Long distance phone call brings back memories from 1969
Posted: Friday, October 31, 2008 9:47 pm
Imagine my surprise to learn that my old pal, Willie, had been a postman 25 years in Ohio before he retired five years ago. It’s hard to picture his wearing the uniform of the U.S. Postal Service. But he did.“I had the same route for 25 years in Columbus — a residential route,” he said. “I walked the whole thing. I knew everybody. I knew their kids and, when their kids had kids, I knew them, too.”
A native son of Worthington, Ohio, he graduated high school in 1964 and attended Ohio State University for a while and then joined the Army. “That’s why I was so smart,” he quips.
He is truly an Ohio boy who made good in his time in the Army. He was a character, yes, but he was good at what he did, very good. He spent a year at the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok, Thailand, before coming with us.
He was on one of our planes that landed during a rainstorm at an Army airfield at Pleiku in the central highlands of Vietnam in June 1967. A large plane, it carried a crew of 10. One prop reversed, the other didn’t, and it spun down the runway, went onto the muddy ground and came to rest with one wing extended over a storage area of barrels of liquid napalm.
The last time I saw Spec. 5 Richard L. Williams — to us he was just “Willie” — was in 1969. By then he’d flown so much, he’d been awarded 25 Air Medals. I had not heard from him in almost 40 years until one day last week the phone rang, and there he was. He’d gotten my phone number from one of the other aviators in our group.
Memories and images of long ago were revived.
He and I were in the same U.S. Army units at Homestead Air Force Base, Fla., and Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, in the 1960s. A live wire if ever there was one, he was the kind of G.I. who, when sent to the mess hall for KP duty, would give the cooks headaches before noon. He couldn’t help it. Mess hall cooks and Army brass were his natural enemies.
At Cam Ranh Bay, he and I and a lot of other young men were assigned to the prestigious but subrosa 1st Radio Research Company. Its sole mission was to fly the Ho Chi Minh Trail and keep an eye on the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army.
I say “young men,” but what I really mean is “young hellions.” We were young and invulnerable and thought we’d live forever.
We did our duty, alright, as Uncle Sam would have us do. We did our jobs so well, the 1st RR was a household name at the National Security Agency back at Fort Meade, Md.
Of course, we partied when we could, in between missions and missiles. I say “partied,” but not in the sense you might think. There were girls, yes. Vietnamese girls. And they weren’t on base. They were in a place called “The Village.” Just where The Village was located, I never did know. It might as well have been on the other side of the moon. I heard a lot about it, but I never got to see it for myself. I’m sorry I didn’t, ’cause I’ve always been interested in architecture, so to speak. My buddies who did go there brought back some mighty interesting stories.
So although we didn’t party, we did have one form of popular and continuous entertainment: card games. Poker and hearts and blackjack, even bridge for the snooty types among us. It seems there was always a game going somewhere, occasionally interrupted by the rude and shocking blast of incoming mortar or rocket rounds. We’d jump up, grab our flak jackets and steel pots and head for the berm. Later, when the all-clear sounded, we’d go right back and resume playing.
Willie’s specialty was poker, with hearts running a close second. I can close my eyes and see him now, his silly grin and droll humor masking a dynamite hand of five-card draw. He suckered me a time or two and it didn’t take me long to realize my specialty was standing back and watching.
He’s 61 now. I asked him about that and more. He laughed. We talked about the dog that did a number on him in Florida.
It happened before the Vietnam adventure, when he and I were assigned to an Army unit at Homestead Air Force Base, Fla.
The unit’s mission was to keep an eye on Fidel Castro. Willie was more focused on the dog track over at Hialeah, where sleek greyhounds chase a mechanical rabbit around a track. At that time it was a popular sport, and big bucks were won or lost, depending on one’s luck.
Willie was obsessed with it. It seems he always had a track program, always studied the dogs, was always figuring the odds. He’d go to a race and come back and tell us all about it.
He kept after me to go with him. I explained it wasn’t something I wanted to get into. Well, he kept on until I finally said OK, but just to watch.
Well, I went and watched all right. What I saw that night at the track — a frenzied crowd, a huge crowd and our Willie — has stuck in my head all these years.
It was in the fifth race, if I recall correctly, that it happened. Willie had put his pen to the paper and worked his formula and concluded that Dog X would win. That Dog X was a long shot did not matter. By
Willie’s calculations, Dog X would win. And Willie would go back to base with a pocketful of winnings.
Well, at the appointed time, all 10 or 12 dogs in the race were in those little chutes. The doors opened suddenly, the dogs sprang forward, each in hot pursuit of the mechanical rabbit a few yards ahead.
The crowd was yelling and screaming. Willie was yelling and screaming — with good reason. Dog X was not only ahead of the pack, he was two or three lengths ahead of the pack. And then… . And then… .
Right there in front of the world, Dog X stopped and answered a call of nature. Yep. Right on trackside. And while he was doing his thing, while Willie was screaming obscenities, while the crowd went wild, the pack passed him by.
We had to carry Willie back to the car. Such language I never heard in Mississippi escaped his lips. He heaped a torrent of profanities on the dog, its ancestors, the dog handler, Hialeah race track and the great State of Florida.
“How could I forget it? I’ll never forget it,” he said in that phone call last week. “I can’t make up anything like that. Stuff happens.”
I told Willie that I was impressed that he’d come out of the Army and settled down.
He said it’s because he’d married a good woman — the former Deborah Daniels of Columbus, Ohio. They married in 1973. Their union has produced four children and seven grandchildren.
It was war that brought us together — Willie and me and the others — in a great adventure.
It was time that later dispersed us to go our separate ways.
But memories live on … and on.