By Derrick Perkins
Local author Stephen Hayes’ first novel isn’t strictly a Vietnam War story, but the tale is born from his time serving on a swift boat a continent away more than 40 years ago.
In April 1969, Hayes was preparing for a six-boat operation along with his close friend and fellow swift boat commander Don Droz. But Hayes’ boat was shot just days before departure.
A few of his crew suffered injuries and the boat needed repairs, Hayes recalled, so he sat out the operation. And while Hayes waited for his ship to get patched up, Droz was killed in action.
“At one level, that’s just what happens in war,” Hayes said. “But at the same time I’ve always felt very badly that I wasn’t there and wasn’t there with him and wasn’t part of that.”
His loss served as the inspiration for a short story Hayes penned after the war, which — years later — grew into “Light on Dark Water.” Writing about the attack became therapeutic, he said.
“A part of what … I wrestle with both in terms of my own memories and in terms of the novel is the issue of survivors’ guilt,” Hayes said. “Why did my friend Don die and not me? And it’s a very common phenomenon among men and increasingly women who are in combat. … [In] one sense you can argue it’s just a roll of the dice, but clearly there is emotional pain involved when you go through that and you lose a friend.”
While Hayes’ novel deals with his war experience, the plot revolves around four men sailing a sloop from the Chesapeake Bay to the Bahamas and the storm — philosophical and physical — they endure en route. It’s a subject, like leading a swift boat in Vietnam, Hayes knows well. A lifelong sailor, he’s made the Atlantic voyage himself.
As much as it involves the Vietnam War, “Light on Dark Water” is much more than a war story, said his wife, Barbara.
“The men on the boat encounter some very difficult times, and the very best of human nature comes out through [those difficulties],” she said. “And it sort of is a counter play to some of the worst things that happened in Vietnam. But it’s also a story about the nature of God and about what are we doing here; how do we serve each other as comrades on this earth, as compatriots on this earth.”
Hayes jokes the book is 43 years in the making. While he’s kicked the idea around in his head for years, he waited until retirement to find the time to pen a rough draft.
After returning from the war, Hayes spent a short stint on the Hill working for a U.S. senator before settling into a career working on international projects for various agencies. Along the way he married Barbara and raised two children, who are both full-grown.
But he never forgot his time in Vietnam or his friend Don.
“It’s basically a sailing story at one level, but it’s really about an emotional return to war. The way I got started was really just to look back into my own memories,” he said. “It’s something that I’ve carried with me since I got back from Vietnam, which was at the end of 1969.”