It’s Memorial Day in America
Everybody’s on the road
Let’s remember our fallen heroes
Y’all be sure and drive slow...
Like many Americans, I suspect, I don't often think about what this holiday celebrates, but today I've tried to correct this.
The Viet Nam War was my generation's war, and the combat deaths of those I knew personally came from that conflict. Two of them, Otis Keys and James Jones, were high school classmates who I remember more from times after we graduated. Otis worked with me in a brickyard the summer following graduation, and I remember him as a quiet guy, medium tall and muscular. He was on the school football team, I believe. Most of my memories of James were from my first year at the University of Maryland. He was one of the guys who gathered in the lobby of the one of the buildings where between classes we drank coffee and smoked cigarettes. Habits changed, so I didn't realize he had either dropped or flunked out of college until I ran into another of that group who told me a semester or two later that James had been killed in Viet Nam. He too was quiet but always seemed to have a friendly smile.
There may have been more from my high school who died there who I don't recall. Despite the toll of that war, there were so many of us male baby boomers that the war had less of a personal effect on the rest of us than you would think. There are some that I knew who served in the armed services during those years but didn't see combat. Some served in the Navy while others were in the Army but spent their time in Germany where we still had a major military presence. Still others were in Viet Nam but in a support capacity; one was a jet engine mechanic, and another ran the projector for the movies that were provided to entertain the troops. The projectionist enjoyed his role so much he signed up for another tour of duty. The only time he was in any danger, he once told me, was when he had arranged to show the Beatles film, Yellow Submarine. He heavily promoted the showing with posters throughout the base the week before, but unfortunately he found out at the last minute the movie hadn't been shipped in. When he made the announcement to the troops who had crowded into his theater well prepped with drugs, they rioted and he was lucky not to have been hurt.
Two others I knew were technically not combat deaths but died later as a consequence of serving in the infantry. Being exposed to agent orange resulted in their deaths years later of cancer. Larry Seeley, a tall, blond guy who wore glasses and who I had known since junior high, was one, and John Bernard whose children went to school with ours was another. I'm thinking of Larry and John today as well. Then there were those who survived combat but came back different men than the boys they were before. Not all the wounds of war were physical, and these guys lived with emotional scars and sometimes chemical dependencies. I'm also thinking of them.