From Chicken Soup for the Veteran's Soul

The Watch

“Is there something wrong with the watch?” my wife asked. I was holding it in my hand, stroking its face with my thumb as I admired the Christmas present she had given me.

“No. It’s perfect, and I love it. I was just remembering another watch of mine from a long time ago,” I told her.

My family sat around the breakfast table that Christmas morning and watched me expectantly, waiting for me to tell them about that long-ago watch. Smiling, I strapped on my new watch, and I began my story.

In Vietnam, back in 1970, I’d worn a watch that my dad had given me. The watch itself was nothing special—just an old Timex on a wide, black leather band, complete with buckles and brads, which was the fashion of the day. It was always very important to me to be aware of the time, so it was rarely off my wrist.

This was in complete contrast to the attitude of my friend and hooch mate, Bill, who was a breath of fresh air amid the constant military regimen. He never wore a watch, refusing to be a “slave to time.” Instead, Bill depended upon the clocks in the aircraft, or on his fellow pilots, to keep him punctual.

We were both pilots with the Lancers, Company B, 158th Assault Helicopter Battalion, 101st Airborne Division. He was an avid reader with a great sense of humor, and we had quickly become friends.

One July morning, Bill had an early mission to resupply a platoon located atop one of the jungle-covered mountains between Firebase Ripcord and the A Shau Valley, a very hostile area. As he was about to land on the pinnacle, Bill’s aircraft was riddled by fifty-one–caliber machine gun fire from directly below the landing zone. Even though one of the rounds had almost completely torn off his right leg just below the knee, he and his copilot were able to impale the helicopter on a tree stump to keep it from crashing down the mountainside. Bill’s crew pulled him into a crater, and the ground troops provided cover for them until a medevac helicopter could pick him up and take him to the MASH unit at Camp Evans.

We were all stunned by the news of Bill’s injury. That same evening, another Lancer pilot named John accompanied me to the field hospital to visit Bill. The hospital was actually a large Quonset hut containing all of that day’s injured who were in recovery. The room, with its rounded ceiling, had no windows and was very dimly lit in an attempt to provide comfort for the patients.

John and I wove our way through the hospital beds until we found Bill. Like all the others in the room, Bill had a Purple Heart pinned to his hospital pajamas. His leg had been amputated, and he was heavily sedated. He was to be evacuated to a hospital in Japan later that evening.

While John and I tried to find the right words, Bill commented that he just wished that he knew what time it was. In the Quonset hut, it was always dusk. As he drifted in and out of consciousness, he found it disturbing that he had no concept of how much time had elapsed. When we were about to leave, I took off the watch that Dad had given me and put it on Bill’s wrist. We wished him good luck and said good-bye.

When we got outside, John turned to me and said, “That was really nice, what you did with your watch.”

Embarrassed, I told him that it was just an old Timex and that I had been planning to buy another one anyway. Now, I said, I had a good excuse to go ahead and get myself a new watch. Besides, Bill was a friend and a Lancer. I was relieved when he let the matter drop.

The following weeks were hectic, with long, perilous hours of flying and little time to rest. I didn’t get to the PX to pick up another watch. With all the enemy contact I was engaged in, it was the last thing on my mind.

One evening when I returned from the day’s missions, another pilot met me at operations and told me to hurry to our makeshift officer’s club because there was going to be a raffle for a watch. Great, I thought, I need a watch. I ran to the club to buy a chance before the drawing. But when I arrived there, it was too late to purchase a raffle ticket. Another pilot told me not to worry; they had already included my name.

Unbelievably, it was my name that was pulled from the hat. It was the nicest watch that I had ever seen and much more expensive than any I would have considered buying myself. This was amazing, for I had never won anything. That watch was my prized possession for many years.

I hadn’t thought about any of this for a long, long time. And suddenly, sitting at my kitchen table Christmas morning, I was struck with a revelation. It had never occurred to me before but, all at once, I knew with certainty that mine had been the only name in the hat. I closed my eyes as the realization settled in, flooding me with emotion. The Lancers had given to me in a way that allowed them to express gratitude without it being obvious. It had worked; it had taken me over twenty years to realize the true value of that watch.

There are some things about that time so long ago that I do not ever want to remember. And there are other things, like the watch, that I pray I will never forget.

Bill Walker

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