“The pain of parting is nothing.”
Second Class Petty Officer Michael “Mike” Dalby would likely agree with Charles Dickens on this one.
Dalby has always loved being in the water. He’s always enjoyed, and excelled at, playing pool. He always wanted to travel the world.
Unfortunately, because of a delayed wartime injury, he struggles to do those things anymore. In fact, it’s hard for him to remember if he’s even recently enjoyed a pool soak or broke a billiards rack because he likely lost the notebook or notebooks in which he chronicled that he had, in fact, done those things.
But if you ask him directly, Dalby will not look for your pity. He won’t compare or contrast his plight against yours or anyone’s.
Instead, he’ll tell you with a smile about the time he first went boogie boarding in Venice. Or the marine life he and only a few other people have witnessed before in the most remote parts of Vietnam. Or that he could “make a night out of 75 cents” if he and the cue ball were in harmony.
He had to leave those passions behind. But when those recollections change mental classifications, you can see his face light up. Because in lieu of the short term, he’s been able to regain a stronger-than-ever and vivid long-term memory.
“And it’s like it was yesterday.”
Dalby was born Sept. 9, 1947, in a Los Angeles-area hospital to Betty Marie and Thomas Dalby, a homemaker and movie distributor.
Growing up, he was your typical Southern California kid: sunshine every day, pretty girls to hang around with and — most importantly — the beach was only a bike ride away.
And although it was already being called the “Slum by the Sea,” the Venice of the 1950s was safe enough that if one stared from the beach out over the water, there was a chance you would see Mike Dalby and his friends enjoying the Pacific Ocean.
“I was riding my bike almost every day to Venice or Santa Monica as soon as my parents would let me ride out on my own,” Dalby recounted. “I mean, I’d get sunburned every time. But it was worth it … I love the water.”
So strong was his bond with the waves, that it defined what Dalby would want to do the moment he turned 17.
USS Wallace L. Lind (DD-703)
Before completing Culver City High School, Dalby made the decision to join the Navy in 1964, a week after turning 17, pursuing his two lifelong dreams of traveling the world and being close to the water.
However, Dalby quickly learned that despite spending a majority of your time on a ship or at sea, it was generally a bad thing to be in the Navy and in the water.
“In the Navy, you don’t want to be in the water, because if you’re in the water then your ship is sinking,” said Dalby. “That’s never a good spot to be in. But, I knew that joining the Navy meant I could go see all the great places of the world.”
In the first stop to what would amount to be a journey around the world, Dalby was sent to San Diego for his boot camp, and then subsequently shipped out again in order to receive training in engineering and naval firefighting.
He quickly learned on his first assignment aboard the USS Wallace L. Lind (DD-703) that there are no one-trick ponies in the Navy, and according to Dalby, when he wasn’t firefighting, he was going to be “Oil and Water King.”
“My job was to run up and down, making sure the tanks all over the ship held the necessary fresh water and oil.”
And while the “uninitiated” may not realize the importance of the sea monarch, the “Oil King,” donned in an oil-stained shirt and pants, controlled the ship ballast and all the freshwater. The role is one of the most “mighty important men for you and your ship,” according to the November 1958 issue of “All Hands” naval magazine.
So, for a little over a year, a high school dropout teenager, who had a lifelong fascination with the water, was the person who ensured hundreds of sailors would never end up in the Navy’s version of a “bad spot.”
“I was sent over there and put on a landing craft that we operated on the Cua Viet River, and we would carry fuel on the river for the Marine Corps.”
Dalby said it became abundantly clear to him that while the open ocean was “crystal clear” during the day, he was now in the antithetical bog close to the Vietnamese Demilitarized Zone.
“When we’d be going down the river, we could only hear when the (Viet Cong) artillery strikes were going to happen,” Dalby said. “We’d have to get ashore and get in the bunker for 10 or 15 minutes. We’d always count (30 or 40) rounds and tell the (wartime reporters) there.”
And although the Vietcong artillery barrages would be met with a series of bombing runs by United States Air Force fighter jets, Dalby said it was amusing once they saw the American squadrons flying back.
“The enemy would always — always — fire off a couple more rounds after they got bombed, as though to say, ‘Just to let you know, you didn’t get the guns,’” said Dalby. “Psychologically it wore on you.”
But for every minute they spent with their ears perked toward the sky, Dalby and his river boat crew spent two minutes staring at the weeds and foliage-covered banks of the Cua Viet.
“They’d hide their machine gun nests in there … or they would get up to the bank and float (water mines) out to try and take out the supply ship.”
This ability for the Viet Cong to take their guerilla-style warfare up to the banks of the river did not sit well with the U.S. military. Something had to be done to take out the plants and shrubbery along the river banks.
Enter Agent Orange.
“I could watch them spray it,” said Dalby. “I mean, you could see them dropping it from the C-130’s.”
Agent Orange did its job as an herbicide. It cleared the banks and the troops were “happy to have it,” according to Dalby.
“Because of it and the other chemicals, I got to leave Vietnam after a year,” Dalby remembers. “I thought, ‘I didn’t get hurt and I didn’t have to hurt anybody.’”
Back home and in the water
After returning home in 1967 and being honorably discharged from the Navy as a second class petty officer, Dalby was recognized for his service in the Vietnam War by his superiors.
He took up right where he left off as a teenager in Southern California, moving back to his beloved Los Angeles community, getting married and starting his family.
“I put my skills to work becoming a ‘cost accountant,’ figuring out for companies, just from a blueprint, how much it would cost them to make something.”
And for three decades, Dalby worked in Sun Valley, enjoying his work while supporting his family, which had grown to three children, and regularly taking them on his beloved beach days.
“I retired when I got leukemia. I couldn’t get through the day anymore, and while I was being treated for leukemia, one of my doctors — and I had never heard of this before and never even been to the VA before — sent me to the VA hospital to get a screening …. they said they were never 100 percent sure, but they agreed I had also gotten Parkinson’s because of exposure to Agent Orange and other herbicides.”
“To the joy of meeting again”
For the last decade Dalby has lived with his Parkinson’s and leukemia, battling every day with the help of his children and late-wife.
With the proper medications, when he can get them, afford them or the VA assists him in acquiring them, he’s been able to find an unexpected silver lining, he says.
“My (short-term) memory is so bad now,” said Dalby. “But because of all this … I can remember (my childhood) — where the Dutch-designed cookie jar was at Grandma’s house or the size of her backyard — or the fun billiards games I played while in the service.”
He now struggles getting to the pool tournaments he likes back home. He doesn’t have regular access to the ocean. But with his short-term memory gone, he says it’s almost nice to have those fonder, older memories return.
For Dalby, it’s painful to be parting from his passions, he says, but adds that he doesn’t want to be upset or dismayed. Because the regained memories bring joy every time he’s able to meet them again.