Awards Judge: Hotel Constellation A ‘Fascinating Memoir’

Writer’s Digest informed me that my Viet-Nam era memoir, Hotel Constellation: America’s Secret War in Laos, missed the top prize for memoirs in its 2018 self-published book awards.

But it did give me a heckuva good writeup as a consolation prize. The judge called it “a fascinating memoir written by a seasoned writer.

Hotel Constellation got a 5 — the highest rating on a scale of 0-5 — on five of the six criteria judged. It stumbled on “Plot and Story Appeal,” which I grant is a really important factor. It rated a 4 out of 5.

Here is what a judge of the 25th Annual Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards wrote: (This is the complete review, unedited except to correct the spelling of the name, Branfman.)

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Hotel Constellation opens with a good self-description of a stubborn young man absolutely bent on going to Vietnam, obsessed with entering the country and studying for a year at the Buddhist University in Saigon. He arrives in September of 1970. The level of danger involved in his enterprise, for which he has prepared for an entire year, can be seen in his father’s taking out a $5,000 life insurance policy on his own son. Mr. Haase Sr. knew he would not be able to afford to ship his son’s cadaver back should anything go wrong. Wrong, in fact, was how things went from the first moment Haase disembarked from the plane. He ended up being shipped off to Bangkok, from which place he worked on finding a way back in to Vietnam. I really felt for the author’s frustrations in Laos. The story about Branfman forced departure from Laos is interesting, especially when the reader considers it might have been engineered by the U.S. Embassy. The author explains a great deal about the Meo people. He also shows that he had a most original life in Laos. It is ironic, however, that he felt things were happening everywhere except where he was. I like the pictures: they bring a nitty gritty ethos to the memoir, none more convincingly than the shot of the author interviewing Jane Fonda on the tarmac of Wattay Airport in July of 1972. I liked the reasons the narrator gives for his going to Vietnam—to prove to his father that he was “not a coward, not afraid to face war just because [he] opposed this one” (251). This is a fascinating memoir written by a seasoned writer who shows that our ideals at 20 influence choices that impact us for a lifetime and may, as in the case of Haase, give us rare perspective.

Thanks to Writers Digest and congratulations to all of the self-published winners.


Hotel Constellation is available in ebook and paperback formats.

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Inquiring Minds (Pilatus Porter) – Mark of the Spider

Pilatus Porter.

Nope. Not the prefect of Judea from the New Testament.

It’s an airplane. One I’ve actually flown in, and one that nature photographer Sebastian Arnett ventures forth in my new book, The Mark of the Spider.

I flew in the Porter back during the Viet-Nam War. Back then, it was a favorite short takeoff and landing (STOL) aircraft for the CIA throughout Indochina — as was the snub-nosed Helio Courier.

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Pilatus Porter in Laos, ca. 1970. Photo: Dr. B.R. Lang, Wikimedia Commons.

In Laos, where I spent most of my time in Southeast Asia, the Porter’s missions included “paradropping supplies to troops, passenger transport, psy ops, reconnaissance, prisoner conveyance, airborne radio relay, and other intelligence operations.”

The Porter has a wide wingspan compared to the length of its fuselage (52 feet vs. 36 feet), a distinctive long nose, and a powerful reversible engine that allowed it to land in three airplane lengths (about 110 feet), or two-thirds of the width of a football field. Takeoff required slightly more.

It was quite uncomfortable to fly in as a back seat passenger, quite exciting and far too much like flying in nothing at all, as in there’s nothing under me — or free fall.

And, as Sebastian discovered in The Mark of the Spider, the plane could glide long distances without its engine on.


You can read all about Sebastian’s adventures in trade press print and ebook formats, only from Amazon.

Where Life-Changing Decisions Are Made

Recently, while zipping west on I-70, I detoured south on U.S. 68 and dropped in on my alma mater, Antioch College, for the first time in more decades than I care to say.

It got me to thinking, as these things will, about life-changing decisions, how we make them and even where we make them. (It’s not like there’s one place that everyone goes, sits down and says, Let’s change the life a bit.)

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Ye Olde Trail Tavern, Yellow Springs, Ohio, where life-changing decisions are made.

As I strolled through beautiful downtown Yellow Springs, Ohio (pop. 3,487), I spied Ye Olde Trail Tavern, a place I might have frequented with my favorite professor in my misspent youth. (Any youth that is not misspent is wasted.)

What a change from the last time I saw it, back in the early 1980s. It had a neon sign!

It was here, in 1969, that I decided I go to Viet Nam, albeit not in the U.S. military.

I explained it this way on page 38 of my memoir, HOTEL CONSTELLATION: Notes from America’s Secret War in Laos:

When I started talking about dropping out because the education I chose was not matching the financial sacrifices my family and I were making, Dan came up with a truly radical idea: I should go to Viet Nam to study for a year under the Antioch Education Abroad (AEA) program.

I don’t remember exactly when he presented it as an option. Well, you could do another co-op term, or you could go to Viet Nam, he probably said. Hey, there’s an idea, Dan. I think I’ll go to Viet Nam. I hear it’s quite the spot.

We might have been sitting in a booth at the Olde Trail Tavern, a dive on the main drag through Yellow Springs. Dan and I downed a few pitchers of beer there, he holding court for me, the avid acolyte.

AEA sent a lot of kids to foreign countries, mostly in Europe, a few to South America, and even fewer to places like Kenya, Nigeria, and India. Going to Viet Nam was an intriguing idea, straight out of the “put up or shut up” school of decision making. We noodled over what it would take and how it would work. Paula Spier, a middle-aged, motherly member of the AEA staff, bought into it.

And in August 1970, I flew off for two of the most intriguing years of my life.

It’s all in HOTEL CONSTELLATION, and copies still available from Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Scribd, Smashwords and other fine booksellers.

It might even explain how I came to write my new book, The Mark of the Spider, but probably not.