And here she is— Sweet Marlene, circa 1968.
One of the peculiarities of doing Vietnam-era aircraft is the ordnance. It's one thing to do the airplane itself. But the stuff under the wings? That's another project in and of itself.
See, a WW2 airplane might carry one or two of a handful of options. But by the time the mid '60s rolled around, a veritable junk-drawer of lethality was available to fill the Skyraider's 15 hard-points.
So, when it came time to load-up Sweet Marlene, I didn't have a clue where to start. Rich didn't either. I asked him what the typical loadout was and he replied with a question, "Typical?"
However, Skyraider Association historian Byron Hukee (also a former Skyraider pilot) laid out my answer when I asked him about the dark colored, cylindrical missile-pod under the wing of the only photograph that showed Rich's A-1E in whole.
Byron described the object as the LAU-3 Rocket Launcher. It contained nineteen 2.75" rockets with warheads of high explosive, anti-tank, white phosphorus or flechettes. The launcher unit was reusable and could be filled with any number of varieties. Have a look at the closeup below (photo: Mike Maloney).
Anyway, Byron asked me how I wanted to do the rest of the loadout on Miss Marlene and I replied that I was thinking about doing it just like a picture I had of Sweet Marlene in-flight. Byron had the same picture on screen while we were conferring over the phone.
"Oh." Byron stated thoughtfully. He was staring at the image on his computer screen. "You want to do it coming home then."
Ok. Hold that thought.
Guys name stuff they like. Or respect. Or fear. I have a buddy who names his cars, another who names his tools, another who has names for his wife (depending upon her mood)...at first glance, someone might think it's a way for us to "possess" something. But I don't think that's quite true. If all of my experiences are correct, the act of naming is actually to show that some how, that object possess us.
It's hard to explain, but if you've ever talked sweetly to your car in the hope of getting some measure of extra performance, you know what I mean.
Anyway, one of the great questions to ask a guy who had a named aircraft is, "What's the story behind the name?" In this particular case, I asked Rich, "So. Was Sweet Marlene someone you knew?"
"Yes." He replied matter-of-factly and waited for the next question.
"Is she...still... around ??" I asked leadingly, hoping to coax the full story.
"Yes." Same perfunctory reply. There was something to this "Marlene" thing but it wasn't going to come out easily. My story-alert sense was starting to flash more quickly.
"And...so...whatever happened to her?"
Ok, I realize that poking questions into as-yet dark holes can be, well, surprising. And, I know when to quit. At least I'm working on that. But I figure that if a guy is man enough to fly combat in the first place, agree to an interview and top the stack of combat photos with a big 8x10 of SWEET MARLENE, he could handle the questioning.
He waited a couple of seconds before leaning forward to command, "She's home." Then after a beat or two, he grinned and laughed. I got the low down on all the kids and grand kids, too. Whew. Happy story. No tragic heartbreak, no pain, no suffering. Sweet Marlene remained.
But. My story-alert was still flashing.
"So. Can I talk to her?"
"Maybe." And I could tell we were back to one-word replies. But after some thought, Rich added, "That'll be up to her." It was clear that this line of questioning would end for the day.
Well, another day came and I was able to connect with Marlene via email. These are her words:
"It was one of the worst years of my life...lots of worries about his safety. Plus he missed a whole year of our little son's life. Our 9 mo. old son and I stayed with my family during this year (1968) and they were extremely supportive. We were not part of any (established) squadron or anything as Rich left right out of pilot training. We exchanged tapes every day. And letters...I looked forward to the mail every day and if we didn't hear anything that day, I automatically worried more. I believe we had only 2 phone calls during this time....
...and it goes without saying that this was tough on (Rich) especially when he didn't get any of the 'thanks' that he and the others were so deserving of."
And that's all she wrote.
Just this past week, I finally finished David Halberstam's book, "The Best and the Brightest." It chronicles the people and decisions that lead to American involvement in Vietnam. It's a brilliant peek into the minds and egos behind this culture-shifting moment in our history. But the thing that struck me most was just how common, how ordinary, how logical and how human it all was. Change the names, change the terrain, remove the dead and "Vietnam" now looks like a handful of situations I've experienced from clients to cub scouts.
So many intentions, good and bad, and in the end, people just wanted to quit and go home.
And so, my artwork is shown, as Byron pointed out, "coming home."
And here's the photo. Miss Marlene, returning to base after a mission, empty, save for the single store. And look closely at the LAU-3. There are a few rockets left.
There's a weird poetry here. The Skyraider, so capable, a pilot who, despite a frustration with the circumstances, fulfills his duty 200 times in a war that had long swallowed and digested its purpose...
...and named for a miserable beauty thousands of miles away.
I really want to learn everything I can about Vietnam.
Sweet Marlene deserves that. And so do her boys.
There's more to come.