Susan made a point of reminding herself that a woman in her fifties with three grown daughters and two failed marriages behind her should have few illusions about romantic prospects. She also worked full time, as assistant to a dean at Fairleigh Dickinson University, in Madison, New Jersey, and had managed to get her three daughters through college. She had had practically no free time. Like many women her age, Susan had been brought up to be a wife and mother, and had never aspired to anything else.
Her father, a physician, came home after his hospital rounds every day for a formal lunch. The family summered on the Chesapeake Bay, and when she was seventeen her parents took her on a two-month tour of Europe. She thought of getting a job in Manhattan, but instead married a high-school boyfriend from a similarly affluent family, embarked on a honeymoon tour of Europe that lasted from June to September, and looked forward to leading a conventional upper-middle-class life. Soon she was pregnant with her first child. Over the next seventeen years, Susan took care of her daughters, decorated and maintained a large house, and travelled abroad frequently with her husband and children.
Then, when her youngest daughter was four, her husband announced that he was leaving her. Susan had no marketable skills. She went to the travel agency that had once arranged her visits to luxury resorts and European capitals and offered to work without pay to learn the business.
Her second marriage, to a forensic pathologist, who initially showered her with attention and promised to care for her and her children, also ended badly. There was no sign of Rick Rescorla or his car. Three days later, driving home from work—she was now an administrative assistant at a nearby bank—she saw his car coming from the other direction.
He noticed her, too, and rolled down his window. He told her that he regularly caught the six-ten train to Manhattan, and he had looked for her each morning on the way to the station. Rescorla picked Susan up the following Sunday morning, and they drove to Frenchtown, on the Delaware River, and had brunch at an inn. Afterward, Rescorla pulled out a cigar, and she had one, too. He told her that his family had been poor, but every Saturday his grandmother gave him money for the movies. Would Susan take lessons with him? They walked across the bridge over the Delaware. The next week, they enrolled at the Arthur Murray studio in Chatham.
Both Rick and Susan turned out to be good dancers, and after class they would go to his house or hers and continue practicing as soon as they walked in the door. They excelled at Latin rhythms—the tango, the rumba, the samba. Rick bought Susan extra-high heels to give her more height on the dance floor. He also began helping her choose her clothes. Her friends at work were happy for her, and kidded her about being in love, but some warned her that she was rushing into a relationship with a man she barely knew.
She saw Rick every day. They were so eager for time together that they neglected their families and friends. Susan felt that they had been destined to find each other late in life, after each had endured a long, sometimes arduous journey. Rick had survived war and cancer; she had suffered through two debilitating marriages. She was interested in cultural activities, and introduced him to art galleries, museums, and antique shops.
He loved nature and history; he took her to parks and historic sites. She was Episcopalian; he had embraced Zen Buddhism, and urged her to simplify her life, as he had. At his suggestion, she took up meditation. In October, they decided to live together. In a development in Morristown, they found a town house with large glass doors and windows opening out onto a tranquil pond.
The pond was edged with meadow grasses and attracted waterfowl and migrating birds. They sold their own houses and moved into the new one.
Susan got rid of her collection of antiques, her china, her crystal. Rick, too, wanted to start fresh. One day, as they were unpacking, Susan found a framed shadow box filled with medals and military decorations—among them the Silver Star, the Bronze Star with oak-leaf cluster, a Purple Heart, and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry. She hung the display on the wall of the den, but when Rick saw it he told her to put it away.
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She also came across photographs of Rick in uniform at age twenty-five, with Army buddies, and with Vietnamese officials. He looked thin and wiry, with a buzz haircut and a big smile. Rick threw out some of the photographs and put others in a closet. Sometimes veterans who had served with him would telephone. He had his phone number and E-mail address changed to make it more difficult for them to reach him.
He and Susan would often sit in their living room, meditating or gazing at the landscape. Eventually, Rick spotted a ring in a store in Millburn.
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Rescorla wanted to be married somewhere near the sea, to remind him of his childhood home, in Cornwall, and he suggested St. Augustine, Florida. The person he wanted to be his best man lived there, he said. His name was Dan Hill. In reality, Hill and Rescorla had met in Northern Rhodesia two years before. Hill was originally from Chicago, and had been in Rhodesia as a mercenary, fighting a Communist-backed insurgency there. The two men, who met at a rugby match, had felt an instant rapport. Rescorla had worked for British military intelligence and fought in Cyprus; Hill had been active in various capacities in Hungary in and in Lebanon in , and in training exercises for the Bay of Pigs operation, in He argued that the next major fight against Communism was shaping up in Vietnam.
Both Hill and Rescorla were fanatics about fitness and about survival skills. Rescorla may have told Susan that he was running barefoot as research for a play, but he had already been running barefoot in Africa, and then at Fort Dix, toughening his soles to the point where he could extinguish a fire with his bare feet.
By the end of the day, the man should be clothed and fed. By the end of the week, he should own a horse. And by the end of a year he should own a business and have money in the bank. At Fort Dix, the two were immediately promoted to acting sergeant. In their free time, they went on picnics and visited Revolutionary War battlefields. He had memorized long stretches of Shakespeare and often quoted Churchill.
When Rescorla became an American citizen, in , Hill was at his side. Units of the two divisions were among the first ordered to Southeast Asia.
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Rescorla arrived in September; Hill followed in December. Rather than spend his first week of R. The remote Ia Drang Valley, less than ten miles from the Cambodian border, was a Communist stronghold and a supply route for North Vietnamese forces in the south.
Rescorla directed his men to dig foxholes and establish a defense perimeter. Exploring the hilly terrain beyond the perimeter, he came under enemy fire. After nightfall, he and his men endured waves of assault. To keep morale up, Rescorla led the men in military cheers and Cornish songs throughout the night. The next morning, Rescorla took a patrol through the battlefield, searching for American dead and wounded.
As he looked over a giant anthill, he encountered an enemy machine-gun nest. The startled North Vietnamese fired on him, and Rescorla hurled a grenade into the nest. There were no survivors. Rescorla and Bravo company were evacuated by helicopter.
The rest of the battalion marched to a nearby landing zone. On the way, they were ambushed, and Bravo company was again called in for relief. Only two helicopters made it through enemy fire. As the one carrying Rescorla descended, the pilot was wounded, and he started to lift up.
Rescorla and his men jumped the remaining ten feet, bullets flying at them, and made it into the beleaguered camp. The enemy must have thought an entire battalion was coming to help us, because of all our screaming and yelling.
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Read classic New Yorker stories, curated by our archivists and editors. Though Hill and Rescorla were nominally in separate units, at times they operated together. They made a formidable team.