louis Gladwell, are currently enduring, John frequently slips into memories of his life before the war. They start from a childhood fear of the old basement and evolve into fears of a house “haunted” by “witches.” I had a chuckle over most of these childhood flashbacks, as John presents them in a humorous light. The flashbacks were expertly choreographed with the present scenes.
If you’re looking for a book with realistic, relatable, and likable characters, I’d highly recommend this book.
Please note that I only post reviews on books I deem four or five stars. Life is short and if I don’t like a book, I simply won’t finish it.
John Podlaski (1951 – ) was raised in Detroit, Michigan and attended St. Charles and St. Thomas Apostle Catholic schools, graduating in 1969. Immediately afterward, John started working for one of the automotive parts suppliers in the area and then attended junior college full-time in the fall. After four months of overwhelming pressure, John dropped out of college – choosing income over education. This turned out to be a huge error in judgment as a school deferment protected him from the military draft. Uncle Sam wasted no time and Mr. Podlaski soon found himself inducted into the Army in February 1970. Then after six months of training, John was sent to Vietnam as an infantry soldier; serving with both the Wolfhounds of the 25th Division and the Geronimo of the 101st Airborne Division. During his tour of duty, John was awarded the Combat Infantry Badge, Bronze Star, two Air Medals, the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry, and several other campaign medals. Back in the states, Mr. Podlaski spent the next four months in Fort Hood, Texas before receiving an early military discharge in December 1971.
The War Veteran returned to his former position with the automotive supplier and because of his military experience, he was promoted to shift supervisor. He met Janice Jo a few months later and married in 1973. The G.I. Bill helped them to purchase a home in Sterling Heights, MI, they continue living there to this day. A daughter, Nicole Ann was born in 1979. Using additional benefits from the G.I. Bill, Mr. Podlaski returned to college part-time; graduating four years later with an Associate Degree in Applied Science.
In 1980, John began working on his memoir about his Vietnam experiences. He had carried a diary during his year in Vietnam, and his mother had saved all the letters he had written from the war zone – both were used to create the outline. He toiled on a manual typewriter for four years before finally completing his work. About the same time, a new national veteran group, akin to the V.F.W. was formed in Washington, DC. They called themselves “Vietnam Veterans of America” and chapters quickly sprung up around the country. John joined Chapter 154 in Mt. Clemens, MI, and as an active member, helped to launch their
inaugural Color Guard – marching in parades and posting colors for local events. The members of this chapter were a closely-knit group, but wives often felt left out during the many discussions about Vietnam. When learning that John had authored a book about his tour of duty, the wives asked to share a copy of the manuscript, hoping it would help them better understand what their husbands might have endured during their time in Vietnam. The memoir was well received, and wives were now joining their men during these discussions. All were increasingly supportive and urged him to locate a publisher. After hundreds of rejections, a publisher from Atlanta, GA finally came forward and offered to consider the manuscript if it were re-written to a third-person format.
Atari had just come out with a new computer console and a word processor – making re-writes and editing much easier; his work now saved on floppy diskettes. The re-write continued until 1989, consuming all his spare time. John had finished half of the manuscript, then suddenly lost interest – discouraged, and not wanting to work on it any longer – it was ten years already and there was no light at the end of the tunnel. So everything was boxed up and moved to the garage for storage.
Mr. Podlaski continued working for various companies within the automotive sector; primarily in Management roles tasked in either plant start-ups, financial turnaround, or plant closures. John returned to college in 2000 and received a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration two years later. He and his wife retired in mid-2013.
At John’s 40th high school reunion, many of his former classmates who read his original manuscript twenty years earlier had questioned its lack of publication. It was a great story and all were relentless in their efforts to get him motivated and finish the rewrite – offering help wherever needed.
After learning that the conversion of Atari diskettes to the Microsoft Word format was extremely cost-prohibitive, John’s daughter offered to retype both the completed manuscript and the rewrite, saving both on a USB memory stick. Nine months later, “Cherries” was completed and published. It took almost thirty years, but seeing it in print made it all worthwhile.
During his retirement, John published a second book about his Vietnam experience called, “When Can I Stop Running?” in 2016. Additionally, he’s published two short stories: Unhinged and Unwelcomed; all are available on Amazon.
The author and his wife own a 1997 Harley Davidson Heritage motorcycle and enjoy riding when possible; both are members of the Harley Owner Group.
Connect with John and purchase his works:
Fine article, I find the book compelling in every way, and have found much helpful stuff in it since it was first released. Best regards to all of you who are still running. I have not been to ‘Nam, but from other experiences…
Yes, I am still living with vivid flashbacks, suffer from poison gas exposure, and – am running too. Can see no end to it, but a way to get by. Hope you do the same. /HGB
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A fantastic review for a compelling book! Congrats, John!
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John, persistence is the most defining word of what I read in your life… The fears we had as children, I do remember, as we lived on a farm with 120 acres of forest and 40 of fields and pasture… But I remember nights looking out the window with flecks of moonlight through the clouds making shadows into monsters… I did many ambush patrols during my time in the same area late 1966-67 in War Zone C Dau Tieng A/3/22 inf, the dark of night always lives deep in our memories…. I do not think that it is possible to stop running as long as those memories live within us,,, But I am now at peace with them, their power to create anxiety within me has been diminished, but not extinguished…. My life since has been defined by Persistence
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