By Russ Vaughn
It's been almost forty years since I got my last Care Package - a case of twenty-four #2½ cans of sliced peaches from my father. Memory fails me now, but I don't believe I ever asked before he died what it cost to mail that monster, but it must have been a pretty hefty hit in the wallet to a lifelong blue-collar worker. I had happened to mention in one of my rare letters home from Vietnam that canned, sliced peaches were my favorite item in our C Rations even if they were twenty years old. We could date them because the small cigarette packs enclosed with the rations were frequently Lucky Strikes in the old green packages that were phased out in the forties.
In any event, at mail call back in the rear area, the company clerk yells out, “Sergeant Vaughn! Care package!” and I responded with a somewhat surprised “Yo!” Stepping front and center I stared with momentary incomprehension at the large, heavily taped and badly battered, cardboard box at the clerk's feet. He made no move to pick it up and hand it to me; he just grinned and said, “That heavy sucker's all yours from here on, Sarge.” As I bent to pick it up, I noticed the silvery glint of the top of a can and a bit of green label through one of the torn corners and awareness dawned: son of a gun, my Old Man had come through for me! In spades!
The box was indeed heavy but it was a welcome burden for a twenty-five year old paratrooper in the best shape of his life; a few months of conducting patrols and operations in the mountains, jungles and paddies of Vietnam had made me a “lean, mean, Airborne trooper.” When I got it back to my hooch, I cut the top from the box with my jump knife and gazed in awe at twenty-four, count 'em, twenty-four cans, number two and a half cans at that, great big ol' cans of Del Monte sliced peaches. At that moment, I had to be the peaches king of Vietnam. Man, this was even better than the case of Tootsie Rolls my sister had mailed a couple of months earlier.
My unit was on stand down in the rear area at Tuy Hoa air base for a few days and for those few days, I felt indeed like the peaches king of Vietnam. I handed out peaches to my fellow troopers, sharing my good fortune with my brothers, as was our custom. But I must confess I squirreled away several cans for leaner times. I was constantly peppered with, “Hey, Sarge, you got any more a' them peaches?” And by occasionally producing a can, I kept that particular query alive for more than a couple of weeks.
I'd forgotten all that until today. Today, Sergeant Vaughn got a care package from a sweet woman in Oregon named Claudia, a military widow, self-described as “deaf as a door knob.” Claudia, it seems, had read a poem sent to her by her brother, an Army retiree, a former paratrooper in my old division, the 101st Airborne, who correctly surmised she might share the author's sentiments. The poem is entitled FIGHTIN' WORDS and I am that author. I had cobbled it together in angry response to the mainstream media's carping, hypercritical response to a widely broadcast incident in Fallujah, where a reporter had videotaped a young Marine administering a coup de grace to a terrorist. The poem happened to catch the mood of many Americans and was widely disseminated via the Internet and even read on a nationally broadcast talk radio show.
Exhibiting the martial spirit befitting the widow of a career soldier, Claudia decided to do something for the trooper who had written the poem. Those who read my rants on a regular basis are aware that any time I write on a military topic, I sign my work with my military credentials to establish my bonafides to render my opinions on warfare and ground combat. Claudia, seeing my unit designation, somehow missed the Vietnam 65-66 in the last line and assumed a young soldier in Iraq had written the poem. So she set about to send a box of goodies to him as reward.
Once she had it all assembled and packaged, she took it to the post office, but they refused to accept it without an APO. She called the Army recruiter in Coos Bay who graciously called Ft. Bragg, home of the 82d Airborne, the last remaining paratrooper division, and my last duty post in 1967. Nope, Staff Sergeant Vaughn's not here, try Ft. Campbell, that's the 101st’s home base. There she was told they could not give out soldiers' APO addresses for security reasons.
Frustrated, Claudia called her ex-paratrooper brother who contacted some of the men he had served with at Ft. Campbell, which had, in fact, been my primary duty station, although forty years earlier. From someone he learned that I was no longer in the service and there was no forwarding address. Now the motto of the Airborne is “All the way,” meaning you never give up; you never stop moving forward until the mission is completed. Well, Claudia's brother, even at seventy-five, is still a paratrooper. Somehow, someway, he kept hard charging until he found me and sent Claudia my address. He sensibly advised her to forget about the care package and just send me a card.
Nope, not this determined widow; the box arrived today, and after my initial stunned surprise, left me with a pleasant quandary. I don't know whether to eat all that good stuff or close it back up and forward it to some young trooper with the 82d Airborne, now serving in Iraq. I sure don't need all those calories but, dang, I never got a care package from a non-family member; they didn't do much of that in my unpopular war. So I guess I'll sleep on it. Or maybe I'll have a late-night snack. Is this a great country or what?
Thanks, Claudia, I think you would have made one hell of a paratrooper.
2d Bn, 327th Parachute Infantry Regiment
101st Airborne Division