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by Lee Henschel Jr.
Wiley and I didn’t know each other very long. About six months, in 1970, in Vietnam. We served together in the Central Highlands. He was a Kiowa. Grew up on a reservation somewhere in Oklahoma. A quiet man.
One night he got drunk, locked and loaded his M-16, and shot off a full magazine. The next morning our battery commander told Wiley that if he did it again he’d send him to the stockade for pretrial confinement.
Wiley did it again. The next day my sergeant gave me a sheaf of travel orders and a .45. I’d be taking Wiley to Long Binh Jail on the next bird out.
‘‘’Cause you’re the only one Wiley listens to.”
Probably true. Maybe because I listened to him, and didn’t talk down.
When the Huey landed at Dalat airfield an airman issued us boarding passes for the next flight to Nha Trang. We’d get a connecting flight from there to LBJ. That’s what most of us called Long Binh Jail.
We sat and waited. Before long a South Vietnamese Air Force major came in. He had a young boy with him. His son.
The major announced in English. “I am flying to Nha Trang in ten minutes. I have room for two passengers. Anyone who has a boarding pass for Nha Trang can come with me.”
Wiley and I looked at each other. Why not?
It was an observation plane. One engine. Four seats. I sat in the copilot’s seat. Wiley sat in back, with the major’s son. Light winds. Blue sky. A few puffy white clouds.
Once airborne the major turned to me. “I am grateful to your government for being in my country. I try to repay them by flying with a full plane, when possible.”
All righty then.
When we’d climbed out of small arms range he turned to me again.
“Do you want to fly?”
I looked back at Wiley. I think he was wondering what he’d gotten himself into.
I shrugged, and took the wheel. Fun! Until I flew toward a little white cloud. The major shook his head and took back the wheel. After awhile he radioed Nha Trang for landing instructions. Soon the South China Sea opened before us. The major followed the coast to Nha Trang airfield, and we landed.
We’d missed the last flight to Long Binh, so we found a transit hootch for the night. Wiley asked if we could go to the enlisted man’s club. He promised to have just one beer. So we went, and Wiley kept his promise.
The next day our flight didn’t leave until noon, so we had time to go to the beach at Nha Trang. White sand. Blue water. Miles of barbed wire and concertina. About a million sea shells washed up on shore. Tiny and delicate. Each one different. Wiley pointed at them.
“Those are sea shells.”
“Can I take some?”
He filled all his cargo pockets with shells, and then thanked me.
Our flight landed in Long Binh that afternoon, and I took Wiley to LBJ. At the gate I gave the MPs Wiley’s paper work, and they led him away.
I never saw Wiley again, but someone told me he’d gotten a hardship discharge and was sent home. I think of him now and then. Hope he’s still alive, and still has those sea shells.