GASTONIA — Larry Bradley still carries the memories.
Memories of the firefights on the perimeter of the air base at Da Nang.
Memories of hand-to-hand, to-the-death combat.
Memories of the constant bombardment of his Marine unit during the seemingly endless siege of Khe Sanh.
He has the nightmares too.
Nightmares of turning over faceless bodies after a firefight until he flips over a body and stares into his own face.
Nightmares of violence and of blood.
Nightmares that leave him in a cold, breathless sweat.
His body carries the scars of 30 months in Vietnam as well as his mind.
Three bullets pierced a leg. A shrapnel wound opened his body.
More debilitating than those wounds, however, was exposure to Agent Orange, the chemical used by the United States in an attempt to defoliate large swaths of Vietnamese jungle.
That exposure led to Type 2 diabetes. The disease brought physical disability, the loss of a foot, and put an end to his lifelong passion — building engines and working on any type of automobile.
So does a conversation with Bradley, 71, lead to expressions of bitterness and regret?
“I wouldn’t trade my experiences for anything,” said Bradley in his backyard workshop. “They helped make me who I am and what I am.”
We’ll get back to that workshop later. But first, some history.
A Gastonia native, Bradley would have been a graduate of Hunter Huss High. Instead, he quit school to join the Marines. Soon, he was one of the first Marines deployed to that “nasty little war” in Vietnam.
“It was rough,” Bradley remembered of that tour of duty. “But you had to deal with it. You had to deal with it or you didn’t survive.”
In addition to the wounds described above, Bradley also stepped on a “bouncing Betty” landmine, an action which should have left him blown to pieces.
Instead, the bomb did not go off.
“Got to thank Jesus for that one,” Bradley said. “He had other plans for my life.”
Those plans may have been in place, but when the young Marine returned from Vietnam late in the tumultuous year of 1968, he certainly wasn’t ready to follow them.
“All I wanted to do was fight and drink,” he remembered. “I wanted to ride motorcycles, fight and drink.”
Between the fighting and the drinking, however, Bradley re-discovered an aptitude for mechanics he had first evidenced as a teenager.
He worked for garages in Gastonia, and for a time had his own business, A&W Auto and Body Repair.
He also worked on race cars and did some dirt track racing himself.
But 17 years after coming home, Bradley still felt something was missing in his life. That vacuum would be filled in 1985 when he met his wife, Teresa, a nurse at Gaston Memorial.
“She saved me,” Bradley said. “She and the Lord Jesus saved me. I sold my motorcycle. I quit drinking. I was a changed man.”
Unfortunately, the damage done to Bradley’s body by his wounds and by diabetes was too great to reverse, and by 1992 he found himself unable to work any longer.
Bradley rediscovered a passion from his childhood — working on models.
The walls of the workshop are lined with hundreds of model cars Bradley has painstakingly constructed and painted over the years.
Suspended from the ceiling are dozens of military aircraft models, including a B-17, an homage to his dad, who served in the Army Air Corps during World War II.
Ship models include aircraft carriers, naval destroyers, even a model of President John Kennedy’s P.T. 109.
“This is my therapy,” said Bradley, who now uses a wheelchair, “but it’s also my prayer garden. My wife brings me out every morning, and I spend time in prayer before I start to working.”
“I put on some gospel music, and I have my prayer time,” Bradley continued. “This is my therapy. If it wasn’t for this place and the time I spend here, I’d be crazy.”
Bradley readily admits he suffers from depression and from nightmares, but he credits his wife, his family, his pastor at Salem Baptist Church, and most especially his faith for pulling him through.
Before he gets too much older, however, Bradley would like to share his passion for building models with younger people who could carry on his tradition.
“I’d love to share what I do and teach some younger people to do it,” he said. “I’d give anything if some young people wanted to spend time in the shop with me, to watch and to learn.”