Wabash Voices: Two Scenes from a Life
January 12, 2005
Two Scenes from a Life
by Col. Jim Roper ’68 USAF Ret.
Commencement Day, 1968
“I won’t do it. No way,” I told John Hudson, my roommate. We walked from
the Beta House through the shade of hardwood trees toward the red brick
buildings of the Wabash College mall.
John had been accepted at Indiana University Medical School.
“All you have to do is write a letter,” he said.
“Yeah, a letter saying my four years at Wabash College were the most
wonderful times of my life, No way. I won’t lie.”
My Ph.D. fellowship in chemistry had been negated—no, annihilated—by my
local draft board.
“The Dean of the College sounded serious the last time I took his call
“I’m serious, too. I won’t compromise my integrity, while the federal
government cancels my dreams. My very existence becomes a question when
they send me to Vietnam.”
“The Army may have your number, but Vietnam’s only one possibility.”
“I took my draft physical two days after the Tet offensive in January.
Have you ever heard of supply and demand?” I ducked behind a tree,
adjusting the mortarboard cap that stuck to my sweaty forehead. The
black gown covered me like a shroud.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m waiting for that group of faculty ahead of us to pass. All I want
is a diploma—not a confrontation with the dean. Without a sheepskin, the
Air Force won’t accept me for pilot training—my plan B. If I can’t make
it work, I’ll carry a rifle for sure.”
John laughed. “Why don’t you just lay back and enjoy it?”
“After you’re a doctor, do you plan to use those words on rape victims?”
John shook his head.
“How can I say I’ve enjoyed Wabash? Sometimes I liked wrestling and
playing football. But I paid the price. I grovelled for my grades. Life
here was four years of sleep-deprived, last-minute intellectual chaos.”
John smiled. “So?”
“So I won’t say my experience was anything else. Second, the whole
effort means nothing.”
“I don’t know.” With his future secure, I surmised, John couldn’t
understand the turbulence that had taken over my life like a fatal
“Also, I’m in a major war with my parents already—my stepfather hates
me. And Elaine has backed away from a man with no future. Emotionally,
I’ve got nothing more to lose.”
“Nah. I don’t want her to wait.”
We approached a line of capped-and-gowned students that wound from an
outdoor stage along the sidewalk beside Baxter Hall.
“Let’s talk later.” John turned away.
“Get in line, soldier,” a football pal yelled. He had attended Marine
boot camp the previous summer. “Alphabetical order by height.”
I saluted and found my place.
The short gray Dean of the College came down the line, shaking the hand
of each graduate. He stopped in front of me, folded his arms, and
“I need a letter from you,” he said. “The Baker Foundation is dividing
the scholarship fund among individual colleges. Each Baker Scholar owes
them a good letter so Wabash can receive its share of scholarship money.”
“No, sir. I won’t lie.”
“If you don’t write the letter, you can’t graduate.”
I turned toward the fraternity house and stepped from the line.
“We all have to do things we don’t enjoy,” he shouted. “I don’t care for
neckties on hot days, but here I am, wearing one.”
I stopped about twenty feet away. “I finished four hard years the draft
board renders irrelevant. At this moment, I feel no joy about Wabash
College. But our disagreement isn’t about joy. It’s about truth.”
My peers in the line grumbled.
I sensed their empathy, but I stopped short of advising the dean that
Vietnam was his war, not ours.
“You can graduate.” The dean compromised. “Give me a letter before you
I stood fast. “I have bills to pay, sir. Tomorrow morning I start laying
sewer pipe in front of Munster High School. You win. Keep your diploma.”
“Come on and get back in line, mister.” The dean had to yell. “Promise
me you’ll write a letter thanking them for the scholarship. Be honest. I
know you won’t be rude.”
“Fine, sir. I’ll thank them.” I marched slowly to my place in line.
1971, in a U.S. Air Force O-1,
500 feet above Laos, near Luang Prabang
I found the string of government soldiers clad in green uniforms moving
near the crest of a ridge that pointed to the airfield.
“We can look around the area, but the fighters have landed for the day.”
I told my back seater, Seo. “And we, too, must land soon.” I leaned my
fuel mixture, just in case.
“I understand,” Seo replied, then spoke Lao words into his radio
I weaved along the ridge and scouted the terrain ahead, finding no sign
of enemy troops. The point man had half a mile to go.
A mortar round exploded fifty feet in front of the column. The point man
The North Vietnamese Army [NVA] attack had fooled me. I had searched all
the way out to rifle range, but not to mortar range. I felt my anger
You’ve challenged me, now you’ll pay.
The racket of small arms firing brought me to reality. I called the
“We’ve got a battalion-sized fight going. Tell one of the FACs to get a
set of T-28s out here. Now.”
“They’re eating dinner,” our radio operator said, “and I think the Royal
Lao Air Force is done for the day.”
“And I’m nearly out of gas. But the NVA is on a different schedule. They
have a nasty little attack underway. Send help, please.”
I scoured the flat area at the southern base of the mountain. Twenty NVA
soldiers, crouching in light-colored uniforms, stood and crossed a dirt
trail. A kilometer farther south two mortar positions blinked as they
launched their small bombs at the hilltop.
Below me, our troops formed a ragged perimeter. Their disarray matched
the frantic radio calls in their native language.
“Hang on,” I told Seo, and yanked the airplane to the right, slicing
down in a two-hundred-and-seventy-degree turn, passing over the
“friendlies.” I armed a rocket and aimed at the closest concentration of
I pulled off hard right, just above the smoke, then reversed left toward
the mortar flashes and armed another rocket.
I could hear the distinct pop of bullets passing the wingtip as I
whipped the airplane around toward the friendly lines. Damn. One rocket
left. I could use a small nuke.
Excerpted from Quoth the Raven by Jim Roper. Contact Roper at