Eastword column by Jim Jones: Connecting the dots of a life

December 30, 2012 

At my house, we won't put away the Christmas cards and decorations until the first of the new year.

I'm still savoring some of those cards, especially those where the sender wrote more than "merry Christmas" and added a signature.

There is one from a colleague from my very first newspaper job in 1977. He wrote that he had survived a job layoff and prostate cancer in 2012. A bad year for him, but he's working in journalism again, and the cancer is gone. Things are looking up. He's hopeful.

There's another from a buddy who survived Army officer candidate school with me in 1966-1967 at Fort Gordon, Ga. Later, we were second lieutenants together in Stuttgart, Germany.

We couldn't have been more different. He was a college grad, an electrical engineer; I was a draftee with a high school education.

The communications technology came easy for him. I had to relentlessly cram to get it through my thick skull.

He's been retired 12 years now, and plays golf three or four times a week.

"My game hasn't gotten any better, but I enjoy it," Jack wrote.

We're different, but we survived the same crucible and we have a bond.

We always sign our cards with "love." And we mean it.

There's a card fromBernice, now in her 80s, who was a bookkeeper years ago for a companyin Clewiston where I worked.

You can tell she was around newspapers too long. She writes in headlines.

I had to call her to get a little deeper into the subtext.

Bernice tells me she has a gentleman friend, but she lives in her own house, alone. She treasures her independence.

This Christmas also brought me back in touch with someone with whom I served in Soc Trang, Vietnam.

Roger was at my house with his wife one afternoon, about a week ago, and we talked about old times.

I tell him I can still remember him being a hundred feet in the air inside a communications tower at a radio relay site, making adjustments. It gave me the willies watching him way up there.

He was fearless andhe knew his commo stuff.

We would sometimes drive down lonely country roads in a single Jeep, armed with our M-16s, to visit a remote signal site. It was surely Viet Cong country, but we were lucky. I don't ever remember anyone taking a shot at us.

We talk about the bravery -- or maybe the foolishness -- of youth and how we had survived at all.

Back in 1969, Roger would often come into the orderly room, sit down across from me, and unburden himself of concerns and anything that might be on his mind. Mostly, I would just listen, but it seemed to help. I'll never forget those talks.

Now Roger tells me something I never knew. When I was assigned as company commander for that unit in Vietnam, the sergeants got together, a little concerned about my youth and inexperience, to talk about me. I was 22, but probably looked about 15.

Roger tells me that the sergeants decided to give me a chance, and support the kid.

"You were a quick study," Roger tells me.

I'm not so sure about that part, I tell Roger.

I still look back on that seven-month period as company commander as my best time in the Army. I can thank the NCOs of Company D for that.

Then I bring up something that I had just learned about.

Roger was recently diagnosed with cancer.

I ask him how he is doing.

He tells me he is headed to the Mayo Clinic after the holidays.

I can see he is worried, although he talks about it in almost the same off-hand way that he would discuss troubleshootinga communications chan-nel that wasn't working right.

I tell Roger that I will pray for him. It doesn't seem like much to offer, but maybe it is. My friend seems to appreciate it anyway.

This Christmas also brought me back into contact with my first cousin Mark who was in Soc Trang too, but as a helicopter crew chief. I didn't know that until recently.

Our paths never crossed. He was there in 1968, six months before me, and then again late in 1969 after I had moved on.

"That's almost funny," Mark tells me.

These holiday cards may have a short half-life. But they can bring back bittersweet memories, and help connect the dots of a life.

James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee editor, can be contacted at 941-745-7021 or tweet@jajones1.

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