Ray Heltsley is a retiree on Whidbey Island in cool Northwestern Washington. In 1969, he was in tropical Southeast Asia, a U.S. Army adviser working side-by-side with the South Vietnamese. Ray, who will join me at a Nov. 6 reading of "Boocoo Dinky Dow: My short crazy Vietnam War," got a perspective on the Vietnam War that most American soldiers were denied. He got to know individual Vietnamese, developing friendships and professional respect for them.
Ray was a lieutenant; Grady Myers was a private. Ray went to 'Nam as a college graduate; Grady was a dropout whose professional training was still in the future. But when Ray read "Boocoo Dinky Dow," Grady's memoir, he related strongly to many of Grady's experiences, starting with the moment he stepped off a plane in Vietnam.
In "Boocoo Dinky Dow," Grady recalled:
"It was the second evening of our long day when we arrived at Tan Son Nhut airfield outside Saigon. When the jet door swung open, it let in a blast of hot air. When I stepped outside, I felt as if a damp blanket had been thrown over me."
Ray describes the experience this way: "When I got off the plane, I thought 'I have to get away from this plane exhaust.' But when I went in the terminal, it felt just the same."
Ray arrived in-country with some understanding of the Vietnamese language, politics and culture, thanks to Special Warfare School at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Assigned to work with the South Vietnamese troops -- many of whose officers had fled North Vietnam -- he got a strong figurative and literal taste of the culture.
While other GIs were told not to eat food prepared by locals for fear it might be poisoned, Ray learned what was safe and scarfed it down. "I ate monkey and dog," he recalls. "I kind of drew the line at fish soup that has eyeballs."
Ray also experienced combat. Felt fear. Identified lots of bodies. He, like Grady, had to decide when to fire his weapon. He recalled choosing not to kill an enemy who was caught literally with his pants down because it wasn't the way HE would want to die.
Ray went on to a law enforcement career. But he studied journalism in college and that training is evident in his own well-written 85-page Vietnam memoir. In it, he summarizes his experiences in a way that could've come from straight from Grady and the other veterans who've been kind enough to join me at "Boocoo Dinky Dow" readings in Grady's absence. He writes:
"I have lost the sharp memory of the order in which my adventures unfolded, but they lie jumbled in the corridors of my mind, stark and real memories of an experience that I wouldn’t have missed for the world and would never want to repeat."
Julie Titone is co-author of the Grady Myers memoir "Boocoo Dinky Dow: My short, crazy Vietnam War." Grady was an M-60 machine gunner in The U.S. Army's Company C’s 2nd Platoon, 1st Battalion, 8th Regiment, 4th Infantry Division in late 1968 and early 1969. His Charlie Company comrades knew him as Hoss. Thoughts, comments? Send Julie an email.