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Notes from the Boonies
By Paul Wisovaty
My last two columns were about Jane Fonda, and they were quite serious, as they of course needed to have been. So I'm toning this Boonies column down a bit and will subtitle it "Some Marines I Have Known." Stories will be nostalgic, often sad, sometimes even a little funny. My only hope is that our Marine brothers and sisters will find them to have been worth the reading.
The first one was Jim Long, a high school classmate. Jim was an all-conference athlete, prom king and one of the most popular kids in our class. Needless to say, we had little in common. After college he gets drafted, and – wouldn't you know? – he draws the unlucky number and gets called for the Marines. A few months later he's on a plane for Vietnam, but the plane gets delayed for a few days in Hawaii and by the time it's ready to continue someone at local HQ decides that they need his MOS right there. So he spends the rest of his active duty time on a beach in sunny Hawaii. Several years later we're talking, and I – after a few beers of course – am giving him a hard time about that. Jim listens patiently, and when I'm done he says, "Fine, Paul, you did permanent party in Vietnam and I did mine in Hawaii. But I did one thing you didn't have to do. I went through Marine Corps boot camp in the 60's." That shut me up right away. I mean, we weren't talking about a Gomer Pyle sitcom here.
Speaking of lucky numbers, I had a gentleman on probation (non-violent misdemeanor) who had the same experience. When his number was called, he walked up to the sergeant, showed him his paperwork, and said "Sergeant, here's my draft notice. That means US Army, not Marines. Learn to read." The sergeant's reply was "Oh, I'm sorry sir....Now get your f'in jarhead ass over to that f'in line before I kick your f'in ass all the way to f'in Vietnam." All I could think of to say was, "So what was your first clue that it was going to be a bad day?"
I should note that this Marine returned from Vietnam with some serious PTSD, which no doubt contributed to whatever behavior brought him into my office that first time. All I can say is that unless he went out onto Main Street and shot someone, there was no way that I would have petitioned him back into court to revoke his probation.
Then there's Bob Harrison. Bob was a Khe Sanh Vet, went to college after separation and a couple of years later showed up at my office to apply for a probation officer job. At one point during the interview, he mentioned that he'd been awarded a Purple Heart, but added quickly that it had been "no big thing," so I let it go. A year after I hired him, he walked into my office, closed the door, and showed me the telegram which the Marines had sent his parents after that "no big thing" wound. I can't quote it, but what it pretty much said was that he might die. Fortunately, he came through it all right, but I still think of that telegram. What I think of is, what if my parents had received a telegram like that, especially after they had learned that I had volunteered for Vietnam. I could never forgive myself (Bob had not volunteered for it. The Marine Corps took care of all of that).
Finally, there is Ken Fernandes, another Vietnam vet. We're talking one day, and I said, "Ken, there is no doubt in my mind that the United States Marine Corps is the finest fighting force on the planet. But I'd put my guys in the 3/5th Armored Cavalry Regiment right up there with anyone. His response was "Well, Paul, don't you think there would be something wrong with you if you didn't?"
Thanks, Ken. And thanks, Marines. Semper Fi.
Paul Wisovaty is a member of VVAW. He lives in Tuscola, Illinois. He was in Vietnam with the US Army 9th Division in 1968.