On Bonding, Brotherhood and Boys Growing Old

Letter to an MCB 11 Friend, Cliff Mullen (CET 3,) In His Grave for the Past 48 Years

By: Ted Lyman (CEP 3, Dong Ha, Quang Tri)

February 4, 2016




Dear Mullen,

    I’ve been thinking about you a lot ever since this past Veteran’s Day.  It’s been 48 years since we last talked and 47 years since you died from your Vietnam injuries. I just saw you (well, your grave) a few months ago. It was while on a road trip in my old car—a bucket list thing-- a road trip the length of old Route 66 from the Santa Monica Pier south of where I live in the SF Bay Area to Chicago.  They call it America’s Road and I took it all in—especially America as it was in the 20s and 30s. While on the road, I checked with a couple of the guys from our Bravo Company squad, Decker and Bagnell.  They both say hi.

    You don’t know it but they both live on old Route 66. Ben is in SoCal’s Rancho Cucamonga and Bags is in El Paso, Illinois. I remembered that you lived in Cuba, Missouri, also on Route 66 so I planned this trip around a visit with you guys.

    Because my trip was at the time of the 40th anniversary of the end of our war and the 50th anniversary of its beginning, National Public Radio was reporting on stories about Vietnam.  In all, I drove 5,000 miles, through 15 states and did the round trip in 15 days—all of it while listening to Vietnam stories, visiting our buddies and finding your grave.

    I knew of your ghastly wounds and death on January 3, 1969, from Decker and Bags while at Decker’s wedding a few months before you died (I’m not sure you know that you were at the Sam Houston Burn center where you were taken after being airlifted in late October from Da Nang, first to Japan then stateside.)  I was surprised at the time to hear that you had transferred out of MCB 11 into CUBU 301 after I returned home from Quang Tri.

    You missed that wedding and the great time the four of us had, especially telling the stories about living in that Oxnard apartment we shared between Dong Ha and our return to Vietnam.  All of our memories seemed to be of girls, surfing, girls—you remember, I know.  After the hell of Dong Ha, the four of us became really bonded while living in that seaside apartment—could that have been so many years ago?  I was crushed to learn of your death but happy to learn that you did make it home, to your family and then into the graveyard outside your family home.

    When I rolled into your town on old 66, I told myself that I had to find your grave.  As you know, it is a pretty small town, only 3,200 people these days.  How was I going to find you when all I knew was that you were “outside of town” somewhere?  My luck, the local VFW there in the center of town had a party going on that Sunday afternoon.  The flag was snapping in the wind and there were a bunch of good old boys standing around outside grilling hamburgers—picture the scene. I drove up next to them in my old car, bright red and with California plates--pretty much stopped the show.  As they looked at me suspiciously, I told them my story--on a road trip, visiting Vietnam buddies, looking for a grave…the first thing they said was “how about a beer? Perfect. With that, we were off and running.

    They wanted to know everything, but I wanted to find your grave. One guy said he thought that they had a Mullen enrolled in their Council. Sure enough a Bill Mullen was on their books and that he lived way outside of town.  But this was my lead.  With directions, off I went--getting lost, asked questions, turned around, lost again. But finally there it was, the Lickey Creek Graveyard those guys mentioned and your gravestone.

    Nice touch that the Navy provided the plaque and included your Seabee rating. I spent some time with you telling you what I’ve been up to for the past half century or so. When it was finally time to move on, I got back onto the pavement and then remembered that the VFW guys said that Bill Mullen lived nearby, up a road with a ranch gate having two boots hanging under it.  Now, I told JoAnne that I wasn’t planning on stopping in your town because she was worried that I might stir up some old, not great memories. But when I saw the Two Boots Ranch gate and that it was open, I went to a different place. I knew that up that road was a man named Mullen and maybe I would at least see where you grew up.

    Off I went, seven miles of gravel, across the creek with a concrete apron and up the long hill.  Ahead was a house, and a car.  What to do? I couldn’t stop. On up I went, making a lot of noise for sure (“hello, hello, in from California, looking for a friend’s grave, hello,) worried that this was a good way to get shot. Just as I got to the house a small, old man came out.  He barked “what do you want”-- and I started to talk, fast. “My name is Ted Lyman, I’m on a Route 66 road trip from California, I found my buddy’s grave right over there on that hillside.”  The man paused a long time, gathered his thoughts and said “Cliff was my brother.”   The hair rose up on my arms, along with the goose bumps and a tear on my face.

    Cliff, your brother’s now 81 and he is a very cool guy.  We talked for hours. When I left, he told me that he couldn’t believe that some guy from California just drove up in front, miles off the asphalt, and that he was here to talk to you 48 years after you died. You need to know that he was very, very happy to meet me, and I him.

   But there is more….the next morning I’m heading out to the highway to make my way on up 66 to spend a day with Bags and I stop in at a diner down town.  When I get out, I see a really old guy staring hard at me and my car. I go in and he yells “nice bimmer!”  Since he was finished eating and I needed to, I asked if I could join him. I asked him what he knows about vintage BMWs and it turns out he knew a lot, more than I do and I’ve had more than this one. Turns out that his name is Patrick Donahue, now 89, and that you might remember him—one of the “Irish Mafia” he said that founded your town.  He said he knew all of the Mullens in the area. 

     He said “what are you doing so far from California?” I told him my story--on a road trip, hooking up with Vietnam buddies, found a grave… “whose grave?”  When I answered, “Cliff Mullen’s grave” he paused for a long time putting his thoughts together.  He looked at me and said “you won’t believe it but Cliff Mullen’s other brother Phil would be sitting right there, where you are, but he is out of town this morning.”  I learned from Patrick, that he has been a close friend of your family for decades and that the large Mullen clan has never forgotten you and that your mother made it to your bedside just before you signed off.  Did you know that she lived to be 103 and that her fresh gravesite is right next to yours?

We could have talked for longer but I was anxious to get back on the road so I gave Patrick my card and left town.  While on the road, your brother Phil called.  He was really sorry to have missed me and said that he and your brother Bill were absolutely delighted that some guy from California just dropped by to say hi to you 48 years after you passed. He said the whole town was buzzing about this and asked “Is there any chance you can come back?"  I was anxious to get to Bags’ place and spend a day on things that he had planned so I declined.  Cliff, I will stay in touch with your family--they are terrific folks.

Remembering you,