Today is Memorial Day. It’s a day to celebrate the veterans who gave their lives in the service of our country.
I have a POW/MIA bracelet from the Vietnam War. I used to wear it all the time but my wrists are so slim now that it tends to slip off my arm. My young man (as I call him) never made it back home. Even though I can’t wear it now, I pick it up every single day and run my fingers over his name. When I do that….he is remembered.
In the late sixties, I was working and trying to save money to go to college. A friend I had gone to high school with was dating a young man named Bob. He was in the army and was on leave.
My friend, Liz, wanted to set me up with her boyfriends’ buddy, Tony. I wasn’t interested but I agreed with the usual caveats….I’m not doing anything with him….I’m not drinking….and I have to be at home by nine o’clock.
I don’t believe I have ever spoken to anybody about Tony. He was a happenstance…an all too brief encounter who left a mark on me.
I met him and he was a striking young man. He was Italian and was from The Bronx. He wasn’t very tall but had that olive skin, that jet black hair and those rich, dark, chocolate eyes (like samlobos.) He had scars on his lip and one on the side of his face. I could tell that his front teeth were false but those things didn’t detract from his absolute, almost breathtaking beauty.
He was quiet and reserved at first and we found it difficult to carry on a conversation. He knew that I didn’t want to be there and I sensed that he didn’t really want to be there either. After a while, I think that understanding ultimately put both of us as at ease.
He once had a girlfriend in New York. They met in an art class. Her daddy didn’t approve of him because she was a rich girl and he was from the “poor side of town.”
When he told me about her daddy, he almost defiantly said “I’m going to be famous someday.”
During the next few days, we started “hanging out” together and really enjoyed each other. There was no intimacy between us and I felt comfortable with him.
It took a while for him to start opening up to me. He had a sister and they were raised in an orphanage until he was old enough to run away. His parents had dropped them off when they were young and never came back to get them. Tony said he remembered getting dressed up every Sunday and sitting in a room, waiting for his parents to come get him….but they never did.
He and Bob were on leave from Vietnam but had not completed their “tours.” I asked Tony to wear his uniform when we went out and he hesitated. I thought he looked so handsome but when we were out, I understood why he didn’t want to wear it. Bob refused to wear his and even bought a wig to wear so people wouldn’t know he was a soldier. People were cruel and hateful.
Tony didn’t talk about his experiences unless he had been drinking. One night, he said “I once saw a guy being walked almost the length of a football field.” I didn’t understand what he meant. I thought they had captured a soldier and were “walking” him back to their camp.
What he meant was that they were shooting him so many times, he didn’t fall….he was “walking.”
Later, he revealed why he had the scars on his lip and face and why his teeth were false. He was on patrol and was riding on top of a tank with one of his closest friends. A child wearing only a diaper came up to the tank. His friend got down and picked the child up. When he did, there was an explosion. Tonys’ friend blew up and his and the childs’ body parts struck Tony in the face. His front teeth were knocked out and a bone punctured his cheek.
While he was telling me, it was in a soft, almost robotic manner but the underlying pain clearly showed in his face.
He was supposed to go back to “the Nam” as he called it and he didn’t want to go. He asked me if I would go to Canada with him but I said no. I told him I would visit New York with him but he said “you’re too naive and you would get killed.”
He knew he had to go back to Vietnam. He knew he had to finish his tour. I think he was afraid he would never make it back.
I will never forget the day I went with him to the bus station. There were no tears. There was no resistance on his part…just a detectable numbness and a hollow look in his eyes. I knew that I was going to miss him and part of me wanted to say “let’s go to Canada together.”
I made him promise that he would write to me and I promised that I would write to him.
After our promises, he stood there and looked at me for a few seconds, almost like he was trying to memorize my face. Then he kissed me.
I was surprised at the butterflies that were trapped in my stomach. I was surprised that I kissed him back. It was a soft, tender kiss and for a moment, I was lost in a world of feelings I had never felt before. He said “I have wanted to do that since the first time I saw you but then, I wanted to do it for the wrong reasons.”
I said “will you be careful?” He looked at me and said “yes, I will.” He got on the bus and just before the door closed, like a scene in a movie, he came running off and hugged me. It felt like goodbye.
I stood and watched the bus until it was out of sight, waving the whole time…wanting him to stay…wanting him to not have to go back to that horrible, senseless war….hoping he would return.
It wasn’t meant to be. I never saw Tony again.
I have tried to find him but I have never been successful. I think had he made it back home, there would be some indication.
I hope he’s not over there in some rice paddy…forgotten to the government…forgotten to the parents who never came back for him…forgotten to the girl he was never going to be good enough for.
He may be forgotten to them but he will never be forgotten to me. I will remember him as long as I live.