A former anti-war protester comes to Washington to visit the Vietnam War Memorial.
I stood in front of it, my eyes scanning the list of names engraved on its shiny surface. I found the one I was looking for and with my hand covering my mouth. I sank to my knees in front of Billy’s name. My eyelids were blinking rapidly to block the tears that were forming. I felt a little silly. I told myself, it wasn’t as if I didn’t know what I’d find. I’d come looking for it. I called it closure and told my doubting family that it’s what I had to do.
Billy Reynolds and I were not childhood sweethearts. Far from it! I was a tomboy and I used to slug him. He slugged me back. Until one day when he noticed that I had grown up. I’d hurled some awful insult at him to goad him on. He had his fist clenched and was pulling it back to build up momentum before he delivered the punch. I was squaring off to pounce back. Suddenly his hand just dropped to his side instead and he had a crestfallen expression on his face as he turned and walked away. He hung his head and his shoulders were hunched. He looked as deflated as a balloon.
“Chicken,” I taunted.
But he just ignored me and kept walking away.
We were only twelve then but he hated me for growing up. I could still be mean to him but he had learned too well from his proper family that he couldn’t hit a woman. Especially, because he recognized that he was becoming more of a man than a boy himself.
By the time we got to high school we had declared enough of a truce to actually date. And what young girl wouldn’t give up on a life long rivalry to date the town’s football hero with the brown hair, blue eyes and sprinkle of freckles across his nose?
He might have been the football hero of Hudson Springs in upstate New York but I was the town hippie. I had long blond hair that I wore parted down the center. I dressed in long granny dresses that he said were unflattering. “Why don’t you show your legs,” he would ask.
“Male chauvinist pig.” I would answer.
I spouted bad poetry, anti-war rhetoric and Bob Dylan lyrics. Billy loved the Beach Boys. But we were drawn to each other. We dated and argued constantly. I wouldn’t go to his senior prom unless I could wear a black armband. I told him that proms were a petit bourgeois institution anyway. He told me I was nuts. So much for brilliantly articulated intellectual arguments.
He went away to college and we wrote for a couple of years. Then just as I was getting ready to join him at the state university, he announced that he had been drafted. I was horrified, especially when he told me that he intended to go.
“Go to Canada,” I pleaded. “It’s just across the border.”
But he refused. He wanted to go into the army because he thought it was his duty to serve. I told him only fascists would go. He said I was nuts. This was becoming a routine. “Don’t you have any other argument except that I’m nuts?” I asked.
“Yes I do but you are nuts.” He insisted.
“The war’s immoral,” I said.
“I want to be a lawyer someday not a fugitive,” he pointed out.
“Good, at least you’ll defend innocent people and be useful then,” I said.
“No, I want to be a corporate lawyer, and gouge the public and stick it to innocent people.” He said.
“Billy!” I punched his arm in exasperation.
“Okay, I’ll study criminal law and help felons stay on the street.”
“I give up.” I stalked away as he laughed.
“I just can’t have a serious conversation with you.” I complained.
“No, you just can’t spout leftist clichés with me because I don’t take them seriously. Anytime you want to engage in an actual argument, I’m ready.”
Then the tears were running down my cheeks and not from laughter. Yes he infuriated me by refusing to take me seriously. But he also made me laugh and at that moment I was so afraid that if anything happened to him the laughter would stop forever.
“Please don’t go to Vietnam,” I begged.
“Donna, I’ve got to. I’m sorry if you think that makes me a fascist pig.”
“It doesn’t make you a fascist pig. It makes you somebody who could die there. Billy I’m so scared I won’t see you again.”
“God, I hope that’s not true,” he said, putting his arms around me. “I want to come back and marry you.”
“Will we have to get married in a church?” I asked.
“No, we can marry in a Buddhist temple and read our vows from Mao’s 'Little Red Book.' ” He replied.
“Buddhists don’t read Mao Tse Tsung,” I pointed out. “They’re not Communists.”
“I know you Donna, you’ll find a way to combine them just to piss me off.”
“You’ll marry me anyway?”
“No, you’ll accuse me of supporting a petit bourgeois institution and being a male chauvinist pig,” he said.
“Marry me anyway,” I said.
“I’ll marry you anyway. I love you Donna.”
Of course we both wrote. I protested the war. Billy fought in it. We were an unlikely couple but we did love each other. And one Christmas, when Billy was home on leave, we did get married. It was a small wedding with just my parents and siblings and Billy’s family. And no, it wasn’t a Buddhist wedding with vows taken from Mao’s “Little Red Book.” It was actually a very traditional ceremony in our local Catholic Church. I even wore a white gown and Billy looked handsome in his dress uniform.
Near the end of his tour of duty the tone of his letters had begun to change. His attitude was shifting. He never became stridently anti-war, just as he had never been really gung ho for it. Truth was, unlike me, Billy was usually calm and measured in his opinions. In an age of irresponsibility, he felt a sense of obligation. In a time when people mistrusted institutions, Billy had career ambitions within those institutions. He hoped to improve them, to be sure. But he wanted to do it from the inside. Where I tried to goad him with anti-establishment rhetoric, he used his wicked sense of humor to deflate my arguments because he wasn’t an ideologue.
And in the end, neither was I. I loved him much more than my ideology. I kept my ideals and allowed him the space to keep his. But his letters began to disturb me. There was more cynicism in them. He was seeing things in Vietnam that bothered him. Things that have already been written about and argued to death so many times by others far more articulate than either of us. I counted the months until his discharge. I even dreamed about our starting a family.
Then, I got a call from his mother Kay. She gave me the news. Billy’s whole platoon had been caught in a Vietcong ambush. There were no survivors.
At the funeral I sat next to Billy’s younger brother Don, who was then sixteen and looked just like Billy. On either side of use, like sentinels, were Billy’s parents, Kay and Bill Reynolds, Sr.
They gave Billy a military funeral. I jumped at each volley of gunfire from the rifles used to salute the fallen soldier who had been, all too briefly, my husband. I watched as the two young men in full dress uniform solemnly folded the flag that had draped Billy’s coffin. They brought it over to Billy’s mother, but she made a slight gesture with her head. The one holding the flag knelt before me and placed the flag in my hands.
He rose, pivoted smartly on his heel, saluted and marched off. Tears were streaming down my face. Billy’s brother leaned over and whispered, “Donna, try not to burn it.”
I had to bite my lip hard to keep from laughing even through my tears. “Don you’re as horrible as Billy was,” I whispered back.
He squeezed my hand. “Thanks,” he said.
We clung to each other’s hands for a few minutes more. Then, all too soon, the funeral was over.
But how do you forget your first love?
So, this Memorial Day, I made the long trip from upstate New York to Washington, DC. I looked up Billy’s name. I placed a little swatch of cloth on the ground next to it.
As I rose, I heard the distant roar of motorcycle engines. I looked up and saw a group of men on Harleys. Bikers. Then I remembered the Rolling Thunder group that came to the Vietnam War Monument every year at Memorial Day. They were Vietnam vets who came to pay homage to their fallen comrades. I watched them as they slowly drove down the street. When they had passed, I looked back at the Wall sadly. Then a tall figure loomed in front of me, blocking the fading sunlight. I looked up and smiled at the handsome young man in his crisp new uniform.
“You ready Grandma?” He asked. My grandson, Will, had come from Fort Belvoir, in Virginia, where he was currently stationed.
“In a moment,” I answered.
“Grandpa must’ve been something,” Will said. He had grown up with all the stories about his grandfather who had died a hero. My son, Will’s father, had idolized the patriarch he had never known. Perhaps I saw to that too well. Despite my protests, he had gone into the army although it was during a time of peace. Now his son was following a tradition that Billy had unwittingly started. I sighed and turned from the Wall.
“Come on Will. We’ll go to the Old Ebbitt Grill near the White House for dinner.”
“Isn’t that where you used to protest the war Grandpa fought in,” he asked with mock innocence.
“Yeah, maybe I’ll do it again while you eat dinner.” I answered.
We fell into an easy banter and for a moment it took me back all those years to somebody else who had a wicked sense of humor and liked to tease me. I linked arms with Will and tried to feel a measure of peace as I said a prayer for his safety. In a few days he would deploy for Basra.