Fifty-two years ago, Christopher Power and Glenn Neiswonger both arrived in Vietnam as soldiers in the Army’s 3rd Battalion, 1st Infantry.
Neiswonger was Delta Company. Power was Bravo. They never met, but they must have come close.
From 1969 to 1971, their unit fought out of Hill 4-11, a forward firebase with a good view of the surrounding valley about seven clicks west of Quang Ngai City. Newspaper accounts published by the Army suggested the area was heavy with Viet Cong.
“It seemed as if there were a booby trap under every bush,” is how a first lieutenant from Gainesville described the painstaking clearing of the lush hill at the time to create the temporary base.
Power got to Vietnam right around the time the hill was taunted by the enemy with the American folk ballad Where Have All the Flowers Gone blasting from the distance. “The GIs fired artillery and mortars,” the Associated Press wrote, “to silence the loudspeakers.”
The Southern Cross reported that around the time Neiswonger arrived, Delta Company was hit with an early morning mortar attack near an “old fallow rice patty.”
Apollo 11 landed on the moon shortly after that. Neiswonger’s company lost six soldiers that week.
In 1970, both Neiswonger and Power made it back to the U.S. alive. They would never meet as they built separate lives. It would take another 50 years and a small token from Vietnam to pull their stories back together.
Neiswonger returned to his hometown, New Bethlehem, Pa., and immediately got married and had sons. He worked in a factory making refrigeration equipment. Won his league bowling tournament. Lost a wife. Married again. He loves to read the Bible and isn’t much of a traveler.
Power landed in Temple Terrace. He was a gregarious bachelor for decades with no kids and eccentric friends. Made his living as a carpenter. Married a volunteer bartender from the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 10140 at age 59. He loved to golf. He didn’t go to church, but he traveled to 14 countries.
Both men were quiet about their experiences in the war, but both eventually became dues-paying members of the Hill 4-11 Association, which organized annual reunions.
Power died Jan. 30 at 71. It was announced in last month’s Hill 4-11 Association newsletter. That’s where Neiswonger said he read it.
Then he went upstairs and opened a box of items he’d kept for 50 years. He still had the hammock that he said belonged to a Vietnamese officer, and his boonie hat, “which looks like I just took it off.” And there, he said, was the lighter, engraved with the name “Chris Power.”
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How does he feel when he looks at this stuff now?
“Brings back memories I don’t really want to bring back.”
Was there anything good about Vietnam?
“I can’t remember feeling one second of happiness the entire time I was there.”
Then the 73-year-old said he’d had enough of those questions.
Power’s widow, Lori, received a package on Oct. 26 in the mail in Temple Terrace. It was a Zippo lighter and a letter from Neiswonger.
“I served in Vietnam the same time as your husband, Christopher Power,” it read. “While I was in Vietnam I found a lighter with Chris Power name on it. ... I know this is 50 years later, but in God’s time not ours. I’m sending you his lighter for it is not mine to keep.”
Lori felt close to her late husband holding such a personal item. It illuminated a part of his life she never knew.
There’s no way to know with absolute certainty if the lighter really came back from Vietnam. It has all the right markings for a 1969 Zippo, but counterfeit Vietnam Zippos exist.
Lori will have none of that. The comfort she gets from carrying the lighter with her everywhere, wrapped in Neiswonger’s letter, she said, is absolutely real.
The two men hadn’t had much in common following the Vietnam War, but they were bound by an experience. And they must have shared a visceral, permeating feeling that so many soldiers drafted into that war felt as they lived and died 10,000 miles from home.
Pointlessness? Absurdity? Resignation? Yeah, said Neiswonger, something like that. Even a non-veteran can almost feel it when looking at the lighter Power chose to carry and Neiswonger chose to keep.
“As you can see,” the letter continued, “on one side it says what all GIs said at one time or another.”
Lori turned the lighter over and saw Snoopy lying atop his dog house. A speech bubble flowing from his mouth contained two words.