My April 26 “This week in Pajaro Valley’s past” column included an item about the 1987 dedication of the memorial honoring sixteen Watsonville High School students who died serving in Vietnam. That, and the approach of Memorial Day left me thinking of my own military service during Vietnam.
In 1965 I was 18, unmarried, and had no real prospects for college, so Vietnam duty seemed inevitable. Not choosing to wait for a draft notice, I dodged that by simply enlisting. At the time, three-year enlistees could choose their initial duty station; I chose Europe, figuring I could at least see Paris before Saigon.
The local recruiting office was near the Plaza in the building once located on the site of the Wells Fargo parking lot. After a blur of form signings I was whisked off to Oakland for processing, where high scores in verbal and math tests destined me for clerical training in Fort Polk, Louisiana. When I received orders for Europe, another stroke of luck assigned me to a Pershing nuclear missile unit. As the war escalated, other units around ours were reassigned to Vietnam, but the nukes never were. For us and the rest of the world, that was a good thing.
Every month, however, a levy list arrived at our post identifying individual members of our battalion being transferred to other units in Vietnam. Over the next two years, I saw the names of many friends in my battery appear on that list; but month after month, mine never did.
The first to go was Mitch Lambert, a gawky kid with black-rimmed glasses and a slight Sylvester the Cat lisp. The night before he shipped out we tried easing things with a bit of gallows humor. At lights out, all of us bunking with Mitch began whistling like descending mortar rounds, then slapped our wall lockers and started shouting “Medic!” Mitch just muttered “Aaah, you (expletive) guys!” Next was Freddie Staudigel ... physically a tall beanpole. I joked that he could always camouflage himself as bamboo.
The army dangled a 30-day leave in the states for anyone volunteering for Vietnam, and some were homesick enough to take it. I tried dealing with the homesickness by reading lots of Steinbeck.
Others returned to the states for different, but equally unhappy reasons. It was my sad duty to process the emergency leave orders for fellow artilleryman Luther Redding when his older brother, the great Otis, died tragically in a plane crash.
I tried relieving the tension by writing my first poem. It was entirely forgettable, though I recall the closing lines: “The puppet army is on the march. Its leaders are hidden in mist. I lay in my bunk trying vainly to sleep, and envision my name on death’s list.”
Luckily, my name never appeared on that levy list. And a part of me felt I was probably a little too lucky, for after my discharge a recurring dream began visiting my sleep. It was always the same: After learning I still owed the army another tour of duty, I stood in a large formation awaiting transport to Vietnam.
The dream evolved over the years. My hair grew longer, a beard appeared, and my uniform was replaced by denim ... but I remained locked at attention in that silent formation. Though I had served honorably, I couldn’t shake the guilt of not serving in the combat zone when so many others had.
In the 1980’s the Vietnam Moving Wall was displayed in Santa Cruz behind the county government building. I initially went to see if any of my platoon mates were on it, but then felt compelled to read every name. It takes a long time to read about 50,000 names, even if you scan them so quickly they fall like wheat before a scythe. I’m not a fast reader. It took me all day. Though the enormity of that list left me exhausted, I was relieved to find none of my buddies on it.
The wall is supposed to help bring healing and closure, and I believe it did for me, because after visiting it that day I never again had that dream. Perhaps I finally decided in my heart that my service obligation was fully satisfied.
I still feel humbled by the 16 Watsonville High School students and all Americans who’ve given their lives in Vietnam and other wars past and present so I can now freely express my opinions and enjoy other liberties they died to preserve. That’s why I wanted to offer them these few and admittedly inadequate words of praise and gratitude. Steve Bankhead, rank E-5, serial number RA19837734 snaps to attention once more to salute you for a duty well done.
Steve Bankhead is a resident of Watsonville and a frequent contributor to the Register-Pajaronian. His opinions are his own and do not necessarily represent those of the Register-Pajaronian.
Share on Facebook