Dad’s trip to the Marine Corps Museum

When I tell people my dad was in the Korean war, they often say, “You mean Vietnam?” (or even the Gulf War.) And when I tell them that his father fought in  WWI they think I’m really confused… My father and his father only talked about war one time. Dad wanted to know if the memories of combat will ever fade. His father told him they will but never completely.


“They (The Marines) can teach you how to kill, but no one can teach how to get over killing.”


Half a century later, when I was growing up, my dad and I talked about his war memories a lot. He didn’t really have a choice. I was obsessed with history as a kid (still am) and  I had so many questions. Questions about his bad arm. Questions about his medals and the weapons in his study. He told me some of his funnier stories, like the time he heard movement in a bush while on patrol and emptied an entire magazine from his carbine into the bush, only to have a pheasant fly out unscathed. He talked about the stuff he could talk about.


It was only this year when we started working together on his memoir, that he talked about the stuff he doesn’t talk about. Those interviews were slow going. Sometimes we’d just do ten or fifteen minutes before it was too much for him. Other times, we’d be out for breakfast and he’d bring up a long-buried experience in graphic detail, talking faster than I could write.


Marine Corps Museum

One of the challenges of working on this project, so far, has been balancing the war stories with the rest of his life. He was in Korea for a little less than four months, but that time takes up a huge chunk of what we’ve drafted up to this point. The project started as 300 pages of notes he had taken over the years thinking he might want to write a book someday. About 160 of those pages were about the war.


This would be fine if war had been the only interesting thing he’d done with his life, but dad had an extraordinary post-war career that included working in JFK’s West Wing, serving as vice president of the University of Chicago and then Harvard, serving as chair of the Joyce Foundation, running the JFK Library, and spending the first years of “retirement” reporting on AIDS in South Africa–like a kid fresh out of journalism school. His self-effacing explanation for this is “Plenty of people can’t hold down a job…”


In spite of all this, it was a struggle to get the details out of him when it came to his life after the war. It’s as if his war memories are in high definition, and the rest is black and white. He left the war, but the war never left him. It was impossible to draft his life story and compartmentalize the Korea stuff. It returns again and again in the text.


Before the war, he had a middle-management position, importing molasses–where he likely where he would have stayed if it hadn’t been for the things he saw and did in Korea. He devoted the subsequent years–which he never expected to have–doing things that felt worthwhile. He had to. He was living not just for himself, but for the guys who didn’t come home. Guys who would never have to worry about high-quality problems like getting bored in a corporate job.


He was sent to Korea in the 5th Replacement Draft, in February 1951, and took part in some of the bloodiest fighting in that war. One Marine Corps general who was there put it like this:


“I have long ago given up telling people what I saw them (the Marines) do on so many occasions. Nobody believes me, nor would I believe anyone else telling the same story of other troops.”

–Maj Gen W.S Brown, USMC


Dad received a Silver Star–for leading a bayonet charge on a heavily defended hill and overrunning an enemy command post–and a Purple Heart, after being shot in the arm. The bullet left him with nerve damage in his elbow that feels something like a constant “funny bone.”


This Veteran’s Day, he and I went to the Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico, Virginia. Quantico is where he became a Marine, attending the first-ever Special Basic School, which had been created after WWII to give officers more thorough training than they’d had in previous wars.


Chosin korean war marine corps museum
Korean Era USMC winter uniform. Cotton in Arctic conditions.


The Korean war exhibit starts with a history video explaining how the war started and why the U.S got involved. The backstory here is given more attention than in the WWII or War on Terror exhibits. Korea is, after all, “the forgotten war.”


Chosin korean war marine corps museumChosin korean war marine corps museum

Since the focus is on Marine involvement in the conflict, the largest section of the exhibit is dedicated to the Battle of Chosin (also known as “Frozen Chosin.”) There’s a large refrigerated room containing a life-sized recreation of a Marine fighting position on an icy hillside.  It’s not as cold as Chosin must have been, but they’ve done their best to take you out of a climate-controlled museum in Virginia. As we walked through the exhibit, dad remembered out loud about living in those hills (he arrived after Chosin, but it was still winter. Still freezing.)


He remembers a guy getting hit in a situation just like the one that’s been depicted in the exhibit with wax figures.


Chosin korean war marine corps museum david douglas duncChosin korean war marine corps museum david douglas duncan photographer

(PHOTOS BY David Douglas Duncan)

It’s an awkward compliment to the realism and accuracy of the museum that it upsets and overwhelms a combat veteran. One exhibit that stopped dad in his tracks was a recreation of a corpsman treating a badly wounded Marine.


He paused to catch his breath,  blinked away tears, and said, “That’s a tough one… The guy’s not going to make it.”

korean war marine corps museum corpsman wounded

Elsewhere, they have a miniature bugle on display. After reading the description of what it is, dad shook his head and laughed.  It was one of the bugles the Chinese used to rally their troops for “human wave” attacks. When the Marines could hear bugles on every hill around them, they knew that they were completely surrounded and that the enemy was closing in. It amused him to see that instrument under glass on American soil.


Chosin korean war marine corps museum chinese bugle


Composing himself after one the tough moments, he said he liked the way they included the tough stuff. “You can’t put the reality of combat in a museum,” he said, “but at least here they show you the ugly side and it’s not all ‘hoo-rah’ recruitment bullshit.”


In our interviews, I asked him what he’d say to any young person thinking of joining the Marines. He quoted a friend of his who’s a retired Marine Corps General: “They can teach you how to kill, but no one can teach you how to get over killing.” That said, he also said he would probably still go if given a do-over. 


During his yearlong stay in a Navy hospital, having his arm reconstructed, he asked a buddy, who lost a leg and part of one hand, the same question:


“if you could go back, knowing exactly what would happen to you, would you do it again?” 


“Yes.” He said


Chosin korean war marine corps museum

Something else on display in the museum is the deep and sincere bond between individual Marines. Dad wore his Silver Star lapel pin that day, something people in their world notice immediately. The response was intense.


Walking out, a fireplug of a guy, who looks exactly how you expect a Marine to look, grabbed dad’s good hand with all his might, looked him in the eye, said “Semper Fi, Devil Dog,” and kept walking. A visiting Army Special Operations helicopter pilot wordlessly pressed a challenge coin from his unit into dad’s palm.


By the way dad bantered with the two privates guarding the door, you’d think they were old friends of his. “We really mean all that, ‘Semper Fi’ shit,” he tells me.


dan daly come on you sons of bitches do you want to live forever quote mug marine corps museum


In the gift shop, he bought a few more Globe & Anchor bumper stickers for his car. Growing up, our car always had one of these stickers on the back windshield. There is a practical reason for this, besides displaying his membership in the world’s largest fraternity: he says the stickers are handy if you get pulled over because half the State Troopers served in the Marines.


I bought him a mug with a quote printed on it from Medal of Honor recipient Sgt. Daniel Daly (no relation) who yelled to his Marines before they charged the Germans at the Battle of Belleaeu Wood in WWI:


“Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?”


The next morning, he read the quote aloud, in a grumpy voice, while his tea was steeping.



Artists Celebrate Leonard Cohen in Montréal

“There is a crack in everything, 
      that’s how the light gets in.”

             –Leonard Cohen


Leonard Cohen : Une brèche en toute chose/A Crack in Everything (at Montréal’s Museum of Contemporary art) features art and multimedia installations celebrating the life and work of Montréal’s late troubadour.

leonard cohen a crack in everything


The exhibit opens with “the Depression Chamber” an installation, by Israeli artist, Ari Folman, where you lay on a bed in a small “sarcophagus like” room listening to “Famous Blue Raincoat” while drawings are projected on the walls and ceiling. Since the Chamber had to be experienced alone and the song is five minutes long, the queue to enter–separate from the entrance to the rest of the exhibit–was over an hour long. The people in line talked the things you’d expect a bunch of Cohen fans to talk about:


A teenage girl tells her parents about her newfound meditation practice.


A tourist visiting from Australia says she’s never heard Cohen’s music, and when someone else in line hums “Hallelujah” she realizes she has.


The woman behind me remembers seeing Cohen around Montréal and serving him while he wrote in the coffee shop where she worked in high school. I asked her, “Have you always been a fan?”


“Oh yeah,” she says, “My boyfriend and I used to put him on in the morning when I slept over–back in the 60s.” She recommends that I check out the illustrated guide  to Cohen’s Montréal accompanied by a narration by Martha Wainwright.

depression chamber leonard cohen Ari Folmanleonard cohen a crack in everything


Visitors weave through a maze of Cohen-themed installations. There’s an esoteric 16mm film remixing his poetry readings on the CBC into a sort of spoken word Canadian hip hop thing, a 3 minute video of a bird on a wire (not the song but a bird perched on a wire,) and, for those who don’t know Cohen’s story, there’s a 35 minute supercut of a lifetime of interviews and documentary footage.


If the Depression Chamber is the weirdest first date imaginable, the interviews and concert footage have a different effect. The videos play on wall-sized screens and the viewers sit on low stools, not unlike the audience of a folk concert. The visitors were mostly women, bookish-looking with nice scarves. More than a few of them carry cameras  of the artsy sort. The guys seemed to all be with dates. Silhouettes get close to one another in front of the screen while “Suzanne” plays.


Like Cohen’s opus, the archival footage always returned to the subject of love and women. Cohen quotes his Zen teacher to one interviewer,


“The older you get, the lonelier you become and the deeper love you need.”


Of love he says,


“It’s the only game in town.. that’s what we’re here for.”


The confluence of love, sex, death, and longing in his lyrics is depicted in an interpretive dance by  Montréal artist Clara Furey. She performs on the floor–topless in blue jeans–for 90 minutes.


leonard cohen typewriter olivetti 22leonard cohen hotel chelsea matchbook


My fanboy moment came when I found his Olivetti 22 on display with a letter to Cohen and a book of his matches from the Hotel Chelsea. This is a big deal for a typewriter nerd.


Down  the  hall, Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller‘s  Poetry Machine uses an electric organ to play an unabridged reading of The Book of LongingEach key plays a page. The words come out of old tweed speakers around the visitor/organist’s chair.



In a separate wing of the exhibit, dedicated just to his music, there is a huge, unfinished-looking wooden box with a doorway. It’s an echo chamber that plays a recording of a hundred Montréal-based singers humming his best known song: “Hallelujah.”


Microphones, hanging from the ceiling inside the box, invite visitors to hum along, which makes the floor vibrate as their voices are added to the chorus. Meanwhile, an LED counter on the ceiling displays how many people are currently streaming the song on Spotify.


I heard there was a secret chord wooden box leonard cohen exhibit


This piece manages to cut right through the over-played-ness of the song by making that its subject. To be alone with this particular song is to feel your own part in something greater. If you’re anything like me, this isn’t your favorite Leonard Cohen song, but it’s hard to imagine “Last Year’s Man” or “Chelsea Hotel no. 2” having the same effect.


You enter the box and it’s like an emotional sauna. You feel acutely whatever heartbreak or longing you might be carrying. The others in the box seem distant, and looking at their faces feels invasive. If you do look, their expressions will challenge your cynicism. Like a sauna, it all feels good at first and becomes overwhelming.


leonard cohen on a train
Leonard Cohen | © Old Ideas, LLC

November 7th, 2017 was the one year anniversary of Cohen’s death. His hometown marked the occasion with a bunch of events, culminating in the MAC exhibit that will be open through April.


Biere Vagabond released Leonard, a Kölsch style beer, in his honor. My friends drank it while trying to explain Celine Dion to me.

vagabond beer leonardvagabond beer leonard


The city unveiled an 11,000 square foot mural, by artists El Mac, Gene Pendon and the MU collective, on a building downtown.


On November 6th, there was a tribute concert featuring Cohen’s music performed by Sting, Elvis Costello, Lana Del Rey, Feist, Adam Cohen (his son,) and others. Comedian Seth Rogan read a poem on stage. He said, “As a Canadian Jewish person, there is no greater honour than reading a Leonard Cohen poem in the middle of a hockey arena.” Prime Minister Trudeau was there and shared his memories of the singer.



Montreal’s Potluck Startup–Roam Magazine

All the Marrow

It’s Saturday night in late August, typically Montréal’s last month of t-shirt weather. I’m sitting at a picnic bench with group of young Montréalers eating Haitian food off paper plates. My portion is the envy of the table because I got a large bone in it, full of marrow, which my dinner companions are teaching me how to extract. This is my first time having goat. I probe the hollow end timidly with my plastic fork. Finally I’m told have to suck out the marrow—and don’t be shy about making noises.

Tonight is Haiti Night at the Village au Pied-du-Currant, a public space on the banks of the St. Laurence River that has been transformed over the past four summers into an ongoing multicultural festival.


village au pied du currant haiti

The Village

Built on the gritty sand of an urban beach, the Village is a cluster of land/sea containers converted into galleries, kitchens and bars, purpose built sheds and cabanas, a scaffolding rooftop bar with a view down the river, and open spaces for eating, dancing and playing.

So far this summer the Village has hosted food festivals showcasing West African, East Asian, Mexican, and Brazilian cuisine, South American folklore for kids, movie nights, a night market, community yoga—in collaboration with Lululemon, and a “1990s Brooklyn” themed night that one local described as “the best thing I did all summer.” They finished off the season with a “punky reggae party.”

The Village is built–and rebuilt every summer–on a previously vacant and overgrown lot, separated from the banks of the river by railroad tracks that serve the port and carry functioning land/sea containers to and from cargo ships.

This is “the river” from Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne.”

The bridge, slightly upstream is named for Jacques Cartier, the founder of Montréal, and is lit up every night this summer in celebration the 375th anniversary of his accomplishment.

Across the water, at La Ronde, an amusement hosts a summer-long international fireworks competition. The Village started as a place to catch the show for free.

Continue reading at Roam Magazine


Sarah M. Chen’s Redondo Beach Noir

When a booze cruise goes wrong, Finn Roose, L.A’s most debauched restaurant manager, finds himself at the center of a missing persons case, unable to lie or charm his way out of it. To clear his name, he must navigate the seedy underbelly of Redondo Beach while holding down a job as part of its sunny, touristy facade.

Cleaning Up Finn is Sarah M Chen‘s debut novella. Smart, sleazy, and succinct, at a lean 168 pages, Finn harkens back to the golden age of crime paperbacks in page count as much as content. Along with her fellow authors at All Due Respect Books, Chen  is writing the next chapter in American pulp.

 cleaning up finn sarah m chen novella on the beach

What is it about the South Bay? For an otherwise under-celebrated part of L.A, it seems like the beaches have been all over noir and crime fiction:

You’ve got Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, Tarantino’s  Jackie Brown (adapted from Elmore Leonard and West Palm Beach.) Vincent Vega from Pulp Fiction says he lives in Redondo (to which The Wolf replies “move out of the sticks!”)

Even the Patti Smith song “Redondo Beach”  has a dead girl in it. I’m sure there’s others…

Despite the sun and sand, there’s definitely a dark undercurrent to the South Bay that I think people like Quentin Tarantino gravitated toward as I did. Quentin Tarantino grew up in the South Bay, in Torrance specifically, and worked at a local video rental store (remember those?).


The South Bay has its vices but they’re disguised in sunshine, surf, and sand. I find that contrast fascinating and filled with possibilities. It’s a lot like Hollywood where you have the glitz and glam of the movie industry harboring the desperation underneath. But whereas Hollywood is seedy, you may not necessarily think of beach life as seedy but it’s definitely there. People either don’t think to look or don’t want to.

Finn is the ideal hero for the stories I like to write. He’s human and real and tends to make awful decisions. We all know people like Finn, someone you wouldn’t want babysitting your kids or even watching your dog. Those are the people I like to write about.


Hermosa Beach also had a big punk scene back in the day that made it cool, rebellious. But once the pier became a pedestrian plaza in ‘97, bars and clubs popped up like a spreading rash threatening to obliterate the mom and pop places, the dive bars, the artsy coffee shops, and the indie bookstores. Now it’s a more commercial party scene with DJs spinning top 40 instead of jazz and punk. This culture clash plus the illusion of an easy beach life makes it a perfect setting for a crime novel.


In early drafts, Finn was a short story set in Maryland. I kept moving the location around based on the guidelines of the market I was submitting to. When I had an opportunity to write a novella, I immediately thought of Finn. I felt there was more to Finn than a short story. When I sat down to expand it, I knew it couldn’t be set anywhere else but the South Bay.


And it’s home, right?

I’ve lived in the South Bay for over 20 years so consider this my adopted home. I grew up in Southern California, but in Orange County, which is more conservative with cookie-cutter track housing.


I fell in love with Hermosa Beach’s funky bohemian vibe when I first visited in the late 80s/ early 90s and knew I’d live here eventually.


I like that Finn’s still a dog at the end, even though he makes the right choice. We all know a guy like Finn whose fooling around gets him in trouble. I loved the way you just kept pulling that thread instead of forcing some moral awakening.


I really wanted to be true to Finn’s character and not make him into something he’s not or isn’t capable of being no matter how much he tries. I initially had a different ending where Finn changed but it felt forced. Of course he’d go right back to his innate douchebag self because that’s his nature. You can try to change behavior, but inherently, we are all who we are inside.


It’s funny because I have a friend who thought Finn had a happy ending but then her boyfriend read the book and he said, “Are you kidding? That’s not a happy ending at all. He goes right back to the way he was before and learns nothing!” It’s all about perspective. From where my friend and I are sitting, it’s a happy ending because, although he may not get away with it much longer, Finn remains true to himself.


Finn is the ideal hero for the stories I like to write. He’s human and real and tends to make awful decisions. We all know people like Finn, someone you wouldn’t want babysitting your kids or even watching your dog. Those are the people I like to write about.



Back in the day, hardboiled fiction benefitted from serialization and radio programs. Now you have blogging and podcasts and all sorts of new publishing platforms. Do you think we’re headed for a noir revival–“new neo-noir”–Is that revival already here? 


That’s a tough one. I think because that’s my niche and what I like to read, I feel like noir is a popular genre but really, once I leave my little bubble, it’s not.

I’m also a bookseller and I know noir titles don’t sell as well as lighter or more commercial stuff. I think short story platforms like Great Jones Street  helps to introduce the noir genre to a broader readership. I also think part of it’s geographical. I know noir is very popular with the French and sells well over there.


Why the novella form? What was it like working with that page count?


I had a contract with a fledgling publisher that was only publishing novellas. It was my first time writing one and as I said, I decided to expand my short story. I’m not sure if that made things easier or more challenging than writing a novella from scratch. I had to figure out which parts I wanted to expand, which characters to explore, and tack on a middle and third act.


I’m used to writing tightly because all I had written before were short stories and flash fiction so the shorter the better for me.


Sarah m Chen novella author


You’re involved with some conferences and a pretty rad sounding crime fiction community. Care to give some shout outs? Where should people go to find great contemporary noir and hardboiled titles?


Yes, it’s a fantastic community and I’ve met so many wonderful writers who I call friends. I admire their work and it’s exciting and inspiring to be involved with such talent.

One of my favorites of 2017 is She Rides Shotgun by Jordan Harper. It’s told from multiple POVs but essentially it’s eleven-year-old Polly’s story. Her ex-con father is on a mission to protect her from a white supremacist gang and it’s brutal yet strangely hopeful.


Steph Post’s Lightwood is another one I really dug from early 2017. It’s another story of a criminal family but in this one, Judah Cannon is the protagonist who gets out of prison. He wants to stay out of trouble but his father has other ideas. It’s set in Florida and is straight down and dirty Southern noir.

Quentin Tarantino grew up in the South Bay, in Torrance specifically, and worked at a local video rental store (remember those?).

Marietta Miles is another writer I admire. Her novella, Route 12, is disturbing and poetic. I’m looking forward to MAY, her book coming out with Down & Out early next year. I’ll read any short stories by Jen Conley and everyone should check out her collection, Cannibals. Same with Patti Abbott. Her short stories are some of my favorites and I was so excited when she started writing novels, beginning with Concrete Angel. Greg Barth’s Selena trilogy is some of the most depraved crime fiction I’ve read, yet he has a way of creating characters that you despise and root for at the same time.


For great noir, and not to be biased, but I think my publisher All Due Respect Books is putting out some of the best noir in the marketplace. I was thrilled ADR became an imprint of Down & Out Books as D&O also has some of my favorites like Danny Gardner’s A Negro and an Ofay.


And if you want to get up to speed on what indie publishers are putting out these days, check out David Nemeth’s Small Press Crime Fiction: Incident Report blog. It’s always chock full of the latest hardboiled and noir titles that you may have missed.

What’s next for you? What’s now?

I have some short stories coming out in early 2018. One that came out recently is my story “Masterpiece” in Killing Malmon with Down & Out Books, edited by Kate and Dan Malmon, reviewers for Crimespree Magazine. This is a collection of 30 stories where the only guideline was that Dan Malmon must be killed. All proceeds benefit the MS Society and I was thrilled to be invited to participate.

Killing Malmon Sarah M Chen

I’m in another anthology called The Night of the Flood which I edited along with E.A. Aymar. This was a really fun project to be involved in as fourteen of us wrote interconnecting stories that took place over one chaotic night in a fictional Pennsylvania town. Bestselling and award-winning writer Hank Phillippi Ryan wrote the intro and it will be out March 2018.


Other than that, I’m revising my current WIP, a novel featuring a college dropout slacker whose life is in danger thanks to the unwanted return of her estranged father. It’s set in—where else?—the South Bay.


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Boston Globe: Monomoy, Cape Cod’s desert island

Monomoy Island has been many things over the years: An island, a peninsula, an island again (as storms build and then destroy sand bridges with the mainland), a remote fishing village, a crime scene, a navigation hazard, and a wildlife sanctuary.

Just south of Chatham, at the elbow of Cape Cod, Monomoy is an 8-mile sandbar that separates the Atlantic Ocean and Nantucket Sound.

For now — that is until the shifting sands connect it to Chatham again — the only way to get there is by boat or kayak. To protect the island’s bird habitat, there are just three designated landing points where you can anchor. They’re not marked, you have to find them by GPS coordinates and try not to run aground on the way over.

Depending on where you land, it’s a 2- to 7-mile hike to the lighthouse at the end. The island narrows to just a few hundred feet across as you head south. Near the lighthouse, the land fans out again into a tear-drop shape of about 2 square miles. There are marshes, ponds, and tall grass. From up on a dune, you can see Nantucket on a clear day. Other than that, this is the middle of nowhere.

There’s a year-round chill in the air — from the meeting of warm and cold water at the end of the island — and it’s as if the wind remembers things the sands and waves have long obscured. You get the feeling that yours are not the only footprints here. And that’s true. Walking around the point, you’ll find the slab foundations of some old buildings, abandoned wells, the boat ramp from a decommissioned Coast Guard Station, and a boarded-up lighthouse, which is the only structure still standing.

Continue reading at the Boston Globe