I gave John Zoll what information I could and crossed my fingers. After a couple of weeks and a couple of emails I received the following letter from John via email. I thought that members, family and friends of the 1/92d FA would be interested in this missive of a friend trying to locate his buddy. I've could share with you a book load of information about Pete, the rest, our losses and experiences but that is for another time. Suffice it to say that I think John has captured his quest for his friend in the following.
A picture of him sticks in my head – He is leaning against his Olds Toronado, beer in hand, wearing a Mexican Sombrero and somehow lending a dignity to that ridiculous portraiture. It is the quintessential Pete. The snapshot was taken in my driveway in Lawton, Oklahoma the summer of 1969 and for me this photograph summarizes not only our friendship, but that whole crazy era.
I have searched for that photo countless times over the years, just as I have searched for Pete. One day I will find them both.
This search of mine has almost become an obsession and I ask myself, “Why?” After all these years, what characteristics does this man possess that I have this need to re-explore them? A psychologist would explain the obvious. It is a pathetic attempt to snatch back a small portion of my youth, to reestablish a connection to that crazy era, somehow. There’s no arguing that, but for me there are less complicated motives. I like Pete. I always feel relaxed with him. He’s fun, a joy to be around; an uncomplicated bloke toting none of that baggage which encumbers a relationship. And he tells great stories. Most important, we two shared a time and an experience that most likely shaped our entire lives. I want to talk about this, revisit it. Many times, I have told my children that if I had to choose one friend to spend my last hour with, it would be Pete. And that hour would be oh so short!
It must have been at least twenty years since we last spoke and I am frustrated that I cannot recall the particulars of our phone conversation or even who called who. I wrote a letter to Pete, but having no address I stashed it in my top bureau drawer in my bed room, believing that I would some day deliver it in person. Occasionally I would re-read it. With every reading the words became more pointless. Recently I threw it out, committed to expressing my thoughts while Pete sits by my side. It’s an itch that needs scratching. I am determined to find him more than ever. I tell my son, Eric, “If I win the lottery I’m buying an advertising slot on that LED screen in Times Square. My message –“findpetesmart.com”
1969 – The year of that picture of Pete and the last year of that crazy era. The war years. We were not “The Greatest Generation.” We were “The Strangest Generation.” Not that we were all that peculiar, it was the insane sixties and the way they fashioned us. The whole decade geared us for death, that moribund era of assassinations and bloody unrest. And the irony is, America’s teenage sons of the Sixties were preparing to dodge bullets and mortars in their future Far Eastern vacation. For Pete and me, that nightmare was over.
Looking back on our Viet Nam experience, I have to say we were just kids, kids with rifles, cut from the same cultural cloth. Kids who had a lot thrown at us; Kids who shared the same national experiences of the 50’s and 60’s. The A bomb, the H bomb, the fall out shelters and hiding under our school desks, like that would help. The Cold War hovering over our heads and infiltrating our psyches just like the Commie Zombies we were sure dwelt amongst us. Music could be an escape for us, but did it toss us from the frying pan into the fire? How about that radical transition? One day it’s Patti Page and Perry Como and then we’re flung headlong to the Elvis and Little Richard show. What kind of step was that? And then there were the riots, riots in America. Can this be happening? It couldn’t get any stranger, but it did, when they cooked up a war for us, our very own and suddenly we find ourselves on foreign soil, like some innocents caught in a damn bar fight, swinging at any one or anything just to get the hell out, unconcerned with causes or justification, only concerned with escaping the madness. Yup, there we were firing shots, not in anger, but in self preservation, longing to be anywhere but here. And our country hated us for it. They pissed on our sacrifice. We were baby killers, scum. The welcome back mat was yanked from under us and placed at the feet of draft dodgers – America’s true moral heroes. Well “fuck it,” we said and sought an alternative absolution, self prescribing doses of booze, and a myriad of other drugs, blasting our heads with the “Doors” or “Jefferson Airplane,” looking in the wrong places for the answers to questions which have no answers. And when, over time, we began filling in the ranks of the homeless, it became too damn surreal.
My first memory of Pete was in OCS. He, like myself, enlisted in the fall of 1966, probably as a clerk or something to avoid the dreaded grunt MOS. After our preliminary testing in Basic Training, Uncle Sam invited us to become officers and gentlemen. We were smart, intelligent. We were officer material! Of course, we accepted; At least there would be more money in the short run as the Army jumped you from Pvt. to Sgt. on the pay scale. After Basic, we were assigned to Artillery OCS training at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma.
OCS beat us up. That Oklahoma summer was torturous. We endured a grueling regime of constant motion. No time for belly-aching. You ran so much you forgot how to walk. Our schedule was an olio of endless classes, inspections, formations, PT and March to Mess, An added bonus was the eight mile “Jark” every Saturday and Sunday. (A “Jark” is the longest, fastest step you can achieve without running.) Outfitted with a web belt, canteen and toting an M14 rifle, the “Jark” took us up Medicine Bluffs 4 (MB4) and back to barracks again, where for screw-ups, like me and Pete, paid in sweat for our weekly demerits.
One blistering afternoon, we returned from class, dog tired, to prepare for chow and on entering the barracks room we were offered the sight of a foot locker up-turned with its contents strewn all over the floor. This may seem minor, but in OCS, foot lockers were expected to be organized in a very precise order and that task seemingly took hours to accomplish. Apparently some NCO was not enthralled with the state of this one. I and others felt a real sympathy for the poor schnook who had the headache of reassembling the puzzle. That Schnook was Pete.
I remember watching his reaction. He found it humorous. He smiled, then laughed and then calmly began to reclaim his items. I was impressed. The second time it happened his reaction was different. It was one of “why me?” with a hint of anger. I chalked the second episode up to his bad luck and carelessness and thought no more about him.
Eventually, I dropped out of OCS, rationalizing that there would be safety in numbers if ordered to Viet Nam. The other thought that nagged me was – At age twenty, do I want to be responsible for the lives of the men under me? Hell no! I was an immature clown who barely had a grasp on my own life. I didn’t need the ghosts of bloody corpses haunting me my entire existence. The day I resigned, I found myself standing next to other former candidates looking to quit. Pete was among them. The Colonel warned us snidely, “Don’t think this is gonna get you shits out of a Viet Nam tour.” I realized then that we were never officers or gentlemen, just cannon fodder.
The Colonel was right on. I received orders for Viet Nam.
In the Fall of 1967, after a short leave, I found myself in JFK airport, NYC, wondering what the hell was next in my life. I stared dumbly at my wife, who held my 16 month old son, Sean, in her arms, while I waited to board a plane to Ft. Lewis, Washington, thinking, “Is this really happening?”
Then up jumps Pete. “Remember me?” he says.
Actually I didn’t remember him, outside of the foot locker incident, and told him so. My mood was nasty, but he was all smiles, like we were headed to Florida for Spring Break. We became acquainted through light conversation over the long flight to the West Coast. He was from Jersey, I was from Western New York. And damn, isn’t it rotten luck that we are being sent over there?
Our trip eventually culminated in Cam Ranh Bay. As we disembark the plane, I turned to Pete joking, “When do we get the rifles?” He laughed, saying, “Screw the rifles, when do we get the “mama sans?”
We were assigned to the same battalion in fire direction control, 1/92 Artillery Group, headquartered in Pleiku - he in Bravo Battery and me in Charlie Battery. We would be air-mobile artillery, ferried all over the Central Highlands, six 155 howitzers and 50 red- legs to a firebase. Us against the world. Pete and I hopped seperate choppers and that was the last I saw of him until…
DEROS – Army lingo for end-of-tour and sign off on your adventure. Hallelujah! Twelve long, harrowing months and I’m out of the field, back in base camp, leaving the Nams in three days, going back to the land of the big PX and all in one piece too.
Pete reappears and it’s party time. We hit the mud streets of Pleiku drinking and smoking weed till we couldn’t stand up. We get separated. I, in a last moment of sanity, hop a ride on a “five-ton” back to base camp before curfew. Pete tells me later, he stole a jeep for his ride home. The next day, around 3pm, I’m burning up with fever, puking green and shaking so hard, I’m falling out of my cot. Pete’s concerned. I told him, “Give it a day.” Next morning, I’m feeling fine. Three o’clock comes and bam, sick again. Pete gets me to the aid station – probably stole another jeep. “Bad news,” the Doc tells me – “I have malaria.” Pete goes home without me.
Somehow we hooked up back at Ft. Sill months later. Pete joined the other sorry, home-sick GI’s who hung out at my rented house in Oklahoma. The “Alternative USO Club,” they called it. Peggy (my wife) and I didn’t mind. We enjoyed the company. And my two y/o son, Sean, was delighted to have these candidates escort him to “Dodo Park,” a tiny amusement park cum zoo, located directly across the street. Pete was a sucker for my son’s request and never disappointed him no matter how many times he asked. I wasn’t surprised. It’s Pete’s nature to be generous.
We bonded over that year, became brothers, united in shared Viet Nam experiences and war stories, though Pete’s war stories always seemed more dramatic than mine.
When my enlistment was up and I returned home, Pete joined me some months later. He found menial work, a shitty apartment and what I would guess was an existence unworthy of his stature and abilities. Eventually he gravitated back to his home town in Jersey and found love. Our contact was sporadic now and in time fell off. Life went on.
Over the past 2 months I have been employing the internet in my hunt for Pete Smart. I’m utilizing sites that focus on finding people – USA Search, US Search and People Search - with no success. One day I googled 1/92nd Artillery and came up with a site called Brave Cannons. I left a posting asking if any one knew of Pete Smart, Bravo Battery, 1/92 Arty (’67-’68). I got lucky. I receive an email correspondence from Jeff Danielson. Jeff worked the FDC with Pete in Nam and he too was trying to locate him. Jeff tells me that Pete’s nickname over there was “Max or Agent 89” and that “Charles” was his Christian name. He also told me that Pete loaned him money in the Army to get home and he wanted to pay him back after all these years. We agreed to work jointly on our search.
I am elated; I have a solid lead. So it’s back to the search sites with a new name now – Charles Peter Smart. I start in Massachusetts, the last address I had on him. Numerous “Charles Smarts” come up. Then Bingo, I latch on to “Charles Smart” whose birth date matches Pete’s. Problem is, there four addresses and no phone numbers. I begin with the first and fire off a letter. “Call me Pete, here’s my number – Miss you!”
I’m so excited my wife finds me intolerable. I can’t believe my mission is almost accomplished. I look his town up in the atlas – North Adams – it looks more rural than a Central Highlands village. I email Jeff and tell him, “We’re almost there!”
A week passes and no reply, no phone call. I’m disappointed, frantic. There are so many things I want to tell you Pete, things about my life, my family and “Oh, by the way, that two year boy you took to “Dodo Park” in Oklahoma, my son Sean, well he went Army Airborne, served as an Infantry Lieutenant in Bosnia and Iraq, was awarded a Bronze Star in the Battle of Samarra. Yeah, he’s doing fine, got four kids, can ya believe it? You’d be damned proud of him Pete.”
The next day the letter is returned. I told Jeff, no problem, I’ll find him even if it’s “Road Trip” pal.
I’m keeping a file on my search, keeping track of the info and the expenditures. Gonna hassle Pete on how much it cost to find his sorry ass. I sent out letters to most of the addresses posted on the search sites, thirteen in all, in the two states he was listed, Virginia and Massachusetts, and still no phone numbers. And I’m beginning to wonder, “Why all the moves, Pete. Are you restless? What are you seeking?” All questions I want to ask him.
Last week I called Verizon information and developed a few phone numbers in Roanoke, Virginia that might be a possibility. On my second call I reach a Kieran Smart. I tell him I’m looking for Pete Smart. He tells me he is his brother. I almost let a war hoop - “Hurrah!”
I tell him, I’m an old Army buddy and I have been attempting to contact Pete for about 20 years. I rapid fire the questions through the receiver…”Where’s he live?... What’s his number?... How’s he doing?”
He tells me, “Pete passed away six years ago.”
It hammers me. I’m deflated. The air is sucks right out of my body. A part of me dies. I take a moment to compose myself.
Kieran senses my distress and gently fills in the gaps. A severe stroke caused by an inoperable brain tumor…No suffering, rational to the end, some time to grasp the finality of his life, and farewells to family. He died November 7th, 2002.
I don’t want to talk anymore, but I force feed a cordiality in my conversation and ask all the polite questions. The remainder of our exchange is brief. I promise to call again and we say our good-byes. I place the receiver down and curse the walls of my house.
It’s a week later now and I have come to grips with the wrenching news. I have thought about Pete every day and the loss we both have experienced. Most of all I have been confronting my own mortality. Kieran told me Pete was involved in a church the last four years of his life, that he had accepted Christ. This pleases me. I know I will see him on the other side. We have a lot of catching up to do.
Pete died in November. That was the month he left Viet Nam. I’ll bet he sees an irony in that – Free again!