Saturday, October 9, 2010

Vietnam Experience: A Musical Connection

The list of influences derived from my Vietnam experience could go on for days, but for today because the attraction was music, let me share this 'music' related story: My sophomore high school choir sang a song in concert called 'Russian Picnic' which was so popular with the choir that they selected it as their anthem and opened every concert with it - 1960.

Segue to Folk Polk, LA, 1967, for infantry training: I was sitting on my bunk in the barracks and could hear someone lightly singing/humming 'Russian Picnic' and jumped up and yelled, "Hey, who's singing Russian Picnic?" On the other side, RICHARD KROLIKOWSKI (name as it appears on the Vietnam Memorial) from Hamtramck, MI., acknowledged that he was the one.

At this point you need to know that Rich was the first member of a Polish family to be born in the United States after they had escaped Poland just ahead of the Nazi takeover. His sense of American Patriotism would put us all to shame, and there was no question in his family that he would serve and defend his 'new' country by membership in the army. The unfortunate part of the story is that except for his enthusiasm he was probably not army material. I have never seen lenses that thick on a pair of glasses before nor since I knew him. His shoulders were decidedly shorter from side to side than his hips - significantly so - and as a body type he tended to be perfectly round at the hips. Also, as a matter of additional interest, marching behind him was somewhat problematic because his legs did not seem to move to the same beat that the rest of the platoon was using. Rich was on his third - and final - attempt at passing his training. If he didn’t pass this time he was out. But all of that aside, he could sing ‘Russian Picnic.’

I went around to the other side of the barracks to tell him how amazed I was that one other person on the planet not from my high school knew that song. My jaw really dropped when I was tapped on the shoulder by the guy in the next bunk, SCOTT COOK, (name as it appears on the Vietnam Memorial) from Pacific, MO., who told me that he also knew ‘Russian Picnic’ and proceeded to sing it. Rich and I joined in and had a mutual good time - almost like barbershop quartet singing. The laugh is that in real life, Scott was a barber!

Needless to say, the lives and survival of all three of us in training was heightened by this unique friendship based on the one song (although we managed other barbershop selections as time went on.) On our last evening at Fort Polk when everyone was rushing around getting it all together to leave in the morning, I happen to be in the shower as Rich was finishing up shaving. When I came out, Rich had just left the bathroom, and one of our fellow trainees remarked that Rich wouldn’t last 30 days in Vietnam. I focused on the fact that he had passed training and hoped that he had retained enough to survive the upcoming experience. But I knew on some level, training was not the only element affecting one’s ability to participate in the infantry - I had the highest score in my infantry training company and was still unable to answer the question of whether or not I could kill another human being.

The following day started 30 days of leave for all of us: Scott, Rich, and I were all Vietnam bound and in fact Rich and I were assigned to the same unit in Vietnam. Thirty days later, we all arrived for transport to Vietnam. Rich and I landed at the Ben Hoa Air Force Base in Vietnam, and when the plane was surrounded by jeeps with 50 caliber machine guns, that’s when I was sure I ‘wasn’t in Kansas anymore.’ (Apparently, the day before, a Viet Cong soldier had exited the baggage department firing away. They were taking no chances.)

Over the next week, Rich and I arrived at the Redcatcher in processing unit for the 199th Light Infantry Brigade, and on Friday of that week, were due to be shipped to our assigned battalion. However, for me, Friday morning brought an unbelievable surprise: a finance sergeant interviewed five of us and asked if we would mind being switched to Finance. Well, of course, my dad didn’t raise any stupid children, and as soon as I was able to catch my breath, I said "Yes!" With that, I moved to the 7th Support Battalion and Rich moved to one of the infantry battalions - I’m thinking it was the 5th of the 12th. With that I settled into learning the ins and outs of the Finance Office and into a daily routine.

As it turned out, a part of the Finance Office routine was visiting the Personnel Office every morning to pick up the KIA (Killed In Action) list so that their finance records could be closed out and shipped back to the States. I glanced at it occasionally but never saw anybody I actually knew, although I recognized many of the names from having worked on their finance records and pays.

Then came November 8, 1967, with the KIA list including those who had died on November 7, 1967, - a date 30 days from the day Rich and I had arrived in country. On that list, was "Richard Krolikowski - Recoilless round to the head." I couldn’t move except to shake a little bit, but fortunately, one of the finance personnel who had been there for a while came over, took me into the back room, and said, "Take a deep breath and remember there is nothing you could have done. The first one is rough, but it gets a little easier." All I could think of was the comment made about Rich on our last night at Fort Polk: "He won’t last 30 days in Vietnam." But he did!

Beyond the occasional passing thought about Rich while I completed my tour in Vietnam, this story doesn’t continue until I returned home to McKeesport, Pa., just before Christmas, 1968. It took a month or so for the nerves to relax a bit, and that’s when I started writing to Scott to see how he was doing. Six weeks went by with no answer, so I wrote him again with the thought that maybe he had been injured or something and was in a VA hospital, therefore mail might be delayed. Six more weeks went by without an answer, so once more I wrote him with a touch of anger in my ‘written’ voice telling him I at least deserved the courtesy of a response of some sort. Several weeks later I received a letter from his mother telling me that she had hoped that by not responding to my letters, she would avoid having to write the letter I was now holding. Enclosed was Scott’s obituary - he had died in Vietnam.

At this point all of this fades into the background, never to be visited again - at least on the short term. Years went by and along the way people asked me if I had visited the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. I told them "No, I think I’ve put the whole thing to rest and it’s all behind me. In the meantime, however, I had developed a friendship with someone who lived in the Adams-Morgan area of Washington, D.C. which among other things presented a nice place to stay when I visited D.C. In spite of having the opportunity to visit the Memorial, I never did until one day as I was packing to leave, my friend asked me why I’d never gone to visit it. I said that it was behind me now, and he said, "Well, in that case, I’ll take you to see it the next time you’re here." - which was planned for two weeks from the current date. I said "Okay," and that in that case I guess I should prepare a memento to leave at the wall.

I returned to Pittsburgh, and contemplated what would be an ‘appropriate’ remembrance. It wasn’t until the following weekend that I figured out that I would leave two copies of "Russian Picnic" at the wall with a message for Rich, and a message for Scott. On Monday, I called Volkwein’s in Pittsburgh - the source for sheet music for many of the high schools in the area and many church choirs - in fact I don’t know where else you would go. I asked if they had any copies of ‘Russian Picnic’ and the guy checked and came back and said they did. I told him, "Good, I need two copies." He responded by telling me he only had one copy, but that he could order another one in by next week - the week after I needed it. When I told him why I needed two copies, he asked me to hold on while he checked it out. When he returned, he told me I was very lucky. He said that just every so often a copy of music falls into the folder in front of or behind the one you’re looking for and that he did indeed have two copies, so I set off to Volkwein’s for my two copied of Russian Picnic.

I wrote a message to Rich and to Scott on their respective copies, and other than a slight touch of melancholy, I was convinced that I was really over all of that and that my visit to the Vietnam Memorial was merely an act of honoring their memory. I rolled the music into a tube and tied it with a ribbon, also effectively tying up any loose ends I might have. And it would get my friend in D.C. off my back about visiting the memorial - I told him I was ‘over’ Vietnam and everything was fine.

Come Saturday morning in D.C., my friend was up early pushing me to get moving so we could go have breakfast, but reminding me to bring my ‘mementoes.’ He said we would hit the Vietnam Memorial after we ate. Well, we arrived at the wall and I got the panel locations for Rich’s name and Scott’s name, some tracing paper, then headed off in search of their names.

I found Rich’s name first, took a tracing, and laid the copy of Russian Picnic at the base of his panel, but as it turns out, I was totally wrong about having put it behind me. I nearly lost it, and my friend held on to me and helped me up, being supportive without being maudlin. He had to help me find Scott’s name because I could hardly keep my eyes clear long enough. I laid his copy of Russian Picnic at the base of his panel, but my friend had to help me complete the tracing....and then I totally lost it!

Initially, he just walked me to the far side of the walkway to give me time to compose myself, but it was apparent that I was now in fact totally mourning their deaths because I had never really done it before, and the pain was devastating. I told him to please help me up the walk out of here so I could just sit down and regroup! It took about an hour to ‘decompress’ from the experience and a little longer to comprehend and admit that I had been totally wrong about ‘handling’ Vietnam.

The attached photo of me by the reflecting pool with the Washington Monument in the background was taken about an hour an half after my experience at the Wall. My friend was able to get me to smile by playing on how foolish I felt when I realized I had suppressed so much for so long. The year was 1989. Also, I'm wearing white because later that day, I would be working as a volunteer on the Names Project Aids Memorial Quilt display where everyone actually working on the Quilt had to wear all white.

                                      At the mall in Washington, D.C. - 1989

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