Jump'n Jack Flash
The phone call from Millard W. Landis rolled Harvey Sullivan out of bed around 10 the morning before Independence Day. It had been 33 years between conversations, so there was a bit of reacquainting to be done.
For one thing, who was this guy on the other end of the phone, Sullivan wondered.
"Millard?" He rolled the name through his mind.
"Jumpin' Jack Flash," Landis said.
Then Sullivan could see him: a stocky, hyped-up Army lieutenant dancing on a landing dock in Hue, Vietnam, next to the cases of beer they'd liberated from some officers' club. Landis would play a Rolling Stones tape and shake Sullivan's tape recorder in search of an impressive reverb. It was 1968 and you couldn't dance without a good reverb.
"Hey, Jumpin' Jack Flash," Sullivan shouted to his commanding officer. "Be careful. That's mine."
So was christened the Pittsburgh kid who arrived in the country with the polish of officers' school still on him and who learned, more quickly than most, that a lieutenant's first duty is to keep his men alive.
Vietnam was an undeclared war, but the body bags contained real sons and fathers, and the fact that nobody back home seemed intent on winning it made the rules silly at best, an insult at worst. Landis was a quick learner.
One of his first orders he gave to Sullivan was to get a fresh set of boots. The old ones were worn and creased and muddy from days in rice paddies.
"I told him, lieutenant, I don't think that's a good idea," Sullivan said. But Landis was new. He stuck to the order. Fresh boots were produced and laced to Sullivan's feet.
"The first day in the field I couldn't move. My feet swelled up. They had to send back a helicopter to dig up my old boots so I could function," Sullivan said. Landis learned from the ground up that Vietnam was a place where the old, familiar and broken-in surpassed the fresh shine of regulation.
Many lieutenants acted like administrators, sending men into the field, going by the game plan while the game spun out of control. Landis went into the lines. If an ambush was to be set up, Jumpin' Jack Flash was in the bushes with his men.
"You do the job. Don't look for trouble. Don't play the officer game," Sullivan remembered. "There has to be a trust there. He was trusted. He was liked."
Flash stayed with Sullivan's group, Delta Company of the 101st Airborne, for three months. They lost one man, as Sullivan remembers it. Then Landis moved on to other duties, including heavy combat he still doesn't discuss. Sullivan's guys moved south where a week's combat killed most of the group.
The two men met up nine months later and Landis asked where his old comrades had gone.
"I told him, basically, everybody got killed," Sullivan said. "He kind of freaked at that."
The men were sent home from the war that nobody liked and told to forget about it. Forgetting, after all, makes everything better, right?
Sullivan forgot Landis' correct name. Everybody in Vietnam seemed to have a stage name. After he met up with an old pal who could give him the correct name, he tracked Landis to Pittsburgh, asked for a phone number and left a message, hoping for a return call.
"This is great," Landis said about the message. "Finally, there's someone who can actually say I was there."
He made the phone call July 3. The two old comrades talked for a while, then there was a lull. Vietnam left so many doubts that some of the guys have trouble remembering they were there. They wonder whether they did things because they were the right thing to do or because they were terrified. They wonder, if they are men as solid as Landis, if they ever let their troops down.
"I was good, wasn't I?" Landis asked Sullivan.
"Of course you were good," Sullivan said.
For a moment, Millard Landis was Jumpin' Jack Flash again. He found that elusive reverb.
Written by Dennis Roddy, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Saturday, July 06, 2002