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LAUGHING TILL YOU CRY

By Richard Leiby
Washington Post Staff Writer

Now here's a funny story. It's Sept. 24, 1969, and Warrant Officer David B. Rhodes III is piloting a Huey over the jungle canopy of Laos, trying to rescue wounded soldiers. A Green Beret is dangling from a rope at 200 feet when the chopper's engine is crippled by a 50-caliber round. Rhodes maneuvers frantically to crash-land without killing everyone. Amazingly, most of his crew and the wounded Green Beret survive -- only to be caught in the sights of North Vietnamese Army soldiers.

"I get the door open and I squeeze out, and they're shooting at me. I hear zip, zip, zip," Rhodes says. He begins to chuckle. "And I'm in shock, you know." Now he's struggling to hold back a throaty laugh. "And this is the one day I didn't take my .45 with me. I left it in my locker!"

Then he busts up: "So here I'm unarmed! Heh-heh-heh-heh!"

Guffawing right along are Rhodes's rapt listeners -- including his 28-year-old son, Tom, and a fellow helicopter pilot named Jack Glennon, who survived heavy action north of Hue.

Vietnam: A regular laff riot! Guess you had to be there.

We interrupt this anecdote to bring you an important bulletin: War may be hell, but it's also a potent source of humor. Laughter is often a release valve to offset life's random savagery, pervasive unfairness and inherent unreasonableness. And the Vietnam War was nothing if not savage, random, unfair and unreasonable.

David Rhodes, 56, who earned a Purple Heart for his wounds and the Distinguished Flying Cross for his heroics, knows this well. So does his son, a stand-up comedian with freak-flag hair who never served but had the nerve to make a TV comedy special titled "Viva Vietnam: A White Trash Adventure Tour." Tom Rhodes, a regular on the Comedy Central cable channel, previewed his documentary in Washington Thursday night for the toughest audience imaginable: Vietnam veterans. They laughed, even when they wanted to cry.

Rice paddies, B-52 bomb craters, incoming, tracers, the Cu Chi tunnels, the relentless puk-puk-puk of the chopper blades: "This is the first comedy special with flashbacks," young Rhodes says as he wisecracks his way through the former war zone where more than 58,000 American troops died. He brings the former enemy several peace offerings from America's junk culture, including a Jane Fonda workout video, Rock 'em Sock 'em Robots and a Slip 'n Slide, which he sets up on China Beach in a goof on "Apocalypse Now" ("Charlie don't Slip 'n Slide and we think he should," Rhodes notes).

"I liked it," said former Marine Corps helicopter crew chief Ron Zaczek, who's just published "Farewell, Darkness," detailing his years in therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder. "Some of the flashbacks hit you in the gut, but it also had humor. We didn't spend every damn day over there miserable. This will be a tough thing for some vets to see, but it will be a healthy thing -- to be able to laugh without feeling that you're dishonoring a memory."

"It was fantastic," said former lance corporal John McLean, a self-described "grunt" in 'Nam. "At last, a turning point in the way people are looking at this war."

This is not a particularly good week to joke about Vietnam. Twenty years after the fall of Saigon, many people are still processing the era's bitterness, anger and shame -- emotions brutally revived by the autobiography of former defense secretary Robert "We were wrong, terribly wrong" McNamara, whose book salves his own conscience but has left a lot of vets and their families seething.

"A pathetic attempt to buy his way into Heaven," Zaczek said of McNamara's memoir. "God damn him," seconded McLean.

"I can't think of a more timely film coming on top of the not-quite-deathbed confessions of the former defense secretary," said Skip Roberts, another ex-Marine ("in country '69-'70"). "It may be irreverent, but it's not irrelevant."

Few films have attempted to wring laughs from the Southeast Asian war. Robin Williams's "Good Morning, Vietnam" comes to mind, but its humor was mined mainly from the conflict between a wacky radio announcer and the tight-butted brass. A Vietnam War buddy comedy titled "Operation Dumbo Drop," starring Ray Liotta and Danny Glover, is in the works. Vietnam memories are still raw: "M*A*S*H" was subliminally about Vietnam but had to be set in Korea. There's been nothing along the lines of the World War II farce "Hogan's Heroes."

When Tom Rhodes, who began his stand-up career at age 17, pitched the Vietnam project to Comedy Central last year, the network's senior executives were extremely wary. But Rhodes promised he would strive not to offend veterans -- especially his pop, who returned home from the war with a 50 percent disability (his left leg was ripped open to the bone and his back badly injured in the Huey crash). The resulting one-hour documentary, which will be shown on Comedy Central April 30, the anniversary of the end of the war, is part travelogue, part primer for "the pierced-nipple generation," as the comic describes his peers. ("All that the people my age have been fed is the Oliver Stone version of Vietnam.")

"Before I went, I was really nervous, so I over-studied," Tom Rhodes says. "I can tell you about Dien Bien Phu and the French getting their {behinds} kicked and General Giap. I didn't want to look like Pauly Shore walking around a college campus. I wanted to know everything."

And Rhodes is not just split ends and attitude; he is more thoughtful than your typical MTV-weaned comedian, though no less swaggering. In the motorbike-clogged streets of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, he stops traffic and routinely tosses off one-liners to passersby ("Everybody say Ho!' " he cheerleads while passing a statue of the communist patriarch).

Rhodes employs an expert balance of slapstick and somberness; he breaks the tension at just the right moment. During his visit to the Cu Chi tunnels, which the Vietnamese dug during both the French and American wars and the government now operates as a tourist attraction, he finds himself unable to tell a joke. "I don't feel funny," he says plaintively. Exiting with great relief, he immediately greets a young soldier as "Chuck." Get it?

Anyone who's been in combat, or otherwise faced death by pitiless chance, can appreciate this yin and yang. "You can only understand a war if you talk about the humor and the tragedy at the same time," says former Army captain John Wheeler, who was instrumental in the effort to build the Wall, as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial has come to be known. "A war is by definition a caldron of improbable experiences. And one element of humor is the unexpected."

David Rhodes, a District native, was selling insurance and driving a cab here in 1968 when he enlisted, at the unusual age of 29, for U.S. Army Flight School. It was the last year he could qualify. He had three little boys, and never expected that he would actually serve in Vietnam.

"My logic was, the peace talks had started, and it'll be over, because flight school takes a year," he recalls. Naturally, he ended up with one of the most dangerous jobs, flying supplies and troops into hot "LZs" (landing zones) and hauling out the wounded. The casualty rate among chopper pilots was high. Rhodes departed Washington with two younger guys headed for flight school -- Albert Lewis Barthelme, of Towson, Md., and Robert Hazen Shields II, of Kensington. Both their names are on that black granite wall now.

Dave and Tom Rhodes have visited the Wall together several times. They did it again this week, blending in among the hordes of tourists and schoolchildren. More than anything, Tom says, he made "Viva Vietnam" as a tribute to his father and the others who served.

"I got a double bonus," he says. "Number one, my pop's name is not on that wall. Number two, although he was hurt physically, he wasn't hurt mentally. I think of all the families that have been affected by this war, the drug addiction and the suicides."

Obviously, Tom picked up some things from his father -- a sense of history, of humor and of timing. Dave Rhodes can spin his horrifying war stories and make you howl with laughter just when you start to sweat. "It's funny now, but it wasn't funny at the time," he admits. Then he deadpans: "I was a little upset."

David Rhodes ended up flying a helicopter in Vietnam for one reason. "I wanted to serve my country," he says, "as corny as that sounds." He reared a good boy who went to Vietnam a quarter-century later, believing in another corny old saying. Laughter is the best medicine.


© 1995 The Washington Post Company