Sunday, April 26, 2009


I gave the following talk at the Hamilton-Wenham Library in Massachusetts last week at at their Two Towns/Two Books series of readings and receptions. The talk deals with my nonfiction book, WHILE IN DARKNESS THERE IS LIGHT, which chronicles the 1974 killing of Charlie Dean.

The Vietnam years were marked by protests, a fuel crisis, the Watergate scandal, and Nixon’s impeachment proceedings. Most of the young activists who demonstrated against the war, resisted the draft, and sought alternative lifestyles eventually would resign themselves to working within the system, go to graduate school, get jobs and raise families. An exceptional few would cling to the idealism of their youth and start their own traditions.

One of those idealists was Charlie Dean, brother of Howard Dean, former head of the Democratic National Committee. In May 1974, when Charlie was 24, he and a 21-year-old Australian friend set out to travel around Southeast Asia. Charlie planned to end his journey in December and be home in Manhattan by Christmas. He never made it. In one of his last letters, Charlie wrote to boarding school friend Harry Reynolds. “Arrived in Malaysia June 1st which was an unfriendly place I thought, and then came up through south Thailand to Bangkok. The real highlight has been two weeks in the Khmer Republic. It was truly an eye-opener. We are still involved up to our ears. No military just tons of supplies, half of which are sold to the Khmer Rouge…. The cities have tree-lined streets with sidewalk caf├ęs but Phnom Penh has tripled its population with refugees and is cluttered with sandbags and barbed wire. Every night you can hear wahump, wahump, wahump as the artillery is fired across the Mekong.”

Charlie was well aware that fighting was still going on in Southeast Asia. As a student at UNC Chapel Hill, he had protested the Vietnam War and kept informed about military activity. So what in the world was he doing there?

Let’s back up and trace how Charlie, well educated and from upper-class wealth, found himself in first in Kuranda, North Queensland and then in a rainforest prison. Kuranda is verdant and tropical, an awe-inspiring combination of mountains and forests. Nestled between hill and forest is a 460-acre farm of orange groves and mandarin, banana, lime and grapefruit trees irrigated by mountain streams. In 1970, this acreage was settled by three old friends, Charlie’s boarding school classmate Kim Haskell and Kim’s Delaware friends Rich Trapnell and Jeb Buck. When he was at St. George’s School in Newport, Rhode Island, Charlie was involved in every aspect of student life, from senior prefect to head of the acolyte’s guild, where he led the choir into the chapel for daily services. Sons of successful fathers, St. George’s students lived in big houses and took ski vacations with their families. They would go to good colleges and become successful themselves, some heading businesses and others, like Howard, running for public office. Kim’s father, Hal Haskell, is a former U.S. Congressman and mayor of Wilmington, Delaware, and retired chief executive at Abercrombie and Fitch. Both Jeb’s and Rich’s fathers were well established with DuPont.

Like his classmates, Charlie, too, was a child of privilege, having grown up on New York’s Upper East Side and East Hampton, the son of a top executive of Dean Witter Reynolds. By the time they entered college, Kim at University of Denver, Charlie at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Jeb at Princeton, and Rich at Harvard, the Vietnam War was raging, and the draft pressed down on men above eighteen. It was wise to stay in school where student status kept them from the strangling jungles and swamps slithering with Vietcong. But four protesters were killed on the Kent State campus, protests broke out on college campuses all over the country. Kim dropped out of Denver, and classes were canceled at Harvard. While Charlie stayed involved in student politics at UNC, Kim and Rich drove to California, where they caught a flight to Australia. In 1970 Australia was paradise for young men. Women outnumbered men in the cities, Americans were still heroes from World War II, and the landscape was an open campground.

Rich and Kim bought a rickety van and started out exploring the southern coast, snorkeling and spearing fish, and living on Campbells soup, rice, spaghetti, and any fish, ducks, geese and rabbits they could catch. “You’ve never seen nothing like rabbits in Australia,” Rich wrote to Harry, his Harvard roommate. Temperatures reached 110 degrees during the day and so they traveled at night. Jeb joined them in Darwin, and the three headed to Queensland, where they planned to look for property and settle down.

After he graduated, Charlie signed on as campus chair of McGovern’s campaign, He was almost so dedicated to the cause that he signed his meager paychecks back to the campaign. The election was a landslide—Nixon accumulated 520 Electoral votes to McGovern's 17. Devastated, Charlie went back to East Hampton to pull himself together and plan his next move, one that would take him halfway across the globe. In boarding schools, lifetime friendships are forged. Classmates become surrogate families. They keep in touch. They arrange reunions. When Kim, Rich and Jeb set up a farm in North Queensland, they sent word back to their classmates, including Charlie and Harry, summoning them across the ocean. Both boys answered the call, Harry arriving fresh from Harvard a few months after Charlie.

Rosebud was a working experiment in organic farming and communal living. The unpainted bunkhouse had a metal roof, the beams on which pythons sometimes roosted. Fourteen cots slept the farmers, including several Australians who had moved in. The Rosebud kitchen, with community quarters, squatted atop a hill above the sleeping quarters. Both Charlie and Harry were put to work immediately. Summer was settling in, and the heat and humidity were unforgiving. Dust stuck to their skin and dirt packed into their clothing. Kim requisitioned a water tank and a washing machine run with an old lawnmower engine, and they helped rig a pipe from the top of the stream to the bunkhouse so they could have running water and showers rather than bathing in the stream.

They plucked weeds from rows of sprouting vegetables and watered fruit trees. Every Friday the farmers took the truck to Cairns, a half-hour drive down to the coast, where they sold fruits and vegetables and bought work supplies. After hot days of farm chores, the farmers usually headed into Kuranda for a few lagers before dinner. Loquacious, animated and opinionated, Charlie would start talking about Rosebud’s agribusiness and heat up to American politics, what bits of current events he was able to glean—the resignation of Spiro Agnew and Gerald Ford’s appointment as Vice President, Nixon’s surrender of the Watergate tapes, the firing of Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox. From Rosebud, the events seemed as surreal and imagined as the Friday evening movies at the community house where, for 75 cents, they sat on folding chairs and watched American westerns projected against a sheet hung on a wall. Some days they took a break from farm work, as when Kim lead them to Barron Gorge, where monstrous rocks had been carved by the river and cliffs fell 75 feet into deep pools. In some ways the Gorge was a test of manhood. Kim jumped first, and the others, answering the challenge, followed. One of the Australians came out of the pool dragging a giant eel, ten feet long, and dislocated his shoulder trying to beat it to death with a big stick. That night, after a dinner of eel roasted over a roaring campfire, they settled down to sleep under the stars.

Kim was fearless and no project was too daunting. While Rich ran the Rosebud agribusiness, Kim undertook the building of a 57-foot Hartley design boat he called “Big Mama.” The ship was to be made of chicken wire covered in cement to withstand the sharp coral of the reefs. The boat would have two cabins with a cockpit between them and would be the fourth biggest cement boat ever built in Australia. But the boat caused tensions among the farmers. Rich wanted less time spent with Big Mama and more on the gardens. Kim was ready for his own domain where he could focus on finishing the boat without rankling Rich’s nerves. When a 3500-acre parcel came on the market in Bloomfield, four hours to the north, he plunked down a deposit and loaded up the truck with diving gear, tools, tents, a bag of rice, and cooking utensils and Charlie and Harry, Siegfried the dog, and a few Australians went along to help settle the land. Bloomfield’s miles of sugar sand beaches look onto the Coral Sea, with magical reefs just off the coastline. Once they set up camp, the men took the dinghy out and snorkeled around the reefs with harpoons. Kim was the best fisherman of the group and speared a fifteen-pound trophy the first day, big enough to feed the lot.

Bloomfield had restful days when Charlie talked of settling in Queensland. He had a yearning to set down roots, maybe even buy land in Bloomfield. At the same time, he felt drawn to be of some use in the world, to help those in the greatest need. But where and how to use his talents? The world was open to him, and the choices overwhelming—stay in Australia, travel to Southeast Asia, follow through with Peace Corps plans, or go back to New York. By mid-November they were back in Kuranda, when the rainy season set in. After a week of rain, Harry grew restless and headed south to Melbourne. Charlie had fallen for a local Kuranda teenager who had made Rosebud her home, and he wanted to stick around and see what developed.

For two months Harry lived in Melbourne, working first as a freezer salesman for a bulk food company and later managing the ice rink, where he practiced his Harvard hockey drills with the semi-professional Melbourne team. In February, Kim came to Melbourne to look at an engine for Big Mama, and over a lager he and Harry sorted out their plans. Harry had run short on money and so rejected ideas of traveling to Southeast Asia with Charlie or acquiring land in Queensland. If he went back to the States, maybe he could find a job and buy some property in Vermont. Kim wanted to see Tasmania. Charlie was still dawdling at the farm but talked about hitting the road again, making his way to Nepal and Africa by way of Indonesia and Thailand. He had no idea that his journey would end in Laos.

Charlie and Neil were held in a rainforest prison for three months while their parents and authorities in Australia and the United States tried to negotiate their release. In December 1974, the Pathet Lao led them toward the border of North Vietnam, presumably to be handed over to the Vietcong. Just shy of the border, however, the two were shoved into a small shed. Unable to escape, they must have watched as their executioners opened fire with machine guns.

At the close of 1973, when the Vietnam War officially ended, 58,000 Americans, a million North Vietnamese, and two million civilians had died. To date, nearly two thousand Americans are listed as missing from the Vietnam War. Investigators have recovered and identified 708 sets of remains. Among those are Neil Sharman and Charles Maitland Dean. Their bullet-riddled bodies had been tossed into a marshy crater near the border between Laos and North Vietnam. Perhaps it is possible to be too innocent and too arrogant about one’s mission in life. With pure heart and right intentions, young men often make mistakes that are irreversible. Charlie’s final lesson was a hard one.

In April 1975, the Dean family learned that Charlie was dead. The news went hard on Charlie’s father, who died in 2002. Howard was committed to finding his brother and flew several times to Laos to question authorities and sift through dirt looking for a bone or a tooth that might have been Charlie’s. Finally, he was successful. In November 2003, while he was running for President, Howard flew with his family to Hawaii to receive Charlie’s remains.

Today Kim Haskell and his partner Anni tend the fruit trees on their land in Bloomfield. Kim has a new steel-hulled boat named Big Mama and charters tours along the Great Barrier Reef. Jeb Buck lives in Kuranda. Rich Trapnell still operates Rosebud Farm, now an organic tree nursery. Harry Reynolds lives on his land in Vermont. Charlie Dean now rests in peace in Sag Harbor, on the land his great-great grandfather claimed. Like his friends, Charlie fulfilled his promise—true to his word but 29 years late, Charlie Dean had finally made it home.

One of the questions that led me in the writing of this book was what is it that makes youths on the verge of manhood wander into danger? Is it that, like Perseus and Theseus, they feel moved to prove themselves by surviving some life-threatening quest? I’m not sure. But I’m hoping maybe you’ll help me find the answer.