As George Orwell observed, “Autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful. A man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying, since any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats.” Deservedly, memoirs are far more often reputed for paucity of candor rather than its excess. The temptation to sand off the rougher edges of one’s own story is particularly strong when narrating a life-altering, physically disfiguring calamity and its everlasting consequences. To be compelling, this genre of memoir requires exceptional writing, must accurately recount an intrinsically interesting life, and should capture the essence of the times. More critically, it cannot lapse into self-pity, woe-is-me, or sentimental pathos. Blue-Eyed Boy, the just-released memoir by wounded veteran and journalist Robert Timberg, excels with limpid writing and gripping personal travail and triumph, never once hinting at or lamenting what-might-have-been, even as it admirably meets all the requisites of an exemplary memoir.
On January 18, 1967, in the rice paddies of Vietnam, the tracked vehicle on which 1st Lt. Robert Timberg, USMC, was riding struck a land mine. “Moments later, I felt myself lifted from the top of the Amtrac [amphibian tractor], as if in the eye of a hurricane, except in the place of wind and rain I was being carried aloft by flames.” For the handsome U.S. Naval Academy graduate with a promising future, life was instantaneously and inexorably altered. Initial survival was precarious, problematic even, with his face and right forearm having suffered third degree burns: “That means the outer layer of skin, the epidermis, and the inner layer, the dermis, had, along with the sweat glands and hair follicles, been destroyed. What remained look like steak before you throw it on the grill.” As Timberg’s eminent plastic surgeon, Lynn Ketchum, MD, wrote many years later, “I have had many patients with facial burns in my career, but none as bad as Bob Timberg.”
Blue-Eyed Boy unflinchingly describes the author’s inner and outer journey “through thirty-five operations under general anesthesia, several others under local, and one with no anesthesia at all—possibly the most painful half hour of my life. For many years I endured shocked stares, and not just from children, until I figured how to cope.” Frankness and adherence to sincerity of expression can often all too easily be trumped by self-pity, maudlin sentimentality, or worse. Blue-Eyed Boy succumbs to none of these afflictions, instead frankly revealing how Timberg comes to cope and triumph against overwhelming odds. With candid poignancy, he admits to culpability in two failed marriages and the loss of the editorship at the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings. Depression, acute uncertainty, fear of possibly drinking too much—all not uncommon in combat veterans who have suffered disfiguring or life-altering wounds—are mentioned as is the anger, bitterness, and, yes, pridefulness, but not one of these is belabored, bemoaned or unnecessarily dwelt upon. He remains close to, and involved in, the lives of his three children and four grandchildren. He remains on friendly terms with his former spouses.
Early on in the facial reconstruction and recuperative process Timberg made the surprising decision to become a journalist, a calling that by its very nature frequently entails exposure—quite suddenly and impromptu—with strangers. He received his journalism degree at Stanford University with the unwavering support of his first wife. With perseverance he acquired a job first on the Annapolis Evening Capital, then moved on to The Baltimore Evening Sun. While at the Evening Sun he was selected for a prestigious Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, recognition for excellence not unlike a Pulitzer Prize. He subsequently spent three decades with The Baltimore Sun as reporter, editor, White House correspondent, and deputy chief for the Sun’s Washington, D.C. bureau.
Would-be Cassandras notwithstanding the legacy of Vietnam haunts the nation still, and though not a leitmotif of Blue-Eyed Boy, the Vietnam experience hovers over the book as a constant reminder of that misbegotten venture. Timberg has treated that legacy with fine insight and acumen in The Nightingale’s Son, his acclaimed book tracing the fault-line of Vietnam through the careers of five distinguished (and not-so-distinguished) men whose lives are shaped in one way or another by that war. Might not Timberg have been writing about the ongoing 14-plus years of conflict when he observed, “I’m writing a book about a generation of well-meaning but ill-starred warriors and a nation deeply scarred by a war that some of its young men fought and some didn’t”?
Early on in Blue-Eyed Boy, Timberg asks the question, “…who would care?” about his story, and responds, “Maybe no one.” But everybody should care, particularly those chosen to lead the nation, those whose obligation it is to care. A daunting challenge, indeed, to reach a society incessantly awash in self-absorption, obsessed with the fleeting meaninglessness of non-descript celebrity status and hollow vanity. A place where victimhood and self-pity are extolled even as perseverance and tenacity in the face of almost unimaginable adversity are given short shift does not easily lend itself to concepts of service to, and sacrifice for, a greater good.
Forcing the reader to seriously ponder obligations and responsibilities to one’s country and society, Blue-Eyed Boy is a welcome tonic, an elixir of life delivered with hard-hitting flesh-and-blood reality. Refreshingly honest in depicting less than admirable personal behavior, Timberg is equally blunt in recounting the arduously difficult and tortuously slow road to mental, psychological, and physical recovery. In spite of numerous setbacks and indignities in the struggle to cope and “come back,” Timberg thrives as much in his writing as he has in life.
When wounded the second time during the Vietnam conflict, Col. John C. McKay was shot through the head at close range by an AK-47. He was in hospital two years. He has worked for the CIA, Department of State, and DEA. His website is www.coljohnmckay.com.