KANKAKEE, Ill. — Glenn Dickenson had to pace a little. He had to carefully choose his words. He knew he was close to tears, but he seemed determined not to reveal the emotion he invested in this weekend trip to Kankakee.
The 65-year-old Army veteran from Sparta, Wis., knew it was going to be hard to explain why the sight of an obsolete Army helicopter instantly could trigger his tears, tears he might have held back for 45 years.
"I'm surprised there are any of these left," he said with an eye toward the "Huey," stationed on the front yard of the Illinois National Guard headquarters on Airport Road. "I remember the video of these being pushed off the deck in the last hours over there.
"They needed more room to land the others, and they just dumped them in the bay."
So Dickenson didn't expect to ever see the "Tombstone Shadow" again. As a door gunner and the crew chief of this helicopter, attached to the "Knights of the Air," he had a hand in naming it and painting the nose with that nickname.
"We had a four-man crew, and we would insert eight or nine men at a time in what they called 'hot LZs (landing zones),'" he said. "Then we'd come back and get them out. Those guys didn't want my job, and I didn't want theirs."
During his 14-month stay in Vietnam — ending in 1971 — Dickenson flew more than 1,100 missions in the "Shadow." He said he made a point of not making friends with a lot of guys. It was his defense mechanism, preparing him for the casualties he saw.
But he did have feelings for his Huey.
"It's like it had a heart and soul. It had its own temperament," he said. "You know it was real hot and humid over there and those things had trouble running in conditions like that. They'd lose power. But this thing ...
"I counted 164 bullet holes in it once. I caught some shrapnel in my arm on one of those flights. We made some hard landings, too. But she saved my life, over and over again."
So, it has been Dickenson's mission to find this chopper. He's gone through all sorts of records and followed a dozen leads. He knew the serial number like most folks memorize their Social Security identification number: 68-16591.
"I knew it came back to the states. It was used in the Florida Forest Service for a few years. Then, it was at a National Guard unit in Pennsylvania," he said. "Then, I tracked it here."
In the final analysis, the Tombstone Shadow isn't in Kankakee. Dickenson's emotions were real, but this chopper's serial number had two numbers transposed. It was 68-15691. But the veteran who loved her didn't act as though he wasted his trip.
He touched the chopper with a familiar sense of belonging. As he climbed back into his truck to head home, he pulled away slowly. He looked over his shoulder and saw it again, maybe on the Mekong Delta. He might have even heard a call to "Knight 17."
"We're both survivors," he said. "Both of us a little worse for wear, but survivors."