28 December 2006

"Tiger Fatigues"

"Greybeard, you have a phone call- line one".

On duty at my EMS job, I was watching TV.
I picked up the phone and pushed the button for line #1...
"This is Greybeard."
"Greybeard, this is 'Larry Rocker'..... remember me?"

..... Quick search of the memory banks-
"I haven't spoken to the only Larry Rocker I know since October of 1969!"
"That would be me!"

No, I couldn't forget Larry....
He was a favorite Crewchief in Viet Nam.
He hailed from Southern California. Larry and I share a love of cars, so we talked alot about what kind of wheels we'd be driving when we got "back to the world."

"Listen Greybeard, my wife is a flight attendant for Blah-Blah Airline, and we're gonna be in your State next weekend. If your schedule permits, I'd love to come visit you!"

"Larry, have you looked at a map? We're six hours from Bigtown!
You realize how far you'll have to drive?"
I wasn't surprised at his response..... "I don't care."

We had a great weekend, reliving old times, telling lies to one another, and catching up on almost 30 years of news.
One of the things Larry talked about was going to Viet Nam Unit reunions.
Had I attended any?

I was always afraid of going....... fearful I'd be surrounded by a bunch of guys reliving Viet Nam experiences, crying in their beer.
Larry said, "I think you'll be surprised".

So when he called a few months later and said our old Company was meeting in Dallas, I talked it over with Sara Jean, and we agreed to make the drive.
My relief valve- we had loved ones in Dallas, so if the meeting went into the pooper, the visit with relatives would make the trip worthwhile.

Larry and his wife Mary Kay met us in the lobby of the hotel.
After our initial greetings they asked, "Have you seen 'Tiger Fatigues'?"
"What? Tiger Fatigues? No, I can't say we have."
"Well, he's here for the reunion, and he's weird lookin'.
He walks with a cane, and he stands out like a sore thumb in his Tiger Fatigues."
The rest of us were dressed casually in civilian clothes.

A few minutes later we spotted him, limping along with his cane.
Tall, lean, and wearing the "thousand yard stare", he WAS a little scary looking.
This was EXACTLY the reason I had avoided these reunions!

Next morning we nervously made our way to the meeting room that organizers had rented for our use. There I ran into Bill, a gunner I hadn't seen since 1969.
We shared stories and enjoyed one another's company.

My lovely Sara Jean is 10 years my junior.
While I was being shot at in Viet Nam, she was 12 years old, not yet worrying about pimples.
When the North Vietnamese turned Saigon into Ho Chi Minh City, she was still just 16.
Her older brother, same age as me, was a Marine Corp Viet Nam Veteran who had been "in country" a little over a year before I got there.
She had never been able to understand the impact the war had made on two of the most important men in her life.

While I visited with Bill and others, she sat quietly at the table and eavesdropped on conversations.
To her immediate right, she heard one guy exclaim, "He's alive?!"
Another guy says, "Yes! He's in a wheelchair, but he's alive."
She overhears the first guy say, "The lower half of his body was gone when we put him in the helicopter."
Then, in tears- "I can't believe he's alive!"

The door opened, and "Tiger Fatigues" limps in.
For a moment, the room was uncomfortably quiet, then conversations returned to normal as he took a seat.
To my amazement, Mary Kay made her way over to Tiger, sat next to him, and engaged him in conversation.

They chatted long enough that I wondered if I needed to rescue her.
I made my way to them and introduced myself to Tiger, then, to give her a chance to escape, I asked Mary Kay if she needed to go up to her room to check on her messages.
"No thanks. I'm fascinated by the stories I'm hearing."

And his story is compelling.
Let me set the stage, so you'll better understand:

You may remember, our unit was a reconnaissance outfit and had a mix of aircraft-
Gunships, Scouts, and Slicks.
While our aircraft were parked, we protected them from enemy rocket and mortar fire by parking them in revetments-
walls of sandbags 5 feet high, supported by ammo boxes or pierced steel planking.
The slicks and Scouts were parked in "shotgun" revetments.....
a wall on both sides, but open at both ends.
The gunships were parked in "L shaped" revetments with the aircraft facing the base of the "L".
This arrangement precluded the off-chance of a 2.75 inch rocket being ignited by static electricity and flying into someone's living quarters.
Hovering out of either type of revetment was difficult.....
the rotor downwash would reflect off the sandbags, causing a great deal of turbulence until you were completely clear of the enclosures.

One morning, "Tiger Fatigues" was helping his best friend, a Cobra Crewchief, launch his Snake on a mission.
The Snake came to operating R.P.M., then slowly came to a hover and started it's sideward slide to get clear of the revetment, while Tiger and his Crewchief friend stood and watched.
Suddenly, one of the rockets accidently fired, and from a distance of about 30 feet, went through the Crewchief's chest.

I can't imagine it...... a rocket almost 4 inches in diameter!
The wound would be ghastly.

Tiger's friend lived long enough to say he was cold.
Tiger ran to the supply room to get a blanket to cover him.
The supply clerk wouldn't give him one....... wouldn't believe Tiger's story.
When he returned, failing to get the blanket, his friend was dead.

It's easy to understand why Tiger looks at the world through a "thousand yard stare".

I came home from that reunion glad we had attended.
Sara Jean returned with a new understanding about her husband and brother.

We drank a lot.
We hugged a lot.
We laughed a lot....
we cried a little, too.

I've been to a few reunions since, but the memories of that first one will always stand out.
Mary Kay stops by here at "Pitchpull" to read and comment now and then.
She needs to know how much I respect the courage it took for her to walk over to Tiger and start that conversation.
Mary Kay..... I'll always love and admire you for that!
I know it was exactly the therapy he needed........
I found out I needed it too.


Anonymous said...

Hey GB,

Great post !

It is so nice to read history when it comes from someone who was there to see it for themselves.

Glad you went to the meeting to rehash some good memories and hook up with your old buddies.

Also nice work on marrying someone 10 years younger ! ;)

Happy New Year !


Anonymous said...

This is slick ---LEAD,Happy New Year!!! Thanks for the Good Times!!

Anonymous said...

No words can truely do it justice, but thank you for all you have done. Happy New Year, CP

Anonymous said...

Greybeard...thanks for the post. My dad was an F-105 driver in Vietnam when I was five. He has some pretty hairy stories as well.

Thanks for sharing and thanks for your service to our country. You guys didn't get the respect you deserved after Vietnam and that really sucks. You went, you did your job, you served your country...despite the unpopular war that was run in such a way that we couldn't win.

Greybeard said...

Thanks to all for your kind words. Here's hoping 2007 is safe and prosperous for us all!

FD- You'd like my wife... mighty easy on the eyes!

Slick- Roger that! Lead is rollin' in hot!

CP- Thanks also for your acknowledgement, and thank you for your service too. My sis was a Navy Electronics Tech for almost 7 years. All who serve are at risk, and deserve our utmost respect.

Jack- Your old man flew a wicked airplane, so he was at risk just pushing the throttles forward... not even counting what happened once he was airborne!

I think one of the reasons Viet Nam Veterans voted almost as a block in the last election is that we don't want today's Veterans to suffer the homecoming we went through. I was never personally abused, (good thing, too), but we all wished for the thanks we are now receiving belatedly.
We need to keep pounding the drum...
THANK GOD for these selfless troops!
May he hold each of them in his protective palm!

Ed Bonderenka said...

What a great story.
Not Tiger Fatigues of course.
I've served with guys rattled by their neighbor quonset mortared.
A close friend was a waist gunner blown out of a gunship twice. Twice.
And my friend Dave Wolfe, a gunship pilot who survived more than he should have.