On a recent Friday afternoon, Vietnam veteran Dave Rowe had Top-40 music from the early 1970s humming in the background at the Sanford Health Veterans Club.
He was talking with Dale Drew, a fellow Vietnam vet who dropped by between doctors’ appointments elsewhere in the facility.
The Veterans Club, which opened at Sanford Health medical centers in Sioux Falls and Fargo in the spring of 2018, is set up for these moments. Drew wanted to relax and Rowe, a retired police officer, was there to help him feel comfortable.
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Every other Friday afternoon Rowe reports to the club as a volunteer. His ultimate purpose, it is clear, is to be a friend to all who pass through the doors. He brings with him a friendly disposition, a gift for storytelling and his own interesting history.
During Drew’s visit they talked about Guam, where Drew spent much of his time as an Air Force mechanic working on B-52s and KC-135s.
Rough but safe landing
Rowe offered up his one Guam story, which involved a landing on his way home from the war. The brakes were out in the plane carrying him and others back to the United States.
In this case, it meant Rowe and his fellow soldiers circled around the airport dumping fuel to decrease the weight of the plane. Meanwhile, a crew on the ground foamed the runway for an emergency landing.
“We’re all thinking, good grief, we’ve been in Vietnam for a year now and this is the way we’re going to go out?” Rowe told Drew. “On a foamed runway in Guam?”
They laughed. Things turned out fine.
Vietnam DJ on Monkey Mountain
Late 1960s and early ’70s music played in the background. Occasionally a smooth-talking DJ announced the next song.
The voice was Rowe’s from his last night playing music for American Forces Vietnam Network. The building was on what was known as Monkey Mountain overlooking China Beach.
Whereas Adrian Cronauer, the subject of the movie “Good Morning, Vietnam” came on in the morning a few years earlier in Saigon, Rowe did a night shift on the peninsula of Da Nang.
“It was an old dilapidated building but it was fun,” Rowe said. “I probably worked with a dozen other people — we had Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines — all the branches. We worked together and we took turns.”
Rowe liked the idea of being on the radio, something he’d never done before enlisting in the Air Force. He learned how to cue up albums, read public service ads directed toward soldiers, and generally keep things jumping for an audience that included half of Vietnam, plus North Vietnam and Thailand, as well as Navy ships.
During the day he delivered mail and worked as a courier of sorts. Usually three or four nights a week he got in a jeep and drove up the hill to the radio station.
“It was always interesting to wonder who was listening to me and what country they were in,” Rowe said. “We didn’t make up names. We always used our name and rank. It was always ‘Air Force Sergeant Dave Rowe.’”
Closing up shop
It was 1972 when the military decided to switch exclusively to the Saigon radio station. Rowe and his fellow DJs had to find other ways to volunteer their time.
“They said anything you guys want to take with you is yours as long as we don’t have to unbolt it from the walls,” Rowe said. “I thought ‘Hmmm, I’m going to record my last radio show.’”
He still has the original recordings stored on old-school reel-to-reel equipment, but he has since downloaded the show onto CDs.
Originally, Rowe came to Sanford Health wanting to volunteer for whatever duty was needed. He told the volunteer coordinators that he was a veteran of the Vietnam War. That led to a conversation about his night job as a DJ and his recording of his last show. Would it be OK to bring it in and play it on those Friday afternoons?
They wanted to listen to it first. Soon after, he brought in a boom box and turned it on.
“It took them about three seconds to say ‘Yes, do it.’” Rowe said. “They all liked the music coming out of it. With my voice from 1972, the whole package makes it fun to be in here. Most of us are from that generation and we can listen to a song and say ‘Yeah, I remember that one.’ The camaraderie with veterans from Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and World War II is pretty special. Whatever war it is, we all have something in common.”
A great place for conversation
When Drew got up to leave the club, Rowe thanked him for the conversation and told him to come back whenever he wished. You can watch TV or use a computer, Rowe said, or just sit in a comfortable chair and take it easy for a while.
“The coffee is always on,” Rowe told Drew. “And we have some of the best chocolate chip cookies in the world — the best I’ve ever tasted. I know because I sample one every day to make sure.”
The music kept playing, thanks to a reel-to-reel tape made nearly 50 years ago by a young man at a small radio station on Monkey Mountain.
“There is always a connection with veterans,” Rowe said. “You can sit and talk for hours to somebody you’ve never met before. If you have three or four people here, pretty soon you’re all sitting around a table trading stories. Now that’s fun, you know? This is a great place.”
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