Nobody is too tough to cry

by Daniel Moran, G.M. Calumet Park Cemetery

I turned my car onto a rutted, dirt road.  About a quarter of a mile in, I passed a rusted gate hanging half off the hinges.  The house was really not much more than a shack with an old couch on the porch and windows that were in bad need of repair.  It was almost dark, that time when you can see a light on in a window when the sky is darker than it is light.  There was no garage and no car, so I was wondering if my appointment was even home.  I was there to talk about new windows, or at least storm windows, and a quick glance showed that the house was actually deteriorating around the frames so I was asking myself if we could even do anything for this homeowner.

I parked, picked my way past the rotted porch floorboards and knocked.  I confess, I knocked lightly as I was hoping nobody was home so I wouldn’t waste my time on this lead.  As I turned to leave, I heard a male voice shout that I should come in.  “Crap!” I thought as I turned the doorknob and tentatively entered the house.  “Hello, my name is Dan and I am from the replacement window company,” I said as I slowly obeyed the command.  The living room was very small, maybe 10 x 10 and there was a worn-out recliner straight on from the front door.

The man sat under a very low wattage lamp.  There was a small area rug, an old black and white TV, and a simple black phone on a tin tray table next to him along with an ash tray spilling out cigarette butts.  There was a pile of wood shavings on the floor in front of his chair and he was whittling something as I approached.  “Get a chair from the kitchen and come talk to me about my windows.   This past winter was brutal on me.”

I pulled up a chair and sat, and my heart was racing.  The man, we’ll call him Bob for this story, had no legs, a right arm with a hand that had nubs for fingers, no left arm, long, oily hair hanging down past his beard and an eye patch over his left eye.  His face was scarred and his voice was ragged, presumably from years of smoking.

I gave a quick presentation of storm windows because it seemed obvious he had little to no money, which turned out to be correct.  But in the time we were together, we found a common bond.  He was a door gunner in Vietnam during the TET Offensive in ’68, and went from a small-town boy to a torn apart body of a man whose heart and soul was ripped away along with his lost limbs and eye.  In fact, as I shared some of my story of being a ‘Nam alumni, he poured out his pain.  This meeting of veterans was in 1984, 14 years after his being torn apart from concentrated ground fire.  It was always the goal of the Viet Cong to take out a door gunner when possible to stop some of the devastating M-50 machine gun attacks from the sky.

He shared his story of being in the hospital for over a year, and of the complications from taking so many rounds.  At one point, he pulled up his shirt and showed his body; riddled with scars.  I cried as he related the pain, the loss of hope, the confusion, the loneliness and the isolation his life had become.  He nodded to a purple heart next to his phone and bitterly mocked what he got for his trouble as a soldier in Vietnam.

We talked for a couple of hours and I finally said I had to leave, but that I would be back.  I promised.  I told him that, one way or another, he was getting new windows for his house.  And I was good to my word as I split the cost with the owner of the company after sharing Bob’s story.  By the way, we had to give him a new fence, too, because I tore his fence up trying to back out in pitch dark as I was squinting through my reddened eyes from the experience of meeting Bob.

I am sharing this story because Memorial Day is upon us once again.  Many years have passed and nearly all of us “old timer Vietnam vets” still live out our night terrors.  For me, I took my uniform off in 1971…48 years ago.  But there are living vets from WWII, Korea, and all the mid-East wars right up to newly created vets leaving the service as you read this as people that served their country with pride, and dignity and honor.  These people, your grandparents and parents, uncles and aunts, brothers and sisters and sons and daughters need to be remembered, particularly those whose deaths happened as a result of time served in our great military.  Veterans Day is meant for all of these people, and Memorial Day is for the departed.  However, I believe that there are many walking dead among us who lost a big part of who they might have been by fighting for this county, and they need to be honored and remembered every day.

I ask that all who read this article find time on Sunday, May 26 at 1:00, rain or shine, to come out to Calumet Park Cemetery and join with other like-minded people who wish to make a show of appreciation to our men and women of the armed forces.

People like Bob lost everything.  With his torn body, mind and soul, he had a lifetime that was so different than he could have ever imagined before he put on his first pair of Army boots.  He and all of his brothers and sisters in arms deserve an hour of respect and genuine thanks.

Oh, the wood shavings.  The picture of the wood carving of the wizard shown with this article was carved by good old, one eyed, one armed, no fingered Bob as a gift to me in March of 1984.  It took him a couple of months to whittle it from a branch that came down with his fence from my inability to back up a car when leaving his home that winter night.  It hangs on my office wall to this day as a reminder that there can always be something good coming from something bad.  Bob was willing to share a couple of his hours with me, and created a work of art kindled by our mutual respect for time served for this country.  To me, this simple work of Bob has always had more meaning than all the medals that were awarded to me for my work in Nam.

I never saw Bob again, but that time together still occupies a part of my heart that reminds me that nobody is too tough to cry.  Never forget that “there but through the grace of God go I”.