Cliff Brody looks at an old photo of his deceased friend/sergeant, Joe Blakely, who changed Cliff’s life during the Vietnam War.
Not all debts are about money, and longtime Washingtonian Cliff Brody knows that fact all too well. From 1967 to 1968, Brody was serving with the 89th military-police unit in the U.S. Army in Vietnam. His sergeant was named Joe Blakely.
"Skinny old Joe," Brody says with a smile. "A very, very, very slight guy: if he turned sideways, he would disappear."
Both Cliff and "skinny old Joe" were in their 20s. Cliff hailed from New York, and Joe, from Philadelphia.
"Joe was the nephew of the mayor of Philadelphia, Frank Rizzo," Brody recalls. "And he was very proud of Uncle Frank. Uncle Frank was a little corrupt, but what can you say?"
When Cliff and Joe met in Vietnam, they became fast friends.
"We drove around together in villages in what must have been the world's first army jeep," Brody says. "It was so old and broken-down!"
Acting on impulse
The guys were driving around in that very jeep one day in 1968, when Joe did something, says Brody, "that saved my sense of being. For which I am incredibly indebted to him."
The May Offensive — Phase Two of the Tet Offensive — had begun, and Brody and Blakely were running a convoy of about two-dozen U.S. Army trucks to Saigon. Their jeep was in front, a military-police vehicle was in back, and Cliff remembers it was an absolutely sweltering day.
"It's like 500 degrees outside," Brody remembers. "We're bedecked with all this military gear, the steel helmet and everything."
When Brody and Blakely stopped at this one traffic light in the dusty, crowded city, Brody looked in the rear-view mirror, at the truck behind him, and saw something unexpected.
"This person [was] reaching up under the 2-and-a-half-ton truck," Brody says. "And he's grabbing something. So I grabbed my rifle, my carbine, and Joe's looking at me. And I said, 'Joe, someone is taking something from that truck!'"
That "something," Cliff quickly realized, was a U.S. Army tool-kit. So without even thinking, he leapt out of the jeep, and raced off to catch the presumed thief, who had dashed across the road and into a rice paddy.
At this point, Brody was angry. It'd been more than half a year since he'd been serving in the war — a war, to be frank, he didn't really approve of, or even understand. So that's when he did something he'll never forget.
"I raised my rifle and I put a bullet in the chamber," Brody says. "And just as I was about to pull the trigger, Joe comes flying over, grabs the gun, pulls it down by the barrel and says, 'Sir, sir! It's just tools! He's just a kid!' I remember that voice: 'It's just a kid.'" And that, Brody says, is when reality set in.
"If I had shot the boy, I never would have been happy with myself," he says. "Never. I would have run from the memory like I have run from a lot of other memories, but it would find its way to the surface."
Hence his eternal indebtedness to one Sgt. Joe Blakely.
"Joe was my conscience at that moment," Brody says. "People do things, so we're all told, in the heat of war, and I certainly saw the evidence of that while I was in Vietnam. We all do things we regret. That would have been a big one."
After the war, Cliff Brody served in the foreign service and lost touch with Joe Blakely. He's done a little research, though, and it seems "skinny old Joe" died in 1988.
But if Joe could hear Cliff Brody talking today, here's what Brody would say: "Joe, I don't think you have any idea of how much your being there at that time made me much more able to live with who I am. Thank you."
Cliff has been pretty big on "thank you's" ever since that fateful day in May 1968, and he believes we all should be.
"I think it's useful from time to time to look back on events in your life and answer the question: 'Who has helped me become a better person?' And then you should say, 'Well, how do we pay those people back?'
"In my opinion," he continues, "you don't. There's no way to pay those people back. Some of them have moved on. Some of them have died. So the payback is to do the same thing for someone else."
[Music: "New Life" by Rolfe Kent from Reign Over Me Original Movie Soundtrack / "Thank You (Instrumental Cover)" by anestischatzibeis]