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Vietnam vet shares experience ‘Abandoned in Hell’

RED CLOUD — Like many Vietnam veterans, Captain William “Hawk” Albracht kept memories from what he saw during that war locked away.

However, many of those memories came out over time.

Those memories inspired him to sit in front of a computer in 2008 and start to write.

“It was difficult but it was a cathartic experience,” he said. “Some days I wrote for eight hours, some days I wrote for eight minutes.”

The result of that experience is “Abandoned In Hell: The Fight For Vietnam’s Firebase Kate,” a book he co-wrote with Capt. Marvin J. Wolf that was published in 2016.

In conjunction with South Central State Bank, Cowles American Legion Post 116 played host to Albracht, who spoke Thursday at the Red Cloud Community Center following a pizza lunch provided by the bank.

Albracht’s cousin, Jerry Schaefer, is bank president.

In October 1969, Albracht, the youngest Green Beret captain in Vietnam, took command of a remote hilltop outpost near the Cambodian border called Firebase Kate held by just a few American soldiers and indigenous Montagnard militiamen. The base was attacked the next day at dawn by North Vietnamese Army regiments.

Outnumbered, Albracht’s men held off the assault. After several days, they were out of ammo.

Refusing to die or surrender, Albracht led his troops off the hill and on a daring night march through enemy lines arriving at Camp Bu Prang.

“They thought we were the walking dead,” he said of the response upon their arrival. “Nobody, I mean nobody, but nobody, thought we would ever get through that night, but we did.”

As a civilian, he became special agent in the secret service where he served 25 years and protected six American dignitaries and numerous foreign dignitaries.

Following his retirement from the Secret Service, Albracht managed executive security operations for the Ford Motor Company before returning to his hometown in Bettendorf, Iowa, to open a security consulting business. He also works as a motivational speaker.

Albracht spoke to about 60 people on Thursday, most of whom were veterans.

Acknowledging the difficult reception veterans faced after returning from Vietnam, he welcomed home the Vietnam vets in his audience Thursday.

“Gentlemen, on behalf of a grateful America, we know you served with honor, welcome home,” he said.

Vietnam was a very difficult time to be a veteran, he said.

“I’m not whining and I’m not complaining, I’m not crying about it,” he said. “It is just the way it was. Unless you had been there it was very difficult to communicate what you had been through. Whether you were in the teeth of combat or running convoys in the rear, everybody had their stories to tell. The mood of America was dead set against us.”

He recalled a story about a fellow veteran who had returned from Vietnam just a few days prior and was at bar waiting for his wife to get off work.

When someone at the bar asked where he’d gotten his tan, Albracht’s friend said he’d just returned from Florida.

“He said ‘It’s not because I was ashamed of my service. It’s not because I didn’t want him to know I was a veteran. I just didn’t want to get into it with a total stranger. I just wanted to be left alone,’ ” Albracht said.

Being able to share his story through the book, which was turned into a documentary, as well as through speaking engagements is an honor, he said.

“It’s my honor and privilege to be up here and speak to you, so I can remember those brave men who died that day,” he said.

O'Keeffe carving out his own niche in Nashville

For rising Nashville country singer Tommy O’Keeffe, coming home to perform in Nebraska is about as good as it gets.

The 2014 St. Cecilia High School graduate is who he is largely because of his upbringing in small town Hastings, which included driving pickups on backroads while listening to country music with friends. That influence has clearly impacted his decision to pursue a career in country music, penning songs with other Nashville hopefuls while performing shows in the round along side many of the same individuals looking to get recognized by a record label or management company.

O’Keeffe will be front at center at this year’s Roseland SummerFest event from 9 p.m. to midnight Saturday, performing a lively acoustic set featuring original and cover songs for the street dance on Main Street. It is one of three shows he’ll be rolling out during working weekend in Nebraska, and he plans to make the most of his down time catching up with friends and family.

I’ve played a bunch this summer in Nebraska,” the 23-year-old said during a cell phone interview between flights in Chicago Midway International Airport. “It’s really good to have family and friends who support you doing something kind of different and crazy and weird but fun. Everyone’s been really great.”

The “middle troublemaker” of five children, O’Keeffe said his parents Tim and Carol O’Keeffe and siblings all still reside in Hastings.

Having put in his time around the family-owned fasteners and fixings business, he anticipated a career in business would play some role in his future after securing a bachelor’s degree in business management with minor in marketing at University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2018.

As it turned out, he has already put some of that business saavy to use marketing himself in the highly competitive country music market.

“I just always liked singing,” he said. “My family is really into music, but none of us played music. But we all loved going to concerts and talking about music and listening to different music.”

That constant exposure to country music became the soundtrack of his life in high school, one that would lead him to start the band Bonfire with some of his classmates his junior year.

Though the band’s venues never advanced beyond a school prom and handful of parties and events, it did ignite O’Keeffe’s desire to take his dream to the next level.

After serving an internship in Nashville between his junior and senior year at UNL, he decided to move to the country music capital of the world in hopes of making a name for himself as a full-time musician.

The pursuit of stardom has proven a most interesting journey, he said.

For while he has enjoyed every aspect of learning the business, it hasn’t always been the easiest path to trod. Performing opposite some of the world’s finest musicians has been daunting at times, he admits, though nothing he didn’t anticipate when he tossed his hat into the burning ring of fire.

That said, not every performance has been necessarily golden.

““You’ve got to overcome the failures,” he said. “You can be very intimidated in Nashville and I have been. You’ve just got to get better. You’ve got to be the best you can be and find your own sound.

“The most talented people in the world are in Nashville — singers, songwriters, players— so it’s a great learning experience being able to watch them and even sometimes work with them. There are so many great singers, so many great writers, so you have to really have your own thing, hyour own sound to set you apart.”

A longtime fan of Bruce Springsteen, O’Keeffe’s brand of country music tends to be edgier than some of his more contemporary commercial pop contemporaries featured on Top 40 radio today. His songwriting tendencies extend well beyond any specific genere, however.

“I like all types of music and listen to everything, but country music definitely fits my voice,” he said. “I wouldn’t go anywhere else. But I write all kinds of music: Americana, pop stuff. I’ve even worked some with country rap guys. I listen to everything and take influence from all of it.”

Though he’s already recorded two self-published EPs in Nashville, “Taking Chances (2016)” and “In Front of Me (2017),” O’Keeffe believes his best music has yet to be written. To that end, he continues to devote long hours to his craft, trading a lucrative but taxing position with a rental car agency for a more relaxed situation at a local honky tonk bar and restaurant to free up time to write and perform.

And he’s definitely all in for the long ride, he said.

“It takes years to get to where you want to be,” he said. “When you go to Nashville, you reallly set your bar a lot higher. It just comes down to writing the right song.

“It’s trial and error and learning and growing. I do it because I love it. Whatever happens, I just want to make music that I’m proud of that’s fun.”

Kool-Aid sweet part of life on the farm

I grew up in a Kool-Aid family. Now, that doesn’t mean we joined a fan club or wore Kool-Aid apparel or went around trying to convince others that Kool-Aid was a superior soft drink. It simply means that the product with origins in Hastings (I didn’t even know that as a child) flowed through our lives.

Back in the 1970s, my mother’s kitchen on the farm south of Norman had a drawer with a 2-inch stack of Kool-Aid packets in the front, standing up on end. The packets with our favorite flavors were always in the front since they were selected, and therefore replaced, most frequently. These were orange, grape, yellow lemonade and pink lemonade.

Other flavors, more obscure to us and for more specific needs — “reds” like cherry, raspberry and strawberry that my mom sometimes used in recipes, plus lemon-lime in the green packet for I-forget-what-purpose — could be found farther back.

We usually had some pop in the house — Coke or Pepsi or Squirt or 7-Up kept at the bottom of the basement stairs.

But those were the days when drinking pop was not close to an everyday occurrence, and we might not have tasted the stuff even once a week.

Pop was relatively expensive and came in 16-ounce glass bottles that required an opener. As a child, I never drank a bottle of pop in one sitting; to do so would have been gluttonous. The leftover went into the refrigerator with one of those rubber stoppers to help hold in the fizz.

No, Kool-Aid was our go-to beverage, along with iced sun tea my mother brewed in a large pickle jar on the back step.

On a hot summer weekday or Saturday afternoon, around 4 o’clock when many farmers took a break from their work (many families called that “lunch,” as opposed to dinner at the noon meal and supper in the evening), everyone would gather in the house, sit down around the kitchen table and have a glass of Kool-Aid, maybe stirred up on the spot, or else a bit earlier by my mom and then put in the fridge to cool.

We drank it over ice from large green plastic glasses. Meanwhile, Mom set the cookie jar in the middle of the table so we could help ourselves and washed some grapes or cherries or apples we could share.

If Mom was not home, or if the cookie jar was empty for some reason (that was rare), our Plan B snack was saltines or graham crackers. I can still picture Dad scrubbing away at his hands and forearms with Lava soap at the shower room sink, trying to get the dirt and grease and oil off his skin before taking his break and lifting food to his lips.

For 20 minutes or so, we all — my mom and dad, brothers and sisters and I — took a break from our work or play or whatever we were busy doing. It was a chance to touch base in the middle of the day and make plans for what remained of it. (At our place, the farm work began between 7 and 8 o’clock in the morning rather than at the crack of dawn, but it also continued until dark, meaning supper in midsummer might have begun during the 10 o’clock news and ended during the Johnny Carson show.)

But if 4 o’clock lunch was a popular time for Kool-Aid on the Raun farm, on Sunday nights the sugary stuff was more or less obligatory.

On Sundays, we ate an early breakfast of pancakes or French toast or cornbread before driving to Heartwell for church, then came home and sat around reading the Sunday World-Herald we had picked up at the Heartwell tavern or Wally Werner’s welding shop in Norman.

We also had a “second breakfast” of toast or cinnamon rolls, or maybe some doughnuts brought home from Carlson’s Bakery in Minden.

Our only other proper meal of the day was Sunday dinner in the mid to late afternoon. We didn’t eat supper that night, but Mom cranked out batches of popcorn in our old oil popper on the stove, and we ate it with — you guessed it — a pitcher of Kool-Aid. Sunday evening was one time of the week we were often all awake in the house together for a few hours at a stretch, relaxing and maybe watching “Sixty Minutes” and the Sunday night movie on television.

This was supposed to be a concisely written column about Kool-Aid, composed to help promote Hastings’ annual Kool-Aid Days celebration later this month.

But as you can see, it’s really just a stream of memories about my family, my childhood and the rhythms of life on one Nebraska farm.

Yes, we Rauns were Kool-Aid people — not because we ever gave much praiseor even thought to the stuff, but simply because it was part of our lives and our lifestyle, day by day and week by week.

This, I think, has been the secret to Kool-Aid’s longevity in the marketplace and in the American consciousness: For just a few cents’ worth of powder and your own added sugar (a somewhat appalling full cup of the stuff to make a half-gallon of drink), you can fill your pitcher, gather your family and make memories to last a lifetime.

That’s the way it worked on our farm, anyhow. And as I grow older, those memories — and the people who populate them — become all the more dear to me.

For all the clever, kid-centric advertising and promotion Kool-Aid has been known for over the decades, I think the smartest thing Kool-Aid inventor Edwin Perkins ever did was to lower the price of a Kool-Aid packet from 10 cents to 5 cents during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl, thereby making it accessible to more families during a time of great economic trial.

By keeping his product available to the masses in a time of widely shared distress, he ensured that whether a child grew up rich or poor, in the city or the country, he or she most likely would have Kool-Aid as part of his or her experience of growing up.

That decision has been paying dividends ever since, bringing one generation after another into the Kool-Aid-drinking fold.

Both my parents, who were young children during the Depression years when Kool-Aid still was a fairly new product, remember their mothers making Kool-Aid for them frequently.

My dad, who grew up on the farm in southeastern Kearney County, remembers Kool-Aid every afternoon in the summer. (His favorite flavor was the lemon-lime, one of Perkins’ six originals.)

My mom, who grew up in Lincoln and Beatrice before moving to Hastings as a high school student, remembers Kool-Aid on all special occasions at home. “It was cheap, and it tasted good,” she explains. (Surprisingly, she says she liked the red flavors best as a child. It makes me wonder why the reds and my dad’s favorite lemon-lime were NEVER the flavors we mixed up when I was a kid.)

My children, Jordyn and Aaron, like Kool-Aid Jammers and Kool-Aid Bursts — both prepared products that come in single-serving packaging.

But they still get my wife, Ruth, to help them stir up a jugful from powder the old–fashioned way when they want to sell it by the glass to the neighbors — just like my cousin Mary Jo and I used to do when we were their age, and like Ruth remembers doing on her street in Minden when she was a child. (Incidentally, it’s a lot easier to get customers to stop at your lemonade stand when people are walking or riding their bicycles past your house in town and aren’t all driving 50 miles per hour down a gravel road.)

So the tradition of youthful enterprise continues!

See you in Hastings Aug. 9-11 for Kool-Aid Days 2019. Meanwhile, I’m going to hug my kids, thank my parents, and raise a glass of kid-friendly sweetness to the “good old days” — both those I remember personally, and those I hope the young people of today will be reliving for years to come.

(If you’re still reading, this would be an appropriate time to mutter “Hear! Hear!” Or how about just, “Oh, Yeah!!!” …)