Vietnam still haunting me…
Hey, out there…
When I was in New York two weeks ago, I received word that my Citadel classmate Ted Bridis had died. The news of his death shocked me on several levels. While we were at The Citadel, Ted and I were both “jocks,” a despised underworld in the Corps of Cadets at that time and it may still be going on at a lower level in that rough world. Ted played football and ran track and had one of those lean, elegant bodies that trackmen wear with such ease. In memory, he was a wide receiver on the football team, but I could be wrong about that. We were mess hall friends and we’d stop to talk every time we saw each other on campus. The Citadel was a small college and remains so and I will always think these small places are richer in intimacy and shared experience than the University.
After we graduated, I began my life as a draft dodger and anti-war activist while my entire class walked off that stage and stepped directly into the Vietnam War. When I talk to Ivy Leaguers or war resisters of that era, I always tell them that Vietnam was not theoretical to me, but deeply and agonizingly painful. Eight of my Citadel classmates died in that war and three of them – Bruce Welge, Fred Carter and Dick O’Keefe – were boys that I loved and whose friendship I cherished. Two of the managers of my basketball team died there and my teammate, Al Krobuth, was a prisoner of war in one of those soul-degrading camps where our captured airmen were tortured and debased on a daily basis. I played high school baseball with Jimmy Melvin, who died on a patrol in Vietnam, and attended the funerals of Marines whose children I taught at Beaufort High School. My father served two tours of duty in Vietnam and I adopted and raised two daughters whose father, Capt. J.W. Jones, was killed while flying close air support in defense of his Marines on the ground. I never was good at developing theories against the war because too many slain and wounded faces rise up to argue with me about how I conducted myself during the war. I know all the excuses I used at the time, but I find myself wordless when I visit the Vietnam Memorial in Washington.
But Ted Bridis represented something about Vietnam that was agonizing to me. I had lost all contact with Ted until I was walking up to my tenth Citadel reunion with Saundra Hardin and I heard a voice calling to me at the bottom of the stairs leading up to the Hibernian Hall. I’d not be invited back to a reunion for twenty-five years because the appearance of The Lords of Discipline was on the horizon. But on that night,
I heard a familiar voice call, “Hey, Pat, could you lend me a hand?”
I turned around and saw Ted Bridis for the first time since graduation. He was holding up his wheelchair in one strong arm and asked if I’d carry it to the top steps of the Hibernian for him. In Vietnam, he had stepped on a landmine and lost both legs and an arm. The moment shocked me because I had not heard of the severity of his injuries.
“Sure, Ted. Be happy to,” I said, leaning down and giving him a hug.
Then I watched as Ted Bridis crawled and struggled up those stairs, refusing the help of any of his classmates who ran to his aid.
That night I learned that he’d come close to dying on the battlefield, but was saved by the swiftness and courage of a helicopter pilot, then airlifted to the surgeons who managed to save his life. At first he seemed a deformed shell of his former self, but as we spoke that night, I realized his wounds had enhanced his manhood and his own sense of himself.
He had married a woman who was equal to his valor and her dedication in watching over him moved me at that last dance I attended as a Citadel graduate. From my classmates, I learned that Ted had lost his Citadel ring when his arm was blown off in Vietnam. My class had collected money and presented him with a new Citadel ring, but I did not get word and failed to contribute a single dime. Ted Bridis began his long term as symbol of the Class of ’67 – the kind of man The Citadel could produce at its best.
Our friendship was never close, and that grieves me at this moment. But he and his wife attended every book signing I ever had in Miami, Florida. He would wait near the end of the line and I’d be furious at him for not just coming to the front to get his books signed before everyone else.
“I like waiting my turn, Pat,” Ted said. “I like to hear what everybody’s saying about your books. I tell them we were classmates at The Citadel.
Ted only asked me for a single thing in his life and I have reason to believe I didn’t come through on a promise I made him. He called me after Hurricane Andrew devastated his Miami home and told me that every one of my first edition books I had signed to him were destroyed in the storm; he wanted to know if I could help replace them. I was living in San Francisco at the time and not in good emotional shape, but I started collecting my books from antiquarian bookstores and soon had every one of them except my first, The Boo. It was one of his prized possessions, but I could not find one for less than three thousand dollars and the Internet was not in existence.
Finally, the Boo himself found a copy in Charleston. I gathered the books together, put them in a box, addressed it, then went diving into one of the worst depressions of my life. Though I’ve gone over this sequence a hundred times since I heard of Ted Bridis’ death, I can’t remember mailing that box to Ted. I’m afraid I didn’t and I find it disgraceful.
Ted lived an exemplary life in Miami. He participated in the wheelchair Olympics and won many championship medals. He became an indispensible counselor to those men and women who were grievously wounded in the Afghan and Iraq wars. He was beloved by his classmates at the Citadel. The Boo signed his last copy of Ted’s book “To Ted Bridis, the best lamb in my sorry flock.”
When I heard about his death, I remembered his voice on that Charleston night, “Hey, Pat, could you lend me a hand?”
I carried his wheelchair up the Hibernian steps, but I wish I’d done a whole lot more.