Good times, bad times, a lifetime, all stolen 50 years ago

When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive — to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.

— Marcus Aurelius

They both knew that in just a few minutes, he would be pulled from the sanctity and warmth of the marital womb and sent on the adventure for his life.

I watched them through a handful of little doughnuts and a large coffee, sitting across a dirty table in an old, wood hotel on the edge of downtown Tiffin. He held his head in his hands; despair, despondency, love torn asunder.

The young lady sat beside him, one arm across his back, alternately rubbing and patting. Her other hand tightly gripped his arm as she tried to console him … to no avail.

It was a dark, still, cold Jan. 18, 1968, morn. And this was my “introduction” to Bob (a.k.a. Chuck) and Patti Siebenaller.

We were to board a bus headed for Columbus. I was one of the last to get on board because I was stuffing my pockets with doughnuts and a paper cup of coffee in each hand.

The window seats were taken by then, so I fell into the seat in the darkened bus next to a guy whose face was pressed hard against the glass. Even after the bus turned a corner he stayed at his post, looking for a miracle.

When he finally did turn around and slump into his seat, I realized he was my tablemate. I watched him shed dropless tears and made it a point to not bother him. He was already deeply wounded.

We had been traveling for, perhaps, a half-hour when he realized I was next to him and nodded. When he did begin to talk in occasional short, dying sentences, I listened, but never knew what to say in return. His life had been ripped apart and he no longer had any control of it.

After being sworn to bondage in Columbus, a dozen of us were put on a redeye flight to South Carolina to live under the heathens and gorillas of the U.S. government.

By chance, Bob and I were thrown into the same basic training company.

I ran down to his barrack once or twice a week (and he even came up to mine a few times) to see how he was and to smoke a couple of butts and to hear how his life, Patti, was.

Some folks said Pancho had to grow up hard and tough — an urban lion — but his beloved Patti had tamed him into a housecat.

I never saw him smile or laugh, but then one day, near the end of basic training, he came running, hopping, skipping with a big smile on his face. “Art, Art, I’m gonna be a father. Patti’s pregnant. I’m gonna be a daddy, Art,” he almost shouted, and clicked the heels of his combat boots.

But what seems like only a few days later, we troops received our orders for advanced individual training. I stopped down to see Bob that evening and he just handed me his orders: Proceed for Light Weapons Infantry Training. A grunt. A front-line guy. Closest to the enemy.

Play the tape of Jan. 18 at the hotel.

There just wasn’t much to say, so I turned away, and that was the last I ever saw of Bob Siebenaller.

June 18, he arrived in South Vietnam and, one supposes, was in the field within a week or two.

Sept. 27, a daughter was born unto Patti and Bob. Oct. 27, he laid dead.

He would have turned 22 four days later.

I shudder to think what Patti’s feeling must have been when the chaplain and the officer showed up at her door.

Daughter, behold thy father. Father, behold thy daughter. For you shall never be in each other’s arms until she ascendeth to you in heaven.

It has been said that when the man in front of you falls, he may have taken a bullet meant for you. It wasn’t until years later that I found out Bob and I had been given consecutive Army serial numbers. His: US 5188 1470. Mine: US 5188 1471.

Coincidence. Fate. Dumb luck. Would things have been different if the numbers had been reversed?

Bob, I’ll try to make it to Tiffin today to pay my respects. You certainly deserve them.

Was Bob a hero? Without a doubt … just like the 58,317 men and women just like him.

One report indicates he died when his unit rushed to the aid of three wounded men whose helicopter had been shot down. But along with the wounded, they found intense Vietnamese People’s Army fire. (The wounded were all gotten out alive.) The remains of Bob Siebenaller were carried away. Yeah, a real hero.

He stood up when his country called. But did his country stand by him?

For 50 years, he could have been a warm, loving spouse. He would have been a tremendous father. For 50 years, he could have been a friend to many, a good neighbor. For 50 years, he would have been an outstanding citizen of the United States of America.

He could have experienced the bad times of life and reveled in the best of times; known the agony and the ecstasy. He could have felt the sunshine in his face and breathed the air into his chest. He could have felt life coursing through him but for. …

Good times. Bad times. Lifetimes. Who among us would have wanted to miss his or hers? I’m sure Bob didn’t want to miss his. Nor did Patti or Cheryl.

Robert Charles Siebenaller.

Date of birth: Nov. 1, 1946.

Date of death: Oct. 27, 1968.

Place of death: The Republic of Vietnam.

Cause of death: Murder. It can’t be anything else

Murder of the People.

Murder for the People.

Murder by the People.

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