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This is a book about flying a helicopter, specifically a Bell HU-1 Iroquois ("Huey"). The author flew it for a year in Vietnam, but he would have far more happily flown it anywhere else, and anywhere. In the course of the narrative, the reader learns a great deal about helicopters, how they can be flown, what breathtaking skill can be brought to bear in maneuvering them in and out of narrow places, jungle foliage, bad weather, and moutain passes. Mason writes so lovingly about these skills they seem entirely pacific. You wish he hadn't had to learn to use them in a war, especially not this particular war. But what relentlessly holds your attention is the flying--as it did his.

In a brief prologue, Mason says that when he joined the army in 1964 he knew nothing about Vietnam. Every now and then he recaptures a piece of dialogue that makes his ignorance and innocence almost glow in the dark. Passing an old man outside a village, one of Mason's group tells him, in French, that they are Americans come "to help him fight the Communists from the north.

"Ho Chi Minh." The old man grinned broadly.

"He likes Ho Chi Minh?" Resler was shocked.

"He says that Ho is a great man and that someday he'll unite the country."

Resler's eyes narrowed with suspicion. "Doesn't that make him a VC?"

"I don't know," said Nate. "He seems like a nice guy."

Later in the war, Mason, waiting outside a village to fly back to his base, examines a giant waterwheel:

Both basket and wheel were built from material found growing around the village. I wondered how our technology was going to help the Vietnamese. Maybe after we had killed off the people--like these villagers, who knew how to live so elegantly in this country--the survivors would have to have our technology. The waterwheel was as efficient as any device our engineers could produce. The knowledge that built it was being systematically destroyed.... When we left, I could see where the water was being pumped. No humans walked the field that it irrigated. No crops grew. The water was filling bomb craters.

Mason saves his grimmest Vietnam memories for the last chapter. Here they spill out in a sharp series of stories and images. We are hadly surprised that, once safely home and himself a helicopter instructor, he is plagued by nightmares and ultimately leaves the service. At the University of Florida he drank to keep from facing "a campus filled with young, smiling faces while guys still leapt screaming out of helicopters, killing and dying for a cause unworthy of their bravery." Mason summarizes his life from 1971 to the present in a few paragraphs. Graduated from college, he fails at a series of enterprises, scrabbles for money so he can spend his full time writing what (we now know) will become Chickenhawk and, desperate for money gets caught for dealing grass. "No one," he concludes the book, "is more shocked than I."

In street talk, a chickenhawk is an older man who cruises young men. Mason makes no reference to this; the only definition of the title he offers is very different. Chicken refers to the desire to simply quit the war; Haw to feeling brave, "almost comfortable," in the midst of a combat assault. What does that make me, Mason asks a friend. "A chicken or a hawk?" "You're a chickenhawk," his friend replies. But Mason was a chickenhawk in that other, street sense too: cruising Vietnam for targets, lean and keen in his flying machine. And above him a yet larger chickenhawk, seducing and scooping up all the young men, spitting them out again, no one more surpised than themselves.
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Author:Young, Marilyn B.
Publication:Monthly Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1984
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