Monday, our nation celebrated from sea to shining sea the most American of all holidays — In-dependence Day. This year, the Calumet Region was fortunate to have as its special guest for this Forth of July weekend, the closest thing our country has ever known to a real live Uncle Sam — Bob Hope. The 85-year-old’s show biz institution delighted capacity audiences July 1-3 at Merrillville’s Holiday Star Theatre with hour-long performances that combined a little vaudevillian-style song and dance schtick with plenty of his trade-mark satirical one-liners. Despite his advanced age, Hope retained his reputation as a master of crack timing, while taking tongue-in-cheek jabs at such topical subjects as last week’s Tyson-Spinks fight, the on-going presidential election and its candidates, evangelists who have fallen from grace, and Rambo’s most recent superhuman battlefield antics.
Battlefields are a second home to the ski-nosed comic and have been since May 6, 1941, when he took part in his very first USO show. Hope has logged millions of miles en route to battle-scarred areas that most sane people would flee as fast a possible. Although not insane by any means, Hope suffers from a rare disorder known as “Yankee Doodle Dandy Syndrome,” an over-abundance of compassion, caring and love for his fellow Americans. Whenever the youth of this nation have been called upon to fight and die for the freedoms that most of us take for granted each day, Bob Hope has been right there in the thick of it with them — from Europe in the ’40s to the Persian Gulf in the ’80s. “To veterans, Bob Hope has always meant America,” said Vietnam veteran Jim Chancellor of Griffith. “When he visited, he would bring a little bit of what we had left behind. He was our mom and dad, our high school memories, our reason to keep fighting and caring. “If Hope was in the country the word spread fast,” he continued. “His presence in Vietnam was felt whether you had the chance to see him perform or not. The tremors he sent with his annual Christmas shows touched everywhere and couldn’t help but to boost morale.”
While he was serving his tour of duty as a helicopter crew chief and door gunner back in 1969, Chancellor never had the opportunity to see the man which President John F. Kennedy once called, “The U.S. Ambassador of Laughter.” But on Sunday. Chancellor joined ranks with hundreds of other Vietnam veterans in attending Hope’s 4 p.m. matinee. There was a great debt that had to be acknowledged, and he had been chosen to do it.
In 1981, Chancellor, who had twice been shot down and who had been awarded a Purple Heart and an Air Medal with an endorsement for valor, designed a special ring to honor Vietnam veterans and to bond them together. Unlike other returning veterans of past wars, the Vietnam vets received no pats on the back, and no compassion for having endured a living hell. They were alone in their anger and confusion. “The ring stands for ‘I understand, I know and I care,’ ” he explained. “We (Vietnam vets) are a proud group that had been shunned for too long and for unjust reasons. This ring was designed as a symbol of unity for all who served their country in Vietnam.” Since 1981, the ring has been endorsed and worn by thousands of men and women who served in Vietnam, including retired Gen. William Westmoreland and Congressional Medal of Honor winner, Sammy Davis. The gold ring has a simple design with a black silhouette of Vietnam and a man-made diamond chip placed in the approximate area where the respective veteran served. Other selected pieces of jewelry are available to family members and ‘friends of Vietnam veterans. However, only those who served in Vietnam as an active member of the U.S. Armed Forces have been allowed the privilege of wearing the sacred symbol of brotherhood. A special exception was made in that long-standing rule this past weekend.
“Although he was not in the military. Bob Hope is as much a Vietnam veteran as I or any other person is,” said Chancellor, of his decision to honor the entertainer as the first non-military person to receive the ring. “It was time to let him know just what his presence in that place really meant to us.” It happened shortly after 6 p.m., just as Hope had concluded a comical parody of his Academy Award-winning song, “Buttons & Bows,” from the 1948 motion picture, “Paleface.” – Chancellor, on behalf of Vietnam veterans everywhere, stepped from the wings of the stage to honor this man who had repeatedly honored Vietnam servicemen. Although lasting only moments, the presentation speech couldn’t help but to moisten a few eyes. It touched hearts as Chancellor recalled aloud the many sacrifices and services that the British-born comedian has done for his adopted nation over the years. “Bob Hope is comical and entertaining, but he is also brave and courageous,” began Chancellor. He pointed to the inner strength and depth of a man who could return time and again to visit hospitals where mutilated young boys were suffering. “Somehow, despite their pain and sorrow, Hope could still manage to make them smile and make them laugh,” he said, “Laughter is the work’s greatest medicine and for that reason Bob Hope often did more for the wounded than the medical doctors,” continued Chancellor. “I don’t know the going rate these days on a chuckle or the price of a grin,” concluded Chancellor as he handed a crushed-velvet-lined box containing the ring to Hope. “But the Vietnam veterans of America hope you will accept this ring, as a partial payment on an un-payable debt of love we all owe to you.” With that, the audience rose to its collective feet as an overwhelming spirit of patriotism swept the 3,500-seat room. Visibly touched by the sentiments and thoughts of these too long forgotten heroes, Hope (who the Guinness Book of World records lists as the most decorated entertainer) promised that the ring would always rank among his most treasured possessions.