"T his is Latch."
That's how Roy Hoffmann opened the calls, with a name he hadn't used in 35 years, a name the man at the other end of the line last heard crackling over a radio receiver in Vietnam.
He called all the men who'd been under his command there, finding their names in old mimeographed records and photos once stored in his attic and now spread all over his second-floor office.
"Latch, remember me?" he would say, transporting them back to those days on the Swift boats, the patrols in the Mekong Delta or even the middle of a firefight, when "Latch" had a habit of checking in from headquarters on the radio.
They had become bus drivers and lawyers and cotton farmers, retired or heading in that direction. Some remembered him by other names, Red Rooster or Smiley or Mad Dog Hoffmann. All of them remembered him.
"Before that call I hadn't thought for 30 minutes about Vietnam in 30 years," says George Elliott, a retired naval officer tending his garden in Delaware.
Now here was Hoffmann, calling out of the blue, asking, "Have you read the book?" Just like that -- "the book." And Elliott knew he must be talking about historian Douglas Brinkley's book "Tour of Duty," describing John Kerry's time as a Navy officer in Vietnam. It was about them, too, after all.
Did he think it was accurate, Hoffmann wanted to know. Did it do them justice?
The results of Hoffmann's one-man crusade are now infamous, this year's version of the campaign mudfight -- was Bill Clinton a draft dodger? did Dan Quayle buy drugs? -- one of those nasty stories that pop up in the political season, with bit players dredging up thin allegations about a candidate's past.
Nearly nine months later, the group Hoffmann founded -- Swift Boat Veterans for Truth -- has raised $7.5 million, hired a PR agent, and run those notorious television ads claiming Kerry lied about his heroism in Vietnam. The group has moved so far beyond Hoffmann's attic they're having trouble convincing people they are not shills for President Bush.
Hoffmann is an unlikely player for this high-stakes political game. He'll vote for Bush but doesn't much respect him -- calling him "impulsive," an insult from an admiral who always insisted on discipline. The closest Hoffmann ever came to being a political operative was once collecting signatures on his block for John McCain.
Nonetheless the story begins with "Latch," a persona laid to rest for 35 years who suddenly felt his honor challenged after finding himself as the bad guy in a presidential hopeful's biography. For his men, no matter what side they take now, Latch is the logical one to have opened this box. Even back then their commander was the focus of much of their gossip, the old salt from Korea whom they revered or feared, the one whose voice on the phone can still make them stand at attention.
As they replay old questions in their minds -- how did they behave out there? Is there anything at this late stage in life they ought to repent for? -- they remember Latch as either a hero by example or the devil on their shoulder, pushing them to the edges of both their fear and the rules of war. For those who remember him less fondly, Latch, not Kerry, is the Swift boat veteran with the most explaining to do.
By now, the Hoffmanns' home in Richmond has lost the rhythms of retirement. The downstairs floor is spit-shine tidy, there's a sunny kitchen with a watering can waiting to be filled, photos of Hoffmann in uniform surrounded by his five daughters, formal shots of the grandchildren neatly arranged on the side tables.
These days, Hoffmann and his wife spend most of their time in their makeshift offices -- Mary Linn in the basement answering hundreds of e-mails, Roy upstairs, surrounded by so many open boxes that Mary Linn can't get in to vacuum. They see each other at dinner. The yard is not what it used to be.
No one would call Hoffmann frail, but he's 78, small and stooped. He can't hear that well and often walks around whistling -- his "mood thermometer," daughter Hilarie Hanson calls it.
"Things just slip my mind nowadays," he says, losing the name of someone's secretary. But he doesn't leave it at that. He runs upstairs, finds the guy's number, calls and asks for the secretary's name. His manner isn't fussy, but still direct and exacting. His woodworking is known for its details.