September 25,1981 / Montrose Voice 15
A conversation with author Charles Nelson
By Perry Deane Young
Charles Nelson is author of The Boy Who
Picked the Bullets Up, released this
month by its publisher, William Morrow
Chuck, not Charles, called to say he
was in town and ready for the interview
the publisher had arranged with me.
Apparently I was a combination they
couldn't find elsewhere—a writer who
had been in Vietnam but who was also
homosexual and able to talk about it.
Nelson is almost exactly one year
younger than I, but he was in Vietnam a
year before I was—he as a Navy Corps-
man assigned to the Marines in Chu Lai
and Danang; I as a correspondent with
UPI. In his novel, The Boy Who Picked
the Bullets Up, Nelson's fictional corps-
man tells his story through letters to four
different people back in the States. I identified so totally with the narrator, I could
easily have written these letters myself.
Nelson chooses to live mostly in a heterosexual world, sometimes with a
woman, always with his ideal sex
partner—usually a straight man who's
never done it before.
As I drove across Washington to Nelson's hotel, I couldn't help but wonder if
the author would measure up to his fictional creation. Nelson's Kurt was 6'3"
tall and weighed 200 pounds. So was the
distinguished looking Charles Nelson,
dressed in newly bought gray slacks,
dark blazer, blue shirt and tie. Dark
patches under his eyes betrayed his lack
of sleep; his thin hair was left long and
draped across a bare forehead. He gains
weight when he writes; he had obviously
been writing a spell. He accepts it as part
of growing older.
He could never pick up a good looking
gay guy and a straight man wouldn't
care so much about the age of a good
Most authors who wrote about Vietnam didn't even dare speak of homosexuality, but of those of us who tried,
nobody has done it so well as Charles
Nelson has in this novel. Sex, of course, is
only one part of the narrator's life and
only part of the novel—but I feel it is a
most important part of life and I salute
former Corpsman Nelson for telling it as
I'd like to do the interview in two
parts—first, the facts about your life,
starting with your date of birth and your
parents and how you were raised; and
then, how you come to write this book
and how much of it is based on fact.
I was born March 16, 1942, in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. My daddy was a
coal miner. He died when I was about 13
and we moved to DeLand, Florida. I have
two younger brothers and a step-sister.
My mother said she married two times—
the first time for love and sex, the second
time for money. We married into ah old
Southern family that had money.
I always knew I was queer. My uncle
seduced me when I was about 6 or 7. He
was about fifteen. At school, I sort of
decided that being queer and being smart
were the same thing. I rather liked being
liked, so I stopped being smart. I became
so normal my mother pulled me out of
school when I was 16 to work in the family fernery. I did finish high school and
then I went to a real podunk junior college for a while. When I was about 20 I
found New York.
After two years in New York, I went
back to school for a year and then I went
into the Navy in October of 1965—and I
stayed in and got an honorable discharge. Some people don't believe that,
but I got an honorable discharge.
See last week's Voice for a
review of The Boy Who Picked
the Bullets Up
I liked it in the Navy. You were taken
care of; it was like a big womb, like in
school. They made me a medic, and that's
one of the best things you can be in the
service because nobody messes with you
too much. I went to the Great Lakes
Training Center for basic training and
for corpsman school. They trained us
well in the Navy.
Then I went to Newport, R.I., where
they put me in a hospital on pediatrics.
Then I went to Camp LeJeune where
they did not train us to be combat medics.
I'm pretty bitter about that. We had one
3-mile hike and we had calisthenics once,
and unless you were pushy and could get
up to the front you never learned anything about wounds. It was cool there in
North Carolina and a lot of us were sent
straight into the jungles in Vietnam. We
weren't tough. They choose smart people
to be medics, not tough ones. That's true
in the book where I say that ofthe 800 of
our group who went to Vietnam only 260
made it back.
Where were you in Vietnam ?
I was with the 1st Medical Battalion at
Chu Lai and then we moved up to
Danang. I was lucky; I got put on KP
right away and stayed there for 30 days.
How long were you there?
From October of '66 until November of
'67—it was a 13-month tour.
Were you out in the field much ?
(Sarcastically) It's all in the book,
everything's true in it. No ... I was out for
one, two, and three days at a time, but I
was never stuck out there; I was not a
member of a CAP team.
And when you came back?
They wouldn't allow corpsmen who
had served in Vietnam to work under
nurses. My only prejudice is against
nurses and that's me in the book. I
decided to be a lab technician and that's
what I was the last year I was in service.
Newport was a triple threat town-
there was the old town, the rich people,
very social, and all those sailors. Eventually I moved into the YMCA. I got an
early out so I could go back to school. But
I couldn't get into that, so I hitchhiked
around the country. Nixon got elected
president and I decided I didn't want to
live in a country that would elect him. I
moved to Europe.
My lover was a film director in Berlin
and he helried me get into some films. It's
so hard to call him a lover. I liked the guy.
He was my buddy. We went to bed
together. That lasted about a year and
that's the longest I've ever lived with
anybody—but it was totally with the
understanding that we would have other
things going on.
So he got me in several films, but I
never did go anywhere with it. I was paying my own way but it was still all
through him. I came back to the States so
I could be on my own. I felt the whold
world was waiting for me if I would just
finish school. I graduated from Stetson
University, a Baptist school in DeLand,
What sort of work did you get into after
graduating from college?
I've had all kinds of jobs. I was a jail
guard and got caught the first time I went
down on a guy. I was a hospital orderly
and made it with about 30 patients before
they caught me. Then, I painted sawmills
in the Pacific Northwest; did construction work in Austin, Texas; then collected
unemployment in San Diego.
I came back and got a job as a postman
in DeLand—all I saw were old people so I
didn't get in any trouble. Everything is
grist for the mill for me; I love trade.
What got me off for a while was doing it
with one guy while his buddy watched
(both of them straight); and then I
wanted them to do it while I watched
them. You'd be surprised how many I got
It was a pretty down life for the most
part. Then, a little girl—19 or 20— fell in
love with me. I told her all about me and
she still wanted to move in. This is where
we came to writing the book.
Tell me about that.
When I was in college, I wrote some
papers and I got some A's and that was
the first time I ever had an A. I always
got my papers back saying "this is not
original." Then, a really good professor,
Brad Crain, let me write what I wanted to
write. So I took these papers to my friend,
Paul Schmidt, who did a biography and
translation of Rimbaud. We met at Pro-
vincetown when I was 20 years old. I was
always in awe of him. He had his doctorate in linguistics from Harvard and he
I showed him the papers I had done
and he said, "Goddamn, Chuck, this is
shit. You can't write worth a shit." But he
also said, "What you can do is write fantastic letters." This was about 1972 when
I was working at the post office and my
old lady was going to college. She didn't
like it because I had Sunday off and she
had to study. So I decided I would take
some speed and write—although I don't
usually have anything to do with drugs.
To write, I decided, I had to get rid of
my life; I had to write a book about my life
and then I could go on to what's important. I wrote all day for five Sundays. I
had three novels outlined. We moved to
San Diego and were living on my unemployment. I have myself a raison d'etre
by writing. Then we were invited to this
party, and I saw Paul there for the first
time in a long time. He said for me to send
him what I had. I had about 90-100 pages
about Vietnam so I sent that to him. He
said, "Listen, Chuck, I expected what you
wrote to be funny but I didn't expect
genius"—he uses that word easily.
He said, "You write; I'll edit for you and
find you a publisher." That went on for a
couple of years. He taught me how to
write and he suggested that I use the letter form for the novel. But beyond that it
was all me—including who the letters
would be addressed to. There were eleven
drafts of the book in five and a half
years—and he helped me with two.
Are any of these actual letters you
wrote from Vietnam ?
Only one letter addressed to Chloe and
that was one I sent to my sister. That was
the one about the chopper going down. At
the end of it I couldn't believe I said that,
but I really wrote, "Other than that, not
much is happening."
One draft of the book I did while I was
being a guinea pig for NASA. At the time
I was working for an insurance company
and getting nowhere—then, I saw this ad
in the newspaper saying, "Do you want
to make money lying in bed?" It sounded
pretty good to me. Evidently, the astronauts were losing calcium in their bones
when they went to outer space and NASA
was trying to find some medicines that
would counteract this. For six weeks,
volunteers were allowed to walk around;
then for six weeks we were in bed flat on
our backs. We had our own color TV's and
stereos. They said I was the only one who
had never turned on his TV. I was
How did you find a publisher for the
I finally got a good agent, Anita Dia-
mant, who represented Mandingo books.
She sent it to eight major publishing
houses. This went on for two years, when
it finally reached the desk of Bob Bender,
an editor at William Morrow & Co. I loved
working with him. We argued over only
one or two things. Kurt's prejudice, I felt
was true to the character; Bender felt it
was not necessary.
What about baseball? Were you ever on
a major league farm team ?
I played baseball in junior college but I
What about the sex in Vietnam ? How
much of that is what you really did?
Kurt's me for the most part, but it's like
my girl friend would always say: he's a
lot younger, butcher, braver, smarter and
wittier than you. I mean, it's a novel. My
brother tells me he doesn't think Kurt is
telling the truth in those letters.
What about those bunkers at the airport? I made it several times in them.
I never did. *
(Laughter) And does it really matter if
it's based on fact if it is true in the book ?
What are you working on now ?
It's about Kurt from the cradle to the
cross; there'll be much more about baseball and family and Europe.
And sex. This Kurt has not even begun
to get into some of the stuff I've done.
The interviewer, Perry Deane Young, is the author
of Two Of The Missing, A Reminiscence Of Some
Friends In The War (1975) and co-author of The
David Kopay Story. He was a correspondent with
United Press International in Vietnam in 1968
and returned to the war in late 1972 and early 1973
for the last chapters of his book. He is currently
writing a book for Holt, Rinehart & Winston about
the latest upsurge of right wing politics and religion in America.