Yesterday, I had lunch with my favorite surviving veteran, Command Sergeant-Major Fred Barnett, 88, and his adopted Korean son, Young. Regular YMCA patrons for about 4 years, they stopped coming when Covid shut down most of Fred’s activities there. Wheelchair bound Fred worked on a sit-down bike for 20 minutes while Young pumped iron, then Young bathed and dressed him and then Young went back to the lifting while Fred sat and chatted with several older friends at the tables-and-chairs in the foyer. It was a three-times-a-week ritual, where he and about 8 other oldsters would sit and gab for a couple of hours. It always lit up the room. And Fred often provided the jelly donuts.
But like most old folks, including me, Fred didn’t visit the Y’s corporate website to see how much they had enjoyed those oldsters being members, or, that they could place their membership on hold until the Y was back in operation. I didn’t know anything about that clause either until I noticed the bank continuing to take monthly fees and finally returned under the new mask few months later.
But chit-chat tables were all gone, as were the old-timers. (I’m 75 but was just a kid among that crowd.)
I co-hosted another site, Veterans Tales, where I headlined many of Fred’s stories. (We closed that site down after our editor, PumaByDesign, who you might recall, died on the operating table in Brooklyn in July 2019, of pancreatic cancer. Fine, fine lady.) Fred wrote the most interesting stories of his interesting career, having begun in the early 1950s when, as a PFC, his battalion were the one’s who were stationed at a spot some miles from the blast site of the first and only firing of the nuclear cannon, Atomic Annie, in Nevada in May 1953.
Turns out Fred was an administrative genius, which few veterans think that highly about. But as an E-4 in 1961 (JFK’s first year) at their Saigon MAG headquarters, and all the field military personnel we were advisors, 900 to be exact, And five were killed, Fred figured out the solution to a real problem for career officers. Officers were worried about their annual reports, and what that year in Vietnam could do to their careers. It was Fred who came up with the plan, but a lieutenant colonel took the plan to Washington. When it was approved, under that LTC’s signature, that LTC was promoted to COL, and Fred to E-5. But he was on a lot of “want lists” thereafter, for once you can identify a problem-solver inside a small army of paper-pushers, that person is gold, and highly sought, for what he had could never be bottled….as we have watched for 60 years since, in all government bureaucratic endeavors.
I told Fred that had Donald Trump known about him, he’d have made him an advisor. But would also have tried to find a way to bottle what he had locked up in his mind.
I had several other veteran friends from the Vietnam War days, but alas, they have all passed away. One is in history books. And one was among those early advisors, having spent a year with the Montagnard in the Vietnamese Highlands. Went from 170 to 125 lbs. Both Jefe and MAJ Guy are known to you.
My remaining close surviving veteran friend is my brother, who has his own special story. Three years younger than me, (he’ll be 73 this Fall), he graduated high school in ’67. His world was totally different than mine. He had no intention of going to college, and had planned on becoming a radio DJ. Like Fred, he was a genius in other things…in his case, machines. But for him, there was the draft. Since I was in college, I had no such worry. So he married his girl friend on the assumption that the local draft board picked married men last. Then, when that didn’t work, he entered our state university. After a semester, totally bored to death, he dropped out after a semester, but fathered a son just to be on the safe side with the draft board. Wrong again, so when his number came up #5 in the first draft lottery in 1969, after the Tet Offensive changed everything, still hoping to avoid slogging around in the mud, he looked at a 2-year Army stint as an inductee, or the 4-year Navy stint and chose the latter.
As a member of the black-shoe Navy he began in 1969, a mechanical genius in electronic warfare, and as black-shoe Navy he ended when they had to drag him out by his ankles after Bill Clinton finally left his Navy alone, in 2000; just over 31 years, a command master chief with three Vietnam service ribbons…although I’m not sure if he ever set foot on Vietnamese soil.
Then, when he retired, he took a position with his old admiral as a senior boss in a DoD contract agency, where he worked until another deadbeat president left office in 2017. Today he plays golf in east Texas, and still shoots in the low 80s.
Of course, I always remember Bachelor’s Corner on Memorial Day Sunday, that I attended for several years in the 1980’s. Fred would have fit right in.
Then again, so would i.
I miss those blokes.
(On Memorial Day Sunday, I’ll once again post my music tribute.)