We shot hoops on an open-air court but at least had a corrugated metal roof over our heads. That roof came in handy during monsoon season, but Southeast Asian rain can and will shift with a vortex-like wind and suddenly come at you sideways like an angry flight of stinging needles. More than once our game was delayed due to a flooded court at Tan Son Nhut AFB in Saigon, Vietnam. But we waited out the storm, shot the breeze instead of hoops, and never talked about the war.
That’s how it was, a mishmash of guys regardless of rank or branch of service dividing up into two teams after enough warm bodies strolled onto the court looking for a game. There were a few familiar faces but mostly we were strangers, brothers in war perhaps, yet didn’t ask for a name or rank. We were there to shoot hoops, nothing else.
That said, it was still pretty darn easy to identify an enlisted man from an officer regardless of their baggy gym shorts or ragged T-shirts. In the military, you just know. But the basketball court offered a neutral piece of real estate to bump and elbow as one deemed necessary without the fear of a general court martial for instigating a bloody nose. No fights or macho nonsense, never, primarily because you didn’t know who you might be punching.
And we were young. No high ranking enlisted lifers or arthritic Majors squeaked their high tops on the concrete court. Feasibly that’s the reason for our bizarre comradery, youth in war, not yet embittered by failed politics or an uncompromising status quo. Two Lieutenants were regulars, hot shot pilots with Top Gun personalities. They would sneak in, play a game or two, then slip out as if they’d committed a crime. ‘No fraternization’ is the military regulation we temporarily ignored.
I knew they were pilots; I plotted their missions, and I’m fairly sure they recognized me, but on a hobnobbed no-questions-asked court we were all comrades…within reason. I especially liked ‘Rebound’, so nicknamed due to his height and uncanny ability to steal rebounds. He was quick, hard to guard, made moves I’d never seen before, probably played high school and college hoops. ‘Rebound’ was Hollywood handsome with a thick crop of black hair and sarcastic but humorous personality. No one disliked him.
Then ‘Rebound’ and his buddy stopped coming. We didn’t think much about it since Tan Son Nhut housed an enormous military population of Mike Jordan wannabes. We still had enough dudes show up to shoot hoops unless the rain started coming at us sideways. Perchance the Lieutenants chose not to ‘fraternize’ any longer or maybe they rotated home. Quite frankly, we really didn’t care.
A recon pilot had been lost recently. He was on course at high altitude over South Vietnam and flying the proper coordinates without any fear of enemy anti-aircraft fire. Then we lost him on radar. His F-4 Phantom had simply vanished. What happened? A catastrophic engine failure resulting in a mid-air explosion? Did the pilot fly into a cloud-covered mountain? No trace of pilot or plane was ever found. Chances are the plane and pilot were swallowed up by thick jungle and are still awaiting discovery and recovery, or perhaps the pieces are too small to ever be noticed.
Yeah, you guessed it, ‘Rebound’ was the missing pilot. The hoop-boys talked about his MIA status, but only before one game, then we picked fresh players for new teams. Guys rotated in, they rotated out, but as far as I know ‘Rebound’ was the only player we lost to the war. I don’t think he was ever mentioned again.
I remember ‘Rebound’ occasionally among many memories that came home with me from Vietnam, and I’m sure his family, friends, even a wife or fiancé, may continue to mourn his loss. But time heals broken hearts, most of the time, and memories fade with age. Yet, I’m sure there are folks who continue to mourn for this young man and remember him as an aviator, a warrior, a brother or son or husband, one of 58,307 names on that long black wall in Washington, DC. I just remember a nice-looking pilot that shot hoops like a pro.
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or aveteransstory.us.