July 24, 2011
On Friday evening, if everything goes according to Jim Zwit's plan, he and 14 other Vietnam veterans will stand next to home plate at U.S. Cellular Field to be honored by the Chicago White Sox.
Most of the guys haven't seen each other since the 1971 jungle firefight that cost Zwit a kidney, a piece of his liver and four ribs. But a few weeks ago, buoyed by the response to a story I wrote on his quest to find the families of the eight men who died in that battle, he embarked on a new mission involving the men who survived:
"I said, 'Let's have a reunion.' We're getting on in years. I just want to be able to hug these guys and talk to them and laugh and cry together."
The men are coming to Chicago from places as far-flung as Paris, Ohio; Lumberton, N.C.; and Catoosa, Okla. Only one, besides Zwit, lives here.
"Cub fan," says Zwit. "I'm going to make sure the Sox introduce him as being from Chicago's North Side. I want him to get booed."
He cackles with a South Side relish.
Zwit was just 19 when he left his big South Side family to go to war. The other men, too, were barely more than boys. Now a couple are overweight and diabetic. One is blind. Zwit is ordering a wheelchair for one who can hardly walk.
A former Chicago cop who works as a process server, Zwit has been waking up regularly at 3 a.m. to invent new ways to make this the trip of a lifetime for old friends he suspects he'll never see again.
His daughter is turning over her Burr Ridge home for the weekend. He has bought a dozen inflatable mattresses. Brother Rice High School, where he often lectures about the Vietnam War, has offered two school buses, driven by volunteer dads, to carry the men to Sox park and back.
Zwit, a master of the Weber grill, will cook a weekend's worth of meals, including his specialty breakfast of chorizo and scrambled eggs.
At Friday's Sox game, each man's name will be announced and the story of the 1971 battle will echo across the field.
"Forty years," Zwit says, "none of these guys have been recognized. None. For me, to have the White Sox do this for them, it's very meaningful."
Zwit has kept the weekend's precise plans secret from the guys, and he's hoping they don't read this column. When a Sox official suggested that springing the game on them unannounced might not be a great idea — maybe the men would like to dress up for the event? — Zwit found that funny.
"They're not women," he says. "These guys are 60-year-old farts."
The Sox official's comment did give him the idea, though, to have 15 special shirts made, emblazoned with the badge of the 101st Airborne Division.
After Friday's game, the men will spend the weekend just hanging out in Burr Ridge. The outdoor speakers will be cranked up. The giant flat-screen TV will show a collage of 850 old photos Zwit has collected on a DVD. And there will be stories, lots of stories. He's glad his daughter's house is secluded.
"I'm going to be busting some stones," he says. "It's going to be Katie-bar-the-door."
Then he laughs.
"Guess what? Probably at 11 o'clock at night, we'll be sleeping."
But he likes thinking about the kind of party they'd have if they were still 19, strangers thrown together in a jungle and a war, back before they understood about first times and last times.
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