Among life's blessings are the times when our trajectory intersects with other lives that are unusual and original and that have a lasting effect upon us. Among life's sadnesses is that too often it is long after the fact when we recognize that our own lives have been honed and shifted by these individuals.
When Maj. Gen. Charles P. Stone took command of the 4th Infantry Division in Vietnam early in 1968, I was prepared to dislike him. He replaced a commanding general for whom I had great respect, and their personalities were almost exact opposites. The previous commander was taciturn, serious, and reserved. General Stone was talkative in the extreme. He didn't just give guidance, he elaborated on the reasoning behind the guidance, his previous experience in such situations, and on and on.
General Stone was the only general officer I've ever known whom I would describe as "quirky." That term could be misleading, however, because he was also highly intelligent and totally competent.
His quirky-ness became apparent to me one night when, at about 2 a.m., the division base camp came under extended 122 millimeter rocket attack. Soon the bunkered-in Tactical Operations Center, my domain, was overrun with officers racing about, requesting artillery, air strikes, information. I was in the middle of this, juggling radio handsets, relaying requests, calling out locations to an action officer posting maps.
Into the middle of this came General Stone. He was wearing a bathrobe and house slippers and clutching a batch of letters and writing materials under his arm. He commandeered a chair, settled under the brightest light bulb in the TOC, right in the path of the most traffic, and proceeded to answer his wife's letters. He cocked an ear to the activity going on, but he mostly re-read the letters and wrote. He also spoke up every few minutes to mention something interesting his wife had said or to tell me a bit about his farm in Virginia.
I thought he was nuts. And then, gradually, I came to realize that this consummate soldier, combat commander in World War II, veteran of Korea, was demonstrating confidence in those of us handling the situation and complete, relaxed confidence in himself. He would soon receive kudos for the way he fought the enemy in the 1968 Tet Offensive, when his 4th Infantry Division racked up the highest "kill" rate of all the divisions.
Not long after the rocket attack, I was assigned to a battalion out in the boondocks. One day a helicopter fluttered in to our location, and General Stone alighted. With senior visitors, you have to wonder: Will he ask me something I can't answer? Will I embarrass myself?
With General Stone, I knew which buttons to push. As we walked the perimeter, he asked me two simple questions. And then I said, "General, what move do you think the enemy will make next?" That was all it took. For the rest of his visit, he enlightened me with his thoughts. And they were well worth listening to.
The general may have been annoying to his colleagues. He didn't hesitate to proclaim his exceptional knowledge and ability. Thing was, he was right. This may have made it even harder to swallow.
He readily shared his opinions of some of those colleagues with his beloved wife, Mary. Contemplating the possibility of a third star, which would mean another year in Vietnam, he was not impressed with some who'd already been selected. Of two recent ones, he told her in a letter, the first was "one-third the officer I am, and (the other) never introduces a new thought or tactic."
His letters reveal a deep devotion to his wife, and he ultimately chose to retire following his year commanding a division in combat. He went home to become a gentleman farmer, a natural choice for one who'd initially aspired to be a landscape architect. He grew the trees and flowers he loved, talked to his animals, and helped his neighbors. He painted houses, says Bernard Edelman, in the Vietnam Veterans Association periodical, for widows and others who needed assistance.
He was not, I understand, included much in the ranks of retired generals who advise and assist the active Army. The "maverick general," no shrinking violet on active duty, lived more than 40 years in quiet retirement, just good neighbor Charlie Stone. He died a few months ago at the age of 96 and was buried at Arlington.
I've had the good fortune to have my life shaped by many good people. Major General Charles P. Stone was among the best.
Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."