When I was on leave from Vietnam in late 1968, I went to Sidney, Australia for what was then referred to as "R&R," which meant rest and recuperation, I think. What I really wanted was to meet a woman and, well, you know, spend some time with her. I had been in the combat zone for well over a year and did not frequent the houses in Can Tho, except for the wonderful mentholated steam baths. But that's another story.
So after cruising the bars for several nights, and finding that the women that lurked there were not really for me, I went to the USO. I asked them if there were any women who would like to have dinner with an American serviceman and just have some fun. They showed me a drawer full of files and pictures. Going through them I found Renia Rusek. She was working as a Reporter at the Sidney Star at the time, she was very, very pretty: a tall blonde. So I called her and she said, "Yes," right away. "How about 7:30?" I took a cab to her apartment and walked up the stairs to her door.
She was dressed in a silky red dress, hair soft and well-combed, she smelled wonderful and she gave me a kiss as we walked to the cab. After the smoke of war, the death and blood, all of the trouble I had seen, I was in heaven, on leave from Vietnam.
She held my hand and asked about my time over there. We went to the Top Of The Hub, which at that time was the premier restaurant in Sidney, and the exchange rate was something like ten-to-one, so I was rich. I remember exactly what we had: clams casino, steak Diane, cherries jubilee for dessert. It was delicious and I was falling in love, the way sailors do in port on leave. She was so beautiful. It was like a dream.
Her eyes were shining, her teeth so white when she laughed, the incoming rounds and rooms exploding were fading out. I was so happy just to be with her, away from the other place. Occasionally, I would cough from the cordite of the guns. It was an affliction of the River Patrol. We fired large caliber rounds which had big cartridges and lots of gunpowder. We were often in the "smoke" of the guns firing for hours. A lot of us, especially forward gunners had these coughs.
Roger Miller was performing that night. He sang and sang and then in a dramatic interlude he was telling a joke. When he came to the punch line, and the crowd was appropriately still in anticipation, he started to deliver the hilarious words and wouldn't you know it, in the poignant pause, I coughed and ruined it for him. We were in the front row. He stopped the show and stood there with his arms akimbo, obviously upset with me. "Why don't you close the window tonight, and you can both get some sleep?!" And then he went on singing his next song. I was mortified and embarrassed. Renia squeezed my hand and said it was OK. As his song went on, I saw Roger look over at us holding hands across the table. He suddenly stopped singing and the band slowly realized and they stopped too. He was looking at me. He walked off the stage towards me, the spotlights trying to keep up. With the microphone at his side, but still picking up the conversation, he said, "Are you on leave from combat in Vietnam?" "Yes," I said, with a slight cough, trying to clear my throat. He asked me about my unit. He knew of the River Patrol. "Is this your girl?" "Yes." I introduced them. Renia coldly shook his hand. And then he turned to me. "I am so sorry Mr. Purdin. What I said was rude and thoughtless. Will you please forgive me?" Believe it or not, there were tears in his eyes. He was sincere. "Sure... sure." I was able to get that out, nervously. It was quite a moment. There were probably 1000 people in the room, many had laughed when he had singled me out for coughing. I had ruined the joke for them, too. He then shook my hand. And then he hugged me. And he hugged Renia. Then he went up on stage and told the audience how sorry he was. He described what our mission was in Vietnam. He talked about combat on the narrow rivers, the casualties we had incurred and then he apologized again. To me. To Renia. To the audience. He then dedicated his next song, "I want to go home," to me. At the end of the song we were all standing and cheering. He then called the manager to the stage and told him that everything I bought that night was on him, including the tips. And then the spotlights came over to Renia and me and the audience gave us a long standing ovation. After the show he invited us back to his room for drinks and we spent a half an hour with him. He was one of the nicest people in the world. We said good night to hugs and more apologies and the waiters walked us out.
When I saw the new website, posted by his wife to commemorate his life, I thought of this incident. It was a night I will always remember. Thanks, Roger. Renia and I spent the whole R & R together and almost got married just before I went back, caught up in the passion of a fantasy. I was all for it, naturally, but she said wisely, "It's not fair to you. You need to go back just as you came. Stay focused on surviving." In the end, of course she was so right. A different life was waiting back in the states, and one I would never have missed for anything. It was a great R & R, that I have always remembered. And, Roger Miller's kindness and humanity gave it a great beginning.
Even today when I think of him, even as I wrote this today, I still smile and think of the moment he gave me. 30 years later. Several lives later. No wonder his wife loved him so much.