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Mike Vouri: The General and Being Unstuck in Time

  • Written by Mike Vouri

Sometimes I become unstuck in time, so to speak.

Very much like Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist in the novel Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut. The book is an autobiographical science fiction piece in which Billy, the central character, becomes unstuck in time and is abducted by beneficent aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. For them, and Billy, time is an illusion. Both author and protagonist experienced the firebombing of Dresden as U.S. prisoners of war during World War II. Vonnegut never got over the experience. In fact, in later years he mildly castigated himself for “profiting” from the deaths of so many innocents.

Don’t get excited. I haven’t been abducted by aliens. In my case, it is through the power of memory, conscious and subconscious. And though it is not exclusive to veterans, many of us can relate to this, especially around Memorial Day.

Sometimes it is helped along.

Twenty-eight years ago a retired army general and his wife visited San Juan Island National Historical Park, and while being conducted on a guided walk, he was told by the ranger on duty that her boss—me—was a Vietnam vet. On their return from the field, she knocked on my office door, and told me that the general would like to meet me. Always ready to greet a brother or sister veteran, I walked into the visitor center, said hello and was met with a shock.

I recognized the general as “Major” John H. Brookshire, the executive officer of the Special Forces Camp B-43, where I lived for 10 months in 1968-69. I was a 20-year-old crew chief of an O-1 Bird Dog reconnaissance aircraft, serving with an Air Force tactical air control party (TACP) that flew from an airstrip five miles from the camp.

General Brookshire was nothing like I remembered him. The powerful man with the broad shoulders, flaming reddish-blond hair and freckles was overweight, seemed to have shrunk a few inches and leaned heavily on his walking stick. Even so, I immediately knew it was him because I had a photograph of the two of us together at the airstrip in an album full of B-43 images on a shelf in my office. He did not recognize me (40 lbs.heavier) until I escorted them into my office, produced the album and showed him the photo.
Even then, I’m not sure he remembered. But he enveloped me in a bear hug, nevertheless, extended his arms, looked me over and hugged me again while his wife stood by dumbfounded.

The author at the airstrip.

Over dinner in the old Front Street Ale House that night we thumbed through the album and shared stories about the people we knew (and couldn’t remember). I had always had warm memories of him, as evidenced by the photograph of us sharing a laugh at the airstrip. A few pints laters the conversation inevitably swung round to a topic we had been avoiding: My pilot Captain Frank Birchak’s death in January 1969. It always does with those that served with me.

I was on a recovery team, under the Brookshire’s command, that was inserted near the crash site by helicopter. I had launched Frank from the airstrip that morning with a Vietnamese lieutenant in the back seat as an observer. Our role was to provide air support to U.S. and Vietnamese ground and naval forces in what was known as the 44th Special Tactical Zone. Our pilots overflew this ground everyday, noting any changes that might indicate enemy activity. If something untoward was spotted or assistance was needed for troops in contact, they would mark targets with white phosphorus rockets and call in a tactical airstrike.

(left) Frank Birchak, shortly after being commissioned.

 (right) Captain Frank Birchak flying the O-1 Bird Dog. (Photo by Author)

Frank was on just such a mission that morning when he had undoubtedly spotted movement along a river tributary, skimmed the deck for a closer look and was shot down and wounded. The aircraft had ripped through a windbreak of paper trees between a rice paddy and a river tributary, auguring into a muddy swale at the bend of the river. The water murmured as it sketched the wide bend, spreading itself thin over a sand spit at low tide. A network of trails, clearly marked, snaked through the forest, the main one leading from the swale to the river. There was no sign of Frank and the observer among the wreckage. They had been spirited away, presumably bound for a prison camp. But a few miles from the crash site, Frank was executed for refusing to climb into a sampan. His brother Paul, many years later, told me that long before he went off to war Frank vowed that he would never be taken prisoner. 

The O-1 Bird Dog that was shot down in January 1969 with Captain Frank Birchak at the controls.

I have spent a lifetime wishing it was me and not the Vietnamese army lieutenant in the airplane with Frank that day, and confronting the guilt in my relief that I was not. The lieutenant eventually escaped to tell the tale. As had Brookshire and I, in a way. By the time we’d finished recalling that day we were exhausted. After all those years. With nothing left to say, we paid the check, promised to stay in touch and went our separate ways. I gave him the photograph to copy and for weeks haunted my post office box for its return, but I never heard from him again.

Slaughterhouse Five rang true for me when it was first published in March 1969, shortly before I came home from Vietnam. It struck even harder when the film version was released in 1972. I could relate to Billy Pilgrim. Sometimes I am in the Bird Dog, the engine thrumming, the prop wash blowing through the hatches, the wings dipping as the pilot circles a hamlet for a closer look. But most often I am in the swale with General Brookshire, looking for Frank. Sometimes I will be driving, sometimes I might be at a cocktail party or in a darkened theater. Almost always it is when a light aircraft wings overhead. It never goes away, no matter where I am. It looks the same, smells the same, feels the same…dreams the same.

I’ve wished at times that the Tralfamadorians would come and pick me up, ensconce me in a cozy cabin on the other side of the universe to enjoy the good moments and find peace with the bad.

But wait a minute.

Perhaps that’s where I am now on San Juan Island.

Rest in Peace, Frank.

Last modified onMonday, 27 May 2024 00:43

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