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Friday, October 05, 2007



Who knows how the human memory works? My father's memory is such that at age 83, I can tell him the same joke twice within a month and he'll not remember being told more than once. Yet it is a fact that if his old body could find its way into the cockpit of a P-51, within 45 minutes he would be able to fly it as he had in 1944-45. Our memories seem to always hold nuggets that never fade.

This one dates back to 1968. The memory kicked it loose after following all of the debate of who is, and isn't, a true patriot these days. It is true so far as I can at least attest to the fact that I was there and witness to most of what happened. And it is, I think, a nice little diversion from the chest-beating righteousness that goes for discourse these days.

My brother was 3 years older than me, and graduating high school in 1968. For those of you who don't know or remember, 1968 was not a very good year. Dr. King was assassinated, as was Bobby Kennedy. The Tet Offensive made a shambles of LBJ's Vietnam policy. And, millions of American youth graduated high school pondering their chances in the you-ain't-just-kiddin lottery known as the Draft.

Some guys went to Canada or Sweden rather than submit to the draft. Some took drugs to disqualify themselves at the draft physical. Some took advantage of political connections and got admittance into the various forms of the National Guard.

But most took their chances and obeyed the law without any of the options available to the sons of the influential. As we know, many died in Vietnam. Many returned wounded in one way or another. The war was a mess from beginning to end, but the valor of the men who served finally was recognized years and years after it was displayed.

In that Spring of 1968, my brother had talked me into joining the local chapter of the Sea Scouts. The unit owned a 31 foot sailing sloop that was kept at the local yacht basin. We rarely actually went out in it, but it was a great hang-out for the weekends. One of the brother's fellow high school seniors was in the Scouts, and was a regular visitor to the sloop.

At the time he was infatuated with the daughter of a Circuit Court judge and talked incessantly about her. I don't know whatever happened with that unrequited romance, but this young man who I'll call Dean was enthusiastic about everything. In the midst of the growing clarity of the real-life dangers confronting high school graduates at that time, Dean's thinking was exactly the opposite of so many in his age group.

He WANTED to go to Vietnam. His plan, while insane, was simplicity itself. He was going to join the Navy the day he graduated. He was going to put in for duty on a Patrol Boat River (PBR) and wanted to go up the Mekong Delta. A PBR was equipped with a twin 50 caliber machine gun in the bow. That's what he wanted to do: shoot "those twin 50's" as he put it, and with a lot of gusto.

I'm not really sure if he cared what he shot it. I remember him saying Vietcong, trees, didn't matter. Our first reaction was to accuse him of doing an "Alice's Restaurant" routine whereby his ardor for war would assure him of duty ANYWHERE but Vietnam. But, as time went on it became obvious he was quite sincere in this. For a while he had the reputation as the craziest guy in town. He lost that title in late May when another schoolmate got fired from his bagboy job at a Publix Supermarket and mailed in a bomb threat.....after signing his name to it. It was just that kind of year.

Along comes graduation. Sure enough, Dean enlisted in the Navy the day after the ceremony. The recruiter wanted to know what he wanted to do in the Navy. He kept his promise: PBR, Twin 50's, Mekong Delta, gimme lotsa ammo.

So he went through basic training, and of course the Navy starts to take a closer look at those who made it through the regimen. And what, pray tell, did Dean REALLY want to do? After a nanosecond of consideration: PBR, Twin 50's, Mekong Delta, and as much ammo as the damned boat can carry, when do I start???

And just like Joseph Heller laid out in Catch-22, the Navy in its wisdom knew that anybody wanting to go to war that badly, particularly THIS war, was too unstable to trust with real weapons. Dean was intent on de-foresting Southeast Asia single-handed with a machine gun, and that just wouldn't do.

So what did they do with him? He was assigned to Pearl Harbor for his entire 4 year enlistment. Dean was most likely the ONLY sailor thoroughly disgusted at being based at Pearl Harbor between 1968 and 1972. The closest he came to combat was as an extra in the film, "TORA! TORA! TORA!"

I look back now, as an adult and see this skinny 18-year-old kid full of bravado. But that is not accurate. Youth breeds bravado, but there was true bravery there, too. The decades obscure many details, but not that which is most important. And Dean, wherever he is, was more than willing to stand the post, as the saying goes.

I'm proud to have known him. While not a "war hero" in the sense that he never saw the combat he craved, he was, and is one nevertheless. Like many of the true heroes; those men and women who do things for differing reasons, Dean placed himself between a civilian life of endless choices and death itself. He, and those like him, are heroes precisely because they never would see themselves as such.

As for me? I ain't no hero. Never would claim that title in a million years. But I've known a few.

And sometimes that's more than good enough. Selflessness sometimes runs like wet paint and touches others.

This piece kindly featured at MemOrandum

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Anonymous Tom said...

“Selflessness sometimes runs like wet paint and touches others.”

Nice phrase. Sometimes it does help knowing someone who is selfless, a hero.
Don’t know anyone like that personally. The closest I’ve gotten is the writings of Dag Hammarskjold, who focused intensely upon the idea of Christian self-sacrifice in his writings, especially after he became UN Secretary General. It gives me hope that I too may be able to make that ultimate sacrifice if called upon.

Don’t have any war memories, really. The first Gulf War, when my college roommates and I talked about going to Canada if the draft was reinstated. And the Cold War…I remember the subtle relief when it was all over and the ultimately futile hope that it’s end would mean the end of many international troubles.

7:19 PM  

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