Life Sketches by Terry Berkson: Thor Dackin, A portrait

Life Sketches by Terry Berkson

Thor Dackin, A portrait

Thor Dackin, center

The current attack on Ukraine reminds me of Russia’s invasion of Hungary back in 1956 and an army buddy who had been a product of the Hungarian Revolution. His name was Thor Dackin. His family upon fleeing Hungary and entering America, settled in Philadelphia. The first time I saw him was in June of ‘65 on the troop train that was carrying us and several hundred other guys down to Fort Gordon, Georgia for basic training. He was sporting a wild black head of hair that hung down to his shoulders. I remember thinking, ‘This guy’s looking for trouble. Wait till a drill sergeant eyeballs him.’

The very same day we all got skin-head haircuts but somehow Dackin’s demeanor didn’t change. I heard later, that shortly after we arrived at company D, Dackin was called into the first sergeant’s office and warned that he’d better not try to leave. At first I thought that he was merely a contentious rebel but when I saw him putting baby oil on his pretty face before he climbed into his bunk, I realized this guy defied type-casting. Almost every word he uttered was a complaint. When he’d call my name it sounded like he was swearing. He complained about the food, how early we had to get up, why we had to break-in “two lousy pair” of boots and so on. Nevertheless, he was funny, colorful and — when he wanted to be — surprisingly competitive.

In an attempt to define himself he’d say, “Hey, I’m a product of the Hungarian Revolution! My family smuggled me out of the country. They almost forgot me in a barn, ‘cause I wrapped myself in rags like a gypsy to keep warm.”

On the rifle range he was one of the best shooters and qualified as an expert but he never liked to clean his rifle. He’d say, “A dirty gun shoots straighter.” Late one afternoon we were lined up for inspection before going on guard duty. A captain was checking weapons. When he pulled Dackin’s rifle from his hands and looked down the barrel, he disgustedly dropped it on the ground as though it had been dipped in dog do. Dackin had a “What’d I do now?” expression on his face. The captain gave him extra duty and had him take apart and clean his weapon fourteen times.

During hand-grenade training, I had already tossed mine a respectable distance when Dackin said to me, “Is that all you got?” I moved ahead as he was given his hand-grenades. They weren’t firecrackers. They were live grenades and the guys throwing them were closely supervised. While advancing I heard an explosion that seemed out of time. Sure enough, after pulling the pin, Dackin foolishly opened his hand a bit to get a better grip. A sergeant saw this and rushed in to grab the grenade and throw it as far as he could. At the same time, he tackled Dackin and held him on the ground until it exploded. “What was that for?” Dackin questioned when the sergeant let him up.

“You opened your hand!” the sergeant yelled.”

“Not that much!” Dackin replied.

“You coulda killed yourself and me too!”

I guess coming out of a rebellious climate gave the Hungarian a rebellious nature. I doubted if the sergeant knew that he was looking at an authentic rebel — a product of a country’s discontent — as well as a kid from the tough side of Philly.

At the end of basic training we were given our orders. I was going to be a medic and Dackin was going to radio school.

We had become good friends and had a sentimental parting. “I remember you on the train coming down here,” was the last thing he said to me. “You gave me a look and a half!”

I think he went to Viet Nam after radio school. That’s the last I heard of the Hungarian rebel from Philadelphia. I tried to contact him after being discharged but nowhere in the country could I find the right Thor Dackin. Most likely his colorful personality remained in Viet Nam. I picture him in the jungle feverishly radioing information to an artillery unit, and an irate gunner calling him back to say, “Yo, Dackin, send me better coordinates. This is long distance! We ain’t throwing Molotov cocktails here!”


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