Every guy needs a good
workbench, preferably in the basement or garage.
When I was stationed at Camp Lejeune, the climate made a
garage setup practical. I could work on my projects
with the big doors open, thereby keeping one eye or ear on
my kids at the same time.
Every so often we'd hear the
thudding whop-whop of approaching helicopter blades, as
the Marines flew their CH-46 or their big Sea Stallion
birds over. The children would always run outside
for a look, especially since sometimes the big choppers
would come over quite low, and the crew would wave to
them. After I met the Sergeant Major, I thought of
him and David every time that happened.
The Navy has always been
short on physicians. The active duty, dependent, and
retired population at Camp Lejeune would normally require
fifteen or more primary care internists, and we had 5.
Since our primary mission was care of the active duty
Marines and sailors, and next in line were the active duty
dependents, retirees often got the short end of the stick.
Whenever our backlog became too severe, the clinic would
be declared closed to retirees. Of course, the
person who made that decision was never the young medical
officer who had to see the faces of the veterans of
Okinawa, Tarawa, and Khe Sanh as he turned them away.
Like my brother physicians, I would squeeze them in
wherever I could until someone complained of congestion in
the clinic, and I would be called on the carpet.
The Sergeant Major was one
of these retirees. A Marine helicopter crew chief,
he served in Vietnam and also with HMX-1, flying the
President. That gleaming helicopter bringing the
President to the White House from Camp David—that was the
Sergeant Major's bird. He came to the emergency room
with what turned out to be a minor problem, and I was
called to authorize his referral to a civilian facility.
Not having the heart to turn away another veteran, I told
the emergency room physician to have him come by the
clinic in the morning.
Have you ever been surprised
by the fruit of what you thought was a very small
The Sergeant Major's problem
was disposed of in a very few minutes, but while he was at
the clinic he took the time to ask a few questions about
the doc. Finding out that I liked to fish, he told
me to come out to his farm anytime and fish his pond.
This I of course did, finding wonderful fishing for large
and gullible bass. The wonderful fruit of my small
kindness was that he persuaded me to try fly fishing,
beginning a passion which has stayed with me through the
years…. but that's another story.
I began to bring my
children, and before long the Sergeant Major had forsaken
his fishing rod to spend the time with my children while I
fished. I'd walk up to the house as dusk approached
to find him sitting, chuckling, in a lawn chair watching
them playing. But the toys they were playing with
were the toys of my own childhood: Davy Crockett
coonskin caps, Gunsmoke gun and holster sets, gyroscopes,
hula hoops in mint condition, a strange blast from the
"Some pretty old toys", the
Sergeant Major said. "Looks like you remember 'em."
Yes, I said, I sure did, and I asked about his kids.
He'd had two sons; the
eldest was a lawyer of some sort, and very different from
his father. He never came to share his dad's love of
fishing and hunting, and seems to have grown farther away
from him in adulthood. He lived not too far away, in
the same state, but they rarely saw him.
But David was dad's best
buddy. He wanted nothing more than to be where dad
was, doing what dad did. His father told of a
fishing trip which turned into a grim test of endurance,
anchored in a rowboat in the middle of a lake as wind and
sleet drilled through their ponchos. David's lips
were turning blue, but he smiled up at his father and
said, through chattering teeth, "Fun, huh Dad?"—and meant
it. It was David's toys my children played with.
Naturally, David joined the
Marines. As luck would have it, Father and son were
sent to Vietnam at the same time. The Sergeant Major
had a fairly safe billet in Saigon, but David was a grunt
in a rifle platoon. This, I thought, would be about
the time the Sergeant Major's wife's hair turned white.
Anyway, one day David got
liberty and hitchhiked to Saigon to see his dad. The
Sergeant Major got him a hot shower, a hot meal, and a
night in a real bed with clean sheets. Next morning
he took him to see the chaplain. When it was time to
leave, the chaplain said, "David, do you like to drink
beer?" "No, sir", David answered. "But the
guys in my platoon do." So the chaplain gave him a
case of Schlitz to take back to his firebase. The
Sergeant Major made David exchange his battered flak
jacket for his own, which was practically new. Then
he took him over to Highway 1 to hitch a ride back to his
unit. "I left him standing at the side of the road,
wearing my new flak jacket, the case of beer on his
"It was 1968. I never
saw him again."
Years later, on temporary
duty in Washington, I went with a friend to visit the
Wall. We looked up David's name in the directory and
found it in the polished black stone. Dressed in our
summer white uniforms, we stood before the name as I told
David's story. When I finished we turned to find
that a small crowd had gathered, listening silently and
sneaking photographs. Somewhere in somebody's album
there is that picture of us, and David's story will be
retold whenever the album is taken out. Which is as
it should be.
So when the thudding of
rotor blades brings my children outside to see, I think
how blessed America has been to have men like David and
the Sergeant Major. In so very many other countries,
that sound still sends children running in terror. I
can't repay those men for what they gave us, but I can
remember them when I hear that sound. It's the Sound