“Shoulda Played the Flute,” a Vietnam Memoir by Dick Elgin

Long time “American Surveyor” contributor Dr. Dick Elgin has written another book. No, not on his usual topic of surveying, “Shoulda Played the Flute” is a memoir about his adventure in Army Aviation (1968-1971) including a year flying combat helicopter missions in Vietnam. Raised in a quintessential 1950’s family in the rural Midwest, the book describes Dick’s path to joining the Army to become a helicopter pilot.

As thousands of other young men did, (some as young as 18), Dick went through rotary wing flight school as a Warrant Officer Candidate (WOC). Each “WOC” as they were called, had his own story of how he sought out and volunteered for one of the most dangerous missions of the Vietnam War, the combat helicopter pilot. Some, like Dick, had flunked out of college or in some way had failed lives or unfulfilled expectations, so, in their late teens, volunteered for Army flight school.

They had no idea how drastically and quickly they would grow up. In the coming two years of flight school and flying combat missions in Vietnam, most would age about 10 years (if they came home). These relative youngsters were given unbelievable responsibilities in unpredictable circumstances, often against long odds. This is the story of one such Army Aviator.

Once in Vietnam, Dick and a group of his flight school classmates were assigned to the Americal Division (in Chu Lai). Not all would return home. Within the Americal he was assigned to the 196th Light Infantry Brigade and flew the Hughes OH 6A Light Observation Helicopter, or “LOH,” living and flying off of LZ Baldy (south of Danang). As a 196th “Charger” LOH driver, he flew probably the widest variety of missions of all LOH pilots in Vietnam. Through humorous, serious and sad vignettes Dick describes the missions he flew.

Dick’s story doesn’t end with the day he returned to “the World” (May 4, 1970, the same day as the Kent State Killings). He concludes the book with his observations about the War, Vietnam Veterans, and a very interesting piece about his 2011 return trip to Vietnam and a chance meeting with a former Viet Cong foe.

This book will interest anyone with a connection to the Vietnam War. They will get a first person account and perspective about the war. Very well written, Dick’s writing style flows. The story moves, is interesting and engaging. With Dick’s self deprecating style and humor, you will chuckle while reading about some of his experiences and missions (and saddened by others).

Oh, the book title you wonder. Dick played the flute in his high school band. While in Basic Training at Ft. Polk, Louisiana the post band director made him an offer: He could fulfill his Army obligation, guaranteed, right there, playing the flute in the Ft. Polk Army Band. He declined, opting instead to fly helicopters in Vietnam as he had signed up for and volunteered to do. There were missions in Vietnam when Dick remembered the offer; hence, “Shoulda Played the Flute.”

American Surveyor editor Marc Cheves had this to say: "I had the pleasure of reading an advance copy of the book, and I highly recommend it. Unlike many first-person accounts of Viet Nam, Dick’s book is well-written, and even more so by the addition of historical footnotes that provide background. In addition to surviving three crashes during his stint as an Army Aviator, to my knowledge, Dick is the only aviator to have had two tail rotor failures and live to write about them." —Marc S Cheves, SP5, U.S. Army 82C Artillery Surveyor, 1968-71

The book is available at Amazon