Virginian writes epic novel about Korean War
SALEM – Before he was 25, Brewster Milton Robertson had gotten married, enlisted in the United States Army and shipped off to Korea.
Robertson, who is now 82, weaves a love story through his latest novel, “Gone to Graveyards.” Of even more interest to those who served in the Korean War or loved someone who did, it’s a well-documented big book – 740 pages – about the “forgotten war” in which Robertson served.
His newest book opens in Salem, not Melas – Salem spelled backwards – as he referred to the town in some of his three earlier novels. Robertson grew up near Wabun and graduated from Andrew Lewis High School in 1946. Readers will recognize many of the landmarks and area residents of the 1940s and early 1950s.
He sets the tensions of the time by starting each chapter with actual headlines and first paragraphs about what was happening right then in the Korean War. The headlines are reprinted with permission from the Salem Times-Register, the Roanoke Times and sometimes, the Associated Press and United Press International.
In a telephone interview last week from his home in Auburn, Ala., Robertson talked about his characters and his story.
“The main character, Collier Ramsay, is not me but the character does follow the arc of my experience in that whole period,” said Robertson, who uses real names of his buddies from that time such as Bruce “Bo” Bohon. Salem resident Bohon, a decorated Korean War veteran who was severely wounded during the conflict, died two years ago but who knew he was in his friend’s book.
Bohon’s widow, Jenny, is in the book, too, as is Webber’s drug store and St. Paul’s Episcopal where Robertson and his first wife, Harriet, married in 1950. They had four sons together. They divorced in 1985, and she lives in North Carolina.
He dedicates the book to Bohon, his classmates in the Class of 1946 at ALHS and all Andrew Lewis students from 1941-46.
Like Ramsay, Robertson went to art school with the idea of becoming the next great magazine illustrator, but found himself drawing advertisements for Kroger.
Robertson is proud that he designed the book cover, did the painting on the cover and black-and-white motifs in the book, “which sort of would make my father happy to know he hadn’t wasted that money he spent on my art school in Richmond,” he pointed out.
He was referring to his two years studying commercial art at what then was the Richmond Professional College of the College of William and Mary, now Virginia Commonwealth University.
That came after Robertson played college basketball at Bluefield College and earned a diploma in pre-med. For most of his career before he became a writer and literary critic, Robertson was a pharmaceutical representative.
His character Collier Ramsay isn’t Robertson, the author insists. “He differs from me in that a lot of readers will think he’s something of a womanizer.”
Robertson admitted that he writes sexy scenes in his novels, portraying men as they would like to see themselves. “Most men think they are terribly attractive to women. You know, I never did,” Robertson added.
After the war in Korea escalates by Christmas 1950 and later even married men are not exempt from being called up, Collier enlists in the Army so that he can go to Officer Candidate School instead of being drafted.
So did Robertson, who graduated from artillery OCS, went to Fort Sam Houston in Texas for the Basic Officers Course of the Medical Service Corps and then Camp Picket.
He was deployed to Korea in July 1953 and was assigned to the 121st Evacuation Hospital south of the Han River Bridge near Kimpo Airfield when the final battle of Pork Chop Hill was being fought.
About half of the book takes place at Lawton and Fort Sill, Okla., where he trained. Two years ago, Robertson was inducted into the Fort Sill Field Artillery Officer Candidate School Hall of Fame.
This May he and his current wife, Charlotte, and their macho English bulldog, Chumbley, will make the trip to Fort Sill for a reunion. They plan to drive the family convertible from their home in Alabama with a detour to Archer City, Okla, about 25 miles from Lawton, where the movie, “The Last Picture Show,” was filmed.
Robertson had his own encounter with another bombshell actress of the time, Marilyn Monroe. Second lieutenants Robertson and Paul Golden Price – who wrote the foreword for the novel – were in the Seattle-Tacoma airport, standing with Monroe in the doorway of the airplane which transported leading actors Robert Mitchum and Rory Calhoun to Canada for Otto Primenger’s “River of No Return,” Robertson said.
He is offering a $500 reward for a copy of that photograph he believes a publicist for Monroe or the movie took of the two young lieutenants and Monroe in 1953.
Robertson will read from “Gone to Graveyards” when he is in the Salem area for the Andrew Lewis High School Class of 1946 annual reunion, on Saturday, Sept. 10, at 11 a.m. at Raleigh Court Library in Roanoke.
Robertson’s novel was released this week. It can be purchased on Amazon.com. The first three chapters of “Gone to Graveyards” are available on Kindle and other e-publications such as iPad, Sony Reader.