An Interview with Harry Simpson: I Will Survive

Jan 25, 2012 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1)  Harry, first of all, tell us about yourself and what led you to write this book.

I experienced a wonderful childhood growing up in a small eastern Colorado home with loving parents and four siblings — including my brother, who was also my best friend.  We were poor financially, but rich in family.  My first major health issue came when I suffered polio at the age of ten and survived without any physical handicap.  During our school years my brother and I participated in sports, but by fourteen we were working summers to save money to pay for college because my parents expected us to get degrees.

After two years of college, I was drafted and spent two years in the army.  Although I was on orders for Vietnam three times, I did not go over because of administrative errors.  Several of my friends and acquaintances did serve.  I went back to college on the GI bill and received a bachelor’s degree in accounting, moved to Minnesota and was employed in private business.  By the age of 38, I was promoted to vice president of finance and later to chief financial officer.

In 1975, I married a wonderful woman from Minnesota, and we raised two boys who have given us six wonderful grandchildren.  Both my wife and I retired in 2007 and moved to Florida.  Then, my life changed dramatically in retirement because of major health issues.

I had previously survived prostate cancer in 2002.  In 2007, I suffered blood clots and a pulmonary embolism and began taking blood thinners.  Soon after, my brother died of colon cancer.  The next year, I experienced a bulging in my spinal column that numbed me from the chest down; the doctors took me off the blood thinners, and 30 to 40 blood clots immediately formed in my legs. I couldn’t walk and was confined to bed.   My wife was able to get me into Mayo Clinic, where they told me I was within two weeks of dying because the blood clots were shutting down major organs.  They saved me by putting me back on blood thinners, but because the veins in my legs are permanently clogged, walking is painful, even today.

In 2010, I had to have my nose removed to treat cancer in my sinus cavity.  It was during my hospital stays that I began reminiscing about my family and growing up in the fifties. I wrote some stories for my family, and they encouraged me to write more. I decided to write a book based on my childhood experiences.

2) You may remember the disco hit of the 70’s – I think it was Gloria Gaynor who wrote, “I Will Survive.”  In your case, it was a scenario of having to survive.  How exactly did you survive?

My book is fiction and I did not serve in Vietnam, but I realized when I was writing the book that the common thread between the stories of the 1950s and stories Vietnam was survival.  All of life is about survival.  One of the tools I developed while growing up was my imagination.  It and my strong bond to family are what has sustained me, so I used them as a way for my fictional character, Brad, to survive Vietnam along with what he had learned from a life of reading books.

3) I am afraid I can’t ask good questions about the 1940’s – I wasn’t even born yet – but tell us:  What was a typical week like, and a typical Saturday?

My example will be my summer between 5th and 6th grade.  Our family would have breakfast together before my parents went to work, and then I would ride my bide a couple blocks to the swimming pool by 8 and help clean the dressing rooms and receive free swimming passes.  By 8:30, I would be at the baseball park for Little League, which consisted of us choosing two teams and playing baseball until the noon whistle blew.  I would dash home for lunch and by 1:00 would be back at the swimming pool to swim with my friends until about 3.  My close friends and I would then ride our bikes all around town or even out in the country to favorite places such as the gravel pit.  We were expected home by 6:00 for supper, and then I usually went to the tennis court to play basketball until 10.

Sundays were different.  Our family went to Sunday school at 10:00 and church at 11:00.  We would return home after church for our biggest and best meal of the week.  At 2:00, I’d walk with my brother and sisters to the movie four blocks away and each would sit with best friends.  After the movie, my friends and I would again ride around on our bikes until supper time.  The last Sunday of the month, my family would go to a pot luck supper at church and return home to spend time together playing games or reading.

4) In my local town, some survivors still talk about Viet Nam- some still have dreams and nightmares- how are YOU doing?

I was in the Army but didn’t end up going to Vietnam, but most of my friends who served won’t talk about it because they don’t want to be reminded of the experience-not only the experience in Vietnam but the way they were treated when they returned home.

5)  Now, the jungles- what are they like? I have been to South Korea and seen their jungles- but what were the jungles of Viet Name like?

For my book, I relied on the descriptions provided by my consultants, which included one friend who served 5 tours as a green beret and a veteran of the Brown Water Navy.  The seasons have a dramatic effect on the experience.  During the monsoon season, the soldiers  waded through thigh-high water most of the time.  Even during the dry season, it was still somewhat wet.  There are lots of animal sounds and sightings and scattered clearings for small villages.

6)  Basic training in the army- how much does it prepare our youth for combat?

My basic training did not prepare the troops very well.  In 1964, the United States was supposedly an adviser to the South Vietnamese, but my training company had 5 different sergeants because each kept getting sent to Vietnam.  The major focus of training seemed to be to mold the troops into following orders and eliminating individual thought and action.  There was no training for how each soldier would react to having to shoot another human being or being shot at themselves; the training was trying to get us to react by rote. I did not attend the second tier of training, which was advanced infantry training.

7)  Tell us about the book – and where can we find more information about it?

My website, Harrysimpson3.com, contains information about the book as well as several reviews from readers.  You can also purchase the book through Amazon.com and bn.com (Barnes & Noble).

“I Must Survive” is a promise Brad Howard makes as he watches in horror as all his crew mates are slaughtered when Vietnam soldiers ambush and destroy his Patrol Boat River (PBR).  Lost and alone in the jungle, he is facing weeks, even months, of trying to survive.  He is hungry, scared and lonely and knows he must avoid all Vietnamese because they could be the enemy.  The nights are worse because of the animal sounds and darkness, so he tries to focus on memories of his childhood to calm him and make it through each night.  He does not have the tools or survival skills necessary for his predicament, but growing up in the fifties has developed his imagination and memories of books he has read gives him ideas to try.

8)  What have I neglected to ask?

Why should people read this book or what sets it apart from other books?  Originally I thought the target market would be people that grew up in the fifties or served in Vietnam.  I thought the fifties stories would encourage people to reminisce about their own experiences, and people that read the book tell me that is what happens.   To my surprise, my two fifteen-year-old grandsons and also my nieces and nephews love the book. They find the experiences of the fifties different and interesting.  My grandsons have even started a successful book awareness campaign at their high school with students and teachers; the principal ordered ten for the school library.

The book reviews all talk about how well-developed my characters are and how my writing skills make them feel they are actually right there with Brad Howard.  Although I love lots of the reviews I have received, my two favorites include one from a 92-year-old lady that simply said “Wow!” and one from a book critic for Reader Views in Seattle that ended with, “I have read many stories, fiction and non-fiction, related by Viet Nam veterans telling of the horrors of jungle warfare, post traumatic syndrome, and the difficulty of being assimilated back into society after returning home. ‘I Must Survive’ is a fresh and powerful tribute to the men who served our country in Viet Nam.”

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