Different war, same painful memories

A microfilm copy of the front page of the Killeen (Texas) Daily Herald, from April 7, 1969, announcing the death of Bobby Wells.

A microfilm copy of the front page of the Killeen (Texas) Daily Herald, from April 7, 1969, announcing the death of Bobby Wells.

My brother steered his Ford Explorer onto Avenue D in the central Texas town where 40 years ago we were young.

"Oleo Strut,'' he said. "Remember that?''

Oleo Strut, two words that hadn't crossed my lips in all those years, and now I couldn't stop thinking about it. What occurred in that coffee shop, in that military town, was either courageous or treason, depending on your point of view.

Time has softened any criticism. Few people today hold grudges against those who stood up against the Vietnam War, including young men who fled to Canada or soldiers whose objections to the campaign led them to do some very unsoldierly things.

Like crank out an underground antiwar newspaper in a back room at the Oleo Strut. They risked court martial, but their efforts and similar protests by good, patriotic Americans eventually stopped the killing.

The coffee shop opened in 1968 and drew its name from a shock absorber in a helicopter's landing gear. It was envisioned as a place where soldiers returning from Vietnam could find a soft landing.

On the stage in the main room, I pounded drums and sang harmony on songs by Cream, Hendrix, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and others. The audience, mostly GIs, seemed to like our music. Some of the locals didn't, and expressed their displeasure by throwing beer bottles and paint against the outside wall of the Oleo Strut.

I wasn't necessarily against the war then. I just happened to play music in an antiwar coffee shop in a town full of hawks. A few years later, I earned a commission in the Army, but by the grace of God avoided combat duty.

Returning to Killeen for my 40th high school reunion, I thought about all the years I've had that my friend and classmate Bobby Wells didn't.

Bobby was killed in an explosion in Phu Yen on March 26, 1969, and made the front page of the Killeen Daily Herald, with a picture of him in his Army uniform. Five tight paragraphs wrapped up his life: he attended local schools and played in the band; active in scouts; Baptist.

Five paragraphs was a lot in a sad town where death came in bunches every day.

As I write this, I am looking at his youthful face and his date of birth, Nov. 19, 1949, a month before mine. I can still see Bobby in his blue Cub Scout uniform when we were little, his blond hair tucked under a cap.

Forever young.

Like most of the kids in Killeen, we were Army brats. Our fathers were combat-tested and figured their sacrifices spared their own sons similar agony.

Too bad it never seems to work out that way.

Last week in Pasco County, my home for 25 years, we suffered through another funeral of a young local soldier killed in the latest questionable war. It was the second in a month for our community, more agonizing images of a flag-draped coffin and weeping families.

After five years, the death toll is terrible but not yet approaching Vietnam. A local soldier still gets more than five paragraphs. Aside from that, it's hard to find anything positive to say.

Different war, same painful memories 05/10/08 [Last modified: Monday, May 12, 2008 11:53am]

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