From combat to chemo, a tough guy’s memoir

Robert Nylen explores his experiences as a platoon leader in Vietnam, media entrepreneur, and cancer patient. Robert Nylen explores his experiences as a platoon leader in Vietnam, media entrepreneur, and cancer patient. (Katharine Nylen)
By Chuck Leddy
Globe Correspondent / August 1, 2009

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Bob Nylen, who lived in Ashfield and cofounded New England Monthly magazine, died on Dec. 28, 2008, not long after finishing this memoir. In it, Nylen explores the concept of toughness by examining his own experiences as a platoon leader in Vietnam, a hard-driving media entrepreneur, and as someone living with (and ultimately dying of) cancer.

At times, Nylen celebrates the conventional idea of toughness, explaining that Americans “promote toughness with relentless fervor. We prefer gut checks and head butts to nuance.’’ Yet he also challenges the punch-you-in-the-face ideal of manhood promoted by the likes of John Wayne and George W. Bush. For example, Nylen (citing Susan Sontag) rejects the idea that fighting cancer is like fighting a war: “Yet no matter how tough we are - Ms. Sontag was as valiant as we come - the metaphor is flat wrong. . . . We don’t do much beyond nodding yes or no to our next course of treatment.’’

Much of Nylen’s insightful, accessible narrative is devoted to his formative experiences in 1968 as a platoon leader in Vietnam, where he earned two Purple Hearts, saw several of his men killed, and did some killing himself. Nylen viscerally describes his first time under fire, a horrific attack of friendly fire from an American helicopter. A few days later, Nylen’s platoon is ambushed on a ridgetop. Nylen gets hit twice, first by shrapnel then by gunfire as he’s being evacuated by helicopter, yet he’s haunted by the death of a young soldier who volunteered: “He’d run forward, no questions,’’ Nylen writes. “His reward for reflexive gallantry was to be shredded’’ by gunfire.

Nylen emphasizes that his combat experience was nothing like the movies, not unless “the cineplex management shoots metal shards through the air; if people around you scream in panic, pain, and delirium (preferably all three) crying for Mommy, a medic, or euthanasia; if you, yourself, are on fire.’’ Courage is definitely not the absence of fear, Nylen finds: “Fear accumulates as rapidly as a checking account empties after you lose your job. What you do with that fear is what counts.’’

After returning home from the war, Nylen uses the GI Bill to get an MBA from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. Working in media, he learns lessons in gutsiness from a few of his mentors, including a take-no-bull UMass alumnus who punches his Ivy League boss for insulting his “crummy state school sheepskin.’’ Nylen learns fast, soon becoming a tough entrepreneur who faces verbal assaults from potential investors. One prospective magazine investor gets outraged when Nylen’s spreadsheet numbers are incorrect, and Nylen describes the ensuing exchange: “Bad math was one thing, but our plan was clear: We meant to cheat him! My voice quavered. I wheedled, stuttered, and waffled.’’

Nylen made his name with New England Monthly, which published the likes of Tracy Kidder, Annie Proulx, and Jonathan Harr. In 1986, Nylen’s magazine won the prestigious National Magazine Award for General Excellence. Nylen bought a house in Ashfield, where he loved the reticence and endurance of the locals. Nylen closes his memoir with his final struggles against cancer, and he remains tough, lighthearted, and wise to the end: “ ‘Don’t mean nothin’,’ we said in the day, balefully dismissing every inexplicable, terrible, or terrifying thing we’d seen, heard, and done. Don’t mean a thing. We’re dead, you idiots. Have a drink, have a laugh, and get on with it.’’

Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester.

GUTS Combat, Hell-raising, Cancer, Business Start-ups, and Undying Love: One American Guy’s Reckless, Lucky Life By Robert Nylen

Random House, 251 pp., $25

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