Saying Hi to Hugh O'Brian

   In Vietnam, in 1967, my combat unit’s rest from combat, our "down time" if you will, consisted almost entirely of pulling perimeter guard and running patrols around places like Lai Khe, Phuoc Vinh, Phu Loi and Quan Loi, where members of my battalion were mortared, sniped at, booby trapped and engaged almost daily in small shoot outs. We actually looked forward to this type of "down time" because it was so much better than enduring the stress of regular search and destroy operations into the deep jungles of War Zone C, where we only had an N.D.P. to return to each night. Now, while standing around waiting to board cargo planes, I was about to cross paths with a very poignant reminder of the existence of another life style being lived by many of my fellow soldiers in Vietnam. It was a life style which was far above the one which we grunts lived. This reminder came in the form of a very strange encounter, an encounter, which would not only remind me of my lowly status in life, but also just as important, how I shouldn't let that lowly status influence the way I judged others who seemingly were riding on top of the world. The event, which set all this new realization in motion was a chance encounter with the movie actor Hugh O’Brian.

    Here we were, waiting at the air strip to load onto planes, where Hugh and his entourage were also waiting to be flown out to perform a show called "Guys and Dolls". They were in their world and we were in our world, two very different realities colliding for just an instant in time. Most of the guys with me scattered out to get closer to the girls in the group, but a sick little feeling in the bottom of my stomach said, “Why bother”? As everyone around me drifted away, suddenly, I somehow found myself staring Hugh O’Brian eye ball to eye ball. He had been my boyhood hero when he played Wyatt Earp on TV. Now, here I was, standing in front of my unarmed hero of years past, with rifle in hand, machine gun ammo belts draped across my chest Poncho Villa style, a grenade clipped to each front strap of my "web gear" and a rocket launcher and machete sticking out from the back of my ruck sack. In a very surreal sense, times had really changed and it was fair to say that all my boyhood thoughts toward him had been completely shattered. Having now been face to face with one of the harshest realities that life can offer, I definitely no longer regarded him as my hero.

    As I stood there, starring into his handsome face, it could just as easily have been a taunting image in a bad dream. Anyway, all I could do was say “Hi” and all he could do was stare back at me, with a very mysterious expression on his face. Quite frankly, at first, it made me think that he was being somewhat aloft, and yet it wasn't that. I knew what an "aloft" look was and this wasn't that. Finally, after continuing this haunting stare for much too long, he grunted a “Hi” back at me and that was that. We both turned and walked away from each other forever, but the mystery of that expression on his countenance would remain frozen in my mind for many years to come. In the big scheme of things it was a little thing and something to be forgotten yet it was not forgotten, the look "I mean". Yes, it would take years for me to understand the reason behind that strange look on his face. However, Iike so many other fleeting thoughts of times past which The Holy Spirit resurrects to be restructured into meaningful images, I finally have the truth behind the long stare. 

    That realization came when I learned some personal facts about Hugh. He had served as the youngest D.I. to train marines in World War II. Later, he had become involved in causes supporting those less fortunate in life. Armed with this revealing information, I now know that the long pause and strange look was in response to an all too familiar look on my face, which shocked the "day lights" out of him. He had seen this same look many times before on other soldiers in his past, as they finished their training, to go face death in the Pacific. The "look" is a detached "far away look", a “going to the grave” look, if you will, and it can only be recognized by other veterans who have the heart to recognize it. D.I.'s like Hugh O'Brian certainly had that kind of heart. I had seen that same reactionary look during basic training on my own D.I.'s face in response to the look which he had witnessed on me and my buddy Winstead's face, as he told us that we would be the only two out of forty men in my training platoon to be chosen as combat infantrymen. It was that same grave response that all war mentors "worth their salt" see in those they release from their care to the killing fields of war. It is very disconcerting to all who know what they are looking at and as I said, Hugh certainly knew what he was looking at. He also knew that there is very little chance of engaging in small talk with anyone who is wearing this look, nor would he have wanted to do so anyway, because He knew nothing he could say would be appropriate. Having said all this, I regret that it took me so many years to realize that I had not been looking at the face of a dethroned boyhood hero after all, but instead, I had been looking into the face of a real live hero who helped save the world, by instilling in many others those same unselfish values which resided in his own heart, and for that he will now always be my hero.