THE BLOG
08/03/2012 02:35 pm ET | Updated Oct 03, 2012

Tighten Up

Apparently, there's a viral image making the rounds today supposedly showing a McDonald's golden arches sign that says "We Support Chick-fil-A, Now Try to Boycott Us!" It's even being touted as an "urban legend."

What all this has to do with my own 365-day tour of duty in Vietnam in 1970-71 is connected, I believe, to what urban legends are made of, what it is about them we want to believe and what we're afraid to know is the real truth.

In May of 1967, Archie Bell of Archie Bell & the Drells Tighten Up fame, ("Hi everybody, we're Archie Bell and the Drells from Houston, Texas...") was drafted into the U. S. Army.

By way of background, Tighten Up was a 1968 mega-hit by a Houston, Texas-based R&B vocal group by the name of Archie Bell and the Drells. The song peaked at #1 on both the Billboard R&B and pop charts in the spring of 1968, ranked #265 on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and has been called one of the earliest funk music hits by music aficionados.

And it made you wanna get up and dance. And dance.

Unfortunately for Archie Bell, just as Tighten Up was taking off, he was being grounded by Uncle Sam. "The song exploded and sold 200,000 copies but I don't know how it feels to have a hot record in the states," Bell told an interviewer in 2007, "because I could only come home on leaves to record the album."

With the real Archie Bell out of the picture, several fake Archie Bell and The Drells cropped up, including one phony, all-white Archie Bell and the Drells group. By the time I got to Vietnam in late 1970, the word was that Archie Bell had died from wounds he'd sustained in Vietnam, much like the (false) rumor that Jerry Mathers of Leave It To Beaver fame had died in combat.

In other words, our youth, our innocence and our music were all succumbing to Vietnam, much like we were.

And while there was some truth in that -- Michael Herr, author of the great Vietnam journalism book Dispatches, is quoted as saying that "Vietnam is what we had instead of happy childhoods," there was a lot of urban myth/legend in that belief, too. And why is that?

I think some of it has to do with that visceral loss of innocence that I mention above, but some of it also has to do with the relevancy of that old saying "misery loves company." Trying to survive 365 days in Vietnam in 1970-71 I, like thousands upon thousands of my fellow GIs, was scared and miserable. So I took comfort in the fact that a person who is miserable can find solace in other people who share their feelings. This is the basis of some forms of group therapy -- when you realize you are not the only one feeling the way you feel, well, you don't feel so bad.

And how better to share that misery than with idols like The Beaver and Archie Bell?

Eventually, the Beaver-dying-in Vietnam-myth was debunked, but in the era before the Internet, I remained unconvinced about Archie Bell until I visited The Wall in Washington, D.C.. Standing in front of Panel 25W Line 61, I looked at the name and realized my obsession had been with Arthur Bell, a white man from Mississippi, who wasn't the guy who sang Tighten Up after all.

The real Archie Bell was never in Vietnam, was never wounded ("Nah, man, I never saw any combat," he says) and was discharged from the Army in 1969. His oldest brother fought in Vietnam, as did every member of his unit from basic training. Archie came back to a long, prosperous musical career and still gets to perform Tighten Up.

Sadly, Specialist 4 Arthur Frederick Bell was killed by small arms fire in Binh Dinh, South Vietnam, in May 1969. He was 23 years old. That's old by Vietnam demographics, but it's still a life cut short too soon. He probably watched Leave it to Beaver and listened to Tighten Up.

But Arthur Frederick Bell and more than 58,000 others never got to come home.

That's why I don't put a lot of stock in that phony McDonald's sign. I steer clear of urban legends altogether, especially when I might have a hard time dealing with their debunking.

War is, perhaps, the greatest debunker of all.