Chesty Puller and the VW Van

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Humor  |  House: Booksie Classic

“They are in front of us, behind us, and we are flanked on both sides by an enemy that outnumbers us 29:1. They can’t get away from us now.”

— Lieutenant-General Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller, USMC

If this story wasn’t completely the product of my imagination, it would have happened in the summer of 1969…

My VW van rolled into the field where the protesters had gathered.  We were in Quantico, Virginia.  Across the street was Quantico Municipal Park.   That afternoon the city was unveiling a statue honoring its fallen soldiers from the Korean War.  The park was filled with people wearing fancy clothes, and soldiers in their service uniforms.

It was the height of the Vietnam War, and protests were occurring across America.  That’s where I came in.  I drove the van to protests and music festivals, selling tee shirts, love beads, and anything else other hippies would give me money for.  One side of the van sported a large peace sign, the other carried the phrase “Make Love Not War”.

I slid open the cargo door, set up a folding table, and laid out my merchandise.  I pushed the button on my battery operated tape machine, serenading the crowd with Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant.”  That song always got people in the mood to buy my stuff.

Across the street, I could see people taking turns, getting on the podium, talking about the statue.  I didn’t pay them much attention.  I was pretty sure they weren’t going to buy anything from me.  The speeches all sounded alike.  The audience responded to each with polite applause when the speaker finished.

I looked up when the audience broke into a roar.  I heard shouts of “Semper Fi”, “Oorah,” and “Give’m hell!”  The elderly man who stood at the podium did not seem imposing.  But when he spoke, his deep, gravelly voice was mesmerizing.  Even the protesters stopped chanting their anti-war slogans to listen.

A man wearing a USMC tee shirt was inspecting my merchandise.  I pointed across the street and asked him, “Who is that guy?”  He said, “That’s the toughest son of a bitch that ever walked the face of the earth.  He is Lieutenant-General Lewis B. Puller, but everyone calls him Chesty.”


In September 1942, during the battle for Guadalcanal, Puller’s battalion found itself surrounded by a larger Japanese force.  He ran to the shore, and signaled the USS Ballard.  The destroyer provided fire support while landing craft rescued his troops.  Puller was awarded a Bronze Star for his quick thinking.


The crowd cheered again when Chesty finished his speech.  I went back to hawking my merchandise.  My peace sign tee shirts were selling like hotcakes.  The ceremony across the street ended with the unveiling of the statue.  As darkness fell, the protest turned into a party. 

You can work up a pretty good thirst spending the day protesting.  The beer was flowing and the air was thick with smoke, legal and otherwise.  The weed wasn’t nearly as powerful back then, but nobody knew the difference.  When I woke up the next morning, my first thought was, “I shouldn’t have drank so much last night.”

The concept of morning was somewhat vague.  It was almost noon and most of the protesters had already left.  I packed up as fast as I could and hit the road.  I had a long drive ahead.  My next stop was in upstate New York.  

The city of Quantico is bordered on three sides by Marine Corps Base Quantico and on the fourth by the Potomac River.  On the way in and out, the MPs who checked my license before they waved me through the gate did not seem happy to see me.  Driving a hippie themed van through a military base wasn’t my idea of fun either.  I was hoping the three miles between me and Interstate 90 would elapse uneventfully.  I was wrong.

When the engine started sputtering, I checked the fuel gage.  It pointed to the 3/4 mark.  The problem was not as simple as an empty gas tank.  When the vehicle stalled, I steered it to the side of the road.  I walked to the rear and pulled up the engine bay door.  Not that it would do any good.  I knew nothing about automobiles beyond how to drive them.

I pondered my situation.  I had a beard and hair halfway down my back.  I was driving a VW van covered with peace signs and anti-war slogans.  The Vietnam War was raging and I was stranded in the middle of a Marine base.  I needed a miracle.

Gravel crunched behind me as a vehicle rolled up.  I turned just as an elderly man, puffing on a pipe, climbed out of a Jeep.  My jaw dropped when I realized I was face to face with Chesty Puller.


Still on Guadalcanal, during the Battle for Henderson Field, Puller’s greatly outnumbered troops fought the Japanese for control of the strategic location.  Puller’s men killed 1400 Japanese in a three hour battle and maintained control of the airfield.


“What the hell is this abomination of a vehicle doing, polluting the road through this fine Marine installation?”

I tried to mumble an explanation but was having a hard time getting the words out.  Fear will do that to you.  Before I finished talking, Puller was on his knees, shining a small flashlight into the engine compartment.  He turned to me and said, “Hold the flashlight right here, I think I know what the problem is.”  He reached in, pulled some tubes loose, and held a small, plastic device up to the sunlight.  “Looks like you’ve got a clogged fuel filter.  I’ll bet a dollar most of you long-hairs don’t even know what a fuel filter is.”

Before I could answer, he took in a deep breath, put one end of the filter in his mouth, and exhaled.  Gas and bits of debris flew out the other side of the filter.  He held it up to the light again and said, “That may have done the trick.”  He connected it back to the fuel line and said, “Get in and crank the engine.”  I did, and it started.

I climbed back out to thank the man.  I noticed his hands were greasy from the work he’d just performed.  I said, “Let me get you something to clean up with.”  I opened the cargo door and grabbed the first thing I saw.  A Keep On Truckin’ tee shirt.  Chesty broke out in a grin when I handed it to him.  As he wiped his hands, he said, “I guess hippie tee shirts are good for something.”

“Sir, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your help.  I’ll be glad to pay you for your time.”

“Son, I don’t have a use for your money.  I’d suggest you spend it a haircut and a shave the next time you’re near a barber shop.  And, you need to get a new fuel filter as soon as you can.  That one isn’t going to last much longer.” 

I turned to get back in the van, when he said, “Wait a minute, maybe there is something you can do for me.  My daughter’s birthday is tomorrow, and I haven’t bought her a gift yet.  You got anything in that van a proper lady would appreciate?”

Now it was my turn to grin.  I knew exactly what to give him.  Earlier that year, I’d picked up a hitchhiker while driving through Arizona.  Turned out he was a member of the Navajo tribe, and his family had been making jewelry for generations.  When I dropped him off, he insisted I take a bracelet as payment.  It was made from silver, with turquoise inlays.  It was beautiful.

I handed Chesty a small box.  When he opened it, his face lit up.  He nodded his head and said, “Impressive!  Virginia will love this.”  He reached out his arm and we shook hands.

The van drove through the gate, back on civilian soil.  I breathed a sigh of relief.  I felt even better when I found an auto parts store and got a new fuel filter.  Before I hit the road again, I double checked the map.  The place I was heading was about 90 miles north of New York City.  

I asked myself, “Why the hell are they staging a music festival in some tiny town in the middle of nowhere?  Who ever heard of Woodstock?  I hope this isn’t a total bust…” 


During the Korean War, Puller commanded the First Marine Regiment.  His men participated in some of the bloodiest battles of the war, at Inchon and the Chosin Reservoir.  He was awarded his fifth Navy Cross for heroism, becoming the most decorated Marine in American history.


Submitted: August 05, 2018

© Copyright 2021 Serge Wlodarski. All rights reserved.

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Add Your Comments:


Criss Sole

I actually looked up "Alice's Restaurant." I have not heard it before, but it certainly set the mood for the story. It was very heartwarming to see that even though Chesty and the young man where from two completely different worlds, they were able to help each other out. Great story!!!

Sun, August 5th, 2018 4:13pm


Thanks, I like to write stories that bring different people together. We are all the same on some level.

Mon, August 6th, 2018 5:37am


One of your best, Serge. Touches of humor throughout, but that nervousness was so real when the van broke down, the jeep pulled up and THE man got out! They swallowed their differences, helped each other out....and where the hell is Woodstock :)

Sun, August 5th, 2018 7:24pm


Hehehe! Thanks, even though this was completely fiction, I grew up on and around military bases during the Vietnam War. Being a long haired kid playing golf with soldiers had a similar feel to this story.

Mon, August 6th, 2018 5:40am

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