By Ken Stone
Mike Bohan never saw action in Vietnam. For 11 months, as an Army clerk in the 101st Airborne Division, he filed daily casualty reports.
“If I want to sound important, my report went right to the general. But I never talked to him,” says Bohan, who returned stateside from his underground bunker role in 1968.
Now 69 and retired from a sales job with a commercial trucking company, the Escondido resident has returned to Vietnam — and a semi-fantasy version of San Diego in the late 1960s.
He wrote a novel — his first.
“From Vietnam to the California Beaches” — a 24-chapter adventure with a star character described as James Bond meets Forrest Gump — was published this week on Amazon ($12.95 soft cover, $2.95 for Kindle).
Although it starts in a combat zone, most of the 280-page saga takes place in San Diego. Felix Francis, its protagonist, is a clever cat who helps save a toddler from the San Diego Zoo gorilla enclosure, takes a lover hang-gliding at Torrey Pines, volunteers at “Scripps Hospital” and uses the front page of The San Diego Union to save his fraternity.
Felix dines at the Hotel Del and George’s at the Cove. He attends San Diego State University while working at In-N-Out (even though it didn’t yet exist).
Bohan says: “About 1 percent of the book is me; 99 percent just off the cuff.” The drawn-from-his-life scenes include one where Felix and another grunt steal beer from a Marine base and give it out for free at their own. In another, Felix hands out drinks to people sweltering in a long line.
One chapter recounts how an SDSU track coach prepares Felix for the mile run at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics — even though the actual event is 1500 meters.
The most implausible thing? The fact its author is an SDSU dropout who suffers severe dyslexia. And he never intended to write a book.
“You read things backwards,” Bohan says of his learning disability. “Probably the hardest thing … is I can’t tell the difference [in the] same word where they switch the letters around. If I’m reading, and the word is spelled wrong, I can’t see that at all.”
He recalls a professor saying: “Write this down because I can guarantee it will be on the test.” But Bohan’s hands wouldn’t move.
“I thought: ‘This is just horrible,’” he said Wednesday, meeting Times of San Diego at a La Mesa restaurant. “That’s the frustration of it all.”
His creativity and writing ability were spotted once, however. The West Covina High School graduate says a college English teacher assigned students to write a story but not worry about grammar, spelling, etc. — “just tell a story.”
“It came back and said: ‘A+, you’re a writer,’” Bohan recalls. “Then I had to do the corrections, and it ended up being a C paper.”
Flash forward to several years ago, when he and his wife of 44 years, Sheri (an English major), were on a three-day cruise to Mexico. He wanted to celebrate her birthday — but wrote a story instead of a love letter.
He gave her 10-12 pages of fiction.
“She said: ‘What’s next? You can’t just leave me like that.’ So I wrote another 10 or 12 pages, and she goes: ‘I love this.’ Before I knew it, it just started,” he said. “And it was fun writing.”
He knew little of creating a work of historical fiction but took to heart advice from a friend who shunned novels.
“I said: ‘Why don’t you read novels?’ He said: ‘It takes so long for the author to go from one good part to the next good part.’”
Three years later — after sometimes writing three or four chapters in one sitting — the book was done. Chock full of good parts.
He now credits dyslexia as being a source of his creativity. He didn’t know much about the disorder until a few years ago.
He said he was listening to it being described in a radio show as he was driving. “I thought: That’s me!”
Bohan chose the Amazon service to self-publish “From Vietnam” even though it was “a little on the expensive side.” But he considered it worth it in his case.
His dream for the book?
“I’d like it to be a movie,” said Bohan, whose favorite author is Ernest Hemingway. “I think it would be a great movie.”
Bohan has two grown sons and a daughter (and two grandchildren). He named the book’s main character for a “perfect” parent who died in the past eight years — several years before his wife.
“Felix Francis is my father’s first and middle name,” Bohan said. “It’s a shame. It would have been nice to show [the book] to him.”
Ken Stone was a paid editor of “From Vietnam to the California Beaches,” but has no financial interest in its sale.
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