Veteran writes what he knows in novel
‘On Butterfly Wings’ author to speak about romance, war at library
By Patrice Stewart
What’s your draft number?
This question, often asked of young men by sympathetic friends, family, wives and girlfriends during the Vietnam war era, will be a focus of a program planned Tuesday at 7 p.m. at Decatur Public Library.
J.W. Hogan of Hartselle, known as Jim to friends and co-workers, will talk about his book on that period, “On Butterfly Wings,” which was published in January (Dorrance Publishing Co. Inc., paperback, $15). The subtitle says a lot: “A story of young love and how the Vietnam War penetrated the soul of America.”
The new author began a career with the Postal Service 35 years ago after serving with the Air Force in Vietnam. He was a postal supervisor in Decatur before becoming postmaster at Eva 10 years ago.
“It’s hard to believe there were more than 500,000 troops in Vietnam in 1968-69,” Hogan said. “It was a tough time, and it kind of parallels some things happening now. But at least we have the voluntary draft now.”
Hogan, who graduated from Austin High School in Decatur in 1967, said a much lower percentage of young men in the 1960s went on to college.
“The average guy coming out of high school in the middle and late 1960s knew the military was where he might end up,” he said, and that meant one place: Vietnam.
“This book will be interesting to everybody who lived through that,” he said. “That war impacted families, wives, sweethearts, everybody.”
He did not want his book to be a biography, so names have been changed, but his friends from high school recognize themselves, he said. Most no longer live in this area, and one committed suicide after Vietnam.
“It’s actually a love story,” he said, with the main characters, Jeff and Katie, representing him and Karen, now his wife of 36 years with whom he reared four children.
“The story begins with Jeff Horton,” Hogan said. “It’s summertime, high school is over, and he and his friends are contemplating the draft and the war.”
They all end up in various branches of the service and in Vietnam at the same time, and the book tells about Horton’s experiences at Phan Rang Air Base in South Vietnam and the friendships that helped him survive.
No specific area is mentioned, but Alabama is the backdrop for the book.
“For Southerners and especially those from Alabama, this is a special story,” said Hogan, who later earned a degree in history from The University of Alabama on the GI Bill.
“So many historical things happened in this time period, too,” he said, such as the shooting deaths of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy.
He thinks his book is “more representative of what the average Vietnam veteran experienced” than what you see in movies such as “Coming Home,” “The Deer Hunter” and “Apocalypse Now.”
Hogan said he “probably carried this book around inside me for 30 years,” though he didn’t talk much about his time in the service. When he got quite sick about four years ago and his ability to talk was restricted, he decided he wanted to put his memories on paper.
“I let some friends read the rough manuscript, and they were so impressed that I decided to check into getting it published,” Hogan said.
As a historian of the 1960s, he hopes to continue writing and speaking about that era when he retires.
His son, Jacob, is one of his biggest fans and is helping him promote the book.
“I fell in love with the book, so this is a labor of love for me,” said the younger Hogan, who majored in history and political science.
“The Vietnam era is a fascinating period of time, and this shows what the common person in the South went through, as well as including a lot about the music and culture of that period.”
He calls his dad’s story a “must read,” especially for those who served or had loved ones who served in Vietnam. He said it sheds light on what this time was like “for a teenager growing up in the South in one of the most volatile and misunderstood times in our nation’s history.”
Reviewer Ken Smith said his struggles “as he is drawn into the void between realism and idealism were experienced by many and will echo the anxieties of all called upon to serve in the military when the draft/lottery were things to be feared.”
Library spokeswoman Patricia Slaten said Hogan will answer questions about the book and autograph copies after his talk.
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