April 29 marks the 40th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon, the moment in history when an exhausted U.S. accepted the imminent failure of the war in Vietnam and pulled troops out of the sick and sullied country. This anniversary coincides with the publishing of author and USF alumnus Jim Lamb’s book, “Orange Socks & Other Colorful Tales,” a collection of stories surrounding his seven-month exploration of self and life during the Vietnam War.
Lamb avoided the draft and joined the military in 1967 in Pennsylvania. While he had a penchant for “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll,” Lamb was a new husband and soon-to-be father with bills that needed paying.
“The draft board had set up districts, and because I was in another district, I had another 30 days to renew. I thought I’d rather go in the Navy, which was a four-year commitment,” Lamb said. “I liked their uniforms better, and when you’re 20-something those things are important. The Navy also had better education programs.”
His general knowledge betrayed his test-taking skills and soon he was assigned to troubleshoot radios. Though he never actually fixed any.
“I was a very good troubleshooter, but I was terrible at fixing things because I lacked the coordination,” he said.
After training in Memphis at the same time of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and traveling the world, Lamb was eventually put on rotation between Da Nang, Vietnam, and his base in Atsugi, Japan, working with intelligence operations.
“Our planes had no guns or armor. They just made tapes of people speaking Russian, Vietnamese and Chinese,” he said. “They would fly back and we would listen to these tapes.”
Lamb said upon returning home, the reception he got from some people was not what he was expecting. At church, he met a couple that expressed its feelings on the war.
“They were throwing things in my face — literally,” he said. “I remember going to a church in Pennsylvania and a husband and wife said to me afterward, ‘Why are you over there killing babies?’ I said, ‘What? I’m working on radios.’ And they said it’s the same thing. Well it’s not”
Lamb has always been a storyteller, and 30 years after the fact, he was encouraged by some bandmates to write his stories down.
“For seven years in Sarasota I played bass (in a band with Sam Harris) … the keyboard player was his wife. We would sit down to fix something, and it would remind me of a funny story and I would tell him and everyone would laugh. A couple weeks would go by and I’d tell another story and they’d laugh,” he said. “Sam said, ‘You got to write these down.’ I thought, ‘Who cares?’ But he kept bugging me.”
After years of procrastinating and doubting himself, Lamb started compiling his wisdom.
“I decided 10 years ago I was going to carry this little book around with me and anytime I remembered a moment, I’d write down one to eight words to remember it. It’s like capturing butterflies,” he said. “Then I’d go back and type it out and make notes. After a while it was like, these are cute little stories, but there is no beginning, middle or end.”
Lamb’s favorite story from the war and the namesake for “Orange Socks” centers on his difficulty assimilating into daily Navy life.
Inspection for Lamb was never easy. He would get some of the components right, but the next week his shoes wouldn’t be polished enough or his belt buckle would be dull.
“It was like a Rubik’s Cube. I couldn’t get all the pieces to fit,” he said.
Until one day, three and a half years in, Lamb witnessed something he’d never forget.
“I’m getting ready for inspection and I see a guy in his laundry and he’s taking things out so carefully,” Lamb said. “He had a pair of shoes he only used for inspections, he had a belt buckle he only used for inspections, he had a hat he only used for inspections and I said, ‘What’s all that stuff?’ and he said, ‘Well, that’s my inspection gear.’ So I thought, ‘Well why didn’t I get the memo?”
Lamb said that was the moment he was transformed.
“We had a huge inspection in the hangar the next week and whoever the admiral or commander was came in. We had sailors lined up on one side. The middle was open for planes, and sailors on the other side,” he said. “So this guy comes in with his entourage and they look you up and down and up and down.”
Lamb said it is embarrassing his favorite story involves a prank.
“I was wearing orange socks because I’d never seen an inspection where they checked your socks. So, imagine this entourage going by me, and I pull up my pant leg so that the other guys (across the hangar) could see my socks,” he said. “I held it up for several seconds and all you could hear were the guys on the other end of the hangar laughing and it carried with the echo.”
“So the entire entourage stopped, and I’m sitting there like the cat who ate the canary. By the time they started checking out where the laughter was coming from I had left the hangar,” he said.
Lamb said that is his favorite story because it reflects how far he has grown in his life and that his sense of humor was not lost during the war. The short stories also help him understand the most important things he learned from Vietnam.
“(What) I learned in boot camp is, hurry up and wait,” he said. “That’s kind of what life is like. I didn’t understand that when I was young. You say, ‘God, I want patience and I want it now.’”
Lamb also wants young people to know that individuality is important, but conforming is not always a bad thing.
“You can conform to be part of a team and still maintain enough of your identity that you don’t lose yourself,” he said. “What I learned from the Navy was you will meet the smartest and best people of your life in the military and you will meet some of the dumbest and most rotten people in your life in the military. From the outside they all look the same, but it’s getting to know the person inside the uniform that really makes life interesting.”
Lamb’s book can be found on his website, jslstories.com, along with links for veterans to seek help in all aspects of their life.