I have thought a lot about George lately, one of my ghosts from a past that has been lucky enough to span decades. Luckily, George has never been a triggered recollection, just a benign spectral from my misdirected youth. And at least for now, for this letter to the Wall, just call him George, although his full name and rank are etched in black granite on Panel 26E, Line 48.
I almost never know what prompts my high school version of George to show up. I was listening to some Stones and Creedence last week from a favorite Vietnam era playlist…perfect self-isolation rock. Also Memorial Day is coming up, so who knows? Our lifelines barely crossed, only once as a matter of fact, in the summer of 1965. We were both non-essential workers, stuck in a fast food restaurant, slogging out our last summer at minimum wage before we had to take LBJ’s draft seriously. Neither of us were Fortunate Sons, obviously, both just navigating the grinds of adolescence, topped off by the daily preoccupations and upheavals of a foreshadowed war in Vietnam.
Aside from the shared angst of uncertain futures we had virtually nothing in common. Hometown parents and teachers must have loved George, a reserved, hardworking math-club type, straight A student, from a no-frills, Catholic family. Two years older, my life was his parallel universe in miniature. I was an unbridled college freshman, committed to nothing more than a draft-deferred C+ average, the next weekend, and a military aviation career like my father. Nonetheless, a year at Tech and the suspect worldliness that went with it were street credentials enough for George to look up to me.
After hours of flipping burgers and scraping grease, our idle conversation occasionally touched on our tenuous prospects, like this one time. “Hey, man, thought about where you’re going to college?” A National Honor Society and California Scholarship Federation standout like George should be able to write his own ticket.
“I think I’m going to help my folks out, Gene, and sign up with the Marines.” Scholarship or not, things were tight at home and George thought the extra bucks and the GI Bill would really help. The sky was the limit after that, and he was probably right.
“George, come on, man. You gotta be shitting me!” It was all I could come up when I could take a breath. Tact was not a strong suit of mine at nineteen. “George, do the math, that’s your thing. Nam’ll be history before you can even graduate. Get your ass in Berkeley, or Notre Dame, wherever, for chrissake. Wait it out.”
I think he said he had five or six brothers and sisters, that it was just not that easy. It made me feel like I actually was “a fortunate son…the fortunate one.” The way things turned out who could argue? Decades later I still wish I would have pushed the issue, but given George’s circumstances, would it have made any difference? Probably not. I knew damn well, though, that there was a gunny sergeant out there, somewhere, who would eat him alive, scholarship or no scholarship.
It was two years later when I read of George’s death – “Killed in action from small-arms fire September 10 in Quang Tri, South Vietnam” – in a casualty listicle below the fold of our local daily. By that time, a dispassionate subscriber would also learn that George “served as a rifleman with an unknown unit…his remains were recovered.” Always missing were the details that mattered: the impact on his family, shattered dreams, the untapped potential. Barely nineteen, George had been in Vietnam for less than a month.
Years ago in an alternate reality, my generation was engulfed by another geopolitical pandemic, one tracked not by epidemiologists but militarists, and spread by the lies of American hubris. While the Vietnam War was nothing more than a nightly news distraction at first, over time it mutated into a more dominant strain, finally killing millions. Some, like George, and so many others sharing a common betrayal, are arrayed in Constitution Gardens. Like COVID-19, there was never an end in sight and surviving such random chaos seemed like just as much of a crapshoot then, as it is now…but with much better music.
Gene Marx is a former Naval Flight Officer and Past National Board of Directors Secretary of Veterans for Peace. He is currently the Communications Coordinator for Bellingham’s VFP Chapter 111. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.