There were no bunkers, no sound of canons or weapons, no booby traps to defeat.
No snipers in trees taking a peek.
Didn’t see any bodies without arms, legs, or feet.
No helmeted men with AK-47s jumping from the heat.
No smell of sulfur in the air, none in the street.
(Some words above from: It’s A Pretty Good Day So Far.)
I had made it back to the Promised Land. Finally, I was on United States soil!
Judy In Disguise (With Glasses) played as I rushed through the corridors at SFO for a commercial jet that would get me soonest to Wilmington, North Carolina. With the unpleasant reception I had just encountered at the airport, I’m not sure I would have worn my uniform on the flight had it not been required to get the substantial military discount.
When I called Marty from the airport, she didn’t recognize my voice; she hadn’t heard it in more than a year.
Knowing the date and scheduled time of my arrival, Marty’s family and local citizens (remembering I’d worked in Wilmington) assembled a group of one hundred or more at the airport, where they gave me a hero’s welcome.
I awoke from that dream not long after I touched down. It was just Marty at the airport, and that was good enough for me, the girl I’d been dreaming of my entire time in Vietnam.
After more than a year apart, the girl who had waited for me was now standing in front of me, even more, beautiful than I had remembered. Marty was tall and thin with sparkling blue-green eyes, short bleached blond hair, and was in love with me. She was 18. I was 20.
We were wed the next afternoon, one day after my arrival. The ceremony was conducted in a spare bedroom of the preacher’s house who married us. There had been no bridal or wedding shower, no gifts of any kind, just advice.
All of three people attended. Unfortunately, one was Marty’s aunt Hill who kept squawking in her shaky ninety-eight- old sounding voice, “Don’t forget to pay the preacher.” Then, in my ear one minute later, Don’t forget . . . .” To get her to shut up, I palmed him a five-dollar bill before the vows.
Marty was not in a formal gown but radiant. She had a nice yellow-gold wedding band for me. I had the small silver-gold ring for her to match the engagement diamond that she had already lost. She said it was swept up by the surf on the shores of the Atlantic while playing with her little niece.
We headed south out of North Carolina and began our mini-honeymoon with our first stop at the new Holiday Inn® in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. (The city had ways to go before becoming the trendy tourist attraction it is today.)
On the way to see my parents in Mississippi, we drove west through South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama searching the airwaves for our songs (while 9,304 miles apart). Hits like You’re Mt Soul and Inspiration, Happy Together, Wouldn’t it be Nice, and Dedicated to the One I Love.
No shower or wedding gifts in Mississippi either, just advice. But we were given the use of Aunt Dara’s unoccupied house, sans indoor toilet. It was quite a way to make an impression on a new bride, but it was a decent otherwise and free place to extend our honeymoon.
Seven days after leaving North Carolina, we had gone through Marty’s small amount and the $200 or so I had brought. For my one year in Vietnam (where my income was just over $3,000), I spent money on my R & R, paying off Marty’s engagement ring, savings bond debit, a small allotment sent to my folks back home, and to Marty; still, I managed to save $300.00 which the bank sent me before our cross-country trip continued.
We extended our honeymoon, enjoying the benefits of sleeping together as husband and wife and resting in cheap motels along the 1,958.3-mile route to California for my next assignment.
We’d already driven 900 miles from North Carolina in Marty’s Springtime Yellow 1967 Mustang GT® hardtop, with little room for all our worldly belongings, no A/C, threadbare tires, and a broken gas gauge (we ran out somewhere in Oklahoma).
It was a nice car, but somehow she had managed to get saddled with a monthly payment of $105 (about $919 in 2023 money) on a car costing less than $3,000!
Angel Of The Morning, Young Girl, played as we motored through Arkansas, Kind Of A Drag, Magic Carpet Ride rang out in Oklahoma, Green Tambourine, I Wonder What She’s Doing Tonight in Texas. Itchycoo Park, Bend Me-Shape Me, Spooky, in New Mexico and Arizona, and all the hits of January 1968 played as we searched for stations on the long trip west.
Much of our travel West on I-40 ran parallel to Route 66 in many places. We went through cities like Tulsa, Amarillo, and Albuquerque and towns like Shamrock, Tucumcari, and Needles. Our one tourist stop was just a 12-mile detour down old Route 66 to see the three-quarter mile-wide Barringer meteor crater near Winslow, Arizona. Impressive.
Early in the evening, after three days of travel, we rolled into big LA. A spectacular site, Los Angeles; by far more lights than Marty had ever seen and, certainly, as many as I’d seen in large cities.
I’m surprised we found our way through the more than four-thousand square mile city that incorporated some 80 municipalities. As soon as we hit city limits, now a passenger, I began celebrating with a 40oz can of cold Colt-45.™ We had to traverse most of LA — Marty not infrequently stopping at service station restrooms for me — to get to our destination in San Pedro, near the Port of Los Angeles.
Newlyweds, Don & Marty, at Cabrillo Beach, San Pedro, California, in early 1968. (Swan Archives)
We settled into a “furnished” one-bedroom apartment across the street from the hospital at Ft. McArthur in San Pedro, California. We bought new tires, California coverage for the Mustang, some Melmac® dinnerware, and a 23″ B&W Emerson® TV that came in a wheeled cart.
After getting my travel pay, we decided to celebrate a bit. After all, we had made it across the country and me from Vietnam. Not to forget — marriage.
Peppy’s was a San Pedro restaurant with a reputation for excellent food. Although we had a great dinner there, including a good bottle of wine and dessert, it was $20, including the tip (about $172 in 2023 money).
There would be no more outings like that because, on day one, we were in trouble financially. My base pay was $226.20 monthly, plus a $105 housing allowance. (Average income for civilians was around $750.) So, after rent, car payment, insurance, and so forth, we had just over $100 on which to subsist for 30 days.
The $300.00 we left Mississippi with and the travel pay were almost gone. I procured toilet paper from work. We made love as Love Is Blue played on KHJ. An hour later, we agonized over money.
At Ft. MacArthur, a few weeks after I reported for duty at the 37th Command Information Detachment, the officer in charge handed me a tattered box. He smiled and said: “They must have really liked you.” Inside were a Purple Heart and Air Medal (both unexpected) and an Army Commendation Medal. (Maybe someone put me in for those first two medals, knowing what happened with the Bronze Star below.)
I was, of course, honored and also a bit disappointed. I’d heard from a friend in Vietnam that Lt. Blankenship, before his DEROS,* had told the sergeant responsible for enlisted awards, “No Bronze Star** for Swan.” I have no ill feelings for the man; Blankenship will self-destruct all by himself if he doesn’t get his insecurities under control. But, as for myself, I’m disappointed for even sharing this story. Why?
Soldiers doing the real work were the men in the bush, grunts walking point, pulling Listening Post duty in the middle of the night, under constant threat from snipers, ambushes, booby traps, and punji stakes.
Infantrymen in extreme heat or monsoons, in the on-again and off-again rain, men who were lugging 90 lbs or more in rice paddies, through elephant grass, mountainous terrain, and fording rivers and streams; this was their life day in and day out.
Many of the soldiers who did the actual work — the men I honor above — didn’t get a recommendation for a medal at all;*** most were sent home as E-4s, a rank lower than I achieved.
And I carp about not getting my Bronze Star!
A 1st Cavalry trooper stationed in Vietnam with the 7th Cav wrote about a common refrain used by many GIs, “Don’t mean Nothin’.”
We said it every miserable day of our miserable lives. It became our mantra. We said it in all kinds of situations for all sorts of reasons, and we said it a great deal, most often when we were miserable, which was pretty damn often . . . . We said it when it rained, and when it didn’t rain and when it was really hot and when it was even hotter. ‘It Don’t Mean Nothin’ was said a lot.’
We said it to keep from crying, we said it when we stopped moving and when the bloodsucking insects attacked in swarms, and our faces swelled and our hands swelled, and our lips swelled, and our ears swelled and when we thought we were getting malaria, (should we quit taking our pills?) and we thought about how good that would be because you got out of the boonies if you got malaria unless you died from it. Dying from malaria sucked . . . but the prospect of staying inside the wire, sleeping on a cot off the ground, under a dry tent at the hospital, with hot chow, clean sheets, and nobody shooting at you made the risk of a slow, agonizing death from a deadly tropical disease seemed totally worth it. How bad could it be? We were kids. What did we know? ‘It don’t mean nothin.’
Something just don’t feel right. So shout up and saddle up Trooper. Your night on LP, your turn on point, but ‘It don’t mean nothin.’ Jack “Boz” Parente.
*DEROS: Date Estimate for Return from Overseas.
**Most soldiers serving in a similar job as me in PIO were awarded the Bronze Star, higher than the Army Commendation Medal I received.
***There were two medals (“Vietnam Service & Vietnam Campaign”) that were automatic for those who served in Vietnam, needing no recommendation. In addition to those medals, Infantry soldiers who spent the required time in the field received the Combat Infantry Badge, not an insignificant award.
I had nightmares about Vietnam, most every night during our honeymoon and months thereafter.* And I had turned into a wimp, a side Marty had never seen, and a disposition I never had. One day, we were having a get-together with some of my buddies from the post; Marty was acting a little testy, and one of the guys turned toward her and said, “What’s the matter, you on the rag or something?” I laughed with them instead of telling him to knock it off, not to talk that way to my wife.
I was acting like a wuss (Marty called it cowardice), and she was very disappointed in me. It was a problem in our relationship. In a few years, I did an about-face, eventually to the point of wanting to rip off somebody’s face. (Marty called it backbone.)
Just back from Vietnam, I wasn’t trying to live high, but after the mess, I’d been in over there, maybe dinner with drinks once in a while.
But that wasn’t to be. After the $20 outing when we first arrived in LA, the luxury of dinner and drinks was over. Der Wienerschnitzel™ once in a while, maybe.
By the 20th of most months, down to just a few dollar bills, we were looking for change in the sofa and between the car seats. One day while leaving our apartment, I found a five-dollar bill lying flat on one of the steps. Nobody was around. With that five, I got three or four sacks of food from the commissary.
Then a week or two later, I was on gate guard duty (graveyard shift) at a satellite location of Ft. Mac, primarily used for Reserve training. Listening to (Sittin’ On) The Dock Of the Bay on 93 KHJ, at about 0200, a carload of reservists, who had apparently taken advantage of being away from home, appeared at the gate. I was about to motion them in when the driver palmed me a twenty-dollar bill. I assume he thought I was overlooking a missed curfew or their state of inebriation, if not both. My only orders were to determine that a vehicle and its occupants were authorized on the post.
Twenty dollars; that, for me, was a lot of money, especially when you’re broke. Did I feel guilty (no) or tell anyone? No. I splurged with a fifth of Canadian Club®, Marty got her hair done at a salon, and I still had money for groceries.
We had been in California for just a few months, and Marty kept saying she’d been out with girls again and “Everybody’s Pregnant.”
I had a lovely stay-at-home Mom and no baby. Stay tuned.
We had work duty on Saturdays at Ft. MacArthur, though sometimes we were relieved at noon. We were also on constant alert because of the incendiary nature of 1968. Think Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy assignations, the Weathermen, Black Panthers, Bobby Seale, Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, SDS, and Vietnam War Protests, as is oft said, “To name a few.”
There was a rotating on-call system for soldiers like me. Those living off base were required to arrive at our assembly point within a half-hour of notification. Even if not on ready-alert, one could be called and told to remain in place for standby. The Army required that you be reachable at all times, unless on leave or pass; check in with the Command Post before going out to a movie.
Not for those restrictions; I had a chance (after an audition) to be an on-air DJ covering two six-hour weekend graveyard shifts at the Number 1 Rock station in LA, 93 KHJ, and a check for $48. With that gig, I’d have had a better chance at securing a prime-time slot — although still a long shot — in the highly competitive LA market,** the third largest in the U.S.
I’d make it from AFVN An Khe to LA, just not to KHJ. It could have all ended right there.
*Still do sometimes.
**LA market became the second largest in 1984