For 47 years Dennis Baker, a retired commander from the U.S. Navy who grew up in Cochecton, NY, had a story hiding inside him. Now he is telling it in a novel titled “Restless Hearts.” It is a narrative that is befitting to be told as we near Veterans Day, November 11. It asks the question: What if fallen soldiers could go home?
The germ of the story was planted in Baker’s youth during the early years of the Vietnam War when the “neighbor boys started coming around the farm to see my sister. They were of the age to be drafted, and I heard people talking about war, people getting killed. The guys I knew, who never returned, they were young, they were in love, and their lives were cut short. How sad that was to lose them… and for the people they left behind not to have closure.”
As the story of “Restless Hearts” unfolds, Baker uses his five main characters to shed both light on and reflect the feelings of what it’s like for a soldier to head off to war and how it is for his family and the loved ones he leaves behind. Some make things right as they say their good-byes, as does his character Tony Burr, who tells his girl not to wait for him if he doesn’t return (she vows to wait anyway); while Pete Baker leaves with hard words to his parents as he departs (they wanted him to go to college and not to war).
The plot has its twists and surprises, including a somewhat mysterious turn where Baker gives his fallen soldiers a second chance to tie up the loose ends of their lives as they return in spirit from the afterlife to meet, to speak with and to resolve things with their loved ones. It’s “not as a ghost thing,” Baker explained, “but more of a spiritual thing.”
Perhaps the biggest surprise, however, is the epilogue. In it, the author discloses that his fictional characters bear the real names of young men he knew in the 1960s, men who served their country and many of whom did not return from war. It is worth noting that the novel’s plot stands firmly on its own without any reference to this information in the epilogue.
“When I sat down to write, these guys were sitting in the room with me. I remember who and how they were,” Baker explained. “I wanted to let them have a story of their own to finish.”
“Their journey began when Les Burr drove his son, Tony, and Allan, Andy, Ricky, Frankie, Charlie and Earl to Penn Station in New York City… Only three of those brave young men would make it back before the [Vietnam] war ended.”
The names Baker has used, with the permission of their families, may be known to some residents of the Upper Delaware River Valley: Army Specialist 4 Leslie Anthony Burr (Vietnam), who was married to Baker’s own sister; Army Specialist 4 Allan Arlyn Milk (Vietnam); Army Sgt. Andrew Carl Brucher (Vietnam); Army Specialist 4 Richard Alan Wood (Vietnam); Army Specialist 4 Frank Leonardo (Vietnam); Navy Petty Officer Second Class Charles Ernest Koberlein (Vietnam); and Marine Cpl. Pete Baker (WWII), who was Baker’s uncle. Photographs of all of these are found at the end of the book.
“When you look at their photographs,” Baker said, “you will see real men whom we should remember each and every day for the freedoms that we enjoy in the United States of America. They each carried a pride that ran to their very core. From all accounts of family and friends these fine, spirited gentlemen were the elite of humanity. It was all because of them and their priceless gift to all of us that keeps them in our hearts, minds, and prayers.”
Baker’s book ends with a message that is appropriate to consider this Veteran’s Day:
“Today’s warriors come back to us in many ways. Some are carried home, some come home with prosthetic limbs, and some arrive with the hidden injury of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Regardless, they have all served honorably and without regard to their own well-being, but with the intention of protecting their families and this nation. We owe each and every one of them an incredible debt of gratitude for their sacrifices now and forever.”
[Commander Dennis Baker (retired) served 28 years in the U.S. Navy including six years at sea on aircraft carriers, and over 10 years as an educational administrator. He is the author of “The Cowgirl,” a memoir and tribute to his mother, who still lives in Cochecton where his nephew Douglas Diehl runs a Christmas tree farm. He is a poet, a volunteer for non-profits, and he loves spending time with his grandson, Dennis II.]