Sgt. Randy Sanders was trim, fair-haired, well tanned and never shut up once. That’s how I remember my seatmate on the “Freedom Bird” flight home from Vietnam on June 4, 1971. He seemed happier than a fat kid in a candy store. He was leaving the war. So who wouldn’t be?
I was too. But barely capable of speaking. I was in a tense stupor. Bad memories of the nearly disastrous inbound flight to Vietnam haunted me. The last few months in country, the war got ugly at our Americal Division firebases. Bloody casualties from Operation Lam Son 719 near the Laotian border still plagued me. Too many images flashed in my mind. Like the body bags at Firebase MaryAnn.
So I was content to have Randy chatter incessantly for the 18 hours it took us to fly from Cam Ranh Bay, South Vietnam, to Tacoma, WA, an exact reversal of the route that got me to Vietnam seemingly an eternity ago. I virtually held my breath, closed my eyes and, as the chatty sarge prattled on, focused my thoughts on precious Natalie.
It was Natalie–the proverbial girlfriend I left behind–who sustained me all the desolate, scary days in Vietnam. For my entire Army hitch from 1969 to 1971–Natalie was my guidance, my sounding board, the object of all my future hopes and dreams. She calmed my fears and soothed my loneliness. It was Natalie who I longed for, planned for, and who was at the center of the universe I conjured all the days of my service.
Natalie and I met at a Wall Street trading firm during the summer of 1969, right before I was drafted into the Army. She was working a summer job between Brooklyn College semesters. I was marking time as a back office clerk, having left college under less than stellar academic circumstances. I was gambling, in fact, that I’d be able to reinstate my student deferment by the the fall semester, before Uncle Sam sent me the dreaded “Greetings” induction letter. Clearly, I lost.
We dated through June, July and August. By the time I was in uniform, finished basic training and posted at Ft. Bragg, NC., we were devoted to each other and profoundly in love. It took more than a full year for the Army to deep-dive into the barrel of Vietnam replacement personnel to find me. In mid November, 1970, I went home on leave before my transfer to Vietnam. I spent virtually every moment of those two weeks with Natalie. After we said farewell, I flew off to Ft. Lewis near Seattle to await my transfer across the Pacific. There, I wrote Natalie an apology about an abrupt and chilly parting. “I’d much rather kiss you hello than goodbye,” I told her in my first letter. I tried to be optimistic that we were at the “beginning of the end” of our separation. “This is a good time for us to get our heads together,” I stated. Whatever that meant. I was doubtful about what lay ahead.
In more than 150 letters I wrote to Natalie from Vietnam, I inexplicably signed off as “Freddie,” even though I never before–or since–referred to myself as such. My letters also had another corny conceit. Each closing salutation was a pathetic attempt to cleverly sum up my state of mind. “Loving you, exhaustedly,” I’d say when the letter went on for pages and pages. “Loving you, vividly,” I’d conclude when I tried to paint a picture of our future together. It’s a wonder Natalie saved the letters, let alone stuck around for my return. But she did. And the letters were my lifeline.
The night before I board my flight to Vietnam, I had a phone call with Natalie that left me ecstatic. “If I was alone, I would shout until exhaustion made me stop,” I wrote in my last letter from the US. “I have you totally within me, and I can feel your presence in every tingling nerve of my body. This enormous sense of love is overwhelming. Nothing exists but you Natalie. And everything lives, breathes, and abounds with love because I owe everything to you. Loving you, infinitely, Freddie.” That elation soon wilted as my stable life as a stateside, permanent party soldier gradually devolved in the dark and dubious setting of a hostile fire zone.
Time passed slowly. My letters betrayed a struggle to bear up under tedium and boredom of shuffling from one temporary base to another, living out of a duffel bag, having no purpose. “These will surely be the worst months of my life, but I can dig it,” said I, rather unconvincingly. “I’m looking forward to doing something worthwhile. At least to be busy. Maybe I have my hopes set too high. But all I have are my hopes. And you. You are all things to me—hope, strength and love.”
When I eventually settled in Chu Lai, my home away from home, I wrote Natalie my first impressions: “Rats the size of cats, and cockroaches that you can saddle.” I tried to describe the overwhelming signs of the war without raising too much alarm. But it was hard to hide my fear. “There’s fortifications, sentry towers, gun emplacements, bunkers, barbed wire, everywhere. All conspicuously guarding the beaches and hills that form our perimeter. The day before I arrived, two dozen VC rockets were lobbed into the base. Luckily, no casualties. This time.”
The war mostly stayed away from our base through the end of the year, though the monsoon rains did not. With the cold wet weather, came depressingly lonely days and nights. “Amazing how each day is the same. The same faces, same routines, same activities. Tomorrow promises to be no different, as does the day after that, and the next. There’s nothing to look forward to so long as I’m away from you. I’m lifeless without you, Natalie. I love you so much I feel only emptiness without you.”
When it finally stopped raining, I described the landscape to Natalie. “You’d be amazed how beautiful Vietnam is when you can see it. I wish you could share it with me. To the east, is magnificent blue ocean as far as the horizon, with constant white foamed surf. To the west, Vietnamese farms; gorgeous brown and green plots of buffalo-plowed land and flooded rice paddies. Beyond, are lush jungle highlands that rise to mist-shrouded mountains, a natural border with Laos and Cambodia. Seems like a beautiful country; one that people would spend money to come and visit if it wasn’t for this damned war.”
I ended that letter with a cautionary alert, like a seat-belt sign that flashes on at the end of an airline flight. “This is the tail end of monsoon rains. We’re heading for the hot and dry season. This is when things typically start to get happening around here. Loving you warily, Freddie.”
It took the better part of a month for Natalie’s mail to wind its way to me in Chu Lai. All that while, I continued to write to her every day. But it got harder each time to contain my grumpiness and insecurity. “It’s so hard to get through a day when I don’t hear from you. Not that I want to keep tabs on you. Just that I think of you as a vital part of my life and I want to share in your experiences. I know you, trust you and love you. I don’t demand obedience and solitude for you, only happiness and a rich life filled with love. I want to return to the same wonderful woman who loved me so completely before I left.”
When I did hear from Natalie, the contrast in me was startling. Like on New Year’s Day, when I wrote back to her. “I’ve been lying in bed for the last two hours. But sleep won’t come. Last night, I had guard duty and it didn’t stop raining once. It’s still coming down and the wind is rattling though the hootch. Everything is cold and damp. Someone just stopped by with my mail and there were two letters from you. I really don’t need any sleep now.
“I feel good because you sound more familiar. Maybe it’s the miles, maybe it is me, but previously you were a bit concealed, holding back. But Natalie is in these letters—pure sweet, loving and beautiful NATALIE. You are so right when you say we don’t function properly when separated. I just go through the motions of being alive when I am here. It will end, I have no doubt of that. And then there will be us, to do with our life and love as we please, with no pressure or influences. Until then, I need you to need me, so don’t be afraid. I love you and I know you love me. It’s distressing to be ‘nowhere’ after so much effort has gone into making a sincere realistic love. But the time will soon come when ‘now’ will be ‘then’ and we’ll put this all behind.
“But for this short while–this very short while compared to the millions of hours we will revel in each other’s affection—we must wait. Stand still, loving and needing. But always knowing. Seems like forever with us. That we’ve always been waiting. But the end is in sight now. Others without the strength to hold on through agonizing months of stolen weekends, separations, last minute let downs, too much coffee and too little sleep, they will never know the joy, the unity, the heavenly bliss that we will know in our lives. And we will have that bliss, that eternal love, I promise you Natalie.
“Shall this be then, a New Year’s Resolution? That’s as good a label as any. But it goes beyond the end of 1970 and the beginning of 1971. It is how I feel now, which will be how I feel always. A fitting way to end a year, I agree. But more fitting, a way of living the rest of a lifetime, completely in love with you. You’ll be rising shortly to a grand new year, and I will bedding down after my first day of 1971. It is not a happy one for either of us yet, but it has enormous possibilities. We’ll be together yet, and we will make this year the best ever. Goodnight, love. Stay well and enjoy. Loving you hopefully, Freddie.”
As the monsoons faded, the war stepped up in our area as everyone expected. “Last night we were hit by 15 rockets,” I told Natalie. “Closer to our headquarters area than any others since I’ve been here. There’s also been a terrific increase in activity at the outlying posts around Chu Lai. They say this is to be expected with the end of the rains. The VC will be more troublesome as the dry season comes along.
“The ugly business up in Laos is getting more and more serious. The South Vietnamese are getting their asses kicked. There’s two infantry battalions from my division up there already, and numerous helicopter outfits flying support for the ARVN. I found out tonight that another whole brigade leaves here tomorrow, which will likely result in additional casualties to the already heavy list. I’m not involved yet, but it’s scary nonetheless. If they keep taking units from Chu Lai, that could definitely leave us vulnerable to attack—not just these flaky Roman-candle rockets they pop in here every so often.”
The last week in March, I was assigned to cover the Laotian border invasion, Lam Son 719. There had been a mail embargo to control the bad news coming from this operation. The night before I was to head north, a devastating sneak attack took place at our outermost firebase, MaryAnn. My flight to QuangTri was delayed, I bared my fears to Natalie. “I admit, I am scared.”
For one week, my assignment put me far too up-close and personal with the war. I covered helicopter missions–patrols, reconnaissance, Medevacs. I filled my notebook with stories of brave pilots and heroic grunts. My head got filled with memories of bloody and dead American boys. When I returned to Chu Lai, however, it was to a string of good news. My college acceptance came through. My separation orders were issued with a 90 day drop. I took a week’s R&R in Bangkok, and prepared to leave Vietnam and the Army early. I even got promoted in rank. At one point, I sent a letter to Natalie with only three words: “I love you!”
A week before I was to leave Vietnam, Chu Lai took six rockets very near our headquarters area. The day before, I was covering a Navy jet bombing mission from the back seat of a spotter plane when it lost one of its two engines. “As we limped back to Chu Lai,” I told Natalie, “I thought about what would happen if we ditched in the jungle. My main concern was that I might miss my flight home next week.”
My final letter home to Natalie read as follows: “Dear Natalie–This will be the last letter I’ll write to you for a very, very long time. On such an occasion, you’d think there’d be something more outstanding to say besides I love you and nine days to go! Well, there isn’t. When you get this letter, I literally will be on my way home. Tomorrow I will work all day. Saturday I pack for a flight out of here. Homeward bound. I’m beginning to feel ‘short’ for real. I love you and will be with you in nine—single digits!—days. What more can I say? Loving you, soon! Freddie.”
It took less than 24 hours for the US Army to turn Randy and me back into civilians. On June 5, we were out the door and knocking back drinks in a noisy Seattle airport cocktail lounge, awaiting our stand-by flights east. Randy and a long legged, brunette cocktail waitress made flirtatious eyes at each other. After a few rounds, our flights were called. However, with a tilt of his head towards the waitress, and a wink to me, Randy decided stick around for another day or so. I shook my head. Say what? The finish line is in sight and you’re gonna….?
The idea of delaying my reunion with Natalie for even a nanosecond was beyond comprehension. I bid the sarge farewell, and flew home to her loving embrace, where I’ve been ensconced all these 50 years since. The continuation of a long and winding road we are still traveling.