Night Music: A Novel

Night Music

Deanna Lynn Sletten

Book Description:

1968 - 1971

Charlotte Parsons is devastated over losing her brother in the Vietnam War. Desperate to learn more about the war, she joins a group of college women who send letters to soldiers and befriends Joseph Russo, a young soldier. But a few months after they begin corresponding, his letters stop coming, and Char moves on, still confused as to why so many young lives are being lost so far away from home.

Two years later, Char begins college in her small Illinois town of Grand Falls. She’s been dating her brother’s long-time best friend, Deke Masterson, who is a senior in college and is deep into the anti-war movement. Char is still confused over how she feels about the war. Then a stranger comes to town and changes everything.

Joseph Russo served in the Vietnam War, earning a Purple Heart for his injury as well as a life-long limp. He’s ready to put the war behind him. While in Vietnam, he’d corresponded with a girl from Grand Falls and he enjoyed reading about her idyllic life. When he’s discharged, he moves there to attend college. And when he meets Charlotte in person, he’s taken with her sweetness, intelligence, and beauty.

The battle lines are drawn as Deke resents Joe’s presence around Char. What started out as a well-deserved escape to a small town for Joe soon turns into a battle of wills between him and the idealistic Deke. And there stands Charlotte, right in the middle.

Night Music is a story about a moment in time when the world was chaotic and nothing was completely clear. In the midst of all the chaos, can Char and Joe find enough middle ground to fall in love?


An especially compelling read that successfully captures the nuances, influences, and cultural and social turmoil of the Vietnam era.” ~ Midwest Book Review ~ D. Donovan, Senior Reviewer

"The central characters are bold and courageous as they seek out their place in the world. Beautifully written, not easily forgotten." --Readers' Favorite

(Beautiful Cover created by Deborah at DB Cover Design)

Buy now:

Amazon Kindle
Night Music received a 5-Star
Review from Readers' Favorite!

Amazon Paperback 

Night Music is a 2018
Finalist in the
Readers' Favorite
Book Awards.

Enjoy the Prologue & First Chapter:


March 29, 1969

Joseph Russo crouched in a pit surrounded by sandbags, his M-16 standing at attention beside him. It was 02:00 and all of Firebase Jack was on red alert. Two hours earlier, the rangers out in the field had called in a warning: a large number of North Vietnamese soldiers were heading their way. Charlie was coming; it was only a matter of when.

Three other men occupied the small sandbagged area where Joe sat. Clint stood nearest to the 155 artillery weapon, casually smoking a cigarette with his own M-16 slung over his shoulder. He was a red leg, an artillery man who operated one of the several 155s on the base. Roger, a tall, slender man with light blond hair, stood across from Joe. He was prepared but didn’t look all that concerned. However, Tony, a short, wiry guy who everyone called “spaghetti,” was smoking and pacing in a circle, clutching his weapon in his hand.

“They’re coming,” Tony said, stopping to stare Joe dead in the eyes. “I can feel it. They’re so close, I can smell them.”

Clint snorted as he crushed his cigarette out under his heavy boot. “Spaghetti, get a grip,” he said in his smooth Arkansas drawl. “All you smell is yourself after a week without a shower.”

Roger laughed. “Smell them. That’s funny.”

Tony narrowed his eyes. “I can. If you’d ever been down one of their rat-hole tunnels, you’d be able to smell them too. It’s the sweat, man. The smell of sweat and fear.”

Joe watched as Tony continued to pace in his tight circle. Tony was in the middle of his second tour. He’d been a tunnel rat during his first tour, and part of this one. That was where his nickname “spaghetti” had originated. He was thin and limber and able to twist and contort his body in the narrowest of places like a string of spaghetti. Unfortunately, his nerves had become frayed after months of slipping through Viet Cong tunnels in search of the enemy. Sending him to Firebase Jack was supposed to be easier on him. From what Joe had observed, Tony’s nerves still got the best of him.

Despite Tony’s jittery disposition, he and Joe had clicked as friends. They were both Italians from New York and they shared the same background. They’d grown up in rough neighborhoods with tough dads. Joe, with his never-ending patience and calm demeanor, was the only guy on the base who could tolerate Tony’s endless, frantic energy.

Joe gazed up into the clear night sky. The stars glittered so bright he could make out the constellations. It was hot, despite the sun having gone down hours ago, and the air was thick with humidity. Sweat rolled down his neck and back. He’d spread out his poncho beneath him, but the damp ground seeped through. Nothing ever dried out in this godforsaken place.

He cocked his head and listened to the night sounds around him, crickets humming in the tall elephant grass beyond the base’s perimeter and nocturnal birds chirping their strange songs. Night music. All was safe as long as the night music played on.

“Relax, Tony,” Joe said calmly. “As long as we can hear the night music, we’re okay.”

Tony stopped a second and listened as he sniffed the air. The nightly sounds seemed to pacify him for a moment, but then he continued pacing in his small circle.

Joe reached inside his shirt, pulled out a worn envelope, and unfolded it. He slipped out one of the four letters inside and carefully opened it. The handwritten words filled the page in perfectly shaped cursive letters. A girl’s writing, he thought. Clear, with a touch of flowery script. He read the letter as he had dozens of times before.

Grand Falls is so small that you can’t walk down the street without waving or saying hello to at least ten people. The shops sit in a perfect line down Main Street with the bakery’s scent wafting out onto the street, inviting you in for a tasty treat while the gift and candle shops tempt you with their latest wares through their big, shiny windows.

Joe sighed. Were there really towns like that anymore? He sifted through the letters again and found the small photo of the girl who’d written it. It looked like a high school or college picture. In it, a lovely young woman with long, straight, dark hair and amazing amber-brown eyes stared back at him. She had the fresh-scrubbed look of a small-town girl, not the overly made-up type he was used to back home in the Bronx. He imagined that this girl wore nicely tailored clothes, low-heeled shoes, and listened to soft rock on the radio. She probably went to the movies every Saturday night with her friends then stopped for a Coke and maybe a piece of pie at the local café afterward. She was an all-American girl, and it made him smile just looking at her.

“There he goes again,” Clint said. “Joe’s getting all goo goo eyed over his girlfriend’s picture.”

Joe glanced up. “She’s not my girlfriend. We’re just pen pals.”

“Yeah, man. Just keep saying that, but we ain’t buying it,” Roger said, smirking.

Joe ignored him. He knew the guys liked teasing him, but he didn’t care. He enjoyed the letters from Charlotte. Her first letter had been in a packet sent from an organization that wrote to soldiers. Joe never got mail, so when the company clerk asked who wanted a letter, he’d been excited to take it. From there, he and Charlotte had started writing regularly. He knew little about her except what she looked like from her picture and what she told him about her town. She’d said her brother had died in Vietnam a year earlier and she wanted to know more about what it was like to be there. Joe never gave much detail—he didn’t want to share the horrors of war with a young woman—and hoped her letters would keep coming. He liked the idea of living in the same small, friendly town your entire life where everyone knew your name. It was the exact opposite of where he’d grown up—people came and went and no one talked to you.

“Do you think charming small towns still exist?” he asked no one in particular. “You know, like Mayberry from The Andy Griffith Show.”

Clint grinned. “I wouldn’t mind believing that Hooterville from Petticoat Junction actually exists.”

Joe chuckled.

Roger shrugged. “I grew up in a small town in Wisconsin where everyone knew my name. I couldn’t wait to get out of there.”

“Well, you picked a great place to move, coming here,” Clint said.

“Like I had a choice,” Roger said.

“Shh! Listen!” Tony called out to their group.

Everyone sat silent, as did the men in the other pits around them. The crickets and birds had stopped chirping. The silence was deafening.

An explosion shattered the silence. A claymore at the outer perimeter of the firebase had gone off.

Charlie was here.

Everyone went into action. Joe quickly stuffed the letters and picture back inside his pocket and reached for his weapon. Another claymore blew, then another. Gunfire erupted as more claymores blasted, and then out of nowhere, mortars exploded at a rapid pace. It took Joe a moment to realize which side was shooting them.

“Where the hell did they get so many mortars from?” Clint screamed over the noise.
No one had time to answer.

Joe pulled himself out of the sandbagged area and assessed the situation. Most of the men on the base had M-16s and M-60s, but he thought he heard the distinctive deeper sound of AK-47s within the base.

The back! Crap! Joe remembered how lightly guarded that area was. The North Vietnamese Army must have slipped in through there.

“This way, Tony!” Joe yelled over the noise.

Tony followed as they ran toward the back area. Sure enough, there were NVA soldiers streaming inside, shooting at anything that moved.

Joe and Tony shot back, picking them off one after another. Roger joined them, and soon there were several other men at their side warding off the tide of enemy soldiers pouring in.

“They just keep coming!” Roger shouted. “What the hell?” He pulled a grenade from his belt and ripped the pin out.

As he threw it in the direction of the incoming soldiers, Joe and the rest of the men turned and ducked. The blast was deafening, but it did the job. The heavy stream of NVA slowed down.
Overhead, two Cobras flew over the base, taking turns shooting up the outside perimeter with their mini guns. Joe looked up and smiled. “The good guys have arrived.”

“Head back to the pit,” Roger told Joe. “No one’s guarding Clint. Tony and I have this covered.”

Joe started to run back to the pit when suddenly a sharp, searing pain hit his left leg. He crumpled to the ground. Looking down, he saw blood gushing out from below his knee.

Tony and Roger were there in an instant. Tony fired past Joe and an NVA fell to the ground. The twosome grabbed Joe under each arm and carried him back to the sandbagged area as Roger screamed for a medic.

“I’m fine,” Joe said as his friends set him down against the sandbags. Joe knew he wasn’t fine. His leg looked torn to shreds and he hadn’t been able to stand on it. Strangely enough, he felt nothing. No pain at all.

“Stay here!” Roger ordered. “If you see one of those damned NVA, shoot him!”

By now the Cobras had run out of ammunition and the red legs had taken over firing their 155s out into the base’s perimeter. As if in a dream, Joe watched as Clint expertly manned his weapon. He gazed up and saw the most amazing sight: a Spooky gunship had arrived and took over where the Cobras had left off. White and red rain seemed to be falling from it, lighting up the inky night sky.

“Will you look at that?” Clint asked. He’d stopped shooting and was also staring up at the magnificent airship. “That’ll teach Charlie.”

A large, square man jumped into the pit, startling Joe.

“Don’t shoot me. I’m the medic.” He got right to work on Joe’s leg, cutting his pant leg off to get a better look, then placing a tourniquet on the lower part of his thigh. “How ya feeling, soldier?”

“Fine. Dizzy. Kind of dazed,” Joe said. He stared at the burly medic and wondered why he couldn’t remember the guy’s name.

“You’ve lost a lot of blood, so that’s bound to make you dizzy,” the guy said. “Just keep still and enjoy the light show. We’ll get you evacuated as soon as the party is over.”

“Evacuated? Can’t you just wrap it up?” Joe asked.

The medic chuckled. “Sorry, guy, but you need more than a Band-Aid. But look on the bright side—you just got your ticket home.”

Chapter One

September 1970

Charlotte Parsons slipped out of her 1964 Pontiac GTO and smoothed down her plaid skirt before picking up a pile of books. It was her first day of college, and she was both nervous and excited. It had felt like this day would never come, and now, here she was.

“How do I look?” Patty Hartman asked as she stepped out of the passenger side.

Char smiled. Patty was one of her two closest friends who she’d known since kindergarten. She was always worried about her appearance. With her auburn hair and creamy white skin, Patty was a very pretty girl, especially with her rich brown eyes. She was a little plump—her words—but she knew exactly how to dress to accentuate her best features.

“You look amazing, as always,” Char’s other friend, Jenny Burke, said as she exited the back seat. “I’m sure all the boys will love you.” Jenny was not as tall as her friends, but slender, and her light hair and blue eyes were her best features.

“But do I look fat in this dress?” Patty asked. “Do I look old enough or like a kid playing a grown up?”

“Old enough for what?” Char asked, laughing softly. She brushed back her long, dark hair and closed the car door. Walking around to where the other two were, they all stood and stared at the school grounds spread out before them.

They were attending their hometown college, Grand Falls University. It sat on the edge of town, right on the banks of the Illinois river. Lush green lawns stretched out around the large campus that held up to five thousand students. The buildings were gothic style, built in the 1920s, which made them appear even more commanding and impressive.

“Old enough to attract a junior or senior,” Patty said, breaking the silence. “I don’t want to go to college forever to find a guy.”

The trio began walking across the parking lot toward the buildings. Throngs of students carrying stacks of books were everywhere. The first day was usually a crazy rush for freshmen who hadn’t yet learned the campus’s layout. Char knew the school well, though. She’d not only been here many times with her boyfriend, Deacon Masterson, but had walked the campus earlier this summer to make sure she knew exactly where her classes were.

“You know, Patty,” Jenny interjected, “some of us are actually coming to school to learn, not to meet men. I want to graduate so I have a degree and can support myself.”
Patty visibly shivered. “Don’t even say that! I don’t plan on working a day of my life. That’s what men are for.”

Jenny rolled her eyes. “How very 1950s of you.”

Char laughed. “I can’t wait to start classes. I love learning.”

“Easy for you to say,” Patty said. “You already have a cute boyfriend who’s a senior. Now it’s my turn.”

Char couldn’t deny that. She and Deke had been dating for almost a year, and it was going pretty well. She’d known him nearly her entire life because he’d been her brother Jeremy’s best friend since they were five. Deke had never looked at her twice until she turned eighteen last year. Their casual friendship had grown into a sweet romance.

The girls stopped in front of the main building. “This is it,” Char said. “I go to the English building from here.”

“Me, too,” Jenny said.

Patty sighed dramatically. “I have science first. I’ll see you both at lunch.”

Char and Jenny headed inside the building, found their classroom, and took seats near the back. The room was small with tall windows across one wall. The desks were old and scarred from years of use. None of this bothered Char in the least. She was excited to be in English class. The entire year of freshman English was devoted to writing a thesis paper and reading the classics. For most students, that was torture, but for Char, it was heaven. She enjoyed reading, and especially loved to write. She’d worked on the high school newspaper, and she hoped eventually to be on the college paper, as well. Her parents thought she was focusing on an English degree to become a teacher, but she secretly dreamed of becoming a writer.

As the other students filled the room, Char glanced around to see if she recognized anyone. Some of the kids from her high school were attending this university, while several had gone to schools as far away as Northern California and Florida. Char had never even considered leaving for college. She liked their small town and the people in it, and, truth be told, she wouldn’t have been brave enough to leave anyway.

Just as the class filled up, Jenny nudged her.

“Look at that guy coming in. Is he a student?” Jenny asked.

Char saw a man wearing faded army fatigues and a black T-shirt with a pack on his back. His face looked young except for a few light creases on his forehead—worry lines—and strands of gray running through his black hair. What stood out the most, though, was the cane he used to walk, his left leg moving stiffly. He ignored the stares that came his way as he found one of the last open seats near the back of the room and slowly lowered himself into the chair.

“He must be a student,” Char whispered to Jenny.

“But he has gray hair.”

“He must be a vet,” Char said quietly. “He’s wearing fatigues. I don’t recognize him, though. He’s not someone who went to our high school.”

It wasn’t unusual to see Vietnam veterans at the college. Some of the local boys who’d served had come back home to attend college. If Char’s brother, Jeremy, had survived, he’d have gone to school here, too. The mere thought of him tore at Char’s heart.

“He looks old enough to be teaching this class, not taking it,” Jenny said.

Char studied the man. He had olive skin, a strong jaw, and nice cheekbones. His hair was thick and wavy and slightly long, but combed neatly. Most of the guys at the college had long hair, some even in ponytails. But not this guy. His strong facial features wouldn’t look right with long hair.

As Char studied him, the man glanced up and looked right at her. She turned away quickly, feeling her face flush at being caught. But before she’d turned away, she’d seen his gray eyes. And he’d smiled, a small, kind smile.

The professor walked in and began speaking, so Char’s attention turned to him. But she couldn’t help but feel the eyes of the stranger on her throughout the class.


That evening, Char sat on the steps of her parents’ house, waiting for Deke to pick her up. The front yard consisted of two rectangular sections of perfectly mowed lawn with a sidewalk down the middle. A three-foot-high white picket fence surrounded the yard, and flower gardens and rose beds bloomed in front of the white-railed porch that ran the full width of the house. It was a typical small-town, middle-class home in a nice, quiet neighborhood where everyone mowed their lawns on Saturdays and women tended flower beds regularly. Char’s mother belonged to the local flower club, as did most of the women on the block. No one in the neighborhood would ever consider letting weeds overrun their prize flowerbeds. Char found it amusing but admitted that their efforts did bring charm to their neighborhood.

The sky was painted in pink and red streaks as the sun dipped over the horizon. She had already eaten dinner with her parents and now was going with Deke to a movie at the drive-in. Every Tuesday and Thursday during the school year the theater ran discounted movies for the returning college students. Tonight, the movie was M*A*S*H, which they’d already seen earlier in the year when it had first come out. Deke had enjoyed it though, so Char didn’t mind seeing it again.

As Char waited, she thought back on her first day of school. She had a full schedule; all her classes were for her general education requirements. She loved English and history, didn’t mind algebra or social studies but wasn’t a big fan of science. English was the only class she knew anyone in. All throughout her school years, she’d known everyone in her classes. It felt odd now not knowing everyone.

And then there was the guy with the cane.

He was in her English and history classes. He stood out because it was so obvious he was a veteran by the way he dressed and the use of the cane. Their college had a huge anti-war presence; Deke was the president of their Students for a Democratic Society chapter. Even though the national SDS had gone under, many colleges still had active chapters. For that reason, many of the Vietnam vets who attended the school tried not to stand out. But this guy didn’t seem to care. Was he flaunting his service, or did he simply not realize his fatigues gave him away?


A deep voice startled her out of her thoughts. She looked up, and there he stood. The very man she’d been thinking about.

“Hi,” she said after recovering from the shock of seeing him there. It was as if she’d conjured him up.
He gave her a small smile. “Sorry if I startled you. I was walking by and saw you sitting there. I didn’t realize you hadn’t noticed me.”

Char stood, not sure if she should walk to the gate or stay where she was. She didn’t want to be rude, but she also didn’t know this guy. He seemed nice enough, and had a friendly smile. Still she was hesitant. “I was just spacing out, I guess,” she said.

“Yeah. I do that sometimes too.” He raised his hand to shake. “I’m Joe, by the way. We have the same English and history classes.”

Looking at his outstretched hand, Char had no choice but to draw nearer and shake it. “I’m Charlotte. But everyone calls me Char.”

“Hi, Char.” He smiled warmly.

Char noticed that his gray eyes had silvery flecks in them. She’d never seen eyes like his before. “Did you walk all the way from the college?” she asked, her eyes unconsciously drifting to his cane.

He nodded. “Yeah. It’s only a few blocks. Don’t let this thing fool you,” he said, lifting the wooden cane. “I get around pretty good in spite of it.”

Char felt her face grow warm at being caught staring at it. “Sorry.”

“No need. It’s obvious, right?”

“Do you live near here?” Char asked, wanting to change the subject. She was unnerved by his straightforward manner. She’d been taught better than to point out a person’s disability, yet she’d done it without thinking. She wasn’t usually that comfortable to speak so bluntly with someone she’d just met.

“I live over at Mrs. Bennington’s Boarding House.”

“Oh. She’s nice. You’ll like it there,” Char said. Mrs. Bennington was a widow who’d opened her large home to earn extra money. Her son had died years before in the Korean War and her husband had passed away too.

“Yes, she is. She keeps leaving homemade cookies in my room. I think she wants to fatten me up.” 
Joe chuckled.

“Yeah, that’s how she is.”

Silence fell between them just as night settled in. Char fished for something to say. “Do you have family around here?”

He shook his head. “No, I don’t. I’m from New York. I’m surprised you haven’t mentioned my Bronx accent. Everyone I’ve met has made a point to ask about it.”

Char had heard it but thought it was rude to point it out. “I noticed. I just thought that you might have moved here because of relatives.”

“Nope. I’d heard this was a great place to live. After leaving Nam, I figured a nice quiet town might be just the thing for me.”

Char studied him, wanting to ask where he’d been stationed in Vietnam and what it had been like. He’d brought it up, after all, so it gave her an opening. But she couldn’t make herself ask. She barely knew him. “Who told you about this town? Someone from here?”

Joe nodded and looked into her eyes. “A really sweet girl told me, so it had to be true.”

Char tilted her head and stared at him, wondering who that girl could have been. His sweet smile caused a chill of delight to run up her spine. It surprised her.

Before either could say another word, Deke pulled up in his car and hit the horn, making both Joe and Char jump.

“Hey, baby. You ready to go?” Deke called out. He drove a 1965 white Pontiac Firebird Convertible with a candy apple red interior. The top was down.

Both Joe and Char turned to look at him a moment before she came to her senses and spoke.

“Hey, Deke. I’m ready.” She opened the gate and walked through as Joe moved aside to let her pass.

“Who’s your friend?” Deke said, eyeing Joe.

She hesitated. She knew Deke wasn’t generally polite to Vietnam veterans. “This is Joe. He started school today, too. We have English together. He lives down the street at Mrs. Bennington’s Boarding House.”

Joe stepped over and opened the passenger door for Char. Stunned, she gaped at him then hurriedly slipped inside.

He carefully closed the door. “And history, too,” he said with a grin.

“Yes. History, too,” Char repeated.

“See you tomorrow,” Joe said to Char. Then he nodded at Deke and made his way down the sidewalk.
Deke’s eyes narrowed as he watched Joe walk away, but then he turned and smiled at Char. “Ready to go?”

“Yeah.” She was relieved Deke hadn’t made a big deal about Joe. As they drove away from the house, Char’s mind wasn’t on the beautiful September evening or “Three Dog Night” playing on the stereo. Her thoughts were on Joe’s gray eyes with the silver flecks and his warm smile.


Joe slowly walked along the sidewalk toward the boarding house, his rucksack full of books growing heavier with each step. He’d had months to recuperate after he’d been shot in Nam, and had also gone through physical therapy to help him learn to walk properly with his cane. His thigh bone had been shattered and he’d lost most of the muscle from the knee down. He was thankful to still have his leg, but sometimes it was frustrating how slowly he moved. He urged himself to go a little faster, wanting to get to his room and drop the heavy pack off his back.

His thoughts turned to Char as he walked. She was even more beautiful than her picture, and just as sweet as he’d thought she’d be. He’d been astonished this morning when he’d walked into his first class of the day and saw her sitting there. Since he’d believed she was already in college when she wrote to him two years before, he’d figured she’d be a junior or senior by now and their paths wouldn’t cross. Seeing her sitting in English had been a wonderful surprise.

He’d meant to tell her tonight who he was when he’d stopped at her gate, but their conversation never gave him an opening. He hadn’t wanted to blurt out, “Hey, I’m the guy you were writing to in Vietnam.” He was afraid that would scare her. If he could have eased it into the conversation, it would have been better. But then her boyfriend drove up in his fancy car and he’d lost his chance.
Joe made it to the boarding house and turned onto the flower-lined sidewalk that led up to the porch. 

Mrs. Bennington’s house was an old Victorian with a wrap-around porch, a large formal dining room and parlor, and had three floors plus an attic. Besides Joe, four other people rented rooms from her, two on the second floor and two on the third. Each floor had a bathroom that they shared. Joe’s room, however, was all the way up in the attic.

When Joe had first come to look at the available room, he’d noticed the steps leading up to a fourth floor. “What’s up there?” he’d asked Mrs. Bennington.

“Oh, that’s just the attic. There’s a large room, but I rarely rent it. It has a tall ceiling with open beams and small dormer windows, but most people don’t want to be up there.”

A tall ceiling with open beams sounded wonderful to Joe. “Can I see it?” he’d asked.

Mrs. Bennington had looked surprised. “It’s an awful lot of stairs for you to walk up every day,” she’d said, glancing at his cane.

Joe had smiled. “Please?”

She’d shown him the room and Joe had fallen in love with the open space. He took it, foregoing adding meals to his rent so he could afford the larger room. He figured he could always buy a cheap meal at a café or the student union.

As Joe walked into the house, Mrs. Bennington greeted him from the parlor.

“Good evening, Joe. Have you eaten?”

He grinned. Even though he wasn’t paying for meals, Mrs. Bennington still worried if he’d been fed. “Yes, ma’am, I have. I’m going up to bed.”

“Well, if you get hungry, there’s chocolate cake on the counter in the kitchen and milk in the fridge. 
Good night.”

“Good night,” he said, then headed up the stairs.

As he put his pack down in his room and lay on his bed, Joe thought again about Char. He’d see her every day for the next few months. At some point, he’d have a chance to tell her who he was.

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