We’re excited to announce that Surprised at Being Alive is now available from Casemate! In this new release, Robert F. Curtis provides a fascinating account of his service flying helicopters in Vietnam through his experiences with the National Guard, Marine Corps, and Royal Navy around the world.
Download a free sample chapter to learn more about this great book.
To learn more about this new release, we talked with author Robert F. Curtis about his time in the military, his experience with writing, and why this his book is worth reading.
Could you tell us a bit about any history of military service in your family?
All the men in the previous generation of my family served in some branch of the military, five blood uncles on my mother’s side and four on my father’s. All of my blood Aunt’s husbands served too. My father served in the Army just after WWII. In my generation I am the only one who served one minute of military time. No one in my son’s generation served either. My family has very much become a reflection of the country, in that less than one percent of American’s serve in the Armed Forces now.
All my childhood I saw the uniforms my uncles wore hanging the closets, the pictures on the albums, and listened to the war stories the men would tell as they played cards at family gatherings. I treasured the souvenirs of the military that they gave me: old cartridges, a WW1 and a WWII Victory medals, a Nazi party pin, shoulder patches, etc. When in the 8th grade we were asked what we wanted to be when we grew up I said, “A professional soldier”, although one of my Uncles was a career Marine and he was the most impressive one of the lot. The Marine was a crewman on jets and once when we went to pick him up at Cincinnati’s airport, he came in with the aircraft on fire. They didn’t crash and were even blasé about it afterwards, but it was a very impressive display of what a man should be to a kid. I wanted adventures like that.
When did you first realize that you wanted to become a writer?
There was never a moment when I decided I wanted to be a writer. I have always wanted to be a writer, telling stories about what I see around me. Story telling is a family tradition, one at which my maternal grandmother was particularly. She had me writer her descriptions of life wherever my military travels took me, what their houses looked like, what they ate, how they dressed, etc. As a pilot flying stories are a part of everyday life, each pilot trying to outdo the other. My first professional writing came when I wrote a few journal articles for The Marine Corps Gazette, the officer’s journal. I also wrote one article for the Royal Navy Air crewman’s journal, TACAN and a technical article for the American Aeronautical Association Journal. I also wrote the script for the three one-man civil war shows I did. That bit of writing showed me that I can tell a written story, as well as tell oral ones, like flying stories.
What fascinates you about revisiting the past and bringing it to life in a book?
The past is the present. Thirty-three years ago I flew Chinooks in combat and they are still being flown today. In fact, as I was typing this on 11 April a flight of two Chinooks flew past my window, a good omen for sure. For all of time men have clashed, often at the same place over and over again. At one spot on the South Branch of the Potomac River, just outside Moorefield, WV, there were four battles during the Civil War, but there is no marker, no sign to tell of what happened there. The people who live there have no sense that they pass bloody ground every day. The same goes how the people feel about the military pilots flying today; no one knows what it is like for them unless they have been there. Telling the stories of the past will help take the 99% of the US population who have not served into the feeling of being there, a sense maybe, that there is something beyond the latest “reality” show.
When and how did you become interested in Military history?
I have been interested in military history as long as I can remember, because I somehow knew I would someday be a part of it and as it turned out, I was. Touring the Civil War battlefields as a young man, flying my helicopter to the remains of the French forts in Vietnam, camping in the remains of a Roman camp near Hadrian’s Wall, flying to Gallipoli and Troy, standing in the remains of a battlefield in Morocco, all of it gives me chills right now.
How much research did you do for the book? Can you give us some tips on this?
I have been writing this book in bits and pieces for years. I finally started pulling all the bits together about a year ago. My research consisted of pulling out my old log books and photo albums. I did ask some surviving friends for their views on some particular events, but mostly I wrote what I remembered. Thankfully, my old friend’s war stories and mine match, so I didn’t just imagine it all. One old friend, a retired ambassador and former Army officer, who served in the same area of Vietnam and at the same time that I did brought some old maps over so that we could compare locations. Great stories, but not much information, were exchanged.
Why did you decide to write this book? What prompted you to put this story down on paper?
I was so surprised at still being alive when I retired from the Marine Corps and military helicopter flying that I needed to write about it. I counted up the number of friends I had lost, not just in combat, but also in accidents, and came up with over 60, 43 of them after Vietnam. There are parades and pipers when a fireman or policeman dies, but most of these men had nothing, nothing at all when they went. Every one of them deserved something, but got very little. I was very surprised not to be among them, given the frailty of helicopters and the conditions in which I often flew. It was not survivor’s guilt, but just a real feeling of surprise at still being alive, joy really. I wanted to share the stories of some of my flights, the ones that were the most memorable and therefore imperfect.
What do you like most about your book? Why should we read it?
I like the sense it gives of what it’s like to be alive, the sense of feeling the power of a big helicopter under your hands, the idea of feeling what it’s like to be “in the zone” when the bullets are flying or the night is very dark or you are young and ignorant, but somehow make it through.
You should read it so that you will know what it’s like to sit in the cockpit of a combat helicopter and the feelings that go through your mind as you move from one stage of life to another. You should read it to know how pilots have to “close the door” to their feelings if they want to survive flying and how that closing effects their lives.
You should read it so you’ll know what it’s like for the young men and women doing exactly the same job right now, a job that is just as dangerous now as it was when the flights in this book happened.