No one who knew him will forget the late Grady Myers. He was an imposing figure: 6-foot-4 with merry blue eyes, strawberry blond hair and a Yosemite Sam mustache. He was, among other things, a combat veteran, a gifted artist and a collector of preposterous vehicles, from British Morgans to an ancient, hulking Imperial. Now he's a posthumously published author.
Those who knew him couldn't be happier about that. It was as a storyteller that many of us knew him best.
Grady and I became friends during his years at the Statesman, where he worked as the editorial department's graphic designer and cartoonist. He should have been syndicated. His cartoons could make John Boehner laugh. He was one of those people who could effortlessly tell a tale, complete with sound effects, in a way that had everyone within hearing distance pounding their desks with laughter.
One of my favorite Grady stories was about his fleeting experience as a Borah High School football player. He went to Borah when its team was the best in the state and one of the best in the Northwest. His size made him an obvious candidate for it, but he hated practicing and wanted to quit. Told by everyone from his father to the coach that no one quit the mighty Lions, he thanked them for the advice, quit anyway and retired to a pleasant perch on a hillside, drinking beer, watching his former teammates run laps and making bets on who would throw up first.
He was a founding member of the Fenwick Club, patterned after an "exclusive" club begun by a New York tycoon who admitted homeless people but rejected applications from the rich and famous. A faded Fenwick Club shirt, graced by Grady's artwork, remains one of my treasured possessions.
When the mood struck him, he would spin yarns about his time as an army private during the Vietnam War. Most gave the impression that the war was one comic incident or absurd foul-up after another. He didn't sugar-coat it - he told us about being shot and sent home with a Purple Heart - but he preferred to focus on the war's antic qualities. Listening to him was like watching a "M*A*S*H" episode. I sometimes wondered what his war was actually like, the one with fear and suffering and the ever-present threat of death. Now, thanks to his book, I know.
Julie Titone, his ex-wife, helped him write and recently published his Vietnam memoir - "Boocoo Dinky Dow: My Short, Crazy Vietnam War." (Boocoo Dinky Dow means, in a word, nuts.) She said she hears "repeatedly from people that it's the only book about Vietnam they have been able to read without dread, or to read at all. Grady's bursts of humor, powers of description and engaging drawings pull them through."
His perspective on the war was unconventional:
"The next five days brought me in contact with soldiers whose duties were at opposite ends of the mundane-to-murderous spectrum: an ice-cream machine repairman and members of the Iron Butterfly squad. (The repairman) told us he hated to see us go out and fight and maybe get killed. He wouldn't, he said, trade places with us for anything in the world. I just savored my vanilla cone and speculated that I, for one, would rather get my licks in behind a rifle than an ice cream maker."
I don't know how many Vietnam books I've read, each dispensing liberal doses of horror. At no point did any of them include the perspective of an ice-cream machine repairman. Only Grady would have thought of that.
He soon had second thoughts, however, about getting his licks in behind a rifle or, in his case, a machine gun. Gentle Grady's response to his first order to kill someone was, to me at least, the book's most touching passage. His unit was entering a village where the first person they saw was an old man carrying a bundle of sticks. The big guy carrying the machine gun was told to shoot him.
"I flinched. We'd all heard stories about the papa-sans and the toddlers who hid explosives in their packages and playthings."
Told again to shoot "the pathetic figure" in his gun sight, he refused.
Inquiries later revealed that the old man most definitely was not an enemy agent hiding explosives. He also was blind.
The day came, of course, when my friend the gentle giant had little choice. His squad had encountered some North Vietnamese soldiers who may have been involved in a massacre of children and a priest.
"I fired a long burst," he wrote. "My eyes squinted, following my sight line to three squirming figures falling awkwardly into the churning brush.
"'My God,' I thought. 'I've actually killed those people.'"
The gentle giant's reaction?
"After Grady told me that part of the story," Titone said, "he never discussed it again. I never pressed him on it. His attitude in the original telling was, 'This is what the army trained me to do, and it was a kill-or-be-killed situation for me and the men behind me."
In any case, he didn't have time to think about it. Moments later, he was hit.
"It felt as if someone had welded a 10-penny nail to a sledgehammer and slammed it into my left shoulder."
He was in no-man's-land - his fellow soldiers on one side, the enemy on the other. If he moved or yelled for help, he'd be shot again. To the Americans' shouted inquiries of whether he was alive and whether he could move, he remained silent. But he also was afraid that he could bleed to death. Desperate, he eventually called out, and was shot two more times.
A medic, who should have gotten a medal for it, risked his life to give him first aid, and six more soldiers risked theirs to pull him to safety. A helicopter ride, a succession of hospitals and a trip home followed. Grady spent the rest of his life working as an artist. His health deteriorated and, sadly, he spent his last years in a wheelchair and then a nursing home. He died in 2011, at 61.
No one will ever know how much of a role Vietnam played in his demise. His war injuries caused pain, lack of sensation and difficulty walking for the rest of his life. He suffered from cluster headaches that literally laid him low. When we worked together, the current site of the Bureau of Reclamation building across Irving Street from the Statesman was an abandoned farm. When the headaches were bad enough, he'd go there, lie down in the grass and weep from the pain.
Titone doesn't think he had "classic PTSD." But she adds that he was reluctant to seek help for depression because he didn't want to be thought of as a crazy Vietnam vet and that "it seems pretty clear that he self-medicated with alcohol, which led to an avalanche of health problems, including obesity and diabetes."
This was the man who could, and did, make all who knew him laugh until they cried.
Parts of his book came close to bringing me to tears. Reading his stories as only he could tell them made me miss my friend more than ever. There were times when I could almost hear his voice.
Mostly, his book made me realize for the first time how much he suffered. The next time you see a veteran, of Vietnam or any other war, be sure to say thanks. We owe them more than we know.
Tim Woodward's column appears every other Sunday in the Life section and is posted on www.woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.