INSET: One of the few photos I have from my Navy days. (My daughter Kate embellished it a bit with a red crayon.)

Sunday Meditation: The One That Got Away

50 years ago I joined the World’s Largest & Cleanest Nuclear Navy. Joined because I liked peacoats, those iconic, close-fitting, broad-lapelled, double-breasted jackets with their large distinctive buttons, slash-pockets, and industrial-strength wool construction. Also joined to get a good education and avoid Vietnam. More about that later.

I mention all this because, on Sunday, Sept. 17, PBS is broadcasting “The Vietnam War” by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. Burns is a talented guy. Enjoyed his epic “Civil War,” a series I’ve watched several times. Also liked “Baseball,” “Jazz,” and “Brooklyn Bridge.”

Vietnam formed me the way a baseball softens and re-configures a glove after hitting the pocket over and over and over again. I’ve many stories about that period in my life — so many, in fact, that I wrote a book titled “Orange Socks & Other Colorful Tales.” It’s about how I survived Vietnam and kept my sense of humor. (Here’s a sample chapter.)

“Orange Socks” is not a bang-bang, shoot-’em-up book. Far from it. I was an Aviation Electronics Technician (AT) and worked on radios in Lockheed Super Connies, P-3 Orions, and A-3 Skywarriors. All three were used by my squadron, VQ1, an aerial reconnaissance outfit based in Atsugi, Japan. Lee Harvey Oswald was also based in Atsugi, but a dozen or so years earlier, in the late-1950s. Oswald, a Marine, went on to shoot President John F. Kennedy in the head — or so I am told.

Back to Vietnam.

The first thing I did after landing at Danang was to check in at the squadron’s Admin Office, where I noticed a water cooler that appeared to be to filled with lemonade. “Cool,” I thought. But it wasn’t cool. And it wasn’t lemonade. The container was filled with water, laced with sand … gritty, fat, beige sand.

After dumping my gear off at the barracks, I went to the beach — China Beach, with its fine sand, curved shoreline, and peculiarly shaped mountain terrain, sculpted by bombs and artillery shells, and (eventually) filled in with lush greenery, giving it an “Alice in Wonderland”-like appearance.

Vietnam is where I learned to play really good ping-pong, run a saloon, and tell great stories. It’s also where I got a “Dear John” letter and found out first-hand what a fractured heart feels like from the inside-out. That’s how/when I found Jesus — which may sound squishy-wishy to some, but when you’re thousands of miles from home, hip-deep in a hellishly unpopular war, and swim-walking through your first monsoon season, you’re apt to feel a bit vulnerable at times. Some guys blow their brains out; others (like me) find religion.

Used to think a lot about Vietnam. Now? Not so much. But, recently, when the promo came on for the PBS flick by Ken Burns, “Bam!” I was back there: Getting sunburned on the beach; having rocket attacks disrupt my beauty sleep; feeling cold, wet, Niagara Falls-like downpours soak through my boots, pants, socks, and shirts.

And what about that peacoat I loved so much? Gave it away. To my buddy, Wayne, in Indiana. Somebody stole his; I didn’t much want mine. Guess it all worked out in the end: Karma. Luck. Fate. Destiny. Providence. Pick one . . . Doesn’t much matter to me.


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