It’s been quite a trip and quite a day. We arrived here in Okinawa after a 14.5-hour flight with a boring 2-hour layover in Hawaii. Did manage to get some sleep on the flights, and completely missed the 17th; it didn’t exist.
So starts a letter from 24-year-old Gary Canant to his young bride, written on May 18, 1968, the day before he arrived for an eight-month tour in Vietnam.
The Grover Beach couple met while Canant was stationed at the Naval Station Mayport in Jacksonville, Fla., about two years after he’d joined the Marines and not long after Maxie had graduated from high school. Gary Canant received his order for Vietnam about nine months before he was to end a four-year enlistment.
The couple decided to get married, which they did the following April. Eighteen days later, Gary left for the U.S. Marine Combat Base in Dong Ha, the northernmost town in South Vietnam, where he served with the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines, 3rd Marine Division.
And he began counting.
“You always knew how many days you had left,” he said Tuesday, a stack of handwritten letters, some smudged with dirt or raindrops, stored in a paper box nearby.
Maxie saved the letters, all 200 of them, written from the time he left the States to his return on Jan. 13, 1969. The couple, who moved to the county about a year ago, have been married for 42 years and have two sons and six grandchildren.
“I just wanted him to come home and come home alive,” she said, recalling the weekends spent with a friend, drinking coffee, smoking and writing multiple-page letters to their husbands.
Gary has decided to self-publish a book containing 140 of his letters, and to increase interest, he’s started to transcribe and post them on a website, dearmaxie.com. He started posting the letters on Valentine’s Day and will continue through the Fourth of July. The letters are just as he wrote them — there is no editing before putting them online.
Some are dated, some are not, so Gary loosely displays them in order. A few of the missives contain small comments — a letter written May 23, 1968, warns: “Contains strong language that my Mother didn’t like at all.”
His love for his young wife is evident in every note.
“I miss you, Maxie,” he wrote from Okinawa. “I miss life and everything and yet I can’t think about being away from you or the states too much or I won’t be able to do my job.”
Others mention the oppressive heat, boredom, frustration with the war and loneliness as one of the only Jewish Marines in his company. He recalls the sound of artillery and the rush to grab a pack of cigarettes and jump into a trench when the North Vietnamese Army gunners started firing.
Gary writes several times how fortunate he was to receive a desk job once arriving in Vietnam, where he worked seven days a week, tracking the whereabouts of the 200 men in the company and writing about a dozen condolence letters to families of men who were killed in action.
On his website, he posted his memories of Vietnam:
“To me, war was the sound of an artillery round tearing the air as it went over. It was the bushes that began to move in my mind on a dark night during guard duty. It was chain smoking in the trenches while the ammo dump blew for hours. It was the rocket that missed us and hit a tent near ours and killed four guys whose only crime was walking around in the wrong place. It was a random, impersonal thing that went on all around me until my tour was over and I could go home. It was one of my friends who never came back, and I had to type a condolence letter to his parents. It was heat and cold, dust and mud, anger and loneliness, and always wondering why we were there in the first place.”
After 39 years, in 2007, Gary returned to Vietnam, where he connected with a man whose father had been killed in the Dong Ha area in 1969. The family lived about a half-mile from the airstrip that he’d landed on in a C-130 nearly four decades earlier.
There, in the man’s front yard, Gary played taps, he wrote in an epilogue on the website, “for everyone we had lost, my fellow Marines and his father.”
Cynthia Lambert and Gayle Cuddy write the South County Beat column on alternating Wednesdays. Reach Cynthia Lambert at 781-7929. Stay updated by following @SouthCountyBeat on Twitter.