Senator Lieberman of Stamford Was Once a Kid

Looking through old photos, I came across this old clipping of a kids magic club from the 1950s. My aunt had saved it for more than 40 years. Originally, she probably thought I was the “star” of the photo. But in later years she realized that one of the kids pictured was a true star, a boy who had grown up to become a US Senator, Joe Lieberman.

There I was, standing next to Joe. Also pictured (standing next to me) is Phil Berger, who became a well-known New York Times sportswriter, an author of numerous books, including Mike Tyson’s biography.



Barefoot Days, Electric Nights-A Memoir of Paradise


Just Launched, “Barefoot Days, Electric Nights,” by David Butwin, is a memoir of his life during Hawaii’s early days as the 50th State.

Butwin arrived in Honolulu to become a reporter at one of the city’s two daily newspapers. As a very young, inexperienced journalist from frigid Minnesota, he began with a scant understanding of the people, places, and nuances of island culture. He soon discovered a land of spectacular beauty, where everyone lived near an ocean shore, and islanders from many different places went everywhere barefoot.

David writes of his Hawaii days, with the clear prose of a seasoned reporter, yet creates an intimate memory of his work, the women he dated, and the prominent celebrities he encountered.

He often draws from an unusual documentation source: reams of detailed letters that he wrote home to his family, saved over many decades.

And for part of this memoir, he draws from an even more unusual resource: Me, (Steve Vachss) writer of this review article. Though we came from different work-worlds, we knew each other back then in Hawaii, as colleagues of a sort, and eventually as friends.

Assigned in Hawaii as an Army writer-editor, I became Butwin’s source for military news and background information. As an Army Reservist, David tells a compelling story about an enormous military exercise called Coral Sands II that involved thousands of soldiers, 13 US Navy warships, and the entire Island of Molokai. For nearly two weeks, David and I occupied a press tent on Molokai and created news stories, interviews, and press releases flown to Honolulu.

We later learned that perpetrators of the famous “My Lai Massacre” were apparently with us at Coral Sands on Molokai. A consequence of the operation later involved us both, especially David, in a blockbuster story that may have affected the history of the Vietnam War. With details never previously disclosed, David explains this incredible story and our involvement.

My other cameo appearance in Barefoot Days, Electric nights, deals with an incident of street violence that Butwin calls “my night of terror.” It’s a story we both would prefer to forget but which has lived in each of us forever after.

Notwithstanding my personal connection, I enjoyed “Barefoot Days, Electric Nights,” and highly recommend it. It’s beautifully written in a style that brings the reader face-to-face with a place and a lifestyle that no longer exists. A memoir of paradise.

Why Did I Write a Story About Stamford?

Why Did I Write a Story About Stamford?

Writing a story that takes place in my hometown of Stamford, CT, was a labor-of-love. Here’s why.

Several decades ago, I boarded a New Haven Railroad train at the Stamford Railroad Station and headed to a new life. Though born and raised in Stamford, I believed that I would never return. The train would carry me to a US Army induction center, courtesy of our local draft board, so it was possible that I would end my life early, fighting in Vietnam.

ClicktoAmazonHaving just graduated from college, believing I knew everything I needed to know, I dismissed all thoughts of an early end as a fallen soldier. I believed, however, that I was leaving the small world of my hometown and entering a much bigger, grander world.

Amazingly my optimistic beliefs turned out to be right. The Army chose me to attend the Defense Department journalism school, launching me to serve as a military reporter-editor in Hawaii for the next two years. After I had become a civilian again, I was lucky enough to have assignments throughout the US as well as European and Asian countries.

As forecasted, I had left Stamford forever, only returning for an occasional family visit. But what I hadn’t expected was that STAMFORD NEVER LEFT ME. My hometown years became a kind of mental measuring stick, against which I would compare everything new such as people, work, and play.

Raising a family with two kids of the cell phone and social media generation, Stamford memories became more vivid. Despite the apparent advantages of today’s video games, hi-def TV, and endless entertainment, I realized that Stamford had offered a much richer childhood. And my education in Stamford schools had prepared me better than the most highly rated schools that my kids attended.

Discovering the Facebook group, “If You’re Really from Stamford You’d Know,” I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the pictures and posts from many people I remembered. The group page has made many memories even brighter.

Nevertheless, there are some things a social media group can’t express. For example, it can’t recreate the lives of Stamford kids from my generation. Random comments and pictures can’t explain the way we talked to each other. It can’t recreate the dating rituals or teen romances. It can’t explain how we dealt with a host of adolescent challenges.

For these elements of Stamford life, I needed to write a book. “It Happened in Stamford” was the easiest book I have ever written. It required minimal research since much of it came from real-life memories. I even had a ready-made plot, based on a series of things that I knew.

I began with a copy of the SHS Yearbook for my graduating year. From there I had a cast of characters that I knew. Some had been close friends, while others were classmates or the SHS kids that everyone seemed to know about. They were a diverse group, including a variety of ethnic, religious, and racial groups of both genders.

From there, the story almost wrote itself. Once published, the book began to sell well. But the best part was receiving messages from people I hadn’t seen in a veritable lifetime. We had all experienced unpredictable lives that had brought us to dozens of places we had never known. Yet a little bit of our hearts will always remain in Stamford.

Update: It Happened in Stamford


Having finished more than half of this book, I’m thoroughly enjoying  writing it. Dredging up people and events I hadn’t thought of in decades has been an entertaining ride. Though the people I remember will have different names in this story, bringing them back to life as kids or teenagers in Stamford is a fascinating mental process.  All in all, imagining a story that fits my Stamford past has been great fun. I hope to publish the finished product by December 1.


Should I Write This Book?

I need YOUR opinion, especially if you are from Stamford or a book lover.

Though I’ve been fairly successful in publishing two novels, I am considering writing a different kind of story, a novel or a novelette (shorter version) based on a true story that began when I was a young teenager, in my hometown of Stamford, CT. This novel would be a “coming of age” story with central characters based on my best friend of that time and me, as well as a mystery.

Back in those Cold War days, many Americans were worried about “Communists among us.” My friend—I’ll call him Jon—and I shared a real world confrontation with some potentially bad people. We kept the incident secret and never told the story to anyone. Nevertheless, It followed us into our adult lives with profound consequences.

The book I’m considering would also include  characters based on our friends, and real places in and around downtown Stamford of the 1960s, offering memories of a simpler time.

The picture following this post is a simple mockup of a cover for this yet unwritten story. I put the cover together to provide a feel for the book.

My questions to you: Would people from Stamford be interested in this kind of story? I’m not looking for a commitment to buy the book. But at this point, I need to know whether it would capture your interest. If you think it’s a weak idea, please let me know that as well. If you have any other advice, I’d love to read your comments here, or in a private Facebook message.


What Should the President Call our Enemies?

What Should the President Call our Enemies?

The provocative “Radical Islamists” discussion has reached a boiling point. It is a debate that should be a non-partisan conversation but has instead become a political food fight.

Sensitive to criticism, President Obama angrily denounced Republican charges that he’s afraid to use the term “Radical Islamist” to describe attackers in tragedies like the Orlando killings at Pulse Nightclub. He scolded, “ We can’t get ISIL unless we call them ‘radical Islamists?’ What exactly would using this label accomplish? It’s just a political talking point.”

Republicans vigorously responded that the President can’t win a war if he can’t name and define the enemy.

barackobamaThis question should not be a one-sided rant, except to say that neither side is right and that neither side truly understands the importance of precise wording. Unfortunately, most politicians achieved their positions as lawyers and orators, without understanding how to execute strategies with large, complex organizations. If these leaders had consulted an expert in organizational science, they would know the importance of clear, precise words at the top level.

The President’s wording must serve as the precursor to developing goals, strategies, and tactical execution. Naming hs enemy in clear terms will ultimately become a compass that directs his subordinates. For example, the phrase “War on Islam” would be inappropriate because it would suggest deploying assets, against Mecca and Medina, instead of the armies of ISIS, the Taliban, Al-Queda, or Boko Haran. Obviously, that’s an extreme example, but it illustrates how much wording matters. It ultimately filters down to every level of execution, such as recruitment, methods, training, equipment, and organizations. It applies equally to the management of military branches, the FBI, NSA, CIA, and Homeland Security.

The Republican insistence on “radical Islam,” radical Islamists,” etc. isn’t helpful either. From 2001 to 2008, the Bush Administration chose the term “Global War on Terror.” The war has morphed to include new objectives so the old name would be obsolete today. Moreover, It was only helpful during those years because it clearly established that we are at war. But how do we mount a war against ‘terror’ a word that only indicates personal fears?

FullFinalThe President must acknowledge that we are fighting an asymmetrical war. It has different kinds of attacks of varying sizes and character in a variety of locations. In the US, we are fighting a war of detect-prevent-and-arrest, similar to a widespread crime wave. It is a war, however, with all attacks interconnected by an ideology that compels killing civilians according to an interpretation of a religious doctrine. Separate organizations embrace that doctrine but execute in different ways, in different geographies, with different attack methods.

Most politicians agree that we are at war, though there has been no declaration of war requested by the President, nor has Congress formally supported a war declaration.
Nevertheless, we must use the word ‘war’ in our description.

If we identify our enemy simply as ‘ISIS,’ we will narrow the focus to eliminate other organizations we must confront. Though the controlling ideology is present in part of the Quran (known to scholars as the Sword Verse) we are not at war with all followers of the Quran. We are only at war with those segments that have declared war on America, or our allies in Europe and the Middle East. We might consider the following terms, based on their definitions:

Fundamentalist: A religious movement characterized by a strict belief in the literal interpretation of religious texts.

Islamist: A supporter or advocate of Islamic fundamentalism.

Jihad: A holy war undertaken as a sacred duty by Muslims.

Jihadism: An Islamic fundamentalist movement that favors the pursuit of jihads to defend the Islamic faith.

Militant: Vigorously active and aggressive, especially in support of a cause.

Based on these choices, the President could refer to our conflict as, “A War on Militant Jihadism.” This choice sharpens the target and includes all of our enemies without offending the peaceful followers of Islam.

There may be better names, but we should eliminate “fundamentalist,” because it could ambiguously apply to other religions We can also eliminate “Islamist” since a person might be philosophically an Islamist, though not involved in fighting or killing.

Regardless of the exact name chosen, it must be understandable by the organizations that execute it, and accepted across the full political spectrum.

Happy Birthday Harriet


Today, June 2, is the birthday of my late sister Harriet Vachss Harris.

I dedicated my second novel, The Terrorist Who Wasn’t, to her. However my earlier book, The Victory That Wasn’t, was our real collaboration. As the book’s editor, Harriet performed all of the tasks that are so important in bringing a final product to publication. And more. Much, much more.

CoverImage-forPromo112115The Victory That Wasn’t is an alternate history based on real events in the Vietnam War years. It’s also a story with a central character based on my Army days in Hawaii and a few years beyond them. As my older sister, Harriet had known me for my entire life. We had always been in touch, but, of course, there are some things we seldom tell our sisters.

Our editor-author dialog was often about more than the book itself. We exchanged long emails every day and reminisced about the news stories of that time. Because my Army job as a journalist provided information that had never been published, I was able to tell her about things that happened in Vietnam, and Hawaii, that fascinated her.

And, of course, she quizzed me about the personal stuff. She recognized some of the characters, even though I had altered them from their real world personas. “I know who Jennifer was,” she might say. “But who was Katy?” “And what does that character’s name mean. I can tell that it’s a code for something.”

Finishing a book with so many historical details was a lot of work, mixed with a lot of laughs, and possibly a few gasps from Harriet. All in all, a great experience.