A friend of mine died today.  One of those people you thought you would like to have known better.  Then again, it probably wouldn’t have been possible to know him better.  It was over fifty years ago that I met him in basic training.   He was a freckle faced red headed kid from Ohio then.  He still is.

    He was one of those kids that signed up and forged his parent’s signatures so he could join before he was eighteen.  He wasn’t all the way through zero week before he was sure he had made a mistake.  Not that he would quit, he couldn’t face his mom and tell her what he had done.

    At first, I thought he was a hanger on type guy.  He was just always there and could be counted on to back you up in any situation.  He would answer for you at morning call and we had free use of each other’s stuff.   Well, maybe not his tooth brush.  Somehow, we had fun, even during basic training.  He and I carried one guy from Dayton up Misery Hill and down Agony Hill.  One of us carried his stuff up and the other carried him.  We switched on the way down.  Maybe he considered me the hanger on type guy.

    He was in for three years and I was drafted into two years.  He carried the radio and was complaining about it.  I told him it was an easy job and he told me I could have it if I wanted.  Instantly I was the radio man.  He kept an eye on me for a while, and then started chiding me about how slow I was.  “Did you break any records when you carried it?” I asked.

    We drank together, played together, played cards together, and even tried to get a girl into the barracks one night.  As I remember that didn’t work out well at all.  We both had about the same amount of luck playing cards.  If we got a three day pass, we would find a way to get home that weekend.  It was a trip of two thousand miles total.
    After basic, we were both sent to Ft. Benning GA.  Neither of us was used to the hot scorching sun of the south, but we both got used to it with only one episode of sun burn each.  Well I got it twice.  Fell asleep on the beach in Panama City.  Almost got court marshaled.

    We both got shipped to Vietnam on the same boat, the “USS Buchannan.”   That was quite a trip from the ship that came out from Cuba to challenge us. It was our first and only trip through the Panama Canal, and my first and so far last look at Diamond Head in Hawaii, crossing the International Date Line.  We had two submarines with us the whole way, and didn’t find out about it until we were challenged near Cuba.  They sort appeared on either side of us, and the Cuban ship turned around and left in a hurry.  I remember that very well.

     Once in Nam we didn’t talk as much as we did before.  He was usually in front of me, we slogged through the same rice patties, up the same hills, through the elephant grass, in the same jungle, guarded the same roads and ate the same food.  We went through two major battles together and several skirmishes.

    My time in the army was done before my year in Nam was finished and with mortars landing all around I told the Lieutenant I wasn’t about to re-up.   He smiled and a week later I was home with my wife.

    We had both got married the same week end in May, two different girls in two different states.

    We sorta drifted apart after I got out.  Just one of those things where living life takes priority over old friends.  It was thirty years later when we finally got together again.  When I walked up to his front door, he had the same freckle faced smile and ears I had known thirty years before.  I guess veterans like to hug a lot, but it felt good to see him, hold him and know for sure he had survived the greatest form of hell man has ever devised.

    After that we spent some time together each month or so along with our wives.  As time progressed it sort of dropped off to a phone call every month or two.  We really didn’t talk much, didn’t need to.  Then a little more than a year or two ago, he had some health problems and didn’t want me to come down right then.  Later we got together and just sat and talked about family wives, cars and grandkids.  I had a problem with some business one day and felt the need to talk with him.  “Why are you asking me about this?” he asked.
    “Who else could I count on for good counsel?  You dragged me through smelly rice patties and jungle.  I kinda have good reason to trust your advice.”
    I was talking to a couple of his sons when he died.  I had been there four out of the five days since the doctors sent him home to die.  He had hugged me again, looked at me and said.  “I’m ready to go, you could be the only one to understand, but I am ready.  I know Jesus, and he has forgiven me.  I’m not quite ready to buy the ticket or step off the bus, but I am ready.

    I did know what he meant.  I was there five days later when he took his last breath.  His wife and family were all there.  His sons and daughters, sisters and friends they were the ones I felt bad for.  The loss of a father, brother, husband and close friend could not be recovered.

    I looked down at him as he was at peace.  Didn’t have a real smile on his face, but I could see one.  His dog was lying on his legs and looked up at me saying, “He ain’t gonna wake up this time you know.”

    I lost a friend today.  Did I know him well enough?  Probably not, but the only one who might have know him better was his wife, maybe his kids, but I doubt it.  Will I miss him? Yup, but he will always be in my memory as a smiling freckle faced kid with big ears that joined the army too soon.