Robert E. Wheatley

VIETNAM MELANCHOLY

He was a big man with a bit of a paunch, a balding head, and a beard that had been growing increasingly gray over recent years – all undeniable signs of retreating youth and advancing middle age. Perhaps it was the realization of the meaning of those signs he was daily seeing in the mirror, which had begun to slow his headlong rush to the future and had him reflecting more and more on his past these days.

It was a raw, gray blustery day, which found him here in the rural countryside on this, another Veterans Day. He had not done anything today so public as marching in a Veterans Day parade, or serving as a member of a VFW color guard. That was wonderful for others, but it was not his way. As he made his way home from running some errands, he’d felt compelled to make a detour by the local Vietnam War memorial, before completing his journey. He had been drawn to this place on many occasions before. For it was a place of peaceful solitude and reflection – a private place to just take time to think back and to reflect on things that were and on things that might have been. It had always been deserted when he had come here before, and it was no different this day than any other.

He approached the monument and knelt down in front of it, placing one knee to the cold, wet ground. With bare fingers, he laboriously dug a hole in the marble stones in front of the monument so as to make a secure base for the small pot of flowers he had brought. As he clawed at the cold stones, a lethargic “daddy longlegs” spider, disturbed from its winter sleep, crept out from beneath and made a slow-motion getaway, seemingly protesting the man’s intrusion as it went. The cold, damp wind raked across his back and went through the sweatshirt he was wearing, as though it were a piece of gauze. But though his physical discomfort registered somewhere in the back of his mind, his attention was focused on the task at hand. Finally, placing the pot in the hole he had dug, he pushed the stones up around it to keep it from toppling over in the wind. Then, satisfied the pot was secure, once again, he rose to his feet.

It pleased him to see that the rust colored mums he had brought added some color to an otherwise somewhat drab scene. He realized of course, the killing weather was fast approaching, and the potted flowers he had brought would not last more than a week or so at best. But at least they were here now on this special day of remembrance. They would bear testimony to passers by that someone remembered and cared enough to stop here today. Surely, he thought, he couldn’t be the only one. His eyes searched the grounds in vain for some sign that others had been there today to pay respects. If they had, he could find no evidence of it.

Scattered about the monument were the faded remnants of things left by previous visitors in years past. Several small flags on sticks, which had obviously been planted in the ground at one time, were now lying in crumpled piles, faded with long exposure to the sun and still wet from the recent rain. He did not disturb them. At the base of the stone was a can of Budweiser beer, the red printing on it now faded to a pale pinkish orange. As he had on past visits here, he wondered about the story behind it. There were other items here too with stories to tell. Here was a quarter, there a dime, elsewhere a Zippo cigarette lighter – all of them tarnished from long exposure to the elements. Lying on the stones beside the pot he had just placed, there was an American flag made of hundreds of tiny plastic flowers. He had seen it there too in years past, the once bright reds, whites and blues having long since faded to pale shades of pastel.

Off to one side of the monument stone he noticed a more recent contribution. It was a wreath constructed of barbed wire with plastic flowers intertwined in the wire, apparently left there in remembrance of the POW’s. “Someone must have taken a good deal of trouble to make it”, he thought. It was not something you could just walk into a store and purchase. It had obviously been carefully crafted by hand and placed there with love and reverence by its maker. “What special significance did it hold for the one who placed it there?” he wondered. Did they have a friend, a father, a brother, perhaps an uncle or a cousin who had been a prisoner of war?

On the flagpole above his head, the American flag fluttered, snapping and popping in the stiff autumn breeze. The man removed his hat, and with head bowed, stood there alone for a long while, shivering under the gray November sky, gazing at the stone monument, which enumerated the names of the county’s war dead. He didn’t know any of them personally, yet they were all his brothers. Over and over, he read the list of names and the dates of their loss. As he read the names, he tried to visualize the face belonging to each one, to reach out across the oceans of time and somehow touch with his mind what had once been the fabric of their lives.

The faces he saw were the faces of comrades, flush with the vigor and optimism of youth. They were men barely out of school, men who would be cut down before their lives could begin to fulfill their promise. So many of them were from ‘67 and ‘68, the years he had spent over there. Sixty-eight had been the bloodiest year of the entire war, he recalled. Small wonder, he thought, so many of these names engraved here were from that time. His mind wandered back to the days of his youth and the time he had spent over there, serving in a thankless war which, at the time, had been deemed at best, unpopular, at worst, evil. All of that had been more than thirty two years ago. “Where had the time gone?” he asked himself.

From across the road came the sounds of car doors slamming and voices shouting, interrupting his reverie. It was the sound of people coming and going at the busy convenience store and gas station that had been built there a few years before. One voice was complaining of the high price of gasoline, another shouting back in agreement. “I don’t know why the government can’t DO something about it!” the voice lamented. To the man at the memorial, the intrusion of the sounds of everyday life seemed somehow irreverent and improper, here in this hallowed place. The voices across the road were blissfully unaware. The price of gasoline seemed such a trivial concern, when viewed in the light of the sacrifice of these men whose names grace this memorial. “It kind of puts things in perspective,” he reasoned.

Fleetingly, he wished the monument could be relocated to a more private setting. Lying on the outskirts of the little rural county seat, the site had once been peaceful and serene. But in recent past, the town had been growing by leaps and bounds, the result of a burgeoning national and local economy, and it was rapidly swallowing up large pieces of the surrounding countryside. “How much longer will it be before the memorial is completely surrounded, worse yet, replaced by a strip mall or a housing development?” he wondered. And all of this in the name of progress. Society itself seemed to be rushing headlong into the future. “I guess it’s the natural order of things”, he conceded to himself.

Having paid his respects, the aging war veteran at last turned away and trudged back to the pickup truck, where he had left it parked in the tiny visitor lot. “Rest in peace, my brothers”, he muttered as he walked away. “Rest in peace until the next time…”

Author’s Note: Last Veteran’s Day here in the U.S. I visited a small Vietnam War memorial as part of my day of remembrance. Afterward, I wrote a short story about my experience that day. It’s written in third person, but I am the man in the story.