The event that really changed my life.
Every year, on Memorial Day, my children ask me to recount the events of my year in Vietnam. I regale them with the stories of near misses and of the boys I helped load on helicopters, some living and way too many dead. I try to pass on to them the roar of the artillery, the clatter of my M60, and that distinctive chop, chop, chop of the helicopters. I even tell them of the slit trench latrines I dug and of the C-rations I eat that were dated from the Korean War, but this year, I will tell them a different story. It is a story of an event that shaped my life since it occurred and it is a memory that even now, on rainy days, I find myself reliving.
My year in Vietnam was up and we boarded a plane at Da Nang. The plane was full and only male flight stewards were aboard. The flight was smooth until we hit bad weather about halfway to Hawaii. The plane shook and trembled, overhead storage bins popped open and at one point, the pilot came on and said we had just lost 4,000 feet. An hour outside of Hawaii, the weather cleared and the pilot told us we would be held over in Hawaii for a few hours. He wanted his plane checked out.
We landed safely and everyone got off the plane and walked into the terminal. As was the custom for troop flights, we were held in the boarding area and not permitted to walk around the airport. We didn’t know each other and soon, it was loud in the holding area as G.I.s talked about going home and what outfit they had served with in Vietnam. I saw the arm patch on two guys and the three of us were soon talking about the 1st Cav and the campaigns we had been part of.
Being from different parts of the country, we were also talking about what our part of the country looked like and our favorite home town food. We had been at the airport for about an hour when the event happened.
To my left, I heard a loud voice call us to attention. Being in the Army, you don’t question, you respond and I snapped to attention, as did everyone else. With eyes to the front, I expected to see a General or some other officer come walking past our station, when out of the corner of my eye, I saw her.
She was sixteen, maybe seventeen, blond headed and slim. She wore a light, white summer dress with blue flowers on it, the dressed pressed against her as she walked. She kept her gaze forward, as if the one-hundred men standing at attention near her were not there.
When she came full into my vision, her form and face burned into my mind. Like looking at the sun then closing your eyes and still seeing it, her every feature was recorded in my mind. Horrors I had seen, and death I had dealt. But nothing had burned into my brain as her softness and the elegance of her walk. As she came in front of me, without breaking her stride, she turned her head ever so slightly and locked my eyes with hers. A faint smile crossed her lips as she looked at me then turned her head and walked on. Not a man moved or seemed to draw breath as she walked past us and no man said a word. She was quickly gone from my field of vision. A few seconds later, the same gruff voice that had called us to attention rang out “at ease”.
It was then that I noticed the guy I had been talking to, a big tough man who had been in many battles, he had tears streaming down his face. No one spoke of the girl, no vulgarities were uttered and many men were wiping at tears. It was as if every man, battle tested all, was holding her vision close, not wanting her image to fade. As we marched back to airplane, I felt my heart grow heavy at the thought of turning my back on the girl in the summer dress. At the same time, a peace fell over me. After a year of war and seeing only other G.I.s, it was as if I had just seen all the beauty and goodness in the world walk by me, wrapped in a summer dress.
I can tell and retell the horrors of war, fill books with battles and what it is like to hear the thud of bullets hitting the tree next to your head. Of blood and gore, there is no end but it comes to describing the peace, love, joy and the respect for womanhood that washed over me at that moment, in that airport—words fail.