I stood ankle deep in the snot-thick anger-red muddy old clay of Quang Ngai, boots ruined, grateful at least for the rubberized poncho that kept the trailing edge of my first typhoon off my shoulders. The storm had torn Chu Lai up quite a bit, but nobody really gave a shit about appearances anymore. We all just wanted to go home now, which made our detail that day all the more ironic.
The plane was late, and Cap'n Rock and I weren't really in the mood. He crouched dink-style under a corrugated tin roof, boonie hat pushed back, sweat running down his clean-cut face, working a field phone back to Division as I hustled toward the runway.
The military King Air swung its business end out of the wind and trundled back along the PSP runway towards us, turbo-props syncing and unsyncing as the pilot sliced through the weather. There was no terminal to speak of. Chu Lai was pretty much the end of the line, a Division-sized afterthought in a war that nobody ever expected to lose. A man who ended up here of his own volition was either crazy or a patriot. I was curious about this gang in the plane, no question.
They were assigned to me and Cap'n Rock for the next five days. We were to escort them, feed them, protect them, and make damn sure they got whatever it was they thought they needed. They were men of some notoriety you see. They were Pittsburgh Pirates and Baltimore Orioles. Major Leaguers come to visit our dirty little war. The engines died, the airstair popped like a pimple on a pterosaur, and seven men clambered into the rain and my life wearing jungle fatigues, baseball caps and smiles.
The first guy I'd know anywhere: 6-3, maybe 215 that year, powerful, purposeful, obviously the leader. Willie Stargell didn't stand on ceremony. He pumped my hand like he was meeting the Commissioner of Baseball.
If I managed to squeeze out a "whaa?!" I don't remember, because I was immediately drenched in a chorus of hellos and a phalanx of handshakes, not to mention politically-correct "daps," the ritualistic Black G.I. greeting that traditionally went on for…seconds.
There was Bob Prince, popular Pittsburgh announcer, who clucked after Willie like a playground monitor all over the tallest eighth grade boy; Willie's teammate, pitcher Jim "Mudcat" Grant, who'd just been traded from Oakland and had certainly found a peculiar way to get his feet wet. There was Merv Rettenmund, the Baltimore outfielder who'd hit .322 his third season with the club, smashing 18 home runs, looking at a great career. Baltimore pitcher Eddie Watt, Baltimore's always-consistent reliever, brought up the rear. There was an up-tight Major from Saigon who waited impatiently for me to salute him, but Willie, the MVP, the Hall of Famer, chilled him right out with:
"'sOK, there, Specialist Run. We got Major Clay's number. It's very low." He saluted the officer casually, though of course as a civilian—and a Major Leaguer—he didn't have to give him the time of day.
"VERY low. Ti Ti," added Mudcat, holding something small between forefinger and thumb, insult to injury. The brothers slapped Dap while Clay glowered. It's funny how you can just tell about certain people, while somebody like Willie, well, somebody like Willie can surprise you Big Time.
The guys were tired by the time they got to us. They'd been in Nam a month already and there was nothing much left that they hadn't seen. They sported unit patches from the Mekong, boonie hats from the Central Highlands, Stetsons from the 1st Cav, and commemorative pins from combat battalions up and down the whole goddamn country.
I'd never run a more successful tour. Everywhere we went, the G.I.s turned out in droves. Willie Stargell! Mudcat Grant! Bob Prince was like family to most of the kids from the East Coast. The Voice of Home.
This was when we still had Heroes, you understand. When boys had men they could look up to. Emulate. Learn from. This was before the Lie became Truth, before Greed became Good, when baseball was something every boy did because it was fun, and if you were good enough, well, heaven might smile upon you and pay you to have fun for twenty summers or more.
The Pirates and the Orioles saw it all that winter: Mortar pits and shit cans. Sucking chest wounds and third degree burns. Amputations traumatic and gangrenous; body bags heavy in the rain. They played pool with men younger than their little brothers; flirted with nurses more fit for Homecoming than triage. They took it all in and, I do believe, they held it very close to their hearts.
And October came, beautiful, that year. I cherish the memory of watching a World Series again, because, you know, sometimes you give up hope.
It was the Orioles and the Pirates. A funny thing. Pittsburgh beat Baltimore in seven games. But Willie and Mudcat and Roberto were down after two losses to start, and the Orioles, you know, were the defending champions, looking to waste the Bucs quick. But the boys from the Steel City came back, and they won it all. You could look it up.
Clemente hit safely in all seven games but, you know, he died a year later flying food and medicine to earthquake victims in Nicaragua after getting his three thousandth hit in his final game.
Willie Stargell finished the 1971 season with 48 home runs—the most in the league—and 125 RBI's. I recall reading an interview in which he was quoted: “My experience in Vietnam led me to want to contribute in a different way. Though I'd heard how bad the conditions were, I'd never experienced anything so shocking. Vietnam helped me realize who the true heroes really are in this world. It's not the home-run hitters.”
I remember the last time I saw Willie Stargell. We were touring 91st Evac Hospital, a big division-sized facility in Chu Lai, dozens of quonset huts, air-conditioned, all connected by swinging doors and hallways.
Major Clay was trying to hustle the players out of there because they had a plane to catch back to Saigon, but Jim and Bob and Mudcat and Marv and Eddie and especially Willie had no intention of cutting short their last handshake tour, not after everything they and those boys had been through.
We were in a bad ward. A lot of blood, a lot of unconscious men. Maybe we were in transit between two easier places, I don't remember, but I do remember Willie stopped in front of the bed of a kid who didn't look like he had a chance. He stood there a minute, and I watched him try to hold it back, and I watched him fail, and I watched Wille Stargell, MVP, Hall of Famer, one of the greats, run from that hospital bed in Vietnam, out the first connecting door, and the next, and maybe a third. And I followed him out into the hot Southeast Asian night, and we held each other, and we watched the moon come up, turning our tears silver, precious as only life can be.
- I was a prisoner in a Mexican Whorehouse
- A long time gone
- How to brush your teeth in a combat zone
- Libber and I go to war
- Fate takes a piss
- Thanks For the Memory
- Back in the Shit
- LZ Waterloo
- Saturday Night, Numbah Ten
a long commute
Andy X Kirby True
a tale of two Woodstocks
Buy a Gun
Dawn at The Wall
Feat of Clay
I was a free man once, in Saigon
The Joint Chiefs of Staff
the shit we ate
Combat Infantryman Badge
Firebase Mary Ann
the 1st Cav
The Highest Traditions
Those Who Forget
Under the Southern Cross
Whither the Phoenix?
A Bright Shining Lie
Apocalypse Now Redux
Hearts and Minds
We Were Soldiers