In the mid 1990s after publishing my first batch of books on the war in Southeast Asia, I waited for the fame and fortune that was sure to follow.
But the telephone did not ring so much. I did some newspaper, TV and radio interviews. Occasionally I would speak to local civic groups, and I had some book signings at North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia stores, when mall bookstores were all the rage. If I had a chance to speak at these things, I could sell a book or two. But if left behind a card table filled with my books near the front door, the most asked question I got was “Where’s the bathroom?”
My books got the most play at military PXs. One year I was asked to MC the Society of the 1st Division Reunion in Las Vegas, Nevada. Former US Army Chief of Staff General Gordon R. Sullivan was going to be the guest speaker. The First Division Commander and his color guard were being flown in from Germany. Hundreds of 1st Division combat veterans were going to attend.
I take great pride in my Army service and took the invitation as a military honor. They don’t ask slouches to MC serious things like this.
Brenda and I had been to Las Vegas many times before but never stayed at the Tropicana Hotel, where the reunion was goin’ to be held.
On the reunion week-end at the Tropicana, as we were being shown to our room, the chatty bellhop said that they had really had a time the previous week. Had two conventions going. One was for knife hobbyists, a pretty colorful group with lot of beards and ponytails. Everyone had a knife or two on their belt. That includes the ladies.
At the same time there was a convention of swingers at the hotel, who thought elevators were part of their recreation areas. The people with knives didn’t always appreciate this, so there was some friction. Fortunately the two groups had been placed in different parts of the hotel so there weren’t a lot of confrontations, but the risk was always there.
He said some off duty valets and bellhops got the outdoor window washing platform and had some of their buddies on the roof roll them up and down, left and right to different windows to take a peek at the swingers in full swing mode. Got busted by management, though. The bellhop didn’t know why, said the swingers liked the attention.
Brenda wasn’t following his story so closely until we neared our room. “What part of the hotel were the swingers in?” She asked.
“Well I think right here,” he said, “yes ma’am, right here on this floor were some of them.”
We were shown in the room and there was a mirror on the ceiling over the bed. Brenda looked at me without a smile on her face. Just a blank look, with a hint of “my mother never liked you.” Her eyes darted back up to look at the mirror and then at me again.
“Hey, not me. I had nothing to do with this.”
The bell hop left with his tip and Brenda walked over to the bed and pulled off all the cover. She threw them in the corner of the room and then walked around the room, looking. Have no idea what for; maybe it’s a woman thing. Maybe there are telltale signs if a room was the scene of recent debauchery. She came back and set on the bed, now covered only with the sheets. Idly, she picked a pillow up and smelled it.
A member of my platoon in Vietnam, Jack Lyons, and his wife, Nadine, joined Brenda and I and we spent most of the first day touring the strip. With such a big night the next night I didn’t drink and was back in bed under that very conspicuous mirror early. The last thing I remember is seeing Brenda looking up at the mirror with a distrustful expression as if she was wondering if this reflective thing opened us in our bedclothes to cosmic villains.
Next morning down at registration I met the smiling, very friendly Gordon Sullivan, the guest speaker. Brenda came up and they spoke for a few minutes before she left to have lunch with Jack and Nadine. The reunion coordinator, Burke, came up and we set a time within an hour for a run through of the night’s banquet.
At that practice, Burke said the Chaplin had a tooth ache and he wasn’t sure if he would be attending. He was here at the hotel, but hurting. In case he doesn’t show, he turned to me, “Parker, you have to say the invocation.”
“No sir,” I said, “I wouldn’t be comfortable with that.”
General Sullivan said, “OK, I understand what our MC’s saying,” and turning to Burke, “if Chaplin number one can’t be there, get a Chaplin # 2, actually have a Chaplin # 3 too. Can’t have too many holy men for something like this.”
Back in the room I was reviewing my notes… Christ I had something like 10 pages of separate events in large print to move along during the 3 hour program. Everything went through me. No problem, ‘cause I’m a cocky sumbitch. Public speaking has always come easy. I was President of the Sandhills Kiwanis Club about this time, and they’ll tell you, I loved the podium. It probably comes from my preacher/teacher heritage.
The only thing that worried me was the Chaplin with the toothache. And Burke’s ability to find a couple of emergency replacements. He was going to have his hands full from the time of our rehearsal until the start of the banquet doing other stuff . So as a safety net – if everything else failed – I wrote a three sentence prayer in my notes. Wrote it across one corner of one page.
That night as we went to the banquet hall, we notice that the order of the dais had been changed and Brenda was sitting beside General Sullivan. I was sure I had seen a diagram earlier where some general’s wife was supposed to be there, but by golly there was Brenda’s name. This would lead later in the night to someone trying to kill her, though we had no clue at the time.
The head table folks gathered in a small room. I met the 1st Division Commander who had gotten in from Germany just hours before. And this General and that General. I took a look out outside at the banquet room and HOLY CHRIST, the place was packed with people. I swallowed, but one of the things that calmed me was the energetic conversation General Sullivan was having with my wife, who was telling him a joke or something that had him laughing long and hard. Oh, I thought, just old’ friends here, this is goin’ be a piece of cake.
And we were called to the dais. Some lady led us, followed by maybe a dozen people to sit at the long raised table. I had taken off my glasses and as I took my place behind the lectern I tried to see the back of the room. Couldn’t. I knew that Jack and Nadine were out there somewhere in what must have been a thousand people. And right in front of me were three tables of general grade officers. I had never seen so much brass in my life.
I was laying out my 10 pages of note when Burke came walking up to the lectern.
“The Chaplin ain’t here.” He whispered when I leaned down to him.
“Well get the number 2 guy or number 3.”
He shrugged his shoulders.
“You don’t have a Chaplin, do you?” He shook his head, no.
“OK,” I said remembering my three sentence prayer on the corner of my notes, “I got it.”
He gave me a thumb’s up. I turned and looked out in the hall and the 1st Division Color Guard was making their last minute preparation to come in. Someone standing by the door pointed a finger at me and I leaned in to the microphone and said, “Ladies and Gentlemen of the Society of the 1st Division, Please rise for the posting of the colors and remain standing for the invocation.” Strong. Assertive. Sure. I had a sense of great power.
The color guard came in and in one of the best execution ever of that simple drill; our American Flag was placed proudly beside the 1st Division flag behind me. They framed the podium. The Color Guard, their job done, exited stage left.
And I turned to that banquet room of people and they all had their heads bowed. More than a thousand.
As I said, I didn’t have my glasses on, so I bent down to my notes to recover my prayer, the one they were waiting for. Prayers for this kind of thing were especially important; this was the serious part of the program. Now was the appropriate time for Godly reflections.
I could not find the fucking prayer. I went thought my notes quickly, and then one by one, looking on each corner. Not realizing my head was bent down next to the microphone, my words of angst leaked out to the crowd. “Oh…. Shit… Christ… AAUUUGGGG… shit… shit… shhhiittt on me.”
It was painfully obvious that I was not going to be able to find those words I had written and I was going to have to wing it. And the only thing that came to mind was “God is great, God is good.”
That wasn’t hardly what this crowd came to hear. But it was time to do something. Some of the Generals in the first tables were starting to look up.
So I grabbed the microphone and I opened my mouth, and I had to force other words around the “God is great, God is good” phrase and the words that came out, were disjointed and awkward. I was vainly trying to ask for God’s grace in remembering those who were not here, who had paid the ultimate price for our victories… But they were just individual words. Lot of adjectives. I finally said, “Praise God, Please sit down.”
It was as if I had been speaking in tongues. Except the bad words early. Brenda said she could hear the bad words pretty good. If I was speaking in tongues, it was Marine tongues.
And you know what? I had no place to hide, no place to go. So rather than give the people a chance to sit there and talk about this “prayer” they had just heard, I just started talking, welcoming everyone, per the cues I had on my note, and then there was the introduction of this man and that officer and this and that and as I got into about page 3, hell I was smoking. The great mumble prayer a thing of the past. Of course on the bottom of page 3 I saw my prayer.
Fine evening, except as I said early this woman tried to kill Brenda. I was standing behind the podium once when someone was standing up from the table of Generals making some announcement, per the program, and I looked down the dais to my left and there leaning forward was a woman who was trying to catch Brenda’s eyes with hers. She had a murderous look. I have never seen such a vile, angry, killer look as that woman had, trying desperately to kill Brenda with it… because as it turned out, General Sullivan had changed her place beside him with Brenda, and the woman, not knowing Brenda, was trying to kill this interloper with her look.
Later Brenda said that yes she had noticed some woman down the table trying to make eye contact with her, trying to will Brenda to look at her, said she had on such and such type ear rings. “See her look?” I asked. Brenda said, “Look?”
When the program was over, Sullivan asked me to MC again the following year – which as it turned out I could not do – and then Jack, my old’ platoon guy and I got drunk. Early on, he asked, “You come up with that prayer all by yourself, buddy? It wasn’t too good.”
The wives dragging us back up to our rooms the middle of the night. We showed Nadine the mirror on our ceiling and she said, “I’m getting out of here before any one gets any ideas. Don’t nobody touch me.”