October 29, 2022
I bumped into George at the University of Notre Dame. We were moving into Grace Hall residence dorm. George needed a hand moving his gear up to his room, which was down the hall from mine.
“Need some help?” I asked.
“Great. I’ve got some heavy duffels down in the car,” said George.
Down at the car were four military duffel bags.
“What are these?”
“I’m ROTC Army. This is my military gear.”
Back at George’s room I wondered aloud, “Have you been ROTC long?”
“This is my fourth year. I came to ND from So Cal and enrolled right away.”
“You look so familiar. Did you go to Servite High School?”
“Yes. Class of ’68. Are you Ricki?”
“Yes I am. George? George Gotsman! How the hell are you?”
“Great. We ran track together. I remember your hurdling style.”
“Yea. I was so short that I had to alternate lead legs in the high hurdles and when I grew taller I launched left footed because you taught me how to hurdle, you lefty.”
“What good luck to meet up with you again Ricki.”
We quickly renewed our friendship. George and I played cards in the evening. It was a great way to catch up.
“What made you join ROTC?” I asked during one card game.
“The Army pays for my education and all I have to do is some training and run some occasional drills.”
“What is your service obligation?”
“Eight years, but I start as a Second Lieutenant.”
“What about Vietnam?”
“I might have to go. It is my duty. Meanwhile, I’m getting a free ride at ND. Also, I won’t be subject to the draft.”
“I won’t have that kind of luck. I just heard that the college exception to the draft has been revoked. If my number is low enough they will pull me out of Notre Dame and send me to Vietnam.”
“That’s some bad luck, Ricki.”
The day of the lottery I got good and drunk on Harvey Wallbangers. As the evening wore on I felt better and better about the lottery. My number was 207. Only the first 100 would be subject to draft. Dumb luck served me once again. It seems like dead reckoning and dumb luck have always been at my side.
A pounding headache in the morning was a great trade off for service in Viet Nam. Unfortunately, or maybe luckily, I never drank vodka again.
We would make light of George’s ROTC life. We just did not grasp the importance of his training or the depth of his commitment to his men.
One night over cards George told me there would be maneuvers the next day in the north campus forest. George was going to lead a platoon of 16 infantry. It would be an intelligence gathering mission to survey and map the forest and fields north of the main Notre Dame campus.
Later that night I told my roommate about George’s mission.
“Let’s stage an ambush,” said Dylan.
“Let’s sneak up on his encampment. Maybe we’ll throw some rocks to shake them up.”
“That sounds risky. They are well trained.”
Dylan gave me a sideways smile. “They don’t have live ammunition. Worse case, we get captured. It isn’t against the rules to be in the north 40. Besides, we will have the element of surprise.”
In spite of my better judgement, I agreed.
The next morning we put on jeans, hiking boots, dark jackets and stocking caps. We made our way to the field adjacent to the forest.
From a vantage point behind a large clump of brush we could hear George’s men going about morning breakfast preparations. There was the occasional sighting of a scout paroling the perimeter of the forest.
Dylan motioned to me, pointing at a closer stand of brush.
Good luck was with us, we approached unnoticed. We were midfield when Dylan surprised me by pulling a M-80 out of his pocket and lighting the fuse. He threw the small bomb toward the forest. It landed in some dry brush and exploded.
The next few minutes changed our good luck to bad. What transpired was the consequences of irresponsible planning and a flawed idea.
The platoon came alive with shouted curses. Someone, probably George, was belting orders. The bush caught on fire.
Dylan turned and ran with me close on his heels.
“INTRUDER. ATTACKER. COMBATANT,” we heard from the forest.
We kept running.
Only dumb luck allowed us to escape.
The ROTC squad prioritized putting out the fire and did not pursue us.
We did not stop running until we were back inside Grace Hall.
I did not reveal our stunt to my friend George.
The next year, George went to Vietnam.
He was put in charge of a large infantry platoon.
Good luck gave him little action as the war was winding down, and his platoon received their orders to withdraw.
But then came the bad luck. George and his men were ambushed as they walked back to Saigon. Everyone in the platoon was killed except for George and one of his men. George threw his body over his comrade and played dead. In the fortune of dumb luck the enemy passed them over as they assessed the battlefield. George was hit with some shrapnel but was able to stand when the coast was clear. His compatriot was uninjured.
The two of them struggled back to Saigon where they were evacuated back to the United States. George received a purple heart and served out the remainder of his eight year commitment as a Desk Lieutenant.
George and I have visited each other many times and have remained good friends. I have never brought up the M-80 ambush. George never speaks about Vietnam.
We do not tempt fate with talk of luck.
“Technically Human” by Ricki T Thues, the iMentor, is now available on Amazon.
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