I have attempted to put my military/Vietnam experience on paper several times. I have failed for various reasons. At least two times I read what was written and deleted it. At one time I had at least fifteen pages completed and a virus wiped out everything I had. I am making this attempt at the request of a friend. It’s not easy. Forty years since I served in Vietnam I still get sweaty palms and anxiety when I try to relive some of the incidents. I need to spend some time describing where I was leading up to the summer of 1966 when I decided to get my military obligation behind me so I could move on.
I was raised on a farm near Celeste, Texas. Celeste could be compared to Mayberry, the setting for the 1960s Andy Griffith TV show. The late 50s and 60s were the ideal time to be a kid in a small town. A parent could let their children play all day and not worry about their whereabouts. Adults kept an eye on all the kids and word spread fast in Celeste, Texas whether the word was good or not. The post WWII era were boom years but it didn’t affect the small farming communities as much as it did the bigger cities. Televisions were a rarity in the early fifties and the newspapers came in the mail a day late so it’s safe to say that we were not on the cutting edge of world happenings.
The soldiers who returned from WWII or Korea were local heroes. Celeste was the hometown of Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier of WWII. Once, when I was in the lower elementary grades, Audie came to visit the school. All of us on the playground stopped and watched him get out of a car and walk into the high school. We were excited because we got to see a movie star not a war hero. We had our sports heroes and carried trading cards in our back pockets. They were our idols. However, we only had a chance to see them on the cards or occasionally on TV but Audie Murphy and the other men in our community who had been to Europe or the Pacific in the war were flesh and blood heroes.
Our parents had reached adulthood during the great depression. They had suffered many economic hardships. When the war broke out the chance at serving in the military was a job that had been impossible to secure for years. Not only was enlisting the patriotic thing to do but it was a guaranteed job with benefits. The social climate had changed dramatically in the twenty years since WWII. Our generation, the baby boomers, had a life of ease like no other generation before us. In the 1960s it was more difficult for us to leave the good times to join the military than it was for our dads and uncles to leave the poverty of the depression to enlist.
The guys played baseball without an organized league or adult interference. We knew who were the best players…who could run the fastest…hit the ball…catch a ball blindfolded. These guys were sandlot legends. I was not one of the legends but I was always there. On a summer day when it had rained and we couldn’t work in the fields we would play ball for hours. If there were not enough for two teams we would play ‘scrub.’ In scrub a person took each position in the field and the rest were batters. When a batter was out he went to right field and everyone moved up one position. If a fielder caught a fly ball he and the batter changed places. We played that game for hours. Sometimes if we got hot playing ball we would go to a stock pond and swim. Skinny dipping was one of the pleasures of country living. Friends were close friends more like one big family and those ties would remain for a life time.
Being raised on a farm meant working in the fields alongside the hired help. My three sisters and I worked long hours in the cotton patch usually five and a half days per week during the summer. The labor was walking down what seemed like endless rows with a hoe weeding the fields. Cotton had once been a very profitable crop but the 1960s were the waning years for cotton as a major cash crop. I guess by today’s standards we were poor…by any standards we were poor but so were just about everyone else. During those years I formed the opinion that I would not be a farmer.
We were not a very church going family but standards were religiously instilled in us. Daddy believed in keeping your word, not mistreating others, giving did not necessarily mean giving money, respecting people in authority, what others thought of us was important, and doing an honest day’s work. When the Army got me they got a recruit that needed to be taught how to salute but they didn’t have to teach me to respect officers. The army had to teach me how to be a medic but they didn’t have to teach me to respond when I was called. All of those lessons came from home.
I cannot remember Vietnam being mentioned even once in any high school classes. In small town rural Texas the outside world was a million miles away. It seemed like who was president was less important than who was pitching for the Yankees. Sports were my main interest in high school. I played them all. I graduated from high school in 1965 without a clue about what I wanted to do.
All young men of that period had one issue to deal with. The draft. I chose to enroll in college to receive a student deferment. The deferment provided temporary relief from being drafted while in school. Vietnam was in every conversation by this time. Friends and people I knew were being drafted every day. By the summer of 66 after a less than spectacular year of college a decision about what to do had to be made. Two friends came to the tennis court in town where I was playing on a Sunday night. They said they had decided to volunteer for the draft and that I should too. They said I was probably going to flunk out of college and get drafted anyway. I agreed and five of us went to the draft board office and had our names moved to the top of the list. The lady at the draft board tried to talk us out of it but she didn’t change our mind. When we left the office that day she told us to bring our shaving kit when we reported. She wasn’t wrong. In October, 1966 we were in the Army. I figured it was a road that lead away from the farm.
A few days before reporting I was sitting on a bench in the one block section of downtown Celeste. I must have been waiting to meet someone. My Uncle Earnest drove up, got out of his truck, and came over to sit by me. This in itself was out of the ordinary. He ask me if I had joined the army. When I said yes he quickly replied that I had not joined the army…the whole family had. He went on to say that I should make the family proud. I assured him that I would. That ended the conversion but the point was made.
I have tried to paint a picture of just how naive I was at age nineteen. I was 6 foot 2 inches and 150 pounds. The skinny kid from Texas didn’t have any idea what he was getting himself into. Not too many years after I had returned home my Uncle Garland passed away. Uncle Garland was the oldest of my Dad’s brothers. He was more like a grandfather to me than an uncle. .At his funeral Aunt Mary hugged me and told me that Uncle Garland had cried when he found out that I was going to Vietnam as a medic. I was stunned and didn’t know how to respond. I had no idea that he or any of my uncles and aunts cared enough about me to cry for me. Uncle Garland had served in WWI and WWII. He knew what peril I was in as a combat medic.
Continue to Chapter 2