Long after Vietnam War, sorrow it brought lives on

October 22, 1998|By MICHAEL OLESKER

There were two guys named Jim Wood -- the young fellow who went off to war, and the haunted man who came back. And his father, James, now 84 and living alone in Catonsville, clings to hope he may see his son come home again, in either version.

The son has been gone since 1987, but maybe much longer. A different Jim Wood came back from Vietnam, back from his Green Beret days in jungles where he remembered being so ravenous that he lived off insects and fought a little girl for the culinary rights to a lizard.

By then, maybe he'd already lost the traces of the previous Jim Wood, the kid who went to Mount St. Joe and Edmondson High, the ballplayer with enough promise that the Pittsburgh Pirates scouted him and he imagined a life of perpetual youth in front of cheering crowds.

"I remember the night he came to our house," recalls an old friend, Scott Miller. "He told us he'd joined the Army to go to Vietnam. I said, 'What about baseball?' He said, 'Ted Williams did his duty and came back to play baseball, and so will Jim Wood.' "

Williams, the wondrous Boston Red Sox hitter, left the big leagues for service in World War II and Korea. Miller, the kid with Williams-type dreams, never returned to baseball after Vietnam. A piece of him never even returned to Baltimore.

"He seemed restless when he came home, like he wasn't himself," the father was saying yesterday. James Wood has had health problems this year. Though 6 feet tall, his weight has dwindled to not much more than 120 pounds. He imagines Jim coming through the door any time now, though he hasn't heard from his son in more than a decade. Jim would now be 55 years old; the war has been over for roughly a quarter-century.

"He kept saying, 'I've got to get away,' " James Wood remembers. "From the time he came from the service, he wasn't himself. We were always close. But he came home and he was distant, he had a faraway look. I tried to talk about the war, but he wouldn't. I know about war."

The father served in the Navy in World War II and saw service on Okinawa and Iwo Jima.

"Rough ones," James Wood says. "I know how it takes time to get squared away."

But his son came home nearly 30 years ago, and never found the fellow he'd once been.

"I remember letters my family used to get from him in Vietnam," Scott Miller says. "He'd say he was gonna come home and teach me to play baseball. And then the letters stopped. There was a rumor he was a POW. And then we got a phone call one night from his dad, saying Jim was missing and presumed dead."

James Wood had assumed when a steady stream of letters ceased altogether that his son was gone.

It was, Miller remembers, "a couple of years later" before he knew differently. Miller was sitting in his family's living room and glanced out the window. A man in a military uniform strode up the walk.

"It was like Lazarus rising from the dead," Miller says. "My little sister and I ran outside and just hugged him and hung all over him."

Miller was a teen-ager then, and Jim Wood began working out with him on a baseball field. Wood's own big league dreams were gone, but he saw Miller as a surrogate.

"He was grooming me to be the ballplayer he hadn't been able to be. His first summer back, he worked with me every day. He gave me the drive and desire. I just didn't have Jim's ability.

"But he was a completely different guy than he'd been. Before Vietnam, he smiled a lot, he laughed a lot. When he came back, that spirit was gone. He kept talking about getting away. And then, here and there, he'd talk about the war."

Once, Wood told Miller, he was "starving in the jungle, cut off from everybody. He made a fire, and he was cooking a lizard to eat. A little girl came up and grabbed it right out of the pan. Jim said he grabbed her by the hair and pulled a knife on her. And then he caught himself.

"He told this story to my father and me. My father said, 'But, Jim, you didn't do it. You didn't hurt the little girl.' And Jim said, 'No, but I almost did.' He talked about hiding in the jungle, living off the land, eating insects. And he kept talking about getting away."

For a while, he did. He went to North Dakota, to Wyoming, to Missouri. Then he came back home, worked steadily, but couldn't seem to find himself.

"We were living in Ellicott City," Miller remembers. "One Christmas Jim came over, and we went for a walk. He said, 'There are some things I did, one day I'll have to face almighty God about them.' I said, 'Jim, you were in a war. You had to do what you had to do. Quit beating yourself up.' "

Instead, he went away. He never told anybody why, and never said where he was going, and never contacted anyone. Miller, a real estate man who was once a Baltimore County policeman, tried to track him down at the elder Woods' request.

"You name it, I've tried it," Miller says. "I've run his name through every system imaginable. He doesn't show up. I believe he's still out there, and his father wants to see him. But I don't know how to find him."

The war is over for a quarter-century but not for everyone. Jim Wood brought pieces of it home with him and, all these years later, those who loved him still live with its effects.

Pub Date: 10/22/98

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