By CW4 F. C. “Pappy” Badder
St. Louis, October, 2002.
It was the smile that gave him away. A toothy, mischievous grin
that time couldn’t erase. Then there was the twinkle in his eyes.
Yep, it was him all right. “Arthur?” I asked. But it was really more statement than question, because I already knew the answer. Time had done much to change what I so distinctly remembered through a younger man’s eyes. There were wrinkles. Lots of wrinkles. Gray hair rudely intruded on sandy blonde. And he certainly didn’t have that beard and mustache way back when. But I was surely looking at Arthur E. “Rebel” Lee from Tennessee. “Arthur Lee!” I said, confidently now. Our smiles broadened, our arms went wide, and we embraced, for the first time in 32 years.
Pleiku, Vietnam. November, 1970.
It was like that scene from “mash”, the movie, where Hawkeye sticks his head into the operating room to tell his best friend he’s leaving. Only this time it was me. I had gotten orders to leave that living hell of the Vietnamese Central Highlands. Arthur and I were roommates, both Spec. 4s, and both helicopter door gunners with the 189th Assault Helicopter Company(“Ghostriders”), 52d Combat Aviation Battalion (“Flying Dragons”), 1st Aviation Brigade. Arthur had been out on a mission, and when he returned I was already packed and heading out the door of our “hooch”. “Hey, Lee” I said, because everyone – I don’t know why – always used last names. “I’m leaving.” It was an awkward, embarrassing moment. What do you say? How do you tell the best friend you’ve ever had that you won’t be seeing each other again for the rest of your lives? It was one of the rare times when he didn’t flash that trademark smile. I wanted to stay a bit longer, to tell him how much he meant to me, to tell him how he’d been my rock in times of trouble. On the other hand, I desperately wanted to leave. Now. And besides, he already knew all that and the freedom bird wouldn’t wait.
I had always meant to swap addresses. Why is that never important enough until it’s too late? But I had my “get out of jail free” card, and the helicopter was waiting to take me to Cam Ranh Bay where my freedom bird would pluck me from a festering, jungle war and deposit me back in “The World” – where they had magical things, like flush toilets, freeways… and air conditioning. And so we embraced, said our goodbyes, and I walked out of the most intense period of my life.
It’s the bi-annual reunion of the 52d Combat Aviation Battalion. Arthur and I “found” each other about six months before. I had accidentally stumbled onto a web site for the Ghostriders while surfing for helicopter art to jazz up a PowerPoint presentation for the Aviation Warrant Officers Advanced Course. While at the site, I discovered Arthur’s name on the “manifest”, but a notation said they’d lost contact with him.
I added my name to the manifest – because I wanted to make contact with any number of my old friends, but mostly because I hoped and prayed that Arthur would revisit the site, see my contact information, and get in touch with me. He did. A few months later, out of the blue, I got an email from him. It had a phone number. I called. And I heard a voice as sweet as any angel’s. We arranged to meet at the St. Louis reunion. I was unloading my luggage in front of the hotel when he walked out the front door. I wish I could describe the feeling, but then I don’t know if I’d really want to. It’s too personal. Thirty-two years had done much to our physical appearance, but nothing to whom we had always been inside. This was the “boy” with whom I’d shared much more than a room. We had shared a living hell and learned to endure it – always with determination, sometimes with the bravado of denial, often with humor. To see each other again after all these years was an emotional experience probably equal to the moment of our parting back in 1970. It’s as if it somehow completed us.
Of course there was the catching up to do.
“How can you still be on active duty, you rascal?” He inquired. How can I answer that? Maybe it’s because I can’t give up the past. Maybe it’s because I love it so much.
For his part, "For his part, Arthur left Vietnam to return to Iris, the only wife he's ever had. . . ." They recently celebrated their 35th wedding anniversary. Arthur is a heavy equipment mechanic for an international construction company. He’s lived in rural western Tennessee, “within spitten” distance of the
Mississippi River,” since returning from Vietnam.
And then there were the memories.
Hill 31, near Dak Seang, Vietnam, 24 April 1970.
The citation reads, in part, “While on final approach, PFC Lee’s aircraft was riddled by a hail of enemy fire. With the intense volume of suppressive fire from PFC Lee, the pilots were able to continue the approach. Because two aircraft had been shot down in the landing zone by heavy automatic weapons fire, the small area was almost inaccessible. PFC Lee was forced to hang out of the aircraft in order to keep the helicopter clear of the numerous obstacles. PFC Lee repeated his gallant action on each approach into the hostile area until the mission was complete.”
Somewhere in Laos, vicinity of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, July 1970.
A large, boxy piece of equipment had been placed in the center of
the cargo compartment, and something resembling a vacuum cleaner hose
ran from the box, out onto the landing skid’s crosstube, and was aimed forward and slightly down. An Air Force technician intently scanned the knobs and dials, looking for any of the needles to move, which would indicate the presence of body odor, smoke – anything capable of being generated by human activity. Two “Charlie” model gunships (UH-1Cs) flew on either side and to the rear of our position, waiting for our technician to call “mark”. When he did, my crew chief and I laid down a stream of suppressive fire while the pilot entered an evasive, climbing turn and the gunships saturated the area of the “mark” with minigun and rocket fire.
Later that day a LRRP team (Long-Range Recon Patrol) was inserted in the vicinity to make a battle-damage assessment. The result? Turns out we had, with devastating precision, taken out an entire platoon-sized element of Communist water buffalo.
St. Louis. Last day of the reunion.
Something inside of me is at rest now. It’s been squirming in my subconscious mind all these years and I never quite realized it was there. We now come full circle, Arthur and me. Maybe the shrinks would call it a “healing process”. Whatever, I feel like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders – one I’ve been carrying around for three decades.
And I’m at peace.