Milestones Oct. 16, 2006

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On July 29, 1967, a misfired Zuni missile struck the fuel tank of my A-4 attack plane, starting a fire that nearly sank my ship, the U.S.S. Forrestal, and killed 132 men. I escaped with minor injuries. Shortly after the fire was extinguished, a helicopter descended on the limping ship and off-loaded a press pool consisting of a film crew and one reporter, R.W. (Johnny) Apple Jr.--the famed New York Times correspondent, who died last week at 71 after a long career covering everything from that war in Vietnam to U.S. politics to the world's best restaurants. An admiral's son who survived when his plane didn't, I was an object of curiosity to Johnny. He took me back with him to Saigon and had me appear at the Five O'Clock Follies, a daily press conference at which the military briefed skeptical reporters--none more skeptical than Johnny. While I had some news value, I think Johnny's chief purpose was to exhibit me to his associates as the luckiest so-and-so in the U.S. Navy. I spent several days at his villa and accompanied him on his nightly rounds of Saigon's bars and restaurants. He had a pass, signed by General Westmoreland, that allowed him to stay out past curfew. The veranda bar of the Hotel Continental, known affectionately as the Continental Shelf, was among his regular haunts and boasted a very colorful cast of characters. He was among the most colorful--generous, imperious, obstinate, quick-witted, contentious and great company. I saw him again six years later in Washington. We resumed our friendship, which for the next three decades continued occasionally in his favorite theater of operations--the dinner table. He was good company throughout, but I'll always remember him in the flower of his full life, at the Continental, charming us all. And I'll miss him.