For the past several years, I've been more affected by this weekend than earlier in my life. Perhaps it is the tendency for us as we get older to look back over our lives to try to figure out where in hell we are today. Or perhaps its just a normal tendency on special days to reminiscence about friends and acquaintances from earlier in our lives.
I looked in a roster of classmates to see which of us had died on active duty and tried to remember them. Because many of them died in Vietnam or in the 60s, I remember them as pictures in our yearbook, young, fresh faces, eager to get out into the Air Force and fly. When I hear about a classmate today whom I've not seen in years, the yearbook picture pops into my mind making the fact that we graduated 50 years ago seem somehow wrong.
When I'm thinking like this, my first thoughts always go to Hal, a classmate and Kansas farm boy. We were on the fencing team together for four years. Hal captained the foil team and won just about every match he had. We also went to pilot training together down in Mission, Texas. His wife, Dee, was allergic to cats, and they "borrowed" an ocelot for a weekend to see if she was allergic to ocelots. On Monday she looked like someone had punched her eyes a bunch of times. No ocelot for Hal. Hal flew O-1s like I did, and he got killed in 1966 when artillery he was directing hit his bird.
Then I think of Bill, who lived directly across the hall from me our Doolie year. Freshmen at the Academy are called Doolies--don't ask me why, they just are. Bill was from New Jersey, and was a state sprint champ in track. Whenever we had to fall out in the hallway for some kind of formation, I always wound up staring into Bill's eyes. That got us in trouble more than once when we couldn't keep from laughing. His B-57 got shot down in Vietnam in 1966. I was stationed at the Academy then, and Bill was one of the first of many I served as pallbearer for. His funeral was especially hard because I knew him so well. And I had orders to Vietnam in my hand at the time.
Then there's Tom, a California kid who was in my squadron at the Academy for two years. We became good friends, and he was a sword bearer at my wedding. Tom flew F-4s and was shot down in 1967 over North Vietnam, while I was in Nam. He was declared MIA and carried that way on the rolls until 1979, when he was finally declared dead. His was an especially tragic story because his wife couldn't stand the strain and committed suicide, leaving three kids as orphans.
Dave wasn't a classmate, but was a major I was stationed with at Quang Ngai. He had only been in our detachment of 6 FACs for a couple of months. He had a bad habit of flying too low. I got a call that a Vietnamese Army unit needed a FAC, so I woke him at 6:30 to fly the mission. At 8:00 when I walked to our ops room, our radio operator came running out to tell me that Dave had been shot down. His O-2 crashed into a command Huey as it dove out of control, killing another seven Army troops. His death was really difficult for me since I was assigned to pack up all his belongings, read through all the letters he had to make sure none would be particularly upsetting to his wife, and send his personal effects to her.
And there are the many Army and Marine grunts I supported who were killed. I knew a few of the special forces guys I supported out of Quang Ngai, but most of the grunts were just someone on the ground, hunkered down behind a paddy dike or tree line. On one particularly bad mission a patrol from a special forces camp was hit with a command detonated mine--today it would be called an IED--and had four dead and nine wounded. I couldn't get air support, so I fired marking rockets at the enemy until they finally pulled back and I could get helicopters in to evacuate the dead and wounded. That mission is the event that inspired me, many years later, to write this poem. The poem appeared this year in Voicings from the High Plains.
Across the highway, red
and yellow smoke drifts,
from a green hillside
where trainees play at war.
thirty years …
He circles the tiny plane, looks
at the green hillside,
at a hole
blasted in yellow clay,
soaked red with blood,
draped with arms and legs.
Death snaps hungrily at him,
at helpless men below.
No bombs, no shells,
no help to pry open
the savage jaws
Cursing, crying, he watches friends
Tires jolt off the road, and time jerks back.
He stops the car and rubs eyes that sting
from red and yellow smoke.
© 2009 Art Elser
There are many others, but these are the faces or situations that come to me at times like this when I think about what Memorial Day should mean. So today I give thanks for their sacrifices and for my own good fortune at being here at my laptop, writing, 40 years later.