A beer with Donn Sweet
Everyone’s looking forward to the Memorial Day weekend. For many of us, it’s the first extra day off since New Year’s.
Parades, cookouts and memorial ceremonies for war veterans no longer with us will be held Saturday, Sunday and Monday. I’ve got gardening projects on the schedule, plus some running, maybe some biking, definitely some beer drinking.
I’ll call my father, 89-year-old H.J. Wilkin in Rochester, and thank him for his service in the Air Force during World War II. We can never thank veterans enough.
I’m also going to remember Donn Sweet. And thank him for his service.
I wrote about Donn and his family around Memorial Day in 2008. His sister, Evelyn Sweet-Hurd, had written a book about Donn, an Army lieutenant who was killed in Vietnam on July 25, 1968, at age 26. Evelyn, whose family lived in Schenectady before moving to Virginia in 1956, had collected letters Donn sent to his mother from statewide training camps and later from places like Dong Ha and Gio Linh in the north central coastal region of Vietnam. Donn’s words went into a book titled “His Name Was Donn: My Brother’s Letters from Vietnam,” and included Evelyn’s thoughts about the times of war and her sense of loss.
I’ve probably written about a hundred or so veterans in a 32-year career as a newspaper man. Some of the stories have been upbeat, like the four Army pals who remained friends and got together frequently after their time together in World War II. Families with several members in service have been other topics, the brothers-in-arms angle. The sadder stories have been about guys like Donn, who never came home.
Of all the veterans I’ve written about, Donn’s story is the one I remember best. This is a guy I really would have liked to have met. Judging from his letters, he had a quirky sense of humor. He liked photography, and he liked Playboy magazine. So we had two common interests.
I had to buy my camera, but during the early 1970s, my neighbor Mr. Frank threw out his entire collection of Playboys, from the late 1950s into the late 1960s. As an 18-year-old kid — maybe I was 19 — I couldn’t let such historic magazines go into the trash. I rescued about 200, and quickly read all the famous Playboy Interviews — once the best in the business — consulted the Playboy Advisor letters column and paged through all the great fiction. The photography was an added bonus.
I actually had scholarly intent for the collection: With such a large sampling of vintage magazines, I wrote my college journalism thesis on the article frequency content in Playboy, and how it changed over the years. It was about 120 pages, and at one time, all the finished, bound productions ended up in the library at St. Bonaventure. I always meant to staple in a centerfold around page 60, but they’ve moved all these long journalism projects — which created a lot of long suffering for us J-majors — out of the library.
More about Playboy later. Donn Sweet also liked sports, and his nutty sense of humor included a self-invented nickname, “Donnypoo,” that appeared on an Army jeep. An entrance to a camp building in Vietnam was posted with a Sweet slogan: “Smile, that’s an order.”
Through Evelyn’s book, readers learned Donn — who graduated from Roanoke College in 1964 and eventually moved back to Schenectady for a year to sell insurance — bought a 1962 356 Super 90 Porsche for $2,200. He had two nicknames for the pearl-white sports car, “Patti Porsche” and “The Marshmallow,” and often inquired about the vehicle’s health in letters.
He also had a nickname for his mother, Marion Berning Sweet. He called her “Toombie,” because Donn was afraid his favorite lady’s extra weight was going to kill her.
Donn fooled around a lot in his notes home, but he was also serious about the big trouble that was all around.
“Right now we’re on a 72-hour alert,” Sweet wrote on Sept. 25, 1967, shortly after his arrival in Vietnam. “Dong Ha is expecting a massive attack and thus we can’t take our clothes off and must carry our M-14s plus 100 pounds of ammo wherever we go. I’m the team leader for the 12th Regiment Reaction Force while we’re here at Dong Ha. That means when and if we’re attacked, I take my 20-man team to the place that’s catching the most hell and reinforce them. It’s all rather hairy.”
Loved that last line. Sounded almost casual, when Donn was talking about a life-and-death scene.
I’d love to ask Donn about his experiences, but he’s been gone for more than 40 years now. I can only remember his story ... and remember the guy, too.
I can do something else, as corny as it may sound. I did this after I first “met” Donn in print in 2008. On the Sunday before Memorial Day, I placed a candle, beer and a 1960s-era Playboy on my back yard patio table ... just in case Donn was in my neighborhood. I closed the fence leading to my back yard and went to bed.
I’m going to do the same thing this Sunday. Thanks to Mr. Frank, I’ve got plenty of Playboys from the 1960s in storage. You don’t think I was going to throw them out, do you?
I’ll pick one from 1967 or 1968. I’ll light a candle, and crack open a Coors Light for Donn Sweet.
This time, I think I’m doing to stick around as darkness falls. If Donn does show up, maybe he’d like some company.