I'm heading on a road trip to Cincinatti today with my friend Perry Carr. We're going to visit an old friend I met in 1967. Here is a piece that describes why. It appeared as a guest editorial in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette nearly ten years ago. I'll report more on the trip as I make more memories.
Sometimes a simple twist of fate can put a person in the strangest situation. I couldn’t help think this recently as I found a good spot just clear of airport security and waited for my old navy buddy and his wife. My wife was with me and we didn’t know what to expect. After all, 37 years is a long time.
I had taken a sign to the airport, the kind you see people holding when they are meeting strangers. This one didn’t have a name, however, just a mounted photograph of two sailors in jungle fatigues mugging for the camera somewhere south of Da Nang, Viet Nam in 1968.
We were just a couple of young bloods, goofing off and waiting for the time when we could sport our “short-timers’ chains” and start counting the off the days before we left. We were pals. His name was Wayne Pfirrman and he was from up north in Cincinnati. I was from Arkansas via a stint in the Haight-Ashbury. The only thing we had in common was that we were both stuck in that place for a year.
We lost touch after our tours ended. Although I had thought of him – thought of him many times - I had neither seen nor heard from him. My wife, Brenda, knew him from the photographs. His wife, Rose, knew me in the same fashion. Now we were all going to meet one another and answer a lot of questions.
How did we reconnect?
Bless the Internet. We had each stumbled across a website called “wardogs.com.” It attracts veterans who served in the I-Corps area; so we both signed the on-line guestbook.
I can’t describe the feeling when I received an e-mail from him one morning. I responded and we soon had a lively correspondence, trading memories and photographs, talking about swapping visits.
From this, I gathered he hadn’t changed that much in either outlook or personality. I figured we would have fun catching up. Still, it had been long time, so I was nervous as we waited at the end of the concourse at Little Rock National. I couldn’t believe it.
We had exchanged current photographs; there would be no problem recognizing one another. More as a prank than anything, I had made the welcome sign. I labeled it the “Choi Oi Reunion” using a Vietnamese word meaning “golly gee” or just about anything the speaker wants it to.
I held the sign and waited. A security guard came up and demanded to know what was on it. I showed her and pointedly declined to explain. She sniffed and waddled away and I began wondering if we had ever really accomplished anything. Then I saw them.
Actually, he saw me first, before I even had time to raise the sign. And then, there I was: a 61 year old man hugging and meeting and sniffling and introducing and making a spectacle, all in the middle of a crowded airport. My friend didn’t seem to mind, though. If he did, he didn’t mention it.
A few more hugs and photographs later, we were in the car and headed for our home in downtown Little Rock. When we reached MacArthur Park, I realized that all four of us had been talking at once since we left the airport. The years and distances disappeared and we were instant friends. I knew it would be great weekend.
And it was. Little Rock shows well and we showed it off. We filled in a lot of blanks that had occurred since 1968. And we marveled that we had ever met one another, much less become friends.
We had been the products of a high-level Navy decision that it was waste of good Marines (who should be at Khe San getting blown up) to have them guard naval facilities in the I-Corps Area. So they figured to train a group of sailors in weaponry and such and let them do the guarding and perform perimeter security. What they really produced was a group of rowdies who would just as soon fight one another as the Viet Cong and who contributed greatly to Naval folklore and the local economy in ways sometimes permissible and sometimes not. After all, sailors were sailors back then.
But that was long ago. Wayne completed college after the Navy and pulled a 20-year hitch with the Cincinnati Police Department. He met Rose along the way and they raised four fine children.
I entered the field of urban planning, married well above my qualifications, and wound up somewhat respectable.
So we told one another about these things, between Margaritas and Corona beers and Nick’s Barbecue and the Flying Fish and watching the sun go down over the prettiest city in this part of the world. It was a lot like old times, except the female company was of a much higher class. When I left Wayne and Rose at the airport Monday morning, I “teared up” a little. Maybe he did too.
We - Wayne and I and all the others - never had division reunions like the WW II veterans. I don’t remember any parades, either. It would have been nice. But, like most Viet Nam vets, we simply went about our business and were, on the whole, more successful, healthy, stable, and faithful than a randomly selected group of Americans, or so I have read.
We always wondered – perhaps with just a tad of grumpiness - why the press gave so much attention to those misfits who claimed to represent us. It annoyed us when it later became clear that many of the misfits weren’t even veterans at all, and few, if any, had spent time “in-country” as we used to call it. But we didn’t have much time for grousing.
Time goes by much too fast - 37 years for Wayne and me. We remember the good parts and credit youth with seeing us through the rest: the heat, the mosquitoes, the monsoons, the warm Ba Moui Ba (33) Beer, and even a typhoon. Oh yes, we shouldn’t forget the Tet Offensive and those little men in black pajamas who wanted us out of their country so badly that they were willing to kill us.
We wish this current band of brothers and sisters the best and can only hope that someday each one can share a few memories with a comrade who, like Wayne or me, will appreciate the words of the Viet Nam Veterans National Anthem: “We gotta get out of this place, if it’s the last thing we ever do.”
These days, though, we are the relics we used think the old men were who sat on the front porch and talked about crossing the Ruhr River. We feel more comfortable with the words of the folksinger Eric Bogle: “It’s almost over now, and now I’m easy.”