The songs had words like "getting out" and "going home."
"We gotta get out of this place . . ." Chris Noel sings in a lilting voice. That one was by the Animals. Then there was "I Wanna Go Home" -- and "Homeward Bound" by Simon and Garfunkel. And "500 Miles Away From Home."
"Only the guys would sing '10,000 miles away from home,' " Chris Noel says of the soldiers in Vietnam. "They dreamed of coming home."
And she wanted to be there. First it was just her voice -- sent from Hollywood via American Armed Forces Radio -- sexy, soft, lilting, announcing those songs of going home. "A Date with Chris" her show was called. It was 1966.
The GIs meticulously counted their days in Vietnam, she recalls. "Sometimes they would take a drawing of a woman and mark it into 365 parts and mark each one off as each day [of their tour] passed. I wasn't offended by that. I've never really understood the women's movement."
Then she toured Vietnam. Where? Everywhere, she says. She can barely recall. Talking to the guys, signing autographs, singing songs, singing songs to them, changing the words of "Sunny" to fit the names of the faces:
"Bobby, yesterday my life was filled with rain . . ." she's crooning it now in her hotel room suite. "I used to love to sing that song. It would make the guys blush." She stands up. "One time I was singing it -- I would take the guy's hand, and the guy would put his arm around me -- and here's what happened." She grins and reaches behind her back, miming a pinch of her rear. "I just pulled his hand away and kept singing," she says, laughing.
They took her radio show away in 1970. And for the next 12 years, her life was an amalgam of bad marriages and bad times: few jobs, post traumatic stress disorder -- which affected many Vietnam veterans. She checked herself into a psychiatric hospital in New York City for three months.
In the last two years, she's dealt with her own troubles by dealing with other Vietnam veterans. She considers herself a veteran too.
"There's a spirit and a sympatico. I just love the Vietnam veterans."
She was at the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial two years ago, and she'll be here Saturday to entertain for the anniversary commemoration, National Salute II. She'll wear her mini-skirt and white go-go boots, the same kind of outfit she often wore in Vietnam. There are even $2 tickets you can buy to win a lottery for an actual "date with Chris." ("It's a gourmet dinner," she explains.)
"I still ask myself, 'Why am I compelled?' " Noel says. "In the '60s, I felt I was building morale. In the '80s, I feel I'm part of the healing process."
Physically, there are no hard edges about Chris Noel. At 43, she has hazy green eyes, a slender, long-legged figure and laughs easily, boisterously -- sometimes a little giddily -- at the funny parts of her story.
It's not so much that she's caught in a time warp -- it's more a mind warp. She carries Vietnam with her everywhere. Nothing before or after those four years of involvement has given Chris Noel the kind of identity and definition she now has. "A job was created in the '60s for me that was very unique," she says. "There isn't a job for me right now in pain situations . . . I was never blessed with children, but I feel I am a nurturer."
She's best at playing herself. She narrated a film documentary about Vietnam called "Where Have All the Soldiers Gone," and has a small role in a film called "Cease Fire" (which she expects to come out in 1985) in which she plays the wife of a Vietnam veteran who kills himself. It's a role she also played in real life.
She has some friends who have written an "action adventure" film script called "Good Morning, Vietnam" in which one of the lead characters is named Chris Noel. "The way they have done this is such a tribute to me," she says. "It's the respect and honor they've given me. You know, I grew up an attractive woman, blonde, and if you're blonde and blue or green-eyed, from the moment you grow up, in America, you're ridiculed with 'dumb blonde' or 'Why are you always smiling? What have you got to be smiling about?' "
She was an actress who'd already worked with Steve McQueen ("Soldier in the Rain") and Elvis Presley ("Girl Happy") when she had her first contact in 1965 with returning Vietnam veterans. She and other entertainers visited hospitalized veterans in San Diego. "We saw bed after bed of double and triple amputees," she says. "I'd never seen that kind of -- what's the word? -- destruction. And I saw the smiles on their faces -- I saw what a difference people could make coming in. I went outside and felt numb."
She couldn't get on the Bob Hope tour because, "I wasn't a big star," she says. What she did get was a broadcasting job with the American Armed Forces Radio in late 1966, and soon after that, "A Date with Chris."
"I took the job, because I wanted to do something for my country," she says. She played top-40 songs and, in between, sent words of comfort over the airwaves. "All they had were little transistor radios to take them away from the lonely nights," she says of her listeners, "and for 55 minutes to have some softness in their lives made an incredible impact."
She went to a singing coach, learned to sing a few songs ("I couldn't even carry a tune in the beginning") and took her act to Southeast Asia. "I would go out to patrols," she says. "The guys would come out from trees and bushes. I would talk to them and sign autographs . . . They looked like they were haunted."
She says she that she was told she "had a price on her head" because of her morale-boosting work.
"When I was in Vietnam, I was going, going, going, giving, giving, giving," she says, "putting out energy . . . I felt I had to be strong for my men. That's how I looked at them."
In 1968, she met Ty Harrington, then a lieutenant, over a dinner in Saigon. They courted during her tours of Vietnam and his periods of rest and relaxation in Hawaii. They were married in Miami in January 1969 and Harrington, by that time a captain, was restationed.
"I remember going as the wife of a captain to the base," she says. "I'll never forget the wives of some officers. They were so nasty to me: 'Well, what were you doing in Vietnam?' They were as bad as the protesters. For one thing, they couldn't stand me because I had a miniskirt on."
By the end of the year, Noel and Harrington were in Nashville. He was out of the Army and out of work. Their marriage was soon in trouble; Noel says he once threatened her with a gun. A few months later, he killed himself. "He shot himself in his girlfriend's apartment," Noel says calmly. "I really feel both of us were going through a lot of stuff. We could talk about Vietnam but I'd never talk about my feelings and he wouldn't talk about his."
The following year, Noel got a notice that her show was going off the air. She shrugs. "Maybe, because I wasn't very good, maybe the impact had worn off, maybe I was burned out. I was."
She describes her psychological state as "holding on by a thread," and laughs hard when she says it. "I pretty much lost the '70s." By 1973, she was remarried to a Texas oil producer she had met at a New Year's Eve party and was living in Midland, Texas. That marriage lasted 6 1/2 years. "He liked fast cars and fast boats and things like that . . . I couldn't handle the stress of cracking bones, broken necks."
She now lives in West Palm Beach, Fla., with her parents, and works as an interior decorator.
She wrinkles her nose and smiles when asked how she likes it. "It's okay," she says.
Mostly, she is still wrapped up in the world of Vietnam veterans, speaking at workshops and conferences. She says she has just finished producing a 13-part series called "The New Vets" for a television station in Ft. Lauderdale.
She doesn't attribute her troubled past years solely to her experiences in Vietnam. "I wouldn't blame it on anything," she says. "It's just something that happened in my life. I didn't have a support system. I saw horrible scenes in Vietnam. I had a husband who put a gun to my head. All I can say is thank goodness it's all in my past."
She sighs contentedly. "Isn't that great?"