Identical twins share cellular connection, live with images of human losses no one wants to see
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Terry Mayes always figured if there was bad news from Vietnam about his brother, he would feel it before he heard it.
That’s the way it is with twins.
“I was convinced that if anything ever happened to him, I would have known about it before I ever got a phone call,” the 73-year-old Mayes says, as he glances across the coffee-shop table at his identical twin, Larry. “And he probably felt the same way.”
These two feel the same way about many things, and express it in similar — often identical — ways.
“People will talk to both of us on the same day or in the same week and say we’ve said exactly the same words or answered something or made some observation in exactly the same way,” Larry says.
“It’s always there,” Terry adds, picking up the end of his brother’s sentence and continuing it with barely a pause. “It’s not like I stop and say, ‘Oh, I’m having one of those revelations, that I’m thinking what my brother is probably thinking.’ It happens all the time. People who are around us a lot say, ‘Boy, that’s really spooky, because it’s like you two are thinking with one brain.’”
They nod in unison, as they do so many things, from fishing and hunting to attending sporting events to sipping chai tea at their favorite downtown Rapid City bistro to playing a casual round of golf.
One thing they didn’t do in unison was Vietnam. Larry went into the Air Force after graduating from Northern State University (which was then called a college) in Aberdeen, where he played football. And not so long after that he was at Tan Son Nhut Air Base near Saigon.
Terry, who was hobbled by a severe knee injury suffered while playing college football, followed his graduation by going into law enforcement, joining the South Dakota Highway Patrol.
What followed was a rare occurrence in the lives of these twins: 11 months without so much as a phone call between them. Which might seem odd today. But contacts with home for service members in Vietnam weren’t anything like the communications options available to military personnel overseas today, with the texts and cell-phone calls and face-to-face time on Skype to loved ones back home.
Letters and audio tapes were the main means of communication for those in harm’s way during the Vietnam War. Phone calls were rare and complicated, relying on the Military Auxiliary Radio System and ham radio operators who helped “patch in” calls between military personnel overseas and their families.
“You could talk to a ham operator in Vietnam who would talk to a ham operator in the United States who would make a call for you and make a connection,” Larry says. “And I called twice in that whole year. One time I talked to my wife and and one time I talked to Terry’s wife.”
He wanted to talk to Terry, of course. But when the call came through, Terry was on patrol up near Newell on Highway 212. He was notified that “your brother is on the line” but couldn’t manage to get a connection before the call ended.
“I think you only had about five minutes,” Larry says. “It went by really fast.”
The days during Larry’s tour weren’t so fast, however, both home and away. Terry focused his conscious attention and energy on his job as a state trooper, while always carrying that subliminal connection with his brother, and the anxiety it produced.
“”All the time,” Terry says, when asked how often he thought about Larry during his tour of duty. “And then on the 5 o’clock news every day, there was Vietnam. Not that you needed that, but it just reinforced it.”
Larry was an Air Force lieutenant in November of 1969 when he arrived at Tan Son Nhut Air Base. The base, which was one of the initial targets in the Tet Offensive in January of 1968, was a key air command and tactical center and among the world’s busiest airports during the time Mayes was there.
The largest air base in Vietnam had plenty of security, but it was never entirely safe. Larry found that out early in his tour when he arose from bed and went to the latrine. A rocket suddenly screamed down from the sky, sizzled past a nearby window, slammed into a building next door and exploded.
“If you ever had any doubts about the war being real, that pretty much ended them,” he says.
And it was plenty real each day for Mayes during work shifts on the base that, while usually not dangerous, looked the gruesome realities of war in the face. The bodies of American casualties were sent to one of two mortuaries operating in Vietnam to handle those remains. One was at Da Nang, the other at Tan Son Nhut.
As a shift commander, Mayes went to aircraft as they flew in from all over the war zone with human remains. His job was to check the remains and make sure shipping paperwork matched tags on the body bags.
“During the year I was in Vietnam, 10,000 Americans were killed. We processed probably half or a little more than half of those remains,” Mayes says. “They came to us off of tactical airplanes from little airfields, as close as you could get to where the battles were, wherever those people were killed.”
The remains were taken to the mortuary to be prepared for shipment. Two days after overseeing the unloading of a particular group of remains, Mayes again checked them when they came back from the mortuary in aluminum transfer cases.
His job then was to take the paperwork out of a receptacle on the side of the transfer case and make sure it correlated with the hand receipt he would give to the load master of the airplane that would take the remains back to the United States.
“You not only saw a lot of human remains, occasionally there was someone there you knew,” Mayes said.
To this day, the images of aluminum cases carrying the remains of military personnel takes Mayes back to that Vietnam experience, and all those lives lost. But like his brother, he has managed to carry those difficult images in a separate compartment of his memories, one where they aren’t so likely to damage better recollections.
“If you deal with that kind of human wreckage, you learn, and you have to learn, how to compartmentalize,” Larry says. “I will say that there are some specific times when we were unloading body bags that will stick with me forever. They can’t be erased. But I’ve worked on it and learned how to put it in some kind of perspective.”
Mayes tried to expand that perspective far away from the air base by joining a pilot from Britton, S.D., named Bill Schaffer, who was flying a little Cessna O-1 Bird Dog single-engine airplane on advanced observation missions over some of the most wicked parts of the jungle. They met over drinks at the officers’s club at Tan Son Nhut, and Schaffer issued the ride-along invitation after learning that Mayes was a South Dakota native who had attended college with his sisters.
About a month later, Mayes climbed into a C-7 Caribou cargo airplane on the first leg of a trip that took him “all over South Vietnam to eventually get to this dinky little hillside up in the western Central Highlands” where Schaffer was stationed.
Mayes spent a week there, using leave time to fly low-altitude observation missions with Schaffer. It was a dangerous move, but one he thought was important, to him especially.
“I went up there because I didn’t feel like I had seen the war, even though I had seen the bad products of the war,” Mayes says. “I think I flew five missions over the Ho Chi Minh Trail that week. And I can tell you I got a chance to see warfare at its ugliest.”
He felt fortunate to be above it, rather than down in it. And the flights helped him further understand what those out in the bush were facing and enduring, and also how those human remains he and others checked and managed with such respect and care ended up where they did. It helped, he says, in that search for perspective on his Vietnam experience.
And it was all part of the work he did in learning to acknowledge the images he saw each day and begin that process of compartmentalization, and later moving on with his life. He says that has been crucial in helping him deal with his time in Vietnam and what he saw there, and to avoid the impacts of PTSD that can be so debilitating.
Both brothers went through that process, for different reasons. While Larry was monitoring the awful stream of casualties in Vietnam, Terry was learning to deal with the all-too-frequent trauma scenes, and horrid fatalities, as he worked the early stages of a 31-year career with the South Dakota Highway Patrol. Over that time, he responded to crashes that took more than 100 lives.
Such experiences can bruise a mind and twist a spirit in ways that endure. They never leave, but must be lived with, Terry says.
“I talk about compartmentalization, too,” he says. “You allow your brain to shut off certain concerns. Not that it happens easily. You learn to do it. When I was on the Highway Patrol, I absolutely had to learn to compartmentalize.”
The first and perhaps most lasting experience that needed to be separated from other parts of his emotions happened on a wintry highway near Sturgis, back when Mayes was a young state trooper.
“It was north of town on Highway 79, one of those snowy, crappy nights when there was about six inches of snow on the ground and the road was wet,” Terry says. “And two young men were in a pickup heading north on 79 when they lost control.”
The pickup left the highway and careened down through the ditch and into a pasture or field along the road for a substantial distance, rolling over as it went. One of the men was thrown from the pickup, which hit him as it rolled. He was mortally wounded but not yet dead when Mayes arrived on the scene.
“I was all by myself. A week night. Had nobody else patrolling,” Mayes says. “So I get the call and get there and it’s really obvious to me that this kid is going to die. So he’s laying there in the snow, essentially by himself, dying.”
Mayes had previously responded to a few fatal crashes in his young career as a trooper. But this was the first accident victim he had to watch die. So he sat down next to the young man and held him in his arms.
“My reaction was pure humanity. It had nothing to do with my job, with being a trooper,” Mayes says, his eyes turning red and filling with tears. “It was just, here’s a guy who is dying. And I don’t think he ought to die alone. His life was ebbing away right in front of me, and I wanted to do something.”
That "something" for a young state trooper responding alone to a trauma scene was to sit in the cold and snow and offer what comfort he could to a stranger who was taking his last breaths, as an ambulance rushed to the scene.
“I could just hear the siren coming on 79 when he died,” Mayes says. “Kind of like in the movies, except it wasn’t a movie.”
During a career that saw him rise to supervising captain for the Highway Patrol in Rapid City, Terry Mayes developed a stoic, tearless, business-like approach to brutal accident scenes.
“I always felt I had to be that way, in that job, especially as a supervisor,” he said.
But he allows himself to show more emotion these days, especially when talking about lives he watched ebb away. In some cases, after the Vietnam War, his twin brother was with him at the scene of such ebbing.
Larry spent 30 years in the Air Force, 27 of them in military police and security work that took him around the nation and world and in itself led him to some nasty recollections. But few of those matched what he saw at Tan Son Nhut, or what his brother dealt with on South Dakota highways.
After Vietnam, Larry felt drawn to share some of those road experiences with his twin brother.
“Whenever I was home on leave during my military career, I would ride wth him,” Larry says. “And, boy, we saw some bad stuff together.”
On one day in particular, Terry Mayes was called to a double fatality near Spearfish, soon to be followed by one even worse in the number of lives lost.
“I’d just cleared the one and we got a call on another, four fatalities east of Sturgis, all within about two hours,” Terry says. “That was a tough day.”
“Yeah, that was a bad one,” Larry adds.
And with that, for just a moment, we sit in an emotional pause over empty tea cups at that downtown Rapid City bistro, the location of the second and third of the three casual interviews I did for this story.
The first interview was the most fun, since it was in a Lund fishing boat on Belle Fourche Reservoir just off the northern Black Hills, while the walleye bite was on. Knowing how much they loved to fish, I’d been trying for months to match our schedules with the fishing action so I could join them for an on-the-water interview.
As I waited for them in a tempestuous northwest wind at the boat ramp, however, I observed the turbulent surface of lake and began to suspect the trip might be called off. It looked pretty unfriendly out there.
But soon the Mayes brothers pulled up in their Jeep with the 16-foot Lund in tow, stepped out and observed the roiling waves with surprising alacrity.
“We like a little walleye chop on the water,” Larry said with a slight smile.
“Well, you said you wanted an adventure!” Terry beamed.
They gave me one, too, along with a chance to hook a couple of keeper walleyes for supper that night.
I’m not a stranger to rough water on big reservoirs. I grew up along the Missouri River in central South Dakota and fished walleyes for years, sometimes in fairly intimidating wind and waves. Trust is essential in those situations. And I knew enough about Terry and Larry Mayes to trust them.
They didn’t disappoint, either, operating a 16-foot, tiller-steer Lund (which is a solid, stable craft, but hardly a monster given the size of the swells that day) in the way of knowledgeable, experienced boaters. Which means, safely.
It was rough. And for a time I wished I had eaten a smaller breakfast. Barfing over the side of the boat isn’t the way any reporter wants to be remembered on his first interview. But my senses settled into the rhythm of the waves and the undulations of the Lund.
Soon we were into fish, which made the wave action seem friendlier. And I was able to hold onto my breakfast and handle my rod and reel while observing an angling operation built on a system of communication that began its formation in the womb.
“We have a way of doing things on the water,” Larry says. “He’s the trolling-motor guy and I’m the big-motor guy. He’s in the front, I’m in the back. It may look like chaos sometimes, but it’s pretty finely tuned. Where do you put your pole when landing a fish? How do you handle the net? It’s teamwork.”
And it’s teamwork that has been going on for a long time, in many ways.
Born in Pierre, the twins lived in Winner in their early years, as their dad worked as Tripp County auditor. The family moved back to Pierre when their dad worked in the state auditor’s office, and that’s where they attended grade school.
Their dad kept working in that office, and eventually was elected to terms as state auditor, on ballots with former Republicans Govs. George T. Mickelson and Joe Foss. But the family lived in nearby towns, so Terry and Larry went to middle school (then junior high) in Gettysburg and high school in Onida.
There they excelled in basketball and football, and both made the all-state basketball team for Onida as 6-4 seniors. All that time on the field and on the court took a toll, however. When that was added to age and arthritis, it eventually led to joint replacements.
Larry has two new hips and two new shoulders. Terry has two new hips and one new shoulder.
“But I can still outrun any 73-year-old with two steel hips in town,” Larry says, poking his brother just a bit.
He doesn’t poke too much, though. Big brothers still have special standing, after all, even if they are exactly the same size and only six minutes older.
“Six minutes, six months, six years, it doesn’t matter,” Larry says. “He’s still the older brother.”
He’s the one without the mustache, too, in case you want to tell them apart.
Otherwise, they’re about as same as same can get, in how they look and how they walk and how they speak and how they think and how they feel.
And, of course, especially in how they live with some of hardest images life can produce.
“People ask, ‘Well, how do you get used to the stuff you see?’” Terry says. “And the truth is you do not get used to it. If you have any humanity, you will never get used to seeing what we’ve seen. You just get used to dealing with the feelings it causes. That’s all you can do.”
With that, there is another moment of silence at our table. There is also a long look of understanding between two brothers who know — at a deep, shared, cellular level of knowing — when there is nothing more to say.