BY STEVE MERLO Contributing columnist
After being drafted in 1969 by the U.S. Army, I was sent to Vietnam to fight for a year as an infantryman assigned to a combat line company. Arriving in August 1969, my unit was assigned to Delta Company, 1st Battalion, 46th Infantry, 196th Infantry Brigade in Chulai.
Within a few days, I met a young man by the name of Gary Lee Edwards and we hit it off right away. Nicknamed "Peewee," Gary and I became close friends, mostly, I think, because of our similar passions for hunting and fishing.
BACK IN TENNESSEE...
John Edwards was deeply moved by Steve Merlo's phone call, he told The Californian.
"I am glad that Steve was able to find us and get some closure and (I) hope that there is a positive response from his article," Edwards said.
The call, though, wasn't his first such encounter.
Edwards said that a few years into his pastoring, some people who'd been walking through the cemetery outside his church came over and asked how they might find information about the family of someone buried there -- Gary Lee Edwards.
Like Merlo, they'd come to the right person.
"Those gentlemen had served with Gary," Edwards said. "They got very emotional. We sat down, had some coffee and looked through photographs."
Edwards said he doesn't remember his father but because he's pastoring in his dad's hometown, not a day goes by without him hearing something about him.
Of course he's learned the most from his mom and other family members.
"He loved his country and he was kind of a rebel. I inherited some of that," Edwards said.
"It actually prevented him from being promoted," he said of the rebellious streak. "My mom said he'd get promoted and she'd wonder how long it would last because he'd just get demoted again."
There's a deacon in his church, Edward said, who used to get into knock-down, drag-out fights with his father -- usually about a girl -- but deep down they really loved each other.
"He was the kind of guy who'd do anything for anybody," Edwards said. "That's really what folks most remember about him."
-- City Editor Christine Bedell
We'd get together whenever our respective companies returned from jungle operations in and out of LZ Professional and spend hours talking about home, the outdoors, our families and what we were going to do after the war.
I told him about my hometown of Buttonwillow and he was fascinated by the stories I'd tell of jackrabbits by the thousands and how good the hunting was. Gary would brag about his bluetick hound named "Snuffy Smith" who would run any revenuer that came a calling out of the county and tree a whole family of 'coons at one time. He told me about the wild turkeys and whitetail deer that lived near his Tennessee home and I wished the war was already over.
Of course, once in the 'rear' during a much-needed rest called 'stand down,' the two of us would spend a good deal of the time getting into some sort of mischief, including passing a full bottle of Jack Daniels around until it was gone (and so were we!). We'd "borrow" the point man's sawed-off shotgun and shells and sneak down to shoot pigeons next to the South China Sea or hike down the bluffs to catch bluefish only 200 yards away from our headquarters.
During one of our marathon drinking sessions, we made a pact with one another that no matter what happened, we'd get together after we got out of the service and go hunting and fishing together. We also swore to each other that in the event one of us didn't make it home, we'd look in on each other's sons to make certain that they were doing OK.
On March 25, 1970, my best friend Peewee got killed during a firefight — and after a three-day drinking binge, I came to my senses and promised I would do my best to honor my word to Peewee.
For years I tried my best to find out what I could, but without my address book (which I had somehow lost), I had no place to start looking other than "Tennessee." When I visited the Vietnam War Memorial in 1991, I found his name in the "book," but his address was listed as Memphis and after a long search, I came up empty once again.
For nearly 44 years, I carried a heavy ghost upon my shoulders, chagrined that I could not find out anything about my lost friend's whereabouts and keep my word to him.
Then this past Sept. 29, The Californian published a story about efforts to find photos of all the Kern County servicemen who gave their lives in Vietnam. Three other friends of mine also did not make it back: Larry Johnson, W.R. Crabb and Bob Banks, but I misread the article. Thinking the local “wall” needed pictures of them, I called the author of the story, Steven Mayer, to tell him where their pictures could be found.
He corrected my misconception, explaining his story was about a woman helping the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund in Washington, D.C., add photos of the fallen to its online Wall of Faces. As it turned out, Larry, W.R. and Bob already had photos attached to their profiles. Mayer told me where I could find that “virtual wall” and lo and behold, there I found updated information about Peewee.
Gary Lee Edwards had been buried in a cemetery located at the New Fairview Baptist Church in the tiny community of Oliver Springs, Tenn. I called information and got the phone number of the church so I could ask the whereabouts of Peewee's family -- if anyone still knew -- and keep my part of the bargain we had made so many years ago.
I left a message and went about my business.
Several hours later, the pastor of the church returned my call. I spoke to him for a moment, describing what I was looking for, and was greeted with dead silence. He then explained that I was talking to Pastor John Edwards and this is where my story gets a little weird.
When Peewee died, his son was only 18 months old, and would you believe that I was now talking to him in the flesh? Gary's son, John, had grown up and become a preacher at the very church where Peewee was now buried. John lived in the rectory with his family, including Peewee's grandkids, and they were all living fine, respectable lives.
Gary's wife had remarried several years after his passing and was also doing well, as were all of his brothers and sisters.
After all this time, I had finally fulfilled my commitment to Peewee, though not quite how we had intended it to happen when we made our pact back in 1970. Nonetheless, today I feel as if a great burden has been lifted from my shoulders, and I want to thank the newspaper for helping me finish my long sought-after quest.
Steve Merlo writes an outdoors column for The Californian.