Advice on Creative Writing from Daniel C. Lavery

My professors in creative writing classes and forums stressed writing every day for at least an hour at a place where you are comfortable and will have hopefully no interruptions. Some like to write at night, others early. Everyone is different so you should find your time. For me it is 10 am to noon. Some people like to go to a Starbucks to see the faces of people, the bustle of the crowd, and the coffee for inspiration. I prefer my desk overlooking my front yard. Another suggestion is to always use your favorite writing pen (preferably not a ball point-and not typing). The connection of your hand to the pen and what you write is a stimulating one for most writers.

List the most compelling words you can think of in a notebook. I always keep a writing notebook for inspiration. When you have that dream that you won't remember in the morning, get up and write it as you recall it right after you have experienced it. Waiting later will lose it usually.


Don't be afraid to copy a writer's style. This is especially true of a poet. Find a poem you like, and take out your thesaurus, change the words, move around inserting your similar experiences and use the format. Amazingly simple way to create a new poem by just following someone's road map. Always read a great author for at least 30 minutes before writing. This is warming up your creative thinking. Your brain needs this. You will see a difference in your attitude, and willingness to explore language and its beauty.

Revise: All creative writing requires once you have written your piece, to go back and revise with an eye to use of heightened language (metaphor/simile, evocative vocabulary, sense driven language, action verbs and brilliant nouns) and remove any boring adverbs and adjectives. Check spelling by starting at the end of the piece and work backwards so you aren't lulled into accepting a misspelling you may make frequently. Read it aloud and see if there are awkward words when spoken that should be changed. If it doesn't sound right, it won't read effectively. Make sure each of the five senses appear somewhere. See if you can't make your descriptions luminescent.

One of the secrets of nonfiction storytelling is the use of description. Much as a novelist would, these nonfiction storytellers set a scene and describe their story's action. Above all, they have an eye for detail and employ these carefully observed facts to bring scenes alive for readers.

Look for opportunities to put the reader into the action. Where are we? What's it look (smell, sound) like? Who are the characters? What do they look like? How do they act? Strive to be specific, not general: Name names, measure things, count so you can report exact numbers. Learn to identify trees and birds, car makes, and architectural styles.

So instead of writing, "A lot of birds perched on the ornate rooftop," do the homework and note taking necessary to report, "Thirteen purple martins perched on the Italianate rooftop." Rather than describing "a big pile of old cars," aim for "a 20-foot pyramid of rusting, windowless Fords, Toyotas, and Chevrolets."

This kind of descriptive writing starts at the very beginning—at the note-taking stage. You can't just plop down at the keyboard and conjure this up; you have to be there, all eyes and fully alert, and noting details. Don't forget the senses beyond sight. Are the bees buzzing, trucks rumbling, horns honking? Do cockleburs scrape your pant legs as you walk to your subject's front door? Is your interviewee's desktop smooth and new or pitted with age and use? Give detail and description a try, and you'll find that you can be every bit as "creative" a writer when you're not making things up.

Here are my social media: (email) (author website) (Facebook) (Linkedin)

All the Difference, a memoir by Daniel C. Lavery, available at for purchase or free look inside of the first 6 1/2 chapters at Dan's website:, and on Amazon's Kindle at, A paperback version is available at book-cover-all-the-difference.jpg

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Book Review of All the Difference from Author USNA Class of ’71

Book Review of All the Difference from Author USNA Class of ’71


Hello Dan,

Just wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed your book.  I jotted down a few things that resonated for me.

My dad was a Beta at University of Cincinnati.

Reef Points!  How can we ever forget them!

Naval Academy indoctrination of plebes in etiquette

Rifle range.  Who can forget those Marines!Scientist CliffsTarget for BB gun

Heinz Lenz was still there for me, too.  (I think he died only in the last couple of years?)

Joe Duff.  He still coached baseball, but he and I never crossed paths.  I made the plebe and varsity sailing teams while I was there (1967-1971), but was not the athlete you were.  But those T-tables plebe year were a Godsend!  And for the sailing team, it was for BOTH fall and spring sets.

Joe Bellino.  I loved watching those games.  And Roger Staubach, how lucky you were to be there during his era, too.  Roger came and talked at our pep rally in 1967 before the Army/Navy game.  (He was trying to make it with the Cowboys at that time.)  We won that year and received "carry on" like you did.

Bancroft Hall Mishipman in Whites parading to meal

Like you, I thoroughly enjoyed being on the "plebe detail" second class year.  As luck would have it, the very next summer the Academy decided to put first class in charge of the detail, so I got to do it again!

Bancroft Hall USNA 1960

Pensacola.  Great times!  I certainly wasn't the "ace of the base," but finished high enough (4 of 30 that week) to choose any pipeline I wanted (helos, jets, or props)---and they were all open that week.

Vigilante Clamshell Cockpits opened

My A-7 primary instructor  in T-34's nearly shot me for picking helos, but guys from '68 and '69 were telling us how much fun they were having flying them (while we were still back at the Academy).  Plus, I found that whenever I climbed above 5000 feet, I lost the real sensation of flying.  I also found that to be true as a second class midshipman flying in the back of an F-4 at Oceana (the "Diamondbacks").  In helos I knew I would spend most of my flying career at 500 feet and below.  (In Desert Storm we frequently flew at 10 feet and as fast as that Blackhawk would go!)  I never regretted my decision.

Army helo pilot Hugh Thompson.  What courage!  (I used his example in my first book, Inspiring Leadership: Character and Ethics Matter, now used in the Leadership/Ethics curricula at Villanova and Regent Universities.)

Vietnam Hugh Thomspon forgotten hero

Olongapo!  Amazing place.  If you closed your eyes, you actually thought the Rolling Stones were playing---or any other big name group for that matter.  And those kids diving for pesos!  The helo hangout was the Roofadora Club, as I recall.

CHAPTER 27-Y RA5C landing on aircraft carrier 1965

Our helo squadron aboard the USS Constellation in 1974 made three daily trips ("liberty runs") to Bagio, Manila, and Clark AFB while we were in port at Cubi Point/Subic.  We charged a dollar per person (which went to the rec fund).  Needless to say, we were the most popular squadron on the ship, especially among the Filipino stewards!  LOL.

Cesar Chavez and dogs Huelga and Boycott

And last but certainly far from least, your amazing work as a lawyer for the UFW.  What a legacy for you!  You can be justifiably proud of those years!


Anyway, Dan, thought you should know how much I enjoyed your book.  One of these days we'll have to meet for lunch.

All the best,

Stew Fisher (USNA '71)

book cover all the difference

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American Sniper Critique

Hi Friends: Here is Matt Taibbi's review from Rolling Stone dissecting American Sniper from the Hollywood gloss Eastwood gave it and reminding us of the reality of how our adventures in recent wars were made of false assumptions our leaders used to send men into harms way and how some made heroes out of behavior that is grossly immoral. I hope you find it as relevant as I did. Dan

American Sniper Is Almost Too Dumb to Criticize


By | January 21, 2015

Bradley Cooper Bradley Cooper in 'American Sniper.' Warner Bros

I saw American Sniper last night, and hated it slightly less than I expected to. Like most Clint Eastwood movies – and I like Clint Eastwood movies for the most part – it's a simple, well-lit little fairy tale with the nutritional value of a fortune cookie that serves up a neatly-arranged helping of cheers and tears for target audiences, and panics at the thought of embracing more than one or two ideas at any time.


Bradley Cooper in 'American Sniper.'

'American Sniper' Movie Review »

It's usually silly to get upset about the self-righteous way Hollywood moviemakers routinely turn serious subjects into baby food. Film-industry people angrily reject the notion that their movies have to be about anything (except things like "character" and "narrative" and "arc," subjects they can talk about endlessly).

This is the same Hollywood culture that turned the horror and divisiveness of the Vietnam War era into a movie about a platitude-spewing doofus with leg braces who in the face of terrible moral choices eats chocolates and plays Ping-Pong. The message of Forrest Gump was that if you think about the hard stuff too much, you'll either get AIDS or lose your legs. Meanwhile, the hero is the idiot who just shrugs and says "Whatever!" whenever his country asks him to do something crazy.

Forrest Gump pulled in over half a billion and won Best Picture. So what exactly should we have expected from American Sniper?

Not much. But even by the low low standards of this business, it still manages to sink to a new depth or two.

The thing is, the mere act of trying to make a typically Hollywoodian one-note fairy tale set in the middle of the insane moral morass that is/was the Iraq occupation is both dumber and more arrogant than anything George Bush or even Dick Cheney ever tried.

No one expected 20 minutes of backstory about the failed WMD search, Abu Ghraib, or the myriad other American atrocities and quick-trigger bombings that helped fuel the rise of ISIL and other groups.

But to turn the Iraq war into a saccharine, almost PG-rated two-hour cinematic diversion about a killing machine with a heart of gold (is there any film theme more perfectly 2015-America than that?) who slowly, very slowly, starts to feel bad after shooting enough women and children – Gump notwithstanding, that was a hard one to see coming.

Sniper is a movie whose politics are so ludicrous and idiotic that under normal circumstances it would be beneath criticism. The only thing that forces us to take it seriously is the extraordinary fact that an almost exactly similar worldview consumed the walnut-sized mind of the president who got us into the war in question.

It's the fact that the movie is popular, and actually makes sense to so many people, that's the problem. " American Sniper has the look of a bona fide cultural phenomenon!" gushed Brandon Griggs of CNN, noting the film's record $105 million opening-week box office.

Griggs added, in a review that must make Eastwood swell with pride, that the root of the film's success is that "it's about a real person," and "it's a human story, not a political one."

Well done, Clint! You made a movie about mass-bloodshed in Iraq that critics pronounced not political! That's as Hollywood as Hollywood gets.

The characters in Eastwood's movies almost always wear white and black hats or their equivalents, so you know at all times who's the good guy on the one hand, and whose exploding head we're to applaud on the other.

In this case that effect is often literal, with "hero" sniper Chris Kyle's "sinister" opposite Mustafa permanently dressed in black (with accompanying evil black pirate-stubble) throughout.

Eastwood, who surely knows better, indulges in countless crass stupidities in the movie. There's the obligatory somber scene of shirtless buffed-up SEAL Kyle and his heartthrob wife Sienna Miller gasping at the televised horror of the 9/11 attacks. Next thing you know, Kyle is in Iraq actually fighting al-Qaeda – as if there was some logical connection between 9/11 and Iraq.

Which of course there had not been, until we invaded and bombed the wrong country and turned its moonscaped cities into a recruitment breeding ground for… you guessed it, al-Qaeda. They skipped that chicken-egg dilemma in the film, though, because it would detract from the "human story."

Eastwood plays for cheap applause and goes super-dumb even by Hollywood standards when one of Kyle's officers suggests that they could "win the war" by taking out the evil sniper who is upsetting America's peaceful occupation of Sadr City.

When hunky Bradley Cooper's Kyle character subsequently takes out Mustafa with Skywalkerian long-distance panache – "Aim small, hit small," he whispers, prior to executing an impossible mile-plus shot – even the audiences in the liberal-ass Jersey City theater where I watched the movie stood up and cheered. I can only imagine the response this scene scored in Soldier of Fortune country.

To Eastwood, this was probably just good moviemaking, a scene designed to evoke the same response he got in Trouble With the Curve when his undiscovered Latin Koufax character, Rigoberto Sanchez, strikes out the evil Bonus Baby Bo Gentry (even I cheered at that scene).

The problem of course is that there's no such thing as "winning" the War on Terror militarily. In fact the occupation led to mass destruction, hundreds of thousands of deaths, a choleric lack of real sanitation, epidemic unemployment and political radicalization that continues to this day to spread beyond Iraq's borders.

Yet the movie glosses over all of this, and makes us think that killing Mustafa was some kind of decisive accomplishment – the single shot that kept terrorists out of the coffee shops of San Francisco or whatever. It's a scene that ratified every idiot fantasy of every yahoo with a target rifle from Seattle to Savannah.

The really dangerous part of this film is that it turns into a referendum on the character of a single soldier. It's an unwinnable argument in either direction. We end up talking about Chris Kyle and his dilemmas, and not about the Rumsfelds and Cheneys and other officials up the chain who put Kyle and his high-powered rifle on rooftops in Iraq and asked him to shoot women and children.

They're the real villains in this movie, but the controversy has mostly been over just how much of a "hero" Chris Kyle really was. One Academy member wondered to a reporter if Kyle (who in real life was killed by a fellow troubled vet in an eerie commentary on the violence in our society that might have made a more interesting movie) was a " psychopath." Michael Moore absorbed a ton of criticism when he tweeted that "My uncle [was] killed by sniper in WW2. We were taught snipers were cowards …"

And plenty of other commentators, comparing Kyle's book (where he remorselessly brags about killing "savages") to the film (where he is portrayed as a more rounded figure who struggled, if not verbally then at least visually, with the nature of his work), have pointed out that real-life Kyle was kind of a dick compared to movie-Kyle.

(The most disturbing passage in the book to me was the one where Kyle talked about being competitive with other snipers, and how when one in particular began to threaten his "legendary" number, Kyle "all of the sudden" seemed to have "every stinkin' bad guy in the city running across my scope." As in, wink wink, my luck suddenly changed when the sniper-race got close, get it? It's super-ugly stuff).

The thing is, it always looks bad when you criticize a soldier for doing what he's told. It's equally dangerous to be seduced by the pathos and drama of the individual soldier's experience, because most wars are about something much larger than that, too.

They did this after Vietnam, when America spent decades watching movies like Deer Hunter and First Blood and Coming Home about vets struggling to re-assimilate after the madness of the jungles. So we came to think of the "tragedy" of Vietnam as something primarily experienced by our guys, and not by the millions of Indochinese we killed.

That doesn't mean Vietnam Veterans didn't suffer: they did, often terribly. But making entertainment out of their dilemmas helped Americans turn their eyes from their political choices. The movies used the struggles of soldiers as a kind of human shield protecting us from thinking too much about what we'd done in places like Vietnam and Cambodia and Laos.

This is going to start happening now with the War-on-Terror movies. As CNN's Griggs writes, "We're finally ready for a movie about the Iraq War." Meaning: we're ready to be entertained by stories about how hard it was for our guys. And it might have been. But that's not the whole story and never will be.

We'll make movies about the Chris Kyles of the world and argue about whether they were heroes or not. Some were, some weren't. But in public relations as in war, it'll be the soldiers taking the bullets, not the suits in the Beltway who blithely sent them into lethal missions they were never supposed to understand.

And filmmakers like Eastwood, who could have cleared things up, only muddy the waters more. Sometimes there's no such thing as "just a human story." Sometimes a story is meaningless or worse without real context, and this is one of them.

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Floundering at Twenty Without a Rudder

Duke Chapel with courtyard

Sophomore year at Duke found me pledging Beta Theta Pi fraternity after my roommate and a few Betas convinced me it would enhance my social life. Switching from the pre-ministerial program to pre-medicine, I was faced with two demanding courses Zoology and an advanced Chemistry course: Qualitative Analysis. The Zoology textbook contained fascinating details about the development of animals and insects with an enormous scientific vocabulary. There was a two hour lecture in the science auditorium and lab experiments that explored genetics, evolution, and animal dissection for three hours each week.

Qualitative Analysis emphasized lab work, with a one-hour a week lecture and classroom problem solving. My fraternity brothers told me not to worry about this course because they had all the laboratory exams for past years even though each year’s questions were uniquely different. Assuming a minimum of study was required there I focused on my other courses and frat pledging.

World History from World War I to II had a professor who arrived in tweed coat and tie and lectured from memory until the bell rang. He rattled off historical facts as if they had just occurred regarding philosophers, artists, authors, poets, musicians, architectural designers, military leaders, social movements, and connected the consequences of each to the past, present, and possible future. I had never encountered a more informed man. In each of his two classes a week my notes accumulated to more than a hundred pages. Assigning about fifty pages of the text a week, a research paper of 1500 words, he also suggested much outside reading.


Weight-lifting during the summer had strengthened my shoulders, arms, and frame adding thirty pounds of muscle. However, missing the two-a-day practices in August while in Europe made me change my mind on joining varsity football when I thought how the other players might view me as a late comer. Winter varsity baseball interested me far more. My added strength improved my hitting, especially to the opposite field. I was able to drive an outside pitch over the right fielder’s head and occasionally over the fence. The varsity coach mentioned my name in the college newspaper as one of his best prospects who would probably start on the varsity.


As quarterback for the Beta flag football intramural team, my play helped us earn the respect of other fraternities and challenged the view that Beta only housed weak-minded party boys. Nevertheless, other fraternity pledges visited our dorm and routinely sang, “Let’s all go down and piss on the Beta House.”

The Beta pledge master, an ex-marine, towered over us at 6’5” and his drill-sergeant mentality was intimidating. Of the many tedious pledge tasks, at least some were humorous. Required to carry a five-gallon jar under each arm to class during hell week and collect gum under the tables in one jar, and cigarette ashes in the other, I looked ridiculous when emptying ashes and gum into awkward jars.

Duke Chapel 1958

Performing a ballet dance on Sunday morning in front of the Duke Chapel was timed by the Betas so my performance began as the crowd of dignitaries, faculty, students, and guests departed from the Church service. A Duke dance major gave me advice, lent me her pink tutu, and showed me how to spin, leap, and move as gracefully as I could. We choreographed a series of movements involving running to a spot, tossing a spiraling football high in the air, and leaping so the ball would land close enough for me to catch. Twirling in a circle, spinning the ball underhanded, and moving gracefully while smiling, the routine had a comical effect: I looked like a clown.

When the crowd gathered, frat brothers directed them to my outlandish spectacle. Tossing a football in the air, catching it, doing ballet moves, twisting and turning, rolling in the grass, jumping up with the ball, and then starting over, attracted many gawkers with nothing better to do. Although laughing through the routine and trying to make it humorous, the stint humiliated me and made me look foolish. Finally, after the chore ended, I dutifully curtsied, and the gathering responded with a loud ovation.

Duke University Campus 1958

Another duty was to procure a photograph of me with a nude woman. Not knowing anyone at Duke who could fulfill this task, I went to a clothing store and asked a salesperson if I could put a mannequin next to me on a bed for a pledge assignment. He laughingly agreed. Quickly removing the clothes from one, putting a coat over her shoulders to hide the fact she had no arms, I reclined next to her in a bed for the photo. Later, my secret was disclosed as some impetuous brothers demanded her name.

Nude Female Mannequin

They also required me to enter a movie theater in Durham with a large fish in each hand during a kissing scene of a movie and yell, “Fresh fish for sale.”

“Go ahead and make an idiot of yourself, but do it quickly, and leave,” the manager laughed and said when he heard what I had to do. The audience responded with a rousing roll of cackling after my announcement when the Rock Hudson kissed Doris Day in “Pillow Talk”. Bowing with two smelly sturgeons from a seafood store tucked under my arms, I dashed out and gave the fish to the ticket-taker for his help.

Pillow Talk KissPillow talk poster

Required to paint the testicles of a reindeer statue in front of the Durham Police Station bright red, I feared that prank might get me arrested for the crime of malicious mischief. Why would the brothers require me to take such a risk? Was becoming a Beta that important? Why not say, “I won’t expose myself to a crime for anybody.” After considering quitting, I rejected dropping out from peer pressure and decided to show them risk-taking didn’t bother me. My past was full of danger. Waiting until 3:00 AM, I crawled on my belly under the reindeer, opened a can of red paint, brushed it on hanging stone balls, scurried silently to my feet, and disappeared into darkness.

Reindeer statue Bronze

The final hazing incident occurred on Hell night. Our pledge master ordered all twelve of us to the darkness of a parking lot at night. He placed a steel bucket upside down, and poured undiluted tincture of wintergreen, extremely painful to the touch, on the top. There was a quarter of an inch of the furiously spicy fluid to sit on. Carefully placing a tiny green pimento-filled olive in the center of the mixture, he ordered: “Get in line, strip naked, bend down, crouch over the bucket, and pick up the olive with your sphincter muscle. Remove the olive from the bucket and drop it in the garbage can.” This allowed the irritating oil to inflame our entire underside. Each compliant pledge jumped up, and screamed from the pain as the offending liquid hit its intended target. Many dropped the olive and had to repeat the procedure. Once any pledge successfully finished the process, he hopped like a rabbit, and yelped like a wounded dog. As each naked pledge lowered his butt towards the olive, our pledge master watched from his chair next to the bucket to ensure the pledge grasped the green grape-sized olive. The voyeur smiled as each of us struggled with his torture. When we were finished, I walked back to my dorm and wondered what ever drove me to allow myself to waste so much time pledging a fraternity, despite some intelligent brothers and parties that we would soon enjoy in the future. But pledging left me disillusioned and disappointed that I wasn’t more deeply involved in academics.

Pledging included memorizing an enormous amount of Beta materials, attending pledge meetings, appearing at all Beta functions, meetings, parties, dances, washing cars, cleaning rooms, making beds. These tasks interfered with my academics and forced me to neglect an advanced Chemistry course, Qualitative Analysis, that I should have taken more seriously. Not leaving enough time to study the concepts, I had temporarily put off studying the course in depth thinking the frat file cabinet would help me. It was another dismal distraction I never used and tried to learn the principles, formulas, and solutions to difficult problems in the few weeks left before the end of the semester.

When final exams approached, the grim dilemma burgeoning became reality. Using what little money I had for a tutor for the last two weeks of classes was far too late. The teacher’s strong southern accent mangled the English language, and was difficult to understand. Despite knowing how to solve the problems, he could not teach me the subject. I didn’t understand how to solve the assigned problems, worried about the final exam approaching like a two-hundred and twenty-pound linebacker, and floundered aimlessly with each practice problem. Two students joined me for tutoring. Each paid him, so he soaked us for three times what he normally charged. He refused to take us individually. After attending ten sessions where he solved a problem from the text, quickly set up the correct solution, and reached the answer without explaining how he calculated it, my fate was sealed. None of these excuses justified neglecting my studies I lamented.

Entering the final exam with a C minus, when I looked at the exam, the questions confused me. They were worded differently from what I had studied. Trying to set up each solution by listing the formulas, I hoped to at least receive partial credit that might help me pass. When my grade appeared in the mail, I could not believe it. For the first time in my life, I had received an “F.” Feeling horrible and humiliated, I recalled my father saying, “You’re wasting my money by not taking the NROTC scholarship,” and my faith in myself eroded. How could I call home and announce my abject failure?

The Chairman of the Chemistry was supposed to arbitrate appeals of final exam disputes. I appealed seeking partial credit on some problems. The Chairman informed me, “Your meeting is scheduled for 8:00 AM Monday.”Arriving before the appointed time having hurried across the campus to the place for the meeting a mile from my dorm, I waited until 8:00A.M., and knocked on his door when the hour arrived. No one responded. After knocking every five minutes thereafter, at 8:30 AM, a fat man waddled out of the door, a large leather brief case in hand. He glanced at me.

“My name is Dan Lavery. I’m here for the 8:00 AM appointment.”

“I know who you are, Mr. Lavery. You are an F student and always will be.”

With mouth open, unable to defend myself, shaken from his blunt dismissal of me, I watched as he left me there having winnowed the chaff and dropped me from his ivory tower. What a fool I had been!

My mind started spinning into utter confusion. How would my father react to my flunking a course after dropping the NROTC scholarship, costing him extra money, and wasting my time with fraternity boys who barely knew me? How many hours, days, months, had I wasted pledging to earn an idiotic fraternity pin? It was absurd. My confidence was on empty. My relationship with Dad had soured from my impulsive decision to switch from NROTC to pre-ministerial studies. Needing to restore that relationship, I realized Dad had wanted me to succeed and genuinely believed the Naval Academy would fulfill any young man’s dream with a superior education, discipline, and a professional future in the Navy.

But, my academic strength was in literature; and the professors in the English Department truly inspired me. What kind of a future would await me if I graduated with a major in English? Teaching? Too immature, I couldn’t visualize opportunities for English majors that would interest me, even from a prestigious university like Duke. While walking to my dorm, the Deans’ words entered my mind: “You were lucky to get into Duke. You are a borderline student. Maybe you should sign up for the Marines.”

Maybe I should seek a military career; try to get into Annapolis where a different kind of fraternity existed, serve my country, and work with others on a large dedicated team. Both my brother and father thrived in that atmosphere. If they could do it, it might be right for me after all. A major change in my plans for the future could turn things around and secure my broken relationship with Dad who would support that decision since he had said, “Some of the midshipman who had previous college experience entered the Academy more mature and performed better for it.” Dad knew from experience because he had attended the University of Chicago before entering Annapolis in 1928.

Richard J. Lavery Jr, Midshipman, USNA, 1928-32

Captain Richard J. Lavery, Jr. USN

When I reached the Beta house, I had already made up my mind. In seconds my suitcase and belongings were packed in the 1949 black Buick Grampa gave me. A brilliant pre-medicine senior frat brother from Maine, Boyd Eaton, tried to change my mind, “You can take the Qualitative Analysis course over in the summer. Don’t cash it all in. You have a bright future here.”

“Duke is a great University and graduating would enhance your life whatever direction you go,” former roommate, Steve Hopkins pleaded.

“I let my father down by flunking a course. He can’t afford the tuition. I’ll study for an appointment to Annapolis as my Dad and brother did,” I said trying to look resolved. They both knew I was devastated. During our friendship, we had discussions about the fraternity, sports, and life. Boyd had visited my home one vacation. Of all the Betas, he impressed me the most. Because of men like him, and Steve, I had thought pledging the fraternity would improve my social skills, introduce me to attractive coeds, and make me more confident. Both made me feel joining Beta would help me have a limitless future. Boyd majored in English and minored in the sciences on his way to medical school. Blind to such possibilities, my disappointment and an impetuous perspective drove me from Duke because of a relatively small failure. Now they believed I had made an irresponsible decision, but knew they couldn’t change my mind or remove my guilt for failing a course and wasting my father’s money. Focused on fulfilling my father’s plan, I did not look to my heart, and left Durham’s dust a few hours after the Chemistry Chairman assaulted me.

Black Buick on road

Driving over the hills and past pine forests of North Carolina, I thought of qualifying for Annapolis before arriving in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Given my recent Chemistry course failure, what made me think I would succeed at an engineering school with intense science courses and military indoctrination? Why had I not dropped the fraternity madness? Wasting valuable time diverted me from finding my path for meaning and purpose at Duke where many flourished. Having lost the confidence that surrounded my past from recent bewilderment, I recalled my pride in my Dad and brother, and wanted to return to that secure mold. Not praying to God, nor listening to my inner voice of truth, the drumbeat of my father’s plan drove me. Anyone could realize their dreams at a university like Duke, but after giving up the ministry, I wandered without a rudder. Soon I would be tested like nothing I had experienced before.

front gate USNA 1960Bancroft Hall Mishipman in Whites parading to mealDan entering RA5C 1965 Judgment RA5C on the groundVietnam USS Oakhill black and white

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Remember How Fragile Life Is


Oak Hill Navigator

Bob Dylan and Joan Baez

I arrived at the Naval Amphibious Base at Coronado, California in February 1966 for “Indoctrination in Counterinsurgency.” One of the female instructors warned, “Bob Dylan and Joan Baez are subversives out to destroy America.” None of my fellow officers confronted her over these provocative remarks, which I found offensive. Their vital folk music spoke to a rebellious generation. I liked their sound and message. However, for me join the protests emerging like scattered fires on the America’s landscape, it would take something more

Bob Dylan The Times They Are a Changing

At the Coronado officer’s club, I met some aviators who had recently returned from Vietnam. They knew the pilots on the USS Ranger (CVA 61) and informed me that the North Vietnamese had shot down Lt. Gerald Coffee and his navigator over Vietnam on one of their first flights in February. These two officers had relieved Todd and me when we dropped out of the RA5C program a few months earlier. Only the pilot survived and was imprisoned at the infamous Hanoi Hilton where he was tortured. This news sent chills down my spine. Our rescue team could not recover the body of the person who had sat in the seat I would have occupied. I had cheated death again.

Vigilante Clamshell Cockpits opened

Much later, I saw a printout describing the attack on that RA5C, which “…was shot down by AAA while making a photo reconnaissance flight near Cap Bouton, North Vietnam, 19º12’N, 105º45’E. The SAR resulted in a vicious mêlée as destroyer Brinkley Bass (DD-887) and guided missile destroyer Waddell (DDG-24), the latter “straddled” by enemy salvos, ‘slugged it out’ with communist batteries. A total of 33 Navy and USAF aircraft were ‘diverted to suppress enemy fire’ while a USAF Grumman HU-16 Albatross attempted to locate the downed crew. Coffee survived but was captured, not returning home until 12 February 1973.”

CHAPTER 27-Y RA5C landing on aircraft carrier 1965

Another report said the navigator died from wounds, although he had ejected from the plane. The pilot watched as his crewmate’s parachute entered the water near a beach. North Vietnamese villagers found his body and buried him at the scene while fishermen captured Coffee and took him to the North Vietnamese military.

When I visited the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C. in 2004, I took my wife and three children to witness the navigator’s name etched on the “Wall.” “That man died in my place,” I said tearfully. Had I stayed in aviation, none of you kids would have been born. Remember how fragile life is. How lucky we are to be alive to honor those not so fortunate.”

Vietnam Wall ***

To report as the navigator of the USS Oak Hill (LSD 7) in March of 1966, I took the Coronado ferry to San Diego and parked near the ship’s berth. She was commissioned before the Korean War, in need of fresh paint, and an overhaul. As I approached the ladder leading to the gangplank, I wondered what kind of leaders I would encounter in this branch of the Navy. Amphibious ships had a reputation of being the slowest in the fleet; some said they attracted “bottom feeders.” I might be wandering into a world of egotistic dictators with limited knowledge and malicious attitudes. I walked up to the Officer of the Deck, and saluted, “Lieutenant J. G. Lavery reporting as ordered, sir. I request permission to come aboard.”

Vietnam USS Oakhill black and white

The officer had a black arm patch with gold “OD” on the sleeve of his white uniform saluted back. “Welcome aboard, Lieutenant Lavery. I’m Lieutenant Commander Kay. Show me your orders.”

“Here they are, sir,” I said handing him a copy and grasped his hand in a warm handshake, “Glad to come aboard, sir.”

“Our navigator can’t wait to see you. Take Lt. Lavery to the Personnel Office,” he barked to a sailor. The muscular black swabby saluted the OD and hurried along the port side of the ship. Following him, I peered down into the landing dock where three LCU’s (landing craft utility) could carry a tank and many armed Marines. After the Captain flooded the area and lowered the stern gate, they chugged out to the ocean and to an amphibious landing.

I arrived at the Personnel Office three decks below to meet the navigator. The hum of typewriters rose above shipboard life, never close to tranquil, often filled with unexpected noise. A sharp officer was in charge, sweat on his brow, fastidious expression, intent body language, hands shuffling papers, he was immersed in monotony. Scrutinizing a document from the overflowing inbox, he glanced at me.

“Lieutenant J.G. Lavery reporting to relieve you, sir,” I said with a salute.

“Welcome aboard Mr. Lavery,” he said quickly putting on his cap and saluting. “Good to see you. Take a seat and relax. I’m Mike.”

“Call me Dan. Why are you in the Personnel Office?”

“The duties you’re relieving me of, besides Navigator, include Personnel Officer, Postal Officer, and Legal Officer,” he said with a mid-western accent, appeared intelligent, and was in no sense a “bottom feeder.”

“You’ll have to qualify as Officer of the Deck and later as Command Duty Officer.”

“What do you do as Personnel Officer?”

He handed me a three-page job description that mentioned reviewing the mail, training officers and enlisted men, and distributing orders from the Captain to the Executive Officer. After an hour of learning the office routine and meeting the sailors assigned to the office, I asked, “May I see the navigation equipment?”

“Let’s go!” He bolted out the door, with me close on his heels.

Vietnam Navigator in charthouse

He took me up two flights of ladders (stairs) to the Navigator’s station in the Operations room. A chart of the San Diego harbor rested on the desk with a compass, pencils, and a long-armed ruler attached to a swivel. The Chartroom contained books on astronomy, tides, currents, lighthouses, and other navigational objects above a radarscope used for taking a bearing or identifying ships, boats, or debris in the water. If in a fog, Loran tables provided the ship’s position from Long Range Navigation signals. Sonar sent sound waves into the ocean to determine depth, or the presence of a submarine, torpedo, or rock.

Vietnam sextant for sun line

Sextants and star tables were available for night and day sightings. Everything I saw excited me. I admired Mike and was enthusiastic about the most responsible position the Navy had ever assigned me and realized more than ever, they required me to measure up to the highest standards.


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