Editor’s Pick
MAY 7, 2012 12:14AM

Where have all the young men gone?

Rate: 26 Flag

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. 

 

Your tags:

TIP:

Enter the amount, and click "Tip" to submit!
Recipient's email address:
Personal message (optional):

Your email address:

Comments

Type your comment below:
Everybody dies. Life is what it is. Some of us get more of it than others but at my age, 86, most of my whole world no longer exists. It's a matter of luck and genetics and a quantity of caution. We must make of it what we will and hope for the best and get on with whatever we have left.
I think this is lovely, poignant. r.
A lovely, poignant, tribute, as Jonathan said. Have you considered writing his story in a book? I think you could do it well.
Thanks for your remembrance. The first casualty of the V.N. war that personally resonated came in 1964; a neighbor my younger brother's age was killed while serving as door-gunner in a helicopter.
Years later, after I had been in V.N. and returned determined to forget, I visited the memorial at my wife's urging and I found Leroy's name on the wall in D.C. and that was made me very sad. What made me break down in open sobs was the fact that I couldn't remember the name of one of my own buddies in Viet Nam who was killed while I was there. I had forgotten too thoroughly. R
Beautifully written tribute, beauty. He is not forgotten.
Lovely. No, he is not forgotten.
People live through tributes written by those who remember and honor them as you have done here, Beauty. This was just lovely. Thank you for sharing with us.
R♥
Very nice tribute beauty1947, I remember my first visit to the Wall Memorial in DC. Very sad time in our history. Thank You for this for all Veterans. older/exasperated USAF 1968-1978 3 tours
There is so much of life lost to memory... Jerry was lucky to have found you.
This post tore at me. I do not often feel sad in this way. I thought about the 'Jerrys' in my life. Now as I am aging I find their names in obits. And wonder "what if".

I addressed this in the story THE TURNING. Poor Elsa Barron...she missed her lost love...so much. An excellent essay. Deserved EP.
thanks... from another who was there.....staying in our memory is all thats left for those that fell.Peace
That's what war is about, isn't it, and they aren't all alike. I know how you feel. I "deal" with it by doing my best to present alternate points of view and challenging those who I believe haven't learned the lesson of Jerry and all those on that wall.

I meet alot of them and they aren't who you necessarily think. They "take a pass," they don't vote, they are too "good" for the democratic process as it exists. They even call themselves "liberals" in many instances and still haven't outgrown the 60's and it's mistaken assumptions. They are right here on OS, sitting beside you at church, undecided about the next election, forever ambivalent or righteous to a fault.
We all rush headlong toward inevitable death. I think it is those times when we trip that have some of the greatest meanings in our life. Thank you for the stroy - Duke
This is a beautiful tribute.
Thanks for remembering your friend. Child abuse is horrible and very prevalent. I wore a POW/MIA bracelet from 1972 to 1985. By that time, people were asking me what it was. Everyone forgets and it gets harder and harder to remember. You did your friend a great service, walking, talking, and listening.
Megwich. Thank you all for reading and holding Jerry and all the others in your thoughts.
that is really all that is 'required':
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...

said with indifference.
'Drizzle wet our coats and hair as we stood in line with other seekers on trampled grass that usually welcomed children's feet.'

Thanks for writing.
Beautifully written, so glad to see such a worthwhile EP. Thanks for this in the early morning hours, a lovely read.
Going into war with a background of horror can exacerbate your problems. I know two Viet Vets who had abusive upbringings and it is just so darn sad. Well written. Thank you.
I really enjoyed this lovely, sad post. How horrible to think of someone beating on their own kid. I thought of some boys I knew, born too late to have served in Vietnam, but how both tender and strong they were at that age.
Beauty:
This story of your touched me in a way which I can't put into words.
It is the story of so many "in memoriam".
I would feel the same way like you about his attempt to run away.
Why did his mother not protect him against the assault of this brutal man?
The boy moved from one brutality into the next.There had been no one to save him,not even his mother.
What a good act of yours to bring this story up and into the conciousness of American society.
One of my uncles died that young,and his baby face under the helmet haunted me to this day.

*Rated* for an excellent post.
This is very well written. I came because I read a comment you left on Jonathan Wolfman's blog and thought you were worth reading.
Such a sad tale. Heartbreaking really. I don't know how many who are not vets are aware, but Jerry was probably killed within a week of his arrival to the front. Military training, from signup to send off to duty station for the Army is about (well, was back then) 8 weeks. This means he was probably killed in his first actual moment of combat.

This is what makes me so sad. The utter waste of a life for what can only be termed, "Stubborness," on the part of men who think in such useless terms as "National Security," or the, "Domino Effect."

And their children are still doing that to others. We would all do well to remember Jerry. To remember also that every young and green trainee with an 80 pound pack and a rifle could just as easily be one more Jerry on some other wall at some other time.

--r--