Vietnam veterans bond for life -- and in death
WASHINGTON—The last time Joe Bristol talked to fellow Marine Gary Lindsay of Grand Forks it was August 1967, and they were in the thick of the Vietnam War. Fresh off a mission in the middle of the jungle, the pair had sat down for a meal of C-rations with a splash of pocketed Tabasco to spice it up.
Bristol was finishing up his 13-month tour, and Lindsay handed him his watch because he wanted to make sure he didn't miss his chopper connection home. It already was Lindsay's second tour in the war that would claim the lives of 58,220 Americans, 199 North Dakotans and 16 Grand Forks men.
"It must have been three or four months we were together, but we bonded really good," Bristol said recently from his home in Potterville, Mich. "He was a tough guy, and he was a good guy. He was seasoned, so you learned to listen up good."
Bristol took the watch and made it home safely. Lindsay did not.
But once a Marine, always a Marine. The men may have known each other for a few short months, but Bristol said they bonded as brothers for life—and even in death.
It was shortly after returning to the United States when Bristol said he first tried to return the watch to his friend.
"If you send a letter or anything to someone in the military, it will follow them forever, for years," he said. "But if they're dead, you get it right back. I got it right back, so I knew something went terribly wrong. The bell went off. He got hit."
At the time, Bristol was settling back into his life and working at the family's now-famous bar and restaurant, Joe's Gizzards USA, but he was determined to find Lindsay's family in North Dakota. He eventually was able to track down a Grand Forks address for Lindsay's mother, Lorraine. He wanted to return the watch and tell the family just how much Gary had meant to him.
"I think I felt a duty to them. I felt obligated to meet them," Bristol said. "He was a funny guy, and he always was watching out for everyone. He was always up."
Surprise at door
Oddly, the Lindsay family said it was Bristol who had that same uplifting and life-changing effect on them when he came for a surprise visit some years later.
Lindsay's younger brothers, Lane and Curtis, were just 10 and 13 at the time of Gary's death on Sept. 7, 1967. And they idolized him.
"My brother was like a father figure to me. He was a brother, but I looked up to him in every way. I respected him very much," Lane Lindsay said. "When he died, I walked around. ... I didn't want to believe it for a long time. It's a pain that never goes away, but Joe eased it. When Joe came into our lives, it was complete joy."
Bristol recalled that first face-to-face meeting. He said he got off his plane and drove his rental car straight to the Lindsays' doorstep.
"This guy answers the door, and I said 'Are you Lane?' and he said 'No, I'm Curt.' And I said, 'Well, I'm Joe Bristol, you got any beer?' "
There were hugs all around and soon after an entire north-end neighborhood filled the streets for a celebration.
Joe said Lindsay's mother and grandmother insisted he stay with them instead of at a hotel, and he did for nearly a week. And in the 50 years since Lindsay's death, the families have shared an enduring friendship. Bristol flew Lorraine out for many visits, and he also made several trips to Grand Forks. On one particular Michigan trip, the Lindsays said he pulled out all the stops, throwing a huge party with a live band and paratroopers landing on the lawn.
Too much sorrow
So much tragedy seemed to strike all at once in those days of the war. Nine months after Lindsay died, another Grand Forks friend and fellow Marine, Richard Triske, was killed in action June 2, 1968. Their fathers had both worked as railroad switchmen, and the two families had been friends for years. A third Grand Forks man and good friend, Robert Swanson, enlisted with Lindsay and also was killed.
Today, Lane Lindsay and Bristol say the close-knit relationship between their families has been therapy through the years.
Bristol, with his jokes, laughter, love and kindness, brought them a powerful sense of peace, Lindsay said. Bristol was a comforting connection to the son and brother they lost.
"It doesn't take the pain away, but Joe was a true blessing," Lindsay said. "He eased the pain. Every time I'm with Joe, it's uplifting. I think it's the closest feeling I can have to my brother sitting right next to me."
Just last week, Lindsay was in Washington, and he traced the name of his brother on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.
"You touch the name and it all comes back to you real heavy. It's very emotional and it hits you like a rock. That's just the way it is."
He soon would find comfort again though. He and his wife, Karen, were swinging by Potterville on their return trip to Grand Forks.
"He's put a lot of joy in our lives. You lose a brother, and a lot of people shy away. Joe didn't, and I'm very thankful."
Some of the facts of this story were provided by Randy Gendreau. He served as a U.S. Army paratrooper from 1975 to 1979.
He wanted to share the heartfelt story of the heavy loss felt in Grand Forks during the days of the Vietnam War and one special friendship that followed after 16 local men lost their lives.
Gendreau grew up and was friends with the younger brothers of both Gary Lindsay and Richard Triske.
Along with Lindsay, Triske and Robert Swanson, the Grand Forks men who died in the war included Thomas Alderson, James Freidt, Melvin Lembke, Richard Olson, Dennis Wosick, David Corcoran, Robert Fullmer, William Potter, Clifton Cushman, Eugene Lavoy Jr., Eric Nadeau, Martin Steen and Blythe Van Deventer.