In October 2019, lifelong friends Ron Sorter and Bob Tierno authored a book that has its genesis over five decades ago. Their memoir, Letters in a Helmet, is a double-helix ride, taking the reader across a landscape of puberty, fraternity life, military service, career transitions, marriages, war wounds, battles with prostate cancer and bereavement.
They derive the cover of the book from an incident that occurred in 1970. Bob received a photograph of a letter Ron had written to him, which he’d placed in a helmet with other mail being sent home by his troops from the jungles of Vietnam. That image has bonded them for life. It not only appears on the book’s cover but emerges as the metaphor driving its contents.
The book’s subtitle, “A Story of Fraternity and Brotherhood” was demonstrated in full a few months later when Ron, then an infantry company commander, was severely wounded. The Army notified his family but gave them precious few details about the catastrophic event. Their grief was palpable, and they notified Ron’s friends.
When Bob learned about the incident, he contacted his father, Rocky, a Pearl Harbor survivor and colonel in the Infantry, who asked a friend at the Pentagon if he would notify him each day of Ron’s whereabouts and condition. Rocky then called Bob, who relayed that information daily to Ron’s loved ones. The care shown by Bob’s family and the relief felt by Ron’s was, and still is, the emblem of the bond between their families.
This book is an honest and deeply personal memoir of the last 50 years of their intertwining lives, and it is filled with laughter. Early in 2019, as Bob successfully recovered from prostate surgery, the love of Ron’s life, Michelle, passed away, and his grief was endless. They decided then, to write this book.
Targeted Age Group:: 50-80
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
Bob and Ron met when they were fraternity brothers at the University of Oklahoma in the 1960s, when the Draft Lottery was picking the winners and losers to send to Vietnam, some to go and others to be set free. Bob chose not to go. Ron did. While commanding an infantry rifle company there, Ron took a snapshot of a letter he'd written to Bob and had dropped in a sergeant's helmet with others, waiting to be sent back to The World, to friends and family in America.
The image of that snapshot forms the cover of the book and is the metaphor of its contents. It is the inspiration behind the subtitle of the book, "…A Story Of Fraternity And Friendship." Bob and Ron's lifelong brotherhood was fused by the power of their friendship to overcome the civic divide created by the Vietnam War for young males in 1969. Differences as divisive as the Civil War were inflaming America but their friendship overcame all of that. That friendship, described in Letters In A Helmet, has lasted until this very moment as Ron types these words. We mined our hard-earned wisdom as honestly as we could, and put it into this book. It's a memoir of two men laughing about each of their lives, as seen through each other's eyes.
The Stacks of Rubber I Saw When I Was 17…
Do you remember the final scene in Raiders of The Last Ark? That gigantic warehouse?
At 8:00 a.m. sharp, I walked into a similar giant warehouse filled to the ceiling with tires. There were huge excavator and tractor tires leaning in ranks against every empty wall. Passenger and truck tires of every size were crammed into pallets stacked to the ceiling in long aisles of black rubber. The place smelled of fresh hot rubber. It was so hot I was already sweating.
A guy came out of a little office, huge belt buckle, torn cowboy boots, mouth full of chewing tobacco, carrying a paper cup. He leaned against a big forklift that had a gigantic empty pallet on its front forks, looked at me and asked, “You Ron?”
I said I was, so he put out his hand out. After we shook, he spit in his cup. He made it quick: “We ship tars to six states, ya see these orders?” Did he say “tars?”
He showed me a clipboard packed with papers. ”We gotta fill these b’noon. Y’ready?”
I tried to be as business-like as possible, asking, “Yes. Where do I put my lunch?” I showed him my brown bag.
He looked at me, spit again and jerked his thumb towards the office, “In there. Take a piss if ya gotta ‘cause you’re gonna be ridin’ this pallet all mornin’. Hurry up.”
I did, then stepped onto the pallet, as he scanned the first order. He put the clipboard down, looked at me and said, “You afraid of heights?” I didn’t know what he meant. “Hold on!” he yelled as he started the forklift and accelerated around a corner.
As it gained speed, I instinctively grabbed onto the lift’s risers. We sped down a corridor and the pallet began lifting me towards the ceiling. He rolled a halt, yelling up at me, “Gimme sixteen of them 230s.”
“On your left. Look at the label on the bin. The tires have the same label. Make sixteen stacks, one high. Keeps the load balanced. Keeps the order on one level. Hurry up!”
I was holding on for dear life. I looked down. It was ten feet down to the concrete floor. It must have been 100 degrees.
I started loading hot tires onto the pallet, each one covered with little flexible black hairs. Then I would hold on as we sped over to other stacks, sometimes on the floor, sometimes up high. It was like being on an elevator with wheels and a crazy man at the controls. But he knew where every tire he wanted was located, and we worked methodically across the warehouse, filling the pallet as we went.
It wasn’t long before there was no place left to stand. I found myself laying on top of the pallet’s tires holding onto the risers, hoping I could keep them from falling off with me.
When a pallet was full, we’d race for the shipping dock, offload the pallet, pull the pink copy of the order, tape it to a top tire and get another empty pallet. He’d throw his full spit cup away, get another one and yell, “Drink more water, take a piss, hurry up!” I would then run to get on the pallet before he disappeared into the stacks.
All morning, diving into piles of sticky new tires, pulling out a few, stacking them as we raced to a new pile, sweating, sweating, making sure the count was right, dreading the top stacks where the metal roof radiated like a furnace, never stopping.
Merle Haggard songs floated through the stacks with us. Sometimes the cheaper tires would collapse in on each other like pancakes, throwing off my count. The bigger tractor tires could be rolled along the floor later, wheelbarrow tires went inside the truck tires.
I thought I’d worked fast packing peaches in Colorado, but it was nothing like this. There was an antique Coke machine where we’d have a free cold Coke for ten minutes at ten o’clock then begin again. By lunch I was more tired than I’d ever been in my life. I inhaled my lunch listening to Buck Owens and we began again.
In the afternoon, the semis began arriving. Orders were located, brought to the dock and loaded. Between loads, we’d pull more orders. I swore my watch was broken because time had stopped.
Somehow, I made it until quitting time. Sitting in the office with Bill waiting for my ride, he surprised me by saying in a kindly way, “I been doin’ this alone for four years, with no vacation. Two guys can do the work of three so I’m gonna teach you how to run this place for a week while I go down to Houston and screw my honey.”
As we were walking out, I heard him tell the facility manager, “He’ll do. First day jitters but he’ll do fine.” I didn’t tell them I was going to hop a freight and be long gone by tomorrow.
But I didn’t. Mom told me she’d gotten a job at a fabric store. We decided to work, put money away and decide our futures in time. I collapsed on the bed, went to work the next day and the day after that.
After a month I pretty much knew the ropes. Bill would even load tires and let me drive sometimes, spitting into the cup in his shirt pocket.
One day he said, “I think you’re ready. I’m gonna take a vacation in two weeks.” And he did. The manager had asked me if I knew anybody who’d work cheap for a week, so he hired my cousin Freddie. Freddie was my age so with his help I successfully ran the place that week Bill was gone.
I drove the forklift and Freddie got to load the pallet. He hated it, he told me so constantly. I laughed.
In July, I made a weekend trip to Oklahoma University with another uncle who’d gone to school there. Stately old brick buildings, 22,500 students, in-state tuition. It’d be barely doable if I could get a part time job somewhere. I told Freddie I was going to go for it.
By the end of the summer I’d proved that I could run a shipping warehouse at age17. It made me more confident, more certain that I could make it in college.
I applied and was accepted. I had the feeling that once I knew where the road was going, I could put the pedal down. Since I’d only then be limited by the speed of the vehicle, I could fix that by buying a faster car. I’d heard Corvettes were nice. I’ll get a degree in business, make some money and buy one.
By the end of that summer, I had found my compass.
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