Most of the Vietnam War is a blur in my mind. I wasn’t born when it started and it was wrapping up by the time I was in second grade. But one day stands out clearly, in Kindergarten, we were making drawings with flowers, learning the seasons. Spring was probably not far off, but all I remember was a cold, bleak day with crunchy snowy remnants lining the icy gutters and sidewalks under a sky of slate. The assistant teacher suddenly piped up and said “Hey Joey, come with me for a minute, I’m going to read you a story.” Even at age five I got a really weird vibe, story time was already over …
As soon as Joey left the room, the head teacher gathered us around and explained his dad was wounded in a place called Vietnam. The doctors did everything they could, she said, but the wounds were just too serious and he died anyay. Joey’s mom was coming to pick him up and tell him. “Joey may be gone for a few days,” she finished. “But when he comes back we’re all going to have to be extra nice to Joey because he will be real sad. OK?”
“OK” we all nodded in unison. I remember it all as clear as day. The smell of rubber galashes lined up near the door, next to brightly colored name boxes with jackets and gloves, the electric nip of winter sliding over it all. I remember the somber and serious tone of the teacher; what a sad, shitty duty for her to have to carry out! But I don’t recall what happened to Joey, I don’t even remember his real name: Joey is just a poignant placeholder. I can see the little boy himself in my mind’s eye, right down to the brown pants and white sweater he wore that day. But I can’t remember anything else about him before or after.
I always wondered, later on, how Joey did. He’s my age, so somewhere, out there, he’s probably still alive, maybe his mom is too. Maybe he had brothers and sisters. I hope they did well. But however they did, they paid a dear, dear price that most of us will never understand.
On Memorial Day its customary to honor the fallen. But each of them left an imprint in the living. And sometimes we have no choice but to think about that, too. All we can say is sorry, kid, it must have been tough.