Carnett: The shock of a war buddy's early demise

"I always thought that I'd see you again."

Those words, steeped in irony, were penned by singer-songwriter James Taylor and describe a condition of life that many of us have experienced.  In my situation, they depict a relationship I've had with an old Army buddy.  

I've never forgotten Ralph and have always felt that one day we'd meet up again.  In fact, I've periodically attempted to contact him, naturally assuming he was still among us.

Never did I postulate that I might be deluding myself.

But I discovered just last week that Ralph has been gone for almost four decades.  I now know that he died in 1974 at the tender age of 31.  All along I've visualized the two us treading similar paths in life: marriage, children, grandchildren and retirement.  His possible early exit never entered my mind.

Ralph was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1964.  Following basic training and a stateside assignment, he was sent to South Korea in the fall of 1965.  That's where we met.

I arrived in Korea in June of '65 as part of a special levy of more than 4,000 troops.  About a dozen of us were assigned to an Eighth Army Support Command company in Seoul.  The typical tour of duty was 13 months, so we were scheduled to rotate home in July of 1966.

We became a tightly knit group, and Ralph attached himself to our crew when he came on board in September of '65.

Beginning in late June or early July of '66, individuals in our group began receiving orders for the states. We staged festive sendoffs at Kimpo Airport (now Gimpo) each time one of our number left.   

At about that juncture, I was the only soldier in the group to receive a six-month Korean extension.  I wouldn't be going home until January 1967.  I was OK with that.

Consequently, over a period of three or four weeks I went to Kimpo a dozen times to see friends off.  Each farewell was emotional.

Finally, Ralph and I were the last two remaining.  Because he'd arrived in the country a couple of months after our group, he wasn't due to go back to civilian life until October of '66.

We clung to one another like Romulus and Remus.  Our unit was now filled with replacements that we didn't know and — because of our "short-timer" attitudes — didn't care to know.

Ralph and I spent hours reminiscing about our departed mates.  That was a time long before email, but we'd occasionally receive a handwritten note from one of them.  We'd read each missive aloud and toast the author's good fortune.

Finally, one night, I saw Ralph off at Kimpo.  Since he was relocating to San Francisco and I'd be returning to Orange County in early 1967, we pledged to get together.

Three months later I made my Kimpo departure — without fanfare.

In about March of '67, following my discharge, I flew from Orange County to San Francisco on Air California — for 25 bucks roundtrip — to spend the weekend with Ralph.

A few weeks later he flew to Orange County, and I gave him the grand tour.  I met him in the Bay Area a couple more times, including one reunion with several guys from our Korea gang.

But I was now a busy college student, and my contacts with Ralph became less and less frequent.

In 1971, I was hired as an administrator at Orange Coast College and was in San Francisco for a meeting in 1973.  Ralph and I met for coffee.  A couple of years later he vanished from the Bay Area telephone directory.

I assumed he'd gone back to Detroit, where his family lived.

Last week I learned the reason for his MIA status.  He died in '74.  I'm at a loss to fully understand how he could have departed so long ago.

In my mind, over the decades, Ralph and I have — though apart — continued as fortunate fellow travelers on life's journey.

And I always thought that I'd see him again.

JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Wednesdays.

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