|Vietnam Veterans of America|
|Books in Review, September/October 2021|
Hank Zeybel Takes Readers Along for
Retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Henry Zeybel has written scores of book reviews for this magazine’s “Books in Review II” online page. Though we’ve never met in person, as the page’s editor, I’ve assigned, edited, and posted all those reviews and have exchanged hundreds of emails with him since we published his first review in October 2014. I’ve lost count of how many reviews he’s written for us, but it’s at least 150 and probably more than 200. And he’s still regularly producing first-rate reviews for us today, in his 89th year. I am a big fan of his work and his work ethic.
Hank Zeybel wrote and published three novels in the 1980s. Wings of Fire and Gunship: Spectre of War are based on his two tours of duty in the Vietnam War. He served as a navigator on USAF C-130 Hercules “Trash Haulers” during his 1968-69 first tour, and as a navigator/bombardier on AC-130 Spectre Gunships during his second one in 1971-72. His third novel, The First Ace is based on Zeybel’s friendships with F-4 Phantom jet fighter pilots, including Robin Olds, the famed World War II and Vietnam War ace.
Now comes Hank Zeybel’s first book of nonfiction, Along for the Ride: Navigating Through the Cold War, Vietnam, Laos & More (Casemate, 288 pp. $34.95, paper), a tour de force of an autobiography. The book is filled with captivating and introspective looks at every part of Zeybel’s life, primarily his military career, growing up in Pittsburgh, and the eventful forty-plus years since he retired from the Air Force in 1976.
The most vivid writing comes in the sections—including the riveting opening chapter, “Downtown Tchepone”—in which Zeybel takes the reader along with him inside the Spectre Gunships he crewed on during his hazardous second tour of duty. The depictions of the 13-man crew dodging surface-to-air missiles over the Ho Chi Minh Trail stand among the most evocative air-combat writing in the Vietnam War literary canon.
Zeybel’s sections on the 775 combat support sorties he flew inside C-130 Hercules transports during his first tour in 1967-68 come in a close second in the verisimilitude department. We get many evocations of what it was like, as he puts it, “transporting the alive, wounded, and dead; relocating villagers; and performing an endless list of mundane tasks.”
Because he “got shot at on the ground and in the air without returning fire,” during his first tour, Zeybel says, he volunteered for a second trip to the warzone to try to help do some damage of his own. He asked to be a navigator on two-man B-26 Invader missions, but when he returned to Vietnam, the B-26s were removed from the war. As “a consolation prize,” Zeybel says, he agreed to help crew Spectre gunships. Then there were the many B-47 missions (more than 1,000 hours in the air) he flew for SAC during the Cold War from 1957-61 when no one on the planes equipped with thermonuclear bombs knew at takeoff if what was about to transpire would be World War III or a readiness run.
Those war and postwar military sections are the heart of this engaging book. But Along for the Ride also contains lots of non-war autobiographical material. Zeybel deftly weaves his life story into the narrative, flashing back and forth to events from his childhood in the 1940s. He grew up the son of a sports-loving Pittsburgh Press journalist father and a stay-at-home mother, whom he pithily describes as “Wife. Mother. Homemaker. Excellent cook…. Tutor. Disciplinarian…. Avid reader of contemporary novels. Crossword puzzle pro.” He graduated from high school in 1951, from Penn State in 1955, and then joined the U.S. Air Force.
There’s also great descriptive writing about the decades following his retirement from the Air Force in 1976. That includes his many writing assignments for National Defense, Eagle, and Airpower magazines, a fair amount of which included hands-on reporting such as flying as an observer in more than a few B-52 bombers. And his (mostly) rewarding work tutoring football players and other athletes at the University of Texas at Austin where he has lived for decades.
The book contains lots of reconstructed dialogue, which ordinarily leaves me cold in a memoir. But this is no ordinary book. Hank Zeybel brings a novelist’s ear for dialogue to his remembered quotes. As a result, virtually all of them sound like words that actually came from the mouths of human beings, including Zeybel himself.
The book also is filled with lots of clever, caustic prose. Such as:
On not qualifying to be a pilot because of not-great eyesight: “Myopia disqualified me for pilot training and numerous pilots classified me as short sighted in other ways.”
On Air Force office duties: “The design of military force is to prosecute war and to defeat the enemy on a given spot; in comparison, the outcomes of conferences, staff meetings, and power point presentations are ethereal and not worth a half-hearted fuck.” (Did I mention that Zeybel drops more than a few dozen F-bombs in the book?)
On a trigger-happy Spectre gunship pilot: “He blasted away as if trying to keep time to an album titled Jimi Hendrix Goes Completely Fucking Nuts.
On taking off in a 500,000-pound B-52: “The plane lifts off before I can say, ‘General Curtis E. LeMay.’ Half the runway is in front of us and we climb like a homesick angel.”
On the first time he came face to face with dead American troops as he and has crew loaded 22 body bags into their C-130: “Describing the setting as ‘dank’ would be a compliment to the atmosphere.”
Although he doesn’t hype his military accomplishments, the fact is that Hank Zeybel received a Silver Star, along with eight Distinguished Flying Crosses and nineteen Air Medals. He deserves another award for this well-told autobiography of a well-lived life.
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