Two Yeats-loving GIs met on a Vietnam mountaintop | HistoryNet MENU

Two Yeats-loving GIs met on a Vietnam mountaintop

By George J. Hawkins
12/5/2018 • Vietnam Magazine

The first time I met Goodbody was on a high, mist-shrouded mountaintop in Hiep Duc Valley, southwest of Da Nang. It was 1968, and we were both in the 196th Light Infantry Brigade. A small landing zone had been slashed in a level spot near the top of the mountain. The chopper I was on circled yellow smoke marking the LZ, then swooped down over some thick bamboo and hovered noisily a few feet off the ground while I jumped off.

I crouched low beneath the whirling chopper blade and scrambled off to the side of the LZ where two stubble-bearded grunts sat reading paperbacks. I dropped my pack and stood there feeling a bit awkward as I looked around watching the chopper being unloaded and listening to the high-pitched whine of the engine.

Putting their books away, both grunts motioned for me to join them at the edge of the LZ. When the chopper finally took off, we shook hands and introduced ourselves. The tall lanky guy with black curly hair sitting on a mud-covered helmet told me his name was Spider. His buddy, with a thick, drooping handlebar mustache, introduced himself as Goodbody. Later that day when I was assigned to their squad, I learned that Goodbody was his nickname. I don’t recall anyone ever calling him by his real name.

As we sat talking in the tall green elephant grass, I noticed that Goodbody was reading Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer. I had finished the book a short time before arriving in-country, so we launched into a discussion that evolved into an exchange of opinions on subjects ranging from literature to beer. I also learned that Goodbody had graduated from college, like me, not long before being drafted into the Army. Although he majored in history and political science, he had developed a passion for literature, so when he graduated he had more credits in English than in his major. This mirrored my own academic history.

In the months that followed, we became squad members and close friends. Whenever we stopped, whether for a smoke break or to dig a foxhole for a night laager position or to heat up a can of C rations, we would talk about literature, women, and especially what we planned to do when we got back to The World. That was our escape, our way of blotting out the terrible reality we were caught up in. Once, I gave Goodbody a book of Irish short stories—a tattered, old paperback I’d bought in Seattle shortly before our battalion was sent to Vietnam. A few of James Joyce’s stories were included in the anthology. We both agreed that “Araby” was one of his best. One of the few things we disagreed about was the cryptic passage by William Butler Yeats at the beginning of the short story anthology. We never could come to terms with the Yeats passage (an epitaph he wrote for himself):

Cast a cold eye
on life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!

Goodbody believed the horseman was a symbol of death: no emotions were involved—the horseman simply collected his bounty. I thought Yeats was telling us to live life and not concern ourselves with death. As time passed, we came closer to a more agreeable interpretation, but we were never completely satisfied.

Goodbody was especially fond of Eugene O’Neill’s gripping play “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” He planned to do some writing when he got out of Vietnam and out of the Army.

We got separated after spending five months in the same squad, but occasionally we’d run into each other on fire support bases. We always managed to trade paperbacks, scrounge up a few beers and have a talk.

Once we met north of Hue, just after Goodbody had been through some hairy action there. He told me his company was making contact with NVA regulars every day. I gave him a copy of Robert Frost’s poems I’d been carrying in my pack for a month. He showed me a cigarette lighter he’d bought in Thailand while on R&R. It had the Yeats passage inscribed on it. I pulled my new lighter from my fatigues— with the same passage engraved on it. We laughed and drank our warm beer. He told me his company was going back into Que Son Valley, an NVA stronghold. Goodbody had been through hell there before, and never wanted to return. When we parted, he put the book of poems in the leg pocket of his jungle fatigues and slipped his lighter into a jacket pocket along with his cigarettes.

Soon afterward, he was walking point on Hill 205. It was a dark, moonless night. NVA were on top of the hill waiting. Goodbody walked into a thousand muzzle flashes. It was chaos. It was instant death for him and another fine soldier. Then it was over. They had to leave Goodbody on the hill for a night and a day.

Two days after the firefight, I got on a chopper at LZ West. It was transporting two dead soldiers back to graves registration in Da Nang. Both bodies were wrapped in muddy, bloodstained ponchos. There was a thick stench in the chopper even though plenty of air rushed in the open sides. Halfway through the flight, the wind blew part of a poncho off the face of one of the dead soldiers. It was Goodbody. I turned away and stared down at the blurred green-and-brown checkerboard patterns of the rice paddies below. All I could think of was the line from Yeats—“Horseman, pass by!”

Thirty years later, Memorial Day weekend 1998, I was heading down California’s highway 101 south of Santa Cruz, my current home. Off to my right was the Pacific Ocean. I was driving 360 miles to Ridgecrest, a small town in the Mojave Desert, to visit Goodbody’s grave. Up until a few weeks prior, I hadn’t even known his real name.

In the journal I kept during my tour of duty in Vietnam, I had noted his name as Tim R. Why did I wait almost 30 years to sleuth out his real name and hometown? I have no excuse, but I wasn’t the most stable person on my return to The World. I moved a lot, changed jobs often, got married and divorced. I thought of him often in the years after being discharged from the Army. I guessed that my chances of finding him were good; at least I knew he was from California.

The years rolled by. In the mid-’90s, a buddy from Vietnam, Bill Hankins, from Tucker, Ark., telephoned out of the blue. Somehow he had found me over the Internet. Bill, Goodbody and I had been in the same company in Vietnam. The subject of Goodbody eased its way into our conversation. I may have promised Bill I would start my search, if for no other reason than to honor Goodbody by visiting his grave and close the loop that had remained open for so many years. Perhaps I’d meet with his parents, tell them something they already knew, something like: “Your son was one of the finest people I ever knew, a true patriot, a hero who laid down his life for his brothers in arms. Me, I was just a friend of his, I was lucky, I got to come home. I’m alive.”

Over time, sure enough I’d found Goodbody’s real name on one of the Web sites inspired by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Copious tears flowed as I read the listing: Timothy Joseph Rizzardini, SP4, Army, Selective Service, 196th Light Infantry Brigade, Male, Born on Oct. 22, 1944. His tour of duty began Dec. 03, 1967, Casualty was on May 18, 1968 in Quang Tin, South Vietnam, hostile ground casualty, multiple fragmentation wounds. Body was recovered. Religion, Roman Catholic. Panel 62E, Line 22.

So here I was, on a pilgrimage to Goodbody’s grave in the desert town of Ridgecrest, population 24,000 and change. It was the least I could do. I was driving my 1974 Plymouth Duster with 128,000 miles on the odometer. The front end was kind of squirrelly, the brake pads chattered on steep downhills, and the 318 V-8 guzzled oil. Being the third owner, I was fairly certain everything from the radiator cap to the rear end was original. If the Duster broke down along the way and I couldn’t fix it, I’d sell it to the nearest junkyard and hitchhike or catch a bus. One way or another I’d get there.

Late that day, the Duster cruised into Ridgecrest, where I found an inexpensive motel and rented a room. At 6 p.m. the temperature was hovering around 102 degrees. Next morning, I drove to the small cemetery on the outskirts of town. There could not have been more than a thousand graves. Already, VFW volunteers were in the process of marking all the veterans’ graves with small U.S. flags. I checked every grave with a flag on it, but could not find Goodbody’s. I panicked: Maybe I was in the wrong town. Could there be more than one Ridgecrest in the state of California? Maybe he was buried in a military cemetery, or maybe I had dreamed up this whole thing. Seeing my bewilderment, one of the volunteers stopped to ask if he could be of any help. I explained I was looking for the grave of Timothy Rizzardini, killed in Vietnam, 1968. “Oh yes, right this way,” he said, leading me straight to Goodbody’s gravesite. The gravestone read “Timothy J. Rizzardini, 1944–1968.” There was no mention of the Army or Vietnam.

The next morning, on Memorial Day, an honor guard and members of the local VFW post conducted a graveside ceremony, as they do every year, to honor all war dead. Paying my respects to Goodbody, I felt a trace of guilt for having survived while he paid the ultimate price. As I stared down at the gravestone, my only thought was “Horseman, pass by.”

 

Originally published in the June 2007 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.  

, , , ,



Sponsored Content: