Saturday, September 6, 2014

Saigon Hotel, March 1970

I walked down Tu Do Street from my hotel, the Majestic, toward the opera house and the Continental. The Continental Hotel is Graham Greene’s hangout, and the gathering place for press and diplomatic types. In this Paris of the East there are impressive boulevards, sidewalk cafés and colonial balconies. There are many bicyclists and pedestrians and military vehicles jamming the street. The cafes are crowded, and loud music, mostly American rock and roll, vibrates out to the sidewalks from the strip clubs. Life is good, business is booming, and the Saigon night is young.
      The motor scooters, old cars, and packed buses, careen around the traffic circle, oblivious of the hand signals of the policeman on his platform. Neon signs blaze,  GIs are out in packs,  MPs are on patrol, and the boy-girls whisper of secret pleasures as they skip to walk beside you.
      The Continental’s ground floor café is enclosed by protective screens. I walked through the café into the lobby and on through to the courtyard and up the steps to the bar. The bartender was middle-aged, Vietnamese, who spoke English flawlessly. I mentioned Greene.
      “Yes, Graham Greene,” he said. “The Quiet American…did you read the book before coming here?” I replied that I had, and offered the thought that everyone who came should read it.
      He laughed, and said, “Yes, but of course your government dislikes the book. I’ve read it many times.”
      “Do you know what room Greene lived in when he was writing the book?”
      “I’m not supposed to say. It causes problems,” he said, with a grin. “You’re on your way to R&R  or home?”
      “Home… tomorrow.”
      “Well, in that case,” he said, “let me see if the magic room is unoccupied, you can take a quick look.”
      I was nursing my second beer when he returned: “Come with me” he whispered.
      We went up a service staircase to the second floor. Room 214 is a corner room with tall bright windows, yellow draperies, a chair and ottoman, a bed and matching nightstands, with a writing desk and chair facing the wall. It was clean and empty, awaiting its next guest. I stayed at the open door admiring the brass handles and letter box.
      “You can go in for a minute if you like.”  
      “No, this is fine, thank you.”
      Later I ran into a few friends in the bar and stayed quite late. As I was leaving I looked across the room to my conspirator to say goodbye. He saw me, smiled and waved me over.
      Leaning across he said: “I forgot to mention, our friend Graham Greene actually prefers the Majestic Hotel to this one, and stays there now when he comes to Saigon. Do you know the Majestic?”

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

November 22, 1963/2013

It has been fifty years since the Kennedy assassination and the true beginning of the “sixties.” On that November 22, in 1963, we who were very young, and living a relatively slow paced, black and white, half hour of news at seven existence, were slammed into a world of real time murder, distrust, intrigue, and confusion. I can still see Sister Benedict dropping to her knees in our classroom gripping her cross and telling us all to kneel down right now and say a prayer for the president, who might in fact be dying. I ran the six blocks home to my mother who uncharacteristically hadn’t heard what had happened.  I remember trying to sort out the reality of it all. He was actually dead? Shot in the head? There was Jackie with blood all over her, people running around with guns, police cars, Air Force One, a casket, darkness, lights, he was dead. On a sunny Friday afternoon a week before Thanksgiving, just like that?

All of us experienced it in roughly the same way, a coming of age that was unwelcome and frightening, and which unbeknownst to each of us, was a catalyst for things to come. Indeed, some would argue it all went to hell after that. From Vietnam through Watergate and back again, we lived and rambled through the sixties until 1975 when that last chopper left Saigon. Now looking back it is difficult to recall what the country looked like pre-1960, except that it was more hidden from view and therefore less urgent. Things were brewing, and we were involved in marches and readings and singing and protests. But it was being fed to us in small doses, maybe two minutes out of an evening news broadcast or a few questions on a talk show or during a press conference.

All of that changed with the media becoming more and more the defining force in our daily lives, gradually building up to the then improbable 24 hours of broadcasting on too many channels to even count, and of course the internet. Now everything is thrown in our face, from massacres to wars to assassinations to tsunamis to nuclear accidents, to real time terrorist attacks, and we become skeptical of “Breaking News” stories…is this an earth shattering story or another cruise ship fire?  It’s difficult today for our younger brethren to appreciate the impact of that infamous “News Bulletin” with Walter Cronkite interrupting the midday TV shows with the news of shots being fired at the presidential motorcade in Dallas. Yes, it was a different world then, it was primarily our parents’ world, and ours by inheritance, and we watched it evolve in very short time from a decade of assassinations, war, and riots, to the high definition, information overloaded, yet essentially similar world we have today.

When we remember JFK this November 22, we remember what our country looked like then and the turmoil that was just beginning for all of us. For many of us who lived through those tragic days fifty years ago we look back not only in sadness but in awe; awe at the profound, twisted effect a tragic assassination has had on our history, and sadness that in experiencing the loss of a president we lost forever our basic innocence, our faith in a human capacity to seek out the good and just in all things.  

Friday, October 11, 2013

October Baseball

    I remember the World Series as a frustrating time of having to run home from school to catch the middle-to-final innings of the baseball games on television, wondering why everyone in the world got to watch the entire game except us kids in school. It seemed it was always the Dodgers and the Yankees, except for the few years that the Milwaukee Braves got to play and my mother cheered for them as only an old Boston Braves fan could do. Of course there were no wild card games or series, and no division play-offs. We had the American League and National League, about sixteen teams, two pennant races and winners, and then the World Series, played on sunny afternoons on black and white TV. Both leagues played under the same rules, pitchers came up to bat or were taken out of the game, good hitters had to take the field as well as hit, and managers had to manage.

I also remember being a Red Sox fan and never being able to root for the Sox in the series until 1967. That was the year we played the Cardinals and I arrived at Fenway in the wee hours to wait in a mile long line for standing room only tickets. And then watching batting practice from my standing perch in the back of the back row of the first base grandstand, afraid to move and lose my spot, I saw the great Cardinals pitcher Bob Gibson warming up and knew there was no way that the Sox were going hit this guy. No way. And so it went, 1967, 1975 and again in 1986, until 2004 when they finally did it. Those of us who were die hard fans from the 50’s and 60’s onward will never forget that full moon over Fenway and the childlike thrill that came, along with a few tears, when the Sox won it all.

Each October the drama is played out for another group of teams and their fans, kids and grownups alike. Now there are more teams and more games, wildcard and division championships, night games in vivid HD color. And either because of the changes or in spite of them, it is still October baseball, with cheers and broken hearts, winners and losers, heroes and goats, and a great dramatic run to the final game that will determine the World Champion. In these uncertain times that make us all wonder when the next brick will fall, we still have the October Classic.  So as Ernie Banks would say: “Let’s play two!”  

Monday, August 19, 2013

There Used To Be a Bookshop

The Chestertown Old Book Co. closed in April after ten plus years of dealing in rare and second-hand books. A sad day for us, as it is for so many small booksellers lately. It's a difficult thing to throw in the towel on a business you love, but the choices were few and pretty clear.

So now we move on. The Chester River Press is still functioning albeit a bit wobbly after the bookshop's demise. The two enterprises meshed nicely and the bookshop provided the ideal setting for discussing book layouts, type selection, paper, printing and publishing options, editing, cover design, etc. But we will continue as a Press, and I urge you to check the website.

Much of the remaining book stock from the Old Book Co. will be sold at auction by Waverly Auction in Falls Church, Virginia. We still have some business left to do with customers who left their books with us and we will be contacting them soon. The bookshop's email account was closed, and the best method of staying in touch is to contact us

Friday, August 31, 2012

Color Us Orange: Agent Orange and the Legacy of the Vietnam War

by Gerard Cataldo

June, 1969, Tan An Province, South Vietnam: We were told to hold off our landing until the C-123’s finished their spraying run on a strip of thick jungle on the river. As soon as they were finished, we flew our Huey into a small clearing to complete a medevac of six wounded GI’s. As we were climbing out we could see the distinctive tail-high profiles of the 123’s starting another run on a nearby area. Our medic, Johnny Tobin, came on the intercom: “That’s agent orange, boys…and it’s nasty shit.” 

The story of Agent Orange is fairly well known, but considering new generations of young Americans who might barely recall reading about the Vietnam War, let alone living through it, and for some who might have slept, smoked, drank or danced their way through the sixties and seventies, a short retelling and update of the story might open an eye or two.

Based in large part on a Rand study, the United States military began using herbicides and defoliants in Vietnam in 1962, with the expressed intent to prevent the communist guerilla forces, the Vietcong, from being supplied food by local farmers, and to defoliate jungle and forest areas which provided cover for the guerillas. Manufactured by Monsanto Corporation, Dow Chemical, and others, the agent was a mix of two phenoxyl herbicides, 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D) and 2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4,5-T), the latter being contaminated with one of the most toxic dioxins, 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzodioxin (TCCD).

The mixture was shipped to the military in Vietnam in chemical drums marked with a colored orange stripe. The military reportedly mixed and used the chemicals at a rate of six to twenty-five times the strength recommended by the manufacturers. During the war, from 1962 to 1971, the military sprayed an estimated 17 to 20 million gallons of Agent Orange (and other agents containing Dioxin, such as agents Green, Pink, Purple, Blue and White) on parts of South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia in defoliation campaigns code named Operation Trail Dust, and Operation Ranch Hand (originally code named, more aptly,Operation Hades). Twelve percent of the area of South Vietnam was affected, destroying an estimated 5 million acres of forests and crops. (By reference, the entire state of Maryland contains about 7.5 million acres, New Hampshire contains about 5.7 million acres.)

Herbicides were not developed solely for Vietnam. During World War II the U.S. and U.K. conducted research on the military applications of herbicides, including test flights using 2,4-D in 1944 and 1945. Research in the United States continued during the 1950’s, leading to a ‘successful’ military demonstration of the tactical use of herbicides by spraying 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T from aircraft over a four square mile area at Fort Drum, New York. From the early 1950’s through the 1960’s, the military mixed, tested, or stored Agent Orange and other herbicides containing Dioxin at locations in the following states: Arizona, Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, Montana, New York, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin. The military also tested the agents in India, Korea, Cambodia, Laos, Puerto Rico, Thailand, and in Canada (jointly with the Canadian military).

Herbicide spraying in Vietnam was conducted primarily by specially outfitted C-123 Provider aircraft, and by helicopters, trucks, boats, and backpack hand sprayers. GIs would off load the 55 gallon drums, stack and store them at base locations, open, mix and load the herbicide onto aircraft, boats and vehicles, and transport numerous drums to villages and small airfields for further storage until use.

Empty drums were used by GIs and locals for numerous purposes, including: barbecue pits, trash burning, storage of other liquid products including fuel, as sand filled revetment walls for aircraft protection, as containers for holding water for field showers, and for use in villages as structural components, water and food containers, and for other domestic and farming purposes. Dioxins from Agent Orange settled into the soil and sediment, and are detectible today in extremely high doses especially around the former major air bases where the U.S. military had off-loading and storage facilities. Dioxins affected the animal and bird species in Vietnam, and left the defoliated forest areas susceptible to ongoing erosion, loss of seeding forest stock, and made regeneration difficult and in some cases impossible.

Civilians in villages affected by the spraying were contaminated by the crops they farmed and ate, and by the ground water they drank. The Vietnam Red Cross, in a study referenced by the Department of Veterans Affairs, estimates that three million Vietnamese have been affected by Agent Orange, including children born with birth defects. As with most air operations of that type, the spraying of herbicides was not an exact science. It was susceptible to wind drifts, weather, errors in navigation, careless handling, improper storage, casual use of contaminated containers, spillage, and occasional releases of toxins over heavily populated areas, and areas where U.S. troops were conducting operations. As a result, American troops, to one degree or another, were conducting ground or air operations in the immediate vicinity of spraying, slept in contaminated areas, worked at bases where the agent was mixed or stored, or were susceptible to doses of contaminants in their food and water supplies.

Concerns for the health issues of humans involved with Agent Orange commenced in 1965 with Dow Chemical beginning discussions on the toxic nature of Dioxins. In 1969, Bionetcs Research Laboratories published a study showing that Dioxin caused deaths in laboratory animals. A report prepared by the National Institutes of Health in 1969 presented evidence that 2,4,5-T caused malformations in offspring of mice, and as a result the military ordered a limitation of Agent Orange use to areas remote from the population.

Two million, six hundred thousand Americans served in Vietnam. Of those, 58,200 were killed, and 304,000 wounded. Between the end of the Vietnam War and 1977, the Department of Veterans Affairs began receiving claims from Vietnam veterans for disabilities they believed were associated with exposure to Agent Orange. These claims were routinely denied unless the veterans could prove that their health conditions began when they were in the military or within a year of discharge. By the early 1990s, of the 39,400 veterans who filed claims for disability issues related to Agent Orange (or other Dioxin contaminated herbicides) the V.A. had compensated 486 veterans. During the 1980s additional studies were conducted, class action law suits filed, and expert testimony given before Congress, resulting in the Agent Orange Act, enacted by Congress in 1991. The Act gave the Department of Veterans Affairs the authority to declare certain conditions “presumptive” to Agent Orange/Dioxin exposure. The list of conditions has grown since 1991, and now includes: prostate cancer, respiratory cancers, multiple myoma, type II diabetes, Hodgkin’s, and more. The list has been expanded to include conditions borne by offspring of veterans, and specific conditions suffered by women who served in Vietnam.

The United States has been in negotiations with Vietnam concerning the health impact of Agent Orange on the Vietnamese population and offspring. In 2007 the U.S. made $3 million available for public health programs in Vietnam, in particular in areas surrounding former U.S. military bases where Agent Orange was mixed and stored. In 2011, the U.S. began a decontamination campaign of Dioxin contaminated areas in Vietnam, with $32m allocated by the Congress to fund the effort. There are 25-30 former military bases in Vietnam where Agent Orange was mixed or stored. Testing for Dioxin has been conducted at former bases, including DaNang, PhuCat, and BienHoa, resulting in high levels of Dioxin still present in the soil and sediment, in some cases up to 350 times higher than the standard of international recommendations for action.

For its part, the Department of Veterans Affairs has updated its policy on the Agent Orange issue. Currently, the V.A. recognizes that veterans who served in Vietnam between 1962 and 1975 are “presumed to have been exposed to herbicides,” as specified in the Agent Orange Act of 1991. These veterans do not need to show they were exposed to Agent Orange or other herbicides in order to get disability compensation for diseases related to Agent Orange exposure.”

And so the Vietnam War continues to be the gift that keeps on giving. Those of us who were there and know what an experience it was, and who watched so much sacrifice, duty, and heroism, and who have, for many years since, wondered how we got through it and what it was about anyway, now are faced with health worries that might in fact have been courtesy of our service. To search for lessons is a futile gesture, since all wars have their human legacies, whether addiction, depression, nightmares, wounds, disabilities, or cancer, and none of it will ever stop until we realize the consequences of what we do as a nation, not only to other people but to ourselves. We can only assume that the coming years will bring additional revelations about chemicals used in Iraq and Afghanistan, and other places we have yet to experiment with.

There’s a lot more to war than meets the eye. It’s not all patriotism, and parades, and medals, and speeches, and campaigns, and tough guy slogans, and America right or wrong. There are human consequences that never seem to enter the equation when the suits and generals sit around the conference tables in Washington and plan the futures of twenty- year-old men and women.

When the last helicopter lifted off from Saigon on April 29, 1975 we were told the Vietnam War was over. Well…it wasn’t.

(This article originally appeared in the Talbot/Chestertown Spy, August 28, 2012.)

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Boeing Model 40

Chester River Press is pleased to publish The Model 40: The History of the Boeing Model 40 and the Birth of Boeing Airliners, the second book by noted aviation historian Mike Lavelle who, with co-author Addison Pemberton, has written the first definitive history of the Boeing Model 40, the airplane that flew the transcontinental Chicago to San Francisco mail route. The Model 40 helped Boeing survive the depression years and was the first true Boeing airliner. The book is written in two parts, the first being a complete, detailed history of the design, development and operations of the aircraft, and the second being the personal story of the discovery, restoration, and flying of an original Model 40. Heavily illustrated with period and contemporary photos and charts, and with a foreword by William Boeing, Jr., The Model 40 is destined to be the standard reference on the early years of Boeing aircraft. Copies are available through Chester River Press and Amazon.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Thomas Jefferson's Copy of Aeschylus

The Chestertown Old Book Co. is pleased to offer an historically significant set of books from the personal library of Thomas Jefferson, assembled and interleaved by him, specially bound by his personal bookbinder, and containing Jefferson's unique quire ownership markings.

This is a seven volume set of The Tragedies of Aeschylus, in full leather, octavo in size, bound by Frederick Mayo in uniform bindings of gilt tooled calfskin. Each volume was assembled and bound according to Jefferson's specifications, resulting in varied texts, pagination, paper stock, and language: French, English, Greek and Latin. Following the 1815 sale of the bulk of his library to Congress, Jefferson continued to acquire books. The Retirement Library Catalogue, written in Jefferson's hand, constituted the third and final library at Monticello. After Jefferson died in 1826, his library was listed for auction through Nathaniel P. Poor in Washington, D.C., on February 27, 1829. This Aeschylus set is included in the Poor Catalogue.

Jefferson's habit was to mark his books at quires "I" and/or "T", by placing his initial in ink beside the quire signature. Jefferson's marks are present in these volumes. Jefferson's "strike-throughs" are also present on the title pages of four volumes. Also present is a handwritten notation by G.C. Verplanck, the original buyer at auction. This set of books has been in the Verplanck family since its purchase at the auction. In addition, the set of books is specifically referred to in a letter Jefferson wrote to Philadelphia book dealer John Laval on March 27, 1820.

For further information on this unique set of Jefferson's books please contact us at, or telephone 410-810-3880.