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They were back from boot camp, with the buzz cuts to prove it.
They were back in Omaha, where it was cold and snowy and far from Vietnam as the calendar flipped to 1968.
They were back for just one more night, and they were bored, and that's when James Fous had an idea.
Card game, he said.
This is how five Nebraska boys — Ralph, Chuck, Larry, David and Jim — found themselves sitting around the kitchen table at the Fous home on South 27th Street.
This is how they passed the night of Jan. 2, 1968, before they shipped out for more training. They drank cheap beer. They told Army stories. They hoped for pocket aces.
Poker, especially the no-limit variety, is a painful game, any old-timer can tell you.
You can hold the best cards, make the right reads, figure the math correctly.
You can do everything right, and in the end a bit of crummy randomness — the dealer flipping a final deuce and smacking it onto the table — can empty your pockets of everything but lint.
Forty-four years later, the middle-aged men who remember that poker game cannot remember any of the highs and lows, wins and losses, who left happy and who left broke.
They can only remember what happened next, after they walked back out into the cold Omaha night and took opposite direct flights into a war. One by one, they were dealt a random hand that left them either with careers and grandkids or ended with their names etched on a black stone wall in Washington, D.C.
“We were lucky, and they weren't,” says Ralph Forbes, a retired 65-year-old in Omaha. “It would have been nice to hang out again. But that was it. That was the last time.”
The game attracted a mishmash of players, a mix of friends and friends-of-friends, as poker games tend to do.
Jim Fous, the poker night host, was also its unquestioned ringleader. A big man with a big laugh, Fous had graduated from Omaha Central High School and attended the University of Nebraska before enlisting in the Army in 1967.
“When you made a joke, you'd look to him first to see if he was smiling,” says Forbes. “People just gravitated to him.”
Larry Caldwell likely sat next to Fous. He and Fous were so close they had signed up together to ensure they could go to boot camp and ship to Vietnam side by side.
At boot camp in Fort Lewis, Wash., Caldwell had earned a reputation as a prankster, the sort of lunatic who would make faces behind the drill sergeant's back. Sure, if someone laughed, they would all be doing pushups until their arms shook. But who cared?
David Nachtigall seemed uninteresting when Fous and Caldwell met him on the way to boot camp. But the skinny Omahan had come into his own during training, shedding his shy demeanor and revealing smarts and kindness hidden beneath it.
It was weird, too: Nachtigall seemed the least gung-ho of the bunch, but as he sat at the poker table that night he was already contemplating graduating from his helicopter mechanic's job and making the Army his career.
Ralph Forbes, the fourth Army enlistee at Fous' house that night, had put his new career at Northern Natural Gas on hold and gone to boot camp with Fous, Caldwell and Nachtigall.
Forbes wasn't much for cards, but he was into the beer drinking and story swapping.
When it became clear they needed more players, he called Chuck Wagner, who had worked alongside Forbes at Northern Natural.
Wagner drove over in his lime-colored 1967 Ford Mustang, the one he would sell before shipping to Vietnam three years later.
By Jan. 2, 1968, Wagner had been classified as 1A for the draft and had decided to enlist instead.
That night, as they shuffled and dealt, Wagner picked the older guys' brains.
What was the Army like? If he joined, what should he specialize in? What did they know about the Air Force? The Navy?
“Then I just kind of shut up and listened,” Wagner says.
The young Omahans bet dimes and quarters and talked Nebraska football — Bob Devaney's Cornhuskers had just concluded a disappointing 6-4 campaign and missed a bowl game after several successful seasons.
They swapped stories about boot camp and how they had gotten home to Nebraska on leave. Some of them had tried to take a train home to save money and had ended up wasting three days of precious free time. Some had bought beer and tried to take it on the train but got instantly caught by military police wise to their bulging pockets and Army-issue duffel bags.
They gave Nachtigall grief about his blond girlfriend and talked about girls and fired one-liners at each other until the clock struck midnight. Time to go.
“It was a great night,” Forbes said. “I remember a lot of laughing.”
In the summer of 1968, Forbes returned to Omaha from artillery training, his last trip home before shipping to Vietnam.
He glanced at an Omaha World-Herald. He saw the news.
Fous had spent only a couple of weeks in the war zone when he got tapped for a reconnaissance mission. As he and others on the mission bedded down in the jungle that night, Fous saw movement and heard noise.
Fous shot two of the three enemy troops attempting to attack his unit. The third threw a hand grenade.
It landed just feet from Fous and three other American soldiers.
Fous yelled a warning and dove.
The other three lived.
They lived because Fous had flopped onto the grenade, absorbing the blast that otherwise would have killed everyone.
Forbes read the story about Fous' heroism — he had been posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor — and decided to phone Fous' best friend.
Larry Caldwell's mother answered. Can I speak to Larry, he asked.
Who is this?
It's Ralph Forbes. I went to basic training with your son.
Larry got killed, she said, and hung up.
When Caldwell and Fous got into the war, the Army had split them up, placing them in different companies of the same 47th Infantry, 9th Infantry Division, Forbes learned later.
Caldwell was killed in combat May 9, 1968, just five days before Fous jumped on that grenade.
Caldwell was the 45th Omahan to die in the war. His best friend, Fous, was the 46th.
Soon Ralph Forbes was in Vietnam himself, commanding a crew that shot an 8-inch Howitzer. Every day, the crew would unload ammo and try to take catnaps. Every night, they would lob 204-pound shells that could fly up to 10 miles into the dark Vietnamese sky.
Forbes returned to Omaha in 1970 after his tour ended. Within days of being home, he picked up the phone again.
Is Dave Nachtigall there?
He got the answer he didn't want to hear.
After serving his first tour as a mechanic, Nachtigall had re-enlisted and taken the more dangerous job of helicopter crew chief.
Just more than a week after Valentine's Day 1970, his helicopter was shot down just outside Nha Trang, on the southeastern coast. Everyone on board had died.
Forbes decided not to make any more surprise phone calls to the mothers of his basic-training buddies. But he had one more call to make. He dialed his old friend Chuck Wagner's number.
“You remember those guys I went to basic training with, the guys we played cards with that night?”
“Sure,” Chuck Wagner said.
“They all got killed in Vietnam,” Ralph said.
It's been 44 years, and Chuck and Ralph don't play cards any more.
Instead they go to UNO hockey games together in the winter, maybe a Storm Chasers game in the summer.
After Chuck Wagner got back from Vietnam in 1973, where he served as an aircraft maintenance crew chief, he returned to work at Northern Natural Gas. Sadly, he no longer had that lime-colored Mustang. But he did have a familiar face at the cubicle next to him: Ralph Forbes.
As the years went by, Wagner moved up the ladder, moved to Houston after Northern Natural Gas became InterNorth and then Enron, and eventually got transferred back to Omaha years before Enron became a cautionary tale.
Forbes stayed with the company, too, and lost most of his nest egg when Enron went belly up — he had failed to diversify, he says, figuring there was no way a company that pumped oil and gas across the United States could go broke.
Forbes retired in 2008, in part to take care of his grandson, Karsen.
Wagner, 63, is Northern's manager of design and engineer records. Counting the time before he left for Vietnam, he has worked at the company for 45 years.
All the years they worked side by side, Chuck and Ralph would occasionally sidle over to each other's cubicles and talk about the war.
In the early days, they would share raw thoughts and feelings that they felt they couldn't share with anyone who hadn't been there.
In later years, they would recall names and faces and places, swap old stories, pass their shared Vietnam past back and forth like a football.
Once or twice a year, either Ralph or Chuck would mention the card game.
Together they would walk through the details of that night. They can still see the Fous family's dining room table. They can still hear the laughter.
And they would shake their heads — they still shake their heads — at the randomness of that night. How five young Omahans converged on one spot at one time, shuffled the cards and dealt.
Two won. Three lost. No real explanation.
“I think if things would have turned out differently, we would have all hung out together,” Ralph Forbes says. “We would have been lifelong friends.”
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