AN MIA BRACELET COMES HOME by Steve Batty

The following is a series of messages that help to tell the story of Michael Klingner.

 

About seven years ago I was thinking about starting a Ph.D. program and one of their requirements was to write an autobiography explaining those things in your life which helped make you the person you had become. After much struggling I eventually was able to write about my first twenty-four years in 176 pages. I ended the story on my twenty-fourth birthday after watching the movie MASH at a drive-in theater with my new bride and while I was in the T-37 instructor’s school at Perrin AFB in north Texas. It was New Years Day 1971.

 

When I was writing my autobiography one of the people included in it was a childhood friend named Mike. Mike played a big role in the eventual person I became. I finally called the work complete late that fall and never did apply for the Ph.D. program so it has been sitting in my computer collecting folder dust.

 

This past week February 18, 2000, I received an E-mail from a high school classmate who is the curator of the Norris House in McCook. Linda has received a forwarded message from Bruce at the McCook Daily Gazette who had received an E-mail from a man living in Winnebago, Nebraska. Bob in Winnebago was searching for relatives of Mike because he had received an E-mail request from a woman in Lincoln who had been wearing an MIA bracelet with Mike’s name on it and she thought one of his family would like to have it now that she had put it away.

 

Ann, the compassionate woman in Lincoln with the bracelet, had found Bob’s name and address when she went to the Virtual Viet Nam Wall looking for information on Mike. Here is the message she found:

________________

Bob Starck

bstarck@huntel.net

college friend

Mike, with drumsticks in hand, the band plays on. Your music touched many, and your band, J.Harrison B and the Bumbles still lives and plays to this day, and your smile and kindness also lives on in our memory. Friday, February 05, 1999

 

 

Here is the message I received as it was forwarded to me:

____________

Subject: Asking for help!

 

Dear Sirs:

 

A former resident of McCook, Michael Klingner, was shot down and killed over Laos in (circa) 1970. I knew Mike in college and have located his name on the Internet Vietnam Veterans Wall. I left a remembrance there that created two responses. One a year ago from Mike’s former wife, now living in Colorado. And, another from a lady in Lincoln that has a bracelet with Mike’s name on it. She would like to return the bracelet to any member of his family. I recently removed the e-mail address that I received from Mike’s former wife and don’t know how to contact her. Thus, I turn to Mike’s hometown and ask if you can be of any help in locating his family or what may be left of them. I sure someone in the McCook area remembers Mike Klingner and would know if there is any family left. Your help would be very appreciated.

 

Thanks,

 

Bob Starck

Winnebago, NE

bstarck@huntel.net

 

I contacted Bob by E-mail and explained my past relationship with Mike and wondered if he would forward my message to the owner of the bracelet, and that I felt I had a good place to put the sacred bracelet.

 

Ann E-mailed me and I replied by sending the following excerpt from my autobiography to her. _____________

 

Mike Klingner was probably my closest friend during that period of my life. Mike was two years ahead of me in school and was my brother’s age. Mike was really a mixture of a best friend and the older brother I had lost in a sledding accident when I was four. He was McCook’s version of Spanky from the “Our Gang” television series. He tended to be somewhat rolly polly with red cheeks and lots of life in his eyes. To this day I still think of the wonderful times the two of us had over the many years we were friends.

 

One of the early memories I have of life with Mike was climbing his parent’s cherry tree each summer. We would sit in the tree eating the tree’s wonderful fruit until we could not look another cherry in the eye. Our fingers and lips would be a bright red to match his cheeks. I believe we occasionally had other problems associated with eating too much fresh fruit.

 

I can remember having him sit on me in his back yard and tickle me until I finally gave in to one of his ideas. I had my first taste of a cigarette with Mike in Bolles Canyon. Actually it was just what I needed to make me a confirmed nonsmoker for the rest of my life. Mike didn’t seem to have a problem smoking his mother’s cigarette but when I tried to do as he showed me I choked and felt like I was going to die. Since that time I have never had a desire to take up the practice.

 

After Mike finished two cigarettes and me, my puff or two, we decided we needed to hide the rest of the pack where his parents would not find it. While walking to his house we decided we had to hide it outside where neither parent would find it. By the time we got to his house we settled on wrapping them in a plastic bag, cutting a square of grass out of his back yard and hiding the package under the “green” grass. It only took his father a couple of days to start wondering why there was a small square of dead grass in what otherwise was a perfectly lush green yard. I don’t remember what happened when his parents questioned him about the single dead spot in the yard but we both lived through that experience in fine fashion.

 

We did a lot of overnighters at his home and seemed to vacillate between playing cowboys and Indians or WW II soldiers. All either one of us really wanted as children on our birthdays was a new toy six-shooter or some Army gear. He generally created the particular scenario for each game and even went so far as to design secret, personal spy identification cards for our undercover work.

 

Since our parents were good friends and went to parties and dance club together Mike and I ushered in many New Years together. We were allowed to stay up until twelve on those evenings, blow our horns then it was straight to bed. Actually, it was Mike, Thelma Baumbach, our sitter and personal toilet trainer, and me. You didn’t mess around with Thelma. When she told you to do something you didn’t try to weasel out of it or question her. When she gave that command you just knew there was no way out and did as she wanted. She never raised her voice or threatened to tell our parents but just gave us her “look” and we complied. I still have fond memories about Thelma because she actually was a very good person and cared for us like we were the children she was never able to have and I think we knew that even then. We complied out of respect for her and not out of fear.

 

Mike was a very responsible person his entire life. He was always earning his own way by delivering newspapers and putting nickels in overdue parking meters for the 1st National Bank each Saturday morning. Many times we would ride our bikes together delivering his papers or walk this meter route. It was always a big thrill when he would allow me to do his jobs for him when sick or out of town. Speaking of his being sick – Mike could not swallow a pill. His mother had to crush them then mix the powder with jelly and spoon feed the substance down his throat. I prided myself on not needing to even take water with my pills (the larger the pill the better) and I never cried when given shots by my dad or his staff. Big boys didn’t show hurt or ever cry in the sight of others back then, well, at least not in our little circle.

 

If there was anyone besides my father I wanted to be like when I grew up, it was to be as good a person as Mike. When Mike moved into Junior High School he started growing away and spending more time with kids his own age, but he never let our friendship completely disappear. He seemed to always have time for me when I needed him. He was a true Eagle Scout through and through and took his time to help me earn many of my merit badges.

 

I remember him helping me earn a merit badge that required me to stalk another person without being seen or heard. We first reviewed the Scout Book then he would ask me a series of questions about how I was going to stay out of sight and not be heard then we were off to our favorite place to play this scouting game.

 

We did the exercise in Bolles Canyon with Mike walking in the middle of the grassy area while I stayed in the tree line and out of sight. Every once in a while he would suddenly stop, turn around and scan the trees for me, then continue on his walk. After we reached the end of the park he called me in and we celebrated my doing a passing job. I discovered girls in the seventh grade and that ended my interest in scouting. I probably should have stuck with scouting. It certainly was less expensive and did not take up as much time and energy.

 

Mike graduated from McCook High in 1963 and went on to the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, pledged Phi Delta Theta and joined the AFROTC program and received one of their two-year scholarships. Because of the war, the Air Force needed more pilots and since flying had become a goal and passion of his, he was a natural for one of their scholarships.

 

Mike had started a three-member band while in high school called the Rebels and in college the group changed personnel and became the J. Harrison B. and the Bumbles. Mike was the drummer for both groups. The Rebels were considered good in this part of the state and I remember going to many of their dances at the city auditorium. I don’t know much about the Bumbles but I believe they did pretty well playing in the eastern part of the state playing for fraternity parties. Between what he made as a Rebel, a Bumble and his AFROTC scholarship, I don’t think his folks had to put a more than a few hundred dollars for his college education.

 

When I transferred to the University of Nebraska at Lincoln in January of 1966 Mike insisted I pledge his fraternity and wanted me for his pledge son which, of course, I did. So he was there for me again, but this time on a more adult level. When I was struggling with being a pledge he would always get me through by helping me realizing that the hazing would soon pass. He would let me find a few minutes away from the “constructive actives” during Hell Week and those who found joy in having you hit the floor for a couple hundred more pushups or yelling (screaming is a more accurate word) at you how much you didn’t care. Yes, Mike always seemed to be there for me when I needed the shoulder of an understanding older brother.

 

In the time we were both in the fraternity house together, I never observed Mike participating in the hazing or behavior that I found so offensive from many of the actives. Consequentially, I did not haze the pledges when I had the opportunity. I figured that since I had not liked it why would I want to do it to others. Again I was using Mike as my role model.

 

I am finding it hard thinking about Mike right now because he was such a positive force in my life for so many years and now he is gone. My throat is getting tight, my eyes cloudy, and my typing shaky. I can say from the bottom of my heart that I really miss his friendship. If there was anyone that should have survived, it was Mike. BREAK Sometimes it seems that the world’s best people are the first to leave this earth. This world is missing one fine man.

 

_________________

In April of 1970, while I was in undergraduate pilot training at Randolph AFB, like Mike had done just two years earlier, my father called and told me Mike had been shot down in his F-100 while flying a mission out of Viet Nam and was listed as Missing in Action. We didn’t talk very long, mainly because I could not. After Dad rang-off, I destroyed the phone in my hand by smashing it against the stone walls in my BOQ room. I spent the remainder of the evening vacillating among thinking about our years growing up together, choking back tears and sobs, wanting revenge and feeling a tremendous sense of loss. It was as if there was a void within me. I spent the next seven years as a pilot in the USAF and annually after I graduated from pilot training in October of 1970, I would volunteer to go to Southeast Asia and take my revenge for the loss of my friend and adopted big brother, Mike. By the time the Air Force decided I could go to war, it was winding down and I spent my time there as a weapons controller in a ground-based radar site in northeast Thailand. Actually, it was probably Mike still looking out for me. So I am here today to write about that wonderful man, and I’m proud to say, friend.

 

_____

 

Ann sent the following message to me after she read my story about Mike. Ann has give me her permission to include the following:

 

Steve … thank you so very much for “sharing” Mike with me …. and also allowing me to get to meet you through your writing. I’m honored to have carried his name with me for so long, and just as honored to turn it over into the care of a person like you.

 

 

It will be in the mail in a couple of days.

About all I can tell you of this bracelet is that it was one of the first of the bracelets issued … I cannot remember the exact year I got it, but it was among the first which were made. I wore it pretty much everywhere from the 1970s up until my own two sons both came home from military service in the 1990s and then I placed it in a calico box on my dresser, always thinking that perhaps some day I would find out that Michael Klingner had returned, or that I would be able to find someone to whom it would mean something special. I have fortunately found that person.

 

 

Thank you so very much.

Ann White

 

________

My father and I have placed a display case in the McCook Public Library community room for some of Mike and Jane’s personal things, pictures and our thoughts. Included in the memorial is the bracelet donated by a person who cared for one of this community’s fallen sons and soldiers. Ann, I thanking you from the depths of my heart for caring enough to wear the bracelet for all these years and then give it back to the community from which he came.

 

Last evening I talked to Andrea Klingner, Mike’s sister-in-saw, for quite a spell and learned more of the facts around Mike’s last day.

 

Mike had been in country (309th TFS) since the second of week of September, 1969 and was schedule to leave for R & R in Hawaii to meet his bride Jane there. Jane was teaching in the Omaha Westside school system. Mike had initially applied for leave the week of the 6th of April because that was when Jane had spring break but was approved for the second week. He was not scheduled to fly a mission on the 6th but one of his unit’s F-100 pilots that was scheduled become ill, so Mike volunteered to take his slot.

 

I don’t know what their target was that day but he was in a flight of two F-100s with a Forward Air Controller (FAC). Their mission took them in to the mountains of Laos. The normal procedure was for the FAC to mark the target with a smoke rocket then clear the flight in hot to do their part.

 

The other F-100 pilot, a Lt. Col., was to lead the attack but could not see the target, Mike had located it, so he was cleared-in for the first pass. The rest can only be a good guess but was seen and reported by both the other F-100 driver and the FAC. Mike did not pull out after his pass but leveled off and his plane flew into the side of the pass. The most likely cause was that he had been hit by ground fire and was not conscious or able or to pull out after the run.

 

My thoughts today as I write this last chapter.

 

After almost thirty years I find my anger gone but the emptiness and sense of loss seem to be even greater today than the memory of them so long ago. I think how much of life Mike was never to experience. I know he enjoyed the, almost twenty-five years, that was given to him but knowing how much I love my two boys, he was never to have that opportunity.

 

I know he would have been a wonderful husband and father to his family given the chance. I can only hope that the part of me that came from the love he showed me is now part of my two boys. I feel like I have lost my older brother twice. Once to a tragic accident then to a senseless war that could never have been won. One which sent literally thousands of our best young men and women to serve and fight for their county and to their deaths.

 

Like Mike, I was a soldier in the 60s and 70s who would have gone to war because it was our duty to do so, just as our fathers before us had done. But unlike our father’s war this one should never have happened for this country. I only hope we, the generation managing this great country today, have learned something from the terrible price our brothers, sisters, and friends gave back then and in some, still lingers today.

 

Steve Batty, a still grieving friend, little brother and fellow soldier.

 

___________________

 

Note: On Sunday, February 28, 2000 I received an E-mail from Mike’s wife, Jane. Jane remarried something later and lives in Colorado with her husband and three boys. I have not copied the entire E-mail Jane sent me but only those facts which will help you complete the rest of this story.

 

“Your stories about Mike captured so much of his wonderful human and humorous qualities. They also reminded me that there are many like you who knew Mike a lot longer than I ever got to, and probably have additional stories that would be great to hear.

 

When do you and your dad plan to present your collection for the Mike Klingner Room at the library? Maybe we should have a “Mike Klingner reunion” so everyone could exchange all those stories (now that we’re too old to get in trouble with our parents for any of it). A “Mike Klingner Memorial” sounds too somber for his liking. By the way, I’m sure you’re aware that we never had a Memorial Service for Mike. When Mike’s status was changed to KIA, I suggested it to Chink and Jo, but Jo said, “What’s the point now?” I think it was so hard for her to accept because the MIA status implied to them that there was hope. Then came the status change, without any substantive additional information from the AF. Although I knew the status would be reviewed and possibly changed at one year, to them I think it seemed very abrupt and arbitrary. The lack of closure is something we’ve each had to deal with in our own way.

 

You indicated uncertainty about Mike’s target and the cause of the crash. Last summer I was shown the “559 Document,” the North Vietnamese report of aircraft shot down from 1965 to 1975. It lists an F-100 at shot down at 13:40 on 6 Apr 70. Notation: “The pilot paid for his crime.” As I understand it this was over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. The target was two fuel drums. I was relieved to finally know he had been SHOT DOWN. An F-100 pilot friend once mentioned the possibility of “target fixation,” but I never wanted to believe it was pilot error. Funny, the things you find consolation in.

 

When your dad stopped to see me in Greeley last summer, I showed him pictures, documents, etc. that I had, but then he decided you should see them and decide what you want to have copies of. Anytime you’re passing by between McCook and Grand Lake, you are welcome to stop by and see if I have anything you want to include in the library display.

 

Jane

 

_______________________

 

On July 3rd, 2000, during the McCook High School All Class Reunion, a memorial service was held for Mike in Norris Park followed by a rededication of the Michael Klingner Room in the basement of the McCook City Library. Over 100 friends of Mike’s were in attendance for the two events.

 

The Norris Park event consisted of at 21 gun salute and presentation to Jane of an American Flag by the local chapter of the American Legion and an address by McCook’s Mayor Lundberg. In Mike’s Memorial Room, Jane gave a talk on their time together along with a wonderful slide and music presentation of Mike’s life. Several of Mike’s close friends from high school and college stood and expressed their sense of loss and what a wonderful friend he had been to them. Dr. John Batty unveiled the wall and display case containing memories of Mike to these attending.