“One Soldier’s War”

by Rebecca Burns

The Vietnam War, the United States’ longest battle, has become an unseen, devilish enemy for thousands of former veterans who are still in combat with the aftereffects of their military experience.  During this catastrophic period, when over 58,000 soldiers gave their lives, more than 300,000 were wounded, and millions were exposed to chemical agents such as Agent Orange, the support of the American people was needed to boost the spirits of our military.  However, when the soldiers, many of them draftees who had been involuntarily uprooted from their lives, began to return home they found they were still in hostile territory.  Many servicemen were spit upon, treated as outcasts, or simply ignored.  Though thousands still suffer from Post-traumatic Stress Syndrome, thousands more have managed to escape the suffering, have been able to lead normal lives, and have found ways to cope with their private wars.  Wayne McCool is one of the resilient soldiers.

McCool, after graduating from Gem City College in Quincy, Illinois in 1968, was unable to get a job due to his “first to go” 1-A draft classification.  By the end of the summer, just prior to his enrollment into McKendree College in Southern Illinois, the U.S. government changed his plans.  After completing basic training at Ft. Leonard Wood in Missouri, McCool was shipped to Ft. Campbell in Kentucky where he spent the next few months awaiting the inevitable—the moment when his company would receive orders to go to Vietnam.

From the day McCool stepped foot on Vietnam soil, April 3, 1969, until the day he left, March 26, 1970, he, like thousands of other soldiers, never knew which day might be his last.  Stationed in Long Binh, one of the most volatile areas of the country, McCool suddenly found himself thrust into a world of constant attack and deadly warfare.  He rose quickly through the ranks, receiving four promotions in just sixteen months.  As Sargent E-5 and squad leader, McCool saw far too many of his friends, members of his military family, disintegrate before his eyes.

McCool and I worked together at the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) for nearly a decade.  During the course of that time, I learned quite a bit about him and his tour in the Vietnam War.  It wasn’t often that he’d open up and discuss some of what took place while he was overseas, but occasionally he and another Vietnam veteran in our office would trade stories about their experiences.  When I was privileged enough to be present during these rare opportunities, I always listened intently because I knew what they had to say could not be learned from a textbook.

When McCool returned to the States in 1970 he felt like an outcast.  The world that he left had been transformed; everywhere he turned, he saw hippies promoting peace and love.  He enrolled in McKendree College and attempted to fit in, but found many of the students difficult to associate with.  While completing his degree, McCool began working for the local police force.  His newly acquired military “skills” qualified him to work in the law enforcement field, without having to undergo any formal officer training.  After completing double majors in business and sociology, McCool continued to work for the police department before accepting a job with the Illinois Department of Corrections.

During this time period, feeling the need to root himself, McCool got married and began his family.  He and his wife had a son, but shortly after Michael’s birth, their marriage fell apart.  At a time when custody of children almost always went to the mother, McCool won an unprecedented case, granting him joint and equal custody of his son.  With the added responsibility of raising a child, McCool felt he needed a job that was a bit less dangerous, so when an opening for a child abuse investigator at DCFS became available, McCool applied for and was offered the position.

He worked as an investigator for nearly eighteen years, before transferring to the licensing department where he completed the remainder of his thirty-year career.  When I began working for DCFS, I found myself drawn to him.  Children and Family Services employees throughout the State talked about his investigative skills as if he were a legend; I quickly discovered why.  He had this amazing knack for reading people’s non-verbal communication, for knowing, somehow, whether a suspected perpetrator was actually guilty or not.  And, in his line of work, this intuition, this ability to see the truth, was a gift.  In addition to having exceptional investigative skills and containing a wealth of knowledge and information about how the department functioned, McCool was simply a fascinating person.  And, though I couldn’t put my finger on it, McCool seemed to have some mysterious quality that drew people to him.

His actions over the next several hours, during which our interview took place, only heightened the enigma surrounding him.  Once we were seated on the couch in his living room, McCool reached for a small black case on the bookshelf beside him.  He unzipped the case, removed hearing aids from his ears, and placed them carefully inside the case.  “Do you want to talk about them?” I asked while pointing to the tiny devices.  He shook his head, put the case back on the bookshelf, then turned his back on it and faced me.

Approximately seven years ago McCool remarried.  And, though his wife was considerably younger than he was, he frequently made jokes about how he’d married the other half of his pension plan.   Having recently retired from his job, McCool appeared very happy and well adjusted.  He bragged about his twenty-five year old son who, that spring, had graduated from college, landed a very good job at a large accounting firm in downtown St. Louis, moved out of the house, and recently passed the CPA exam.

Wayne McCool is an attractive man with twinkling blue-green eyes, suntanned skin, dark-brown hair, and a warm, inviting smile.  He stands about five foot six, having lost well over an inch in height due to his combat injury.  Wayne has a deep-baritone voice and the kind of laugh that easily solicits other laughter.  He is dressed casually, wearing jeans and a T-shirt, and once we made eye contact, I began my interview by repeating basic facts and information that I’d gathered over the years.  Then I asked McCool the one question I’d always wondered about.  “What thoughts kept you going while you were over there?”

He paused for a moment as if giving my question serious consideration.  “Prayer, getting to eat enough real food again to not be constantly hungry, and thinking about seeing my family again—especially my grandpa.”

“Which one?  Grandpa McCool or Grandpa Snyder?”

“Grandpa Snyder.”

“What was it about seeing your grandpa that kept you going?”

“Just the kind of person he was, the type of life he led, my childhood memories.”  He shrugged his shoulders.  “I wanted to be able to do the things that he’d done.”

I had met Snyder back in February of 1994.  He was lean and agile, stood about five foot eight, and had twinkling, blue eyes, a charming smile, and a full head of wavy, snow-white hair.  First impressed by the ninety-one year old’s feistiness, I quickly realized that Ross Snyder was far more than an active senior.  Like Wayne, Snyder also had some captivating quality that seemed to draw people to him.

Born and raised on the Illinois River, it seemed only natural that Snyder spent his life living at the confluence of where the Illinois River flowed into the Mississippi River.  Ross, like the Illinois River, spent his entire life pouring his heart and soul into the great Muddy’s waters.  Born in 1902, the son of a commercial fisherman, Ross quickly learned the skills of the trade.

“It was more than a skill,” said McCool.  “It was life to him.  Grandpa knew the river better than anyone did.”  He stared pensively out the window.  “He took a lot of secrets to the grave with him.”

I stared at McCool, realizing the topic of our interview had suddenly shifted.  Was it because I mentioned his hearing aids?  I knew he had suffered a profound hearing loss during combat, but I had only sketchy details about the circumstances surrounding the event.  During the past ten years, he’d mentioned the disabling battle only once, claiming to remember very little about it.  While McCool was trapped and under heavy enemy fire, his bunker took a direct hit causing a large wooden beam to collapse on his head.  He was rushed to a nearby medevac hospital where he underwent treatment for damage to his ears, neck, and back.  Did my suggestion to talk about his hearing aids trigger an unexpectedly vivid memory that prevented him from discussing the events of the war?  I felt as if I’d been sucked backwards through time.  Wayne had taken command of the interview.  Suddenly I had been thrust into the role of private and now McCool was my commanding officer.  I sat speechlessly awaiting my orders as he began sharing memories about his grandfather with me.

For seventy years, Snyder was a commercial fisherman and mussel sheller, and over the last twenty-three years of his life, he made his living building fish and turtle basket traps and knitting trammel nets, hoop nets, and trotlines. Snyder seemed to excel at any task he approached, and soon became known throughout the country for his nets and traps.  McCool recalled a time when the Louisiana Department of Conservation purchased turtle traps from his grandfather.

Snyder, a favorite of the news media, was frequently featured in newspapers, in several books, and in various documentaries.  A few years before he died, recognizing his net making skill as a dying art, students from Principia College interviewed Ross numerous times about his net making, filming as much of the process as possible.

“He and Grandma designed and perfected the knot for their trotlines.  The knots were like fingerprints.  It was easy to distinguish one person’s knots from another’s.”  McCool leaned forward and grinned.  “I remember once a couple of men stopped and asked Grandma to dress their unusually large fish catch for them.  She took one look at the knots and recognized them as her own.  She knew that the men had raised one of the trotlines Grandpa had set out in the river.  She got Grandpa and he confronted the men, threatening to call the sheriff.  Needless to say, the men didn’t wait for that to happen.  They left the fish and ran.”  McCool winked at me.  “Those knots were just one of Grandpa’s secrets.   He wasn’t one for sharing all of them.”

I recalled Ross’ house—like many of the Grafton citizens, I’d been in it several times.  It was a modest home in Grafton, situated right on the Illinois Riverbank.  “Your grandpa seemed to live a comfortable lifestyle.”

McCool laughed.  “Oh, I’d say that’s an understatement.  Grandpa lived a very colorful life.  He was always up to something.  When I was a kid, he and Grandma owned and operated a hunting and fishing motel and marina.  They got a lease from the Corp of Engineers for approximately three acres situated immediately on the Illinois Riverbank, nearly across the highway from where Pere Marquette Lodge is now.  Grandpa accumulated over one hundred rental boats, and he and Grandma also rented out motors, life jackets, and sold bait.”  McCool leaned his head back and chuckled.  “I remember this one time when I was about three or four years old.  I crawled into one of the boats and fell asleep.  Everyone was lookin’ for me—they thought I’d drowned.”  He whistled.  “Man, did I get into trouble!”

McCool said it wasn’t the only time he got into trouble.  During the thirty years that Snyder and his wife, Marie, operated Sky Harbor, Ross owned three different seaplanes.  “Grandpa used to fly seaplanes.  He’d use them for visitors, but he also had contracts with barge lines.  He’d fly in parts or critical supplies.  Sometimes, he would take sick men off.”  His eyes lit up.  “I remember Grandpa’s red plane had to be tied to the dock a certain way.  I learned real quick how to tell when he and Uncle Paul were going to go somewhere.  I’d beg him saying, ‘I want to go!’ And if it looked like the answer was going to be ‘no,’ I’d cry until I got my way.”  He smiled fondly and shook his head.  “My mom used to get so mad at me!”

I watched McCool’s face.  He’d obviously slipped back into another time period.

“I’d sit on my uncle’s lap and watch them smoke Camel cigarettes.  They had this little door they’d slide open and flick the ashes in.  The ashes would be sucked right out of the plane.  I thought that was the coolest thing ever.”  He glanced down at my pen moving rapidly across the page.  “Ah, geez!  You’re not writing that are you?”  He shook his head.  “Alright.  Let me tell you something interesting.”

I wanted to interrupt, to redirect our conversation back to Wayne.  I had wanted to talk about his life, and yet, every time I asked him a question about himself, he began talking about his grandfather.  I wondered what memory had triggered his avoidance of my personal questions.  However, based upon what I knew about Veterans and the difficulties they can have talking about their war experiences, I chose to remain silent.

“In the winter, business would be slow,” McCool began, “and against Grandma’s wishes, Grandpa’d load the seaplane with his gun and gear and he’d fly down to Southern Illinois where he was a goose hunting guide for numerous hunting clubs.  Sometimes, when he knew she didn’t want him to go, he’d wait until she went to town for groceries, then load the plane and leave.”

“Oh!  Your poor grandmother!”

He shook his head and snickered.  Grandma was one special lady, that’s for sure.  But she loved Grandpa a lot, and never did seem to get mad at him.  She knew he’d chosen a hard and dangerous career, and I think she realized that sometimes Grandpa just needed to get away to unwind.”

McCool showed me the book, Up on the River – An Upper Mississippi Chronicle by John Madson.  During one of Madson’s interviews with Snyder, Madson attempted to show how dangerous the life of a commercial fisherman could be.  He wrote: “ [After] Marie had left the room to make more coffee[,] Ross looked out the window at the river filled with floe ice, and added:  ‘I’ve seen times when I’d be over on the other side and get ready to come back home and find the River was full of ice that had busted loose from upstream.  That could happen in just a few hours.  You had no choice but to go down with the ice, slowly easing your way sidewise when you could.  If you really tried to buck that ice, it would saw a wooden johnboat to pieces in no time.’  He paused thoughtfully and reflected: ‘Lord!  Some of the chances I’ve taken out there . . . ‘” (237).

“He knew that river like the back of his hand though,” McCool said.  “He knew the lakes, too.”

I watched McCool closely.  Something had flashed briefly across his face.  Was it a memory about himself?  Had talking about how dangerous parts of his grandfather’s life had been made McCool think about his own close encounters?

Then his eyes grew wide.  “Hey!  Did I ever tell you the story about the time Grandpa caught Old Moe?”

I shook my head, then settled back into the couch.

“Grandpa taught me how to fish—trotlines mostly.  Anyway, one time he’d taken me into Swan Lake and was teaching me about the different surfaces on the bottom of the lake.  While we were out there, he told me that his dad used to fish there a lot.  He said one time his dad told him that he’d lost one of the biggest fish he’d ever seen in his lifetime.  He said, ‘It came out of that deep hole.’  He told grandpa he’d seen the fish twice and each time, he couldn’t believe his eyes because it was too big to get in his boat.  Grandpa looked at me and said, ‘Dad was very serious, but I doubted his story.  I had a hard time believin’ a perch could grow that big.  Dad told me he named ‘em Old Moe.  Not long after dad died, almost every time I put out a trotline, I thought about that story while I worked.  One morning at daylight, I wasn’t thinkin’ much, just raising my trotline, when I had a hard tug on the line.  I started to reel it in, but the line got pulled right through my hands so fast that it was all I could do to keep it from getting’ away.  I let some line out and played the fish a bit, then I wrapped the line around an oarlock.  That’s when it hit me.  I was smack dead in the area where Dad told me he’d hooked into Old Moe.  I toyed with him awhile, trying to wear him out and keep him from ripping free of the hook.  I could see large swirls about twenty feet ahead, and I knew he was tangled in more than one trotline hook.  I knew I had to move fast while he was all tangled up, so I pulled up next to the fish, got along side ‘em, and was somehow able to wrestle him into the boat.  Somehow that damn fish ended up on top of me.  I spilled my trotline box and was wrestlin’ with ‘em when he flopped hard one time, bounced off the top of the seats and back into the water.  I lay in the bottom of the boat, looked at the sky, and thought, I’m never telling anyone.  I knew no one’d ever believe me.’”  Wayne told me, “I said to him, ‘Grandpa, your dad was probably looking down on you laughing,’ and Grandpa said, ‘Probably so.  I laid there with hooks in my hands, my arms, and one leg near the ankle, and I had trotline tangled all around me.  Then I moved up to the seat to take the hooks out, and I just sat there for a long time.  I remember thinking, perch ain’t good for nothin’ anyway, but I couldn’t get it out of my mind that no one would ever believe me.  That’s when I happened to look down into the bottom of the boat and saw a fish scale that’d come off the perch during our fight.  It made me grin.  At least I got a piece of him.’  I asked Grandpa how big the scale was and he told me he still had it.  He said, ‘It won’t fit through the top of a coffee cup.’  Later that day Grandpa showed me the scale.  He’d drilled a hole through it and made a key chain out of it.”

Wayne looked at me and smiled.  “I think Old Moe died of natural causes though cause I never heard of him again.”

McCool shook his head.  “Grandpa was quite a character!  He was hardworking and colorful, and only became more colorful as the years progressed.  I hear he enjoyed moonshine whiskey, too.  I remember when I was little, everyone always used to talk about him dancin’ the ‘Chicken Reel’.  He was quite famous for it and supposedly performed it in many places throughout the Midwest—in his tennis shoes, his work boots, and even in his hip boots on the back of a flatbed trailer.”  A smile spread across his face.  “I remember once when the fair came to town, people kept asking, ‘Is Ross going to dance?’  I only got to see him do it once.  I laughed so hard, I was rollin’ on the ground.  He looked more like a chicken than a chicken does.”  He laughed out loud.

Then, for the first time, the smile completely left his face and he grew serious.  “I know it sounds like his life was pure pleasure.  He did enjoy some very expensive hobbies.  After his kids were raised, he pretty much spent his money as he made it.  But he did so because he knew he couldn’t take it with him.  I think he figured he’d earned it; Grandpa didn’t always have it that good.  He had a really rough childhood.”  He shook his head and said, “We don’t know what ‘hard’ is anymore today.

Something in the sound of his voice caused me to wonder if he was referring to his grandfather’s childhood or if perhaps he was thinking about the drastic difference between our “wars” and his war.  Due to today’s technology, there is no comparison between our most recent military encounter in the Middle East and Wayne’s experience in Vietnam.  I was so curious to know what was going through this man’s mind.  Throughout the course of our interview, so many different emotions had flashed across his face.  One minute, McCool would appear to be in deep thought, as if plotting his next line of attack, and the next, he’d launch into another story.  Was it an escape tactic?  Was this his way of protecting himself from talking about his painful past?  McCool got up and paced around the room, then moved over to a chair and sat down.

“When Grandpa was about five years old,” McCool began, “it was common for parents who lived in Calhoun County to have to leave their children behind during winters in order to search for employment in more populated areas.  Kids from several families often stayed with a willing relative.  But in Grandpa’s case, he and several other children were left with an old widow lady who lived in a log cabin out in the middle of nowhere. While most winters it was typical to have canned goods and ample supplies, during one particular winter, there was lots of snow and the winter was unusually long.  The food supply was very low.  Grandpa remembered living off cornbread and little else.  One morning the old widow lady told the boys that if they wanted to eat, they’d have to find food—there was no more.  So Grandpa and two other boys walked the riverbanks with clubs prodding brush piles, turning over logs and limbs, trying to uncover an edible animal.  Eventually they shoved sticks into openings in the ground until a possum ran out of a nearby exit hole—they clubbed it to death, and proudly took him home.  As desperation and hunger would have it, Grandpa remembered it as being one of the best meals he’d ever eaten.”

He stood up unusually quick.  “I’m thirsty.  Do you want anything while I’m up?”

“No,” I replied.  I was surprised by his sudden actions.  I watched him walk into the kitchen and I wondered what was going through his mind.  He appeared very tense.  Had talking about his grandfather’s lack of food made Wayne think about how hungry he had been while in Vietnam?  I wondered if perhaps he’d been trapped on occasion, unable to get food for extended periods of time.  Had that been the case before his bunker got blown up?  When he returned to the room, he looked more relaxed.  At this point, I wanted to completely avoid the topic of war.  “Tell me more about your grandpa’s childhood.”

He smiled and settled back into the couch.  “Well, during Grandpa’s first few years of education, he attended school in a one-room, native stone schoolhouse.  As he got a bit older, he had to go further to get to school.  At the time, his family lived in Calhoun County.  So he and his two sisters had to walk several miles until they reached the Illinois River where an old boat was tied up.  They would climb into the boat and paddle across the river to the opposite shore where a horse was tied up near the bank.  Two would ride the horse while one walked and led it, and then they would alternate, taking turns riding on the horse.  The schoolhouse was several miles into the hills of what’s now Pere Marquette State Park.  Unlike the first schoolhouse, this one was a larger one-room wooden structure.  Grandpa and a couple of boys were in charge of bringing wood and coal into the school each day.”  He paused and shook his head.  “Can you imagine having to go through that every day to get to school and back?”

I couldn’t.

“The remains of the old building were destroyed in 1966,” McCool added.  “Grandpa took me to see it when I was little.  He told me he only attended school until he was in 6th grade because times were hard.  His help was needed with the chores and he had to get a job to earn money to help support his family.  When he was about ten or eleven years old, he got a job in Deer Plain sawing logs by hand with a crosscut saw.  With his first week’s earnings, he bought a new pair of boots from the local general store—he was very proud of them.  He was also extremely homesick, but he couldn’t go home.  The distance was much too great—about twelve to fourteen miles away.  But Grandpa couldn’t quit thinking about his new boots.  He wanted to see his family and show his boots to his parents, so he began walking.  He traveled the majority of the distance in ankle-deep snow, then got a wagon-ride to within one-half mile of his home.  He spent the weekend at home, and then returned to work about the same way.”  McCool paused and stared at some insignificant point in the room.

Though he appeared to be staring at the arm of the chair across the room, I wondered what he was really seeing?  I wondered if McCool was thinking about how homesick he’d gotten while thousands of miles away from family.  He squeezed his eyes shut, then opened them and began talking about his grandfather again.

“Grandpa married young, as was common back then, and he had two sons.  His marriage failed while his boys were young, and he found himself struggling to make a living while trying to raise his boys.  One day while he was visiting a duck-hunting club near Batchtown, Illinois where he often hunted, he met his second wife, Marie.  She was the daughter of one of the members, and she and Grandpa quickly became friends.”  The corners of his mouth turned up slightly.  “They got married and moved onto a houseboat with another couple, planning to fish and split their money. The boat had no motor, so the men moved it up the river using push poles.  They’d let it drift back down and set out nets and fish along the way.  One day they got into a dispute with the other couple, so Grandpa felt that he and Grandma should leave.  At the time, all they owned was a cook stove, so Grandpa strapped it to his back and they left the boat.  Grandma had a terrible, throbbing toothache that day and could hardly stand the pain.  By luck, there was a dentist in Hamburg who agreed to pull the tooth for one dollar—it was all the money they had.  So the dentist pulled it, packed the hole with gauze, and they paid him the money before starting up through the hills.  Halfway to Michael, Illinois, they stopped at an apple orchard and asked for work.  The owner not only gave them work, but also a place to stay.  Grandma and Grandpa felt very lucky that day.”

It was difficult to imagine what the Snyders’ lives must have been like.  I found myself agreeing with Wayne’s earlier statement.  We don’t know what hard is today.  Not only was I captivated by the story, but absolutely amazed at the parallels between McCool’s life and his grandfather’s.

“Grandpa and Grandma spent the summer picking up apples and putting them in wooden-staved barrels.  They did this for several years until they’d saved up enough money to buy a boat.  At that time, Grandpa began commercial fishing.  He and Grandma had four daughters—one of them is Mom, of course.  And—“ His voice trailed off as he looked at me almost guiltily.  “I don’t want to bore you with too many stories about my grandpa.  You basically know the rest.” 55555 “You’re not boring me at all!  Your grandpa was a fascinating man.  I can see now how thinking about him helped bring you through some difficult times.”

I studied him intently.  Though he had been looking at me while he spoke, he suddenly glanced down at his hands.  I wondered what he was thinking.  I wondered if he was worried that I might question him about Vietnam now that he’d finished his story.  But when he raised his head, he smiled fondly.

“Grandpa never lost his love for hunting and fishing.  He shared one of his secrets with me once.  He said, ‘Sonny boy, you know the reason I’ve lived so long?’  I shook my head.  ‘It’s because I’m one man who has spent his life getting up and putting his feet on the floor every morning and doing exactly what I wanted to do.’”

I watched McCool’s face cloud over, and I knew I’d finally received my orders.  The interview was over.


I wasn’t sure what to do with my essay.  It certainly wasn’t progressing the way I had intended.  I had spent the better part of my Saturday morning in my office trying to decide what to write.  My intention when choosing to interview McCool was to discuss his life—not his grandfather’s.  However, the longer I thought about the paper and the more I reread my notes, I began to realize that his grandfather was McCool’s life.

Several hours later, I decided to take a break.  I stood up and stretched, and a vertebra in my back slipped out of place.  I ended up on the floor, unable to get to my feet.  Fortunately, my husband was nearby.  But unfortunately, my essay writing had temporarily come to an end.  That night, after unsuccessfully attempting to sleep in the bed, my husband helped me into a recliner in our living room.  I’d been thinking about my interview with McCool.  I felt bad about having asked him to talk about the war.

My husband had knelt next to the chair, and could tell that there was more on my mind than pain.  “What’s wrong?”

I stared at my hands.  “I feel bad about that interview.”

“You’re silly,” he replied.  “You’re worrying over nothing.”

“Maybe, but the last thing I wanted to do was stir up unpleasant memories.”  I stared into his blue-green eyes.

He smiled and said, “You’re one of the few people I’ve met who can actually sense when to avoid the topic.”  Then he gently tucked his army-issued camouflage blanket around me and kissed me on the forehead.  “This’ll make you feel better,” he said, patting the blanket.  “It went through a lot with me.  I love you.”

Tears stung my eyes and a lump formed in my throat.  “I love you too, McCool.”

* Names have been changed.

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