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I Was Just Thinking: Making a Vietnam soldier’s day a little brighter

Bill Haglund
Bill Haglund

I took my seat next to a window on a small plane headed from Milwaukee to the Central Wisconsin Airport between Wausau and Stevens Point.

There were few other passengers on the flight, just a pilot and his assistant – no flight attendants – and perhaps three other passengers. An Army soldier, looking haggard and worn from countless hours of flight that began halfway around the world, boarded the small plane and glanced my way as he passed in the aisle. He took a second look, paused, and took a seat next to me.

“I know you from somewhere,” the soldier said.

With that we began a conversation.

“I’m from Iowa,” I said. “Are you? How about auto racing? I was in the Army four years ago in Germany.”

Each time, the soldier shook his head. “No, none of that,” he said.

Trying again, I said, “Well, I’m a sportswriter for the Wausau Record-Herald.”

His eyes lit up, he snapped his fingers and said, “That’s it!”

Then, he went on to tell me how he had recognized my face.

“Your picture is taped to my buddy’s footlocker in Vietnam,” he said, proudly. “He’s a big, big Wisconsin Badger fan.”

It was at that moment I realized one of my most embarrassing moments had put a little sunshine into the life of an American serviceman in Vietnam. For those of you who may not know, servicemen crammed their entire life’s belongings into a wooden box approximately 32 inches long, 16-1/2 inches deep and 13-1/2 inches high. Everything a serviceman owned – his uniforms, shoes, shaving gear, toiletries, even letters and pictures from home – were kept there. Often, men in uniform would tape a favorite photo to the inside of the lid, visible to all when the footlocker was open.

The early 1970s made up the Francis X. Lauterbur era at the University of Iowa, not a particularly good time for Hawkeye football. Still, the fact that I was such a big Iowa fan and had high hopes that the Hawks would soon return to the glory days of the Forest Evashevski 1950s era, I felt that Lauterbur’s first team, which finished 1-10, was an anomaly and that the Hawks would rebound in a big way in 1972.

In fact, I was a Hawkeye “stringer” at the time, scouting northern Wisconsin for possible Iowa recruits. I worked with Bob Grottkau, a former NFL player and an assistant coach at Iowa. Several times, I hauled possible future Hawkeyes to Iowa City on game Saturdays, was given an excellent seat to the game, and turned over the players to the coaching staff for an athletic visit. A couple of those players actually wound up at Iowa.

That bit of background sets the stage for an incident which occurred in the fall of 1972.

While I was a big Hawkeye fan, even known as a “traitor” by some for my work on behalf of the Hawkeyes, my barber Ron was just as big a Badger fan, reflected by the countless photos and banners on the wall of his shop. Despite that, and despite the fact that I was always in for a good-natured ribbing when I visited, I enjoyed going there for a monthly trim.

It was during one of those visits that a friendly wager was made.

Ron, you see, was bald – completely bald – while I was proud of my then thick locks.

Verbal sparring between the two of us continued throughout my trim, and by the time I left his shop that fall afternoon, my fate was sealed.

We had made a bet on the Iowa-Wisconsin game which would be played in Madison that season.

If, as I boldly predicted, Iowa won the game, Ron would have to wear a toupee of my choosing for two weeks. If, as I dreaded, Wisconsin won the game, then Ron got to shave my head.

I had made a very bad bet.

On that November 4, 1972, Wisconsin beat Iowa 16-14 in Madison. I sat through the game, hoping beyond all hope that somehow Iowa would pull out a last-minute victory.

It was the longest Madison to Wausau drive in history. I knew what lay in store.

Probably because I made no bones about being an Iowa fan, thereby rubbing some at my work the wrong way, my bet would not be paid in privacy.

When haircut day arrived, the newspaper photographer was there, recording every lock as it fell. To his credit, Ron did take some pity on me and, rather than leaving me completely bald, he left enough hair that I could once again wear a “flat top” similar to the one I’d worn a decade earlier.

Once Ron had finished, I was coerced into holding a Wisconsin banner, looking forlorn and totally defeated into the camera. It was that photo which ran on the back page of our weekly “weekender” publication.

And, it was that newspaper page with the prominent photo of a defeated Hawkeye holding a Wisconsin banner that was taped to a locker door in Vietnam. And, it was that newspaper page and that photo which brought a smile to an Army soldier fighting a war half-way around the world in a place that divided our nation for more than a decade.

My hair grew back.

I have no way of knowing, but I hope that Wisconsin Badger fan/serviceman, a young man whose name I never knew, survived his tour of duty in Vietnam and I hope he’s back in Wisconsin rooting for the Badgers.

Once again this Saturday Iowa and Wisconsin will renew their long rivalry with the Heartland Trophy going to the winner of the game in Iowa City. The overall series is dead even with each team’s record against the other standing at 42-42-2.

Time has healed wounds of my 1972 shave. But, I still don’t like those $%&@# Badgers.