I just found this on my computer, a piece written by an alter ego of mine named Stoney Broke. It’s a little late, but maybe not too late.
Reflections on Memorial Day
by Stoney Broke
Stoney Broke, yer cowboy journalist, out here at the best dude ranch on the Kansas prairie. Felt moved to say a few words here on Memorial Day, a day for reflection if there ever was one.
This day, I’ve been thinking about a boy who sat at the back of my English class in high school. His name was Robert. The boy was so shy he never raised his hand. Sometimes, the teacher would ask him a question, and he would lower his head and endure the 15 or so seconds of charged silence, his face the shade of a radish, before the teacher finally called on someone else. I never saw him talk to anybody, or anybody except the teacher talk to him. He moved in a bubble of silence around the hallways, neither knowing or being known by anybody.
Robert drew a low number in the draft lottery and was shipped off to Vietnam. Within two weeks, we heard he’d been killed. A kid like that, well, he never shoulda been sent. You don’t take a scared kid like that, put a gun in his hand, send him to a foreign land and tell him to kill. For all the fight there was in him, they’d just as well taken him out back and shot him to save him the agony of training. Poor Robert. Rest in peace.
My business partner here at the dude ranch, Carl, he went off to the Vietnam War, too. There was talk around of guys skedaddlin’ off north of the border or enrollin’ in college before they could be called up. But Carl just wasn’t made that way. He said America’d done plenty for him and his family, and he was gonna try and repay it by volunteerin’ for the Army. His fiancee, Lorene, cried and bawled somethin’ terrible as she waved goodbye to him at the Kansas City airport.
Carl wasn’t much for writin’ letters, so we didn’t hear all the details of his Vietnam duty. He did write that every guy in his hooch except him was doin’ heroin. Their entertainment of an evening was to fill the hooch with marijuana smoke and watch the giant roaches get stoned and skitter up and down the walls and across the floor like maniacs. He’d write something funny or curious to Lorene once in awhile, but nothing disturbing. He didn’t want to worry her or his mom, dad and sisters.
Me, I didn’t go to Vietnam. When the Army docs saw I had two steel rods in my spine from breakin’ it during my brief teenaged rodeo career, they said, “Go on home.” I said, “I’ll do that, thank ya.” But I watched the news footage on TV and heard the stories from guys comin’ home, and I thought, “Who woulda thought hell was an Asian jungle?”
Carl got banged up a tad and picked up a nasty parasite, but he came home after his year basically in one piece. Protesters at the San Francisco Airport gave Carl and the other returning soldiers a cruel welcome. They screamed, “Murderer! Baby-killer!” Carl looked straight ahead as he fought his way through the crowds to Lorene. The way he hugged her, he’d like to squeezed all the air out of her.
He and Lorene had a weddin’, and before long, they had a baby on the way. Then Carl’s dad died when a son-of-a-bitch stallion he was tryin’ to break kicked his skull in. So the ranch went to Carl to take care of. He was doin’ a very efficient job of it, too, until the baby came. When Carl held the baby and looked into his eyes for the first time, Lorene said the blood drained out of Carl’s face, and he handed the baby back to her quick, but careful, like it was a bomb.
Lorene found him awhile later out by the corral, both hands grippin’ the top rail, just starin’ into space. When she asked him what was wrong, he never even looked at her. Just kept starin’ and said, “He knows. He knows what I done over there.”
Back then, nobody knew much about post-traumatic stress syndrome. In WWI, it was called “shell shock.” In later wars, I don’t know if it was called anything. After the Vietnam War, the vets were said to have the “thousand-yard stare,” like Carl had that night. Lorene persuaded Carl to talk things over with his pastor and go to the VA to see a shrink. Gradually, over the years, he seemed to come to himself again. He no longer saw judgment in his son’s eyes, but innocence and joy. He loved that boy, Carl, Jr., fiercely. It was like the little boy showed him there was life, and it was good. Lorene was the soul of patience with him. And he healed, mostly, though the scars still showed from time to time.
Robert sacrificed his life. Carl sacrificed his peace of mind. Their families sacrificed the happiness of being with their loved ones, whole and healthy. Every person who has served in every war has sacrificed because his or her country required it, for good cause or questionable cause. No matter. Every veteran who has served in wartime deserves our thanks, our respect, and our honor this day. Let’s honor them by doing all we can to make peace, not war. If you’ve a mind to pray for peace, do that. If you’ve a mind to march for it, then do that. At the very least, remember peace. Remember what it felt like. So you can recognize the feeling when it comes again, someday. Let’s hope. Yes, let’s hope.