“You can't patch a wounded soul with a Band-Aid.” Michael Connelly “In war, the damage you inflict on the enemy might be immediately apparent. The damage you inflict on yourself in doing so will only become apparent later.” Stewart Stafford
THE DAY JOE THE MO FELL INTO A HARD PLACE
Four of us, high school seniors by this time, were goofing in my buddy Mike’s car. It was an old wreck, like all of our cars, but it had a mannequin’s hand on the shift knob and a full tank of gas; a perfect ride on a perfect Minnesota spring day.
We whooped and hollered as we pulled up on Joseph. He was a really shy guy who always insisted on being called “Joseph.” His ride was a Moped, a bicycle-like device with pedals and a teeny motor, which made him, sadly, a butt of derision at the time.
We started taunting him to race us...and he did it. Pedaling like hell with his little two stroke engine screaming, he damn near waxed our ass. The memory of his grit tooth, grim rictus of a face as he raced alongside our car has always stayed with me...along with the nickname he earned that day, "Joe The Mo." I think he hated that moniker as his shoulders always hunched a little when he heard it, but he never said anything. Joseph went right from High School to war. There was a military draft in force then, but Joseph didn’t wait. The day after High School graduation he volunteered to join the Army. The Vietnam War was raging so naturally they sent him right over.
When I heard that shy Joe The Mo had been sent to war, I thought “Poor bastard, he’ll get killed over there.” Then I went to college and joined the National Guard. A couple of years later, I heard Joseph has done his time in the war zone…and then “re-upped” as they called it then so he could do more. And, word had it, he had become a LRRP.
“…Those LRRPs were some of the toughest bastards I ever met, tougher than woodpecker lips, rough as hell, tough as us…” Green Beret sergeant, team leader, Vietnam.
The LRRPs (pronounced “Lurps”) started informally in the mid-60’s. There was no training for the Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol members then, no posters, no parades, and no real uniforms; just tiger fatigues and Australian bush hats.
Later, all LRRPs were folded into a newly-formed 75th Army Ranger Regiment. But initially the LRRPS just sort of happened. Recruiting took the form of combat soldiers in Vietnam volunteering to be on small four to six-man teams for special reconnaissance missions deep into enemy territory. It was hideously dangerous, brutal work, beyond my power or my right to describe, even though I have read a number of first-person accounts. Suffice it to say the LRRPS struck silent-death terror into their enemies, and many LRRPS died, far from home, un-heralded and deep in enemy territory, although deeply mourned by their compatriots and undoubtedly by their families. Occasionally teams were as small as two soldiers.
When Joe The Mo stumbled from the jungle into a friendly, fire support base, he and his buddy had been out on one of those rare two-man team missions. Fire support bases were temporary military encampments designed to provide artillery fire support to infantry operating in areas beyond the normal range of fire support. Joseph was carrying his fellow LRRP, who was clearly and terribly dead.
Once inside the base, Joseph laid his friend softly on the ground but continued to hold his hand. All Joe would say, I was later told, was “he was calling for his mom. He kept calling for his mom.”
It wasn’t long after, that the artillery in the camp started firing rounds into the immediate jungle. When the firing stopped, everything was deeply silent. But before even the jungle noise started back up, an anguished voice somewhere out front started crying “May-ah, May-ah.” Over and over and over again.
Finally Joe had had enough. “I’m going to kill that sonovabitch, put him out of his misery.”
The fire base was manned by mostly Korean soldiers, with a sprinkling of American troops. It’s not reported much, but over 300,000 South Korean soldiers rotated through Vietnam during the height of the fighting; in fact, at one point in 1972, “in country” South Korean soldiers actually outnumbered their American counterparts. The South Korean troops were reputed to be incredibly brutal, but no war crimes were ever proven against them in spite of numerous accusations. The Korean troops always had at least one of their own learn Vietnamese since they didn’t trust interpreters.
As Joseph walked by a group of Korean soldiers, they were laughing. Saying “May-ah, May-ah,” poking each other and laughing. “What’s so Goddamn funny?” demanded Joe The Mo. “Mommy,” replied one of the South Korean soldiers, “he’s calling for his mommy.”
I can’t shake the picture of what I was told happened next. Joseph stopped, sat down on the ground and pulled his knees up to his chin. Then he just sat there, still and unmoving. They left him alone, but after an hour or so one of the American troops walked over to him. “C’mon, Joe, you probably should hit the rack. Or have a drink.” When he put his hand on Joe’s shoulder, he found it cold, stiff and rock-like. He shook him. “Joe! Joe!”
It took four men to carry him to the medic; Joseph wasn’t that heavy, but he wouldn’t unbend from his hunched position. They gave him a shot. Then another…and another. He was sent back to the States and after a stint at Walter Reed Hospital to his home in Minnesota, where he didn’t leave his house for 6 months. Not until the Vets Club stepped in.
The President of the Vets Club on my Minnesota college campus was Dave. He had started the club, the only requirement for membership being having served in Vietnam, which I had not.
Dave and my last name both started with the letters “m” and “c” so we were often seated alphabetically together in class and later in various graduation ceremonies.
We became unlikely friends one day after we were seated side by side and a guy in the row in front of us turned around and fist-smacked Dave on the point of his chin. Events leading up to this had consisted of Dave loudly whispering to me “see that girl in front of us? Isn’t her neck beautiful? I love her.”
My efforts to shut him up were to no avail. He leaned forward and started whispering in the young lady’s ear. I have no idea what he said, but it must have been quite creative as she started laughing. It was at this point the guy sitting beside her, her fiancée as it turned out, swung around and gave Dave a pretty solid whack.
Dave was a bit wobbly as I led him to my car so we went for first aid at The Blackhawk, a local bar with booths covered in fake, plastic, black and white cowhide. I found the whole episode hilarious and after a while and a few beers, so did Dave. Or so he said, fingering his jaw.
We started hanging out now and again and trading stories, none of mine, I thought, as good as his. As was the custom then at our little college, approved clubs each had a room to call their own. The first time Dave dragged me along to the Vets Club room, the hostility was palpable. The Vets felt, and with some cause, that their experiences not only set them apart, but made them special, particularly in contrast to most of their “make love, not war” student colleagues. The second or third time I showed up with Dave at the Vets Club room, I almost immediately made my excuses.
“I have to go,” I said. When pressed I admitted I was supposed to ride on our fraternity’s Homecoming Parade float, shortly to be launched onto the main street of the little Minnesota town where our college was headquartered.
“Wait a minute,” said one of the members. “You’re leaving here to go ride on one of those lame-ass floats? The ones that have napkins stuffed into chicken wire for decoration?” When I admitted this was the case, my interrogator looked over at Dave. “He’s not going without Jim.” Dave, damn him, just smiled and nodded.
“Who the hell is Jim?” I asked, reasonably enough I thought. At this point, a pint of Jim Beam was produced. I was induced to chug the whole thing through the simple expedient of being held down, nose pinched, and the bottle upended to drain in a “drink or die” routine. None of this was helped, in my view, by raucous laughter and the in-sync cries of “Jim, Jim, Jim” during the process.
Sad to say, I understand that I made quite a spectacle of myself during the parade thereafter. This whole episode, while not making me acceptable for membership in the Vets Club, at least made me tolerated at various events…as long as I could put up with the sniggering and the cries of “Jim, Jim, Jim” whenever I showed up.
Joe The Mo was finally lured out of his house by a member of the Vets Club, the only former LRRP in the group. This similar experience had obviously led to a deep sympathy. When the Vets Club ex-LRRP hear about Joseph, he drove out to his house and started pounding on the door. “Come out of there, you Goddamned pussy!” he started screaming.
When Joseph showed up at the door with a headband, shirtless, and carrying a gun, his antagonist started laughing. Holding his stomach and laughing. “Well now, look at the big bad Lurp,” he said gasping. “If you’d been in my bunch, we would have kicked your ass.” Joe started blinking.
“You were a Lurp?”
This opened the door to a two-hour session on the porch. After that, Joseph would frequent the Vet’s Club room and show up occasionally for events, mostly those involving extensive drinking. The Club members kept an eye on him, as it quickly became apparent Joe was subject to fits of rage.
When I heard about the session on Joseph’s porch, I recall saying to Dave “That took some balls. Your Lurp guy could have gotten himself shot.” Dave looked at me, the distance between myself and his fellow Vets suddenly yawning. “That’s what we do for each other,” was all he said in reply.
There was this big, stone building on the banks of the river in my little college town. We called it “The American Legion Building,” which is how it started life, going through various incarnations as a dance place, a bar and a high school student center.
Not surprisingly, it was in its bar incarnation when Dave invited me to come have a basement beer there, the Vets Club having taken over the whole lower floor for an evening. As I walked in, greeted Dave, and tried to ignore the “Jim, Jim, Jim” chants, who should walk in behind me but Joe The Mo. We shook hands. “Long time, Joseph” I said. He looked me over, a bit sadly I thought. “Yeah,” he replied, “long time.”
We slid into a booth, Dave and I on one side, Joseph on the other. They served beer in big, chilled, thick glass mugs in that basement and I bought the first round. We sat chatting, amiably enough, I thought, when, with no warning at all, Joe the Mo smashed his beer mug into my face.
I was shocked, stunned. “What did you do that for?” was all I could think of to say.
He looked straight into my eyes. “If I had my gun, I would fuck you up.” Then he pushed out of the booth, grabbed a folding chair and, screaming, started flailing around with it. As I left, I could see three or four Vets Club guys jump on him. The whole scene vanished from view as I went up the stairs, but the sound did not diminish.
I was standing by the door when Dave came up. He looked at me and the handkerchief I was using to daub my face. “Did he break your nose?”
“No. Broke my front teeth, though.” Dave looked out at the river bank. We could hear uproar still coming from the basement. “Don’t think you should go back down there” he said. I agreed and as I walked away, my friend Dave called out to me “Wayne, go easy. Go easy. Joe…Joseph has fallen into a hard place.”
It took about 3 months for everything to heal up and for me to get new teeth. They looked better than the old ones, truth be told. It wasn’t long after that, that Joe The Mo hit a bridge abutment just outside of Barnesville Minnesota. They estimated he was doing in excess of a hundred miles per hour when he hit that concrete piling, dead on. The engine went right through the car. The front wheels kept going for hundreds of yards out into the potato field. Joseph was killed instantly.
The eventual report called it an accident “with alcohol involved.” Which I’m sure, in part, it was.
Copyright 2019, Wayne McFarland, all rights reserved.