by Jill Savino Nieglos
I met Doyle at church when I was ten and he had just turned eleven. It was 1955, and my family had relocated to the small central California town of Paso Robles. I made lots of friends at school, but my best friends – my real confidants – were all from church, including Doyle. I saw him every Sunday; outside the church we played tag, and inside we learned to pray.
A few years later and now a teenager, I hurried into church one Sunday morning, bursting with excitement. I slipped into the pew next to my girlfriends, Marcia and Charnell, to share the most significant milestone in my life so far. “Guess what!” I whispered, “I got my first bra!” As soon as I said it, Doyle’s head popped out from behind Marcia’s and whispered – and a rather loud whisper it was – “Congratulations!” I desperately wanted to melt into the pew, and it was weeks before I could look Doyle in the face without blushing. A year or so later, Doyle was responsible for two more firsts – my first date, to a softball game at the local ball field, and my first kiss.
The years flew by. After college, I moved to New York City. Oh, how I enjoyed living in the big city, with all the museums, job opportunities, and eligible men to date. I landed a great job as a Bunny at the New York Playboy Club and was making fabulous money. Doyle had stayed in California, where he attended Sacramento State College on a football scholarship. Just before graduation, he decided to take the OCS test, and passed. Thank his lucky little stars for that! If you had to go to Vietnam… and that was life in those days…it seemed better to go as an officer. So he joined up, and the Army sent him to Ft. Dix, New Jersey for training. Luckily for both of us, that was just across the river from New York City.
When Doyle found out he had been assigned to Ft. Dix, he got my phone number from my mom and telephoned me after he arrived (remember, long distance calls in those days were out of the question for most of us). I was thrilled – somebody from home was coming to visit! Even though I had three roommates and worked nights at the Club, I invited him to stay with us on the weekends. He slept on our couch. My roommates were all of similar age but from different parts of the U.S., and when Doyle showed up, we all sat around chatting and learning about one another. It was fun and entertaining.
Just before he shipped out, I gave Doyle a small photo of myself taken in my Bunny costume at the Club. Thinking ahead about the humid weather in Vietnam, he had the photo laminated in plastic before slipping it into a pocket of his fatigues for the flight to Vietnam. Neither one of us had any idea what an important role that picture would play in his life.
That was 1967. Fast-forward forty-three years to 2010 and a reunion of high school classes held in the VFW hall in Paso Robles. In our hometown, reunions were always a big part of the social scene. Doyle came to the reunion that year carrying a surprise. While I was out on the floor dancing with Billy Minshull to “Wake Up Little Susie,” Doyle sought out my husband, Don. He slipped something into Don’s hand and said, “This picture has served me well and I couldn’t be more grateful; it, and all it represented, saved my sanity and my life,and now I think it’s time to pass it back to its rightful owner.” He was holding my Bunny photo from 1967! “Don,” Doyle explained, “I landed in Nam with this picture in my pocket and carried it night and day. It stayed in my pocket until I got back to the real world. It was my good luck charm. When I was hunkered down in a foxhole being shelled, I would prop this picture up in the dirt right in front of me, pull my tarp over my head to block out Vietnam, the sound of machine gunfire, and the smell of gunpowder.” Handing the picture to my husband, he said, “This picture took me back to times of safety, of playing tag at church, and my teen years. In all honesty, it saved my life. But it should be yours now. It’s a bit the worse for wear; you know, she gave it to me over forty-two years ago.” Particles of blackdirt were embedded under the plastic along all four sides of the photo. As Don accepted it, Doyle added, “This picture of Jill represented America to me – everything I prayed I would be able to return to; but she is your wife, so I would like you to have it. Please tell her thank you for saving my life, and to remember the dirt around the edges is Vietnamese dirt.