February 18, 1985 12:00 PM

The 14-room town house belonging to Joe Klein’s parents in New York’s Greenwich Village is a long way from Vietnam. It’s also a long way from the blue-collar world of Erie, Pa. where 37-year-old mailman Dale Szuminski grew up and still lives.

But here is Szuminski, with fellow Vietnam veterans John Wakefield, 40, Bill Taylor, 37, and John Steiner, 36, and the widow of their fallen comrade Gary, Barbara Cooper, 32, sitting together at the table beneath the huge crystal chandelier in the Kleins’ dining room. They all watch as Joe gingerly turns the fragile pages of an old spiral-bound pocket notebook. The pages are stained a deep maroon—by Szuminski’s blood. Klein reads aloud: ” ‘July 30-Aug. 7: Ship; Aug. 7-10: Beacon; Aug. 10: Cochise.’ There’s no ending date for Cochise,” he notes.

That’s because Szuminski never saw the end of Operation Cochise, an obscure, ill-fated patrol that took his Marine platoon into a North Vietnamese ambush in the Que Son Valley on Aug. 16, 1967. Severely wounded, Szuminski was flown back to “the World,” and never saw his war buddies again—until 1982, when Klein first brought them together in the course of researching his critically acclaimed book, Payback: Five Marines After Vietnam (Alfred A. Knopf, $17.95). And now the veterans have come to New York to Klein’s family home to celebrate the book’s publication.

This odd combination of successful New York author and Vietnam vets is the consequence of a January 1981 headline in the New York Post: “Viet Vet Goes Beserk Over Hostage Welcome.” The article was about an unemployed Indiana steelworker named Gary Cooper, 33, whose anger over the heroes’ welcome accorded the Americans back from Iran—in contrast to the silent treatment he and other Viet vets had received—apparently pushed him over the edge. Glassy-eyed and incoherent, Cooper fired a shotgun three times, twice into the air and once at approaching officers. (He missed.) A policeman shot Cooper and killed him as he crouched alone in his home.

Fascinated by the story, Klein, 38, a free-lance journalist, and author of the well received 1980 biography Woody Guthrie: A Life, interviewed Cooper’s widow, Barbara. She showed him Gary’s Vietnam scrapbook. Klein was moved by the snapshots of teenage Marines (“Children, babies with guns,” he recalls with horror), and at that moment decided to write a book. He tracked down 15 members of Cooper’s platoon and picked those who “could and would” share their inner lives with him. During the next three years he taped and transcribed hundreds of hours of interviews, capturing the sort of fine and private detail one ordinarily finds only in fiction.

Klein follows Taylor, an insurance agent from South Chicago, as he searches for the woman of his fantasies, a quest eased, he says, by EST but hampered by medical problems (fatty tumors the size of golf balls all over his body that may have been caused by exposure to Agent Orange). He maps Cooper’s descent into the blue-collar counterculture of motorcycle gangs, heavy-metal music and heroin. Klein describes Szuminski’s nightmares and Indianapolis vet Wakefield’s somnambulant stumble into the Synanon cult. “There were many times I questioned whether I had a right to intervene in these people’s lives this way,” Klein recalls.

The veterans are grateful that he did. “Joe helped me understand the war a little bit better,” says Taylor. For Wakefield, a factory quality-control worker who, like two others in the book, found no home but alcohol after Vietnam, “Joe was the catalyst that started me getting some help.”

Slight, shy and boyish, Klein seems an unlikely chronicler of the veterans’ experience. From his birth, nine months after his father’s return from World War II naval duty in the Pacific, Klein’s life was one of increasing affluence as the family’s printing company prospered. In August 1967, while Payback’s protagonists were humping through the boonies of Nam, Klein was awaiting his senior year at the University of Pennsylvania. Doubly draft-deferred as a student and father-to-be (Christopher, the elder of his two sons by his first wife, Janet Eklund, was born that September), he was holding down a summer job selling costume jewelry and wishing he could go to San Francisco and be a flower child.

“We were living in two different worlds then and we live in two different worlds now,” says Klein, who resides in Brooklyn with his second wife, Victoria Kaunitz, a swimwear designer. “There really is an us and a them, and there’s a dividing line—it might be college.”

Klein has made a career of writing about the lower echelons of American society. His work on Boston’s now-defunct countercultural weekly, The Real Paper—including articles on school busing and an expose on conditions at a state school for the retarded—earned Klein a Robert Kennedy Journalism Award in 1973 for coverage of the problems of the disadvantaged. That led to a job at Rolling Stone magazine, where he avoided the rock beat in favor of topics such as industrial cancer. Depressed after one of these articles, Klein undertook a light assignment on folksinger Arlo Guthrie, which grew into his book on Arlo’s legendary activist-troubadour father.

Klein’s next book, still in the thinking stages, will also be about “non-famous” people. If his current work is any indication, it will be a hard-edged, unsparing portrait. As his admiring subject Wakefield says of Payback: “This is not a war book. It’s a book about life—how life really is.”

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