The invitation came in a large manila envelope with a ''Screaming Eagle'' patch prominently displayed in the upper left-hand corner. I knew before opening it that it had something to do with the 101st Airborne Division. The surprise was that I hadn't really had anything to do with the old unit since leaving it at Phan Rang in the Republic of Vietnam in late June of 1966. That was when I rotated back to the states after my tour with the 2nd Battalion of the 327th Airborne Infantry, 1st Brigade, 101st. When the envelope arrived, it was a lot like one of those sudden flashes you get when you see some one, some thing, hear a noise or catch a smell that instantly transports you to someplace you haven't been in years. Suddenly I was standing on the sand at Cam Ranh Bay, off-loading with the 1st Brigade and looking forward to what was to be the most intense adventure of my half century on this Earth.
The correspondence was from the 101st Airborne Division Association, which was holding its 55th reunion and they'd found me thanks to one of the most enduring characters of my life, my former platoon sergeant, George W. Day. Sgt. Day was, after my late father, perhaps the greatest influence of my life. Oh it had nothing to do with his physical stature, as he stood just about 5-feet, 9-inches. And it certainly wasn't his warmth and sensitivity. It took me the better part of a year after I returned from Vietnam and my service in the Recon Platoon to answer to a first name other than ''Goddammit.''
I got so used to hearing my family name attached to those two words, it was almost uncomfortable getting reacquainted to the John Richard bestowed on me at birth.
It was more a persona I remember most about Day, an Airborne Ranger, as he was always quick to remind everyone he came in contact with. He was the most out-spoken, erasable, unbearable and unbelievable individual it has ever been my great fortune and misfortune to come across in this life. In short, he was a lot like the very guy I've become since those days in the 101st. I am also certain that I owe my very existence in no small part to his skill as first a soldier and then as a teacher of both the military specifically and life in general. And considering the fact that the first time we actually found ourselves being shot at, I came within inches of killing the man, that was pretty magnanimous of him. Now the experts will tell you that a Browning Automatic Rifle makes a distinct thudding sound when fired. But don't you believe 'em; when the damn thing is being fired in your direction, it sounds a lot more like a Howitzer on full automatic.
We found ourselves lying belly down in a half-dried rice patty on the business end of a BAR situated in a clump of trees about halfway up a good size hill. I was humpin' (carrying) the M-60 (machine gun) and I was walking a few steps behind Sgt. Day.
When the Victor Charlie (Viet Cong) gunner opened up it was all we could do to get as close to the earth as possible. I imagine most everybody else was doing much the same thing as I, trying to figure out just how to dig a hole with our elbows and knees.
Anyway, Day yells ''Goddammit'' Stiles, get some fire on the side of that hill. Try and keep that (expletive deleted) head down!'' Well, being a dutiful machine gunner, I extended the barrel of the M-60 as high as I could from a prone position and started putting out rounds. I'd fired not more than a couple of bursts of six when I heard that distinct bulldog voice attached to the four sergeant's stripes in front of me cut loose with a string of expletives that would peal paint off a wall. It seems, according to his side of the story, I was firing about foot over Sgt. Day's blonde head.
That's another thing about military reunions, the stories get bigger, or in this case smaller actually, by the year. In another couple of gatherings we'll probably have ourselves believing we won that war. I hadn't talked to Day in more than 33 years until I came across him on the Internet in the summer of 1999.
Anyway, it was through his efforts that the 101st Association finally ran me down and issued the invitation back to Ft. Campbell, Ky. (our old post) and the reunion last month.
Sgt. Day and his wife, Shirley, met me at the Nashville Airport on a Tuesday morning last month.
Did you ever not see someone you once knew for years and then, almost like magic it seemed just like it was only yesterday? Our meeting at the Nashville airport was a lot like that.
In fact, the guy patted me down just to make sure I wasn't armed when I got off the plane. ''Just makin' sure, buddy. You know how nervous I get when I'm around you and loaded weapons.''
We'd last seen each other in December of 1966 at his off-post residence outside of Ft. Bragg, N.C., just before he'd shipped out for reassignment to Alaska and I was starting my final months with the 82nd Airborne Division. But you couldn't have told that from our first few moments together on the ride from Nashville to Clarksville, Tenn., and Ft. Campbell. I think it was Shirley Day who noticed it first. ''You know, nobody could ever tell you two haven't seen each other in more than 30 years,'' she pointed out early on in the 45-minute ride north toward the Kentucky Tennessee border.
Sgt. Day would tell the story of that fateful first firefight outside of Nha Trang any number of times over the next three days. And each time the muzzle of that M-60 got a little closer.
Good thing I had to finally leave, or the S.O.B. would have wangled a Purple Heart out of that story.
Oh yes, and one other very important observation, never mix free booze and 1,000 ex paratroopers in any area smaller than the states of Kentucky and Tennessee combined.
I don't remember a lot of the three days I spent at Ft. Campbell, other than Sgt. Day and his whopping tales, but I do remember enough to know that what they used to say about paratroopers 30 years ago is still at least half true.
The old warning about the 101st used to be, ''Hide the liquor and the women.'' Well, from what I saw the women are safe, we aren't nearly as quick as we used to be. But alcohol still has the same adverse affect on military bearing and discipline.
That is why I am also sure that the military police detachment at Ft. Campbell and the local constabulary of Clarksville, Tenn., and Hopkinsville, Ky., are quite glad that this particular reunion is over. But I'm not so sure. The object of the exercise started out as a chance to visit with old friends and tell war stories. However, it wound up as an opportunity to get in touch with my personality roots. On the ride back to the airport Sgt. Day's wife probably put it best once again.
''You know, you two are exact copies of each other,'' she said to her husband and I as we headed south along I-24 toward Nashville. So, like I said, the guy who claims you can never go home wasn't in my outfit. Now it's just a question of figuring out, once you decide you can go home, if you really should.
And from the size of my hangover, I have my doubts.