By Yadira Betances
LAWRENCE —It all started when Alex Liazos began reading the letters Nicholas Conaxis sent to family members and friends from basic training and from Vietnam.
"Those letters made a permanent impression on me," Liazos said. " Some of them you read and it just breaks your heart."
The letters as well interviews with Conaxis' sister, brother, foster parents and friends, became "Twelve Days in Viet Nam: The Life and Death of Nicholas Conaxis."
Conaxis, who was born in Lawrence was killed in an ambush just 12 days after arriving in Vietnam. He was a private first class with Company A, 6th Batallion, 29th Artillery, 4th Infantry Division, U.S. Army.
Liazos, 72, of Waltham, will speak on Conaxis and his biography tonight at 6:30 p.m. at Lawrence Public Library, 51 Lawrence St.
The Conaxis family lived at 903 Essex St. His father sold fruits and vegetables out of a van around Lawrence.
Through Conaxis' correspondences and Liazos' interview with about 50 friends and family, he learned of a young man upon whom life had dealt a hard blow.
He was 2 when his father died of tuberculosis and his mother had a mental breakdown, which left her hospitalized for years. Conaxis lived with a foster family in Rowley for 11 years before going to Longview Farm in Walpole where he lived from 1961 to 1965 with his brother.
Despite that, he was very caring.
During marching exercises at basic training in Ft. Jackson, S.C., a soldier with asthma fell behind and Conaxis told the commanding officer to let him alone. In a letter to his sister, he wrote about his concerns for the Vietnamese children.
"His initial letters showed how much he care for the kids in Vietnam and his opposition to the war," Liazos said. "The rest of them, he is writing about all kinds of things and exploring all kinds of ideas."
Liazos said it is not clear why he decided to go after being drafted.
He did and my guess is that he wanted to be in the right and not want to be hiding from the Army," Liazos said. "He thought he would survive and come back."
It took Liazos from 1968 until 2010 to write the book while he taught sociology for 40 years, published three sociology textbooks and raised a family. But he never forgot Conaxis. He looked for his name on the national Vietnam War Memorial when he visited Washington in 1985 and even wrote academic papers about him.
"After I retired, it came back to me. It was the last chance I had so I felt the urgency because I was getting on in years," he said.
Liazos was further inspired by the song, "The Last Train" by folk singer Janis Ian, which he first heard in 2010 on the radio. He purchased the CD and listened to the song daily for months.
"The words and the music were haunting and for me will always remain haunting," he said. .
Liazos said there are some similarities between him and Conaxis, other than both being of Greek descent.
Liazos was born in Albania and was separated from his parents at 6 until 1980. He was raised by his grandmother in Greece. He moved to the United States in 1955. He lived a mile from the hospital where Conaxis' mother died.
"Every time I drove by, I thought about what his mother went through being separated from her children," he said.
In his research, Liazos found that she visited Nick and his brother Jimmy at Longview Farm.
"He was very upset when she left because he didn't understand why she was not able to take care of him," not knowing that she was in the hospital.
"For me the biggest lesson is we shouldn't go to war. But, that wasn't the point I wanted to make. I wanted people to know who he was, to remember the people who lost their lives in Vietnam and draw their own conclusion when they read the book," he said.