For most folks, Memorial Day means a three-day weekend, a chance to picnic, vacation or to get out of town, except for those people who have been touched in some way by a family member who has served his or her country in the armed forces.
For me, it was my own father who drove convoy trucks in the Korean War and my Uncle Steven, an officer, whose life was never the same after his tour of duty in Vietnam. They survived the wars, returning home, but the wounds they sustained were something not physical, mostly psychological, especially my uncle; my favorite one at that, who I fondly remember as having taken me sledding during one snowy winter in New York when I was three. I remember his smile, his easy laughter and his sense of fun.
He eventually became an officer, a decorated one at that. I distinctly remember him receiving some special medal, as there was a picture of him, with his wife at his side, in our local paper. As with many things, the circumstances that resulted in him going to Vietnam are unknown to me: the exact whys and the when. Though he came back alive from Vietnam, his service in the Army took a toll on my maternal grandmother’s weak heart and I remember there being a family rift as a result of his decision to serve his country because it was just too much stress for grandmother, who died when I was eight years old from a heart attack. This is not to say my uncle was to blame for this, it just probably didn’t help.
As for my Uncle Steven, he returned from Vietnam a changed man. He divorced his wife, married again, divorced a second time and when he was no longer in the army, held a string of somewhat short-lived and weird jobs, including being a clown on a local TV program, at least that's what I heard. I think I only saw once, family politics being the way they were, after he returned from Vietnam. I remember that day vividly. He came to our home unannounced when I was about 13 years old. We hugged, I recall, and his visit was short. But he left my house with a painted portrait of my grandmother. That is all I remember.
Thereafter, I heard bits and pieces about his life. Never really learning much. Until, May 29, 2005, when I was reading that day’s edition of the Los Angeles Times at my kitchen table and there it was: the obituary of Steven Mason. He died at age 65 from lung cancer, claiming to have contracted the disease from Agent Orange the chemical used by the US as a weapon in Vietnam. The article about him was long and I learned a lot about what happened to him since the last time I had seen him 35 years before. Apparently, his last line of work was that of a poet and a very good one at that. Here’s a part of his obituary,
“Never embittered by his service in Vietnam, Mason nonetheless struggled to make sense of his year of combat duty. Poetry became his method of expression."The Wall Within,” (one of his poems) was presented at the 1984 dedication of the Vietnam Memorial -- a long wall inscribed with the names of those who died in the war -- and was read into the Congressional Record. It said in part:
Most real men
In their early forties
Would like the rest of us to think
They could really handle one more war
And two more women.
But I know better.
You have no more lies to tell.
I have no more dreams to believe.”
War touches us all. You certainly wouldn’t know it by looking at me, but it robbed me of my favorite Uncle. And as the mother of three sons, I can’t even begin to imagine what it would do to my heart if any one of them went off to war. So let’s take pause and a moment to remember those who have served this country, and to those who sacrificed their lives both in body and/or spirit, affecting the lives of those they loved and those who loved them back.