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Blue-Eyed Boy: by Robert Timberg

The healing power of a good story

Bob Timberg has a face you don’t forget.
    How the U.S. Naval Academy graduate and Marine first lieutenant — handsome son of a mother who was a McCall’s cover girl at 13 — got that face is a question you don’t ask.
    Yet now, “as I edge into my seventies,” Timberg says, he has written a book revealing the whole story.
    “I had third-degree burns, the skin … totally destroyed, top to bottom,” he writes.
    Early in the course of 35 reconstructive surgeries, “scars were beginning to form becoming thick and ropelike … Then everything — grafts, scars, burned tissue — began to contract.”
    As his face was being reconstructed, almost a half-century ago, looks — let alone questions — would provoke him to rage.
    “I rarely ventured out, almost never on my own. The less I saw of other people, by which I mean the less other people saw of me, the better. … Hardest of all for me were young kids, who would see me, point and say something like, Mommy, look at that man. I tried to ignore them, and often succeeded. Not always. Sometimes I exploded. … If the father had the least scent of the counterculture about him, I flared.
    “Hey, asshole, how about teaching your kid not to stare?”
    Blue-Eyed Boy begins in South Vietnam, with the combat infantryman by choice assigned to an Anti-tank Battalion in a war where the enemy used no tanks. It describes the Amtracs his unit used and their fatal flaw: “Twelve fuel cells containing a total of 456 gallons of gasoline, with an octane rating of 80, lay between the hull and the deck plates.” The flaw was not fatal for Timberg. After the Amtrac rolls over the land mind he is not — unlike the blue-eyed boy of the e.e. cummings poem from which the title of his book is borrowed — defunct. He is afire.
    “I felt myself lifted from the top of the Amtrac, as if in the eye of a hurricane, except in place of wind and rain I was being carried aloft by flames.”
    The day was January 18, 1967.
    At that climax, Timberg is only 23 pages into his 300-page book. The next 50 pages chronicle, surgery by surgery, the 20 months of reconstruction, torment, rage, depression and aimlessness that he endures with the apparently indefatigable and good-humored aid of his first wife.
    These two sections are gripping stories, powered by catastrophe and suffering. Timberg’s stories give us insight not only into one man’s experiences in a long-ago war. They also prepare us for our own times.
    “We’re a country back in a familiar place where we have wars that are not popular and young men and women coming back all wounded,” he told me. “It seemed to me that my story echoed in some way theirs, and maybe I could help people understand the true cost of combat.”
    That’s a lot. But with more than 200 pages to go, Timberg’s memoir has a purpose still bigger. That, he writes, is “to take time to look at. … Without screaming … something essentially human about what I fought my way through. Somewhere buried in my memory, hidden beneath this terrible mask of scar tissue. I want to remember how I decided not to die. To not let my future die.”
    His salvation was journalism. As a reporter first for our own Capital, then for The Sun (and The Evening Sun), he got over himself and into the world. His affair with journalism is a love so consuming that it helped end both his marriages. Though not, he is careful to point out, his relationships with his four children, two now journalists.
    One miracle of journalism is that it did for Timberg’s face what 35 surgeries could not achieve: Journalism made his face forgettable.
    “When I’m dealing with somebody, talking, I don’t have a sense of being disfigured,” he told me. “I stopped noticing people noticing — unless they stopped noticing.”
    We do.