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SNAPSHOTS

12-year-old writer dedicates his novel to those who served in Vietnam.

September 29, 1988|SIOK-HIAN TAY KELLEY | Times Staff Writer

Joseph (B. J.) Todd's brown eyes light up as he explains the symbols on a cloth patch picked from the mound of Vietnam memorabilia on his bed.

Pointing to an embroidered skull with a green beret, the 12-year-old from Glendora says it was the emblem of "Military Assistance Command, Vietnam's Studies and Observation Group."

A model of a gunship hangs above the seventh-grader's dresser. On the wall, a poster of a bowed head silhouetted against barbed wire reflects his latest fascination.

"POW-MIA, YOU ARE NOT FORGOTTEN," the poster declares.

B. J. had not been born when the Vietnam War ended in 1975, but the war has become his passion.

For the past six months, he has been writing a novel in a now-worn spiral notebook that he takes on family outings and to school.

Already on page 40, he is aiming for a 200-page book on the exploits of a U.S. Army Ranger team in Vietnam. The elite unit is led by a Sgt. Thomas Mountain, who, like B. J., is proud of his Sioux heritage.

"I wanted to create an Indian hero because nobody recognizes them except as bad types that take scalps," he said.

The Royal Oaks Intermediate School student is dedicating the work to all those who served in Vietnam and especially the thousands "who didn't come home."

The cold reception many veterans received on returning to the United States makes B. J. angry. "If you just came home from risking your life to stop communism in some country you don't even hardly know the language of, and people spit in your face and call you baby-killer . . . that would make me feel like trash," he said, hardly pausing for breath. "I have tons of respect for them."

B. J. studies videotapes about the war, devours magazines such as Vietnam Combat and reads about a book a week to glean ideas. The young author has contacted the Veterans Administration and visited recruiting stations seeking information as well as veterans to interview.

"I just want (the story) to be as realistic in the veterans' eyes as possible," said B. J., who in May wrote to President Reagan urging more action in the search for MIAs.

Filled with war tales from his paternal grandfather, a decorated soldier in World War II and a Santee Sioux, B. J. yearned to study warfare at an early age.

"Right after I knew how to read I wanted to learn what Grandpa was talking about," he said. His interest expanded to other wars and "by the end of fourth grade I was really into (Vietnam)."

Richard Todd, B. J.'s 45-year-old father, believes his son's interest in Vietnam was piqued by documentaries on the approximately 1,760 soldiers missing in action. A troubled B. J. didn't "understand why we didn't just go get them . . . why we were not doing something about it."

The elder Todd said his son's fascination with war and weaponry "certainly wasn't because of me." An administrator at a Covina psychiatric clinic, he has never fired a gun.

"I've sort of always been called a peacemaker and B. J.'s the opposite of that--he's a (relatively) aggressive young man."

As a college student, the elder Todd advocated ending the Vietnam War, signing petitions opposing the use of Agent Orange and calling for the abolition of the draft.

Writing seems to come naturally to B. J.

Since he was 6, B. J. has been putting his feelings onto paper whenever he had difficulty communicating with his parents.

His contact with the military also began at an early age. When B. J. was 9, he was an altar boy at the Marine Corps Air Station in Tustin, where his father was a civilian choir master.

B. J. liberally sprinkles military jargon throughout his action-packed narrative. There is this brief jungle encounter with the enemy, for instance:

"I smell fish-heads!" whispered Simpson. Just then twigs snapped; leaves crackled. The team stopped, turned, and aimed. The first thing they saw was a little leg in black pajamas.

"Sgt. Mountain looked at the startled NVA soldier and whispered, 'ssshhh,' as he squeezed the trigger, and the man flew back."

Although he expects his readers to be familiar with the terms, "I'm going to put a glossary at the back of the book." He said that "fish-head" refers to North Vietnamese soldiers because they ate whole fish. Black pajamas were commonly worn by the Viet Cong.

The reader follows the graphically described trials of the Ranger team on a secret search and destroy mission, B. J. said. The action takes place in southern Laos and northern Cambodia in the summer of 1969.

Team leader Mountain bears the scars of the sun dance, an Indian ritual that involves piercing the chest with slivers of bone.

Leather straps are tied to the bones and connected to a pole. "Then you run backwards and rip your skin," B. J. said.

He has resolved to perform the sun dance when he turns 16, because "it's important to keep my culture."

"He scared me when he said that, but basically it's up to him," said his mother Margie Todd, who said she sees him as an adult in a child's body. "He's made all his decisions."

Born in Arizona, B. J. became more interested in his Native American culture when he tagged along with his mother to college on the Navajo reservation.

"We would go to the cafeteria and B. J. would talk up a storm with" her Indian classmates, recalled Margie Todd, 38, now pursuing a master's degree in psychology at Azusa Pacific University.

A National Rifle Assn. junior member, B. J. dreams of becoming a sniper with the U.S. Army Rangers after acquiring a degree in law enforcement.

Then if he doesn't become President or join the CIA, "I'd be a mercenary, (but only) would kill for freedom or protecting people that need help."

That is one dream his father hopes doesn't come true.

"We're hoping he'll find out he can influence a whole lot more people with a book than a bullet."

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