Sunday, May 27, 2007

Memorial Day Thought

This memorial day I am setting aside all thoughts and emotions of politics to remember a very brave, very good young man.

I only knew Timmy for a couple of weeks. In my unit in Viet Nam we had a system where when somebody new came to us we would assign them a "sea daddy" who had been in country a while and would try to head off some of the mistakes a cherry would make in those first few critical days. The new guys were all called "cherry" until they had met one of two criteria. A confirmed kill, or a wound that required leaving the field and then returning. Until that, the name was cherry. Even worse, your name was the name of your sea daddy as "his cherry." My call sign and nickname was "Benny" so Timmy was "Benny's Cherry." To everybody but me. I never called him cherry. There was just something about him that charmed me.

I was a few months into my third tour by that time. The time in country had sort of sneaked up on me. My first tour was due to end right about the time we had started to really turn the tables on the gains the enemy had made in Tet, and quite frankly, I wanted to get some. Revenge, payback, all of that. I didn't want to leave when there was so much ass in the field left to kick. So I shipped over. By the end of my second tour there simply wasn't anywhere else in the world that I felt at home. Some of it was paranoid unhinged, some of it was grandiosity on my part. I felt that my experience, my status as a warrior which allowed me to pull rank on people that had higher pay grades but less field experience was something that I felt I could use to help my guys get home alive. My arrogance in that last year probably cost as many or even more lives than it saved. It is something that I will always wonder about. I was an old salt, a hardened vet and an efficient killer, all at the age of 22. Don't laugh. A 22 year old with almost three years of continuous combat is one of the oldest people you will ever meet.

Timmy was brought in on a supply chopper. I was running through my mental roster thinking who I could assign him with when he started talking to me. He talked about the training he had been through, he talked about his home. He kept talking. He finally paused for a breath and said "You don't talk much do you sir?" I told him I wasn't anybody's "sir" that he could call me "Benny" or anything else. I told him to come with me. We got him situated and I showed him around our little firebase.

Things like that were what was happening the first few days. I found myself both softening and warming to this eager young man. He was trying to head off his own cherry mistakes. When we got our first orders for the field he came to me and asked what he should be packing, if there was a special way it should be packed. Usually a cherry packs everything they have with them and would end up discarding things that might have been appropriate on some later trip because the weight of the excess and the jungle heat would begin to tell on him. I was impressed that Timmy was asking first rather than pretending that he already knew stuff. It showed humility and a desire to perform effectively rather than a desire to look good and impress anyone.

Our first time out in the boonies he did well. As a cherry his instructions were very basic and simple. "Stay close to me. I never want you more than two steps and an arm's reach away. And shut the fuck up." He seemed to grasp some of the more important concepts right away. He saw the hard won wisdom of things like staying off the trails, never walking right out into the open, walking in the filthy water and the muck of a paddy rather than on the dry berm. I was so pleased with his performance that first time out that I gave him permission to speak on the way back. I heard him talking with some of the team who were teasing him about being "Benny's cherry." They were filling him in on how some of them hadn't heard me say six words in a row for months at a time. Barney told him that he must be doing alright because "Benny's letting you live. That's something. He doesn't like anybody. Not even himself."

The night before our next turn in the boonies Timmy was able to use one of the senior NCO's Ham Radio gear to phone his mother back in New Orleans. I walked into the ComShack near the tail end of his call. He insisted that I talk to his mother. I assured her that her son was learning fast and that I was personally taking an interest in seeing that he was able to come home safely.

The next morning we were on a very standard patrol. We were going to make contact with some villagers who were friendly to us that had reported some NVA activity in our area.

Timmy was following all the rules I had taught him. He wasn't on the trails, he was walking carefully through the heavier brush. He stepped on a mine anyway. We all froze and began to carefully crawl to where he was. One leg was completely blown off and he was bleeding badly. I called to him to lie still. He didn't. He was screaming in pain and fear and he was trying frantically to locate his lower leg. He triggered another mine, this time with his torso. That killed him.

We carefully worked our way to his body without setting off any other mines. By that time a chopper with a medical team had landed nearby. All we were able to do was to get his entire body collected. The chopper team guys came and started to put Timmy into a body bag. I told them to stop. They looked at me in annoyance. That was as far as they went with their expression. I guess the look on my face suggested to them that silence was the safest course of action.

I put him into the bag myself. Slowly. Gently. Then, before transferring his torso to the bag, I took my canteen and a scrap of Timmy's field blouse. I washed his face and put his cap on. Then I handed his dog tags to the chopper crew. I told them "Thank you for that moment. Carry on."

I wrote to Timmy's family to tell them how sorry I was that their son had been killed. Later, once I was out and back in the world I stopped in to meet them and invite them to a show that I was playing there.

For a couple of weeks, in a brutal war zone, the presence of one young man made an impact on me that I doubt I have been able to describe. Just by being young and clean he drew me out of a very thick, hard shell that I had formed. By being an innocent he reminded me that there was still some innocence left in the world.

This memorial day I am not celebrating, I don't barbeque and carouse. I remember the kids like Timmy. I'll probably be on the phone with a couple of the guys I served with. We'll lie to each other and say how great things are. At least we know that we're lying. We don't buy our own bullshit anymore. We're all too old for that.



Blogger FriĆ°vin said...

Thanks for sharing that one.

3:38 PM  
Blogger BadTux said...

Some wisdom is too hard-won. I'm glad I was born 10 years too late to be caught up in that mess, and 10 years too early to be caught up in the current one. Because to quote someone who knew it well...

"War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; ... You might as well appeal against the thunder-storm as against these terrible hardships of war. They are inevitable, and the only way the people ... can hope once more to live in peace and quiet at home, is to stop the war, which can only be done by admitting that it began in error and is perpetuated in pride."
-- William Tecumseh Sherman, September 12, 1864

Why doesn't anybody ever listen when old warriors speak? I don't know. I don't know.


11:06 PM  
Blogger Stephen said...

Thanks for that.

7:59 AM  
Blogger Rez Dog said...

Remembering is often hard. It is also necessary and good.

9:05 AM  
Blogger The Minstrel Boy said...

i remain with the feeling that the old ways of the apache are wise. raiding and horse stealing from neighbors was both sport and part and parcel of the old way of life. war, where the idea was to control and dominate territory or supplies was seen as both dangerous and costly, but also, bad for business. after all, why destroy the crops of somebody you might want to bargain with later? for a call to war to be successful it had to pass through the council of grandmothers. that's right, unless grammy said it was OK, no war.

9:06 AM  
Blogger joshhill1021 said...

I want to echo what others have said. Thank you for sharing that very personal part of your life with us, whom most of us are total strangers to you.

3:49 PM  
Blogger Sherry Pasquarello said...

thanks for this.
i have friends that were there. they don't say much except between themselves.
that saddens me in a way because i know more than a few WWII vets and they are/were full of stories and memories. they seemed to be able to get some sort of an emotional relief to recount tales whereas the people our age just can't seem to open up. there are many reasons i am sure, some general to most and some highly individual, but it is sad.
my friend steve just led the graveside service for my dad today.
steve and tiny and a thrid man i didn't know. they were all vietnam vets and do the local services for vets.
steve and the others do have 1 thing in common.
they just refuse to eat rice, nope, no way, no how.
i tell them that i make a mean risotto and that aborio rice has little in common with what they ate there, but so far haven't been able to talk any of them into trying it. it's become a joke between us over the years.
anyway. you are a very gifted writer and i enjoy the sories of your life.

4:04 PM  
Blogger rangeragainstwar said...

Thank you for sharing both an excruciatingly painful story, and the meaning behind it.

I am brought to tears, and am now addicted to your stories.


8:40 AM  
Blogger Batocchio said...

Thanks for a great, poignant piece.

10:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you.

3:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

John is a Marine, Ray was Airborne, both were 22 in Nam. John served three tours, I don't know about Ray but I recall that he was one of the few that actually jumped in there.
I shared a conversation with these guys one rare afternoon, and there were photos...somewhere in the mix John saw a ribbon, he said, "Bronze Star, who did you kill to get that?" Ray responded with a gesture, one arm straight in the air, as if firing from deep in a bunker, then shrugged a shoulder. John responded in kind ..and they laughed .... now. They are very old men ...
Thanks to all you guys and all the Timmys who didn't come home ...

6:28 AM  
Blogger trog69 said...

Good afternoon, minstrel boy.

I was fortunate to be too young for 'Nam. I served in the late seventies in K-town, Germany for the most part. Met alot of lifers there...getting them drunk, while good for hair-raising stories, also meant realizing how Goddamn lucky I was.

After the service, I joined the union, where I met you. Only your name was Joe. He told me,(after working, traveling, and rooming together for @10 years) his reasons for 3 tours, which were the mirror of yours. He found out that he was in his element, there. His third go around was cut short by a partner finding an AK. As he was showing it, 3 rounds hit Joe around the midsection. Hair-trigger, he guesses.Due to cutting off and rearranging his intestines the guy has gas something fierce, I can tell you! When we were in Hannibal, Mo. working, an apprentice commented on Joe's lack of manners in the work area; Joe said that was his way of saying "hi" 'cause he was shy!

The one time I saw Joe get emotional was a Memorial Day. After making triple time for 10 hours, we were in high spirits, and drank more than we should have. Back at the hotel room, I told Joe,"Hey, I almost forgot man, thank you for your service. I really do appreciate what you did." After getting my shirt all wet, hugging and crying, he told me that I was the first person, ever to say that.

To you, Minstrel Boy; Thank you for your service. I truly appreciate what you did. As I truly and deeply appreciate all who died for their countries.

I had to call Joe on the phone, he doesn't have a blog. Of course, if he did, it would probably be unintelligible to most. Probably a lot of made up cuss words!

5:27 PM  
Blogger Alex Horton said...

There's always someone you can find in combat that surely doesn't belong, but then again, certainly does. I met a few Timmys that were a huge help on getting through Iraq. One of them met the same fate. Thanks for sharing.


9:32 AM  

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