The time was 1960 and George Jones and Tammy Wynette crooned on the radio as cars circled the drive-ins. I worked till closing at midnight and many of these guys hung out at the station when they had nothing better to do. We would set out front on overturned wooden coke cases and watch the traffic — swapping stories and big lies.
There was some news about Vietnam, but for a 15-year-old kid, it was someplace far away and impacted no one I knew. Some of the older patrons would talk about their experience in Korea and I listened with interest. My father was in the Air Force in World War II and I always knew I would someday join the armed forces because that is what East Tennessee boys did, but going to war was not in my future as far as I could see at that time.
Those who came to the station on a regular basis were given nicknames. I still don’t know why their given Christian names were not used but nicknames seemed to be the given way of addressing them. One fellow will always be in my thoughts and memories. In fact, his life helped lead me to my later chosen profession in mental health.
I really don’t think I ever heard the name his mother gave him, but everybody at the station called him Runt. He was slight of stature, slim with a very intense look in his eyes. Maybe because he had been teased so much as a child for being so small, he developed a stare that could freeze a lion in its tracks. If that didn’t work, he would fight.
Runt didn’t date a lot, but drove a nice car. He would come in to the station Saturday evening and park where he could watch the traffic and spend time waxing and rubbing the paint. His car shined like a jewel. After some time doing that, he would sit with the rest of us swapping stories.
I never knew him to drink or smoke like a lot of the others. At our location, a few moonshiners would fill up their cars with our NASCAR hi-test gas and head from Newport toward Knoxville with a load in the rear where the back seat used to be. With strong springs and shocks, the cars sat level but sported racing engines especially built to run liquor. I mention this because they would often leave a jar for the loafers to pass around. But like I said, I never knew Runt to partake.
For months thereafter Runt disappeared. Everyone asked if I had seen him, but I said no. Then one day Runt came by and he was wearing a uniform. He had gotten bored at home I guess, and signed up. He was excited to have finished basic and was headed to Armor School at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky. He loved mechanics and hoped to work on big trucks and tanks.
He left the next day and I didn’t hear from him for many months. Then one day a friend of his said he was back from Vietnam. I didn’t realize he had even left the country.
One Saturday evening after business had slowed to a crawl, I looked up and saw Runt’s familiar car pull in. I, in my youthful exuberance to hear of his experiences, waited for him to come in the station. As I watched I couldn’t understand why he was having so much trouble getting out of his car. Then I realized he had a pair of crutches and was limping.
He did not look like the Runt I remembered. He looked much older with lines in his face and was missing that smile he used to have. He struggled in and sat in the first chair he came to. Since I was the only one there we began to talk.
He had gone to armor school and had been trained as a tank commander because he had made rank as a sergeant. He was sent to Vietnam almost immediately thereafter and involved in combat from his first week. His tank was ambushed while running over a planted mine. He was blown out of the top turret and caught in crossfire. His right leg was shot nearly off and he was medevacked out.
Unfortunately they were unable to save his leg. Now, he was struggling trying to walk with crutches. His hands were shaking and he sweated as he told me about his experience. He regretted leaving his buddies behind and was angry that the Army wanted to discharge him.
From that time on, Runt began to drink heavily and was smoking three packs a day. He was angrier than I remembered him before Vietnam. He would come to the station on Saturday night, drunk and unable to walk. We would help him out of his car and into the station.
We worried that he attempted to drive, so, when he passed out, we would hide his prosthetic leg. It sounds cruel but we knew he would kill himself and others if we didn’t. Someone would always take him home and reunite him with his leg the next day.
At the time, I knew nothing about PTSD. I know now that my friend was filled with rage, guilt, shame and pain — both physical and emotional. Although Vietnam was 10,000 miles away, he had brought it with him. The heat, leaches, mosquitoes and malaria may have remained incountry but the trauma of combat came home with him.
Combat had dramatically changed and altered his life. There was no treatment in 1961 to help Runt. Not long after that I left home to attend college and join the ROTC. After six years of military experience, I came back to East Tennessee, but never saw Runt again. I pray he found help and peace.
On this Veterans Day, let us remember those who gave their all — some in death and some in a living hell that lasts a lifetime. As we go about our lives working and enjoying our freedom, remember the “Runts” who gave their everything for us.
Dan Kyte of Jonesborough is a retired clinical social worker and health care administrator.