Many years ago there was a television show named Queen for a Day. It was on NBC so it was a channel we could watch in Great Bend. It featured one mother who would win a prize that was the equivalent of living like royalty. Mothers with names like Shirley, Gladys or Rita would be reduced to tears at the announcement they would receive something absurdly valuable in those days to a home maker, like a new clothes washer. The show was a ratings smash.
Over the years I’ve pondered the idea of a slightly different concept - King for a day. And instead of various contestants vying for the distinction, selected by an applause meter, I would be the winner because, well, I write this column. I wouldn’t need a crown or even something our society considers important, like, I don’t know, maybe an I-Phone. Instead I would have the power to issue one order, one requirement. And if I had that authority, my declaration would be this: Every kid, on their 21st birthday, should make a visit to a VFW or American Legion post near their home. My preference is that they would visit the Great Bend VFW. Preferably on a Friday afternoon when the bartender is Debbie or after 6:30 when Sandy handles the drink orders.
It would take the power of a king to make this happen for the reason that the V is not on the radar that millennials use to make decisions. The VFW isn’t on YELP, for instance. Trip Advisor doesn’t care about the V. They don’t serve craft beers or have Wi-Fi. Those who frequent it are not consumed with the trivial, benign or inconsequential. I’m just guessing that no one there “feels the Bern” unless it’s a whiskey sour on the rocks.
But with my power, it might help change the perspective of our youth. Maybe, just maybe, after this visit, the next time those kids meet a man in his late 60s, someone with a face with deep wrinkles and tussled hair, they might appreciate they are meeting a veteran. Quite possibly it’s a man who, when he was years removed from 21, spent a year in a jungle dodging death every single day.
I once read where a former war correspondent in Vietnam – a man named Michael Herr -- said it best this way: “All the wrong people remember Vietnam. I think all the people who remember it should forget it, and all the people who forgot it should remember it.”
When I’m king, maybe we change this.
Those newly minted 21 year olds just might have the occasion to meet Dan Zimmerschied. He has a title at the V – known as junior vice commander. Dan would explain that the V was established in 1934 as the Morrison-McFadden Post 3111. It was named in honor of Sidney M. Morrison of Great Bend, who was wounded near Manilla in February 1899 in the Spanish American war and died from his wounds three years later. And McFadden? The Great Bend man lost his life in 1917 fighting World War I – which was known at the time as “the war to end all wars.”
Maybe, with sufficient prompting, they might hear from Dan that in 1968 there were 23 boys drafted from Barton County to the service, one of the largest groups drafted from the county for the war effort. Most were 18, 19 years old.
Five of them stuck together and spent basic training together at Fort Leonard Wood – guys named John Johnson, Dave Fuzzell, Bob Jarmer, Dennis Munoz and Zimmerschied. Maybe they would hear how Zimmerschied spent 37 months in Vietnam – he kept extending his stay “because the longer I stayed there kept someone else from coming over.”
Maybe those kids might go from sipping their Coors Light to gulping it.
On that Friday they might meet Mike Fiest, the only son of Gus and Madalen - a Bushton farmer who was introduced to Southeast Asia after he drafted in October 1966. It was May 1967, he missed combat training that was normally required for anyone going to SE Asia -- something called “Advanced Infantry Training.” “I went to see the captain – they were leaving for Vietnam in three days and he said ‘Oh gosh, I forgot about you -- you’re doing such a good job you are going to go to Vietnam with us.’”
Two weeks later Fiest found himself on a Navy troop carrier with 3,000 of his fellow soldiers – a 28 day trip -- and docked at Cam Ranh Bay. “I helped facilitate fuel for the war. We had to move tankers up and down highway One.” Fiest celebrated his 21st birthday on June 12, 1967, in Bangkok. “I was nominated to fly to Bangkok to pick up ammunition. I got to travel with the Special Forces.”
When he learned his time in Vietnam was ending, he wanted to telephone his mother. “You would wait in a compound it would take two hours to make a phone connection – one operator calling another. After waiting all that time, the Wichita operator tried to call my parent’s number but it was busy. Back then they could ‘break into’ the call and they did --- my mom was talking to her sister. They interrupted the call – ‘this is the military seeking to talk to Madeline Fiest.’ She thought I’d been killed. ‘Your son is coming home in two days’.” She almost fainted.
Fiest got home on May 1, 1968. He remembers the date because a week later Kimbo opened. Yes he was there.
Those 21 year olds might meet Mike Niedens, like Fiest, the only son of Roy and Leona. A 1965 High School graduate from Larned he enlisted with his best friend – Bob Brown. Brown was all-state in basketball and football. They took a train to Kansas City for their physical. After the exams, Mike was playing pool at bar when his buddy tapped him on the shoulder. His dejected expression gave away the news. “Mike I’m going home. I flunked my physical.” A broken leg many years earlier did him in. “Bob never got over that. He wanted to serve his country. Bob’s dad was colonel in the Army and in the reserves for years.”
Niedens got his eight weeks of basic training at Fort Bliss, Texas. Then came Advanced Infantry training at Fort Gordon, Ga. This time for 10 weeks. Both places he was squad leader. “At Fort Gordon they asked if any of us wanted to skip jump school. There were 27 guys who elected to dispense with it.” That was an earlier ticket to Vietnam.
“We flew out of Fort Lewis, Washington, for Cam Rahn Bay. We arrived in March 22, 1968. This was three weeks after the Tet Offensive. I was 20 years old. My first impression of what we were in for – I was sitting in the training room – the room was full with 50-75 guys. They were going over everything about what to expect -- snakes, mosquitoes, malaria plus the enemy. Right then a guy walked in and in his steel pot helmet he had three bullet holes. He was covered in dirt and appeared exhausted. He looked over at us. We were wide eyed and anxious. I remember distinctly what he said --‘Guys I’m going home. To hell with you.’”
The newbies might hear about something called counter insurgency which was embraced by the military brass in that era. “Back in those days they would have helicopters go out with something called people sniffers – technology that could detect the enemy in the jungle. Keep in mind the ground was thick jungle. And then troops would be taken there. We were always on the offensive. They would take us in helicopters which would drop us off until you ran into fire. You always have a guy who walks the point. That’s what I did for seven and half months. Those who lived dodged bobby traps, pungent pits treated with poison, RPG’s, AK-47’s, and M-60’s,” Niedens told me.
Neidens returned from Vietnam on March 20, 1969, landing in Oakland. “You didn’t want to tell anyone you were home. You didn’t want to talk about it.” Of those 27 soldiers who skipped jump school with Niedens, he was one of two who returned.
Now, some 47 years later, many of these stories are being shared. It’s about time.