MAXWELL:  To see a buddy’s face again

5/24/1998 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


For many Americans, Memorial Day is just another holiday, an excuse to drink beer and cook out. For millions of others, however, the last Monday of May is a time to honor those who have died in our country’s wars.

As a veteran of the Vietnam era, I think that Memorial Day is special.

Mine is not a maudlin feeling for the day, but one of pride and a sense of solidarity. I must acknowledge, too, that deep down, I feel that sense of loss that comes to those who know that their buddies _ some of them friends from boot camp _ will never share another cigarette with you or challenge you to chug-a-lug a fifth of Jack Daniels black label.

War is a strange thing.

“War,” anthropologist Marvin Harris writes, “is the price that is paid for building up group togetherness. Having external enemies creates a sense of group identity and enhances esprit de corps. The group that fights together stays together.”

And that sense of “togetherness” lasts a lifetime. I feel especially close to those comrades cut down in faraway lands, who will never again see Baltimore, Dallas, Daytona Beach, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Tacoma, Tuscaloosa.

Remembrance of them is simultaneously painful and joyous. Over time, I have tended to romanticize them, making them larger than life _ better than they were.

Hell, the bad stuff is not worth remembering. Sure, some of the guys would steal from one another, and I believe that racism occasionally reared its ugly head, separating us by group, pulling us apart.

No matter. I have forgiven everything.

These fallen Americans will always be my heroes. On Memorial Day, I realize all over again that, while war may kill the flesh, it cannot kill the spirit of those who lost their lives fighting.

Each year, I take out my Marine Corps yearbook of 1966 and revisit my platoon pals from boot camp at Parris Island, S.C. I stare at our young faces. Not one _ African-Americans, Anglos, Asians, Hispanics, Italians _ is 20 years old. Although we are trim and muscular, newly tough-minded and able to do 100 push-ups and run 10 miles before morning chow, we are but kids.

But less than a year later, many of us had died in the jungles of South Vietnam. For me, their faces have not changed. I stare at them now, counting the dead. Some were brought home and buried. Others are MIAs. The only thing physical that is left of them _ as fighting men _ is an etching on the memorial in the nation’s capital, which I visited on Memorial Day two years ago for the first time.

I had never gone before for fearing that I could not bear the pain. I was right. Standing in front of the stark edifice, I saw the names of my dead comrades and read each aloud. Almost everything about each of these Marines came back to me. I could hear the voice of each. I remembered who smoked Camels, Salems, Pall Malls, Kools. I recalled who drank tequila, sloe gin, Canadian Mist, Coors.

The name of my best friend of those years _ a redneck from Kentucky _ is on the “wall.” He was my first white friend, and I was the first black he had ever been within 10 feet of. After boot camp, when we went to Camp LeJeune, N.C., and to Camp Pendleton, Calif., we were virtually inseparable. We drank together in Jacksonville, N.C., looked for prostitutes in Tijuana, Mexico, played volleyball in San Diego, arm-wrestled in the barracks and played on the same team in touch football on base.

He died during his first week in Vietnam, shot through the heart. My company had not been deployed to Southeast Asia, and I was still in California when I got the news of his death. No one or nothing could console me.

I have stayed in touch with his parents over the years and telephone them each Memorial Day. When I visited them for a week 10 years ago at their home near Lexington, Ky., they treated me warmly and took me everywhere _ even though their white neighbors were contemptuous of them for having me around.

The death of their son, my fellow Marine, had helped them transcend the shallow concerns of their environment. A photograph of him, me and a few other leathernecks was on a whatnot shelf in the living room. In the photo, we were standing, staring at a group of pretty, scantily clad women in San Clemente.

My friend will always hold a special place in my life. For this Memorial Day, as with others past, I will set aside time to remember him and my other Marine buddies who died, who contributed so much to my life and to the welfare of our nation.