Humor was in short supply in Vietnam in 1970-71 so it fell to rear echelon journalist types like me to try and put smiles on the faces of the thousands of soldiers stationed with me on Long Binh Post. It never occurred to me that Punxsutawney Phil, the famous Pennsylvania groundhog who predicted the weather, would be the source of their amusement.
Yet Punxsutawney Phil and laughter came together in a U.S. Army publication no less, a tiny daily dispatch called the Morning News Roundup (there was an Evening News Roundup too). Our Army-sanctioned journalistic job was to “round up” only the good news, of course. How we Americans were both winning the war and the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese. Not how Charlie and the VC were kicking our ass, or the Army was falling apart and guys were disobeying orders and LBJ (Long Binh Jail) was filled to overflowing.
Nope, the Morning News Roundup was all positive shock and awe. And a little whimsy too.
The execution of the Morning News Roundup was nocturnal and solitary, the equivalent of college all nighters. Every one of us in the USARV IO office had to pull the Roundup night shift at some point during which we’d grab relevant news copy from the three giant teletype machines in our office, slap them on two sides of a sheet of paper, and run off hundreds of copies to be delivered. The brass, as you’d expect, were our first stop, and then it was on to the various mess halls and main offices on Long Binh. In that way, the brass, lifers, enlistees, and draftees could have their daily morning news with their breakfast, just as if they were back home in the USA.
The only thing that motivated me to do the Morning New Roundup was the competition over who could find the best “kicker” to put at the bottom of the Roundup. A long-standing Roundup tradition, the “kicker” challenge was to find the weirdest, funniest, quirkiest story to place as the last story. Turns out that was usually the first thing most of the GIs turned to when they read their morning news, and I gotta say I never felt better than when I saw a bunch of guys smiling and laughing about a kicker I’d inserted at the bottom of a Morning News Roundup. Probably the best all-time was a Reuters wire story about “raining frogs in Kuala Lumpur.” Hard to top that.
But I tried.
One night when I was really bored and homesick with the coming on of Christmas, I fabricated a kicker along the lines of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Guys laughed but the joke was on me—I nearly got court martialed for my fraudulence. Could you really get busted for making guys smile?
Once I dodged that bullet, I started regularly making up kickers for the Roundup, most of them featuring Punxsutawney Phil. Not sure why exactly. Maybe because I was from Pennsylvania? Or we all missed winter? Most likely to settle office arguments about which clairvoyant rodent—Pennsylvania’s Phil or some Wisconsin wanna be named Sun Prairie Jimmy—was the genuine prognosticator.
Phil won that bet hands down. And it was time to give him his due.
“Where have you gone, Punxsey Phil?” I had the citizens of Punxsutawney mimicking the Simon and Garfunkel tune “Mrs. Robinson” when Phil decided not to appear. “Our nation turns its frozen eyes to you, woo hoo hoo.”
My Punxsutawney Phil/Morning News Roundup kickers kept people smiling. Even made Vietnam a little more bearable. And, hell, if anyone did ever rat me out to the brass, or the brass got pissed, what were they going to do? Send me to Vietnam?
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Vietnam veteran Doug Bradley is the author of Who’ll Stop the Rain: Respect, Remembrance, and Reconciliation in Post-Vietnam America, co-author with Craig Werner of We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War which was named best music book of 2015 by Rolling Stone magazine, and DEROS Vietnam: Dispatches from the Air-Conditioned Jungle now available as an audiobook. His music-based memoir, The Tracks of My Years, will be published in 2025.)