The whole evening read like a script from M*A*S*H.
There was Maj. John Lawton, talking about the night eight of them escaped from the Pit to a nearby go-go bar. "Every damn one of us had lost an arm or a leg or an eye or something - and here was this go-go dancer asking, 'What happened to y'all.' One of us said, 'Lookee here, honey, we had a skiing accident . . .'" The 150 dinner guests drown out he rest of Lawton's sentence with laughter.
Lawton continued with how he sneaked the go-go dancer back to the Pit, also known as Walter Reed's Ward One, where the most severaly wounded Vietnam soldiers were hospitalized. She agreed on one condition, that there would be music to dance to. But the tape recorder was broken. "Don't worry, honey," Lawton told her, we'll sing. There were eigh drunks, all singing eight different songs. So I shouted we'll sing "The go-go dancer undulating to "Oh say Star-Spangled Banner.'" They did, the can you see . . ."
Next up on Saturday night's program was Brig. Gen. G. I. Baker, now commanding officer of Walter Reed Army Medical Center, who recalled the dressing down he got from his commanding officer about the night nine years ago. "He wanted to know just what kind of an operation I was running and what he could do to 'punish' those horrible individuals who pulled that stunt." They were men like Maj. Lawton, who had caught 22 bullets in his right side and had spent more than a year in a cast. Baker recalled, "I replied to that commanding officer, 'Well, sir, exactly what else would you like us to do to them?" Baker was interrupted by loud emotional applause.
One of the men in the Pit that night was Max Cleland, a triple amputee and now, at 35, the youngest head of the Veterans Administration. The jokes - from latrine to gallows humor - at Saturday night's roast were all for Cleland as 150 friends, including seven from the Pit, celebrated "Max Cleland Alive Day."
"Exactly 10 years ago today we almost lost Max Cleland - we're here to tell him we are happy he's alive," said Jim Mayer, Cleland's executive assistant. for three hours, that was the last serious thing Mayer said, as he kept up a relentless non-maduin blitz in a style patterned after Steve Martin.
Mayor mocked Cleland's celebrated trick basketball shot, shown in a "60 Minutes" interview. Before lining up the wheelchair to shoot, Cleland twirls the basketball on his finger. On slides, Mayer shows a "slow motion camera" catching the trick - a hand snarled with string, holding the basketball in place.
As Mayer moved around at the mike in his Gucci loafers, it seemed impossible that he himself had lost both legs in Vietnam and was wearing artificial limbs. When mayer introduced John J. (Red) Leffler, Cleland's associated deputy administrator who lost an eye in Vietnam and wears an eye patch, Mayer said that Leffler moonlights as a "part-time salesman for Hathaway shirts."
Leffler also talked of the Pit days. Cleland's dedicated interest in rehabilitating the alocholic Vietnam veteran stemmed from those days, said Leffler, in a seemingly serious moment - until he go to "because there were so many drunken bedmates who 'drove' Max around and kept dumping him out of his wheelchair."
It was Cleland who laughed the loudest when Bill Johnstone, who handled his unsuccessful 1974 campaign for lieutnant governor of Georgia, said that Clenad's post-Watergate morality slogan was "Support Max Cleland - he can only put one hand in the till."
It was these sort of non-pitying jokes that kept Cleland going during the depression of his rehabilitation, he recalls. Today, Cleland, who drives himself to work in a special car, invites neither help nor pity as he whips himself down corridors at top speed and thrusts doors open with his shoulders.
Cleland was one of countless crippled veterans who resented being treated like embarrassing reics of an unwanted war. He and Mayer met as dissidents when they were among the severest critics of the agency they now help run.
Alan Cranston, the California senator who has become a champion for the handicapped, met Cleland during his protesting days. "I was chairing a hearing of the Veterans Committee. I was enthralled by Max's buoyancy. Nobody loves life the way he does."
But, in keeping with the evening, Cranston joked about the "genius" advice Cleland gives fellow Georgian President Carter, in all fields, such as the following "letters": "Instead of paying farmers not to grow food, we should pay people not to eat it. Signed, Max Cleland. P.S.: I think this would work particularly well with cotton."
Cranston then did a take-off on the kind of hyperbole Cleland is sometimes capable of. "As only Max could say," said Cranston, "Where would this country be - without this great land of ours?" Cranston ended with, "and where would we be - without this great Max of ours?"
Cleland returned the compliment. "The reason I'm alive and celebrating life 10 years after is because of you people here tonight. I was really honored you all would accept me as I was.
"And a special thanks goes to the guys in the pit. You were the first to accept me as I was."