Note from the Author: This is part five of my experience during the Vietnam Conflict. You can pick up Part One, Part Two, Part Three and Part Four by clicking on the links.
I ended part four of my story this way …
Two days later (one day before the CO returned) I was headed back to Tan Son Nhat International Airport for a freedom bird home.
However, there is one more thing I did before catching that Freedom Bird back to the world. I went to the PX at Phu Loi Base Camp and made a few purchases for Family Christmas Gifts.
I bought my mother a portable Brother “Self-Correcting” typewriter. Computers were not yet being marketed to individuals or families yet since most of them were bigger than the houses we lived in and self-correcting typewriters were the latest thing all homes needed – or so we all thought.
I bought my father a 250 piece Craftsman Tool Kit, complete with tool box (these were “made in America” quality tools). He fancied himself as a “do-it-yourselfer” though most of what he did had to be done with improper and rusty tools, then had to be done again by a professional … but he enjoyed piddling with things.
I bought my brother a Panasonic Reel to Reel Tape Deck complete with carrying case and 5 extra 10 hour long tapes. He was really into music, but was consistently trying to keep his records from being scratched. Reel to Reel was the thing in the Nam back in those days and I knew he would love it.
I decided I would hold off on getting my sister any gift until I got home. Quite frankly with only two hands and a strong back I was doing good to be able to manage to get all these to the airport along with my duffle bag. I guess I spent somewhere in the neighborhood of about $500 on all these gifts at the Base PX … but the typewriter alone would have cost more than that at the Sears Store back home. I just could not pass up the tax free deals at the PX.
When I got to the airport the ticket clerk suggested that I check the items along with my duffle since they likely would not all fit in the luggage rack on board the plane. Being the dummy I was back then … without a thought of theft … I checked them.
Back in the world …
Need I tell you the rest of this story? Probably not … you have probably figured it out already. Our flight from Vietnam landed at Travis Air Force Base, CA. When I went to baggage claim the only thing I had to claim was my duffle bag. All presents had conveniently disappeared someplace between Tan Son Nhat International Airport and Travis AFB … and I can just about guarantee they did not come up missing at Travis AFB.
Disappointed and totally pissed off I got on a bus and headed for Oakland International Airport for my flight to Chicago O’Hare. What was going to be a great Christmas for the family was going to be a bad one in terms of gifts from their “War Hero” who still felt worse than a “Zero!”
By the time I got home, on the same day I left Vietnam, I was in much better spirits but tired as heck. I’d been awake for 24 hours and was arriving at my home in the world about the same day I left my foreign home. You see, Vietnam is about 13 hours ahead of us in time. So if a person were to leave Vietnam and fly to America on December 12th, even though they are in the air (depending on route) from 19 to 24 hours … they would arrive in America sometime on the 12th of December. Strange how time works.
What the above map does not show is that back then the airlines would land in Japan for refueling. I guess they probably are able to make the total flight now days.
Being tired did not slow me down though. I could not wait to get a shower and into some Civilian Clothes and hit the streets to see what kind of trouble I could get into. Even though the family would not get the gifts I wanted to give this this Christmas … I was determined to have a great time. I would not tell my family that I had extended my tour of duty until just before time to leave … as I did not want them to worry during the holidays. As far as they knew … I was done with my tour of duty. I did not consider this a lie … simply a stalling of the truth.
One of the things that I do remember happening was a school dance I went too with my brother and some of his friends. It do not think it was his high school having the dance – and I know it was not mine. We did go to different schools during my last two years of school. I think it was one of the schools that one of his friends went to. However, in the Chicago area there are so many schools it really did not matter. If one was having an activity you were interested in … you just went without an invitation to see how long it would be before you were asked to leave. I do remember it was near the end of my leave time … I think I only had a few days left before I headed back to Nam.
Christmas was over … but I had not yet told my family I was headed back to the war.
Now to understand the story you have to understand that my brother and I grew up part of our lives in a mobile home park (Sterling Estates) in Justice, IL. The kids from Justice, IL would go to highschool in Argo, IL. I spent my first year of High School at Argo High. My brother was still in 8th Grade in Willow Springs Elementary School. Justice was so small it had no schools.
By the time I reached my sophomore year of school, Mom and Dad moved to Cicero, IL and I attended Morton East High School. My brother spent his first year of High School at Morton East as well. Then the summer between my 2nd and 3rd year of High School, mom and dad once again moved – and this time to Argo Illinois. My brother moved with them and went to Argo High School. I stayed with my sister (for address purposes only – I actually lived with mom and dad) so that I could finish my high school at Morton East … Plus my after school jobs were in Cicero. I was driving by this time.
Now my brother, unlike me and more like my own kids, never left a friend. Where ever we ended up in mom and dad’s moves (and believe me they had many of them) … he kept his friends close. As for me … when I moved I tended to forget past friends in search of new ones. Not that my brother did not search for new friends … he just never forgot the old and always kept in touch.
There was one friend of his that eventually became a friend of mine. A guy by the name of Steve Gilnett. Steve and his family moved into the trailer park in Justice about a year or so before we moved out. I really did not get to know him that well there since he was between my brothers age and my age. The guys I hung with (when I was not working) was not necessarily the guys he hung with early on (though I think after we moved they became the guys he hung with) but in the early days he hung with my brother and his friends.
When I decided to write this I was able to contact Steve to find out his military story. He messaged me on Facebook and said I could share it with you … so I will before I share the Dance Story I wanted to share.
From Steve Gilnett
I quit Argo High School and enlisted in the Marine Corps on Christmas Eve 1969. As most of you know if you read part 1 of my story … I was preparing to head to Vietnam when Steve entered the Marines. I reported to the Marine Corps Recruit Depot on January 7, 1970. I had 12 weeks of Boot Camp, Mess Duty, Guard Duty, Rifle Range and Strenuous Other Training. Then they sent me to Okinawa. That’s where we trained for Vietnam.
I became a squad leader and was an M60 Machine Gunner.
For those of you who may not know … this is what the M60 Machine Gun looked like and it shot the same 7.62 Ammo as an M14 Rifle that I was fortunate to carry in Nam. This machine gun, of course was much heavier and was also the Weapon of Choice on the UH1D Helicopter.
The guys in the field that carried these also had to carry tons of ammunition at 800 rounds per minute.
Back to Steve’s Story …
I volunteered 14 times to go to Vietnam and got turned down 14 times. I thank God now for not having to go. We had men come back that were ruined mentally. I spent 366 days in Okinawa and left in January 1971. It was 70 degrees in Okinawa. I landed in California and it was 55 degrees. I flew back to Justice for a few days (this is when Steve and I would meet up to finish my story) then when I left there and headed for Miami the Windchill was minus 59 degrees and when I landed in Miami it was plus 82 degrees.
I ended up in Camp Lejeune for my last 11 months. During this time I did have some Caribbean Cruises to Puerto Rico, Colombia, Gitmo and Jamaica. I toted that damned M60 for 3 years. It fires 800 rounds per minute. My ears are bad, my shoulder is bad but I would not trade the experience for anything in the world. I found out it 2012 that we were drinking and bathing in toxic water. There are over 600 possible effects and the VA only covers 15 of them. I don’t know how many of my issues are related but they are treating me for the issues I do have. Don’t know if this helps or not … but that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Later buddy!
Well, Yes Steve, that was a huge help. It is amazing that most of the people I knew in my childhood that did go into the military went to the Marine Corps. Ed, my brother and I, are the only two I know that chose the Army. If you have never been in the military you’ve probably heard that each branch does not like the other. Not True! While it is true that they are very competitive … they talk trash to each other … and they sometimes get into fist fights at bars over nothing … they are all brothers in arms and have each others back. The Marines refer to the Army soldier as a “Dog Face” while the Army refers to a Marine as a “Jar Head.” But there is a major difference in the military branches and the Marines. Here it is.
If one retires out of the Army, Air Force or Navy and work in another occupation (say teaching school) then they are a school teacher that used to be in the Army, Navy or Airforce. However, a Marine … Once a Marine always a Marine First. So, when they get out and work elsewhere (teaching school) then they are a Marine that now teaches school. The Marine in them always comes first.
You will hear of people in the Navy being called Sailors, or people in the Air Force being called Airman, or people in the Army being called Soldiers … but for people in the Marines … they are simply “Marines.” You have to respect that … and I do … Semper Fidelis (Semper Fi). A latin phrase meaning “always faithful” or “always loyal.”
Back to the Dance …
As I was saying … we went to a dance. Now I am not now nor have ever been a dancer. I was not born with any rhythm whatsoever. However, I do admire watching someone who is really good at dancing.
One of the girls who lived in the trailer park and who hung around with my brother, her name was Cindy, was a great dancer. I thoroughly enjoyed watching her any time there was music playing. Jennifer Lopez, today, could not hold a candle to her when it came to Dance. I was standing in the middle of the dance floor – I remember right next to a steel pole. I was actually leaning on the pole. I believe this dance was held in a school cafeteria and every 20 feet or so was steel poles that held the roof up. You’ve all seen them. They are about 5 inches or so in diameter.
Anyhow, in about the middle of the song that was playing (Tina Turner’s Proud Mary) out of my peripheral vision I caught a glimpse of something coming in my general direction. My reaction was to duck and step away. When I did I heard his fist smash the pole as he cried out in pain. I’ll just be damned. It was Quenton … a person I had not seen since our last fight when I was a freshman at Argo Community High School. I had won that one because I caught him with a “sucker punch” as he was turning around to say something to me, and he swore he’d get me back someday. He almost did.
I jumped out on the dance floor – which was beginning to clear – about ten feet and looked around me. I was surrounded by probably twenty guys or so (Quenton’s buddies) … but it looked like 50 or more. What the hell. They looked as if they wanted to beat the daylights out of me.
The next thing I heard was a very loud “Kiiiaaaa.” This was the military phrase for Kill that we all used when going into hand-to-hand combat. Then the clattering of a chair as I saw my buddy Steve Gilnett come sailing across the guys that surrounded me like Superman leaping a tall building with the speed of a bullet.
He landed on two feet right next to me and the next thing I know is that we were back to back slowly circling and heard Steve say, “Don’t worry buddy, we got this.” Yep one Jarhead and one Dogface ready and willing to take them all down. One Marine and One Soldier. But then a miracle happened. I don’t know if it was a miracle for us or them (probably us) but it happened. The circle of guys surrounding us was broken up by the Local police.
Figure 3: Jerry Nix and Steve Gilnett
When the police saw us standing in the middle ready to take on the entire bunch, they laughed and told us all to go home and forget it. I’m still trying to figure out if they were laughing and me and Steve (both in Uniform to impress the ladies) or at the kids who wanted to beat us up. It doesn’t matter, no blood was shed – other than the bloody knuckles Quenton had from hitting the pole instead of my head. I guess it could have been worse for him too. It could have been a broken hand, but the way he had it clenched into a fist when I left – I’m sure it wasn’t.
I left Steve that night with my brother and his other friends and decided to call it a day and headed home. I still had to share with my parents that in a few days I was headed back to Vietnam for another 6 months or so. I did not see Steve for a number of years after that … but we have maintained contact through social media mostly.
You saw the pictures above, here’s what we look like today:
Figure 4: The older and Wiser Jerry and Steve
One thing’s for sure … if any of those highschool guys are out there looking for us … they certainly won’t recognize us today unless they happen to get a copy of this article.
Once I got home I set mom and dad down at the Kitchen Table … where all family decisions were made back then and told them that I had decided to extend my tour in Vietnam for at least another 6 months, if not another full year. They were not real happy – but being the religious folks they were – we had to pray about it. No amount of prayer was going to change the decision I’d made … I’d already signed the papers. However, I knew that the prayer would help mom and dad feel a whole lot better about it.
A few days after that I was once again at Chicago O’hare International Airport boarding a flight to Oakland California and then to South Vietnam for Round 2.
Stay tuned … the best is yet to come!
Jerry Nix, FreeWaveMaker, LLC