Larry Block served and survived
BELPRE — Larry Block sat precariously at the end of the lead pickup truck at the 33rd annual Parkersburg News and Sentinel Half Marathon on Saturday, Aug. 17.
The 69-year-old Belpre resident, with the white fu manchu mustache and Vietnam ball cap, had a front row view of the race for 13.1 miles.
“Great day for a run,” said Block. “I once rode my bicycle on the course seven times in one day.”
Block paused and smiled as he clung to one of the steel bar hinges on the tailgate.
“Hey, this is nothing,” said Block, a former paratrooper. “I used to dangle my feet out the back of one of those C-130 transport planes during the war.”
The Vietnam War, that is.
Block is a Vet, and very proud of his service to his country, but…
“You know, if you’re going to fight a war, you should go in it to win it,” he said.
Back then in Vietnam, on a soldier’s engraved cigarette lighter, Block might’ve related to the words:
We are the unwilling
Led by the unqualified
Doing the unnecessary
For the ungrateful.
Before going to Nam, Block played football and ran track for MOV Hall of Fame coach Ralph Holder at BHS. On the gridiron, Block was a center eligible receiver on offense and a DB on defense. He was also the long snapper on special teams.
The Golden Eagles were pretty good back then.
During the spring, Block ran the hurdles and relays — and the track team was pretty good, too.
By all accounts, Block was a good athlete.
Block graduated from Belpre in 1968. He didn’t attend college, so he was draft eligible for Uncle Sam. After he got his notice, he went to army basic training, and not long after that he was shipped to Viet Nam. Before journeying to Southeast Asia, though….
“I got married to Cecelia 23 days before going,” he said.
In Vietnam, Block saw his share of action — and then some.
Block spent a lot of time in the jungle. As a scout, he was all alone with his thoughts but did have a radio for communication, and often called in air strikes. That was his job, and this was war, a very dirty war.
“On patrols, I was actually way ahead of the point man,” Block recalled. “And I was basically in a swamp.”
Once, Block said, a “mammoth tiger” sped by him in the jungle.
“I didn’t dare move,” he said. “I was camouflaged and smelled like the jungle. The Tiger never slowed down — fortunately for me.”
“Have you ever had cobra meat?” he said. “In the jungle, you sometimes went days without eating. Believe me, you would eat anything to stay alive. Cobra meat tastes a little bit like chicken.”
Oh, yeah, the King Cobra is the world’s largest venomous snake.
But tigers, cobras, and 3 or 4-foot centipedes weren’t the enemy per se. They and the other swamp creatures were just there.
Then, there were the booby traps.
“I stepped on a punji stick once,” Block said. “I broke it off, and kept on walking for about 10 miles or so. I had to with the enemy everywhere. I had to survive.”
Block radioed in air strikes, and there were times he was reluctant to do so. But this was war, and he had a job to do.
“I told them there were civilians in the area, but it didn’t matter to those guys,” Block said. “It bothers me to this day.”
When Block had to get the heck out of Dodge so to speak, he would radio back to the rear, give them the coordinates, and wait for the rescue helicopter. If he wasn’t there where he said he would be, the helicopter wouldn’t wait around. It was just too dangerous out there.
“It only happened to me once when they had to fly off,” Block said. “I ended up walking many, many miles back to the base camp.”
Block has seen more of South Vietnam than he’d care to admit. But he’s also been in “other countries,” like Laos and Cambodia.
“I was the third American soldier to touch Cambodian soil when we invaded that country,” Block said.
The Cambodian “incursion” occurred on April 30, 1970. It precipitated an uproar on college campuses back in the U.S., and on May 4, four students were shot dead, one paralyzed, and several others wounded by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State. The war had come home.
Oh, yeah, Block has also been to North Vietnam.
“You don’t know about that,” he said, “because we weren’t supposed to be there.”
“We went up there and rescued two POWs,” he said.
During his Vietnam tour, Block received two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts.
“I’m no war hero,” he said. “The war heroes are those 58,000-plus on the Wall in Washington, D.C.”
Before Block was discharged from the army, he was recruited for “another assignment.”
“They were looking for people to go over to Angola in Africa to help fight the Cubans,” he said. “And, you know, if I wasn’t married at the time, I might’ve taken them up on it.”
Instead, Block returned home to Belpre, got a job, and helped Cecilia raise a son and daughter.
Along the way, Block became a sports official for many years in football, track — and then later soccer at both the prep and collegiate levels. And, he was good at it — very firm, fair, and decisive.
“Ralph (Holdren) wasn’t too thrilled with that, me reffing soccer,” said Block, laughing.
But in 1994, Block was honored as the state of West Virginia’s Soccer Official of the Year.
Today, Block is retired and no longer officiates any sport but can be often seen at Golden Eagles soccer matches at Ralph Holder Stadium.
When Block returned home from Nam, he had a piece of shrapnel, courtesy of “friendly fire,” in his back.
“It had moved to my sciatic nerve, and I finally had surgery to remove it,” he said.
Block is very thin but he looks great — and he can move.
When the lead pickup truck at the Half pulled over on a street 100 or so yards from the finish line, Block hopped off the tailgate and fast-walked down the sidewalk in the direction of the runners.
“See ya around,” he said.
Ron Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org