by Randy Cassingham
“I wondered: is this what it’s really like to be an unwanted minority in American society? It’s powerful, and that’s why it had such an impact on my life.”
Author’s Note: While in Journalism school, I was chosen as editor for the Winter 1985 issue of Humboldt State University’s student magazine, Osprey. I found a copy of the magazine recently and thought this article needed to be read by a wider audience. HSU was recently renamed California State Polytechnic, Humboldt.
Most teachers make the decision they want to become teachers when they’re quite young. Dick Pincsak decided he wanted to become a teacher after he was shot out of the sky in Vietnam.
“I was shot twice and then shot down in a helicopter,” Pincsak said. “The pilot tried to hit the rice paddy, but he missed and hit the dike. He got killed, the crew chief got killed, but the co-pilot and I were on the other side. We got banged-up a lot, but we lived.
“That was an amazing experience. I think that’s the one thing that really motivated me to become a teacher: people ought not to act in this manner.”
Pincsak (pronounced “Pin-sack”), who has taught at HSU since 1974, was in Vietnam for nearly a year. It isn’t a time he remembers fondly.
“I have a friend who keeps a journal. The bad days, (he) rips the pages out so when he goes back through it he just reads about the good things. If I were to keep a journal on my life, I’d rip that whole year out,” he said.
“I was assigned to an infantry unit and was on combat patrol as a machinegunner. When our unit came back in off patrol, there was a shortage of machinegunners so we were transferred up to the helicopter battalion and served as doorgunners.” That’s when his chopper was shot down.
Pincsak can’t put Vietnam out of his mind completely, though. He still suffers from injuries from that crash.
“I was like one big bruise after that, after that mishap. When the helicopter hit, I got slammed against the engine wall and it threw me out and I hit on my back and my hips. Where I was sore the most is where the arthritis is now — in my low back and my hips and a little bit in my knee.” Pincsak limps when he walks and takes medications to reduce the swelling in his joints.
When he left the Army, Pincsak had bad feelings about the U.S.’s involvement in the war. “I was really philosophically opposed to our purpose in Southeast Asia. I belonged to and helped organize a political group called ‘Vietnam Veterans Against the War’ and got involved in a lot of social protest and found myself spending a night or two in jail. But I stood up for what I believed in.
“A lot of people didn’t understand that, because I could have just led my quiet little life because I had already served my time — I was out of the Army. But I stood up for my principles, and principles sometimes really make you pay a price.”
A price? “Just the inconvenience of going to jail. We were on occasion treated in a somewhat more abrupt manner than just the regular college students. We were viewed as agitators.”
Pincsak has been teaching at Humboldt for over ten years. He came as a student in 1974 to get his master’s degree and has been here since, except for some time off to fight his arthritis and later to work on his Ph.D. He teaches introductory and G.E. courses in the Speech Communications department.
Pincsak is fairly well known at HSU for one memorable stunt. On Halloween in 1979, Pincsak came dressed as a Nazi “brownshirt”.
“Everybody remembers that,” he says. “Yeah, it’s amazing. It’s one thing that has sure made an impression on people’s memories — including my own. Would I do it again? NO.”
So why did he do it? “There was a used bookstore down on the plaza in Arcata, and I used to go browse through there. I came across this old encyclopedia that had a picture of a brownshirt in it and a little article on Nazism. And I looked at it and looked at it and thought ‘I bet I can make myself look like that. And I wonder what would happen.’ So I went around and picked up the pieces in the dime store.
“I went out and bought a brown shirt and found an old tie and made an arm band like he was wearing in the picture. I put it on and looked in the mirror and I was shocked. I was really afraid of myself. I mean wow! It was an amazing transformation. So I thought ‘what would happen if I wore this to the university?’ It was Halloween time.
“I wore it to school and I’ll never forget that day as long as I live. I had people throw rocks at me, I got one person who actually ran his car at me in the parking lot, I had people calling me names. And when I walked down the hallway, in the Theater Arts building, people just stood up against the wall and gave me as much space as they possibly could. I was really treated in a very hostile fashion.
“Supposedly in universities the one thing that’s sacred is freedom of thought and expression. But it (the uniform) was such a deviant non-verbal display of attire that the expression was rejected in a variety of ways.
But the day wasn’t entirely one of hostility. “There were a couple of people that knew me and saw me and just started laughing, and they took a couple of really funny shots at me. It was the thing that really made my day, because I was having trouble just getting through the day. One person said to me, ‘At last you show your true self!’ (laughs) That made my day! It was really hard just managing the hostility that came at me.”
So what came out of this social experiment? “It really made me think about minority thought and freedom of expression. I don’t know if this is a true comparison or not, but it was like for a brief moment I was a minority member of society that was unwelcome. It made me wonder about those people in the civil rights movement in the ’50s and ’60s; if that’s the kind of hostility they encountered — and to me they had a legitimate cause for equality.
“I think the thing that made me the most introspective was (I wondered): is this what it’s really like to be an unwanted minority in American society? It’s powerful, and that’s why it had such an impact on my life, because I really felt the product of total discrimination. And that is really powerful.”
While Pincsak has no plans to leave his job at HSU, he doesn’t really have plans to stay, either. “Right now in my life I’m extremely happy with that I do,” he says. “And I enjoy what I do. And I like to think I’m good at what I do. And as long as those three things remain in my life, I’d like to stay here.”
When you look at this man, you see a very big, very quiet and thoughtful man who enjoys his life. He is known for his hearty laugh and the distinct but pleasant aroma from his pipe tobacco. You wouldn’t know by looking at him that he has had some incredible life experiences in his 37 years. So how does Pincsak want to be remembered when he’s gone?
“Uh, I don’t,” he said quietly. Why not? “I think because I’ve already made my mark on society by being a college teacher. There are certain basic qualities of humanity that a college education brings out. Hopefully, that serves the purpose to better our selves and better our world. I feel I’m a part of that in being a teacher and I’ve served my purpose. I have been remembered through helping my students learn. And I need nothing more in that sense. Somewhere, perhaps, I’ve touched someone’s life who someday will have great bearing on the outcome of the world.”
I remember seeing him that day: this sandy-blond, blue-eyed man in a Nazi uniform. It was startling (even though it was Halloween!), and I thought to myself, “He’s got guts….” Sure enough, he became one of my teachers — my minor was in the Speech Communications Dept. — and when I got the magazine editorship I was told I was the only one who didn’t have to write any articles to get credit; I just had to manage the staff (aka the other students), and get the magazine published on time and within budget. I accomplished that, but I wanted to ask Pincsak a lot of questions about that day, and “Can I interview you?” gave me that opportunity. My instant impression became the title.
I didn’t keep up with Dick, who remained in the area, but I found out that in 2006, apparently after he had retired from the university, he was in a accident when a rogue wave destroyed his 19-foot fishing boat. Three friends were on board; they had declined life jackets since it was a nice day. Two of them drowned, but Dick was wearing his and survived with cracked ribs. A Coast Guard helicopter sent to rescue them crashed into the surf; all its its crew survived. But imagine the flashbacks Dick had watching it crash while he awaited rescue!
Richard James Pincsak died 5 September 2014 — and his remains went missing. A friend who presumably thought he had no family lied and said he was family and had him cremated. But Dick did have family, and they couldn’t find where the cremains ended up. His cousin Andrew Pincsak contacted the Missing in America Project, a group dedicated to finding, identifying, and interring unclaimed service members. They located his ashes, and he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full Honors.
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