I walked the National Mall on a recent Saturday morning with a friend. We wanted to be ahead of the crowds and the heat, and we beat the crowds – but not the heat.
There are few names that I would recognize on the Vietnam War Memorial. It does not really matter; the space is deeply moving especially when you are there on a stunningly beautiful morning with almost no one else there. My friend asked me if I knew anyone whose name would be there. My mother had friends whose sons died in the war, but they were not the man who came to mind.
My fourth grade teacher was a favorite teacher of mine. She kept handing me books, and she could see that there were some issues with changing social groups in the class. We could not really grasp things in her life, but she did let us know that her son John had been killed in action in Vietnam the previous May. She had a recipe box full of index cards, and each card had the name of one of the young men in his unit. As a class we wrote to the men in John’s unit. I am sure they were silly notes about our days in fourth grade, stuffed with colored leaves and impertinent questions. We were eight and nine years old, after all.
The young man that I wrote to, named Curt, came to visit my teacher and she brought him around the block from her house to meet me. All I remember was that he was HUGE and so sweet. He sent me a reel to reel tape that he made from his tank sitting in the DMZ. I have no idea what happened to that recording.
I found my teacher’s son’s name on that black stone wall, and I’ve since done some research. He was a Private First Class in the Marines, a rifleman. He died in Quang Nam Province, South Vietnam of injuries sustained in an enemy mortar attack. He was twenty years old. He couldn’t know it, but his mother was very important to me and to lots of other fourth graders. She was proud of him. Semper Fi, Marine. Thank you for your service and your ultimate sacrifice.