That entire handshake was done repeatedly among a group of young men who forged a bond during the Vietnam War. As you can imagine, it took forever to say hello.
“They called it ‘the dap’ or something,” Gene Abbott said. “Sometimes there would be four over here and five or six over here and we’d spend 30 minutes doing the handshake. Got to get to everybody.”
It’s been roughly 50 years since Gene Abbott and Jerome Bragg met in the Army. And while time and distance took a toll, they never forgot each other or the bond they shared as soldiers.
“Neither one of us expected to make it back home,” Abbott said. “When you’re over there, your Army buddies are like your family and you have this bond — they call it camaraderie — it’s like you’re just brothers. It’s really hard to explain to anybody who has not been through it. It’s like brothers for life.”
Bragg and Abbott had been drafted around the same time in 1968 and they were only a few months apart in age. Bragg grew up in Washington, D.C., while Abbott (or “Ab” as he was known) grew up in a small town in western Tennessee. After basic training, both arrived at Fort Belvoir in Virginia for advanced individual training. Bragg, Abbott and two other young men — Norman “Scotty” Hunter of Brooklyn, New York, and Marvin Williams of Chicago ? became friends. That friendship remained strong while all four served together at Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Saigon.
“There were a lot more guys, but the four of us just really bonded,” Abbott said. “. You’re around each other all the time. We went over there at age 18 and you can imagine how that is — taken from your home or job or school at that age, a little training, and then over there in a war zone. You’ve got to find something to help pull you through. This is why everybody was so close. Everybody looks out for each other.”
When their tour ended, however, the friends lost track of each other. Abbott and Williams were sent to Fort Rucker and Williams even served as Abbott’s best man when he married a young woman from Ozark in 1971.
But, again, time and distance. Abbott last saw Marvin Williams in 1979 in Chicago. He lost track of him after that and has not been able to locate him since.
Norman Hunter died in 1993.
“Bragg — I never could locate him,” Abbott said. “I tried and tried and never could locate him until 2015 in Florida on vacation.”
His wife, Delaine, was fishing. Having nothing better to do, Abbott turned on his computer and got on the internet. He typed in Bragg’s name. Two addresses and phone numbers came up in Maryland. He called them both and left messages. The next day, Abbott got a phone call from his long-lost friend.
“We just picked up where we left off,” Bragg said. “. Once we reconnected and started talking over the phone it was like we were never apart. It was just amazing.”
Bragg had also looked for Abbott, but he was using the wrong first name. Abbott has always gone by his middle name rather than his first name and Bragg never knew Abbott had another name.
They talked over the phone as if no time had passed. They discovered similarities in their lives since Vietnam — they each have three children and both owned green Buick Electra 225s.
They’ve stayed in touch this time. And last weekend Bragg and his wife, Toni, drove from White Plains, Maryland, to Daleville to celebrate Abbott’s 70th birthday. It was the first time the two friends and seen each other in person since Vietnam.
It was an emotional reunion for everyone at the surprise party.
“I could never have planned the outcome of that day,” Delaine Abbott said. “It was just absolutely amazing. They were so happy to see each other.”
Bragg brought Abbott a photo of the two of them in Vietnam. In the faded color photo, two young men stand next to each other wearing green Army uniforms, they’re sleeves rolled up above their elbows. Their faces are cast down toward their hands. Bragg’s fist is slightly out of focus as it comes down to meet Abbott’s fist.
“We just all bonded together. I can’t even begin to tell you why — it just happened,” Bragg said in a phone interview from his home in Maryland. “I think the Almighty had something to do with that because we looked out for one another . Even to this day, it was just a special bond and it has carried on 50 years later.”