In 1965, J.B. Randers was a student at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in Minneapolis, where he grew up and currently lives. When he ended up having to take time off from school, the 20-year-old Randers was faced with the same dread confronting all young men of his generation: the draft. “I just had a premonition that if I went to Vietnam I would die. I…really believed I wouldn’t come out alive,” Randers says. Feeling that being drafted was inevitable, Randers made the preemptive move of joining the Air Force. “Something that I was never going to do,” he says. “And so that was the start of all of this.”

What followed for Randers were three years and four months of service as part of the air defense system—a time that he has now revisited in his memoir, Maverick Radar Airman. The draft had been on Randers’ mind since he was 17 and his mother asked if he had heard of a skirmish in Vietnam, commenting that she hoped he wouldn’t have to go. “It was a wake-up call,” Randers remembers. Three years later, that casual comment became a self-fulfilling prophecy, as his mother, who had a history of volatility and rash decisions, uprooted the family and refused to continue paying for Randers’ schooling.

Facing no good options, but with a certain interest in airplanes, the young art student found himself swearing allegiance and being shipped off across the country. The Air Force would eventually take him from Texas to South Carolina, all the way north to eight miles above the Arctic Circle in Fort Yukon, Alaska, and finally, to the desert of Fallon, Nevada. But Randers was one of many servicemen who stayed in the States for the duration of their time. “I missed Vietnam by one number,” Randers explains. “So what I experienced was truly not a typical military life.”

In more recent years, Randers came to realize that in spite of the wealth of material produced about Vietnam, there were essentially no stories that reflected this experience. “I went on the web out of curiosity to see how many books are all on battles. They almost all are,” Randers says. Indeed, representations of the Vietnam War call to mind Ken Burns’ documentary, the works of Tim O’Brien, or even Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now—works that Randers admires, but for him, “It’s all about the violence. Who won and who died….But if you train and then don’t go, you live a different life than that violence.”

Far from the daily death toll in the jungles of Southeast Asia, Randers and his fellow servicemen—in particular his “best compadre,” Ron—created their own world within a strange mix of impending global catastrophe and the free-wheeling spirit of America’s countercultural revolution. “I was totally into Bob Dylan,” Randers says. “I would play him with the doors open in the barracks. Some of the lower-ranking sergeants would say, ‘What is that crap?’ ” For him, Dylan and bands like The Byrds provided the soundtrack for his time in the military, and so he concludes every chapter of the memoir with “Songs of the times” that he remembers.

Randers and his closer friends were up on the hippie scene, eschewing the classic GI activities. They spent their rather ample free time at wild parties in the Haight Ashbury district of San Francisco, taking LSD, sleeping around, listening to rock music, and reading Alan Ginsberg or Jack Kerouac. But his memoir perfectly juxtaposes these wild nights against the immense responsibilities the young men still had on their shoulders. “The Air Force was no less gentle than the Army,” Randers says. “People had Vietnam on the TV all the time but didn’t know how close we came to nuclear war.”

Kirkus Reviews cites Randers’ “crystalline introspection” in describing the existential pressure that he and his buddies confronted on a daily basis. A large part of their mission was to properly prepare for potential attacks coming from Russia and to respond to Russian aircraft encroaching on American airspace, testing our domestic defenses and response times. In the book, as Randers finds himself training for how to properly handle nuclear codes, he encapsulates the high stakes pushing on him from both the military and the changing cultural landscape:

It was a huge, frightening responsibility, and if we leaked a word of it there would be an automatic court-martial and I would probably end up in the brig. We practiced for this regularly. Just practicing the procedure drove home the reality of the ’60s, with Vietnam happening, bad relations with China and Russia, plus the Cuban Missile incident. In my job, [and] in the Air Force in general, we lived with a bigger reality than boots on the ground; as horrible as that was, our constant fear was a nuclear war and annihilation….Hate speech was worldwide and we were treated like dogs by civilians. That might explain why we sometimes lived like there would be no tomorrow. 

Besides the partying, Randers also escaped the pressure by finding new ways to express himself. He had been drawing and painting consistently since he was 12 years old, but out in the big, barren landscapes of both Alaska and Nevada, he found himself without a palette or any brushes. “But I could go out and write down what I saw, what I felt, and the people I was around,” Randers says. “Really, the Air Force caused me to start writing.”

Those writings eventually became stories that Randers would tell over the years as he finished his service, completed his degree, and went on to own a company that created exhibits, displays, and marketing materials. Once he retired in 2005, Randers found that many in his community responded well to his monthly column for the Maiden Rock Press, which kept bringing him back to the idea that he should commit his unique view on Vietnam to paper once again. 

Eventually it was his inquisitive, energetic, 4-year-old granddaughter who inspired him to finally sit down and write Maverick Radar Airman to share what it was like for the soldiers who stayed home. “I thought about writing this book for 45 years,” Randers says, “But then I thought, ‘If I don’t write this book now, she’s not going to know anything about her grandpa. It’s just one thing, one part of my life, but it’s better than nothing.’ ”

Rhett Morgan is a writer and translator based in Paris.