Book Bag: ‘A Wartime Ph.D.’ by Judith Kelliher; ‘North to Market: Two Streets, Two Centuries’ by Lu Ston

Staff Writer
Published: 1/5/2021 3:16:37 PM

A Wartime Ph.D. by Judith Kelliher (Janice Beetle Books/Off the Common Books)

In 1969, Bobby Kelliher was in his early 20s when he shipped out to Vietnam to begin his first tour of duty as an infantryman in the Vietnam War. And like a lot of people who served in that conflict, Kelliher, who grew up in a working class family in Springfield, came back to the U.S. with considerable emotional and psychological scars.

In “A Wartime Ph.D.,” East Longmeadow writer Judith Kelliher sets out to document her older brother’s story, one that had always been a mystery to her. Kelliher was only 8 years old when Bobby went off to war, doing two tours in Vietnam from 1969 into 1970, and he never talked about his experience to anyone in the family.

After reading Lauren Hillenbrand’s bestselling “Unbroken,” about Olympic runner Louis Zamperini’s experience as a Japanese prisoner of war during World War II, Kelliher resolved to sit down with her brother and have him tell her his story. He did that, holding nothing back: It’s a harrowing tale of witnessing violent death and narrowly avoiding it, of raw emotions that have nowhere to go, and of lingering problems that threatened to derail Kelliher’s postwar life in western Massachusetts.

In his late teens, Bobby was like many other young American men of his time, his sister says: somewhat aware of the Vietnam War but neither opposed to nor especially supportive of it. But, raised on heroic stories and images of American triumph in WWII, he also thought serving in combat might be “an adventure,” Judith writes, and he “saw enlisting as  a call to duty on behalf of his family.” His father was a WWII veteran, though he had not pushed his son to join the military.

Bobby enlisted in the army in early 1968 and about a year later was in Vietnam, where he was soon promoted to sergeant and was walking point for his unit in the dense jungle terrain. Some months later, when another soldier had just taken his place at the head of column, the unit was ambushed and that man and another U.S. soldier were killed, leaving Bobby with “[s]urvivor’s guilt that came on like a mortar shell,” Judith writes.

Days later, after another firefight, he found himself in a rage, kicking and spitting on the corpse of a North Vietnamese soldier, and the bad times began piling up. He nearly died after contracting malaria — an army chaplain administered last rites as Bobby lay in a coma — and a friend of his was badly wounded in combat. Two other men in his unit were vaporized by Vietnamese artillery, while shrapnel from the hit tore open another soldier, who pinned Bobby to the ground by collapsing on him.

“A Wartime Ph.D” explores Bobby’s difficult re-entry to civilian life. He’s tormented by nightmares and angered by the anti-war protests in the country. Judith says his problems were compounded by her family’s inability to discuss Bobby’s experience openly: “[L]ike many a good Irish-Catholic family in the neighborhood, when Bobby came down for breakfast, the previous night’s breakdown wasn’t even acknowledged.”

Later would come a struggle to find a meaningful job; a marriage and three children left Bobby overwhelmed and withdrawn, especially when he learned of some suicides by former army buddies. Then came Bobby’s own descent into near-suicidal behavior. He would get help at the U.S. Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Leeds, where he was diagnosed with PTSD, which stemmed in part from his guilt over another death in Vietnam that wasn’t really his fault.

Confronting his war experience helped Bobby move on to jobs helping others, including time as a supervisor at a pre-release center for former Hampden County Jail inmates, and then as a paraprofessional at a Springfield school for students with discipline and emotional problems.

“A Wartime Ph.D.” is an emotional ride, but one that concludes on a more upbeat note, at least to some degree. Today her brother is a pacifist, Judith writes, who believes the country’s political and military leaders still “haven’t learned the dark and difficult lessons of Vietnam.”

North to Market: Two Streets, Two Histories by Lu Stone (Levellers Press)

Call it a micro-history: Northampton author Lu Stone’s book “North to Market” offers a detailed look at the history of two connected Northampton streets, North and Market, that run parallel to King Street, and some of the intersecting streets.

Ranging back to the 1700s, Stone looks at the families who settled on streets alternately known as “Earl’s Plain Market or North Market or Upper Market or North, depending upon the vintage of the speaker.”

It was, she says, a neighborhood that had all manner of people — farmers, preachers, merchants, school teachers, mill workers and others — reflecting the working diversity of the town.

“North to Market,” which examines the history up to the early 20th century, includes plenty of anecdotes adding color to the account, such as the time in 1818 that Noah Webster, creator of the first dictionary of American English, came to downtown Northampton to speak at a dinner celebrating the creation of the Hampshire, Franklin and Hampden County Agricultural Society.

Stone includes a number of vintage photos in her book, showing the changing face of the North Street neighborhood over the years. The best one might be of an Arthur Kingsbury and his future daughter-in-law, Elizabeth Miller, in a fancy horse-drawn carriage in 1904; the carriage is decorated with pink paper poppies in preparation for a parade celebrating Northampton’s 250th anniversary.

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