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A long ago friend remembers Ristine
POSTED ON 3/18/07 - BY RON JOHNSTON RONJOHNSTON45750@YAHOO.COM
Some time around midnight on April 2, 1968, a loud shot rang out in the PACEX barracks at the 540th Supply Company, Cha Rang Valley, Qui Nhon, Republic of Vietnam. At the scene of the shooting in the first room on the left when entering the building, a young soldier lay in the doorway moaning and groaning with a bullet wound in his chest. About five feet away, another stood with an M-16 rifle in his hands. Also in the room were three other off-duty soldiers, all unarmed. When the MPs arrived, the scene had already been secured; the shooter was in custody of the unit officers; and the victim had been taken away by ambulance for medical treatment. Specialist Four (E4) Doug Ristine of the PX Depot and a Nebraska resident did not survive his chest wound, dying at approximately 1 a.m., April 3. He was 21-years-old.
WHEN RISTINE first introduced himself to Gary Lee Estes at a grocery warehouse in Ft. Worth, Tx., in mid-1965, he called himself "Dell Johns." The 18-year-old Ristine wasn't on the lam or anything. A wannabe rock-'n'-roller, that just happened to be his "stage name." "We became fast friends right off," recalled Estes, who had been discharged from the U.S. Army during that same year. "He was a strange contrast with me," Estes continued. "I'm about 6-foot, and he was well over that (6-3). "Where I was fit from my days of army life, he was all raw bone and elbows. He wore his hair cut shaggy and long, while I still had the classic military haircut. I liked the guy right off." Working the night shift, about two weeks after Ristine and Estes met, the latter was let go from the warehouse "for not being fast enough." Not long afterwards, Ristine was also dismissed from the job. "You know, from then on, we were inseparable," Estes said. "We lived in the same boarding house for a week or so. Then, poverty took over. "Before it did, he convinced me that he was a musician. He could sing as good as anyone I had ever known, and he said he could play the guitar, sax, and clarinet."
Born Nov. 1, 1946, in Bellflower, California, Ristine attended and graduated from Righetti High in Santa Maria in 1964. As a prep student, he was sports editor for the campus Legend newspaper, and also managed the football team. Academically, he enjoyed math and sciences. Able to read music, Ristine indeed could play several instruments. After high school graduation, Ristine - who was from a broken home - resided for a spell with his grandparents in Gothenburg, Nebraska, and briefly went to college at Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln. Dropping out of college, Ristine drifted, and ended up in Ft. Worth. "When we ran out of money and knew that we would soon be kicked out of our boarding house, Doug suggested that we head for California by way of Nebraska," Estes said. "Now, not a whole lot of people go from Ft. Worth, Tx., to any part of California by way of Nebraska, but we did." Or, at least, that was the plan.
On day one of thumbing, the twosome hitchhiked from Ft. Worth to Wichita, Ks., where Ristine had an uncle from his mother's side of the family. "This uncle gave us an old 48 Chevy that we had to tighten the rods down on, and off we went," Estes said. "The car lasted about 25 miles before the engine blew." Day two was also spent in Wichita; and day three, in northern Kansas, on a dark and deserted crossroads during the middle of a thundershower. "It was totally different back then," Estes said. "Two young guys like us hitching around the country was no big deal. "People gave us rides, and sometimes fed us. They just wanted to be friendly." To get out of the downpour, Ristine and Estes sought shelter at a nearby farm house. That night, they slept in the barn, "listening to the rain on the tin roof." The next day, the two hitchhikers resumed their journey, and made it to Gothenburg, staying with Ristine's grandparents. "The house was charming, not large but very nicely done," Estes said. "I was to learn that Doug's grandfather had built it himself. The man had been a master carpenter before retiring, and he had built many of the homes in Gothenburg."
Needing both a car and work to pay for it, Ristine and Estes were hired by a local lumber yard to move drywall from a couple of freight cars to the store. This lasted about a week, and between the two, they earned about $100. The money enabled them to purchase a 1957 Ford from a GM dealer. "The car was quite unique," Estes said. "It had a factory hot rod engine that just needed to be turned up and have the gunk clearned out of it. The air cleaner actually had hay in it." To get the car running, it took them about a week. While they spent many hours under the hood of the vehicle, they also had time to socialize, dating, going to the movie house, and attending the Church of Christ. On one Sunday evening at the church, Estes became a born-again Christian. "Doug had convinced me that I needed Christ in my life," he said. "So, that night, they filled the baptistry, and I surrendered my soul to God." Not long afterwards, Ristine and Estes were back on the road again - driving east. "I know that California is west," Estes said. "But we needed money. So we moved to a bigger city, Grand Island."
THAT ATLAS "FATS" TILFORD, an African-American, had squeezed the trigger on the M-16 which had taken the life of Ristine, there was no question about it. He admitted it, almost immediately after the deed was done. But why? Why was such a senseless shooting committed? An altercation? Obviously, but over what? Musical taste. Say what? According to sworn statements by witnesses to the Army CID, prior to the incident, the three other soldiers in the room had been talking and listening to music. In walked Tilford, who sat on one of the beds. Not long afterwards, a bare-chested Ristine appeared in the doorway of the room and squatted. Not mentioning Tilford by name but looking directly at him, Ristine apparently stated that, "he didn't care for soul music, and what are you going to do about it?" Tilford, who was holding an M-16, responded by telling Ristine to go away and leave him alone, or words to that effect. The next thing that anyone knew, an M-16 had been discharged, and Ristine was leaning over, holding his chest. He then collapsed to the floor. When the Sargeant of the Guard arrived at the room, Tilford was standing over Ristine. "I did it," Tilford reportedly said as he handed the rifle to the Sargeant of the Guard.
BEFORE MEETING Estes, Ristine had been "a devout pacifist," believing that war and killing were all wrong. Over time, though, he changed his mind. "I told him that the people in Vietnam needed a chance at self-determination," Estes said. "I also convinced him that there was evil and that Communism was evil. Back then, I believed with all my heart in the rightness of our cause." After arriving in Grand Island, Ristine and Estes, while working in a plant that made concrete bridge beams, penned a song about war protests. They called it "Angry Soldier." "We had been hearing a lot of songs that were protest songs," Estes said. "So, we figured to counter that." It went something like this: I'm a soldier in Vietnam Just a soldier in Vietnam And a newspaper came along and I read what it said. I just wanted wanted to cry refrain Yes, I'm an angry soldier Just an angry soldier I hate killing just like you But when my country needed me what else could I do but pray.
While in Grand Island, the song writers hooked up with some other musicians, and formed a band. Things were starting to fall in place. "We needed a sax," Estes said, "and we couldn't rent one and didn't have the money to buy one. "So Doug and this other guy stole one. It would prove to be our undoing." What happened was the band got caught by the owner of the sax, and as a result broke up. They were also asked to leave town. But rising out of the ashes, Ristine and Estes re-grouped and formed another band in Lincoln, and called itself "The Fuzz." After countless hours of practice, they booked some (free) studio and made a demo tape. "We were about to break out as they say," Estes said, "when Doug got his draft notice. "We never did make it to California together." During early 1966, Ristine went into the U.S. Army, and was stationed at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. He also spent some time at Fort Gordon, Ga., before shipping out to Vietnam in September 1966. "I saw Doug one last time several months later," Estes said. "I had married and moved to Santa Maria, California. Doug came by on his way to Vietnam. "We spent a wonderful and happy evening together. The next day, he was on the bus to catch the plane that took him to a war torn land."
AFTER PRIVATE TILFORD's detention in Vietnam, he was transferred to a correctional holding facility at Ft. Leavenworth, Ks., in Sept. 1968. On Aug. 18, 1969, he received his separation papers at Leavenworth. Ironically, while in Vietnam, Tilford was highly decorated, receiving the National Defense Service Medal; Vietnam Service Medal; Republic of Vietnam Campaign Ribbon w/Device (1960); Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross with palm Unit Citation Badge; and the Marksman Badge w/Rifle Bar. If there was a court-martial, it's not in his file.
RISTINE ONCE appeared on a list of American servicemen listed as dead on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial who may not have been killed. Part of the confusion about whether he was still alive or not was that his surname was misspelled R-U-S-T-I-N-E. Robert Doubek, who was responsible for deciding which names were to be carved on the Wall in Washington, D.C., actually believed there were as many as 38 veterans mistakenly listed as dead. But he included the names, because he didn't know if he would be able to add them once the memorial was constructed. As much as Ristine's family would have liked to have believed that their son was still alive, they knew better. On a Western Union telegram, dated April 6, 1968, the parents were notified of their 21-year-old son's death in the Republic of South Vietnam. Also receiving the heartbreaking news were Ristine's grandparents in Gothenburg. Perhaps more troubling was how Ristine died in Vietnam. Ristine can be located on Panel 47E-Line 42.