November 10, 2002

Beyond the Grave, a Marine's Voice Recovered


N a drizzly autumn afternoon in 1997, a Vietnam veteran named Tim Duffie crouched beside a tape recorder and a yellowing photograph. The photograph showed his best friend from the war, Michael Baronowski, dead 31 years. The recorder held a spool of dry, brittle tape, for which Mr. Duffie had been searching just as long.

The quest had finally delivered him to a home outside Seattle where Baronowski's sister Lorraine lived. As the reel turned and Baronowski's grainy voice spoke across the decades from barracks and bunkers, Mr. Duffie couldn't help thinking how much even the misty weather reminded him of Vietnam. He stopped the tape several times to step outside and let all the memories settle.

"For 30 years, my biggest heartache was all the tapes from Mike I thought I'd never hear again," Mr. Duffie recalled recently. "Finding them, seeing Mike's picture again, honest to God, I felt him sitting right next to me. Sitting in that fighting hole in the DMZ, making those tapes. I remembered how it felt to be with him."

That moment of discovery did not stay private forever. On Memorial Day weekend of 2000, National Public Radio played a documentary distilled from Baronowski's recordings. An amalgam of battlefield journalism, aural letters home and withering satire, "The Vietnam Tapes of Lance Cpl. Michael A. Baronowski" elicited one of the largest and most emotional outpourings of audience response in NPR history. "That tape," wrote one listener, "had more truth in it than all of the `Platoons' and `Full Metal Jackets.' "

As Veterans Day approaches, the acclaimed documentary is being rebroadcast on WNYC in New York and syndicated to many NPR member stations. The BBC, meanwhile, is developing its own hourlong radio program from the Baronowski tapes.

The passion surrounding the tapes reflects both their idiosyncracy and their broader import. Vietnam was the first of America's wars to be fought in the era of consumer electronics. The average fighting man could make tapes instead of keeping a diary or writing letters, said John Baky, a Vietnam veteran who is the curator of a 12,000-piece collection of art inspired by the war at LaSalle University in Philadelphia. Affordable technology, combined with relatively lax military censorship, enabled soldiers to chronicle the war, and themselves, with unprecedented immediacy.

In Baronowski's hands, the microphone captured what Mr. Baky called "an almost mythopoeic American kid," courageous and ingenuous, loyal and humorous.

"The America that was lost in Vietnam," he said, "we're catching it here, in these tapes, before it gets the legs cut out from under it."

Michael Baronowski's life before Vietnam was anything but an idyll. Estranged from his father after his parents' divorce, he grew up in suburban Philadelphia with a step-family. Baronowski starred in school plays and made morning announcements, with sound effects, over the intercom. He received his first tape recorder as a Christmas gift at 16. Yet he suffered hyperactivity severe enough for him to be medicated and at times hospitalized, his sister, Lorraine Meckley-Criss, said in a recent interview. At one point, he ran away to Utah.

So when Baronowski dropped out of high school during his senior year, his mother signed his enlistment papers for the Marine Corps. A reel-to-reel tape recorder — compact for its time, but bulky by today's standards — went with him.

During his first several months in Vietnam, Baronowski began recording, largely to gather material for an audition tape; he planned to seek a radio job after being discharged. After sustaining major casualties in the Da Nang area, Baronowski's unit was sent to Okinawa to receive and train with reinforcements. One night, while most of the marines were drinking at the enlisted men's club, Baronowski sat on his cot practicing sound effects. From a few beds away, Pfc. Tim Duffie watched and listened.

By the time the Marines of India Company returned to combat — this time in Quang Tri province near the demilitarized zone — Baronowski and Mr. Duffie were collaborating. They wrote skits. They carried the recorder on patrols and hid it beneath a poncho during a squad meeting. When it ran low on power, Mr. Duffie, the unit's radio man, knew how to hot-wire it. Baronowski taught Mr. Duffie how to play the harmonica for their comedy routines.

Baronowski's ardor for broadcasting emerged in both serious and satiric ways. In a resonant, prematurely grave tone, he described Vietnam in the mode of Edward R. Murrow covering the London blitz. "The view is magnificent and just as sinister as it is magnificent," he said in one report. "Sinister because this is the perfect terrain, the perfect country for mortar attacks. And the VC have made use of it." Unflappable during combat, Baronowski explained each battle sound — 60-millimeter mortar, M-14 rifle, grenade, flare. He even had the equanimity to announce deadpan after one barrage, "Sounds of the enchanted forest."

More often, his humor took the form of scripted shtick. He invented a radio station, MOXE, "broadcasting to you from the swamps, jungle boondocks and infected salad of Fort McCourt," named for his commanding officer. He created the newsmen Watered Concrete and Johann Cameroon Swayback. As Mr. Duffie sawed through the Marine Corps hymn on harmonica, Baronowski performed a mock recruiting commercial like something out of Phil Ochs or Tom Lehrer. "Stupefy your friends and maim your enemies," he intoned. "Exercise your God-given right to kill or maim at a distance."

Only briefly did Baronowski admit to the ultimate risk. Once, after a burst of machine-gun fire, he blurted: "Jesus. That's too close." And in one skit, as Mr. Duffie played "Taps" in the background, Baronowski announced, "And now a word from the League of Pacifists: You'll be sorry."

The presentiment came true on Nov. 29, 1966, when Baronowski was ambushed while walking point outside a seemingly deserted village. The platoon members gave Baronowski's tape recorder to Mr. Duffie, but Baronowski had sent most of the tapes to his relatives outside Philadelphia. The rest vanished when the military lost Mr. Duffie's belongings as he shipped home in October 1967.

For the next dozen years, Mr. Duffie could not bear to contact Baronowski's family, fearing his own survival would seem an affront. He wound up in Ohio, working in sales for an auto-parts manufacturer. By 1980, curiosity and longing overtook the anxiety, and in his spare time he started hunting for anyone named Baronowski in Norristown, Pa., which he was sure had been Michael's hometown. He wrote letters to principals and mayors and scoured phone books, but came up empty. Later he discovered that Baronowski had grown up and attended high school in a nearby town, Plymouth Meeting.

In 1987, a fellow sales rep who worked the Philadelphia area inquired at a Norristown funeral home. The mortician said that just two weeks earlier Baronowski's mother had died; the whole family had come in for the funeral. And one more thing: the mother had been married to a guy named Dickey, living somewhere in Oregon.

Even that led nowhere for a decade. But in 1997, using one of the earliest telephone directory CD-ROM's, Mr. Duffie began to cold-call every Dickey in Oregon. The third one — Baronowski's stepfather — told Mr. Duffie, "I think you want to talk to Lorraine."

And so, in late September 1997, Mr. Duffie and Ms. Meckley-Criss met. She took the reels of tape out of a guest-room closet. The friend and the sister went hunting through antiques stores in Seattle until they found, for $50, a unit old enough to accommodate three-inch tape. Then they sat and heard and wept.

Mr. Duffie copied portions of the tapes onto a cassette. One evening in Ohio in 1999, he was driving with friends and accidentally began playing the tape. He quickly ejected it.

"What was that?" one of the friends, Barbara McQuiston, asked.

"Just some tapes I made in Vietnam."

"I want to hear them," Ms. McQuiston said.

Mr. Duffie played her another 15 or 20 minutes. She asked for a copy. A devoted NPR listener, Ms. McQuiston knew the network had been soliciting old tapes and records for a series called "Lost and Found Sound." Naοvely, she sent it in — some 5,000 audio artifacts were being considered for perhaps 80 slots.

The tape found its way to an NPR editor named Ira Silverman, who called Mr. Duffie asking for more. By late 1999, a box containing 15 hours of Vietnam tapes reached a producer, Christina Egloff. All she knew was that "it was a veteran's best friend's tapes from Vietnam." Then she put on the headphones.

"I felt like I disappeared into the tape the way I'd never done before," Ms. Egloff recalled. "The way he spoke was so honest, so unmonitored. Funny and tender. And there was absolutely a sense of this inborn talent. His sense of calm and irony during battle. His instinct about what was important to tape. You don't expect that in a kid his age. But he had this kind of old quality, prematurely aged."

With the radio producer Jay Allison — her husband at the time — Ms. Egloff assumed the task of rendering those 15 hours into 23 minutes. "The Vietnam Tapes of Michael A. Baronowski" filled one half-hour block of "All Things Considered" on May 27, 2000. An avalanche of praise followed. Veterans and former protesters, teenagers and septuagenarians wrote to NPR and Mr. Duffie. One after another spoke of being literally halted by the documentary. "I sat in my car in the garage for the last seven minutes," one man wrote. "When I came in the house, the tears in my wife's eyes told me she was listening to the same thing." In October 2001, the documentary won the top prize from the Third Coast Festival, an annual conference and competition of radio documentarians.

"It took other people to show me what we had," Mr. Duffie said. "To me, the tapes were me and Mike and the guys. I didn't recognize the historical significance. I don't know that I fully appreciated Mike's talent. I had no idea how the rest of the world would react. So I take a great deal of pleasure from the fact that, as long as this documentary floats around, Mike will not be forgotten."  

To hear Baronowski's tapes, click RECORDING.