Dan Morain

Dan Morain: Obituary a yearly tribute to friend killed in Vietnam

Once again, Gordon Smith bought a small ad in this paper’s paid obituaries section showing the high school graduation photo of a smiling, clear-eyed kid named Rocky, his hair neatly trimmed and parted.

The obituary ran Saturday, as it did last year, the year before that, and for many years before.

It opens: “In Loving Memory of Robert ‘Rocky’ Owen Cole. Sept. 30, 1948 – March 29, 1969. Killed in Combat – Vietnam.”

It continues: “He loved the American River, McDonald’s fish fillets, the Rolling Stones, the Lovin’ Spoonful, the Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Fillmore concerts and surfin’ safaris to Santa Cruz and Mexico. He graduated from Rio Americano HS in 1967 then drafted into the Army nine months later.”

It ends: “Hated the war and the Army, but was a soldier’s soldier. Refused medals for killing, but was posthumously awarded the Silver Star for bravery. Killed in a NVA ambush while too young to legally vote or even buy a beer. Dearly missed by those who knew him. Never to be forgotten – Gordon Smith.”

I called Smith last year when I noticed the obit. He and Rocky had been buddies at Rio Americano. The obit is the least he could do for a friend who died in a rice paddy near Duc Pho, a place whose name the rest of us long ago forgot or never knew. I made a note to myself to get back in touch this month, 45 years after Rocky’s life ended.

In his living room the other day, his old dog curled up on the living room couch, Smith showed me some of the mementos he has kept from those days: pieces of art he and Rocky had fashioned in shop, a small oak tree, a hand made out of wire, with one finger extended. Teachers might have frowned at the choice of fingers, but it was all in fun. Rocky left a sarcastic note in Smith’s yearbook: “To the big man on campus with the hot ’55.’ ”

Rocky had come by Smith’s boyhood home on Eastern Avenue in Arden Park to help wet-sand the primer off Smith’s 1955 Chevy, preparing it to be painted a sleek silver. Their knuckles bled but it was for a good cause.

There was the night Rocky got the keys to his grandmother’s Oldsmobile station wagon and they drove to North Beach, hoping to get into go-go joints. The doormen laughed, and refused them entrance.

Smith flipped through letters Rocky sent to him and to Rocky’s sweetheart, who was still at Rio Americano. Imagine, he said, being a high school senior receiving letters from a beau who described the horrible images of war.

He wrote that he wanted to buy a Harley when he got back, or maybe a Volkswagen bus, and move to Santa Cruz or San Diego.

“Any place by the ocean, I can dig it.”

And he wrote: “I ain’t going to let them get me.” Two months later, he was dead.

Smith went to Rocky’s funeral, later joined the Air Force, and spent a year assigned to the base at Bien Hoa. More friends died. He returned in one piece, but left part of himself behind.

“Having known Rocky, having worried about him, him dying, and me going to Vietnam, it altered the course of my life,” Smith said.

Smith bummed around Europe after his discharge in 1972, got his degree in psychology and one in environmental studies at Sac State, and moved to Monterey in 1977. He never married and “was never ready to have kids.” Now 64 and retired, he worked as a carpenter, a contractor, and an alternate energy instructor at a community college.

All that was so he could eat. He got involved in the politics of peace, founded Vietnam Veterans of Monterey County and joined the Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter in Santa Cruz. Some called the chapter radical, but in reality the members had seen enough war. He went to Vietnam with other veterans to build medical clinics, and advocated for an end to the embargo against Vietnam.

He has been involved in many of the anti-war efforts, from the Reagan administration’s Central American adventures of the 1980s, to Desert Storm, to the latter-day wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I hate these stupid wars,” he said. “You lose your friends.”

On a living room wall is a Hendrix poster and others from various rock concerts, an American flag, his framed honorable-discharge certificate and a certificate from Veterans of Peace.

There’s also a photo of President Barack Obama shaking his hand on the day the president signed the decree protecting 15,000 acres at Fort Ord as a national monument, a cause for which Smith worked.

It all goes back to his days in high school and experiences in the years afterward.

In 2002, on the 35th reunion of the Class of ’67, Smith and other Rio Americano grads placed a brass plaque near the flagpole on the senior lawn of the school commemorating three of their own who were killed in Vietnam.

“We graduated in the ‘Summer of Love’ but the winter of war soon swooped down and took you away from us,” Smith wrote on the plaque. “... We are left with only our broken hearts and our fond memories of you.”

Rocky was one of five kids, raised by a schoolteacher mother. Frank Cole, Rocky’s younger brother, a lawyer in San Jose, said Gordon has a “very good heart.” The Coles appreciate the plaque at Rio Americano, though the family also values its privacy.

“My brother was dyslexic,” Frank said. “He didn’t have options. They were going to put him out there as a grunt. He didn’t approve of the war. He was a very peaceful, mellow guy. Most of the guys getting killed were people just like that. They didn’t want to be over there fighting for some cause they didn’t understand.”

Especially this time of year, Gordon Smith thinks about his buddy from Rio Americano High who liked to surf, wanted to buy a Harley and died young in a rice paddy.

“I do it to show how stupid the war was, how unreal the ’60s were,” he said, explaining why he takes out the obit. “It’s a condemnation of what they did to us. It is a memorial to Rocky.”

The draft is long gone. But people like Rocky Cole and Gordon Smith still fight in far-off places. They all leave pieces of themselves behind.