Staff Sgt. Jim McGuire is the patriarch of a family of artists.
His woodworking with a scroll saw became his refuge after a long day’s work, developing his skills over a handful of decades.
“If I had a bad day or something, or you know, stress or something, I could go into the garage and I could cut a little (wood), sniff some sawdust.”
His daughters either write or make candles, his wife would either paint her husband’s woodwork or be found hunkered down knitting. McGuire is descended of an immigrant who came to Chicago with two pennies in his pocket and eventually built up a textile mill that created rivals of the European fashion trends in the early 20s.
However, before he could develop his own craft, or continue to cultivate his own family’s artistry, or the collections of various artworks hanging in his home, McGuire would need to return from a Vietnam war zone.
“It’s not something we really talked about,” he said in an explanation for what he felt when he received his Army draft notice at the age of 23. “It was inevitable.”
McGuire was born Oct. 27, 1942, to Barbara and James McGuire, a first-generation Czech-American and an Irish immigrant, respectively.
Describing his father as a “man’s man,” James found work wherever he could, whether it was as a butler or doorman. He worked day-in-day-out to work to provide for his family, McGuire and his sister Barbara.
Eventually the family moved to Chicago, a city, which much like other cities at that time and still to this day, was divided into boroughs decided upon the language one spoke and the nationality they hailed.
McGuire also grew up in a city were trouble was easy to find, and he enjoyed his time “hanging out” while growing up.
“We got to know the police,” he joked about his childhood delinquency. “Nothing too serious, just being an all around pain the neck juvenile.”
His parents eventually opened up a bodega, a small-family grocery store. The lesson he learned watching his parents run themselves into the ground, however, was a lesson, he said he would carry with him for the rest of his life.
When McGuire was 12 years old, tragedy struck his family when James McGuire, who also ran the family business, died. Left on her own, Barbara had to find a way to raise her two children on her own.
They moved to Berwyn, a small community on the West side of Chicago. She then enrolled her trouble-making son in an all-boys high school run in an attempt to curb some of his more bohemian predilections.
It didn’t take.
“She wasn’t sure what would happen to me there, but she thought with a little more instruction it would be helpful for me,” remembered McGuire. “She didn’t really understand that when she sent me there, the kids that went to that particular school all turned out to either be criminals or cops.”
In 1960, McGuire graduated from high school and then earned his associate’s degree. He graduated from the University of Southern Illinois with a degree in business administration in 1966.
After his mom, who wanted to recognize her son be the first person in their family to graduate from college, gave him a hug at his graduation ceremony, McGuire would be leaving in two weeks.
But not for a post-graduation trip, but off to basic training in the United States Army.
“I made the mistake of graduating,” he said. “Because as soon as I graduated, they grabbed my ass,” adding on June, 15 he received his diploma; on June 30, he was heading off to war.
“I had my draft notice before I graduated … I knew where I was going to be the first of July.”
In the summer of 1966, McGuire was fully brought into the United States Army.
Due to his college background, he was seen as a major asset to the armed forces, but as a payroll supervisor and not an officer.
“I think the life expectancy of a second lieutenant in Vietnam at that time was like 60 days,” said McGuire. “And you know, that number didn’t work for me.”
McGuire would receive his payroll and military finance training at Fort Benjamin Harris in Indiana, and by the early part of 1967, he was flying toward Saigon.
Once he landed, he remembered what it was like stepping off the plane for the first time in Vietnam.
“Hot, humid, crowded, noisy,” he said. “My only thing that I wanted was to make sure I was going to be able to come back, and I figured I was smart enough to work my way into a non-combat-related job.”
They knew it would be a year for them in-country, and that the administrative types would not be on the frontlines. But that doesn’t mean that being in Vietnam was a cakewalk for him, either.
As one of the soldiers in charge of the finances and payroll for soldiers, McGuire played a role as the gatekeeper between the men and the money.
Stationed in Bien Hoa, 25 kilometers northeast of Saigon, the temperature was boiling, the artillery rounds were deafening, and the soldiers looking for their military payment certificates, or MPC, were irritable.
“A lot of guys would bank their money … they don’t really have a place to spend a lot of it,” said McGuire, adding that the MPCs were like script paper money that soldiers could exchange for money that could either be used on base or out in the public. “You could use that on the base and buy things, or you know souvenirs, or go to the local base clubs and drink.”
“But then they’d always come in … ‘I need some money for fun and games,’” he said of some of the soldiers he dealt with. “‘We can’t really do that, you’re almost in arrears — you almost owe us money,’” he jokingly recalled what he’d tell the soldiers.
A few months in, McGuire would be called on to temporary duty to Chu Lai to be a part of Task Force Oregon.
“We set up the whole organization up there for about four or five months,” he said. “That was in the jungle, pure jungle.”
McGuire said at Chu Lai he and his brothers in arms played a support role for the truck drivers delivering needed supplies to the men up front.
“We’d go out with the supply trucks and ride shotgun to protect her and be an armored figure,” said McGuire. “(We) would take the supplies out to the further out units and hopefully protect them against sniper attack or anything like that.”
Following a few months in Chu Lai, McGuire was sent back to Bien Hoa for the last few months of his tour. And after 11 months and 28 days of being in Vietnam, Mcguire was sent home.
After returning home and serving for a few months in an office at base in Warren, Michigan, McGuire was honorably discharged as E-5 Staff Sergeant.
Returning home, the first-generation college graduate put his degree to use, working as a salesman for 3M. He married in 1971 and made his way out from Chicago to Los Angeles.
After a few decades of work with 3M, and after having two daughters, Shannon and Barbara, McGuire retired from 3M as an S-5 salesman with one of the largest sales territories on the West Coast.
As someone who enjoyed working with his hands and having a creative streak, McGuire took up scrollsaw-woodworking.
He now cuts designs into the wood from templates that were sent to him from his communities of scroll saw artists from across the world. He sells his work as both a hobby at various arts and crafts shows.
In a home filled with both his and other artists designs, McGuire says that the life he created from himself, which started as a delinquent in Chicago, was created by him following a central, personal philosophy: “If you’re not enjoying what you’re doing, go out and find something you do like.”
“I grew up without a dad most of my life,” said McGuire. “You can survive those things … look at where you want to go and what you want to do.”