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AL MARTINEZ

Such Good Friends

June 14, 1994|AL MARTINEZ

If he lives to be a hundred, John Harris won't forget the still life of compassion captured in the light of a flare on a Christmas Eve long ago: a paratrooper using his body to shield him from death.

Harris sees it as though it were yesterday, the man and his weapon merged into one motionless unit, leaning in front of him, ready to take bullets meant for him, mindless of the consequences that combat sacrifices encompass.

He hears the sputtering of the flare against a silence too vast to be real, and remembers shadows that danced against the massive jungle foliage . . . but mostly he visualizes the soldier. It's a memory that never grows old.

War often fashions permanent friendships, and this is one. It was born almost 30 years ago in a combat zone north of Saigon at the very start of U.S. fighting in Vietnam and continues to this day.

Harris was a young reporter for the Hearst Newspapers and had volunteered, however reluctantly, to accompany a squad of the 173rd Airborne Brigade on an ambush patrol. Its leader was Staff Sgt. Charles Brown.

It was Christmas Eve, and as darkness lowered over the jungle, they could hear Vietnamese children singing "Silent Night" somewhere in the distance. Rather than uplift, the music somehow enhanced a notion that had been growing since the patrol began: Harris felt beyond a doubt he would die that night.

But instead of death, he found quiet heroism. After a burst of gunfire, they heard Viet Cong soldiers coming, and Brown placed himself deliberately between the enemy and the reporter.

Though they returned to base safely, Brown's gesture--seen through the quick light of a grenade flare--had been imprinted on Harris' memory. He's thought about it ever since.

*

The Vietnam War ended a long time ago, and it's the wrong season for a Christmas story, but this goes beyond that. Brown retired from the Army after 27 years and three Bronze Stars, and was living in Dallas when he began thinking about the night he met Harris. The year was 1979.

It was not a good time for Brown. He was drinking hard to escape the nightmares that ride through disquieting dreams of war. "There is so much effort, so much blood, so much dying," he says as we sit at a sidewalk cafe in Hollywood. "Then suddenly it comes to a dead stop. Suddenly it's over. Where do you go from there?"

It's never really over. Brown was suffering from a deep depression, and in the midst of darkness reached out for Harris. He remembered the reporter as someone who thought enough of them to risk his life by accompanying their squad on a night that promised nothing but danger.

It's hard to say what bound the two men together, the emotionalism of Christmas Eve or the intensity of the feeling that each cared about the other. Retired now after 25 years as a journalist, 10 of them overseas, Harris was in Rome in 1979 when Brown, half-drunk in Dallas, telephoned him.

Perhaps sensing the pain in his voice and remembering that night 14 years earlier, Harris joined him in Texas and began helping him through the nightmares. When he left newspapering and moved to L.A. to write books and screenplays, he brought Brown with him, got him a job and tried to put him back on his feet.

*

"I owe him," Harris says simply. The two men sit across from each other, middle-aged now, linked by the memory.

"He's my moral support," Brown says, still looking military crisp in razor-creased denims.

Harris is more than that. He's gotten Brown out of jail when he was arrested for drunk driving, loaned him money when he needed it and let him sleep on the couch when he had no place else to go.

Brown spent a year in a V.A. hospital fighting a depression that threatened to consume him, and Harris was there for him then too. The ex-journalist visited the ex-soldier almost every weekend, easing him through a long night of emotional pain as Brown had once eased him through a long night of peril.

"I was beat after the war, both mentally and physically," Brown says, fingering a paratrooper's ring. "There were just too damned many memories."

"He would have given his life for me," Harris says. He's the perfect embodiment of a war correspondent grown older, a handsome man with a boxer's flattened nose. "At least I can give him my time."

Debts are repaid in a thousand ways, in this case through friendship. Harris and Brown see each other often and spend every Christmas Eve together. And they share the memory of a single, isolated moment caught in the hard light of a combat flare that, for both of them, has never stopped burning.

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