Memorial Day

789547,1328638566,20Memorial Day is coming up in two days and I decided, I guess in memory of the many lives lost in the Vietnam War and because it was the war that impacted me the most, that I would settle in for a movie I’d dodged for some time.  It somehow seemed apropos.

The movie was “Born on the Fourth of July”.  It wasn’t long before I realized why I had avoided it all these years.  A third of the way through, it was all I could take. As a screenwriter, I felt it was important to get through this highly acclaimed film that won so many awards when it came out.  I failed miserably. I could only bear the first hour and a few minutes before I started to experience hot flashes and an eminent panic attack. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t watch.

Seeing what some of these guys went through after they returned was as daunting as imagining what they endured while in Vietnam; what they went through and how some must have felt getting that dreaded draft letter in the mail saying, “Uncle Sam Needs You!”. It was a bad time.soldier-390202_150

I know there were countless young men that either got married, stayed in school, fled the country (including a past president), claimed a religious exemption or spent time in jail rather than fight a war they didn’t agree with, and who somehow managed to dodge the bullet so to speak, but this isn’t about them.

This is also not about those who died. Instead it’s about the ones who came home, the ones who suffered upon their return, those who were spat on, cursed and dealt with poorly.

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Growing up, I was  pretty sheltered from the world and it’s politics because at the time, I belonged to a religion that abstained from politics. I was not a strong participant but it was the religion of my mother and I lived at home.  Was it easy? No and Yes.  Did I know there was a war? Of course, but only one person in our religion that I knew of went to Vietnam.  He died.

Later, I would date a guy in college who hoped he wouldn’t get called up and another who eventually did. I would later lose classmates to the war, some would never taste battle because they were picked off one by one parachuting down, like sitting ducks. Another got hooked on drugs unable to cope with the horror of the war and the rejection at home. I never knew about what these crippled and maimed soldiers would experience in the facilities they were put in when they were recovering, nor that they were treated like so much trash. The depiction was overwhelming.

wall-240014__180Did Hollywood embellish? Perhaps. They are famous for their “creative license” but in this case, I seriously don’t think so.  Perhaps not all places were the same, but I do know that today they have suicide watches in some facilities for both soldiers and their families. That’s another story.

I first came face to face with the realities of the war while I worked as a flight attendant.  One day, in about 1968, our captain told us that we would be picking up soldiers in San Francisco and bringing them home to L.A.  I am grateful to say I never felt loathing for these young men nor was I a protester, ever. That perhaps, was the saving grace of my religion.

So when I saw our cargo, I felt only compassion for each and every one of them. Each one had been seriously injured and/or missing limbs. The more serious of the group was a personable, but very nervous young man missing opposite limbs. He was seated in the front row and he told me that he was afraid of how his mother would take it. He’d not told her how badly he’d been maimed and was wishing he’d prepared her. The others had.  I thought, what was he thinking?  He was young though and I think of my son the Marine and know he would have done the same thing. In any case, here he was. Afraid of how she would react, he asked to disembark last, which we honored.

I watched as  his parents approached the plane and waited at the foot of the stairs as the agents carried him down to the chair waiting for him.  Upon seeing him, I caught a brief start from his mother and the pain in hers and his fathers face.  Amazingly they bravely kept it together and greeted him lovingly.  At the top of the stairs tears were forcing their way through as we, the crew and I, stood watching solemnly, keeping it together until they were gone.  And yes, we later cried or I should say I bawled but not until we’d said our good-bye’s.

At some point and before he had gotten too far, he turned and waved at us and his family thanked us for bringing him home. We waved back.  I look back on that day realizing the honor and privilege it was to have been a part of their homecoming. I know my flight crew, having been veterans themselves, felt it as well.

I have often thought about that young man and about all those young men, wondering what ever happened to them?  I guess that’s why this film touched me so deeply.  Could that have been them?  What was their experience?  Every now and again, I see a vet on the street holding a sign, begging and I wonder.

A dear friend is always saying, “Why can’t we just get along?”  I know he says it in sincerity and with passion. I agree. It’s an age old question.  Why can’t we?

When I belonged to my other religion, we often quoted the scripture that states:

Luke 12:51 “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.”  Granted it had more to do with warning those who would take up the banner for Christ to expect to be ostracized, persecuted and suffer oppression. Yet…

That has become a global reality .  There are many who say all wars are religious.  In the early days they may have been territorial, but isn’t that what we see now in the Middle East, is it not in the name of religion, in the name of their god that there is so much killing?

“Why can’t we just get along?”

I realize that Monday we honor veterans on “Memorial Day, not just those who died in Vietnam, but those who’ve died in all wars and perhaps if nothing else, remember them and say a prayer for their families and for those who are still living to have peace and be peaceable.

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Memories – The Back of the Bus

My mother in law and I got to talking about childhood memories.

Because my husband is considerably younger than I, my mother in law and I share generational memories.

She was just a kid during the war (WWII) and I was born shortly thereafter.

We got to talking about D-day and about this video that has been circulating on YouTube of a kid that stood for an hour and half saluting the envisioned soldiers coming to shore on that momentous day. It was extremely touching.

We teared up watching the video not only because here was a youngster whose father had also not been alive at the time, but were sharing a moment in memory of that event and in loving appreciation for the sacrifices our military perform on our behalf.

She shared with me her memory of a young man in her neighborhood in White Plains, NY who loved to play golf and how she remembered how she and her friends would tease him about having a girlfriend.

Her email:

“My eyes are filled with tears..I remember H.M., a young man that lived in Apt. 2.  We were just kids and we would tease him if he had a girlfriend…I remember him with his golf clubs.  He went off and never came back.  I remember that gold star banner in his parent’s window.”

She later described him as a “tall good looking Irish boy”. Whether he had a girlfriend or not, they really didn’t know but she remembered the gold star banner which meant he’d died.

I have to smile because I wondered if he was truly handsome or was it just the uniform?  It reminded me of a similar experience, thinking a young man in uniform appearing larger than life and dashing.

I wrote back to her:

I remember on our way to California from Alabama we took a bus home. After we’d boarded, a good looking black guy in a military uniform came on board walking past me to the back of the bus and sat down dead center on the back bench.  

In those days blacks were boarded last and sat in back. I flashed him a big smile and he smiled back at me when he walked by, but he was so dashing in that uniform that I kept staring at him (I don’t know if he was really handsome or if it was the uniform but he stood tall and looked smart). As he passed I followed him with my eyes until he sat down, still smiling at him until he became noticeably uncomfortable and shaking his head slightly. I remember feeling confused because he smiled earlier and now he was almost angry but trying not to be maybe?   When my mom noticed, I got smacked and told to keep looking forward and to not stare (and leave that poor boy alone). That was the first time I became aware of race.  I was about the same age as you, 10. Sad.

In retrospect looking back and knowing what I know now, what I thought was disapproval may have been fear. I remember sneaking a peek now and again anyway, but she was constantly on top of me.

I didn’t know any better. It wasn’t until “To Kill A Mockingbird” came out a few years later that I was impacted by what it meant.

So many memories came up that started to make sense.  The separate fountains, toilets, entrances and how self conscious my mother was because of her dark skin and how when I would go out to play my granny always made me wear this huge bonnet, so that I wouldn’t get any darker and look like a “pickaninny” as she would say.

I don’t know why it was a big deal. The kids at school envied my dark complexion and some of them (my cousins included) would lay out in the sun trying to get as dark as me. But, that would be years later.

I don’t remember my father or grandparents being racist per se, so much as adhering to the laws then, as many did.

When mother was in a home and when my fathers Italian wife became senile I noticed racial slurs surfaced in both of them.  The black nurses never seemed to mind though.  I would apologize, but they’d laugh it off and tell me how “they all do it”. It’s just how they talked in “those days” and once they are no longer in control of their minds, all that old stuff just comes out. I think they were being nice because I’m sure there had to be some patients that may really have had issues at one time and that now in their demented state the meanness “comes out” totally unrestrained but then I could be the one reading more into it than really was.

Memories.