He was supposed to be best man at our wedding.
What made that a little unusual was that he was my boss, my superior officer -- way back in 1969 in Long Binh, Vietnam.
In a rank-conscious, highly structured world like the U.S. Army, the divide between a major (him) and a captain (me) could have been vast.
But somehow my boss became one of the best friends.
He had a razor-sharp mind, an irreverent and quick sense of humor, and a warm personality.
In a war zone, there are no days off. We worked seven days a week and got to know each other well.
Our job was to help prepare the ARVN -- the Army of the Republic of Vietnam -- to operate a communications system that the U.S. government had built connecting Dong Ha in the north to Ca Mau in the south, and just about everything in between.
I knew that my boss was a native of West Virginia, had served with the U.S. embassy staff in Montevideo, Uruguay, before being assigned to Vietnam. He had a beautiful wife and infant daughter back home.
He was a Regular Army officer who was making a career out of the Army.
I was a draftee who got the chance to go to officer candidate school and was taking things a year at a time.
It was my second tour in Vietnam. I shared with him that I had returned to marry my sweetheart, who was a Vietnamese switchboard operator for the U.S. Army.
The Army set up plenty of hurdles, and there was an exhausting laundry list of paperwork to complete.
Months later when the approvals finally came back, my best man had completed his 12-month tour of duty and returned home.
So someone else stood in as best man when we were married in an Army chapel at Long Binh.
My friend never got to see us as husband and wife, until last week. And never knew that our son shared his first name.
Nearly 41 years later, we journeyed to North Carolina and visited him in a veterans nursing home.
His wife warned us that he had severe medical problems and asked if we wanted to remember him the way he was, or to
see him now.
We asked to see him so we could pay our respects.
Not sure if he recognized us, but he saluted me and said, “Hi.”
I held his hand and hugged him.
Life had taken us in many different direc- tions.
After Vietnam, my friend had returned to the Far East several more times, serving in Korea, and later teaching at West Point before retiring.
My career, of course, brought me into journalism, which has been all-consuming.
We should have made that trek to North Carolina years ago.
But I’m grateful for last week.
And fortunate to have a friend who was a mentor who did more than he ever knew to make our lives better.
James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee editor, can be contacted at 745-7021.