MARYSVILLE, Wash.-Familiar sights, smells, sounds. And the heat. Always the oppressive heat. ``Like walking into a blast furnace,'' he recalls, when you step off an air-conditioned plane onto the tarmac at Tan Son Nhut airbase and into the stifling humidity of Vietnam.
The concrete shelters are still there. Just like 26 years ago, when Sgt. Michael Wurdeman was a 22-year-old squad leader with the U.S. Army's 199th Light Infantry Brigade, arriving in an embattled country to partake in a conflict embattled, as well, on the homefront.
But this was March 1995.
Except for those eerily familiar sensations, Mr. Wurdeman was not a military man anymore, but a tire man.
He went back like so many Vietnam vets before him, who feel drawn by old battlefields-perhaps old ghosts-to revisit that land of rice paddies and, for some, tortured memories.
This time, he was armed with a camera, not an M-16 rifle.
His original tour of duty ran March 1968 to March '69, seeing some of the heaviest fighting in the bloody '68 Tet Offensive, when his unit had the highest fatality rate of any in that operation.
Traumatic as that first step off the plane was, now there are, simply, ``no ghosts left,'' he says slowly, deliberately.
The owner of Formula Tire Inc., a retail/commercial outlet in Marysville, and its wholesale operation, Formula Tire & Materials Inc., returned to 'Nam after mulling it over for at least a couple years. During his outfit's last two Memorial Day reunions, held at the Vietnam Veterans' War Memorial-``The Wall''-in Washington, D.C., talk of wartime experiences brought forth so many memories that he said he finally decided to go back ``out of curiosity.''
After mustering out of the service, Mr. Wurdeman hustled for a time as an engineer's aid at Seattle-based Boeing Co. before ending up in another line of work, ini-tially as a tire buster.
Mr. Wurdeman, secre-tary-treasurer of the North-west Tire Dealers Association, acknowledges an honest, unabashed ``love'' for the business, which was piqued upon his return to Vietnam.
There, with great interest, he visited antiquated tire ``shops,'' many actually little more than streetside areas where a guy with a hammer and piece of metal would bust down dual beads.
No tire machines or impact wrenches; everything is done by hand with simple tools and ancient gas-powered air compressors.
``My interest was in the type of tire business they're doing there now,'' he said during a phone interview. ``The recycling that they do is truly amazing.
``It's such a poor nation now-much more so than when we were there.''
Mr. Wurdeman said ``once they found out I was in the tire business, too, I was treated very hospitably in all the tire shops.
``We suddenly had a common language.''
During his week-long visit, begun in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), he saw Vietnamese women carving off rubber from the beads of old military tires, unravelling the wire, then winding it onto spools.
They sold the wire for the equivalent of perhaps a penny.
Yet ``they'd work all day in the hot sun. . . just recycling wire,'' he said. ``Of course, their hands were all cut up-it's a terrible way to make a living.''
And there is practically no comparison between American and Vietnamese tire dealerships, he discovered.
Though the war ended some quarter-century ago, the country of more than 70 million still uses a preponderance of war-era military truck tires, he said, their threads showing through, their 20-ply casings worn down to a second layer of cord.
``Section repairs'' for tires that have either blown up or are junk consists of bolting them together for use on farm wagons out in the fields, he said. Nothing is wasted.
But that dependence on sheer ingenuity may gradually change, now that the U.S. government has normalized diplomatic relations with its former enemy.
Within five to 10 years, Mr. Wurdeman expects ``quite a market'' in Vietnam for U.S. companies plying their economic trade, bringing modernization in tow.
And he admittedly greets that prospect with mixed emotions.
``It's something that was going to happen. My own personal feelings? I'm not for it. But how long can you hold a grudge? I think it's better for everybody-better for the Vietnamese people.''
As he speaks, a real empathy for the Vietnamese is detected.
``. . . It's truly amazing. If nothing else, on this trip I did appreciate, have a little more respect for (those) people, as hard-working as they are. They make do with very little. Anybody else would throw up their hands and give up.
``But the Vietnamese people are truly, truly hard-working, and I'm sure they'll be a success.''
While revisiting the country by himself-Mr. Wurdeman is married and a grandfather-he hired a driver and toured some of the areas where his unit had fought.
``Of course, in 26, 27 years it's changed,'' he said, ``so there wasn't a whole lot to reminisce about.''
He went to the Cu-Chi tunnels, an under-ground complex the Viet Cong burrowed underneath the U.S. 25th Infantry Divi-sion's headquarters. ``We worked that area real heavy,'' he recalled.
A lot of bloody fighting occurred there, but today it's pretty much a tourist attraction. Only now the tiny tunnels have been widened, he said, ``so the fat Americans can crawl through them.''
He also went along the Cambodian border near where his outfit was based, north of Saigon in Long Binh. Because of ongoing problems there, he was told it was unsafe to stay for very long.
In Ho Chi Minh City, Mr. Wurdeman said he was ``privileged'' to visit Vietnam's ``Museum of American War Crimes,'' though ``. . . they'll probably close it eventually so as not to insult Americans,'' especially U.S. companies that undoubtedly will come seeking business opportunities.
As for Mr. Wurdeman's business, it's ``good.''
Since opening Formula Tire 10 years ago, it has shown an increase every year. And he's not ashamed to admit he looks forward to going to work.
``It's not a job, it's something I really enjoy-and have for the last 26 years,'' he said.
Some 70 percent of Formula Tire's trade is in tires, with the remainder undercar work. The Seattle-based wholesale operation does the bulk of its business in southeast Alaska and in Washington's Puget Sound area.
While a number of vets seem to feel an urge to return again and again to Vietnam, ``healing old emotional wounds'' is a cliche, Mr. Wurdeman believes. ``Sure, Vietnam changed everybody. As far as making me a harder worker, I don't know. . . . But I think it changed me for the better.''
Will he go back again?
Doubtful. He's made his trip. Now, he's content.
``They say you get a million dollars worth of experience there, but you wouldn't want to do it again for a million bucks,'' he said with an all-knowing laugh.