Author Terence A. Harkin is here bright and early on a Monday to chat with me about his new wartime love story, The Big Buddha Bicycle Race.
Terence A. Harkin earned a BA in English-American Literature from Brown University while spending weekends touring New England with bands that opened for the Yardbirds, the Shirelles, the Critters and Jimi Hendrix.
His play, Resurrection, produced during his senior year, was a winner of the Production Workshop Playwriting Contest. He won a CBS Fellowship for his screenwriting while completing an MFA at the University of Southern California and went on to spend twenty-five years as a Hollywood cameraman.
His credits include The Goodbye Girl, teen cult favorite The Legend of Billie Jean, Quincy, Designing Women, Seinfeld, Tracy Ullman, MASH, and the mini-series of From Here to Eternity.
The Big Buddha Bicycle Race and its sequel, In the Year of the Rabbit, are set in Ubon, Thailand, where he served with Detachment 3 of the 601st Photo Squadron during the Vietnam War. He is currently at work on a third novel, Tinseltown Two-step, set in L.A. and Chiang Mai.
Please tell us about your current release.
The Big Buddha Bicycle Race transports the reader to upcountry Thailand and war-ravaged Laos late in the Vietnam War. On one level a cross-cultural wartime love story, it is also a surreal remembrance of two groups who have been erased from American history—the brash active-duty soldiers who risked prison by taking part in the GI anti-war movement and the gutsy air commandos who risked death night after night flying over the Ho Chi Minh Trail. In Big Buddha the twain meet.
What inspired you to write this book?
I spent a year during the Vietnam War with an Air Force photo unit that operated out of Ubon, Thailand, but which flew all over Southeast Asia—Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, maybe even a little of southern China. I witnessed a secret war that devastated Laos and air war in general that devastated Southeast Asia. And no one in the States knew about it—not even historian Stanley Karnow, who produced the ten-part PBS series on Vietnam. And on a personal level, I saw Thai farm girls desperately trying to make their lives better and young Americans lost halfway around the world, involved in a war that by 1971 looked like a lost cause. Drugs were cheap and plentiful, and both groups were vulnerable.
Excerpt from The Big Buddha Bicycle Race:
31 December 1985 (The Present)
It must have been a hallucination. Sitting in a mountain cave along the winding road that led northwest to Luang Prabang, I could smell the incense floating in the air—pure, not burned to hide some weekend hippie’s marijuana cigarette—a dusky smoke perfume that had burned in Asia for a thousand centuries. The light was golden, an aura unseen in America since brigantines stopped bringing whale oil back from the Pacific….
How can I trust dream-visions that keep floating up from the murky depths? Hasn’t my memory been obliterated by drink and drugs and the passage of time? Why am I afraid to ask, afraid of being mistaken for a rambling derelict on an L.A. street corner?
Alone on New Year’s Eve in a bungalow atop Mount Washington, I snort cocaine and chase it down with Jack Daniels when I run out of stale champagne. Mesmerized by blurry car lights floating in the distance up and down the Pasadena Freeway, I can hear the voice of Ajahn Po—my first true teacher—calling to me, but I’m not sure I understand his words.
Would anyone believe that I was once a Buddhist monk who sat in Noble Silence on the rock floor of that cave, cushioned only by a thin straw mat? Deep in meditation, I recollected the painful days of my Irish Catholic youth when my heart wanted to love Jesus while my mind warred with Pope Pius and Martin Luther, with Saint Thomas Aquinas and Bishop Fulton J. Sheen and would give me no peace. When did my father, my aviator hero, become my oppressor? Why was he angered by questions about race and politics and faith? Why did he offer to help me with drums or flying lessons, but not with both? Was it a test? Did he already know the answer? Why did he never talk about his days in Florida, already a man at age eighteen, who turned English farm boys into the pilots who drove back the mighty Luftwaffe?
While candles and incense were burning on the cave’s stone altar I went into a trance so deep that the graceful bronze image of a Sukhothai Buddha, sitting in eternal serenity and wisdom, transformed into a television that droned with an endless loop of John F. Kennedy—young and handsome—giving his inaugural speech with unblinking, granite-chiseled confidence that made me eager to pay any price and bear any burden he asked of us. Deep in dreams and memories, I forgot I was a holy man and drifted in a cloud to those tragic days from high school to college when I lost my innocence but tried to cling to my ideals. I would pay any price and bear any burden to go to film school—that was how I would do my part to save the world now that JFK was gone. But when I meditated even deeper I had a troubling vision within my vision: Harley Baker was burning on a funeral pyre, his outlaw-bluesman’s heart and mind blown away with amphetamines, his hard, white body and redneck soul wasted with opium-tainted grass and BX booze.
I didn’t meet Harley until I stood toe to toe with Death. A warrior, an Air Commando, he taught me how to laugh at it and fear it and quash it away and never quite ignore it. Nothing in my Boston childhood had equipped me for the realities of Southeast Asia—the smooth, cool pages of National Geographic magazines stacked in our attic in the outskirts of Boston made Indochina look like Eden. It was Harley who prepared me for combat, accidentally preparing me for monkhood along the way. But in my vision I knew that Tech Sergeant Baker was as doomed as President Kennedy. And I could see my own soul, lost in the void, lost along the sidelines of the Big Buddha Bicycle Race.
My mind skids past fading memories I want to recall and lands in catastrophe on days past I have forgotten just as vividly as days I never lived at all. It must have been the whiskey. Or the red-rock heroin. How did we survive the plane crash? It seemed so real when the North Vietnamese took us prisoner. Why do I still dream of fire and fear a candle burning in the night? Who was Tukada? Baker survived two crashes, but didn’t he kill himself shooting up speed? Why aren’t I certain? What has happened to my mind?
I too walked away from the burning wreckage. I too survived a SAM missile’s direct hit—or was it a Strela? Harley looked off a thousand yards into the tree line when he talked to you, often rambling and unable to make sense. I needed someone to tell me that I had escaped the thousand-yard stare, but how did you translate that into Laotian? Had I survived the crash or was I a ghost trapped in my own nightmare, unable to escape even to the Buddhist samsara of endless rebirths, never-ending cycles of worldly suffering and delusion? Was I living in hell or purgatory or just the twentieth century?
Sitting in that cave in Laos, I could not erase my memory-visions of Colonel Strbik and Captain Rooker—the best damned pilots in the unit. I could see them burning, their faces serene like the face of Saint Polycarp, except there would be no miracle—streams of their own blood would not put out the flames. My visions were seared by burning wreckage and smoldering villages and I could no longer distinguish the mangled corpses of war heroes from beauty queens, of Asians from barbarian invaders, of friends from enemies. I was haunted by grunts like Pigpen Sachs, the door gunner, and Jeff Spitzer, my fellow cameraman, who dreamed of being held in the arms of college girls as they died—and called out for their mothers. Reporters said that bodies were being stacked like cordwood in Vietnam, but in Laos nobody was going to that much trouble. Human beings were being chopped down like the weeds the hill-tribe Hmong dried out by the side of the dirt road to make into hand brooms. Only nothing could be made from something so useless as a dead human being. Cremation was merciful in the jungle.
In the distant days between college and monkhood, in the days when I failed as a draft-dodger and failed as a soldier, I would have been satisfied waking up in the boondocks of Thailand with day lilies filling the vase that sat on the rickety rattan table next to my bed at Bungalow Ruam Chon Sawng. I would have been content with flowers that lived a single day, even though waking up with a tiny bar girl’s hand on my chest, whispers of “lovely, so lovely” alighting like soft petals, was what I really needed to put my mind at ease. In the boondocks of Thailand along the Lao frontier, Baker, Washington, Wheeler and Shahbazian usually got to the Corsair Club before me and I often went home from the bars alone because even in my days as a lover of whores I maintained certain standards. I had to know her name and where she was from and if her dad was a rice farmer or a sailor in the Royal Thai Navy, because whores were people too, just like GIs.
Vietnamese villagers prayed for us every September, wrapping the sculpted Buddhas that sat inside their pagodas with saffron to appease the souls of the unburied dead—the wandering restless souls of beggars, soldiers and prostitutes. But I fear those prayers were not enough. So many nights on the Lao frontier it was not until the first pink glow of dawn that I finally fell asleep, and even then it was not peace that came but my own private samsara. To this very day I ask: Will I wake up ten thousand times without awakening? Or will these cycles of rebirth become the path to my redemption?
What exciting story are you working on next?
Tinseltown Two-Step, the third volume of the Big Buddha trilogy. Leary grows disillusioned with Hollywood and never adjusts to life back in the States. When the First Gulf War breaks out, he chucks everything and returns to Thailand. After a series of misadventures he runs into Lek, the earthy former girlfriend of an old buddy. She’s tending bar but has always dreamed about opening a restaurant. They move to Chiang Mai where he finances her restaurant, she gets miraculously pregnant at age forty, and as the story ends, Leary sits down in their upstairs apartment and begins writing The Big Buddha Bicycle Race…
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
At my fiftieth high school reunion I was reminded I always took writing seriously. A college fraternity brother just wrote and said he always knew I would be a novelist. Looking back, my lit and creative writing teachers were the ones I really connected with. In college and later teaching English I wrote poetry. While I was working as a cameraman I wrote a lot a spec screenplays—often for shows like MASH and Quincy that I was working on. It all built my writing chops.
Do you write full-time?
I am blessed to be comfortably retired from the film industry and from teaching, so I can finally write full-time.
If so, what's your work day like?
For the last six months it has been lots of editing. I tend to be a late riser, try to exercise every day, and read—novels, Bill Bryson travel books, mags like the New Yorker, and the NY Times online—in the daytime. Maybe it was years playing in bands and doing camera work on live sitcoms, but I tend to be a night owl, writing in the quiet hours from 10 PM to 2 AM.
How do you find time to write?
Ah, that is the question!!! I tried to write during the twenty-five years I spent as a cameraman, but hustling for work and then working 60-80 weeks when we found it made it hard to write in a disciplined way. For years I wrote in spurts, mostly when the industry was on hiatus, often filling notebooks when I traveled, especially by train. I thought teaching English would be the answer, but high school in California meant 150-200 students. I hear that teaching college works better—much smaller student loads. Now that I’m retired, no problem.
What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
An editor I respect says I have a gift for working humor into dead-serious situations. Gallows humor seems to be part of my Irish heritage.
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
As a kid, a pilot like my dad. Instead of a tricycle, I had a little airplane on wheels that I rode around the house. By middle school, a rock drummer. High school—an architect. College—Ingmar Bergman.
Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
I was always impressed in the television industry by writers who could turn out a script a week. Knowing I was not prolific, I have shot for quality.