Chick Donohue is one-of-a-kind. I've had the privilege of late nights listening to amazing tales from gifted raconteurs who happen to be rock stars, tip-of-the-spear warriors, movie actors, politicians and comedians. So I don't share this without careful consideration: Chick is by far the most overwhelming storyteller I've ever encountered.
Chick has a new book The Greatest Beer Run Ever: A True Story of Friendship Stronger Than War, available now in hardcover, paperback and (cheap) Kindle editions.
It's 1967. Marine Corps veteran John (Chick) Donohue is working as a merchant seaman out of New York. As he's drinking with the crew one night at a bar, somehow a challenge emerged from the fog: Chick would sneak into Vietnam and track down guys from the neighborhood who were serving in Vietnam, thank them for their service and give them a beer.
He landed in Vietnam just in time for the early 1968 Tet Offensive and had to navigate one of the hairiest times of the war while he worked his way around the country to find everyone he needed to give a brew.
Chick in Vietnam.
Chick and I spoke for over an hour. That's not really true. I spoke for about 90 seconds and otherwise Mr. Donohue gave a colorful, blow-by-blow account of pretty much everything that happens in the book. Chick's book was co-authored by legendary New York Daily News columnist Joanna Molloy, someone who's covered her share of colorful characters in her career and I'm sure she'd agree that Chick is a guy who operates on a completely different level.
His book is worth a read and really should be turned into a movie by someone like Steven Soderbergh, whose new movie Logan Lucky shows he's a master of filming this kind of chaos. Here's a brief documentary that Pabst Blue Ribbon beer put together when Chick reunited with the guys a couple of years ago.
Seriously, read the book to learn about the truly insane scrapes that Chick had to wriggle out of to complete his mission. How he managed to convince the United States military, the embassy and the merchant seaman's union to allow and/or support his quest is so bizarre that it wouldn't fly as fiction. Talk to the man himself, though, and everything seems perfectly reasonable.
We'd be transcribing and editing for the next six months if we brought you the entire conversation, but here are some highlights.
Chick's the guy with the facial hair.
What Inspired the Beer RunI saw a demonstration in Central Park in November of '67 against the war that was turning into protests against the troops. I had buried a couple of dozen guys from the neighborhood, 26 to be exact, by that time. And I felt useless; I couldn’t do anything. How could I defend them or stick up for them?
After a conversation in the local tavern we decided, a bunch of guys and gals at the bar, that somebody should go over there and buy them all a beer, slap them on the back, and let them know that we're still supporting them.
Chick on board as a merchant marine seaman.
What It Was Like in the Middle of a Firefight in SaigonI'm a Roman Catholic and I was raised in a good, Irish Catholic family, so I knew all about purgatory, which they since abolished, but it was very real to me, purgatory. And I'm sitting there and I said to myself, you know, Chick, in addition to being very stupid by being here, I guess -- I think you might have died. I think you might have been one of them guys shot.
There were a number of bodies I passed by that were shot out in front of the embassy and in front of the palace. And I said, and this is purgatory. Which was sort of good, I wasn’t in hell, but I wasn’t in heaven and this is purgatory. And purgatory to me was someplace that wasn’t good, you wouldn’t like it there, and you couldn’t wait to get it out of there. But it was better than the alternative, hell.
Why He Decided to Tell His Story NowBut the most important thing in the story as I see it is that those four guys today realize that they weren't forgotten when they were over there. That’s the first thing. The second thing is that some of them never spoke about it for years. It'll be 50 years come January. And up and two years ago -- not two years ago, last year, April, one of their children who's not a child, he has his own family, two of them told me, two different ones told me that their father never spoke a word about Vietnam. Never said a word. And this is almost 50 years later.
But the most important thing in the story as I see it is that those four guys today realize that they weren't forgotten when they were over there. That’s the first thing. The second thing is that some of them never spoke about it for years. It'll be 50 years come January. And up and two years ago -- not two years ago, last year, April, one of their children who's not a child, he has his own family, two of them told me, two different ones told me that their father never spoke a word about Vietnam. Never said a word. And this is almost 50 years later.
So they finally spoke and they're learning to deal with it. They just kept it under wraps for all them years. Anyway, nobody can speak for them. They can only speak for themselves. But that was great, they're alive, they're dealing with their demons or whatever, their family is grateful to have them and it's nice to know that they know that we did not forget them, that we still had their backs as best as we could. That’s only one little thing I could do. There was few things that you could do at the time.