Two veterans who met while serving in Vietnam reconnected — 47 years later — in Woodstock June 13.
Fred Strang, of Woodstock, was serving in the U.S. Army in 1969 in Cu Chi, Vietnam, when he met Steve Manning for the first time. The two were fast friends and have remained in touch since their initial meeting.
“I met Fred on the first or second day. You know how you can meet someone and you just click? That’s what happened with us,” Manning said.
When Manning was transferred from Cu Chi and working at a nearby fire support base, his wife gave birth to their first son. Strang is the one who got the call from Red Cross and wrote the note to be delivered to his friend, a note that Manning has held on to all of these years.
“When I got back to the base, he had a cigar with me,” Manning said.
Strang was discharged before Manning, and Manning sent him home with a note to be delivered to his wife in the event he didn’t make it back himself.
The two had the briefest of reunions in 1990 when Manning showed up unannounced at Fred’s Upholstery in Woodstock, Strang’s business. Manning was working as a hotshot trucker, driving a big rig under a deadline. A delivery scheduled from Virginia to Peoria didn’t exactly have Woodstock on its route, but Manning rolled into town anyway to surprise Fred at work.
“He had his back turned to me, and I walked in. I said I needed something refinished. He said ‘I know who you are, I can recognize that voice anywhere,’” Manning said.
Manning was pressed for time, so the two only visited for a few minutes. As years passed, they have exchanged handwritten letters and sent Christmas cards, photos of their children and other memories to each other. Often the exchanges came with the promise to get together someday, but making it actually happen eluded them for many years.
“It just didn’t work out,” Manning said. “We’ve been sending Christmas cards to each other for years and saying we are going to get together. It was year after year, getting these cards. Then we get a card that says Fred had a heart attack. I told my wife, we’ve got to do something.”
But the friends still didn’t make plans.
“Then in our Christmas letter this year, we read that Fred had another heart attack. Last February, I was diagnosed with cancer,” Manning said.
Deciding they would not let any more time pass, the friends coordinated a reunion. Manning and his wife planned a road trip to Woodstock to reconnect. They picked up right where they left off, after the initial greeting took place.
“We came in the front door and it was tears and hugging,” Manning said.
The wives also hit it off and enjoyed listening to their husbands while they recalled the ups and downs of their time spent in Vietnam.
“Every night we’d go to a movie, they’d hang a sheet on the side of the mess hall. You’d be watching the movie and there were incoming mortars. We’d take cover and come back and finish the movie,” Strang said.
Manning lives in Roanoke, Va., with his wife, Charlotte. Strang lives in Woodstock with his wife, Janice. Both couples have two sons, all in their 40s.
They’re hoping their reunion might inspire others to reach out to long-lost friends, keeping in mind that life can be short and nothing is guaranteed.
“You just don’t know. Hopefully we’ll be around in another 10 or 20 years, but we don’t know,” Manning said.