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Thursday, May 5, 2016

Vietnam medic finds healing in music

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Grandin singer and songwriter Dennis Hodo fulfilled a 40-year dream by singing at Juggbutt's in Alton on Tuesday afternoons.
In 1966, just about all Dennis Hodo wanted to do was play his guitar and sing with his garage band, The Hatchers.

For a time, that is exactly what the Grandin foursome (Hodo, his older brother, Bob Hodo, and friends Chuck Lovelace and Nick Hatch, the group's namesake), did.

"We had a list of 100 songs we could just stand up and play and sing without any music in front of us," Hodo said Tuesday, Oct. 4, from Juggbutt's Coffee House in Alton.

At the 1967 Alton prom, from left, Bob Hodo, Chuck Lovelace, Nick Hatch and Dennis Hodo. It was The Hatcher's last public performance.
By 1967, the year Bob graduated from Doniphan High School, the young musicians had performed at numerous school dances from Poplar Bluff to Alton.

The teens, already veteran performers, decided then to take a break. Hodo and Hatch were high school juniors at the time, and Lovelace was a sophomore.

"We were just kids, and we were burned out," Hodo said.

The group's last high school dance gig was the Alton senior prom in 1967. After graduation, Hodo worked a year in St. Louis.

Then in 1969, Hodo's life changed dramatically, as he was drafted into the U.S. Army and became a platoon medic.

Hodo spent a year in Vietnam, where he spent as much time battling snakes and malaria as the enemy.

It is also where Hodo saw a soldier that he had rested under a tree with moments earlier die by stepping out into an ambush zone to save the lives of his men.

"He set it off while the rest of us were behind trees," Hodo said.

Hodo said his friend somehow sensed the ambush site and triggered it. Two others were with him, but survived.

"He probably saved the lives of a hundred men that day," Hodo said. "I know he saved mine."

The young soldier, Sgt. Rivera, was 21 years old and within three weeks of returning to the states when he died in the ambush.

As he grieved for his fallen friend, Hodo wrote a poem that later became the song, "I'll See You Later, Brother."

Hodo wrote in 1970 from Cambodia: "I will come again to see you friend, here at your grave,

"I'll do something good, with this life that you saved.

"Let me tell you one thing, about coming here, my friend,

"After all these years, I can finally sleep again." 

After his service, Hodo received two Purple Heart medals, one for shrapnel injuries from a rocket blast, and another when he severely cut his leg after stepping into a pit lined with poisoned punji stakes.

After two years in the Army, Hodo went to school on the G.I. Bill, earning a civil engineering degree at age 25. He spent the next 30 years "working, raising kids and paying bills."

While the years passed, Hodo missed performing.

"I always had a guitar," Hodo said. "My dream was to play publicly again. It took me 40 years to ever get back to it."

Although more than 30 years had passed, Hodo paid a first-time visit to Rivera's family in Fresno, Calif., in 1996. They treated Hodo as one of them, almost as if Rivera himself was home.

"They received me like I was their long-lost brother, which was a real surprise to me," Hodo said.

Hodo wrote a moving account of his friend's life and the encounter with his family, now the final song on one of Hodo's recorded music CDs.

Besides playing a host of songs popular in the 1960s and 70s, Hodo has written numerous songs detailing the experiences of his own life, including the death of his brother in 1980 from Lou Gehrig Disease.

"I have his guitar," Hodo said of the Martin guitar around his neck.

Hodo said he came to Alton recently, hoping to find anyone who might have photos of the band's last public performance at the 1967 prom. He searched the library and school yearbooks, but came up empty.

"Then, I ran into this place and came in and talked to Jerry," Hodo said of his first encounter with Juggbutt's owner Jerry Hackworth.

"Dennis is exactly what I envisioned when I opened this place," Hackworth said.

Hackworth opened the coffee house in the old barber/beauty shop about a year ago, hoping to attract a range of people who enjoy music.

Hodo said, after being turned down in larger towns, he had nearly given up on finding a venue for his music.

"I don't even want to be paid. I just want to play," Hodo said.

And, he still hopes to come up with old dance photos from the 1967 prom.

Hodo, now 61, living in Briar and retired, plays from 3-6 p.m. every Tuesday at Juggbutt's.

After playing Jim Croce's "Time in a Bottle" and Kris Kristopherson's "Me and Bobby McGee," Hodo said his first Tuesday gig in Alton brought back many memories.

"It was like my brother was here with me," Hodo said.

If you go

Juggbutt's opens at 7 a.m. Monday-Saturday, closes in mid-afternoon and reopens by 6 p.m. nightly on South Market Street in Alton. Besides open mic night for musicians, Juggbutt's also has "spoken mic" times for poets and actors. Dennis Hodo performs from 3-6 p.m. on Tuesdays. Admission is free for all events.

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