Unlocking the past
Chico State basketball coach finally ‘comes clean’ about his time in Vietnam
Prescott “Puck” Smith’s gray, short-cropped hair tells the tale of his age, but belies his still formidable physical presence. He’s a man of many hats. Whether he’s sitting in his office talking on the phone or answering e-mails to numerous media, Smith is personable, reliable and affable. But it’s on the sideline as head coach of the Chico State men’s basketball team where he exemplifies leadership. Looking as if he could still lace ’em up and run the court as he did for Southwestern Oklahoma State University in the mid-'60s, Smith preaches discipline, repetition and perfection.
This is a direct product of his formative years. Smith is a veteran of the United States Army and the Vietnam War, where he served for two years in 1968 and 1969.
Occasionally, we hear stories of Vietnam War veterans and discover an entirely new set of atrocities on the home soil, as well as, oftentimes, a subjective and slanted view on the conflict itself. But Smith’s 495-page memoir, Last Light With the Boys, is different. Yes, Smith offers an honest and poignant perspective, but it’s more about the evolution of a naïve 23-year-old college grad with a year of teaching under his belt to the man who was regarded by his peers as a legitimate leader.
“I didn’t want to be political, I didn’t want to be moral, I didn’t want to be spiritual,” the 64-year-old Smith said. “I just wanted to tell the story as I experienced it.”
This was the nation’s war, but this is Smith’s story.
Before arriving at Chico State Smith served as assistant basketball coach for four Division I schools: Oregon State, Portland State, Boise State and Washington State. This year, he’s entering his 21st year guiding the Chico State men’s basketball team.
While his teams have had varying degrees of success over that time, his coaching style has gone largely unchanged. The result: Smith is 20 wins short of 300 for his career, second in career wins in Chico State men’s basketball history behind the legendary Art Acker, the man after whom the Wildcats’ home floor is named.
Smith is obviously a busy man, and it wasn’t until 1993 that he began writing Last Light With the Boys. Smith said he thought about the war on a somewhat regular basis, and the frustration of being unable to communicate with the guys he served with acted as a catalyst for the book.
“I had some unfinished business with those experiences that I just put behind me,” he said. “Because I didn’t have any addresses or phone numbers, I decided the next best thing would be to write about it.”
Smith began pecking away, starting with smaller ideas that quickly burgeoned into pages-long episodes that recall names, individual backgrounds, geography and sights and sounds with encyclopedic reliability. People have asked Smith if he kept a journal while he served. He didn’t.
“I discovered once I started writing about certain events that all this other stuff surrounding it came up,” he said. “After about 20 pages, I’d look up and realize I had all this subconscious information that I’d been carrying with me, for some reason.”
Years passed and he continued to write, spending eight or nine months at a time away from the book, mostly during basketball season. Smith included more than 60 photos in Last Light. While many of them are his own, he chose to search around for images that would flesh out the storytelling experience.
Smith completed Last Light last year, 13 years after he began. The next step in this journey, then, was publishing the book. Smith used a self-publishing company called Lulu.com. The ease with which the book was published astounded him.
“Basically, if you have the manuscript on your desktop, it takes you less than 30 minutes to publish.”
It’s difficult for outsiders to gauge the emotional toll the Vietnam War took on Smith. Only he knows. But when he finally allowed it to surface—especially on the written page—he was somewhat taken aback. The emotional wreckage seems to have spared him, but he admits that writing Last Light opened up an avenue he rarely took the time to—or chose to—travel down, even with family.
“The emotional side of me has kind of been my secret. In writing this, I opened that up a little bit, expressing my fear and doubt,” Smith said. “It was good to release that. I thought it was time to come clean.”
He recounts the first time he witnessed a fellow serviceman being shot, and when he learned about a close friend who never made it back, as well as collaborative efforts in stealthily eliminating Viet Cong ambushes as a member of the Army’s long-range reconnaissance patrol. Smith’s accounts are matter-of-fact, technical, and, while they seem emotionless, there’s plenty under the surface. We can see what he’s doing, and we can hear his voice in the narrator.
His son, Ryan, a senior on the Chico State basketball team, has read the book and echoes his father’s sentiment about unlocking the emotional chamber door for the world to read.
“It’s hard for him to talk about that stuff,” he said. “He did it to basically tell his story to his family and friends.”
By entering the Army, Smith followed in his father’s footsteps as a military man. His father was a prisoner of war during World War II, and Smith admits he has guilt that it took him until he was on leave after basic training in 1967 (at 24 years old) to talk to his father about it.
“That’s something we should have talked about earlier,” Smith said. “When he did talk about it, he could remember in such detail what happened. He didn’t over-glorify it. He was just a prisoner of war in World War II.”
Smith’s mother, Sally, supplied the cover art, a drawing based on a photograph snapped as he prepared for a helicopter jump. After reading Last Light, she learned things her own son had never revealed to anyone.
“I think we do that to our parents,” he said. “We don’t give them all of the information, because we don’t want to worry them. She read it and was kind of blown away.”
Early in Last Light, Smith describes the trip to Travis Air Force Base, where he’d catch a flight that ultimately carried him to Vietnam. If the emotion-drenched good-byes with his parents weren’t bad enough, Smith’s flight, which was scheduled to lift off at 11 p.m., was delayed five hours.
“To relive that was pretty tough,” Smith said. “My dad understood, but my mom couldn’t handle it. I really couldn’t handle it, but I pretended really well. I had to act like, ‘Go ahead, you have to get back to Sacramento.’ That was tough.”
Smith is realistic about Last Light With the Boys. Slightly more than 100 copies have been sold in a little more than a year. And while he admits, “It won’t win any awards or anything,” the fact remains his experience is something others can learn from.
“It took me a while to do it, I’m glad I did it and it turned out just about like I wanted it to turn out,” he said. “And I had no agenda, other than telling the story like it happened.”