Timberg was in Vietnam at the wrong time, in the wrong place, on the wrong truck. It was near Da Nang, 18 January 1967. Timberg was a U. S.Marine, riding an Army APC --- a tank-like contraption loaded with almost 500 gallons of gasoline. When it hit a land mine, it "became a death trap, and anyone inside fricasseed."
He was young, had been fighting for over a year, was scheduled to go home to his wife in less than two weeks. Because he was healthy, and lucky . . . he survived. Although, after reading of his medical experiences, some may balk at the word "lucky."
He had third degree burns on arms and shoulders, over all of his face. In the military hospital, they simply called him, "The Burn." A military psychotherapist there told him might want to go about "with a bag over his head." It took thirty-five operations (most in the naval hospital in San Diego) to get his face back . . . or a reasonable facsimile of it.
A terrible accident like this becomes a dilemma. Outside of the medical procedure, there are the heavy emotions that come with such loss. Our psyche, our whole self, is (obviously) changed. For a time Timberg's face was not there: who was he then, who had he become? Was he the same man who possessed "me, mine, myself."
His new visage: it was not the one he had lived with for twenty-four years. He was a new man, no? . . . with what he referred to as "a charred piece of meat." It becomes a devilish paradox: who do we become when we are no longer the one people thought we were?
There are twenty-seven photographs in this book. There are seven of Timberg before, ten or so of him after. He as author and subject no doubt chose which were to be included: family pictures, his wedding, the shot of a fresh young Marine in Vietnam; and in later life, there are group pictures, him as father and grandfather, as reporter. But the photograph that catches you, may leave you breathless (as it did me) is the one that we should call "during." After the explosion, in the interim between the thirty-five operations to rebuild, someone took a startling shot of a face that has been beaten, torn, disfigured, ravaged. This is not one we have seen in the "before" shots; not even the ones that were "after." Who is this?
§ § §
Timberg became a well-known, respected correspondent on the Washington news circuit. There is a photograph of him and several other reporters sitting around with President Reagan. He knows "the public," and how to reach those he wants to reach. He knows how to gauge his audience, and he built this book, made what must have been the onerous decision to include that photograph, no matter how disturbing. A picture may be worth a thousand words; this one speaks more volumes. Volumes and volumes. A small, quarter-page photograph lets us know a particle of what may have gone through his mind when they took off the bandages, for the first time, two months after the explosion of fire. The initial shock (who is this?). The pain of recognition (this is not me). The many months of rehabilitation (this will always be me). The fear of appearing in public (this will ruin my chances of ever having "normal" relationships with people, won't it?) The resignation (this is me).
How will this new persona --- he is already another, no? --- affect, change, touch him? A man seared on the battleground, now to be seared again and again, for the rest of his days or, at least, until he discovers a new self. The question for Robert Timberg is very specific: how will he handle being the new Robert Timberg?
In the beauty industry when a family member, one's mother, for instance, has plastic surgery, changes her face (nip, tuck, lift, smooth) for another, it is common knowledge that the family --- including husband, children, friends --- go through their own problems with reconstruction . . . reconstructing their image of this woman who they have known for decades, and now, suddenly, has become another person. It is for some people a profound readjustment, especially for the younger members of the family. Who is this new woman, now so different, who claims to be my mother. I do not recognize this person.
§ § §
Outside the drama of Timberg's physical change, we find several other fascinating stories here. One of the most interesting, at least for this reader, is the inside story of bodily reconstruction. What are the nuts and bolts of it? Timberg has much to teach us. Like women going through childbirth who find themselves bonding with their obstetrician, the author still counts the primary physician, Lynn Ketchum, as a close friend. For he was the one who performed most of the operations, charted the course of recovery, apparently counseled as well as reconstructed him.
Then there are the physical details of it.
When one has a graft, the body's immune system may reject it. Like the jungles of Vietnam, the body often cannot distinguish between friend and enemy. If it is taken, "At first the graft looks perfectly smooth, not like your original skin, but something that resembles it, however remotely, It seems like something you can live with."
Contraction changes everything. It distorts, pulling features out of shape, the mouth, nose, eyelids, definition vanishes. It also creates scarring, thick, ropey, hideous hypertrophic scars. After many months, the graft may soften, but most of the scarring and distortion remains.
This is when the psychic grafting process begins to take, for the world never lets us forget. Our reaction to their reaction frames how we will make it through our days. When I was out in the world again on in my new body, I also embarked on my new career as a disabled but "recovering" young man. I was proud that I was walking again, making pretty good progress down the street, I thought: but there would always be a kid coming down the street from the other direction.
Who stopped, opened his mouth, took his lollypop out of his mouth, yanked at his mother's skirt, and whispered: look at that.
The first hundred times it happened, there went my self-esteem. Poof. All along I thought I was making my way back so casually, smoothly, elegantly, but in those early days, it took only one kid to rip away my disguise. (Now? I am at one with that kid: quite surprised. Pleasantly surprised that I've been able to do what I do so well; what I've done with all the chips they left me.)
I also know that I am great at putting on my act. I had to be good at it because I had to whip it up so regularly, sometimes dozens of times in a single day. Timberg, I find, did the same. He tells us that he finally figured it out, figured out how to practice a bit of artful self-deception. On his way to an interview with one he had never met before, had spoken with only on the telephone,
As I neared my destination . . . it was as if a phone booth had materialized on the side of the road. I didn't turn into Superman, but suddenly I was no longer a graying fifty-year-old reporter with a scarred face that frightened children and caused adults to bite their tongues.
"Instead, people opened their doors to a good looking twenty-six year old Marine lieutenant who nobody fucked with. (I was twenty-six when I became intimate with the VC land mine.")
§ § §
Timberg was torn in the first days, after leaving rehabilitation. He wanted to hide in the apartment, to just never have to go out into the world. But this was the world that he, in order to live, had to face.
Early on, Timberg takes a job as a reporter, working city hall in Baltimore, writing for the highly respected Sun. We watch him (with no little pleasure) getting into his stride. He does it . . . gets to know his fellow reporters, meets important people (who do not cry out or run away when they first see him).
One evening, meeting up with some important politicos in the street, as they are talking together about politics, perfectly at ease . . . along comes a bag-lady.
Unbidden, she joined our circle and studied each of us from head to toe like an officer inspecting her troops. And then she started screaming.
"LOOK AT HIS FACE! LOOK AT HIS FACE! LOOK AT HIS FACE! LOOK AT HIS FACE! LOOK AT HIS FACE!"
§ § §
This is part of Timberg's tale. Another is the story of how he, despite, or perhaps because of his new, show-stopping persona, made himself a key member of press corps Washington, hob-nobbing with the more famous reporters, getting to know James Webb, Senator McCain, President Reagan and --- after Iran-Contra --- became intimate with several of the perpetuators of that scandal, including Oliver North, Bud McFarlane, and John Poindexter.
It is in his chapters on that unfortunate event that Timberg bares his teeth. After all these years, he still feels that the three were pilloried, were stiffed because they were loyal soldiers doing a dirty job that had to be done. He compares them to the soldiers who died in Vietnam,
I wondered if some of these critics, few of whom had ever worn a uniform other than a prep-school blazer, had seized on Iran-Contra as a convenient, politically correct excuse to trash men whose uniforms often included such accessories as flak jackets, helmets, grenades, and ammo clips.
Like most of us, Timberg just does not want to believe that what he lost, personally, in Vietnam --- literally "losing face" --- was a futile sacrifice.
He sees North, Poindexter et al as martyrs, offering the idea that they "were facilitating the shipment of supplies and other forms of support to anti-Communist guerrillas in Nicaragua, the Contras, men the president called the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers."
Unfortunately, what Timberg is doing here amounts to a fatal slip of Aristotelian logic.
The first part is "I served the United States during the Vietnam War." Then: " I went through disfigurement, pain, loss . . . a horror that the rest of you will never know. I made a noble sacrifice" (which no one can or should deny).
So far, so good. But then: as mine was "a noble sacrifice," the war too was "a noble sacrifice."
Using similar logic, he offers up North, McFarlane and Poindexter as gallant, patriotic men, martyred to the role they played doing their duty to America.
The Contras in Nicaragua made similar sacrifices, should too be seen as patriotic, gallant, even noble . . . despite the fact that the American congress more than once explicitly refused to fund their efforts (at which point President Reagan declared himself to be too a martyr, "a Contra.") Thus it was a noble endeavor.
Some of us will balk at this. Some of us feel, have felt for years, that our neo-Puritan vision of "mission" --- our compulsive diddling in the internal affairs of countries like Chile, Vietnam, Laos, Nicaragua, Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq --- bode ill for all concerned: for our nation and for a sense of fair play.
Turning soldiers-of-fortune into martyrs says much about Timberg's world-view, his vision of his own personal sacrifice in the pursuit of American destiny. It also says much about his personal change . . . the one initiated on that day near Da nang, in January, 1967.
If nothing else, we learn from this how personal tragedy can skew one's world view, one's perspicacity in matters of international relations, and one's affection for the rule of law.--- C. A. Amantea