“That we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.”
With these words, Abraham Lincoln memorialized the Union soldiers who fell at Gettysburg. 100 years later American young men not dissimilar to those of Lincoln’s time found themselves in an unforgiving jungle defending the South Vietnamese from their neighbors to the north. Forty-one years after the defeat of our allies in South Vietnam, the question that must have haunted the late 1800s is still ringing in our ears: were our efforts to defend that nation against the invasion of the Communist North Vietnamese in vain?
The years between my departure from that place and today have examined this question in too many articulations and reached no conclusion that warrants nearly 60,000 names carved into a sad rock standing not far from Lincoln’s stately, seated memorial.
There is a sensible argument that the weakness of France after WWII justified American aid to prevent an expansion of the Soviet presence in Europe. It posits that Germany was already in shambles and an adjacent state weakened to submission by another loss in indo-China would have given too great a foothold for Communism. The implications are endless and terrifying. But these are cold political ideas that somehow have failed to remove the sting of warm blood flowing freely from young men not unlike myself mixing with the Vietnamese soil.
The only solace one can gather is that perhaps our efforts were not in vain. Perhaps the blood of young Americans spared the blood of countless Europeans. And perhaps such an insidiously hateful word as ‘perhaps’ is as good as it gets.
(With Trudy Grace)
The radio crackled, “Tango Niner one seven zero, this is Charlie Delta six six, over.”
“This is Tango Niner one seven zero, over.”
“This is Charlie Delta six six. I’ve arranged for a Victor Romeo in three zero mikes.”
“This is Tango Niner one seven zero. Roger, out.”
This conversation between myself – the platoon leader of the first platoon, company A, 1/46 infantry – and my CO, Captain Snow, was to inform me that he had arranged a visual reconnaissance of an area we had never patrolled before. Come to think of it, I’m not sure that it had been patrolled before.
Soon, I heard over the radio: “Tango Niner one seven zero, this is Victor Whiskey two seven, inbound your pos. Echo Tango Alpha one five mikes.”
“This is Tango Niner one seven zero. Roger.”
Soon, I could hear the distinctive sound of the Loach (LOH6), a small observation helicopter that seats two plus a crew chief. The Loach’s shape evokes mental images of a teardrop sporting a tail, and it flits around the sky much like a dragonfly might. Built by Hughes, in Vietnam it was utilized primarily for observation. It has a cruising speed of 135 knots, with a ceiling of 16,000 feet. The most impressive feature is that it can climb to an altitude of 2,000 feet in only a minute.
“Tango Niner one seven zero, this is Victor whiskey two seven. Pop smoke.”
“Roger. Smoke is out.”
“Roger. Identify yellow smoke.”
As the Loach set down, the crew chief motioned vigorously for me to climb in. I made my way through the remaining yellow haze and slid into the right seat, next to the pilot. I had barely gotten in before we took off, climbing for some 2000 feet in what seemed seconds. No sooner had we reached altitude when the pilot banked sharply to the right – my side. I held onto my steel pot with one hand and grasped frantically with the other for anything that could keep me from falling out. I swear, it seemed for a moment as if we were upside down.
His next maneuver was to descend sideways, thoughtfully making it feel like we were falling from the sky. When we reached the level of the ridgeline we were assigned to patrol, he turned the helicopter perpendicular to the mountain and we flew sideways. As I watched the ridgeline seemingly move laterally in front of us, I got the sense of watching a panoramic film, or the street view on google earth.
It was not long before I indicated to the pilot that I had seen all I needed. The fact is that I was ready to have my feet on the ground. I decided it was best to leave the Loaches to the cowboys.
Sometime between eighth grade and ninth, I hit a growth spurt and grew several inches to my present height of almost 6’3″. Suddenly, nothing fit. My pants were perfect for ventures through high water, and my shirtsleeves – influenced poorly by my pant legs – did the same.
Finding pants that fit was fairly simple, because men’s trousers are sized by waist and inseam. So, although I now wore a size 32X34, we could find a good selection of khakis (Duck Heads were de riguer for those of us who preferred the preppie look) at the local JC Penny’s. And it was little trouble finding Bass Weejuns in a size 12, but finding shirts that fit presented a serious challenge. My shirt size had transformed into a 15X36, because not only had I grown in height, but my arms had become somewhat simian. Back then almost no department store carried men’s dress shirts with a 36″ sleeve length. So I had to settle for size 15X34/35, which meant that my cuffs still hit well above my wrist.
I developed a good deal of self-consciousness, wearing shirts with sleeves that were too short. I felt like I resembled Washington Irving’s Ichabod Crane; all arms and legs. So, in those times when I had to button the cuff of my sleeve, I tended to contort my shoulders so the cuffs would approach my wrist bone. The rest of the time I simply rolled the sleeves up.
Finally, as an adult, I found a company through which I could order dress shirts with a 36″ sleeve. I am eternally grateful for Land’s End.
Jenkins, Kentucky, 1979
An only semi-expected thunderhead came over the mountain with no warning; it brought with it gale force winds, powerful rain, and an unparalleled pyrotechnic display just as I was about to pick up a microphone to begin the song service. A jagged bolt of lightning struck just outside the tent, frying the sound system, and nearly frying me in the process. The flash and the bang were near to instantaneous. We were startled, but we pressed on.
The rain poured in sheets onto the tent until the men started walking around with folding chairs to push the roof up and encourage water off of our shelter so that it wouldn’t collapse under the weight. Because of the deafening fracas of the deluge, a hasty decision was made to forgo the song service.
So it was, without lights or a sound system, that Dr. Fred Roth – the revival preacher, and Bible professor at Cumberland College – began his sermon. Waving his Bible as he strode purposefully up and down the sawdust covered aisles, Dr. Roth preached at the top of his lungs. Of course, no one heard a word he said.
Just as the sermon ended, the storm abated and an altar call was extended. So, I led the congregation in the singing of all six stanzas of “Just As I Am.” A cappella no less. A throng of penitents made its way forward, either in response to the impressive display of God’s hand in the storm, or in gratitude because we and our tent had been spared. It mattered very little why.
This particular tent meeting would prove to be the last of my ventures to Letcher County for some years because shortly afterward, I began my studies at the Baptist seminary in Louisville. I hope it goes without saying that this last experience was the most memorable of all my visits to Jenkins.
Although my memories of my cousin, Thomas Cecil (Tommy) Tucker, are not numerous, they are vivid and kind.
Tommy was eldest of the four children born to Ottis and Bernice Tucker, and a strapping, handsome young man. He was the all-American boy, and in my eyes could do no wrong.
It was awestruck wonder when, at the age of 10, I watched Tommy, who was all of 16, swim across Lake Chickamauga in Chattanooga. Then he swam back again, cementing his larger than life qualities, at least for me.
Sometime shortly after high school, Tommy married his sweetheart, Judy. I’m certain they had the usual dreams of a long life together complete with all the unexpected turns such lives take. But in 1966, he enlisted to serve in the US Marine Corps, for reasons unknown except to him and possibly Judy.
He was ultimately assigned to a machine gun with D Co, 1/1 Marines, in Quang Nam province not far from Da Nang where I would be stationed some years later.
In early 1967, while on patrol, Tommy was injured by an anti-personnel mine. After an astutely inadequate time hospitalized for recuperation, he was returned to his unit and the Quang Nam countryside. His next encounter was with a landmine, on 3 March 1967, and this one proved fatal.
Tommy’s death rocked my family, especially his mom, dad, and siblings, Liz, Debbie, and David. And I can’t imagine the pain his widow endured. If anyone was ten feet tall and bulletproof, it was this young man. Barely four years after his death, I was deployed to Vietnam as an infantry officer with the US Army. This only served to deepen the trauma my family had already undergone, especially for our maternal grandparents. Mimi and Pop thought Tommy hung the moon, as did those of us “little cousins.” It was as if Tommy had passed his mantle of service to me and his were considerable shoes to fill.
My family breathed a collective sigh of relief when I returned home with only wounds they could not see.
So, to my fine cousin: I salute you. You have done your family, and your country proud.
There are times when enough snow is enough. But, our younger children hardly saw, or at least remember, snow from their early years. Although Laura was born on the cusp of the worst snowfall Kentucky had experienced in years, the infamous “blizzard of 78,” she didn’t remember any of it.
In 1982 we moved our family to Hilton Head, and, needless to say, snowfall there is indeed scarce. So, in December of 1989, just before we loaded up our family to go to Kentucky for my brother’s wedding, the weatherman in Savannah announced a forecast for snow in the mid-west. The night before we departed Tim, age nine, prayed that it would snow in Kentucky. We didn’t think much more of it.
However, the next day, as we traveled, I noticed Tim peering out the window of our van, anxiously watching for any sign of snow. Near the end of our 10 hour trip, near Lexington, Tim gushed, “It’s snowing!” By the time we arrived at my parents’ house in Georgetown, the ground was covered. We awoke the next morning to 6″ of fresh powder. Tim was in heaven, even though we had to scrounge around to dress him to go play in the white stuff.
But then it got ugly. Friday night the wind picked up, and the temperature plunged to minus 10. We bundled up as best we could for the wedding on Saturday afternoon, but, after 7 years in the coastal south, we didn’t have near enough in the way of warm clothing. As we arrived at the church and walked tenuously across the church parking lot, the cold snow squeaked beneath our feet.
When Sunday arrived we loaded and headed back south, anxious to get home to the warmer climate of coastal Carolina.
But, on Saturday, December 22, the very next weekend, the snow began to fall on our little barrier island, and didn’t stop until nearly 12″ had fallen. I hurried to church that Sunday morning to assist in the effort to clear the sidewalks and parking lot, but we were woefully ill-equipped. We grabbed what we could – pushbrooms, garbage can lids, garden shovels – and did our best to prepare for the arrival of our members and guests.
Of course, in that temperate climate, the snow melted almost as fast as it fell, and by Monday it was all gone. However, Tim’s mom had seen enough snow for one season. She, in her role as the queen of the household, issued an edict. “No more praying for snow, Timothy.”
During our college days, my friend, Ken, and I decided to drive to Chicago, wanting to see the big city while in that part of the country for a wedding. After the wedding rehearsal on Friday night, Ken and I struck out for the Windy City. As we traveled up I-65, we could see the lights ahead. Soon we were on the edge of the metro area. As we got closer, we saw what appeared to be a sea of taillights – and the accompanying headlights – flowing along the Eisenhower Expressway. Drawing nearer, we suddenly found ourselves sucked into the eastbound traffic, but we soon were back to flowing along at 70 plus miles per hour. After a few minutes I looked at Ken, who was driving, and asked, “Do you have any idea where we are?”
“Do you have any idea where we’re headed?”
“You mean we’re lost?”
“Yes, but we’re making great time.”
Now I’ve embellished the story a little to make a point, which is – if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there. Sadly, many people wander through life with no real direction, just drifting along aimlessly, or spinning like a migratory hamster on a wheel.
During my brief and mindlessly saturated stint as a platoon leader in the jungles of Vietnam, part of my job was to get the platoon from point A to point B in a timely fashion. This made me the most dangerous person in an infantry platoon: a lieutenant with a map. Let me share with you some lessons I’ve learned while trying to find my way through the jungle
Obviously, the first step in getting where you want to go is knowing where you want to go. Otherwise you’ll wind up somewhere you never intended to be. In today’s world you can just tell Siri where you’re headed, and she’ll figure it out in your stead. But Siri also needs to know your destination. She can’t read your mind, and as much as she would like to tell you where to go, she waits for you to tell her.
The second step is knowing your current location. Again, your smart phone knows where you are. There’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide unless you turn off your location services. But back in the day, in the jungles of Vietnam, it could be somewhat difficult to figure out where you are with just a map and compass.
I’m reminded of an anecdote from my days in Germany. We were conducting a command post exercise in the field, and I overheard this conversation between the battalion commander, whom I will not name to protect the innocent and not so innocent alike, and the command post located in the woods. The old man was on his way to the command post, and needed some guidance.
“Six Zulu, this is six Alpha. Location check, over.”
“This is six Zulu. Our location is grid 12345678. Over.”
There was a pause, then the radio lit up again and I heard, “This is six Alpha. I don’t need your location. I need to know my location.” True story.
Once you have your destination in mind, and know your starting point, then the next step is to determine the route. In the military, using a map and a compass, we called that “shooting an azimuth.” And, in the event we got off track, (it was never the lieutenant’s fault.), we would have to stop and shoot a new azimuth to get back on course. Nowadays, your Garmin will condescendingly recalculate, and Siri will reroute you – both with little ceremony.
The last step is to start your journey. It’s a tired but true cliche – a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. What exactly are you waiting for?