Chapter 6: In The Game & 1580, WAMY

Riding the school bus (90 minutes a day) sitting in boring classes and occupied with my mundane chores, I had plenty of time to think, to contemplate my lofty goals and aspirations. A few times my mind wandered toward a more realistic assessment of fulfilling my dream of leaving the farming life, and becoming a DJ playing music for the masses. Should I just take the advice of the man at the “bottom of the stairs,” (last chapter) maybe concentrate on my studies in high school, get into a good university, work at the school’s radio station, be the first in my family to graduate from college? Naw.

I did not give up on WAMY, and I continued to visit at every opportunity.


Joel Camp, one of the full-time announcers, about twenty-three and blond, allowed me to stay in the control room when he was on-air. He played Roy Orbison, Chubby Checker, Connie Francis and other popular songs of the early sixties.

His favorite, however, was Ray Charles, and he brought in all his personal albums of the blind soul singer, which gave him the opportunity to play all of his favorites on his radio show. I helped him straighten up when his shift ended and followed him to his car, a striking white on white 1960 Thunderbird with leather bucket seats. Did I mention he was also engaged to a beautiful girl?  Now I knew; I had to become a DJ.

After all my time in the studio with Joel, I would soon learn — surprised, disappointed, crushed — that someone else had been working on him.  And he wanted to become a DJ too. He was older, had already graduated high school, and not only knew Joel;  they were friends.

I had been counting on maybe filling in for somebody on the weekend. But now Mel Webster, having landed the entire weekend shift, was spinning The Four Seasons, Bobby Vinton, The Shirelles and, you know, Elvis!  The first time I heard his whiny voice on the radio, my Momma slapped me for what I said.


The next few months, I tried to forget about radio. I was occupied with church, school, and of course, helping out on the farm. I was also praying about my future and trying out for the JV basketball team at Hatley. Although enthusiastic and six-feet-tall, I barely made second string. The coach said I was over-anxious on the court, and frequently I jumped into the free-throw lane too soon, always causing a penalty.

Then one night on our home court, I was warming the bench in a close game. Coach Tubb yelled to his assistant, “Give me some muscle.” After pointing to my chest, I sprinted onto the court; me Number 18 in Blue and Gold representing the Hatley Tigers in a contested game of basketball.  In the ten minutes or so I was on the court, I surprised everyone (myself included) laying in six points, in the game we won against rival Greenwood Springs. I wondered to myself if I did that . . . what else was possible?

Number 18
Swan the six-shooter. (Art by Allison)

I volunteered at school for anything that would get me out of class and tend to make me more popular, or anything remotely related to broadcasting. I set up the PA system for football, basketball, and did some announcing of the games; anything that would get me some exposure. Once I played the national anthem (on a turntable) at the wrong speed before a home football game.  Screw-ups like that certainly got me exposure, just not the way I wanted.

As a member of the 4-H Club and Future Farmers of America, I did well in oratory competition and was in a few plays. In the first eight years of school, I had made excellent grades, now they were just average.

School was now about number five on my list of priorities after radio (really long shot), Girls (no shot at all), basketball (long shot), and church (lay-up). Instead of taking notes in History class, I would doodle and scribble in various and elaborate ways in my notebook: W-A-M-Y.

Riding the bus back from a basketball game one evening, though, I sat next to a girl; we held hands and rested our heads together. That was it.

School was not a fun time for me. I was not a jock, or one of the tough guys, and my hair was too curly for a flat top, a very popular hairstyle at the time. This wasn’t an era when being a little different was cool. It wasn’t that I was unattractive, but I did have the teenage curse of pimples.

After holding hands, with that girl on the bus, and that one improbable basketball game, my confidence was rising like water under the Tallahatchie Bridge after a spring thunderstorm.


I doubled down on my efforts for scoring that radio job.  I was determined to be ready when the chance came, I would need little or no training on the equipment, but I would need an operator’s license from the FCC to broadcast over the airwaves.

When I received my packet from the FCC, I breezed through the 12 question test, signed a statement that I was no felon (whatever that was), and a U.S. citizen and sent my postage-paid application to New Orleans. “The successful applicant should receive their license in eight to ten days,” said the FCC. My confidence was blooming like a Mississippi Magnolia.

Day-10 nothing, day-12 nothing, day-14 nothing; I asked those around the station who had gone through a similar process, but none had experienced any such delays. With practically everyone in the County knowing of my dream, the fuss, the preparation, and my effort — could I have actually flunked the simple test?!

Day 15, bingo, my Operator License arrived in the mail. My address was Greenwood Springs; the letter had been misdirected to the city of Greenwood (not Springs) Mississippi, causing the delay. Then I got my driver’s license using Dale’s ’37 Chevy.

Scan_20200721_220151After a six-month probationary period, my regular FCC license was issued. (Swan archives)


All the while, Momma was praying that God would have his will in my life. By now, I think Momma and God too knew, that I would never be a preacher of the gospel.

Speaking of God, I don’t know if he led me to WAMY on this particular late spring afternoon, but after sweeping out school buses all day — the heat inside, at least a hundred — I stopped by the radio station. The fellow I had written to in West Point about a job had just been hired as on-site manager for WAMY.

I worked on the new manager like Bro. McLeod went after lost souls. I was ready right now, I said; I had my FCC license, access to a car, and my driver’s license. I was a better announcer than Mel, and I asked to prove it with an audition. For Mel, I said it was just another job; for me, it was a calling.  Mel knew I was jousting for his job, and he no doubt concluded that I wasn’t going away, at least not quietly.

Then a few days later, a minor miracle occurred: Mel quit! He took a job operating the printing press at the local newspaper; technically, he was going to work for a competitor. I told you he was not radio material.

Don Swan would be on the air in Amory — W-A-M-Y —  the Five Thousand watt regional Clear Channel, 1580 AM! I had landed the entire weekend shift, sun-up to sundown, Saturday, and Sunday.

WAMY license plate
Promotional license plate (circa 1963) given out as prizes by the station. (Swan archives)

The cotton picking, cow milking, pimpled-faced class clown, and dreamer would be rocking in the free world, playing music for the masses.

Still 15, albeit just weeks away from my next birthday, I was let loose with Five-Thousand watts of power booming to tens of thousands in Northeast Mississippi and Northwest Alabama and FCC rules, if not followed precisely could result in the station losing its license to operate. No pressure.

On that first Saturday, my first day on the air, I skipped up the flight of stairs to the second floor of the unremarkable old two-story brick building on Main Street, which housed the station. I turned into the hall, unlocked the second door on the right, and walked in through the record repertory and past the live broadcast studio. Straight ahead was the door with an overhead “On-Air” light.

I anxiously stepped into the nerve center of WAMY — the 8 by 12-foot climate-controlled studio. In the control room, there was lots of sound-proofing, and the large window facing Main street was opaque except for a three by the 12-inch slot that gave me a perfect view, just to my right, of the Bank of Amory’s state of the art digital time and temperature display.

I powered-up the electronic devices, retrieved the weather forecast from the Teletype, and checked for any bulletins. I assembled my logbooks, and two pens with black ink in front of the control board and made sure the Emergency Broadcast System cart was in its compartment and queued a record on each of the two turntables.

Then I initiated the five-minute procedure to warm up and activate the transmitter.

At precisely six- a.m. I pressed play on the pre-recorded sign-on tape, fitted my earphones, positioned the mic close up, and sat down.

I was literally ready — to Rock ‘n’ Roll, and in 1963 it was no cliché or metaphor.

Had I crashed and burned coming home from my first shift at WAMY, I would not have died in vain.

Spoiler alert. I would not screw this up — too much.

Chapter 7: That’s All Right (Mama) Elvis

I had made it to the microphone and to the music, what I’d been dreaming of for ten years, spreading goodwill to the masses. It was better than I could have imagined. But I didn’t make a big deal of my debut at WAMY, yet anyone tuning in — for my first show — must have been thinking: “Where’s the turnip truck this country bumpkin just fell off?”

Spoiler alert: I would become a popular DJ for the number one radio station in Denver and had a chance for a weekend shift, had the U.S. Army not intervened, for the number one station in Los Angeles!

elvis
Just in case you don’t remember how Elvis and I looked. (Wiki commons.Com)
Scan_20190822_123436
It’s not what you’re thinking. It’s his Bible! (Public sources, Commons)
R-1204770-1200578235.jpeg
(Swan collection)

The first song I played on-air in Amory was by Elvis, That’s All Right.

Well that’s all right mama

That’s all right for you

That’s all right mama, just any way you do,

Well that’s all right, that’s all right

That’s all right now mama, any way you do

Well Mama, she done told me, Papa done told me too

Son, that girl you’re foolin’ with

She ain’t no good for you

But that’s all right now mama, any way you do

I’m leavin’ town, baby

I’m leavin’ town for sure

Well, then you won’t be bothered with

Me hanging ‘round your door

Well, that’s all right, that’s all right

That’s all right mama, anyway you do

Ah dala dee dee deelee

Dee dee deelee Dee dee deelee, I need your lovin

That’s all right,

Arthur_Crudup
Andrew Crudup. (Commons)

That’s all right mama, anyway you do

(A regional hit for Elvis and a former blues record by its Author, Andrew Crudup.)

Some, in the music world, would later make a case That’s Alright (Mama) was the first Rock ‘n’ Roll record.

From our old farmhouse, Momma was getting me up at 4 a. m. fixing my breakfast and packing my lunch. Dale was providing his ’37 Chevy for my 20-minute drive — half on gravel roads — southwest to Amory for my 6 a.m. sign-on.

Momma was constantly reminding me not to hang out with the wrong crowd. And that included the son of Bro. McLeod, Johnny, who was known to hang out at the pool hall in Amory. It was off-limits, considered a sin by our church and others, as gambling might be going on. Playing cards and dancing was also prohibited by our church and Momma had a rule about playing with toy guns, she didn’t allow it because kids pretended to shoot each other with them.

I asked Bro. McLeod for his blessing as working on Sunday would rule out my attendance at church. If this was something I really wanted as a career, he said he was fine with it, and besides, I was airing religious programs on Sunday.

One of the Sunday morning features on WAMY was an African-American singing group, “The Spiritual Mourning Doves,” a gospel quartet. They had a 15-minute show at 9 a. m. Typically, they paid the $5.00 fee with three or four crumbled-up one-dollar bills and the rest in coins. They were amazing singers and harmonizers. They did not stop when their time was up, so I usually kept them on-air for a couple of extra minutes, then slowly faded-out their music.

The Blackwood Brothers came to Amory for a show, and I was assigned to do a remote for WAMY. The brothers were a quartet who sang religious songs and were very popular throughout the South.

Elvis had seen them perform at the First Assembly of God church in Memphis. As a young Christian boy, meeting and interviewing the brothers was an unexpected honor. The Blackwood Bros. would sing backup on two gospel albums recorded by Elvis.

I was never late for work or failed to get the transmitter on the air, and the manager actually complimented my performance as a DJ. He even said, I had a radio voice. That was before, one day, trying hard to sound like a big-time DJ, I called Amory the windy city just like Larry LuJack on WLS referred to Chicago.

The equipment at WAMY wasn’t exactly state of the art. So, if I had to be away from the control board for a while, I’d turn the modulation especially low in case a preacher got carried away with a hallelujah — loud enough to overpower the transmitter — and knock the station off the air.

After a Sunday morning of religious programming, I was always anxious to play some Rock ‘n’ Roll, and the only thing that stood in my way on this morning was one last live church service from The First Baptist of Amory.  

In order for them to go on-air at the appointed time, I inserted a cable that allowed them to hear the WAMY broadcast on a speaker at the church. This Sunday morning was no different, and their service began as usual.

Anxious as I was for the service to end, I forgot to remove the cable, meaning that my broadcast would be heard on the speaker in the church. As was my luck, a funeral was to commence immediately after their service.

The first thing the grievers heard was my over the top introduction of Jimmy Gilmer’s Sugar Shack kicking off the afternoon of Rock. Did I mention that my boss was in attendance at Amory’s First Baptist on this very morning?

So, when the mourners at the funeral were serenaded with: There’s a crazy little shack beyond the tracks . . . my boss was none too happy, and his tone might have been harsher had he not been calling me from the pastor’s study.  I think he knew I got the message, and Mr. Boren never brought it up again.

I sold advertising that allowed the replay (of games I’d announced) of Hatley High School Football games on WAMY. None of the larger schools had done that, and WAMY would have been their only source.

I was popular at school, my grades were improving, and the girls were taking notice — calling me — wanting me to play records for them.

I knew my fortunes had changed when I got a date with pretty Eunice Melcher who was going semi-steady with the biggest jock in our high school, Woddie Gregory. We went to WAMY’s Christmas party at our sister station in West Point. It was the most fun we’d had on a date, thus far. I mostly shunned the girls at Hatley. I was dating girls from other and larger schools. Take that, Brenda Nell.

I was elected President of the Student Body (about 300 members) at Hatley High School, beating Jimmy Lynn, a popular and studious student with the last name of Carter. I was even appreciated more at Hatley Missionary Baptist Church. Bro. McLeod remembered me in his prayers, asking that my work be blessed. Could it get any better?

Student Body President
Don Swan at lectern as the Student Body President. (Swan Collection)
 s-l225-1

I thought about the time when a considerate relative, knowing I rarely got a soft drink, brought me a six-pack of those small six-ounce bottles of Coca-Cola® on a Friday afternoon when I was about 11. My brother was fond of telling people, in a lighthearted manner, that I finished the last bottle just before leaving for church Sunday morning.

I had guzzled 36 ounces of that cold carbonated sweet delight — secret recipe — tasting of vanilla and cinnamon in less than 48 hours. Now, I could afford an entire case of Coke and drink as much as I wanted.

A girl had been calling me on Sunday mornings at WAMY, telling me I was a great DJ and eventually proclaiming her love for me. Joy said she looked a lot like Connie Francis (Popular singer of hits such as Who’s Sorry Now).  I told her I looked a lot like Elvis.

Lynn, the older woman receptionist (maybe twenty-six) at WAMY, took an interest in looking out for me — no doubt seeing me as an immature 15-year-old who was going to need it.  Joy and I had talked for hours at a time (while the religious programming aired) every Sunday morning over several weeks; then, suddenly, the calls stopped.

Lynn knew about Joy, my telephone girlfriend, but lied to the Southern Bell investigator about phone calls to the station’s telephone emanating from Memphis that amounted to several hundreds of dollars in long-distance charges. I assumed that Joy’s mother had finally learned of the phone bill and was none too happy.

Joy was lonely and needed someone to talk with, and I was more than willing. I later heard that she was racked with polio and pretty much housebound.  I’m sure Joy was heartbroken about our telephone break up, I know I was, I loved her a little as well. I never heard from her again. Well, so much for the egotistical DJ.

But my real joy was the music; I could hardly wait for one record to end, so I could put on the next one. And I never imagined that soon I would be introducing to my audience a musical phenomenon: The Fab Four from Liverpool and the British invasion.

While filling in for others on a weekday shift at WAMY, I was excited that a doctor had called my show to request a song. I told Lynn right away that Dr. Murphy wanted to hear Where Did Our Love Go (by The Supremes.)  She said, “I’ll bet he does,” as she filled me in on a little gossip. Then a few days later, Lynn burst into the control room just as the “On-Air” light flickered out. “Don, you won’t believe this, you have fan mail from New York City!” (The largest radio market in the U.S.) she cried out. They had tuned-in long enough to describe the songs I played, remember my name, and of course, our call letters. 

Everyone at the station was excited. It was good for WAMY. Advertisers at the local furniture store, Brassfield-Horn, would now surely have rich New Yorkers as customers.

Take that, Jr. High bullies who were enjoying a good laugh at my expense just a few years earlier. “Hey Swan’s Down Shit Mix (Vulgar spin of the then-popular Swan’s Down Cake Mix), you’re wearing my old T-shirt, you know how I know?” With everyone anticipating his response, the bully said, “I used to rub my sweat off on the sleeve, and the stain’s still there.” Everyone on the crowded school bus burst into laughter, except me. The last I heard about the bully, he was picking cotton at the infamous Parchman State Penitentiary in Mississippi.

Getting to WAMY now, I had the use of my brother’s almost new black VW Beetle with bucket seats, and four on the floor.  Dale had a company truck, so between him and Momma, it was decided that I should use the VW as a safer mode of travel.  Although not great for taking a date to the Drive-In, or streetlight showdowns, I was very appreciative. 

With a $1.25 an hour for my WAMY job, and without rent or car payments, I had sufficient money for gas and enough for as many dates as I could fit in, at least two or three a week.

baby-ruth-king-size.png
(Courtesy Nestle)

I thought back to when I was about ten years old.  Our school bus driver, Jimmy Dale Parham, stopped by Miller’s (country store) before finishing his route. A portable radio suspended from the rearview mirror was playing All Shook Up by Elvis. He returned to the bus, sat down in the driver’s seat, and unwrapped about half of the white and blue wrapper with red lettering of his 3.6oz. Baby Ruth®. He bit into his 5-cent bounty ever so slowly as he held it with his right-hand, awkwardly, on the steering wheel.

Jimmy Dale chewed on that beautiful bar — my mouth-watering with envy — for what seemed like 20 minutes. I sat there staring and dreaming of the day I could walk into a store and get one of my own six-inch wonders of roasted peanuts, coconut oil, and caramel nougat covered with luscious chocolate. Now I could afford to buy the whole display.

Chapter 8: Top Dawg Radio Tupelo

Only two things ever came easy for me: Running my Mouth and Falling in Love, and the latter would sometimes fetter my progress in reaching my goals.  I am amazed and envy people who get all the way through college or even high school unscathed, not bogged down with love.  Of course, love and relationships are a wonderful thing, if you can love and not get married or if married not to have children too soon.

Now, as a popular DJ, my dating pool had expanded at least fifty-fold. The temptation was irresistible; I could have fallen in love on practically every date, for no other reason than to have sex. This was not uncommon in the Bible Belt of the early to mid-sixties. Mississippi was not exactly Haight-Ashbury. People actually got married in Mississippi during this period just to have sex.

I, too, was one of those good Christian boys, but not so good that I would have turned down easy sex before marriage. There were a few boys my age who were sexually active (or so they claimed) and man did I envy them! I also knew boys who carried a condom in their wallets for so long that they were rendered useless and kept having to replace them.

Why does mother nature (more like mother evil) make puberty such a driving force? Not for all, I guess, but it was for me and lots of other boys I knew. I remember sitting in study hall — a few times in the tenth-grade — thinking of nothing but sex. I must have been “blessed” with high testosterone levels; on the bright side, I had a “radio voice” at age 15.


Her name was Linda Smith, if you can believe it, and she was a student from Amory, the largest High School in Monroe County. She was my first love. And there was Carolyn (she’s probably relieved, that I don’t remember her last name) from the same school. She was not the next love, but love at the same time, together, simultaneously. Men.

Elvis once said, “I wouldn’t call girls a hobby. It’s a pastime.” As for me, I’d say it was a necessity.


I ventured to Tupelo occasionally and had visited Elvis Presley Park and the shotgun-style house where Elvis was born. Another performer who would later become famous, Herschel Krustofsky (AKA Krusty the Clown) of the fictional and popular TV show, The Simpsons, was said to have briefly appeared in Tupelo as a mime.

The seat of Lee County, Tupelo was the first recipient of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s electrical grid in 1934; providing the community with reliable lights and more. What excited me was Tupelo’s twenty-thousand souls, four times the size of Amory. It was also the home to two radio stations.

One day on my way back from Tupelo (around June 1964), listening to Please Please Me by The Beatles, I got a ticket for a rolling stop and returned to Tupelo to pay the fine. I wanted to visit “WTUP high atop the Hotel Tupelo.” After leaving the courthouse, I spotted the rectangular 10-foot-tall lighted “WTUP 1490” logo rotating from the top floor.

When I stepped off the elevator, I saw an entire wing of the fourth floor* dedicated to the studios of  “Top Dawg” radio. And it had the ratings to back it up. WTUP operated at 1,000 watts on 1490kh, 24 hours-a-day playing the hits.  (250 watts, sundown to sun up.)

Hotel Tupelo
“WT & 14” logos (partially blocked) for WTUP 1490 that rotated behind and above “Hotel Tupelo” sign station located on top floor. Cheerleaders on station’s ‘Cuda, used as a news cruiser, note antenna on rear bumper. (Courtesy Wiki Commons)

At WTUP that day, I made an audition tape, but they hired me anyway. I would be a disc jockey in Elvis’ hometown at age 16 playing his music and lots more Rock ‘n’ Roll! It was a wonderful time to be a disc jockey.

I left WAMY with virtually no notice. I didn’t want WTUP to change their minds. In a scramble to find someone, they replaced me with Mel Webster.

WTUP was the #1 station in a market of two. Elvis had sung on our competing station, WELO, at a very early age, and he was a no-show the first time he was scheduled.  By now, WELO was playing a format of easy listening music; now we were the Elvis station. The two were once sister stations whose call letters spelled (w)tup(w)elo.

WTUP operated with state-of-the-art equipment and a full-time engineer. I had no problem adapting to the new set-up, and I was surprised (being the new guy) that the Program Director gave me the 7 p.m. to Midnight slot, instead of the graveyard shift of Midnight to 6 a.m.

WTUP’s modern studio was about 12 x 12 feet, with soundproofing, four turntables, a tall cart machine, and a wide RCA board.  A large rectangular microphone and electronic clock was positioned in front of the high-back leather chair where the earphones lay. To the right, records were kept in slots for easy access.   A large window behind the console provided a view into the newsroom-live performance studio. Entrance to the control room was a small door with “On Air” light just to the left of where the DJ sat. There was even a small restroom, with an access door on the back wall. Phone calls were announced by strobe lights flashing, just below the ceiling.

I was accepted by the other Jocks, and this was no small feat for a 16-year-old who had not yet finished high school. We were getting all the new records,  had a playlist, a music survey, and our own jingles.  If there were a record we somehow missed, the station would just buy it locally. I had upgraded to a station just 27 miles north of Amory, but a world away, I sensed.

Trying to shed some of my southern accent and pronunciation of words, Charlie Brewer, the program director, said I might have gone a bit too far when I began pronouncing “again” /e’ geyn/  instead of /əˈɡen/.  (Translation: I said a-gain for again). Then a few weeks later, he admitted, “Don, I do believe I head the doggone President of the United States [Johnson] pronounce again, the same as you,” and laughed.

The manager told me I was doing a good job, and he raised my salary slightly above minimum wage after a few months on air. He had two rules for me: “Sound happy and don’t cut any audition tapes.” We enjoyed such a good reputation in the South that a decent air check from WTUP was likely good for a job in a larger market, and the manager didn’t want the turnover.


After my five-hour shift, playing My Girl by Mary Wells, Baby I Love You by the Four Tops, and all the hits on 1964, I usually stayed at Hotel Tupelo (gratis in an overflow bunk) and got up in time to make the 40-minute drive before my first class at Hatley High. This was almost enough to make me drop out. I missed a lot of school, fell asleep in class, as President of Student Body, this behavior was ridiculous. But, I was making good money — had lots of fans, and girlfriends too. Trigonometry just wasn’t doing it for me.

img767
Courtesy Tupelo Daily Journal.

Girls calling my show in Tupelo were much different from those in Amory in several ways. First, there were so many, and they were calling at night. Pre-teens all the way to late teens and beyond were calling me complaining about their boyfriends, lack of boyfriends, and everything about love and sex. A few older ones actually talked about the music: many were just plain horny.

A heavy responsibility indeed for a 16-year-old, I assumed they assumed I was at least a 20.

Back in Amory, Linda and Carolyn eventually realized I was two-timing and learned of my female fans in Tupelo. They handed me my heart, dropped out of my fan club. That hurt for at least a month, and when you’re 16, 30-days is a long time. Linda and I believed that we would be together for a long time.

But Tupelo was brimming with pretty girls and most of them were listening to me play their favorite music like Chapel Of Love by the Dixie Cups; My Boy Lollipop–Millie Small; I Can’t Help Myself–Four Tops; This Diamond Ring–Gary Lewis & The Playboys; Baby I’m Yours–Barbara Lewis & Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me–Mel Carter.

I’d been working at WTUP for about a month when one evening about an hour into my show, I answered one of the request lines expecting a pre-teen girl, but it was a male caller. I assumed it was a jealous boyfriend telling me to quit giving his girlfriend advice. (Usually by me telling her to dump the boyfriend.)

But this mature-sounding fellow began telling me that I was a great DJ, one of those “What are you doing here” kind of things. In fact, he was a scout looking for raw talent for radio stations in larger markets, he professed. He would just need to meet with me briefly, face to face, for a few minutes.

I thought of the Roger Miller song I’d played on the radio many times, Kansas City Star “Better job, higher wages, expenses paid and a car” it goes. But he decides to stay put because he’s a Kansas City Star.

The man was calling from nearby; in fact, he could meet me in the lobby in just a few minutes to discuss the details. I called the desk manager in the hotel lobby and told him I’d be meeting a man down there. And just as the five-minute ABC News feed began,  I rushed down to the lobby.

I met him as planned. He was about 30, average looking, and insisted on coming with me toward the studio. I allowed him to take the elevator (with an operator) to the fourth floor with me, but told him under no circumstances were visitors permitted inside the station after hours. Then he propositioned me in the hallway. I made a quick getaway and locked the door behind me. (I hadn’t even had sex with a woman, let alone a man!)

ABC News was wrapping up with the sports report when got back to the studio, with no time to spare. I can’t remember what disappointed me more, the fact that I had been approached by a gay man** (in 1964 Mississippi) who really had no job (well maybe a certain kind of job) or that he probably didn’t even believe I was an especially good disc jockey. I told no one.


One of my fellow DJ’s saw through my “lots of girl’s image” — probably knew the truth — and set me up with a nurse’s aide at one of their party houses. I had talked to scores of horny girls but had never met up with them, and despite my bravado as a Top-40 DJ, all the girls I’d been dating were celibate just like me. My first score was not the girl of my dreams, but Lord knows like in broadcasting, one has to start somewhere. I didn’t completely remove my pants, just down around my ankles, and it was really quick.

I’m sure it was great for her, too. I felt guilty for days and didn’t advertise it.

*Possibility the tallest building in Tupelo at the time.

**I did not then (in 1964) nor do I now have any animus toward gay people. I believe such an incident was a rare occurrence in 1964 Mississippi (and I now understand that “propositioning” is not a typical homosexual practice). I told no one of the event until now; it was no big deal, except that I was really crushed the man was not there to offer me the kind of job I was expecting.

Chapter 9: Rocking in Elvis’ Hometown

I imagined the cloud I’d been floating on was now soaring to the heavens. Life was good. But leave it to me to nitpick something. I had dreamed, wanted, worked, and finally became a DJ motivated by Elvis and my first time on-air in Mid-63 there was just one Elvis song: (You’re The) Devil In Disguise in Billboard’s top 100. Of course, there were his previous hits to play. But I was anxious to say, “Here’s another new song from The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.”

When I reached another milestone of becoming a DJ in his hometown, in 1964, there was no Elvis on the Top 100!  Not a one. That was not a total surprise as the Beatles were storming America in April 1964, no less than eight of the Fab Four’s songs made the Top 100 that year, and five of their songs were number’s 1-5 at the same time! Who didn’t want to hear the risqué I Want To Hold Your Ha-a-a-and  five times in a row? That same month and year, another phenomenon that appealed to the youth of American was released.*

Although many fans thought they were hearing a new Elvis song in 1964, instead it was an Elvis sound alike, with a slight similarity in looks, (but not Elvis impersonator) the handsome Terry Stafford with Suspicion that made it all the way to number 22 on the Top 100 in 1964.

Then in 1965, Crying In The Chapel by Elvis came in at number nine on Billboard’s Top 100. On WTUP’s Sonic 60s survey, it went to Number One. Unchained Melody–The Righteous Bros, You’ve Got Your Troubles–The Fortunes–Little Things–Bobby Goldsboro and I Can’t Get No Satisfaction by the Rolling Stones were big hits in 1965.(Readers of my hard copy book, get out your magnifying glasses.)

WTUP Top Dawg
Note more Elvis hits on our survey. (WTUP)

At WTUP, I did remotes, (broadcasting live), at grand openings for car dealerships, furniture stores, record shops, and the like. That exposure turned into jobs as Master of Ceremonies (MC) for music venues.

When Jerry Lee Lewis came to Tombigbee State Park near Tupelo, for a performance, I was there to introduce and MC for him and the other bands. Jerry Lee was the headliner with hits like Whole Lottta’ Shakin,’ Great Balls Of Fire, and Rockin’ Pneumonia. I was excited and playing it like a seasoned pro, I thought. When making a dramatic introduction of his band members and asking them to say “Hello Tupelo” I inadvertently bopped Jerry Lee’s drummer in the mouth with my mic.

Jerry-Lee-Lewis
Jerry Lee Lewis performs in Elvis’ hometown in 1965.  (Photo courtesy Wiki Commons)

I was showing off on stage like I was part of the band when a member of the audience handed me a request. “Not doing no damn gospel song” Jerry Lee told me. As of this writing, fortunately, he’s still alive and living in Mississippi.  I hope this doesn’t piss the “Killer” off for me telling this story of his implied disrespect to the good, God-fearing members of his audience. Although his moniker “Killer” isn’t to be taken literally, he is known to have a mean streak. Hopefully, I am so insignificant, he wouldn’t waste his energy. For that gig, I was given a $20 bill, almost a week’s salary at WTUP.


Since I wasn’t working Sunday mornings, I made an occasional visit to Hatley Missionary Baptist Church and was happy to hear, see and talk with Bro. McLeod. Now I was thinking I probably would have taken my first radio gig without his blessing. Of course, I didn’t tell him that I’d downed almost an entire bottle of lukewarm Miller High Life® — Baptists don’t have confessionals — from a bootlegger up in Lee County. (Mississippi was a dry state.)

Anyhow, I didn’t like the taste and didn’t have another beer for a year or two, and never in excess. I couldn’t understand the appeal it had for so many.  A lot, I assumed, had to do with its illegality in the state. How wrong was that?


I was driving back home from Tupelo one Friday evening in a steady rain when I saw car lights in my lane at an upcoming curve. At about 50 miles-per-hour, I swerved left to avoid the headlights and rolled the Beetle about four times before landing right side up in a cornfield. The lights I’d seen came from a telephone utility truck that was parked partially in my lane and on the shoulder of the road with his brights on; the man drove me to the hospital in his truck.

I was met at the hospital by WTUP’s manager (where I was treated and released). He took care of the bill and drove me to his house in his white 1965 GTO convertible. I will remember for a long time that ride, in his four on the floor 389cid Tri-power Pontiac®, and the taste of the coffee he gave me spiked with hard liquor. It was worse than the accident. Like beer before, I thought the appeal for spirituous beverages must be small.  Wrong again.


The next day I was sore, but I needed to see the car that, during the flips, hadn’t crushed into my head. The roof of the Black Beetle remained intact from the blacktop scrapes, and its tumbles in the field — the engine, front end, not so much. Someone said the speedometer was stuck at 90 mph, its highest reading. (That’s a joke, the Bug would barely do 70 on a slight downhill.) Dale, who had given it to me on permanent loan, declared it totaled. There was no insurance coverage.

Now that I had no transportation, the station allowed me the use of its almost brand-new news cruiser, a red ’64 Falcon with a white convertible top with a 260cid V-8 and stick shift. I was making just above minimum wage, but the fringe benefits, wow. Now, I was motivated to finish high school.

The first time I drove up to Hatley High in that cool convertible, radio playing  House of the Rising Sun: life was so fantastic, it could have ended right there.


In May of 1965, at age seventeen, I graduated Hatley High — barely. Four months later, I was fired from WTUP.

The same station that allowed me to play Elvis in his hometown, opportunity to be on-air when the Beatles were taking America, advance above my peers, and gratis use their convertible was tossing me to the street. I had made an audition tape of my show, an air-check as it’s known (which was strictly against the rules).

Who had narked on me about making the tape? I believe it was the same DJ who set me up with the girl at their party house, not so long ago.

*The 1964.5 Ford Mustang, of course.

Chapter 10: Wings To Wilmington

It was my last show in Tupelo, spinning King Of the Road on turntable two, I had no plan, nowhere to go, I hadn’t even sent out any audition tapes.

I picked up one of the phone lines, expecting a preteen girl wanting to hear Herman’s Hermits, but it was a male caller. The man identified himself as a Program Director (PD) in Wilmington, North Carolina.  North what? They had an immediate opening; did I know anyone at WTUP who might be interested?

Okay, very funny, this had to be a practical joker or a man hitting on me. But I really didn’t think any Jocks at WTUP would have someone prank me and my audience didn’t know it was my last night on the air.

The PD calling was covering the shift that needed filling. He asked me to hold. I heard him announce the end of California Girls and, while giving the weather said something like, in case you’re going to the beach. Beach? Yes. Wilmington was a short ride from two popular beaches, Carolina and Wrightsville (Think: Wright Bros). Never seen the ocean before.

2022a7748d67703cc2d452a7bb709187
Wrightsville Beach, near Wilmington. (Courtesy N.C. Convention & Visitors Bureau)

I surprised myself by negotiating with him on salary and an airline ticket to get there, and I didn’t tell him I was on my last shift. I would have taken my first two jobs for anything they offered, and although I’d  just turned eighteen, I had gained some confidence in being able to deal with the realities or trying to make a living. No more free rent and car.

I was headed to a city about four times the size of Tupelo at more than double my salary. I would be making my first airplane flight — for free.

The last couple of songs I played for the good people of Tupelo, That’s Alright and another Elvis song from Haram Scarum few had probably heard, Go East, Young Man.

Wilmington-13
USS North Carolina with Wilmington in the background. (Courtesy Wiki Commons)

Momma, of course, didn’t want me to go. And although I hadn’t lived at home full-time for a couple of years, Momma certainly was not happy for me moving so far away. I had no reservations whatsoever.


Dale was excited for me, knowing I was on the way to fulfilling my dream. He picked me-up in his new 1965 Chrysler Newport coupe for the first leg of the trip. On the radio, I’m Henry (the) VIII, I Am, by Herman Hermits played. I was so sick of that song, I must have taken a hundred requests from preteen girls.  By the time an avid radio listener has heard a song ten times, the DJ has played it twenty.

We silenced the radio and talked as we rolled past harvested cotton and corn fields, vast dusty farmland, baled hay . . . cattle and silos.  Shacks, trailers, and brick houses dotted the landscape through towns like Verona, Cotton Gin Hill, Nettleton, Union, and Shiloh. In forty-five minutes, were at the small Tupelo Regional.

It was early Fall 1965, clear and cool, and after checking one suitcase, I skipped up the temporary ramp where I was greeted by an attractive flight attendant who directed me to a seat. I don’t remember any safety briefing. The fuselage creaked on the Piedmont prop-driven thirty-passenger relic, and her engine’s coughed and sputtered as we rolled toward takeoff for the 614 nautical mile flight east.

images
Martin 404 to North Carolina, my first flight. (Courtesy Wiki Commons)

On my first flight, looking out the windows, I was struck by the farms below, how precisely they were outlined, pretty even. Not so impressed that I longed for agriculture, though. Naturally, I thought of my days working in fields like those — the hot sun bearing down on me all day. I wondered why we had lived so poorly. Had it really been necessary? With modern conveniences, Momma’s life would have been so much easier.

As we flew through clouds and over the farms I could no longer see, finally, I realized I was out of Mississippi, and on my way to the good life “in the big city,” in a state far away.

Heading toward the Coastal city on the banks of the Atlantic, I quit counting after we made about eight stops.  At the Wilmington-New Hanover Airport (ILM), the plane bounced down to another rough landing. The passengers applauded the final touchdown — relieved the flight was finally over.

During the long flight, I sat most of the trip next to an attractive woman about ten years my senior. Naturally, I told her about my new and exciting job as a Top-40 Dee Jay. I was so excited and impressed with myself, I foolishly tried to give her a kiss just before we touched down. No airport police were called.


The PD met me at the airport, took me by the station briefly, and put me up in a nice local hotel. I was impressed, we were off to a good start.

After covering the seven to midnight shift for a couple of weeks, I was moved to the 10am-3pm shift.  That was a quick move-up. WHSL, Whistle Radio, Top-40 Format, great jingles, 10-thousand watts, 24hrs a day operating on 1490Khz. Best of all, we were the number one station in the market, had the most listeners. Out of five stations surveyed in our listening area, we enjoyed a 47 share during prime time. A 47 share is unheard of in a city our size (50,000 plus). Our PD said we were going to keep it that way.

How, why? WPLO, Atlanta was one of the 20 or so leading stations in the Country.  We had its former extremely popular DJ, Steve Reno, doing morning drive 6am-10am; a station’s prime-time. The theory: the station you’re listening to early in the a.m. is the one you will continue with the rest of the day/night.

What was Steve doing here, well out of the Top-50 market segment?  He was paid handsomely (an educated guess-$475 a week, about $3,800 in 2019 money) and had a major part in building a station to number One, good for his resume.

I was pretty happy with $125 a week.* Why was I, a just turned 18-year-old with little experience, following him?  My show was the lead-in to Afternoon Drive, the second most important slot, with people commuting in their cars, hopefully listening to the radio.

I was spinning Wolly Bully–Sam The Sham & The Pharaohs; For Your Love–The Yardbirds; Go Now–The Moody Blues; Puppet On A String by Elvis and all the great hits of 1965.

Scan_20200721_214027

In any 15-minute period, WHSL had about as many listeners as the other four stations combined! An estimated 20,000 potential shoppers were listening to us and hearing our commercials.  We could and did charge advertisers twice the rate for our commercials as the other stations. Forty dollars for a one-minute ad in prime-time, if I remember correctly. Back in Amory, it was three or four dollars.

I was renting a nice room, ate all my meals out, had a steak every other day, and was getting around in my very own 1959 baby blue Cadillac. With those incredible tail fins, it was arguably one of the most recognizable and pretty cars of the 50s and 60s.

There were scores of pretty girls to date, too. Cigarettes were 22 cents a pack, and Wilmington had lots of liquor stores (not that I was using them, but it was something new to me).

7471107252_b4dfd427cc_b
My car was a lighter blue, otherwise identical to my ride in part of 1964-5.  (General Motors)

Life was so fantastic, it could have ended right there.

If a decent looking popular Top-40 DJ with a Cadillac can’t score, something is amiss. I’m guessing my readers aren’t interested in the specifics of any sexual escapades I might have had. Most of the time, I was dating just one girl. I know, a real gentleman, me. During this period, I would also meet my future wife.

A refresher from Chapter Seven; One of the two things that came easy for me was falling in love. She was at another girl’s house when I first saw her, short blond hair, tall and slender, mysterious persona and shy. No, it would not be one of those “love at first sight” sort of things, but I was definitely intrigued.

We soon began dating but understandably (well to guys anyway) I keep my semi-steady girl Mary, too. I led both Marty (pseudonym) and Mary to believe that we were in a serious relationship, bordering on love.

*From my first paycheck, I sent Momma 100 dollars.

Chapter 11: Losing My Wings

Wilmington, the “All-America City” on the Atlantic with its great beaches, mild climate, the USS North Carolina, its beautiful historic homes, great restaurants, and friendly residents, was a good fit for me.

But my first love was still music and radio that allowed me to share it with the masses. Songs like You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feeling by The Righteous Brother,  I’ve Got You Baby–Sonny and Cher, Hang On Sloopy–The McCoys, These Boots Are Made For Walking–Nancy Sinatra, Down In The Boondocks–Billy Joe Royal and We Gotta Get Out Of This Place by the Animals.

My listeners were more open and tremendously larger than at WTUP, who’s 250 watts after sundown barely covered Tupelo proper. Now I was disseminating 10,000 watts to a potential audience of at least 75,000 in the greater Wilmington area, Southeastern N.C. and ships at sea.

Women, girls-actually, were reaching out to me for all sorts of reasons, calling me for advice on love, marriage, sex, music, and the like.  There was fan mail as well, here’s a sample:

letter

Reminded me of Play Misty For Me.* (Swan archives)

These young women felt a connection to their favorite DJ, with a deep and sexy voice, who plays their favorite songs. We were their friends. They tell us more than they would a psychologist, more even than their hairdresser. Just listening, giving advice, or meeting with them to fulfill their desires and needs is one of the burdens that comes with being a popular Top-40 DJ.

Was I arrogant, egotistical, and patronizing? Well, I didn’t think so, and I still considered myself a Southern Gentleman.  Hubris and full of myself?  Very likely. At 18, I was a leading DJ in a top 150 market, on the Number One rock station in Wilmington, WHSL. One doesn’t become a good radio personality if they lack an ego or a line of BS, DJs have to be “on” all the time.


Jan, the receptionist, and sometime secretary at WHSL was an attractive lady in her late 20s.  She was friendly to all the staff, except for me. She just didn’t seem to like me, hard as that is to imagine. No, I hadn’t hit on her or told her dirty jokes. I don’t do that sort of thing, and besides, I had limited interaction with her. She was nothing like Lynn at WAMY.

Certainly, she didn’t think I had exceptional intuition or that I was wise beyond my 18 years and perceptive enough for me to suspect that she was sleeping with the married station manager, Sidney Wilson, about 20 years her senior?  Intuition or not, I believe she suspected that I knew long before it was common knowledge to the rest of the staff. It must have been me who started a rumor about the affair.  Not true, but if she believed it, well.

Another possibility is that she may have overheard me talking with some of the other Jocks (who were laughing with me) about how corny I thought it was that most of our commercials ended with the tag: “And be sure to tell them you heard it on Whistle,” W H i S t L e.  That’s the only incident I could think of, she might tell Sidney, that could tick him off. Unlikely, because I believe Sidney would have talked to me directly and reminded me that I get paid because of these commercials and to shut my big mouth.

Anyhow, having enjoyed my coveted the 10-3 mid-day show on WHSL for several months — playing oldies like Don’t Be Cruel by Elvis,  Can’t Get used to Losing You by Bobby Darrin — without any complaint from the PD, listeners, or a slip in ratings; Sidney Wilson confronted me just as I finished my show one afternoon.

He was direct:  “Effective immediately, you’re going on graveyards. [Midnight to 6 am] How you like them apples?” I didn’t think he meant to construct that in the form of a question. So, I didn’t reply. I still may have been part country bumpkin, but I wasn’t stupid. I kept my mouth shut.

Demoted from an important mid-day slot to the midnight shift is about as close to getting fired as it comes. The PD and Steve Reno were flabbergasted. But Sidney’s the man who signs the checks.

I would recover somewhat. After a week or so, I was hosting the 7 to Midnight shift (the slot I did briefly when I first came to WHSL) and was surprisingly filling in for the important daytime slots, including Morning Drive.

I was playing  Ballad Of The Green Berets by SSgt. Barry Sadler, a top song in 1965-6. Other favorites were Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)–Cher, Seventh Son–Johnnie Rivers, Get Off My Cloud–Rolling Stones, Little Red Riding Hood–Sam The Sham and The Pharaohs, We Can Work It Out–Beatles . . . Lightnin’ Strikes by Lou Christie.


Just a few weeks after Sidney demoted me, he was calling my show for requests while lying in a hospital bed with a terminal illness. He mostly wanted something by the Platters, but not dedicated to him. In one of his calls to me, he said that I would have been a good son for him.

My recent demotion was never brought up.  I keep my decorum and never asked. I always suspected that it had something to do with his (former) mistress, Jan. He had not reduced my salary and, in fact, had given me a small raise not long after my demotion.

He called me one last time, from his hospitable bed. “Just play some Platters for me, please,” he said sadly and hung up.

That night I did the most sincere dedication of my short career, and without his permission, I said: “Here are the Platters singing Only You for my dear friend, Mr. Sidney Wilson.”  And now Mr. Wilson, 20,000 other souls know you were indeed my friend.

Only you can make this world seem right

Only you can make the darkness bright

Only you and you alone

Can thrill me like you do

For it’s true, you are my destiny

When you hold my hand

I understand the magic that you do

You’re my dream come true

My one an only you

One and only you . . .

s-l640
Last song I played for Sidney Wilson shortly before his death. Note price of the album. (Courtesy Wiki Commons)

A few weeks after he passed, I learned that Mr. Wilson had scribbled a note from his hospital bed, asking that I be given $1,000 from his estate. The executor said his family would raise questions about his signature and his state of mind when the note was written. His family would fight it, and although that was a lot of money in early 1966, I did not.

Mr. Wilson, I didn’t really need to know why you clipped my wings and kept me on, but you need to know — my friend — all is forgiven.

At just 18, I was shaken by the events. But shortly I would have pressing problems of my own: The United States Army, you know, the Draft.  My number was coming up. I was close to being inducted. I decided to enlist, adding an extra 12 months to my commitment — three years total.  It wouldn’t keep me out of Vietnam, but it allowed me to choose my own Military Occupation Specialty (MOS) Broadcast-Journalist instead of the likelihood of going into the Infantry.

As for the ladies in my life, I continued to date both Mary and Marty right up to the end. I saw them once more, just before I left for Vietnam, knowing it could be my last. I told them both I would send my address and asked them to write. Regrettably, I never sent my address to Mary, never contacted her at all, deciding to choose Marty instead. We made plans to marry when and if I returned from Vietnam.

I also said goodbye to another girl I’d wanted to date. Talking with her as she sat in the outside ticket booth of a local movie theater, I boasted, “Hey, I’m going to Vietnam!”

To Mary:

I have no regrets in my entire life except for one Mary, I should have had the fortitude to write and tell you what was going on and not just blow you off as I did. Maybe you don’t even remember me, but you probably do, if for no other reason than my craven behavior. I wonder what you might have been thinking when you never heard from me. I often think of you and how I treated you. It bothers me to this day, after more than 50 years. My behavior was inexcusable, and for that, I am truly sorry.

Knowing you as I do and remembering your good nature and kindness, I was probably forgiven long ago, but just in case you haven’t, please forgive me now. I still have a picture of you smiling, just as I will remember you, always.

You no doubt found a man much more deserving than me, and I hope and believe you’ve had a full and wonderful life. I, too, have had a good life, and I’m living comfortably in retirement (albeit in ill-health) soon to be a well-known writer. Now my legions of readers will know and understand why you were a special person in my life and so remain.

My marriage to Marty didn’t last so long.

*Play Misty For Me; a phrase that’s become synonymous for an obsessed fan.  Clint Eastwood starred in the popular movie of the same name about a girl that bedevils a small-town DJ.

Chapter 12: Ft. Benjamin Harrison

The most beautiful sight I’ve ever seen: Ft. Gordon, Georgia disappearing in the rearview mirror of our taxi as we headed to Bush Field. Okay, I exaggerate a bit, but I hadn’t been in Augusta for the golf and never wanted to visit again. Yet, I felt some pride — gained some confidence and skills —  in completing basic combat training at the army post in 1966.

Marty and I wanted to see each other before my Advanced Individual Training (AIT), but time and resources prevented it. We talked long distance occasionally, but the expense ruled out frequent telephone communication. Letters would have to suffice. She wrote to me often; those letters were a gift that I’ll always remember and appreciate. We were listening to our favorite songs Happy Togetherthe Turtles and Soul An Inspiration-Righteous Brothers, just not together.

 

My next assignment, AIT, was at Ft. Benjamin Harrison, a small Army post-Northeast of Indianapolis.  Lined with mature hemlock, white cedar, and blue ash trees and dotted with beautiful historic Colonial Revival buildings, the Fort was commissioned in 1908 named for President Benjamin Harrison, who called the Capital of Indiana home.

I visualized its enormous parade field abuzz with thousands of recruits when it was the busiest reception center in the U.S. during WW’s I & II. Now it served as a training center for many clerical Military Occupational Specialties (MOS) and other Army activities.  I would be on temporary duty at Ft. Ben several times in my Army and Government career for advanced training.

images.png

In the Fall of ’66, I was here to attend the Defense Information School (DINFOS), which trained all branches of the service in journalism for print and broadcast specialties. This is the school I got for giving an extra year to Uncle Sam. I was assigned to print for some unknown reason instead of the broadcast course.  Close enough, I thought maybe I could do both, but I had a problem.

I was a poor typist and lousy speller; by the time I pecked out  dateline “INDIANAPOLIS (UPI)” most students had completed their first sentence. I fell behind quickly struggled, and about two weeks into the 10-week course, I washed out, “Too slow, too many grammatical errors, not imaginative.”

Right then, I could have been relegated to Cook School,* without breach of contract where people like me, who hadn’t made the grade, were typically sent.  “Failure to successfully complete promised training course(s) will relieve the Army of any obligation of said training,” read the agreement.

So, the extra year I was giving the Army, three years in all, I’d be peeling spuds in an overheated mess hall, standing in a serving line dumping what GI’s consider slop into their trays, and taking guff from a moody old Mess Sergeant?

I needed to think fast, go on the offensive.  I had to appeal my case as private (lowest rank in the military) to a USAF lieutenant colonel.  In my best radio voice, I convinced the colonel that I was supposed to have been assigned to the Broadcast course in the first place. The DINFOS Commandant said okay, but I’d have to pass a series of auditions.  I started the Broadcast course already in progress, graduated in the top one-half, and was awarded the MOS 71R20.

I was looking forward to spinning Paint It Black Homeward Bound, somewhere.

 

After AIT, I received my orders: “Report to Reception station, Oakland, not later than 31 December 1966.” That’s great, duty in San Francisco Bay Area!  But the order continues . . . “final destination APO 96256.” Army Post Office 96256 directs mail to the 196th Light Infantry Brigade in Southeast Asia, uh, Vietnam.

I had enough time for a few days leave, before my reporting date, which I took to see my parents and brother in Mississippi instead of visiting Marty. While there on Christmas Day I contracted pneumonia and was admitted to the nearby Columbus AFB Hospital. I wasn’t going to make my reporting date.

 

Over the past few years, I’ve written several feature articles about veterans and their experiences in WW II, Korea, and Vietnam.  I’ve garnered appreciation and acclaim for my writing, and the stories appeared in several publications and on the World Wide Web. Some of the details I elicited from these Veterans about their experiences in war was uncomfortable for me to hear.

As a veteran, I had an idea of what it must have felt like for them, their emotions, their pain. It was sometimes difficult to get the men to open up, especially former POW Tom McMahon. He more than once said during the interviews, “What are you doing, interrogating me!?”

I am flattered that he trusted me with his most intimate thoughts and his unimaginable suffering as a prisoner of the Nazis. He had never shared such raw emotions with other writers. Tom was pleased with the story, and for me, that was a compliment of the highest order.

Shortly after my feature on him was published, he quit granting interviews.  McMahon died in his sleep February 14, 2021, just shy of his 96th birthday. (See Bonus Chapter IV, With Deep Regret, in Part II of this book).

Tom McMahon.png
McMahon in front of his B-17 just before the crash that resulted in him becoming a POW of the Nazis. Featured in With Deep Regret, Bonus Chapter in part II of this book. (McMahon collection)
 

As uncomfortable as I am sometimes with the details I hear while writing about fellow veterans; tougher still is for me to open up with my own personal experiences in Vietnam. That, however, is what I’ll be writing about in the next few chapters.

 

*The culinary arts are all the rage these days, and without intending to insult any readers who were Army Cooks, it wasn’t considered the most desirable MOS at the time. If out in the bush, pounding the ground all day and dodging VC popping up from tunnels, Cook (MOS) might have some appeal. To start out as a one, not so much.

 

Chapter 13: Goodbye Sweetheart, Hello Vietnam

“We are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing.” President Johnson, October 21, 1964, two weeks before the presidential election.

The sun was trying to break through thin clouds of tiny water droplets obstructing the beauty of the Bay Area on a chilly January day in 1967. I wasn’t here waiting for the fog to break, or the summer of love, but a week late for my new assignment in Southeast Asia. I’d just recovered from pneumonia at a USAF hospital near my hometown.

I was sleep-deprived and anxious as I boarded a USAF C-141 out of Oakland* for our 7,824-mile flight to Southeast Asia.

We pulled up and out of the fog with 20,250 lbs of thrust from each of the four Pratt & Whitney turbofans. When I felt the wheels retract into the fuselage, I knew I was leaving the United States; a first for me. The others, quiet like me, must have been contemplating what awaited us at our destination, as we sailed at 567 mph, six miles above the Pacific with no land below.

Unsurprisingly, even as the flight turned into hours, repartee was virtually non-existent among the 154 of us. No pretty young ladies to impress with bravado; our flight attendants were junior enlisted men who served us box lunches. After about 10 hours of flying, facing backward in the canvas seats, we lost a day when we passed the International Dateline just before touching down at Wake Island for fuel and a fresh crew. Smoke ’em if you got ’em.

After seven more hours of boredom and on and off naps — in the comfortable belly of our silver bird — I was awakened by the Aircraft Commander, who announced thirty minutes to touchdown at Tan Son Nhut, 1400 local. No one applauded.

I felt the huge jet rapidly losing altitude as the pilots prepared for a tactical approach, an especially steep descent, into Tan Son Nhut. As we entered the hot, dense air over the South China Sea, an F-4 appeared at 100 yards starboard. The Phantom II rocked its wings, went wet with afterburners, and disappeared in an instant. An impressive welcome indeed, and a free flight over too, courtesy the USAF.

images-10
USAF F-4 Phantom II goes wet, welcome to Vietnam. Similar to our escort to Tan Son Nhut, Jan 1967. (Photo courtesy Wiki Commons)

Fifteen minutes later, I stepped from the cool comfort of the Starlifter into 90-degree heat and humidity thinking I’d walked into a wet sauna that smelled like bad breath, body odor, and someone breaking wind.

Unless severely wounded or killed, this was my home for the next 365 days or 364 and a wake-up from Jan. 7, 1967.

Subject to duty for every second of the next 525,600 minutes, or so, my compensation of $193 a month (including hostile fire pay of $65) worked out to about 27 cents an hour for the remaining 8,760.

But it was not without benefits: Free postage on outgoing mail, room and board (such as it was), and complimentary helicopter excursions. Plus, we got to carry some wicked weapons and kill communists.


The DU** Field House was a bustle of activity and crowded on a hot afternoon, in the early fall of 1978, with students selecting courses for the next quarter.  I had just finished talking with my VA Rep when a mid-20s man behind me with a beard and long hair asked if I were a Vietnam vet. This was before most vets ever talked about it.

He had accosted me for one reason: To tell me why Vietnam had been good for him. It was worth all the sacrifice, he said because that’s where he was Saved, found the Lord. If not for the Vietnam War, he would never have found Christ and Salvation, as I understood him.

I was tempted to tell him to di-di-mau, because I didn’t have the inclination or time to challenge him.  As usual, I was in a hurry, college full-time, work full-time, and single parent of twins full-time, trying to get home before they returned from Lewis Ames elementary.

Unlike the veteran I’d just encountered, for me, the Vietnam War had the opposite effect, I didn’t find Salvation there, that’s where I lost it. I suppose war is a good enough reason as any to give up on religion or at least a reasonable excuse to question it. To wonder how “God Knows Best” or “It Was God’s Will” even when wicked things happen to “good people.”  I didn’t give up on my religion without some soul-searching, a good choice since we’re talking about Faith.

Reflecting on my time in Vietnam at nineteen, too young for real introspection, or to vote for that matter (Had to be 21 then). I know what I saw, and it affected me intensely and tested my religion mightily.

What I saw in Vietnam were 18 year-olds (some 17); many away from home for the first time, flying for the first time, some still virgins screaming, “Mom, Mom!” and seconds later lying motionless. Others convulsing uncontrollably; blood spurting, teeth shattering, bowels exploding, limbs annihilated, bodies obliterated — All dying.

For me, that was a test, a hard one I hadn’t prepared for, never saw coming, somehow analogous to the projectiles the 18 year-olds never heard. And I was alive to think about it — remember it — forever.

Other boys and young men were dying at an alarming rate, too; the average age of the GI in Vietnam was my age, 19.


On the same tarmac, where we had just arrived, were the GI’s departing Vietnam. They were yelling, “ Shooort,  Shooort!” making sure we knew their status.  Soldiers with less than 60 days were short — these guys had less than six minutes — and I watched the long line of happy souls disappear into their “freedom bird” headed “back to the world.”

More than 58,000 young men and eight women would die in this Godforsaken country. Most would return in the “freedom bird” alright, albeit, in the cargo hold. Standing here amidst the mayhem, soaking in the heat and smelling stink, I had a bad feeling. And I thought I needed to get out of Mississippi.

Advancing with the others in my khakis and low-quarters, I made a futile attempt at fanning away the stink and heat with the manila envelope that encased my orders sending me here.

We were quickly and efficiently rushed onto Prisoner transport buses. Never mind, the sides read “US Air Force.”  The steel netting around the windows was for our protection, don’t want an injury from a satchel charge before getting a taste of the jungle. Someone on the bus had a transistor playing If I Were a Carpenter, until the driver said shut it off.

Taking in the scenes and scents of a Third World country, Vietnamese were all around us. Most looked to be of combat age, and I would later learn that included children.

Their language was loud and harsh, and sounded like it was spoken with a pinched nose. In an uneasy sing-song rhythm without pauses:

“DangDongChingDaowChowThongDangDaowDongChingChow,” is what I heard on and on.***

Many were in conical hats, wearing simple and modest clothing that resembled pajamas. The Vietnamese were cooking and washing outdoors, vendors were hawking wares by the road.

Scooters were everywhere, spewing pungent blue smoke. They buzzed around like scurrying rodents, dodging pedestrians, maneuvering around rickshaws and competing for space with the occasional Simca taxi or the three-wheel Lambro.

Women were carrying heavy objects on their heads, others rested springy bamboo poles around their necks, balancing a heavy load on each end. Women and men defecated in public. Young girls squatted flat-footed, one in front of the other, took turns picking lice from each other’s hair, then cracked them with their teeth.


A sweaty 15-minute ride later, I disembarked at the Long Binh reception station. After finally convincing the sergeant who greeted me that I hadn’t been AWOL, showing him my note from Columbus AFB (where I’d been hospitalized),  I was given a new assignment. Maybe it was because I was late reporting, who knows, but here’s what happened. A Master Sergeant called me over, “You’re not going to the 196th Light Infantry, you’re going up to Cowboy and Indian Country, you’re headed for the Cav son.” he said, smiling. Smoke ’em if you got ’em.

2494970652_f851da5bb5
Ammo dump at Long Binh after enemy attack in 1967 (Courtesy Hero Browse-US Army photo)

That night at Long Binh, my first night In-Country, I was awakened to Whoom, Whump, Whump, Wham, Splat, over and over.

Of course, it was mortars landing close to the tents where we were sleeping, and although there were no injuries that I heard of, it was a good time to change out of my khakis. AFVN Saigon was playing 19th Nervous Breakdown.

First welcomed by a fighter-jet from friends and now by rockets from foes.  I suppose the latter makes it official. Welcome to Vietnam. Indeed.

*Flying out of Oakland is my recollection, I not 100% sure.

**University of Denver

***I’m sure the Vietnamese had an opinion on our English, as well.

Chapter 14: A Break From Vietnam

It was no cold-stormy-rainy-night with wind whistling through the trees. In fact, it wasn’t night or cold. It was just time to take a break from 1967, and get the heck out of Vietnam for a moment. I’ll make any excuse or write about any subject, however controversial, to delay getting into the nitty-gritty of combat for a while.

Let me, before I get any further, remind you My Life At The Limit is an R-rated-read because of Language and Violence. It is also rated R for Realism and Honesty.  I hope you find, in these pages, that it’s entertaining, informative, and sometimes funny as well. It’s not a Politically Correct piece, but I’ll not use racy language and delve into controversy just because I can. I’m not trying to convince my readers that I’m fearless and edgy in my prose.

In the next few chapters on Vietnam, though, I’m not going to tell you we lost someone on the battlefield (what, can’t find him)?  Instead, you’ll hear something like: “He caught a large piece of shrapnel in the gut and kept asking if he was going to die, lied to, then made us to promise that we tell his mom he loved her and bled out before the Medevac arrived.” That’s reality, and that’s what you’ll read in this book.

As I began writing this book, there was lots of news about the “Me Too Movement” as was the issue of “Racism.” An overwhelming 87 percent of African-Americans say Black people face lots of discrimination in the U.S. and 49 percent of white Americans agree!*

The February 2018 poll was conducted before the Roseanne tweet, which no doubt further inflamed the issue. I’m pissed at her (Roseanne) for two main reasons. First, I liked the show which I won’t be seeing again and Second, I’m disappointed, she does indeed sound like a racist. Thanks for flaming the fire, Rose.


Last subject first. By now, no doubt, you know that I’m from Mississippi. “To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi,” said William Faulkner, the renowned writer from the state named after that river. Then LBJ (not my favorite President) opined “There’s America, There’s the South, then there’s Mississippi.”

In his book Tell About the South, Fred Hobson said, “The Southerner, more than any other American, has felt he has something to explain, to justify, to defend or affirm.” Guess he was mostly talking about white folk. John Grisham believes, “Suffering that has been self-inflicted by slavery, war, poverty, injustice, intolerance. Great conflict produces great art, and Mississippi has its share of both.”  But Malcolm X said, “As far as I’m concerned, Mississippi is anywhere south of the Canadian border.”

On the plus side, Mississippi in the last few decades has attracted dozens of writers and aspiring ones, (including African Americans) from around the world, to Oxford and the Delta. The renown William Faulkner compiled his immense catalog of works in Oxford and he and John Grisham graduated from the University of Mississippi in the city, where a popular and respected course is offered on Creative Writing. There’s a writing club in Oxford, numbering several dozen, and an eclectic bookstore in the town, Square Books. Authors from the area, who established successful careers elsewhere, have returned to the Oxford area to live, and continue writing.

As for me, I can only speak about the people I know, who live in the state. My amazing brother Dale, age 81, cared for his invalid wife for twenty years and for many years, provided for the well-being of our elderly Momma and Daddy. He is a well-respected member of the community and continues to help people. Dale has lived in Mississippi his entire life and resides less than two miles from the old placethe house where he was born. All his children, grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren live within a few miles of him. Point: He’s a really good man, and no racist, who happens to live in Mississippi.

Many of my high school classmate friends happily reside in, and love, the Magnolia State. Although I have not seen or visited them for several years, they are among my most avid readers. I have rekindled my friendship with Loyd and Boyd Pearson, twins, from our high school days; they both still live in the area where they grew up: Hatley and Amory, Mississippi. With another classmate, Joe Howell, I have done the same. All have provided me with inspiration. I would not have remained friends with any of them, if thought they were racist.

I’m not writing, however, to someone or for someone. I’m writing honestly about myself, my feelings, and my life experiences.

Living in the über liberal state that California is, I do not advertise that I’m from the state of Mississippi. I’ve come to that conclusion after extensive travel, interacting with other races, religions, and nationalities and my experiences in the U.S. Army active duty, U. S. Air Force Civil Service, as a major market Disc Jockey, a University Lecturer, Newspaper Editor and many other adventures. “Hey there, I from Mississippi,” would need to be followed be with, “But don’t think for a second, I’m a racist.” It is a counterproductive and time-consuming effort. It’s best for me, initially, left unsaid.

Once I have known someone for a while, my Mississippi heritage is not an issue, and I’m not ashamed of it. If I met someone of Africa-American descent, for the first time, and desired to make an acquaintance, I would not consider blurting, “Nice to meet you, I’m Don from Miss-cippi.” If we became friends and after a while, he determined I was a decent guy and not  a racist, fine.

Crunch all the data you wish, and Mississippi will be at the top or near the top as the most racist state in the U.S. (Thank goodness for Texas and Louisiana.) Mississippi is usually at number one as the poorest as well. (Thank goodness for West Virginia and Arkansas.) This is reality.

I, like many writers, may never be able to shake my conscience free of the place because in Mississippi, nothing is ever escaped.

As for people in Northern states, they are far from angelic on the issue of race, based on my experience and data that support it. (I’m looking at you, Detroit.) Although I’m unable to defend Mississippi’s stigma of racism — that many consider indefensible — doesn’t mean I’m ashamed of my past while living in the state from birth to age 17. Here is what I remember from my personal experiences there.

Rex_theatre_-_colored_only copy
Theater in Leland, Mississippi (Library of Congress Dorothea Lange photo)

Growing up in the early to Mid-60s with segregation, race relations for me, and all the white people I knew was simple, there were no relations — good or bad. That made it easy for me.

Although it was not uncommon to hear the “N-word” in the community at large, I rarely heard it at home.  I never heard my Daddy or my brother Dale say the “N-word,” and the few times I heard Momma use it was in the context of “He’s been working like an ‘N.’” Hardly meant as an insult, but of course, insensitive to express.

And I never heard her or anyone in my family put down Black people or warn me about “Colored” folk. Momma was a good Christian woman. Would she have advocated inviting Blacks to attend Hatley Missionary Baptist church? Of course not, nor would they have accepted.

My family was not part of any effort to punish Black folk, and although we had heard of people being in the Klan, our family and friends never considered joining such a group.  Of course, one didn’t have to be a KKK member to be racist.

I never thought of our family or anyone we were close to being racists, but in the purest sense of the definition, who knows? And one can be a racist while thinking they are not, I suppose. None of our ancestors (in our family tree of several generations) were ever slave owners; we were, and had been farmers, including dirt-poor sharecroppers, many years ago.

Our genealogy, in fact, revealed that a distant relative (not living in Mississippi) served in the Union Navy. Continuing Slavery was of no benefit, whatsoever, to any of my relatives past, some of whom died fighting in the Confederate Army, and a few who made it home, returned to nothing.

That said, and the manner in which I’ve treated African-Americans at work,** play, and in my community leaves me without any White Guilt.

800px-Battle_of_Spottsylvania_by_Thure_de_Thulstrup
Iconic scene from Spotsylvania Court House, Virginia. The eight-day battle in May 1864 resulted in 32,000 casualties. Deaths, in the Civil War, are most often quoted to be  623,026 about 2 percent of the U.S. population then, in today’s numbers, that would be the equivalent of more than 6 million!  It claimed more fatalities, by far than any other single war or conflict in the Nation’s history! (Art Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Unquestionably, African-Americans have suffered incalculably at the hand of Anglo-Saxons and some of their African brothers, who sold them into slavery. The vile behavior and language that exists still today toward Black’s sixty years past the sixties, I would never have considered saying or even have thoughts about some of the things I’ve heard — most certainly not now. Approaching the third decade of the 21st Century, such behavior is more disgraceful and abhorrent than ever.

The persecution of one’s ancestors, of course, does not provide license today for any unlawful or repulsive behavior against the mores of the society at large.  That I grew up and came out of the Deep South in the early to Mid-60s with negligible animus toward African-Americans is noteworthy and a source of pride.

(My sometimes Editor — gorgeous wife Cheri —  thought that last sentence was self-serving, self-righteous and unnecessary.) For the Record: I am and have for many years been a registered Independent.

Last-minute update: Recently, a NASCAR Cup driver uttered the N-word on his team radio. This was a young man who got his break, getting into racing, as part-Asian, through NASCAR’s diversity program! Insensitive behavior, slurs like this, especially from a young person, continues to astonish me. (Did he hear African-American artists who sometimes use such words in rap songs, and it just slipped out?) I’m not excusing his behavior if that were the case, and no, I’m not blaming rap for white people’s insensitive remarks.


Now for the “Me Too Moment.” I doubt you’ll hear of me caught up in that thing. First, I’m too insignificant, and Second, I never asked a girl/woman on a date more than once. Thirdly, I was brought up to respect and honor women, and do. Finally, I raised twin girls and taught them to recognize and stand up for themselves on the issue of sexual harassment.

You may remember from earlier chapters when I dated more than one lady at a time, and I may have been guilty of behavior like “leading women on.” That was in my very young years, and I never cheated on a partner when in a committed relationship or marriage. Also, note my apology to Mary in Chapter ten.

I’m wondering if this break was such a good idea. This chapter has been the most difficult to write so far. But the chapters ahead, on Vietnam, will be even more arduous.


Do you ever get tired of people telling you to “Have a nice day?”  (No, thanks, I have other plans.) They don’t mean it, do they? If you really want me to have a nice day, then quit telling me to. Maybe I am getting a little edgy. Now that I’ve insulted many of my readers, back to Vietnam.

*Public Religion Research Institute, reported by CNN.

**My record as a USAF General Manager in promotion and hiring practices support that claim.

Chapter 15: Into Cowboy Country

No one starts a war — or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so — without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it. Carl von Clausewitz, circa 1905.

Flying me and 75 other replacements, closer to the war, the USAF C-130 Hercules landed hard onto the too-short runway at the An Khe Army Airfield and quickly reversed thrust to keep from overshooting.

Here in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam, was a sight to behold:  The elite 1st  Cavalry Division (Airmobile), headquarters for  “The First Team,” boasting 16,000 men including Airborne, Ranger, Pathfinder and other specially trained Skytroopers; high-tech gun-ships and support helicopters numbered 434.

golfcourse1
An Khe Army airfield in 1966 at Camp Radcliff, 1st Cavalry Division HQ. Long lines of choppers just to the right of runway. Mountains in the background known as “Dragon’s Back” include the An Khe Pass and farther north (to the left) the Mang Yang pass. (US Army photo)

images-5
Hon Cong Mountain overlook , and radar site, Camp Radcliff, (a few hundred meters,directly below patch) is Headquarters of the 1st Air Cavalry Division,1966. (US Army photo)

Because of those expensive weapons-of-war-aircraft and other security concerns, Camp Radcliff,* (unlike most other large US bases in Vietnam) was off-limits to Vietnamese Nationals. That meant low-ranking GI’s like me, did the dirty work usually performed by indigenous Vietnamese.

The enemy made up for the prohibition of their fellow Vietnamese (many of whom would spy for them) by launching mortars our way most every night.

My temporary quarters would be at Camp Radcliff, near the PIO headquarters building, just a couple of hundred yards from where our helicopters lifted-off for combat sorties, and (hopefully) returned for fuel, munitions and maintenance.

While I looked for a place to bunk, I thumbed the small wheel on my transistor, trying to get better reception from AFVN, as they played I’m A Believer by the Monkeys . I found an empty corner in an old hooch located one hut over from the quarters of a slender USAF major from Ohio, the Weather Officer for the 1st Cav.

The nightly booms and echoes we were hearing had nothing to do with a weather event. It was our own 105-mm artillery (harassment & interdiction) rounds that filled the night as we lay half-awake and alert for a different sound — the shrill** of incoming mortars. Although the VC were typically aiming for our helicopters, we were close enough.  For us and a dozen others who occupied makeshift shelters, we had access to a nearby bunker.


On my first day at Camp Radcliff, among tents, hooches, hard and dusty red dirt, stiffing heat and weary line soldiers on a short break from the field, just about everybody I encountered was talking about one of our undermanned Cav companies that was overrun by the NVA less than two weeks ago.

Twenty-eight of our soldiers were killed and 87 were wounded at LZ Bird on 27 December 66. The six men who survived, in one platoon, were saved by the firing of a beehive round; its first use in Vietnam. The projectile is a canister containing 8,000 fléchettes (darts) of metal fired horizontally and at ground level from a 105-mm howitzer at 1,600 feet per second that obliterates everything in its line of site.  (A description of the battle, written by a man who was in the thick of it, Spencer Matteson, is included in Book II, Chapter V Bad Night at LZ Bird.) 

In the context of that horrific battle — the dead, the wounded, the overwhelming fear and hopelessness — my first detail at the camp, as a honey-dipper, didn’t seem so bad.

A fifty-five-gallon drum cut in half, two-thirds full of diesel fuel, sat below the holes in the camp’s outhouses. When they were about to overflow with crap, someone needed to burn it. That task would go to low ranking enlisted like me.

Here’s a brief indoctrination, for the layperson, on the art of burning shit: Grab the rebar type handles welded near the top and carefully pull the honeypots out. Add a bit more diesel, stir a little, throw in a lighted match or carefully lower a Zippo®, ignite, stand back, and watch it burn.

This burning was done in the of the heat of the day, and it was usually hot in An Khe. And during the monsoons, it was not an ideal spot to dry out. On the upside, when on this detail, nobody messed with you.

In a few hours, the turds would be crispy enough to dump.  Refill the drums to the proper level and push them back under the holes of the outhouses, all done. Unsurprisingly, this was known as the shit-detail — literally.

Given a choice, I’d take it over KP without hesitation; working in the mess hall peeling spuds, scrubbing pots, and taking shit from a grumpy old mess sergeant was a 10-12 hour detail. I got to do plenty of both.


As for actual work, I hosted news media from the states with briefings, some press releases, and a few other viable tasks at the 1st Cav PIO. One such event included a radio reporter from Chicago that I was assisting. He had just arrived in Vietnam and wanted to go straight to the 1st Cav where the action was.

I met him at our PIO in An Khe about 2100 one evening just as we were getting some incoming. He turned on his recorder, and in a high pitch voice announced. “I’m [whatever his name was] in An Khe, South Vietnam [heavy breathing, hyperventilating] and we’re under attack [near screaming] at this moment by the NVA,” he was yelling so loudly and over modulating (as we call it in the business) he almost drowned out the thump and splat of the mortars.

His recording reminded me of a radio reporter (also from Chicago) who thirty years earlier, while witnessing the Hindenburg crash in New Jersey, described it as  “The worst catastrophe in the world . . . Oh! the humanity . . . .” Although it was a terrible event that killed 36 people (62 survived) the reporter was widely mocked for his over the top narrative.

Although there were no injuries here, and mortars are no joke, I got a good laugh from the An Khe recording, and the reporter was a bit embarrassed; we were a far cry from being “under attack.”

He and other reporters wanted something more substantial than a routine rocket barrage. They wanted to go where there was fighting. I, too, wanted that. I didn’t go through BCT, become a highly trained killer, and a Broadcast Specialist for shit details.

Unlike most support personnel, I had the option of volunteering for the forward areas. And that I did. It would prove to be more interesting and a lot riskier than burning shit. Smoke ’em if you got ’em.


The slick sleeve below Pfc., like me, (I thought) at the Armory in An Khe didn’t question my choice or amount of armament once he found out where I was headed. I had never seen, let alone fired, the recently introduced M-16 I was issued.

Before I left for “Cowboy Country” farther north, I was told the 1st Sgt. was looking for me, and when I stood before him, he said in a raised voice, “You’re out of uniform, soldier.”  I was looking around my fatigues and jungle boots warily when he said: “Don’t worry, Swan, [he said in a joking manner] it’s because you’re not wearing your rank, you’re a Pfc., have been since you got here.” (Enlisted and officer insignia was not usually displayed in the field.) “Thanks, 1st Sgt,”  I said, “Wish I’d known that last night when I was on Green Line guard duty.”  “What happened,” he said. “Oh, nothing, 1st Sgt.”

What had happened was, the other trooper in the guard tower kept ordering me around because even though we were both privates, he’d reminded me he had been In-Country longer, and I fell for the petty rank pulling. As a PFC, I would have said, “No, you’re going to check the Claymores this time.” (Antipersonnel mines activated by wire).  Anyhow, the 1st Shirt said to keep my head down up there and not make too many friends.


When I lumbered onto the ramp of the C-7A Caribou, at the An Khe Airfield, I had with me just about all I could handle, and so did the Caribou with room for just one more, me.

Let’s see, M-16 with bayonet and twelve clips of ammo with eighteen rounds each instead of 20 (less chance of jamming) Check.  Six M26 grenades. Check. M-79 launcher (thump gun) with six rounds. Check. Mk V .455 (not army issued) sidearm with dozens of rounds. Check. You get the idea, I also carried a gas mask, first aid kit, entrenching tool, mosquito repellent and net, poncho and liner, C- Rats and P-38 can opener, 3 canteens of water, an extra pair of socks, my 10 x 10-inch reel to reel Panasonic® RQ-1025 tape-recorder with improvised strap and extra batteries, letters from Marty and so on, about 50 lbs.

images-6
C-7A Caribou touches down in dirt on unimproved runway in Bong Son. (U.S. Army photo)

Although the strip at An Khe was long enough for a leisurely takeoff, the pilot “pulled the guts” on the little Caribou, executing a max vertical tactical takeoff.

I had no preconceived notion on whom I would encounter onboard, but I wasn’t expecting what I saw: A dozen Green Berets with CAR-15s (Modified M-16s) Chopped M-79 Grenade Launchers and sidearms I didn’t recognize at the time. They weren’t wearing berets. Their headgear was green cravats with uniforms in leaf pattern camo, sans patches, name tags, insignia. Onboard for the short lift to Bong Son, they weren’t engaging in horse-play. They were quiet and looking straight ahead. I thought it unwise to ask, “Wassup?” (Oh, wait, that trash-talking hadn’t been invented yet.) Saying or asking nothing was wise, I surmised, and that’s what I did while sitting on my helmet in the droning Caribou.

There were several Marines abroad as well; there was a small Marine detachment in Bong Son. They weren’t completely stoic, but they were not loud, laughing or telling jokes either.

images-3
Special Forces CAR-15  (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

The Caribou we were guests on is a short landing and takeoff (STOL) tactical transport aircraft which can land within one-thousand feet on unimproved landing strips. These twin-engine prop jobs were a workhorse that kept U.S. troops moving, while freeing up valuable helicopter time for our soldiers who needed to get in real close. Bong Son would be that place. We gently touched down in the dirt, reversed thrust, rolled to a quick stop, and disembarked forthwith. Special Forces, Marines — then me.

*Named after the first U.S. casualty near the camp, an army major.

**Some GIs in Vietnam claimed that certain types of incoming mortars didn’t shrill — but that was not my experience.  Everyone was required, once the mortar alert was sounded, to rush into the bunkers. Some just slept through these warnings, rhetorically asking: “What are you going to do, send me to Vietnam?”