War Stories

My Mother the Patriot

by Dick Arnold


By Dick Arnold

I guess all wars are hard on Moms and Dads but, at least in my family, Mom seemed to carry more of the burden regards her first-born being in harms way. Based on a conversation I had with my Dad not long before this death, I now realize he was very concerned too but being from the old school chose not to show it.

True to form with Mom being the dominant figure in the marriage, she also assumed the lead role in energetically doing all she could to support the war effort in general, and my well-being specifically. It was well known in my Vietnam platoon that I received far and away the most packages from home. Mom had discovered that home baked goodies held up remarkably well in transit when packed in popcorn and she averaged sending one package a week. Some of them also included things like toothpaste, candles, vitamins, the hometown paper, and pre-sweetened Kool-Aid. (The Kool-Aid went into canteens to make more palatable some of the yucky water we drank and also worked well with fresh coconut milk; we honestly tried for awhile to learn how to shinny-up the coconut trees but usually resorted to bribing the kids to do it for us or blasting clusters down with our M-16's.) In addition to her Herculean mailing efforts, she also could not resist dabbing in the business of being the watch dog for truth in all local media pronouncements concerning the war.

Martinsville in 1967 was a sleepy town of about 10,000 souls, but it did proudly sport a fledgling radio station. Now one can fill only so much air time with news of the Traffic Court and garage sales notices so in the Summer of '67 the station covered the local Guard unit who was playing soldier at Camp Atterbury. They did a live interview with a sergeant who reflected that the training was going well but that recent heavy rains had created some worrisome mud. A mistake you might ask? Rather a whole series of mistakes. Mom had been listening and immediately called the station with three more or less concise observations: firstly, what made them think that anyone cared about these "play soldiers," secondly, why didn't they interview some folks that had "real soldiers" to worry about, and thirdly, how would that sergeant like to sleep and fight in that mud all the time?

Then there was a situation with the unfortunate Mr. Danny East. Danny was couple of years ahead of me in school, joined the Air Force, and was stationed at Danang as a bona fide REMF. The local paper was doing one of the traditional "our boys at the front" pieces and featured a letter from "Nam" that Danny had sent to his Mom. He mentioned some obviously embellished harrowing escapades involving guarding the airfield perimeter and capped his letter by saying that overall his tour wasn't bad, but the PX did not have his size underwear. Mom no sooner finished the article than she was pounding away on her old Underwood typewriter, working-up an incendiary letter-to-the-editor. Dripping sarcasm, she led off by berating the editor for wasting valuable paper space on inconsequentials and then turned her formidable wrath on Danny. Did he realize that while he was safe and sound in Danang, HER son's unit was heavily engaged barely 30 miles away? And further, he should quit whining about wrong-size underwear as HER son could not even wear any because they literally rotted-off in the heat and humidity. So take THAT and choke it down Mr. East! Yes, brother Dave, who was still living at home, allowed as how Mom was sure embarrassing to be around at times.

However, her finest hour would come during the circumstances of me being wounded. On October 9, 1967 I caught a piece of shrapnel in my shoulder. It was relatively minor though it did become infected and I ended-up spending about three weeks in the hospital. It wasn't that bad -- I was able to listen to the World Series, binge on cold apple juice, and met actress/entertainer Martha Raye who informed me that her husband was also from Indiana. (Martha was a trooper. She made countless trips to Vietnam, including every Christmas for several years, and told reporters that while she had a family at home nothing was more important than these kids. She was also a registered nurse and was known to have pitched-in and helped-out at times. She went too far when she volunteered to go to a forward aid station that later came under mortar fire. General Westmoreland then sent down a directive that under no circumstances was she to go near a place like that again.)

I wrote letters describing what had happened to both Mom and to a girl I was seeing before I left; the basic stuff to the girl and a lot more detail in Mom's. My parents lived in the country outside of town and at that time in small towns like Martinsville the country folks usually received their mail one day late. That is exactly what happened with these two letters which normally would not have been a problem except that this wasn't a normal day. The two occasionally talked by phone, comparing notes and all, and they unfortunately chose the day when the girlfriend had received her letter but Mom hadn't yet. So, after a few minutes of small talk, Docy asked, "So how do you think Dick is?" At that, of course, that well tuned antenna that all Mothers possess started sensing danger. "What do you mean, how is he?" "Didn't you get his letter?" Docy replied and from there things went decidedly down hill. Mom had her read the letter to her about ten times, repeatedly asking if it was in my own handwriting. Finally, Docy was ordered to bring the letter to Mom ASAP so its authenticity could be verified.

While waiting for the courier to arrive, Mom decided to conduct some reconnaissance on her own. At that time our Congressman was Wm. Bray who resided in Martinsville. A legitimate WWII hero he had been Congressman forever and, while once a very capable man, was now in his dotage (more likely what we would call Alzheimer's now). He was given to wearing bow ties, smiling endlessly, and staring vaguely into space when asked anything of substance. (Ronald Reagan would later take this act to award-winning heights when questioned about the Iran-Contra affair.) Anyhow, Mom reached the great man himself, who was of course of no help, but he did offer her the number of one of his aides who handled these matters; the aid in turn directed her to the Army's Casualty Department in Washington, D.C. Mom's emotions by this time were out-of-control and she was alternating between shouting on the phone and crying. Her main message to the poor sergeant at the Casualty Department was, "By God, they had managed to locate me when they wanted to draft me so G—D--- it they should be able to find out exactly how I was now." He attempted to reassure her that it was SOP, if a soldier was wounded, to the extent where his survival was in question, the Army automatically sent a telegram to the family; but that barely registered with Mom of course. Brother Dave, then working 12-8 and trying to get some rest, wakes up, hears Mom hollering and thinks Dad has been in a wreck on his way home. Sister Wendy, who besides the family dog Duke was apparently the only one to even marginally display any calmness, later noted it would have been comical if it had not been so serious.

Dad and Docy arrive simultaneously and Dad, surveying the wreckage of his once peaceful home and in the best tradition of Fathers everywhere -- attempts to interject a little levity. He studies my letter intensely and opines, "The kid writes well don't he Phyliss?" Of course all this gets him is one of those wifely, withering "Bill-how-can-you-at-a-time-like-this?" looks. By now Mom is holding the letter up the late afternoon sunshine, confirms it is my handwriting, notes the absence of any bloodstains, and finally decides I am probably O.K.

My letter to Mom arrives the next day and with two pieces of confirming data she now feels much better. However, still angry at the afore-mentioned Mr. East, she turns my letter over to the local paper as evidence of what REAL soldiering is about. They promptly print it accompanied by my Army photo under a huge headline, "Local G.I. escapes Communist Massacre." (It wasn't that bad, but it was bad enough. I am going to write about that day as the capstone to these stories.)

At any rate, Mom sure loved me, meant well, and I guess that is what really counts.