A short story
Inspired by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall
“All gave some, some gave all.
Some stood through
For the red, white and blue,
Some had to fall.
And if you ever think of me,
Think of all your liberties
And recall…some gave all”
From the song, Some Gave All
By Billy Ray Cyrus and Cindy Cyrus
The young woman walked up quietly, raised the first two fingers of her right hand to her lips, and then touched a name on the Wall. After a moment, she stepped back. As she stared straight ahead, a tear fell slowly down her cheek.
It was my first visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. I had not served in Vietnam. It was a fact that often haunted me. Last night I had dreamed about the Wall while overnighting on my boat in Annapolis, Maryland. This morning as I sat at the stern sipping a mug of hot coffee and watching the Sunday sunrise, I knew that for whatever reason I could not leave Annapolis until I traveled to Washington to visit the Wall.
Walking down the ramp leading to the base of the subterranean two-hundred-forty-six-foot black granite wall had been emotional. It is as reflective as a mirror, except when you see your image it is covered by the names of the fifty-eight thousand one hundred and ninety-six men and women who gave their life for our country.
When I had reached its base, I was alone except for a single, long-stemmed white rose someone had leaned against the black Wall. My mother always wore a white rose to church on Mother’s Day. Once, when I had asked why, she said it was in memory of her mother. Later, I had asked a florist the significance of the white rose. She told me it symbolized reverence, humility, innocence, and silence. I could not think of a more fitting tribute to those whose name appears on the Wall.
Until the young woman walked up, I had been staring at the rose and recalling memories of many years before. Now, I could think of nothing but her actions.
After a few moments, she brushed the tears from her cheeks. “That’s my father’s name.” She spoke as if reading my mind. “On Sundays I come here to spend a few minutes with him.” She paused. “Some days are just more emotional than others.”
“I don’t know what to say.” I replied softly.
“He died before I was born. Mom says I’m so much like him.” Her voice was almost a whisper.
As I listened, thinking of my own children, I felt a burning in my throat. I guessed her age to be between that of my grown son and daughter.
She took a deep breath and sighed. “Were you there?”
“No.” I replied.
For a moment, she seemed to contemplate my response. “You were lucky. Do you have a daughter?”
“Yes. And a son.” I replied.
“How old?” She asked.
“My daughter’s twenty-four. Son’s twenty-eight.” I said, softly.
Lucky, she had said? In my mind that was a subject of debate. In 1966, being drafted seemed inevitable. If I had to serve, I wanted it to be as a Marine. The necessary paper work had been completed at my hometown Reserve Training Center. All that remained was a pre-induction physical at the local medical school.
As the recruiting Sergeant Major and I started into the school, a resident physician that had been our high school football team trainer was walking out. His look of surprise at seeing me with a Marine Recruiter was undeniable. His first words were, “Hello Burke, how’s the leg?”
That simple question ended my future as a Marine. The Marine physician that was to conduct my physical, reviewed my hospital medical records. In the words of the Sergeant Major, “Son, we can’t risk you and that bum leg in combat.”
Three months later I failed the Army physical. A sense of relief was combined with a sense of failure.
“Did you run?” She asked.
I knew exactly what she meant. “No, I flunked two physicals.”
After a moment of silence, she asked, “What made you and Daddy feel like you had to go?
I sighed, “A sense of obligation, probably. And pride.”
“Obligation to whom?” Her soft voice was suddenly tense with emotion. “Talk to me. No one’s been able to explain it to me yet.”
“To our country. Our families.” I thought for a moment. “I can’t speak for your dad, but I remember my feelings like it was yesterday. My father and grandfather fought for this country. They fought to protect their families and freedom. They didn’t want to go anymore than anyone else. Honor made them do it. I guess most guys of your dad’s and my generation felt the same.”
“But, Vietnam wasn’t like other wars,” She said with a voice filled with emotion.
“Maybe,” I said. “I guess we felt that before it ended. Kennedy got us into it – we identified with him. We believed our country was fighting for a just cause even after he died.”
She paused. “I wish Daddy hadn’t gone.”
“I understand,” I said softly.
“No!” She said in a strong voice. “I wish he’d done ANYTHING not to go.”
I paused before speaking. “I understand, but no matter how much we hated thoughts of going, most of us still felt we’d be fighting for God and Country. We believed doing otherwise would’ve been a disgrace. A lot of guys that didn’t believe in the war still believed in our country – and believed they were doing the right thing. Your dad was an honorable man.”
She took a deep breath, sighed, and stood quietly with arms crossed, as if reflecting on my words. “My name’s April. Mom and Dad met in April. They married in April. I was born the next April. My grandma once told me that before Daddy left, he and Mom decided that if I was a girl, my name would be April because it represented the happiest month in their lives. It’s so ironic – Daddy died the month I was born.” She again stared silently at the Wall. “Everybody loved my dad. I wish so much I could’ve known him.”
Her voice was quivering as she finished the sentence. After a moment, she spoke again. “What’s your name?”
“Ty. Ty Burke.” I replied.
She looked at me, “Ty?”
“Matthew Tyler Burke.” I said. “Ty for short.”
“Matthew Tyler Burke. Matthew Tyler Burke.” She whispered slowly to herself. “I like your name, Matthew Tyler Burke. It sounds like a good Southern name. I’m from South Carolina. Something tells me you and Daddy could’ve been friends. Where are you from?”
“North Carolina. Winston-Salem.” I replied.
She was silent for a moment. “Do you drink coffee?”
“Yeah.” I paused, “I do.” It was difficult to answer with my heart in my throat. I kept looking at her and thinking of my own daughter. I had enjoyed twenty-four wonderful years with my beautiful daughter. April’s father never saw his.
“Do you have anywhere you have to go right now, Ty Burke?” She asked.
“No. Before the day ends, I need to get back to Annapolis, that’s all.” I replied.
Again, she turned and looked at me. “Annapolis? You’re staying in Annapolis?”
“Sort of,” I said, “My boat’s there. I’m on my way up the coast to Maine. It’s a long story.”
She looked at me curiously, but did not pursue my remark. “Would it be too forward if I asked to buy you a cup of coffee? I’d really like to just sit and talk to you for a while. You know, talk like – friends.”
I turned to answer her. As we stood face to face, I wondered if she had gotten her piercing blue eyes from her father. I felt I knew the answer to my own question. The tears were gone. Her eyes now just seemed to be pleading. I could not speak. I could only smile and nod my agreement. Her smile told me she understood.
Finally, I swallowed hard, “Sure, I’d love to have coffee with you – as long as I get to buy.”
A big grin spread across her angelic face. “Hey, that’s what da—,” she caught herself, “friends are for.”
As we started to walk away, she stopped, turned and walked back to the Wall. Once again she kissed two fingers and placed them on her father’s name. I could clearly see her reflection in the Wall. Her eyes were closed, but she was smiling. I guessed she was telling her daddy goodbye.
I stepped back to the edge of the walkway, took a deep breath and let it out slowly as I gazed from one end of the Wall to the other, and then back to the single long-stemmed white rose.
Everything I knew about the Wall before my visit told me the visit would likely be emotional. I never expected it to be overwhelming.
When April returned to my side she whispered, “I had to tell Daddy I love him. You understand.” Her eyes followed my stare to the white rose. “I know what you’re thinking. It’s okay. There was a reason for you not being there.” She gave me a moment, and then spoke softly, “Come on, let’s get that cup of coffee.”