Wabash Voices: Two Scenes from a Life

January 12, 2005

Two Scenes from a Life

by Col. Jim Roper ’68 USAF Ret.

Commencement Day, 1968

“I won’t do it. No way,” I told John Hudson, my roommate. We walked from the Beta House through the shade of hardwood trees toward the red brick buildings of the Wabash College mall.

John had been accepted at Indiana University Medical School.

“All you have to do is write a letter,” he said.

“Yeah, a letter saying my four years at Wabash College were the most wonderful times of my life, No way. I won’t lie.”

My Ph.D. fellowship in chemistry had been negated—no, annihilated—by my local draft board.

“The Dean of the College sounded serious the last time I took his call for you.”

“I’m serious, too. I won’t compromise my integrity, while the federal government cancels my dreams. My very existence becomes a question when they send me to Vietnam.”

“The Army may have your number, but Vietnam’s only one possibility.”

“I took my draft physical two days after the Tet offensive in January. Have you ever heard of supply and demand?” I ducked behind a tree, adjusting the mortarboard cap that stuck to my sweaty forehead. The black gown covered me like a shroud.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m waiting for that group of faculty ahead of us to pass. All I want is a diploma—not a confrontation with the dean. Without a sheepskin, the Air Force won’t accept me for pilot training—my plan B. If I can’t make it work, I’ll carry a rifle for sure.”

John laughed. “Why don’t you just lay back and enjoy it?”

“After you’re a doctor, do you plan to use those words on rape victims?”

John shook his head.

“How can I say I’ve enjoyed Wabash? Sometimes I liked wrestling and playing football. But I paid the price. I grovelled for my grades. Life here was four years of sleep-deprived, last-minute intellectual chaos.”

John smiled. “So?”

“So I won’t say my experience was anything else. Second, the whole effort means nothing.”

“I don’t know.” With his future secure, I surmised, John couldn’t understand the turbulence that had taken over my life like a fatal disease.

“Also, I’m in a major war with my parents already—my stepfather hates me. And Elaine has backed away from a man with no future. Emotionally, I’ve got nothing more to lose.”

“She’ll wait.”

“Nah. I don’t want her to wait.”

We approached a line of capped-and-gowned students that wound from an outdoor stage along the sidewalk beside Baxter Hall.

“Let’s talk later.” John turned away.

“Get in line, soldier,” a football pal yelled. He had attended Marine boot camp the previous summer. “Alphabetical order by height.”

I saluted and found my place.

The short gray Dean of the College came down the line, shaking the hand of each graduate. He stopped in front of me, folded his arms, and scowled.

“I need a letter from you,” he said. “The Baker Foundation is dividing the scholarship fund among individual colleges. Each Baker Scholar owes them a good letter so Wabash can receive its share of scholarship money.”

“No, sir. I won’t lie.”

“If you don’t write the letter, you can’t graduate.”

I turned toward the fraternity house and stepped from the line.

“We all have to do things we don’t enjoy,” he shouted. “I don’t care for neckties on hot days, but here I am, wearing one.”

I stopped about twenty feet away. “I finished four hard years the draft board renders irrelevant. At this moment, I feel no joy about Wabash College. But our disagreement isn’t about joy. It’s about truth.”

My peers in the line grumbled.

I sensed their empathy, but I stopped short of advising the dean that Vietnam was his war, not ours.

“You can graduate.” The dean compromised. “Give me a letter before you leave town.”

I stood fast. “I have bills to pay, sir. Tomorrow morning I start laying sewer pipe in front of Munster High School. You win. Keep your diploma.” I walked.

“Come on and get back in line, mister.” The dean had to yell. “Promise me you’ll write a letter thanking them for the scholarship. Be honest. I know you won’t be rude.”

“Fine, sir. I’ll thank them.” I marched slowly to my place in line.

1971, in a U.S. Air Force O-1,

500 feet above Laos, near Luang Prabang

I found the string of government soldiers clad in green uniforms moving near the crest of a ridge that pointed to the airfield.

“We can look around the area, but the fighters have landed for the day.” I told my back seater, Seo. “And we, too, must land soon.” I leaned my fuel mixture, just in case.

“I understand,” Seo replied, then spoke Lao words into his radio receiver.

I weaved along the ridge and scouted the terrain ahead, finding no sign of enemy troops. The point man had half a mile to go.

Boom.

A mortar round exploded fifty feet in front of the column. The point man fell.

The North Vietnamese Army [NVA] attack had fooled me. I had searched all the way out to rifle range, but not to mortar range. I felt my anger rise.

You’ve challenged me, now you’ll pay.

The racket of small arms firing brought me to reality. I called the house.

“We’ve got a battalion-sized fight going. Tell one of the FACs to get a set of T-28s out here. Now.”

“They’re eating dinner,” our radio operator said, “and I think the Royal Lao Air Force is done for the day.”

“And I’m nearly out of gas. But the NVA is on a different schedule. They have a nasty little attack underway. Send help, please.”

I scoured the flat area at the southern base of the mountain. Twenty NVA soldiers, crouching in light-colored uniforms, stood and crossed a dirt trail. A kilometer farther south two mortar positions blinked as they launched their small bombs at the hilltop.

Below me, our troops formed a ragged perimeter. Their disarray matched the frantic radio calls in their native language.

“Hang on,” I told Seo, and yanked the airplane to the right, slicing down in a two-hundred-and-seventy-degree turn, passing over the “friendlies.” I armed a rocket and aimed at the closest concentration of enemy troops.

Bam.

I pulled off hard right, just above the smoke, then reversed left toward the mortar flashes and armed another rocket.

Bam.

I could hear the distinct pop of bullets passing the wingtip as I whipped the airplane around toward the friendly lines. Damn. One rocket left. I could use a small nuke.

Excerpted from Quoth the Raven by Jim Roper. Contact Roper at www.ropersbooks.com

 


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