Mark Twain once said it is important to not let the facts get in the way of a good story. Author and playwright Ed LeGrande would subscribe to such a notion.
Most days he can be seen at Ketchum cafes tinkering with a screenplay for “The Little Lost,” which he hopes will be his first feature-length film.
LeGrande has produced 12 plays in Ketchum over the past 20 years, several based on works by noted authors. His New Orleans-based 1985 novel “Saints in the Shadows” fictionalized the real-life drama that pitted old town locals against skyscraper developers intent on demolishing French Quarter Creole cottages to make a buck.
“It was a ‘social problem’ novel,” said LeGrande, who studied English literature and drama at Duke University before being drafted into the Army at age 22 in 1968, the year that U.S. forces saw their highest rate of military casualties in Vietnam.
“I had already read enough about the war to know we were following in the mistaken steps of the French. But there were no deferments,” he said.
LeGrande, now 67, was raised about 90 miles up the Mississippi River from New Orleans at Baton Rouge, where his father worked as a successful chemical entrepreneur. The U.S military used the swampy bayou country for training recruits before sending them to Southeast Asia.
LeGrande said the worst day of the war for him was his first, when a young National Guardsman, a Pfc. Leventhal, died in his arms from heat stroke during basic training at Fort Polk, La.
“I wrote his wife a letter to tell her that he also had two broken ribs and sawdust in his lungs from the sadistic training that he was put through, but nothing ever in the way of compensation came of it for her,” La Grande said.
Rather than become “cannon fodder” for the infantry, Le Grande volunteered for Officer Candidate School at Fort Sill in Oklahoma and then to Green Beret training at Fort Bragg, N.C.
“They say in the military that there is nothing more dangerous that a second lieutenant with a map,” he said.
La Grande became a lieutenant, working as an advisor to Montagnard tribespeople in the sparsely populated central highlands of Vietnam, helping build wells and plant “Green Revolution” rice strains, while delivering intelligence reports about the area to the U.S. Embassy.
During a Vietnamese language training class, he sat for half an hour next to then Col. Colin Powell, who would decades later become head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the U.S. military and then secretary of state.
“Powell had such a powerful military presence at that time that you were almost afraid to look him in the eye,” La Grande said.
By the time his tour in Vietnam was over, La Grande was preparing presentations on military campaigns, ordinance and supply movements, and refugee movements to top brass at Military Assistance Command, aka the Pentagon East, in Saigon.
Le Grande left the military to study political science at Tulane University, “to try to find answers to why things went so badly for the U.S. in Vietnam,” he said. He earned a Ph.D. in the field and got his fill of statistical analyses and governmental reports before returning his efforts to literature.
“The Vietnam War was a dozen years of wasted American blood and treasure. I saw played out the incompetence of Americans making every mistake they could make in a country they did not understand. It is the same as what we are doing now in Afghanistan.”
LeGrande said the local people in both countries have a will that we do not understand, but like the communists whom the U.S. fought against in Vietnam, the Afghans are “too rigid” in their beliefs.
“The Afghans have eliminated women, half of the creative force of their society, from education and from business. Like the communists, I believe they have a system that is good at waging war but bad at waging peace.”
LeGrande has adapted writing from author Rick Bass and cowboy poet Baxter Black for his stage plays. “The Little Lost” screenplay on which he is currently working has drawn the attention of a noted actor (whose name he said he cannot reveal) who starred in a film shown at the first annual Sun Valley Film Festival in April.
LeGrande’s story is based nearby and follows the relationship between a poacher and a female game warden who he grew up with. Although there is a strong environmental message in the story, LeGrande said he hopes the drama strikes deeper than a news story.
“Writing fiction, you can make something truer than the facts,” he said.