Thursday, October 23, 2014

Incense and Peppermints

Today's special guest is Carole Bellacera, the author of eight novels of women’s fiction.  Her first novel, "Border Crossings", a hardcover published by Forge Books in May of 1999, was a 2000 RITA Award nominee for Best Romantic Suspense and Best First Book, a nominee for the 2000 Virginia Literary Award in Fiction. It was also a 2000 finalist in the Golden Quill award and in the Aspen Gold Award and won 1st Place in the Volusia County 2000 Laurel Wreath Award.  Her short fiction and non-fiction has appeared in magazines such as Woman's World, The Star, Endless Vacation and The Washington Post. In addition, her work has appeared in various anthologies such as Kay Allenbaugh's Chocolate for a Woman's Heart, Chocolate for a Couples' Heart and Chicken Soup for Couples.

Publishing Credits

Border Crossings – Forge Books, May 1999, Reissue December 2011
Spotlight – Forge Books, April 2000, Reissue July 2012
East of the Sun, West of the Moon – Forge Books, July 2001
Understudy – Forge Books, June 2003
Chocolate on a Stick – Baycrest Books, Sept 2005
Tango’s Edge – CreateSpace, September 2011
Lily of the Springs – CreateSpace, March 2012
Incense & Peppermints – CreateSpace, May 2014


On a snowy February day in 2011, 62-year-old Cindy Sweet receives a Facebook message from a dead man—Warrant Officer Ryan Quinlan who supposedly died in Vietnam forty years earlier.  He’d been Cindy’s fiancé before an RPG took out his “dust-off” chopper, killing all aboard.  Cindy, a young combat nurse at the 24th Evacuation Hospital at Long Binh, devastated by her loss, but with no other choice, serves out her year in Vietnam—and even finds love again. 

INCENSE & PEPPERMINTS is a novel about patriotism, loyalty, enduring love, unimaginable courage and devastating loss.  It’s the story of one woman’s year in a war zone during the most unpopular war in U.S. history. 

"With intelligent and absorbing writing, Carole Bellacera places a courageous and inspiring young woman at the intense and dangerous center of the Vietnam War. Bellacera's account of the seventies is heartfelt and real, yet her moving story of love, loss and healing is timeless." 
--Diane Chamberlain, best-selling author of Necessary Lies

Carole Bellacera's Incense and Peppermints skillfully transports the readers back to the turbulent seventies, and the heartbreak and passions of war, as seen through the eyes of a nurse serving in Vietnam. I couldn't put down Incense and Peppermints.” -- Cindy Myers, Author of The View From Here.

Guest Blog by Carole Bellacera

I don’t think I’ve ever been so terrified and intimidated in my life as I was while I was researching this book.  For two years, I read every book I could find about women in Vietnam—and about the Vietnam War itself (The Vietnam War for Dummies was one of my favorites.)  I watched a documentary about the combat nurses who served so bravely there—Vietnam Nurses with Dana Delany, and I watched every movie I could find about the Vietnam War, including the entire series of Tour of Duty.  The more I read and watched, the more terrified and inadequate I felt.  How could I…a former medical technician in the Air Force, who served during the Vietnam War…but who didn’t know the slightest thing about serving during combat…how could I write this book?  What gave me the right to write this book?  Could I do justice to it, and be able to honor all the women who served there? 

I just knew I had to try. I felt directed to write this novel…God, the Universal Spirit, Mother Goddess…whatever, I knew I had to do it. 

The inspiration first came from a photograph—the one of the marine on the lower left corner of the cover.  This boy had been my pen-pal in high school.  I came across this torn photo of him one day while I was reorganizing my photo albums.  Honestly, I didn’t remember much about him. I knew his name was Danny and he was from Indiana. My best friend, Susie, had given me his address and told me he was going to Vietnam and would I write him?  (I seem to recall he was a cousin or related to her family somehow.)  I was a flighty sixteen-year-old, and madly in love with a senior named Gary Baldauf.  And perhaps the only reason I even agreed to write Danny was because he bore a remarkable resemblance to Gary. Of course, I knew there was a war going on somewhere in southeast Asia.  (I’m not even sure, though, I knew Vietnam was in southeast Asia.)  But the war hadn’t affected me.  Oh, in the back of my mind, I guess I worried that Gary might be drafted and get sent there, but the chance was small.  After all, he was heading off to college at Purdue. 

So that’s how I began writing chatty, scatter-brained letters to this “older man” who looked like my high school crush.  I’m sure my letters were filled with all kinds of gems like how much I loved Mark Lindsay of Paul Revere and the Raiders, and how cute my new white go-go boots were, and how groovy I looked after drawing Twiggy eyelashes around my eyes and dotting freckles on my cheeks with eyeliner—following the how-to instructions in Teen Magazine. 

Danny replied to my letters, and even sent me the photo of himself taken in Vietnam, but I can’t tell you what he said.  I have absolutely no memory of anything he wrote.  When I think back on it, I believe I received only one or two letters.  When they stopped coming, I didn’t think about it; I doubt if I even noticed or wondered.  After all, I was 16…going to basketball games, and dances, and pep rallies.  It didn’t even occur to me to worry about Danny and what may have happened to him.  It was only after I found his photo a few years ago that it hit me.  What had  happened to him?  And how could I find out?  I didn’t even remember his last name. 

I turned the photo over and saw that half of it had been torn away.  I knew he’d sent it to me like that because there hadn’t been another person in the picture.  Only half of the inscription on the back was visible.

ny Bruce
Nam ‘69

Danny Bruce.  That had to be his name.  So I got online and did a web search. When a page popped up on my screen, my stomach dipped, and I could feel the blood draining from my face.  It was a website about the Vietnam Memorial Wall, and his name was on it. 

While participating in combat on March 1, 1969, Danny was killed in saving the lives of three fellow Marines, and was awarded the Medal of Honor post-humously. He had been in Vietnam for a little over a month before he was killed.  And me?  I was busy partying, having sleepovers, eating burgers at the Dog ‘N Suds, and just going about my happy teenage life.  I know…I was just doing what any teenager would be doing.  But Danny had been a teenager, too.  He was 18 when he died. 

This is why I was driven to write this book—to honor Danny, and the courageous nurses who saved thousands of “Dannys.”  I hope I’ve done them the honor they so deserve. 


Coughing from the thick, black smoke roiling over her, Cindy sat up.  The explosion seemed to have come from beyond the hospital.  Somewhere past the morgue.  A mortar attack?  Her stomach dropped to her toes.  The chemical dump.  Where the Army buried toxic materials.  Jesus!  What am I breathing? 
            Covering her mouth and nose with her shirt, she scrambled to her feet.  Panicked, people were emerging from the buildings.  The post siren moaned out a warning—too late.  Unless there was more coming. That thought sent her heart hammering. 
            Attention, all personnel! Red alert, red alert!” crackled the loudspeaker.  The post is under attack! Take cover immediately!  Condition Red Alert!”
            Keeping her mouth and nose covered, she ran toward Ward 2.  They’d be going crazy in there, trying to get the patients to a place of safety—if there was one.  No way would they be able to get everyone out and into the emergency bunkers. Impossible to evacuate the entire hospital! 
            Just as she reached the door of the ward, a gunshot split the air. Someone in the quadrangle shrieked.  And then more cries of horror and panic.  Cindy whirled around and saw a form clad in fatigues sprawled on the grass.  Even from a distance, Cindy could see the red bloom on the soldier’s shirt.  More shots rang out.  Everyone in the quad ran for cover.  Cindy bolted toward the injured soldier. 
Behind her, she heard the horrified shouts of the staff on Ward 2.  Rosalie, she thought, and one of the corpsmen.  “Cindy!  No!”
She ignored them and ran toward the fallen GI.  More shots rang out.  She flinched but kept going.  Reached him just as another shot rang out followed by whoops of victory.  She glanced up at the water tower in time to see a figure topple off with a scream.  Wincing, she turned back to the soldier on the ground.  The blood on his back had spread to the size of a football.  Her heart dropped as she turned him over.  It wasn’t a he, but a she, a FNG nurse who worked with Jenny on Ward 5.  Cindy had just met her at the O Club only a few days ago.  She’d been shot just inside the covered walkway, probably had been on her way either to or from the nurse’s quarters. 
            “I’m sorry,” Cindy murmured, her eyes blurring with tears.  Gently, she closed the young woman’s staring brown eyes.  The bullet had gone straight through her heart; death had been instantaneous. 
            Cindy stood and looked around for other wounded, but didn’t see any.  Marines ran with cocked weapons toward the water tower.  A bitter taste rose in Cindy’s mouth, and she hoped with all her heart the sniper had died—in agony. 
            Remembering they were still under a red alert, and she would be needed in the ward, she loped back across the quad.  When she burst into the ward, she saw Rosalie and the two on-duty corpsmen wearing flak jackets and helmets, grabbing mattresses from extra beds and covering patients.  The instructions about red alerts clicked into her mind, and she donned her helmet and flak jacket and joined them in dragging mattresses from the few empty beds.  Not enough for all the patients, but like in triage, they’d save the ones who were in the best condition, the most likely to survive.  She hated playing God like this, but what choice did she have?
            Still, without thinking too much about it, she headed straight for Pfc. Patrick Cummings, clumsily dragging the mattress.  She’d be damned if she’d let him die like this, not after all he’d been through.  But just as she started to place the mattress on top of him, the sirens outside stopped abruptly.
            “Attention, all personnel,” rang out the voice on the loudspeaker.  All clear! Red alert is canceled!”
            Cindy froze, watching as Rosalie and the corpsmen matter-of-factly slipped out of their flak jackets and helmets, and then began to remove the mattresses from the patients.  “Just like that?” she said.  “I saw they got the sniper, but what about the explosion?  And how do they know it’s over?”
            One of the corpsmen, Sgt. Randall Stevenson, a short-timer due to ship out the end of the month, shrugged.  “Probably caught the sapper.”
            Rosalie moved past Cindy, tugging a mattress back onto an empty bed.  She seemed calm, composed.  Cindy couldn’t believe it.  “Excuse my ignorance, but what’s a sapper?” she asked. 
            “A VC demolition expert,” Randall explained, helping Rosalie with the mattress. “But in this case, he probably wasn’t an expert.  Sounds like the explosion was a decoy to draw people out onto the quad for the sniper.  It was probably someone who’s worked on post for months.  You’ve heard of Russian ‘sleepers,’ right?  Same thing.”  He shook his head in disgust.  “Some mama-san working in the laundry, vetted by security, finally shows her true colors after months of being a kiss-ass to every American she comes in contact with.  That’s how the VC work.  Fucking bastards.”
            Stunned, Cindy stared at him.  In all the months she’d been working with him, she’d never heard him say more than two sentences at a time.  Out of all the corpsmen on Ward 2, Randall was the one who kept the most distance, never involving himself in small talk or joking around.  He worked competently without obvious emotion.  Until now.
            “The sniper killed one of the new nurses,” Cindy said, slipping out of her flak jacket.  “I think her name was Janice.  Works…worked…on Ward 5.”
            Randall’s eyes met hers.  His jaw tightened.  “Like I said, fucking bastards.” 
            Turned out Randall was right.  The official report came in from the ER a few minutes later.  The sapper had been apprehended—a 14-year-old shoeshine boy who worked at one of the PXs.  After detonating the charge near the chemical dump, he hadn’t been able to get away fast enough, suffering shrapnel wounds on both legs.  Thankfully, no one else had been injured in the explosion.  The sniper, an older boy who’d worked in the motor pool, had died from his wound.  And it had been a stomach wound, so Cindy’s wish for an agonizing death had, no doubt, come true.   
            Cindy wondered about all the other Vietnamese who worked on-post.  How many were actually VC who’d infiltrated the post under the guise of being allies?  She thought of her friendly hairdresser, Mai.   Always so sweet and embarrassingly submissive.  And Papa-san Song who worked as a cashier at the PX, always wearing a big, toothless grin and greeting her with “Hello, Tall Pretty Lady.”   But behind those smiles, how did they really feel?  Hatred for Americans?  Anger that they had come to their country, ostensibly to help the South Vietnamese, but waging war, all the same? 
            Finally off-duty, Cindy prepared to leave the ward after one final check on Patrick Cummings, who appeared to be sleeping comfortably, his vital signs stable. She prayed he’d make it through the night.  He had to.  She didn’t know why she felt so strongly about this particular GI, but somehow he’d touched a chord in her, and she just didn’t know how she’d stand it if he died.  Crazy and unprofessional, she knew.  Rule # 1—never get emotionally attached to a patient.  But too late—she already was.
            “Hope you have a quiet night,” Cindy called out to Cap Bren and the FNG, Lieutenant Mona Young, and headed for the door.  A tiny mama-san mopping the floor looked up as she approached, and gave her a black-toothed smile.  “Goodnight, Nurse Cindy.”  She reeked of “tiger balm,” a foul-smelling oil the Vietnamese used to ward off evil spirits.
            Cindy forced a smile and murmured, “Thank you.” Are you with us, Mama-san?  Or are you just waiting for the right moment to kill us? 


Buy link: