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Memoir recounts how Robert Timberg rebuilt his life after being disfigured by land-mine blast in Vietnam

In "Blue-Eyed Boy," former Baltimore Sun reporter Robert Timberg discusses the Jan. 18, 1967, land mine explosion and fire that disfigured him, and his subsequent struggles.
In "Blue-Eyed Boy," former Baltimore Sun reporter Robert Timberg discusses the Jan. 18, 1967, land mine explosion and fire that disfigured him, and his subsequent struggles. (Joshua McKerrow, Baltimore Sun Media Group)

The photos of author Robert Timberg in recent years aren't as horrifying as his memoir leads readers to expect.

His eyes are direct and unflinching, and his mouth expresses wry amusement. He has the kind of wrinkles normally found on a 74-year-old man and a patch of skin across his nose that at a casual glance appears sunburned.

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There's nothing about Timberg's appearance now that could be described as freakish, nothing that would cause young children to howl in fright.

It's taken Timberg more than 35 operations — including one without anesthesia — and 47 years to achieve that face, and he's still not entirely reconciled to it. There are moments even now when he looks in the mirror and is first startled, then furious. He'd subconsciously been expecting to see an older version of the handsome Marine lieutenant he was on Jan. 18, 1967, before he was injured in a land mine explosion in Vietnam, instead of this lumpy and scarred stranger.

In his new memoir, "Blue-Eyed Boy," Timberg writes that after one of those disorienting moments, he shouted at his reflection:

"Enough already! I've been this way since 1967. … The joke's over. It's not funny anymore."

The memoir, which Timberg will discuss Sept. 23 at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, goes into excruciating detail about the explosion, those 35 operations, and the depression he sank into. When his face was its worst, he had only one visible eyeball. His nostrils flared outward like a horse's, and his mouth was so distorted by scar tissue that the opening was no larger than a cigar.

"By any measure," Timberg writes, "I looked like a monster."

But more than that, this book is about Timberg's greatest achievement — how he gradually and painfully created a life for himself of ordinary triumphs and failures. The author has wedded, and divorced, twice and blames himself for the demise of both marriages. He raised four children. He had a long and distinguished career for more than three decades as a reporter for The Baltimore Sun, much of it spent as a Washington correspondent. He has written four well-received books, including an analysis of the Iran-Contra Affair, and a biography of U.S. Sen. John McCain, who faced his own Vietnam ordeal when he endured more than five years as a prisoner of war.

"My great hope," Timberg says over the phone from his home in Annapolis, "was that the story of how I dealt with serious wounds and years of surgery would show that with some courage and some luck, those who have paid for their military service with their arms and legs and skin could regain some of what they'd lost."

Timberg was the only son and the eldest of three children of two performers on the vaudeville circuit. Though he describes his parents as "good people, and talented ones" his childhood was chaotic. After graduating from high school, he enrolled in the U.S. Naval Academy, partly because he found the structure of military life comforting, partly because he welcomed the challenge of proving his courage and stamina, and partly because he responded on an emotional level to the call to serve his country.

He was shipped to Southeast Asia in 1966 and served for more than 12 mostly uneventful months. Then, just 13 days before he was due to be sent home, his schedule was changed at the last minute and he found himself riding to Bravo Company's 2nd Platoon to deliver the soldiers' pay certificates.

The memoir recounts not only what happened next, but why the young lieutenant was so badly hurt. Timberg's infantry unit didn't have any of the armored personnel carriers designed to carry troops by land. Instead, the military brass pressed into service a deeply flawed substitute — a vehicle designed for water transport that carried 450 gallons of gasoline. When the vehicle moved through water, the gasoline wasn't in danger of igniting. On land, though, it was another story. The detonating mine touched off an inferno.

Timberg acknowledges that his injuries might have been less serious had he been riding in the proper kind of carrier. But he expresses no anger at either the Viet Cong or at U.S. military officials.

The author is similarly circumspect when recounting the near-criminal manner in which the military mishandled communications with Timberg's family.

Janey Timberg, the author's first wife, received a telegram incorrectly informing her that her husband had been injured and suffered second-degree burns — and then heard not a single word for the next two weeks. Later, she was told — inaccurately but terrifyingly — that her husband had been missing for two weeks and that the Marines were trying to find him.

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Timberg's mother learned the extent of her son's wounds only by accident, after she attended a Mass during which the priest described Timberg's injuries in graphic detail.

"I didn't then and I don't now feel any anger," Timberg says. "I realized early on that thinking about how things could have been different could cause me problems when I was trying to put my life back together."

During the early stages of his recovery, he dreaded chance contacts with strangers because they couldn't always disguise their shock at his appearance. It's a mark of his determination to overcome his demons that he chose a career — journalism — that required him to approach people he didn't know on a regular basis with a notebook in hand and start asking questions.

In the book, he describes one such encounter that occurred relatively late in his career, after he buttonholed a Washington insider one day on the street. A homeless woman approached the pair, then began screaming, "Look at his face! Look at his face! Look at his face! Look at his face!"

Not surprisingly, Timberg has complicated feelings about the members of his generation who dodged the draft. As he puts it:

"What happened during the Vietnam War — where some went and some didn't — injected a sourness to American society that's reflected in many of the political issues we have now.

"In my book another veteran says: 'There's a wall 10 miles high and 50 miles thick between those of us who went and those who didn't, and that wall is never going to come down.' "

Gradually, Timberg grew into his reconstructed face. It's not just that his new skin stretched and softened. But he also began to realize that there are things he has accomplished, things he knows about himself now, that he never would have achieved had his life unfolded differently.

"Looking back," he says, "There are things I've done in my life that I'm proud of and things I've done that I'm not terribly proud of. But land mine or no land mine, the life I've had is pretty much authentically mine."

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About the book

"Blue-Eyed Boy" is published by Penguin Books. 394 pages, $27.95.

If you go

Author Robert Timberg will read from his memoir at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 23 at the central Enoch Pratt Free Library, 400 Cathedral St. Free. Call 410-396-5430 or go to prattlibrary.org.

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