Thursday, September 3, 2009

Trip: 2009 1st Battalion 1st Marine Regiment Reunion

AUGUST 29, 2009 1:30pm - Because of an amazing coincidence I hit the ground at the Capitol hours before Senator Kennedy's memorial and as I stood at Constitution Avenue there was not a taxi to be found. Having been delayed at the DC airport and since my walk from the Metrorail station to the Wall had taken longer than I had expected I was "under the gun" to get to Union Station in time for my train's departure at 2:20PM. Walking the three miles was not an option as it was already 1:45PM.

Suddenly a taxi passed me on Constitution Avenue heading westbound but the station was due east. I didn't care as I ran into the street and raised my arm. "Taxi", I shouted. The yellow cab continued a few yards then it's brake lights flashed on, the driver flipped a yooey and headed back my way. After popping the door I shoved my bag in and announced "Union Station" to my driver, Muhammad from Ethiopia. I thanked him profusely and he picked up on my urgency in a moment and said I would make my train "with no problem". I breathed easier as I was already ticketed for Philadelphia and didn't want to deal with rescheduling fees, missing my train and not making it to the Reunion on time.

Muhammad was a good guy who was glad to be living in America but traveled back to his homeland yearly to see his family. Arriving at the station I tipped Muhammad well, found the Quik-Trak machine, scanned the bar code on my confirmation form and found the gate for my departure. Standing in line, I met a couple who were traveling home to New York who confirmed that I was waiting for the right train and heading in the right direction. Once aboard the #156 Northeast Regional I figured I would break out my newly purchased neck brace, kick back and snooze for the 2 hour trip to Philly (I've been told it's not presumptuous to use this city nickname). But I was too keyed up and I realized that the emotion of the moment was what was going to get me through the day. I welcomed it and pulled out my reading material: the latest novel from one of my favorite authors Michael Connelly titled: THE SCARECROW.

Before I left Philly I called my nephew Tyler at whose home I would be spending the night. His mom Mary Beth, dad Dale and brother Travis were visiting from Tacoma, WA. and they were all going to the "Jersey shore" for a few days. Another amazing coincidence that we would be "passing ships in the night" the only time I had been on the east coast in thirty years. (I ran the Boston Marathon in 1979 back when you had to qualify by running a sub three hour marathon. Another story.) He confirmed the key was underneath the white pot on the back porch and that his three roommates probably wouldn't be around until the next day. (It WAS Saturday night in Philly and they were all in their mid-twenties.)

I also was in contact with my Marine comrade, Mike Newton, who was going to pick me up at the 30th Street train station in Philly. Conveniently, Tyler's house was north of the city and on the way to King of Prussia Sheraton where the reunion was being held. Mike, when he worked for PBS, visited us in Seattle a couple of times so the girls had met him and he entertained Caitlin and her friend Nicole one night in Boston when he worked for the Boston Ballet. They were having a special performance for some "high rollers" so Mike invited them but didn't require them to make any donations.

Mike said he would meet me at the 30th Street entrance and it was a wonderful surprise to find two other former comrades: John Keeling from Houston and Joe Fulginiti from Fredericksburg, VA. in the car with Mike. All four us had been involved in a memorable battle on Hill 689 on July 6-8 1968 with both Mike and John being wounded and medevaced in a daring helicopter rescue at night and under enemy fire. I hadn't seen John or Joe for a long time and the drive to Tyler's and the hotel gave us time to "hash" over stuff we hadn't dealt with for forty years.

John, Will, Mike & Joe

Unbelievably, I had forgotten John had been wounded and seeing the scar on his cheek that curved down his nose confirmed that good luck is fleeting and unpredictable. He and Mike had been wounded by the same exploding mortar round with me close behind, untouched and suddenly thrust into the role of squad leader. The four of us, with our different perspectives, were able to piece together the events of that chaotic night. With Mike and John gone and after events of the following day and deadly night I found myself as the commander of Charlie Company second platoon. With Joe's recollection of the aborted rescue mission the next day and his revelation that Charlie Company fired over 400 mortar rounds the second night I found a lifetime of questions being answered. I remembered with awe knowing three of my nine lives being used up in less the 48 hours.

With Saturday traffic on Highway 67 backed up like rush hour Joe exited and entered the freeway in what he claimed were short cuts. In fact, like most guys, he would rather be moving in a longer route than crawling along bumper to bumper on a shorter route and taking the same amount of time. If didn't matter as it gave the four of us time to get reacquainted after a forty year separation. Joe is a corporate motivational speaker, married with two beautiful daughters (I know they are beautiful because they were at the reunion dinner), John is a hotel developer with a son and a daughter and a beautiful wife Evelyn (I know she is beautiful because she was also at the reunion) and Mike has a son and a beautiful wife Jenalyn (I know she is beautiful because he told me).

We dropped my gear at Tyler's and after using Mike's room at the hotel, to get squared away, I made it to the pre-function at 6:30PM with a Budweiser in my hand. With a lot of the remaining major breweries located east of the Mississippi micro/macro/specialty beers don't seem to be as prevalent as they are in the West. I settled for a "Bud" because my other choices were Bud lite, Miller lite or an "imported beer" Corona. Lite beer and a beer that can only gagged down with a slice of lemon are pretty sad options but the "King of beers" was cold and I had a designated driver (Mike) so I was a happy boy.

After I met John's wife Evelyn and Joe's two great daughters, George Dougherty Sr. the 2009 Reunion Chairman, sidled up to Joe and said "you're the man". They gave each other a long look and Joe said to our group "he means I'm the master of ceremonies AND the main speaker AND the guest of honor." Apparently because of the current activities in Iraq and Afghanistan our main speaker, a Marine General, had to cancel his speech to our group. We nodded to Joe and said "you are the man!"

Joe was in his element as for the next two hours he told jokes, reminisced about past commanders and cajoled his comrades to the stage to speak. Some of these men had never stood up in front of a group this large (three hundred) but they "spoke from the heart" giving the evening a uniquely personal feel. Sure it would have been informative to get a update on the next "surge" and it is true those are our brothers fighting over there now but it's not our war. Having the mother of Sergeant Alfredo Gonzales, a Medal of Honor recipient from Alpha 1/1, sitting at our table and hearing her speak was an honor and it personalized "our war" and made me proud of having been a Marine and having served with those men.

After the dinner and the speeches I mingled with Marines who had served in Vietnam before me and after me and in the other companies in 1/1 Alpha, Bravo, Delta and Headquarter & Supply while I had been "in country" but I didn't know or recognize any of them. In spite of that we still had at least three things in common; we were Marines, we had served our country when asked and we lived to tell about.

Finally my group ended up back at our table just as a waiter we telling Mike (who doesn't drink) that we were only supposed to have two bottle of wine at a time at our table, not five. Without hesitating, Mike said, "three of them are empty but bring us a couple more when you get a chance." You cracked us all up. What stamina John's wonderful wife Evelyn has! She helped us close the place down and probably listened to a lifetime of boring war stories in on night! She and my wife Gwynne are soul mates. Meeting Joe's terrific daughters, who love their dad so much that they would hang out with a bunch of sixty year olds for one long evening, was a wonderful replacement for missing my two daughters Caitlin and Charlotte. My girls have always been aware of my being in the Marine Corps and my serving in Vietnam and they know they will never meet their uncle Terry so they have been very curious about "dad's trip" and my visit to "The Wall". It took forty-some years to get there but the time was right and I'm glad we all made it. (In more ways the one.)

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