In "Blue-Eyed Boy," former Baltimore Sun reporter… (Joshua McKerrow, Baltimore…)
The photos of author Robert Timberg in recent years aren't as horrifying as his memoir leads readers to expect.
His eyes are direct and unflinching, and his mouth expresses wry amusement. He has the kind of wrinkles normally found on a 74-year-old man and a patch of skin across his nose that at a casual glance appears sunburned.
There's nothing about Timberg's appearance now that could be described as freakish, nothing that would cause young children to howl in fright.
It's taken Timberg more than 35 operations — including one without anesthesia — and 47 years to achieve that face, and he's still not entirely reconciled to it. There are moments even now when he looks in the mirror and is first startled, then furious. He'd subconsciously been expecting to see an older version of the handsome Marine lieutenant he was on Jan. 18, 1967, before he was injured in a land mine explosion in Vietnam, instead of this lumpy and scarred stranger.
In his new memoir, "Blue-Eyed Boy," Timberg writes that after one of those disorienting moments, he shouted at his reflection:
"Enough already! I've been this way since 1967. … The joke's over. It's not funny anymore."
The memoir, which Timberg will discuss Sept. 23 at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, goes into excruciating detail about the explosion, those 35 operations, and the depression he sank into. When his face was its worst, he had only one visible eyeball. His nostrils flared outward like a horse's, and his mouth was so distorted by scar tissue that the opening was no larger than a cigar.
"By any measure," Timberg writes, "I looked like a monster."
But more than that, this book is about Timberg's greatest achievement — how he gradually and painfully created a life for himself of ordinary triumphs and failures. The author has wedded, and divorced, twice and blames himself for the demise of both marriages. He raised four children. He had a long and distinguished career for more than three decades as a reporter for The Baltimore Sun, much of it spent as a Washington correspondent. He has written four well-received books, including an analysis of the Iran-Contra Affair, and a biography of U.S. Sen. John McCain, who faced his own Vietnam ordeal when he endured more than five years as a prisoner of war.
"My great hope," Timberg says over the phone from his home in Annapolis, "was that the story of how I dealt with serious wounds and years of surgery would show that with some courage and some luck, those who have paid for their military service with their arms and legs and skin could regain some of what they'd lost."
Timberg was the only son and the eldest of three children of two performers on the vaudeville circuit. Though he describes his parents as "good people, and talented ones" his childhood was chaotic. After graduating from high school, he enrolled in the U.S. Naval Academy, partly because he found the structure of military life comforting, partly because he welcomed the challenge of proving his courage and stamina, and partly because he responded on an emotional level to the call to serve his country.
He was shipped to Southeast Asia in 1966 and served for more than 12 mostly uneventful months. Then, just 13 days before he was due to be sent home, his schedule was changed at the last minute and he found himself riding to Bravo Company's 2nd Platoon to deliver the soldiers' pay certificates.
The memoir recounts not only what happened next, but why the young lieutenant was so badly hurt. Timberg's infantry unit didn't have any of the armored personnel carriers designed to carry troops by land. Instead, the military brass pressed into service a deeply flawed substitute — a vehicle designed for water transport that carried 450 gallons of gasoline. When the vehicle moved through water, the gasoline wasn't in danger of igniting. On land, though, it was another story. The detonating mine touched off an inferno.
Timberg acknowledges that his injuries might have been less serious had he been riding in the proper kind of carrier. But he expresses no anger at either the Viet Cong or at U.S. military officials.
The author is similarly circumspect when recounting the near-criminal manner in which the military mishandled communications with Timberg's family.
Janey Timberg, the author's first wife, received a telegram incorrectly informing her that her husband had been injured and suffered second-degree burns — and then heard not a single word for the next two weeks. Later, she was told — inaccurately but terrifyingly — that her husband had been missing for two weeks and that the Marines were trying to find him.
Timberg's mother learned the extent of her son's wounds only by accident, after she attended a Mass during which the priest described Timberg's injuries in graphic detail.