A veteran's day - John Samuel Tieman

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In the United States, the 11th of November is Veterans' Day. In Great Britain, and throughout the Commonwealth, it is Remembrance Day, the day World War I ended. In America, the 11th is a day set aside to honour all veterans of the uniformed services. Special attention is paid, of course, to those who have fought and died in our wars.

Perhaps because I am a war veteran, I have more to remember than most. But I'll not remember my war buddies, and those who died in Vietnam, any more on this day than I do any other day.

As I grow old, as my war grows more distant, the memories fade. Even the smell of cordite fades. Some days I think that I don't know Vietnam now. I feel it. Once, in 2010, I felt the panel. I was in Washington, D. C., for a conference. I stayed at the Renaissance Hotel on the 9th. But I was drawn to Panel 49W, Line 035. Robert O. Bumiller. The Vietnam Memorial. “The Wall” we call it.

I walked the length of the Mall from east to west. I was only vaguely aware of everything around me. Capital Building. Washington Monument. Tourists. Smithsonian. Lincoln. Vaguely aware. I free-associated. I remembered a lot of guys who died in the Nam. One guy was shot right in front of me. Then there's Rob.

I grew up with Rob. Rob's mom and my mom went to high school together. They stayed lifelong friends. Rob and I were childhood companions. Rob grew up in wealth, but he was crazy wild and couldn't stay in school. Finally, he was drafted and sent to the 1st Cavalry Division. 11B20, infantry rifleman, “straight leg grunt” we used to say. In August of '68, he had the back of his head shot off. He was not quite 21. He lived long enough to call home from the hospital ship. That's where they sent folks who were sure to die, a ship. Anyone with a chance got flown to Japan. Rob's dad picked up that phone. His dad was never the same. That call killed Carl, the dad, as sure as a bullet to the brain.

There was a kiosk near The Wall. This guy sold all these Nam knick-knacks, bumper stickers, buttons and such. We chatted. I noticed “Vietnam” magazine. I was startled, frankly, because I was that month's featured veteran. My narcissism compelled me to tell the guy this. Suddenly, I was signing autographs. But it's not like it was flattering. It was awkward. I'm a pretty obscure writer. I rarely see my writing outside my own study. I'm unaccustomed to signing autographs, and I didn't know how to do this gracefully. So I just stopped. One guy, pen and magazine in hand, shyly looked at me. I should have offered. I just walked away.

Panel 49W is halfway down the left. Line 035 is halfway up “The Wall”. I didn't pray. I touched his name. I remembered joking with Rob in the kitchen. Setting off sparklers on the 4th of July. How he hated Oscar, his middle name. How Rob and another friend, Doug, drove me to our high school one snowy morning. I let go of his name. I moved down a few panels to 1970, the year I was in the Nam. Hank. Pete. Greaser. Others. I didn't read their names. I didn't touch their names. It was enough to know they were there.

On the way back to the Renaissance, at the corner of 9th and G Streets, there was a beggar, a veteran in a fatigue jacket. He stopped me, stood in front of me, stared at the Vietnam Service Ribbon in my lapel. He asked, “Brother, do you know me?” I gave him a dollar. He thanked me. “But do you know me?”

2021.11.08 / 11:32
John Samuel Tieman
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