Every story has a beginning although, for sure, pinning down the precise moment may be elusive.
But once Lonnie Barham had that big picture and the story line, he knew he couldn’t just let it live in his imagination.
“I had a story in me that had to be told,” he says after spending more than an hour talking about “Dancing With The Moon,” his 483-page novel that was released in June. Described as a story of love, loss and redemption after the Vietnam War, the book draws upon some fictitious characters as well as some friends. The places are real, as Rhode Islanders will certainly recognize. And those places in Vietnam are likewise real. Barham traveled to the country and he returned with an affection for the people and the place.
The military is also very real for Barham. Now a retired Army Lt. Colonel, Barham spent the first six years of service in the Navy; two of those years aboard a nuclear submarine. When he completed his tour, the country was in the midst of the Vietnam War. Barham wanted to serve in the Brown Water Navy, the lingo for PBR, or patrol, boat, river, the heavily armed boats that plied the waters of the Mekong River delta.
That didn’t happen. He ended up in the Navy Reserves. After completing a three-year commitment, he joined the Army National Guard. He is a combat veteran of Iraq. He served as deputy commander at Fort Dix, where he was in charge of training and outfitting over a three-year period 70,000 members of the National Guard for deployment to Afghanistan and Iraq, and he spent two years as director of emergency services at the Pentagon. As he explains, the job entailed developing universal procedures for the police, fire, ambulance and anti-terrorism units at more than 50 bases in this country and across the globe.
The stage for the novel is set when a young well-to-do Rhode Island lawyer, Jonathan Tisdale, is asked by his dying friend to find the child he fathered in Vietnam. The friend is Black and was the platoon sergeant who saved Tisdale’s life in 1968 when Tisdale was a lieutenant.
As summarized on the book flap, “Willie-Wil, a Black Providence Police sergeant, had struggled for years to support from afar his unseen half-Vietnamese daughter, a child both he and his mother called Moon after the English translation of her name, Quy Nguyet – “Precious Moon.” Willie-Wil had vowed one day to dance with Moon, but unable to bring her to the U.S. because of prohibitions imposed by Vietnam’s post-war communist government, it is left to Jon to honor Willie-Wil’s vow.”
Tisdale and Wil Williams, the sergeant, are Barham’s creations. But the story is grounded in the times and the end of the war in 1975. In his preface Barham tells of how American servicemen father tens of thousands of “AmerAsians” many who never knew their fathers. They became outcasts after the war, called “children of dust” and thought valueless, discriminated against and treated harshly, especially those of Black soldiers.
“Leaving behind these half American children and their mothers was one of the more tragic and shameful legacies of the U.S. decision to abandon South Vietnam and give up on a winnable war,” Barham writes.
Barham’s sister worked for the Texas social department in the 1970s where many of the “boat people” fleeing a communist Vietnam ended up after being rescued at sea. Conimicut neighbor Leslie Derrig was a flight attendant in 1975 and worked Operation BabyLift, which airlifted orphans to this country. There were so many that infants were put in cribs in the aisle. Leslie is in the book with a revised last name. There is also a character from Barham’s native town of Boonesville, Arkansas.
To Barham’s recollection, she was the only Black person living in Boonesville and nobody ever saw her. Viola was adopted by a couple that owned the hotel by the town station. It served the railroad workers. She ended up with the hotel and Barham came to know her because his father brought him along to odd jobs at the hotel.
Viola is in the book, too.
In 2014, Barham spent three weeks in Vietnam visiting the places he intended to write about. When he returned he had the outline for the book. He planned to tell the story in 39 chapters. It ended up being 65.
Writing the story took a self-discipline he learned from a book authored by Stephen King. He followed King’s advice of writing six hours a day, whether that resulted in only a few sentences or multiple chapters. Barham was up by 8 a.m. and after showering, a coffee at his side, he disciplined himself to write. About three months into the routine, he realized he enjoyed the regime. The book was flowing although it would take a “solid year” of writing to complete.
Barham had thought to introduce the book to Vietnam veteran groups across the country, but the pandemic shot that down. He has sold about 100 copies and garnered favorable reviews. He’s looking for a wider audience and suggestions this a story made for the movies has him intrigued although he doesn’t know how to go about exploring that. He’s thought about another book born from the story line of “Dancing With the Moon.”
He’s still writing. He’s working on Flat Town, a detective story based in Washington, D.C., a city he knows well from his days in the Pentagon.
But then, too, Barham is a keen follower of events. For several years he wrote a commentary on local and state events for the Warwick Beacon. His letters appear regularly in the Beacon and the Providence Journal.
Indeed, sometimes fact is sometimes stranger than fiction.
The author’s thoughts: Writing is somewhat like a love affair
By Lonnie Barham
Writing is hard work. A muse may implant great ideas into a writer’s head and may even whisper a few sentences to write. But, ultimately, writing success comes only from persistence and routine.
I had been refining the idea for this book ever since a lengthy visit to Vietnam in 2014. For the next few years, its outline floated around in my consciousness. Occasionally, a few sentences would make it onto paper.
My muse – a combination of the mythological Muses Clio (history), Melpomene (tragedy) and Erato (love) – spoke to me frequently but never managed to make me do the hard work of writing. Finally, a year or so ago, a friend gave me a copy of Stephen King’s short book, “On Writing,” in which he describes his method. King says that a good writer establishes a daily writing regimen; that he or she approaches writing like a job. Get up, get dressed, grab a cup of coffee and write for 4-6 hours. If only a sentence or two come out – or nothing – so be it. Just do it every day. It worked for me after about three months. By then I no longer needed the exact routine; I wrote every day regardless – sometimes at my desk in the morning, sometimes on a park bench in the afternoon, sometimes at my kitchen counter in the dead of the night. “Dancing With The Moon” was the result.
I discovered how important it is to write about things you know. I spent a career in the military during peacetime and in war; in safe areas and in a combat zone. So writing about battles and military operations in Vietnam came pretty easy. I have lived in Rhode Island for decades, so writing about our state’s beautiful places was also easy.
I had heard many stories from Vietnam veterans and others associated with that war; some ended up in my story. I changed names and minor details somewhat, but incorporated some of their tales nevertheless. For example, a friend was a commercial flight attendant in 1975 and was intimately involved in Operation Babylift, our government’s effort to get as many orphan children as possible, many of whom were fathered by U.S. soldiers, out of Vietnam as the victorious Communist army converged on Saigon. Her story is included in chapter forty-five.
And since I grew up in a small town in the foothills of the Arkansas Ozarks, I had one of my book’s main characters grow up in the same town. My friends who still live there will certainly recognize some of the town’s locations and characters.
Most important for a writer, though, is to write about something he or she is passionate about. In the case of “Dancing With The Moon,” that passion for me was the tragic story of the thousands of half-American (AmerAsian) children that our country left behind in Vietnam – the progeny of American soldiers and Vietnamese women. I wanted desperately to help tell that story. The fictitious AmerAsian child in this book, Moon, is one such child.
After spending so much time and effort writing Moon, when it was finished my first thought was that I would then be without purpose; that I would resort to mundane, unsatisfying activities. I was wrong! I couldn’t let writing go. I immediately launched into writing another book of a totally different genre – a detective/suspense novel set in Washington, D.C., where I spent the last two years of my military career. And I’ve begun collecting all the short stories and poetry I’ve written over the decades with the intention to refine and publish them.
When a person becomes deeply engaged with an activity to the point where they do it every day or think about it for hours daily – cooking, travel, sailing, running, or whatever – that engagement becomes something like a love affair. It can’t be put aside, at least not for very long.
Now that I’m retired and have the time, writing has become my child – a child I love dearly. And I take care of that child by giving it the attention it deserves. It requires hours of devotion every day, sometimes laborious devotion. But it’s a labor of love. So I’ll keep on doing it.