Randy, his Mother, Alone together at Union Station 1968

An excerpt from Chapter 2, The Bouchard Legacy.

                                                        Paul has earned his place in the World but Randy owns it.

 

After what seemed like forever, Mum’s l960 Cadillac swung into the turnaround. The car still had its bright turquoise sheen, even if it was eight years old. The turnaround empty of traffic, the sidewalk all but abandoned, Mum spun in fast.

            Coming to a stop, Mum put down her power window. She said, “I’m sorry I’m late.” Once out of the car, wearing her big oval sunglasses and a scarf covering her hair, she hurried to the curb.

            Randy greeted her with a hug. “I’m sorry I’m late, dear,” Mum repeated. “That overpriced roofing contractor just would not take no for an answer. Finally, I chased him off. Well, here we are. My God, Randy, nobody travels by train anymore. Oh, we’ll talk about the roof later. You look tired. Are you all right? And to think…I haven’t been here in years. The place has really fallen apart.”

            Randy took the keys from her and put his bags in the trunk. Mum remained outside the car. “Are you ready to go?” he asked.

            “No. Not just yet. Excuse me. There’s something I need to do…so long as we’re here. Why did you take the train?”

            “What?” Randy asked. His mum had turned to walk across the street to the old fountain.

            A vast bathtub of a thing some forty yards wide, it was filled with concrete fish, water fairies, and mermaid sculptures. It was bone dry. It looked like something out of a mason’s nightmare. In the central piece was a man-sculpture with broken arms poised to dive at a female figure carrying a water jug on her shoulders. The fountain looked ready to crumble into dust.

            Randy quickly followed Mum to the fountain.

            “Oh, Randy,” Mum said. “This old train station, this fountain…brings back so many memories. You don’t mind terribly, if we linger here a moment, do you? Then we’ll go someplace nice for lunch.”

            “Sure,” Randy said, looking back toward the car. He had to laugh. All the life of the station depended on the train, and now with the train gone, the place was a graveyard. A sign next to where Mum parked stood in stark contrast to all the quiet. It said “No Parking-Loading Zone.” About the only loading Randy could see going on were two winos sharing a bottle of fortified wine. What’d Mother see in all this decrepitude? The fountain was in worse repair the closer they got to it. Orange, red, and purple graffiti splattered all over the mermaids. A couple of the water fairies had been tipped over.

            Even so, there she sat, his mum, Margaret Bouchard—corporate powerhouse and high-society insider—on a bench, gawking at the derelict monstrosity. Paper cups, crumpled newspapers, and food wrappers scudded about the dry basin, driven by the wind. Dandelions grew in the cracks that ran the length and breadth of the concrete basin, which was as large as the infield of a baseball diamond.

            “I can’t believe it’s come to this,” Margaret said. “Only just a few years ago, this place was the showplace of the city.”

            Randy had to lean in close to even hear Mum, her voice was so low. He didn’t sit on the bench. It was too dirty.

            Mum furrowed her brow. “Oh,” she paused. “Oh, when was I last here? 1954, ’55, ’58? I can’t remember. That must seem like ancient history to you. When the boys returned from World War II, oh my, this was the place to be. VJ day. Everyone so happy. The reunions. My, my, but those were some days. I wonder if the Chamber is even aware how bad things have become…”

            “Maybe you ought to tell them,” Randy said.

            Mum perked up. “Me?” she said. “Now? No, Bruce and I are too busy now with our own business. We don’t have near the time. Your grand-pere would be the one…He’s got the connections. It’s just too sad that something this beautiful gets forgotten.”

            The wind picked up, sending litter scudding across the empty fountain basin. “Grand-pere? You mean the Colonel. I thought the two of you weren’t talking. Has that changed?”

            “No. Sadly, most of our communication has been through his CPA, Bernard Jeams.”

            “Involving the Colonel, hmm,” Randy said. “That’s not a bad idea. He’s big on nostalgia, right?”

            “Yes, he is.” Margaret Bouchard laughed. “Oh, look at me. I’ve fallen into something of a funk, haven’t I? Never mind. So how are you, Randy? How are your studies going? She tapped the stone bench by way of suggesting he sit next to her.

            “Schools great,” Randy said, pacing a bit. “But I don’t think you and I just sitting here will bring this place back. Can we get out of here?”

            “Yes, yes, of course, Randy. I just needed a moment. Now, see? I’m done. You being the age I was when this place was hopping…well, I’m getting carried away, aren’t I?” Mum stood up and took his arm.

            Randy led the way back to the car.

            “I do so miss you living at home,” Mom said as they crossed the street. “I guess I’m not ready to see you grow up and me grow old.”

            “You’re not old—not in a bad way old, ah that is. You’re elegant, esteemed old. There’s a difference.”

            Margaret laughed. “I’ll take that as a compliment, I guess. Young people today are so frank.”

            Randy suggested Balboa’s Italian restaurant for lunch. Then he drove them both there in the vintage blue Cadillac.

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A Momentous Day in the American War in Vietnam; Monday, February 12, 1973, The Day the POW’s came home

POW coming home

Chapter Fifteen: Operation Homecoming

Paul

Monday, February 12, 1973

The following is an excerpt from The Bouchard Legacy, a novel of how one family changed and survived the years 1968-1979.

Paul spent the last few months of his army tour at Clark Air Base in the Philippines. As the American presence in Vietnam dropped, Clark started becoming less a staging area and more a quiet backwater—until that is, Operation Linebacker II kicked into high gear. A new vigor shook up the flight line.

Bright brawny B-52s, air-tankers, and various other military aircraft flew in large numbers.

Tents sprung up on the athletic fields and the flight crews ran around the jogging trails and stood in formations under the mimosa trees. They drilled up and down the tarmac and stood stiffly in formation under the wings of their planes.

All through January, these big metal birds rolled down the runways, lifting off, punching big holes up into the sky. Operation Linebacker II was on task, doing its part to assist in the peace negotiations then taking place in Paris. While the North Vietnamese squabbled over the shape of the negotiations table, the B-52s made bombing runs over North Vietnam.

Incredible amounts of ordinance were loaded onto those bombers. Paul saw it. Day after day, the process repeated tirelessly.

At mess the night of February 11, Paul’s friend, Staff Sergeant Vincent Morrison, asked “Do you have anything going on tonight?”

“No,” Paul said. “I work day shift, counting boots, helmets and cases of 30.06.”

“Well,” SSgt. Morrie said “I know you take an interest in radio communications from your days in the field. If you’re up for it, maybe you can help keep me awake. Operations at the radio shack tonight could be instructive for you.”

Lt. Paul laughed, remembering the lifeline the radio had been in Vietnam. “What are you not telling me?”

“You’ve got to be there if you want to know,” SSgt. Morrie said with a wink.

So Paul went. No sooner did he step into the radio shack than he sensed it: something big was happening. The electricity, the briskness, the energy.

Several operators were on duty with SSgt. Morrie. “We’re patching calls Stateside,” he explained. “They’re coming from one of the three C-141 Starlifters in flight from North Vietnam.”

“Did you say North Vietnam?” Lt. Paul asked.

“Oh yeah. The American prisoners of war are coming home.”

The signal corpsmen were taking phone numbers from the repatriated prisoners even while they were in flight from Hanoi to the Philippines on leg one of the trip back home to the United States of America.

After witnessing a few calls, Paul began to dial and make the Stateside connections himself.

Every call was charged with emotion. If the returning POWs or the call recipients Stateside became speechless, doing little more than breathe, cry, or mutter “Oh” and the like, the radio operator had to ad-lib. “Your family is looking forward to your coming home, Lt. Owen. Mrs. Owen, you will receive further information as Lt. Owen clears quarantine. If you have any questions…”

“Yes, thank you, Sergeant.”

A few calls uncovered soldiers given up for dead—others where spouses had remarried. Even in such cases, a connection could be sensed. Other callers showed quiet strength in a trying time. “Son! You call me just as soon as you get an ETA Motown. Man! We’ll have a dinner waiting for you here that will not stop. God bless ’em all! You made it. Ben, you’re coming home. Amen.”

Time and again, all through the call list, Paul saw countless examples of how the closed culture of the military normalized demanding situations.

“What do you think?” SSgt. Morrie asked after the last call was placed.

“I’d say there are a few hundred very happy soldiers going home,” Paul said. “Thank you for suggesting I sit in with you.”

“Now you know there’s more to it than that,” SSgt. Morrie said. “Sure, you could sit out the remaining three months of your duty counting Ka-Bar knives or whatever you do for entertainment over there at Commisary, but if I was you, I’d walk over to Major Dawes right now, tell him you assisted with the Stateside patch detail, and request service as an escort for one of the returnees. Get real specific, if you like. Major, who do you have on the list for my hometown, Saint Louis?”

Another night, another skimpy catnap before dawn, and Lt. Paul waited. He was out with the crowd of GIs, dependents, and civilian workers on the Clark Air Base tarmac, waiting and watching for the three C-141 Starlifters and the lone C-9a that were bringing the POW returnees home.

Then, there.

Over the shoulder of volcanic Mt. Arayat, swooping down to glide over the cogon grass and touch down on American pavement, the planes carrying the soldiers coming home came in.

This day, February 12, 1972, Lincoln’s birthday, marked for Lt. Paul the day the American war in Vietnam ended.

The Starlifters rolled to a stop, the brass band struck up a medley of “Grand Old Flag,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy“ and the army and marine anthems. The boarding stairs rolled into place, the plane hatch opened, and the returnees deplaned. The crowd applauded and cheered as the men descended, dressed in navy slacks and long-sleeved blue dress shirts that their North Vietnamese captors had issued to them on their release.

Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, and other TV news correspondents were there, adding a “day at the fair” commentary to the occasion.

The man Lt. Paul would escort back to Cape Girardeau, Missouri, SSgt. Sidney Wentworth, came in the last plane, a C9A, from South Vietnam. He and those with him still wore orange prisoner pajamas, unwashed, emaciated, bruised but unbroken. SSgt. Wentworth stunk, his eyes were sunken back in their sockets, and he came down from the plane on a litter. But once the welcome ceremonies were over, he grabbed Lt. Paul’s arm. “Get me a wheelchair. Please, no ambulance. I have got to clamp these tired jaws of mine around the fattest, juiciest, bloodiest hamburger this base ever pulled off the grill.”

Paul couldn’t find a wheelchair, but SSgt. Sidney looked vigorous enough to stand up to a short jeep ride, so that’s what Lt. Paul grabbed. He reasoned if SSgt. Sidney wanted a hamburger, then by God, he’d jump by the CABOOM and grab the man a burger. He knew how to reply a soldier who had endured what SSgt. Sidney endured: “You got it, soldier,”

Once they arrived at Clark Air Base Officers’ Open Mess, the chef himself personally came out to serve SSgt. Sidney a chocolate malt, a hamburger, and French fries while he sat in the jeep under the shade of the mimosa tree in the dooryard.

Most everyone inside also came out. “Welcome home, SSgt. Sidney. How do you like that hamburger?”

Several soldiers shook SSgt. Sidney’s hand and asked him the name of his hometown.

“Cape Girardeau, Mo,” he said.

“How glad are you to be goin’ home?” one gushed.

Another said, “It’s going to take more than one of Arnie’s hamburgers to put some meat back on your bones.”

SSgt. Sidney asked for all the fixin’s, including pepperoncini, but after each bite, fewer fixin’s remained on the burger until, after about the sixth bite, Paul put a wrap on it. “Maybe we’d better let you digest what you’ve et so far,” he said.

The Sergeant nodded. he could hold no more. “Man,” he said, wiping his mouth with his sleeve. “That was good. If I ever see another fish head on a bed of rice with maggots, I swear to God, I will puke.”

The guys all put hands on Sidney’s shoulders. “It’s all over now, babe, you going home!”

Lt Paul said “That’s right, it would be good for SSgt. Sidney to break away from here now, guys.”

The chief cook said “Cape Gireadeau, huh? You ever get yourself to Paducah, you see my brother. His place is at Kentucky and 8th. Now he’ll fix you a burger you can really rap your jaws around.”

Lt Paul fired the jeep up and pulled away. “This man’s got a med-check…and he’s going home.”


 This is an excerpt from ‘The Bouchard Legacy.’ To see the complete book click here.

Coverage of the POW’s return on ABC news: