GAINESVILLE — The old men met after sun up Saturday in the parking lot of an abandoned Mexican restaurant on the south side of town. They shook hands and hugged and climbed aboard a bus, careful not to fall.
Chuck Ruffner, 79, carried the plaque. "Don't drop it," he kept saying as he passed it around.
A police motorcade led the way to campus, past the co-eds in short shorts and the tailgaters playing corn hole and all the University of Florida homecoming hoopla.
There were some 120 Pi Lambda Phis when these guys graduated in the late 1950s. About half of that crew is left, the brothers say. Some men wake up in the morning and some don't.
That's why they were here. They had unfinished business, and time gets shorter every day.
• • •
They remember that he slept on the floor, which was odd. They remember that he would wake in the dark and run five miles before class. He was blue-eyed and tall and slender and came to UF from Miami. He was an exemplary Army ROTC trainee. He was a good son, too, and once sent home a photograph of himself in his dress blues.
To the best Mother a person could ever have, from her son at Christmas, Bill.
Mostly, though, they remember Bill Taylor's voice, even if they can't settle on whether he sang baritone or tenor. The way it went in those days, a few years after UF began enrolling young women: You would eye a girl and commence the courting and when things grew serious, you bequeathed to her your fraternal pin. It was a badge indicating the young lady was spoken for. But boys weren't allowed in the female dorms, so a boy had to stand on the ground in the moonlight and send his longing up to the windows. And the boys from Pi Lambda Phi had a ringer in William Taylor.
They would drag him out in the dark and he would throw his head back and start into Blue Moon. Knees buckled in the night. Time slid by.
• • •
August 1966, Pleiku Province, Vietnam, near the Cambodian frontier. Intelligence reports indicated Charlie wanted to draw U.S. forces away from Tuy Hoa and eastern Binh Dinh Province, so Viet Cong guerrillas could secure the rice harvest along the coastal areas.
The Air Cavalry launched Operation Paul Revere II to stymie those plans. Over the first 10 days of fighting, the enemy body count soared to 413.
On Aug. 13, a fog had settled and rain fell hard as Bravo Company, led by Capt. William Taylor, 30, moved up the slick side of Hill 534 toward enemy camp. He had asked to be there. He'd had a cushy job as aide to a general in Greece but resigned and volunteered for combat.
Taylor's bone-tired men ran into a complex network of camouflaged bunkers, and hell came up from the ground.
Mortars exploded around them and sniper bullets bit the earth. The enemy was twice the size of Taylor's company and well-entrenched. They were 15 yards away and had Bravo Company pinned down and surrounded. The casualties came fast.
Taylor popped his last grenade, and the smoke filtered through the treetops.
The fighter bombers and gunships came hard, blasting and strafing the area around Taylor's smoke.
"Keep it coming closer," Taylor radioed. "I can't feel the concussion yet."
When Charlie Company finally arrived to take some pressure off Bravo, Taylor pulled his men back and began evacuating the dead and treating the wounded.
They rode out the night in the rain, and launched another advance the next morning, climbing back through the muck to the same position where they had been pinned down.
Taylor was everywhere, scrambling up Hill 534 to direct machine gun fire and racing back to his radio point to call in air artillery.
Then it happened. A mortar round spun in, and the blast caught Taylor and his radio man. Taylor turned to a young private first class named Walter T. Hoffman.
"Hold the perimeter and dig in," he said. "They can't push you out then. Just tell the men to hang on."
• • •
The Western Union telegram came to Mrs. Ruth E. Taylor at 43 NE 53rd St., Miami, on Aug. 17, 1966:
THE SECRETARY OF THE ARMY HAS ASKED ME TO EXPRESS HIS DEEP REGRETS THAT YOUR SON, CAPTAIN WILLIAM E. TAYLOR DIED IN VIETNAM ON 15 AUGUST 1966 AS A RESULT OF GUNSHOT WOUNDS RECEIVED WHILE ON COMBAT OPERATIONS AGAINST A HOSTILE FORCE. PLEASE ACCEPT MY DEEPEST SYMPATHY.
She mourned her son, then collected the rest of the ephemera of a life. His diploma from the university. Photographs of Bill at the high-school dance. A letter from Bill's brigade chaplain assuring her that before Bill and his men had left on the mission, he had, in a downpour, given all of them General Absolution and held one last Mass. A note from Bill's lieutenant colonel: "At no time did Bill's confident and inspirational leadership falter. Loved by his men, regarded as a warm and true friend by his contemporaries and seniors alike, Bill will always epitomize to the Second Battalion, Fifth Cavalry the ideal Infantry leader to whom no mission was too difficult, no sacrifice too great."
She put the items in a cardboard box and put the box into a storage shed and then, some years later, she died.
• • •
In the 1980s, Chuck Ruffner, a Pi Lam who worked for a spell as a tax lawyer in Bobby Kennedy's Justice Department, paid a visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. He looked up his old friend William Taylor, found his name among the 58,000 others, on Panel 10E, line 11.
He made a rubbing and it occurred to him then that if William Taylor could be honored in Washington, he should be honored in Gainesville, as well.
"You look around and you think, I ought to ask somebody to do this," Ruffner said. "But sometimes you've just got to do it yourself.
He wrote and called and visited every UF president since Marshall Criser in 1984. He was told that no one could find Bill Taylor's records. It was as though he had never existed.
Ruffner spent 30 years trying to get someone's ear. Finally, UF president Kent Fuchs opened the door.
Another frat brother, Art Sheldon, 82, began to try to track down documents and family members to flesh out Taylor's story. His mother was long dead. He couldn't find the name of a young wife Taylor left behind. He couldn't find a grave.
He finally found an email address for a woman who claimed on a Vietnam memorial site to be Taylor's sister, and fired off a note.
• • •
Pat Hufschmidt, 69, of Thousand Oaks, Calif., was in shock when she got the email. Is this real? she wondered.
She had been visited the day before by a big yellow butterfly in her back yard. She saw it as a sign that somebody was reaching for her from the other side.
Bill was her half-brother and 10 years older, and their family split up. But she remembers getting the news when she was 20 about Bill's death, and how it hit her hard.
She booked a plane ticket to Florida and stuffed her purse full of travel packets of Kleenex.
In Gainesville she met family she hadn't seen in years. A cousin, Bob Heitzman of Leesburg, brought along a scrapbook.
When Bill's mother died in the 1980s, Bob was responsible for cleaning out her house. He had stumbled upon the cardboard box containing all the waterlogged letters and bug-ravaged photographs. There were several first-hand accounts of how Bill had fought that day.
Bob salvaged all he could, knowing how easy it is for stories like Bill's to disappear. He made the scrapbook for his daughter, Bill's goddaughter. Inside were documents explaining how Bill was posthumously promoted to major, how he was one of the very few recipients of the Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest military award for extreme gallantry.
"I haven't wept a lot," Pat said. "But each time I read something else, he becomes more real to me."
• • •
Chuck Ruffner passed Pat the plaque, and her chest began to heave. She rubbed her face, then ran a finger over the imprint of a slim soldier affixed to dark wood.
Forty Pi Lams contributed $7,500 for the plaque and the bus and the ceremony. For their brother.
Maj. Gen. Dave Krazer stood under some palm trees in front of Van Fleet Hall, the ROTC building on campus, and addressed Bill Taylor's family. He told them he awarded 2,500 Bronze Stars and a handful of Silver Stars during Iraq and Afghanistan, but never a Distinguished Service Cross.
"This is a story that has been too long in the telling," he said.
"The dedication of his friends, his family and his classmates never wavered," he said.
"His story will be preserved," he said, then he looked at the old men in the rows in front of him. "Thank you, gentlemen, for allowing us to correct the ledger."
They took the plaque into the hall to hang on a wall of distinction, so nobody would again forget the story of William Taylor, Pi Lambda Phi, Florida Gator, who lived good and fought hard on Hill 534.
Ben Montgomery can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8650