It was 1967-1968, I had learned to read the year before. Every night I made certain I was sitting cross-legged on the floor, in front the black and white TV, just before the end of the evening news. No one asked why I had suddenly become fascinated with the news. Perhaps they knew, having seen me hold my breath while I watched, unblinking, as the names scrolled down the screen. I was watching for two names, my Uncle William Darby and my second cousin Henry Benefield. Both had been drafted, one stationed in Germany, the other Vietnam. To a little kid, it was all the same. They were in The War.
The War created a war of emotions within me, feelings I didn’t always understand. I had watched news clips showing the horrors our boys were experiencing. I had seen the numerous names of dead soldiers on the screen. And the names of the Missing In Action. I had felt helpless as I heard my aunt crying and watched my cousin’s sister pace the floor. I had heard the adults around town speaking in hushed tones:
“…prisoner…tortured…he’ll never be the same”.
“Lord have mercy, he was so young, just a boy…”.
“They say they’re all coming back changed…”.
“….saw his buddy blown up right before his own eyes…oh Sweet Jesus, help him”.
“His Mama lost her mind when she got the news…”.
I couldn’t bear to think of my two handsome relatives dying in a jungle, or perhaps worse, being held captive and tortured. So I watched the news, not understanding how things worked. I believed if I were the first to see their names, I could break it to the family in a better way than a telegram or a stranger in a dark car could.
Pride was a new emotion flourishing in my soul. I remember being very proud of William and Henry. And another feeling, Pride of Country. I didn’t know what to call it or even what to think about it, I just knew anytime we sang the Star Spangled Banner or said the Pledge of Allegiance, my heart seem to beat faster. My breath would catch in my throat. Sometimes tears would swell in my eyes as older school mates reverently raised and lowered Old Glory each day. I was proud to be an American. Still am.
In 1967 I was too young to understand the military, Patriotism, or the business of manufacturing. So when I finally received the new pair of Keds I had waited an eternity for, and noticed Made In The USA stamped into their soles, I was crestfallen. I didn’t want to wear my new sneakers. As I saw it, there was a definite correlation between the military and the USA. And in my little girl way of thinking, if I wore the Keds stamped with USA on the rubber soles, I would be stepping on William and Henry as well as the United States of America and every other person in the military. I couldn’t do it. And I didn’t. Until Mama made me.
“We don’t have money to throw around like that” she said. I couldn’t articulate my feelings and even if I could, I wasn’t permitted to argue with my parents, so I wore the Keds. But not without whispering, “I’m sorry” as I slipped them on my feet.
Thankfully, William and Henry made it home. In the years since, I haven’t seen much of Henry, he’s sort of kept to himself over the years. William and my aunt (My Madea) raised a beautiful family and celebrated their 45th wedding anniversary last August, a month before the 45th anniversary of his induction into the United States Army.
This Memorial Day, I would like to say Thank You to everyone who’s ever served in the United States Military, especially the ones who never came home.