I began writing this piece almost twenty years ago, after I located a friend's name on the moving wall. It has become a story within a story. I had planned to use his real name and details and offer the piece as a tribute. A few years ago I offered the original story to the local newspaper for Veterans’ Day publication. They declined because of the unsubstantiated accusations of abuse. I could never find the right venue to publish this piece, although I tried for years.
During those years I also tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to find someone who could tell me he’d led a happier life in those years I lost contact with him between 16 and 19. I assumed, because I couldn’t find anyone who remembered him all those years, that Jerry had been forgotten, which made me more determined to tell his story for him. My most recent plan was to publish on OS on the anniversary of his death, May 7.
By sheerest of luck, a few weeks ago, I found a family member’s defunct email address on a veterans’ website. By putting some of my earlier sleuthed clues together with the name on the useless email address, I tracked a cousin of his down and got the rest of the story. Jerry had a girlfriend but no children. His family misses him to this day. With that knowledge I no longer had the right to tell Jerry’s story—if I ever did, so, in the last week, I changed enough to make him more generic and protect his family from my possibly skewed memory. Instead I offer this brief story for all the young men and women who have “gone to graveyards, everyone.” And I am grateful that the universe kept me from posting a story that might have brought pain to Jerry’s family. As it is, this is my truth about my friend.
Panel 56E, Line 20 (Original Title)
Numbers seem to be the only way of finding Jerry anymore. But there was more to him.
In 1993, when the Moving Wall: Vietnam Veterans Memorial was erected temporarily in a park in our city, my daughter and I went in search of Jerry. She was 16, the same age he had been the last time I had seen him. The day was damp and chilly, befitting our purpose. Drizzle wet our coats and hair as we stood in line with other seekers on trampled grass that usually welcomed children’s feet. We talked softly, and I could feel my stomach tighten as we inched our way closer to the fatigued veteran manning the directory inside an army-surplus tent. When our turn came, I choked out his name.
“Panel 56 east, line number 20,” the vet responded somberly as he handed me a slip of paper with the coordinates noted.
As we followed the slowly moving queue toward the wall, I told my daughter what I could recall about Jerry and vowed to remember him each year on the anniversaries of his birth and death. I remember how beautiful Jerry was, too young to be handsome the summer he moved to our wide-spot-in-the-road town. Half-Italian and half-Irish. Black hair, freckles, and brown-black eyes with long, thick lashes. Jerry was short for his age but built with a wiry grace. At fourteen, a maturing young girl, I was just beginning to realize the potential in his physicality. At the time, however, I was more interested in his quiet, thoughtful nature. Jerry seemed much older than thirteen.
8/20/48. Those numbers were Jerry too. Our birthdays were a month apart in the summer. We used to complain about that when we were kids. We lived too far out in the country to have friends over for birthday parties. That limited the number of presents we could expect.
Jerry never talked about himself much. Instead he would leak bits of truth during long walks we would take along the service road or into the woods behind the small trailer he shared with his mother and stepfather. His mother’s new husband really didn’t care much for Jerry. His frequent tongue lashings were often punctuated by fists.
Strange as it may sound to someone who has never experienced it, there were times when I intuited that Jerry had been beaten, although I lived a quarter mile away. When I sensed that something was wrong, I would make my way across the road and through the trees that separated the trailer from the rest of town. Jerry would be pacing back and forth in a clump of birch trees on the edge of a larger wood, and we would walk. He never talked about the beatings, but the bruised face and sweaty clothing dusted with dirt or spotted with blood spoke clearly.
Our talks were always of the future or of abstract, untouchable ideas. Things we thought we could control. At first Jerry’s words would be rushed and his breathing labored as he talked hurriedly of faraway places he wanted to go. Some days we walked for hours. Eventually our talk wove its way back to topics more common to teenagers, and we would find ourselves laughing. Only then was it safe to return home.
One June, a few years after I first met Jerry, he received a particularly severe beating. It took him longer than usual to relax, and, for the first time, he spoke directly about his situation. He was finding his life intolerable and making plans to run away. I reminded him he had only two more years of school until he would be free to make his life the way he wanted it to be. Jerry stayed and the abuse seemed to lessen. As the summer wore on, Jerry finally began to muscle up, more like a man. I think he began fighting back because during the last few walks we took that autumn, his face showed fewer signs of struggle than did his knuckles.
We moved to the West Coast later that same fall, and, although we wrote for awhile, I lost touch with Jerry. A decade later during a chance encounter with an old friend, I learned that Jerry had been killed in Vietnam. It took another 25 years before I found his name on the wall and traced the etched granite with my fingers. Some bitter seed of memory sent me there. I had almost forgotten him.
I am ashamed to tell that I have missed May 7th and August 20th many times since I made that vow in 1993. A few years after locating Jerry’s name on the wall, I went in search of his family and some record that he had lived. I found his picture in an old yearbook, but even using the internet, there was little to be found. Too many of the facts of Jerry’s life are written in numbers or cryptic descriptors.
According to military statistics, his length of service was “00” as an “antitank assault man,” but that’s ludicrous. How could a boy assault a tank? Records further state that he was a “ground casualty” in “Quang Nam Province. His date of service began March 1, 1968, not even a year after his high school graduation. By May 7, just two months later, he was gone.
The record is much too limited. I cannot help but wonder if Jerry’s life would have been different if I had encouraged him when he was planning to run away. I hope that in those few short years after I lost touch with him he lived a happier life before he was sacrificed to our incessant need to dominate others. I hope some woman was his lover, and that she brings his handsome face to mind from time to time. Maybe he fathered a child or his abuser regrets his cruelties. I am sure his mother mourns even today. But none of these efforts seem tribute enough.