The Mighty Pen Podcast: Episode 1

Episode 1: The Salute & Quang Tri Rain

This week’s episode of the Mighty Pen Podcast includes a story of a young soldier accompanying a fallen man to his hometown, and a recollection on the way memories affect veterans after their service. Read The Salute and Quang Tri Rain, written by Larry Meier and performed by Harry Kollatz as originally written here on the blog.

Quang Tri Rain by Larry Meier, 2018

My day had finally come. Received orders! Leaving the battery and going home! Goodbye, Vietnam! But not before the army could get their last shot at me. I had spent days in a funky O-Club in Da Nang drinking bourbon with an alcoholic dog whose name is as lost as my hours there.

Then I heard, “Meier, report to the company for your boarding pass.”

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It was like a dream. I was getting on the Freedom Bird, going back to the world! Wow, the sensation when the plane lifted off and my body was no longer connected to the ‘Nam couldn’t be described, simply because it was beyond my feeble ability to understand. As the world below changed from green to blue, it was time to revisit all the plans I had dreamed of for 12 months. I wasn’t sure if I could even do them all—most likely not. But I did know for sure I would hit the road running, pick up where I had left off. Life wasn’t going to be good; it was going to be great. But the sad truth is you can’t return to your past. Too much happened in between. I was not the same, and I didn’t even know it.
When I got home, my mom was the first to notice something was not right. She thought I would arrive, get out of the uniform, and be out the door. She asked, “Why don’t you leave the house? Why don’t you go out with your buddies?” Of course, mom didn’t know it was safer to be hunkered down with “Gentle Ben,” the legendary rat of the DMZ. Mom questioned why I was staying up after the test pattern came on the TV.

But mom, I thought, I have to be up. The North Vietnamese night crew would be dropping in 122s soon just like they did the previous nights. I felt I had not changed. Everything was the same.

As time went on, I did get together with my best buddy, Doug. “Hey Larry, great tan there. What you been doing?”

Silence. Better not answer that one. Even so, what would I say?

Or, once at a party, a champagne cork went off behind me. Great fun to see me jump. Great fun for everyone except for me. Yeah, I knew if you heard the whistling, your name wouldn’t be on it. But better to not take any chances. Why was I having cold sweats while in Woodies in Tyson’s Corner at Christmas? Guess it was tough enough to keep your eyes on a few villagers, but a crowded store—can’t do everything.
But hearing others berate my service, that was the worst. I felt I did what was asked of me. I was not a hero by any means. I just did the best I could. I felt pride in that, but not everyone agreed. I was asked in the Cincinnati airport while in uniform, “How many babies did you kill?” and in a job interview, “We don’t hire people with your skills.” But to hear it from the people dearest to you, now that’s another level. Dad and his signal corps general friend mocked my service by saying the soldiers in ‘Nam didn’t know how to fight. If it were World War II it would have been different. How do they know? Neither ever felt a bullet go by them in any war. It just hurt.

So, over time I learned to stay under the radar. The possible exception was my old field jacket, stripped down to be as plain as possible. But, like Peter, I could not deny myself. It was who I was, plain and simple. The field jacket wanted its insignias back. Like the field jacket, the war was pushing back at me. Then something happened; those many years of denial collapsed.

Some fifteen years after leaving ‘Nam, my wife Vera and I were flipping through the channels from Moonlighting to Dynasty to whatever, trying to find something to waste our time on. Then we hit channel 23, PBS, with a live forum at the University of Wisconsin. It was a roundtable of a bunch of vets who were talking about the war’s impact on their daily lives. I don’t know why, but I was drawn to it. These were regular folks, as far as I could tell, nothing special. They acted like me. Not Rambo stuff, you know, heading down to the local bar and going commando on everyone there. No, regular stuff. I wasn’t even sure what that meant. Maybe it was living on the edge. Why gas up when the yellow light is not on? Maybe it was just being alert. Like when I sit up against a wall in a restaurant, so I could spot trouble. Maybe it was avoiding memories. I was so terrified to visit the Wall that it took me several visits to walk past all those names in tears.

But like everything on PBS, the program had an agenda: pushing the Vet Center. I had never heard of it, but I saw the1-800 number. No way. Not for me. I discovered that the VA’s answer to PTSD was handing out pills; the answer to all that ails you. As could be expected, vets weren’t going back. Maybe they found a nickel bag to be a better substitute. There was definitely less paperwork. So, the VA began “storefront” counseling centers. On a lark, I called the Richmond center on Franklin Street. I thought, Why am I doing this? I was ready to hang up if anyone answered. What am I getting into? I made the call and stayed on the phone.

“I’m, Larry, and I am a vet.” That had a nice ring to it.

On the other end was Gloria. “Welcome Home,” came back at me. The power in those words was unbelievable. I had no idea of what to do next. It was not supposed to happen this way. I was definitely out of my comfort zone. Fortunately, Gloria took over from there and she got me an appointment. I was doomed. What had I done? Now I had to show up.

The initial counseling was with Gloria. What was the purpose? I guess to find out if I qualified as “Nam Crazy.” Evidentially, I made the grade. I was put into a group to do whatever groups do. Dan was the center team leader. He had the credentials: a PhD, Silver Star, and a Purple Heart. And what a bunch it was. The group had the usual suspects; grunts and marines. However, the tales were not all about being out in the bush.

“Gramps” was a B52 pilot tormented by the innocents who received his payload. “Top” was a marine’s marine in my book. He felt that he had failed to prepare his recruits well enough. And there was Dave, whose dad couldn’t talk to him about war. Later I found out that they were both Screaming Eagles–A Shau Valley, Bastogne. A true living saint was Martha, a triage nurse. What more can be said about her? Then there was Roger, with whom I had a connection. He served in the DMZ with First of Fifth Mech, “Northernmost.” Roger was with P Company, Seventy-Fifth Rangers. I am sure he got up close and personal with the local bad guys along Rocket Ridge, which extended up to North Vietnam along the Blue Line. I was with Charley Battery, 5/4 Artillery. Even though I never set foot on Rocket Ridge, I knew it well. The NVA there delighted in putting as many 122 craters as possible inside the wire of Charlie 2, our home.

To put it mildly, our group was not shy about talking about our experiences. Dan was the catalyst. Had a knack about letting us feel free to let it out. And we did, maybe sometimes to Dan’s chagrin, but not all of us. Roger was like a clam, but we all knew he had stories; you could see it in his face. As silent as he was, he was always there. Even if he just sat there. I wished he could open up. But that was not happening.

One dreary, overcast Saturday in February, I got a phone call out of the blue from Roger. I answered, “Hey, what’s up?”

He started babbling about this, about that, and a lot of nothing. My only thought was how to end the conversation. I just didn’t have time.

Why did he have to be bothering me? There are other guys he could have called. Then, looking out the kitchen window, I saw it. I was hard to make it out at first. But there it was, a very fine mist. “Roger, is it the rain?”

He sort of grunted, “Yeah.” And the realization was there—why he called me. It was “Quang Tri Rain.” This was not the hard monsoon I lived with as a FO in the Fourth Infantry down south. No, this rain was worse than that. It went on for two or so months from somewhere in December to February. Everything was damp. Poncho liners would stick to you when you tried to sleep. It was so bad a few gun bunnies had mama-san in Cam Lo dry their jungle fatigues over water buffalo chips. That was true desperation. Yet, going out to the perimeter at night was the nightmare. We had to cross a tank trail churned into soup by the M48s. One wrong step and your boot could be sucked off.

It was Quang Tri that taught us all about war. No more John Wayne stuff. Audie Murphy, forget it. This was the real deal. Kill or be killed. Survive at all costs. If you thought about yourself only, you would never make it home. Surviving was all about working for each other. War is the ultimate team game. The irony was that before going to Nam, some kids couldn’t drink from the same water fountain in Roanoke as I. We learned to share canteens. Skin color didn’t matter if we were to watch each other’s back. Still, we weren’t that good looking after each other. We failed. Once at Lang Vei a howitzer blew up. It was bad powder, as I understood it. The breech block went through the floor of the cab. It was buried deep into the ground. The round never left the tube. The three gunners vanished without a trace. Almost.

I heard, “LT, what do I do with this?” In his hand was a part of a jawbone. There were three guys and all I got was this. But it was the Holy Grail. The difference between KIA and MIA. We failed them. We didn’t live up to our part of the deal. I couldn’t change that.

We said, “Don’t mean nothin’.” But we didn’t fail that last request. They did go home.

Roger called several more times. Unknowingly, we started to open up. Both of us. After all, I was probably no better than he was. Out came people we knew, places we’d been, and things we did. More importantly, without knowing it, we shared the deeper meaning of it all. What we said to each other and what these stories were have been lost in many years of memory.

Does it matter if we forgot? Not really.

The memory of where this led us is what counts. Both of us saw a path to finding shelter from the storm; shelter from that Quang Tri rain.

The Salute by Larry Meier, 2018

I’m just outside Petersburg, rolling out on Route 36. “Fort Lee, next right.” I pull up to the MP Station. “Reporting for a new assignment.”
The MP responds, “The AIT Brigade headquarters is straight ahead, left on B Avenue.” I show him my orders and am politely redirected to Mifflin Hall, the post headquarters. Not sure why I’m here. A redleg with the fighting quartermaster corps? I guess it’s a place to stick too many lieutenants promoted up. Fine. After a year in the jungle, put me behind a desk.

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I get my wish. I’m assigned to the quartermaster brigade S3 shop: our section in charge of post-training operations. Broken in with the major’s briefing on his self-importance. I’m grateful for the encouragement. Hope I can measure up to his world of experience. Glance at my new teammates: two smirking captains. “Major Hornblower” can bluster all he wants. Forget him. I’ll follow the lead of these seasoned ’Nam vets. Under their mentorship I settle into the Fort Lee way. Get the daily details out, inspect the training sites, then beat the early rush to the O Club. Return in time to send out the next day’s detail requirements. Then beat the early rush to the O Club again.

It’s all fine at first, but not as expected. Hard getting used to the certainty that tomorrows will all be the same. As much as I hate it, my thoughts lead me back to Charley Battery. Hours in the O Club with war stories over bourbon provides no relief. Stateside duty, just not as advertised.

But one army universal truth remains. There always will be “other duties as assigned.” It doesn’t take long for my name to pop up on the post-duty rosters. Some are routine such as languishing overnight in Post HQ as OD. Others are a little more detailed. But I’m not given my first choice: Class VI inventory officer. Why not? I can tell the difference between bourbon and vodka. Others are a mixed bag of “don’t volunteer for,” such as summary court martial officer: judge, jury, and hangman. So hard to have a soldier before you for the crime of not adjusting to coming home from ’Nam. But casualty assistance officer? Never heard of it. Maybe a carryback to WWII days: delivering the feared telegram to the parents. “CAO” in today’s army lingo, assigned to assist the primary next of kin. Can’t be more open-ended. No idea where this would lead me. I sign up.

I’m assigned to a family who lost their nineteen-year-old son. He died after only two months in country as a rifleman. It’s my first time accompanying the remains of a service member. The casket will arrive in Roanoke, the nearest airport, then be transported to the family near Grundy.

With the flight scheduling from Vietnam, I have a couple of days in Roanoke to hit the VA and social security offices. The young man’s draft and death notices have probably been the family’s only contact with the military. I need to make it as smooth as possible, not burden them with, “I’ll be back in a couple of days with more government paperwork.”

The plane arrives. A hushed crowd gathers. The honor guard from the local First Battalion, 116th Infantry, transfers the flag-draped casket to the waiting hearse. The soldiers come to attention; the detail NCO renders honors. Now the last leg of this soldier’s return begins. Out of Roanoke on I-581 to I-81, I follow the hearse. The flag drapes the casket ahead. It just doesn’t seem right. He shouldn’t be coming home like this, stuck in traffic. Quickly we leave the melee of cars and trucks, headed south as those lush blue mountains begin to rise.

On the other side of Blacksburg, US460 turns into a tortuous mountain road through the heart of Appalachia: Bluefield, Tazewell, Richlands. The rugged mountains loom larger, the curves sharpen. Roads have been destroyed by overweight coal trucks. We roll past worn-out homes. Who lives here? To those in the “flat lands,” these folks must be nobodies, just folks sitting on the porch by a sleeping dawg. Picking at a banjo. Passing around a jug. It doesn’t matter if that’s accurate or not, because I’m following the casket of a soldier from these parts.

Our little convoy attracts onlookers as we pull into an Esso station in Grundy. Folks are not accustomed to seeing a hearse trailed by a black sedan with government tags. My greens stick out among the men in miner’s overalls.

“Where you heading?”

“Bringing one of our boys home?”

After a brief exchange, I inquire, “I’m looking for the Greater Grace Freewill Baptist Church on Hoot Owl Gap Road.” Appreciative of the respect shown by everyone, we head into the heart of Buchannan County, over what some might call roads. It’s easier to find potholes than patches of asphalt. No straight stretches here, only run-down homes with rusted cars in the yard. Just how do these folks make it day to day?

Up ahead stands the church. Like so many found all over rural Virginia, it’s a plain white wooden chapel with a steep roof and the ever-present cross. There to greet us is Preacher Johnson and a few men in those same overalls. After some getting-to-know-you pleasantries, they help bear the casket into the church.

As everyone starts to depart, I ask, “Is there a motel nearby?” I could hit myself. How dumb is that? There’s nothing nearby this place!

Preacher Johnson replies, “You’re staying with us. Don’t argue. It’s getting dark and you’ll never find your way out of here.”

I follow Preacher Johnson down the mountain to his home. Not sure what to expect. It doesn’t take long. He has two kids running around wanting to play army with my hat. “It’s OK, they can’t hurt it.”

A stranger is a celebrity. “Tell us all about Richmond!” The preacher’s wife pulls out all the stops for the meal, blessed eloquently by Preacher Johnson. Dinner and conversation are enjoyed by all, except for the rhubarb pudding. She apologizes for its shortcomings. All that changes after I mention my dad’s rhubarb patch behind our garage.

Later, sitting by the TV, there’s a knock at the door. Preacher Johnson greets the visitor. “Bobby, we were expecting you. The man who brought home your son is here.”

Bobby Anderson, in overalls, has come by to go over my pile of papers. Both of us wade through the stack. “Please sign and date here. Now another signature here.” What am I doing, selling a piece of land? Buying his car? I can barely imagine how this father felt. Near the bottom of the heap came the application for a veteran’s headstone.

Bobby Anderson picks up the form. “What does this here mean?”

“Your son is entitled to a grave marker if you want one.”

Wheezing and coughing, he says, “You mean like one of them they got at Arlington? Much appreciated if you can. Know it would do wonders for his mother. Folks need to remember my Bobby, Jr.”

“Yes sir, be honored to do that.”

Bobby Anderson departs. I retrieve my hat once the kids are asleep.

The preacher’s wife brings out the lemonade. “Glad you got to see Bobby. They’re a real fine family. Hate seeing all this sorrow.”

Preacher Johnson joins in. “Yes, my daddy baptized Bobby, Jr. along with his three sisters. Eleanor, their mom, grew up here. Buried her dad. The coal dust did him in. Looks like it will do the same to Bobby, too. With all this heartache, Jesus will have a special place for both of them.”

With curiosity, I ask, “Guess everyone grows up to be a miner?”

On went Preacher Johnson: “Not Bobby. He’s from down in Bristol. Showed up after the war trying to find work. Hear tell he soldiered in the army like you. Some say France. Who knows? Can’t get a word out of him. The one truth that can be said is he met the love of his life, Eleanor. Bobby’s a hardworking man. Would do anything for her and the young’uns.”

Preacher Johnson’s wife remarks, “Only makes your coming even harder. Bobby, Jr. was his pride and joy. If not fishing, they were hunting. Had to. The only food on the table when the mine shuts down. What will they do now?”

“A good life is hard to come by around these parts. That’s true enough. But didn’t Bobby sign Bobby, Jr.’s army papers? What was he thinking? He would be alive now.”

I comment, “So sad. If only it could have turned out differently.”

Agreeing, Preacher Johnson adds, “Can’t judge Bobby too harshly, though. Guess he wanted more for Bobby, Jr. than he had. I can’t help thinking that Bobby knew this day would come. The good Lord has plans for us even if we don’t know what they are.”

The next morning Preacher Johnson and I meet the honor detail from the Abington Reserve Center at the church. Along with Bobby Anderson, the funeral arrangements are formalized. Preacher Johnson laughs at my question. “Yes, son, a Catholic is welcome. Jesus loves us all.”

Folks in their best file into the church to the song “An Unclouded Day Where No Storm Clouds Rise.”

Preacher Johnson begins in earnest: “Sunset is coming but the sunrise we’ll see.” A chorus resounds, of knowing amens. Testimonies are made to Bobby Anderson, Jr.’s. life. Some are so sad, some full of joy. All are accompanied by more amens. The piano strikes up “The Glad Reunion Day” only to be drowned out by the churchgoers. Then silence, complete. Only the sounds of the detail sergeant’s muted commands.

The honor guard moves forward in perfect concert. They carry the casket to the gravesite beside the church. A soldier’s final rest.
Preacher Johnson delivers the blessing: “I Will Meet You in the Morning.” On command, three volleys are fired. Bobby Anderson flinches on each discharge. The coronet’s Taps brings tears to Eleanor Anderson.

The detail removes the flag before lowering the casket. They fold it and give it to the honor guard sergeant. Then to me. Receiving the flag, I present it to Eleanor Anderson. She cries uncontrollably.

I start, “On behalf of …”

She shouts, “Y’all killed my boy!” Shrieking, she throws the flag to the ground. “Y’all took my Bobby from me!”

I bend to pick up the flag. I tuck in the end and wipe away the dirt. I catch Bobby Anderson’s gaze. He’s standing by himself. I’m not sure what to expect. Will he also empty his wrath on me?

Bobby Anderson steps up, so close I hear him breathing, see his tears. He reaches to the flag in my hands. His fingers touch it. Then he takes the flag. He pulls it close to his chest, staring at it. He raises his eyes to mine and nods. I step back. I render and hold my salute.

One soldier to another. We understand.

About the Author

Larry Meier was born at Fort Leonard Wood, MO while his dad was still in the army and moved to Scotia NY when he was discharged.

Later his family moved to Roanoke, VA. Larry graduated from Virginia Tech in 1967 and accepted an Army commission as Second Lieutenant in the Field Artillery. After attending Defense Language Institute for Dutch, he served with the Dutch army in the Netherlands.

In 1970 he was assigned to the 4th Infantry Division in Ahn Khe as a FO with a 105mm battery. When the 4th Infantry stood down, he was reassigned to the 5th Infantry (Mech) in Quan Tri as the XO of a 155mm battery.

The remainder of his seven-year army service was at Fort Lee (now Ft. Gregg-Adams) and then with the 3rd Armor Division in Nuremburg, Germany.

After short period travelling in Europe, he moved to Richmond where he met his wife, Vera, and attended Virginia Commonwealth University for post graduate studies in accounting.

He accepted a position as a Revenue Agent with the Internal Revenue Service. Following retirement, he became a Financial Crimes Investigator involving money laundering cases with Wachovia (later Wells Fargo).

Larry currently resides in Richmond, VA where he mentors two young grandsons on how to get into trouble they never knew existed.

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