Saturday, May 31, 2008

War Hero

During the '71-'72 school year, I was a junior at a large suburban State College in Southern California. Across the street from my college, was the new flagship high school of the local district and a little further down the street was an old and well established junior college. Quite the educational center.

Every afternoon, Monday through Friday, I went over to the high school and worked for four or five hours as a night janitor. I made enough to share an apartment and buy food, my parents were paying for books and tuition. I cleaned the classrooms and labs in the math/science building, a huge lecture hall and auditorium, the art studios and a bunch of portable classrooms every day. It was a great job and I was lucky to get it. My father had connections. There were two other college students that worked nights there with me. One was a world class skier with Olympic ambitions. He mostly just took PE classes and the 12 units required to keep a draft deferment. I didn't need a deferment any more. They had the lottery that year and I got a reasonably high number, so I just went 1A and once the year ended, so did my jeopardy. The other guy was older, 22, with a wife and two little girls. He was just starting over at the JC, on the GI Bill. He had been drafted and to Vietnam.

His job in the Army was telephone lineman, stringing and maintaining comm lines. He was stationed at a fortified base and helicopter field, in the Delta. There was a big Ville there, where the local farm families had been pulled in, for protection. They were all peaceful farmers in the daytime and Viet Cong after dark. He told me a lot of war stories. The Vietnam guys always did. They were always about other guys, in other units. He never thought his own story was really worth telling. A lot of the Vietnam guys were like that, too. He maintained that mostly, he was just a hootch rat. He hung around the base, wired up people that got requisitions for phones, drank beer and worked on sound systems for the whorehouses in the neighborhood. Several times a month, he would have an adventure. It was always the same and always different.

The Viet Cong would choose an out of the way telephone line and cut it. Then it was my friend's job to go out with a combat patrol, climb up a pole, completely unarmed and splice the line. Did I mention? He was a huge guy, great target. I asked him once why he went up unarmed. He said he didn't want to be encumbered by a weapon or make anyone mad at him. Sometimes there were booby traps all around the pole. Sometimes they would lob mortar rounds into the area. Sometimes there was an ambush with close combat. Sometimes all of those things. Sometimes nothing happened at all. The only constant, was that at some point, he had to climb the pole and splice the line. It was always him, he was the lineman. He said it wasn't really as dangerous as it sounded. He said he never took unnecessary chances. He said the Viet Cong really weren't interested in shooting him, because once they did that, the rest of the patrol could bug out. Right. Just a six foot two, hundred-ninety pound guy, perched on top of a twenty foot pole, by the side of a road, in the middle of a jungle, full of armed VC, eight-twelve times a month, for a year.

When people talk about war heroes, I always think of my friend and the smoke breaks we spent together and the stories he told me, almost 40 years ago, when we worked as night janitors together at Troy High School in Fullerton. He was no pacifist but as far as I know, the only weapons he wielded, were needle-nosed pliers and wire strippers. I don't think I ever met anyone braver than him.

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