Memorial Day has come a lot closer to me this year. I will shed some tears on Monday, a day we remember and honor those who died in service to our country. But what about those who die later as a result of their service? Like Neil.
I helped Neil get his book Brothers, All put together and published. He was writing individual essays about his service in Vietnam—the funny things, the foolery of young boys, the hard stuff, the loss, and the fighting. Then he was diagnosed with lung cancer. We didn’t know how much time we had.
This was a big deal for me. My dad was a WWII veteran, and so was my mother, but over the last fifteen years, getting to know Neil, who volunteered early in the Vietnam War and observing his patriotism with no regrets and a conviction that he would do it all again, changed me. At the time he served, I was going to senior prom and being elected class favorite and going to senior parties with my friends and boyfriend and starting college—innocent, immature, and safe. He and other boys like him were off on the other side of the world, instantly becoming men with that first indoctrination to war.
I can’t explain the feeling I had when I read Neil’s chapter about Agent Orange, a powerful chemical defoliant used by the US military to clear the jungles and expose the enemy. Neil didn’t mention the chemical’s name in the text, but I knew, and I also knew that he consumed the chemical in every way that one can receive a substance into the body—through the skin, the mouth (drinking), the eyes (open under water), and the lungs by inhaling. Agent Orange is known to cause lung cancer.
“The next morning we had our orders to push on twenty clicks to the east, where Intelligence said there was likely VC troop movement. I started out as point and noticed after a ways, the going was somewhat easier. The jungle was as dense as ever, but some of the leaves were lying in the dirt, the rest bent and drooping, like a slow motion death bow before us as we passed. I still slashed at it with my machete and crawled on top of the withered greens.
I didn’t pay that much attention to it until Preacher, behind me, said he saw it, too. “Even in the dry season, I’ve never seen the jungle fold up and quit, and it kind of looks that way, doesn’t it?”
Preacher was on point and passed the word back that there was a small creek ahead that would be good for canteen filling and baths. We secured the area and in turn went to the water four at a time. I was in the first group. We gathered all the canteens. None had names on them, but it didn’t matter. Drinking after each other was not a worry, considering the other things we endured. I put the wire screen in the mouth of the first canteen to keep out the big stuff. Then I held it under, sideways, with half the opening above the water and watched it suck in its fill. I capped the canteen and tossed it in the full pile.
After the last canteen was filled, I stripped and sat down in the knee-deep creek, careful to be within a few feet of my rifle on the bank. With a cupped hand, I scooped the water and sloshed it on my face several times, then lay back and put my head under. I opened my eyes and looked up at the sunlight that danced silver lines on the water. Quiet, it was totally quiet. Nice to have quiet. Then I splashed up, and the first thing I saw was the contrast of the orange Dial soap I held in my hand against the green growth that surrounded me. I rubbed the Dial on my body, as foamy as I could, then I washed hard all over.”
Thus was Neil’s exposure to the chemical that would take him down fifty years later. The enemy planted itself, lurked, and waited, then ambushed, was surgically removed and chemically attacked and burned, only to return again and again and again, on a mission and determined to win.
“It is the cancer coming back and building in me that I can’t get away from. I figure this hole will be my grave.”
And it was.
Neil died January 31, 2017. That last day I sat with him and counted time between his breaths: One Mississippi Two Mississippi Three Mississippi Four Mississippi, as the morphine drip silently flowed and his beloveds and his writers group sat in wait. The experience of being immersed in the stories of this book and with this man who ultimately sacrificed all because of service to his country has taught me what it’s like to be a “brother” and what this special day means.
It’s not a holiday to start summer. It’s a day to remember those who don’t take breaths anymore because they did once, and once they carried a gun and crawled through jungles or across beaches and were fired upon, sometimes by a visible, sometimes not visible, enemy.
This year, remember a veteran. If you don’t have one to remember, think of Neil. His book lives on to help veterans; all proceeds go to veterans in Maury County, Tennessee.
I hiked two miles yesterday on the freshly mulched trails of a Class II Natural Area, saw native wildflowers in white, pink, and purple, saw birds, frogs, turtles lined up on logs in the lake, snakes swimming, and chipmunks jumping around. The color green across the forest floor was new, fresh, and yellowy. The pitch of bird sounds was high and expectant. It is newly spring, when cycles begin again. Life comes around every year.
The last short segment of the hike was on an old road, closed to driving and crumbling at the edges into the lake. The center line spoke to me, and I snapped a picture.
Old road surface, rough, hard, harsh, cracked, hidden under thick trees, away from sun and light, always dark there, always, no light gets through, not ever. Yellow line at the center of the path to follow home. Straight, unlike life. And jagged, winding cracks have opened up all down the line splitting the yellow paint, itself marred and chipped away. Life finds a way up through the openings in the gray. Tender new green, fragile, flowering, pink, finds a place in the hard, cold road. Keeps doing it every year, coming back, coming back, coming back. Even blooming.
Why? What is the purpose? I wonder when it will tire of this.
I picked out my armageddon hiding place early on. I was a girl of twelve.
On my grandpa’s farm, a gully cut thirty or more feet deep into the red earth of family land. A natural spring bubbled out of the ground there and ran through woods with trees thick as hairs on a dog’s back. Plenty of pines, chinquapin, hickory, hackberry, and oaks, all canopied under a sun that never got through, laying down centuries of seasonal leaves and needles to pad the hard clay.
I hiked into the gully via the stream banks, my shoes sinking into the soft wet sands, stepping over wild ferns and other woodsy plants, climbing over fallen tree trunks, watching out for bad snakes. Country noises sounded all around me: bird alerts, the whippoorwill’s forlorn song, a trembling of leaves in a summer breeze, a cow groan in the distant pasture, a low trickling of water. I stuck my fingernails into the red clay canyon sides for support, dug in with my Keds, balanced, climbed over vertical ruts and rocks, and sat on a hard-dirt outjutting of the earthen gully wall in the cool August ground hole and did some pondering.
I knew war would come. I had seen TV repeats of Khrushchev pounding his shoe on a desktop, screaming that Russia would bury America. I feared the H-bomb and waited for it to be dropped on one of our cities. I read Alas, Babylon, when that really happened. I knew we were preparing weaponry for war. I heard sonic booms of new jets as they flew over my backyard.
Sitting deep at the bottom of that gully the summer before seventh grade, I knew war would come. I looked way up at blue skies filtered through the lace of leaves above, pale green, fluttering peacefully. I was hidden here. I felt safe. No one could find me. After Russia dropped the bomb and then sent their armies marching in through Mexico—that’s how I imagined it happening—I could live here without being exposed to the enemy. There was water to drink. There were nuts and greens in the forest. There were fruit trees nearby. I could live.
A lot of years have passed. I still remember that day as if it were yesterday. I still worry about armageddon. I still believe war will come.
I own that gully now.
I slipped away from work in the middle of the day and went to see the movie Hidden Figures. I splurged—got popcorn, diet cherry Coke, and peanut M&Ms. After all, it was lunch, too. I found an aisle seat and settled in. I kind of knew what to expect from the movie, but it was way more than what I expected. It was set in my time of growing up in the South. My children have no idea what it was like, and my grandchildren certainly have no clue.
It was 1961-62. I was a girl, in junior high, trying to step up from girl to teen. It was the year of the black leather jacket—if you didn’t have one, you were out. It was the year I had a royal blue knit outfit—tight skirt and matching top. I wore it with royal blue Piccolinos. Piccolinos were like little fairy shoes—flats with severely pointed toes and a whole lot of toe cleavage, and this was so long ago, you can’t google and find a picture of them, but all the girls had Piccolinos in every bright color. It was also the year that girls teased their hair. Even Barbie had a bouffant.
It was before Kennedy got shot, before the Beatles came, before Vietnam was a living-room word; it was the year James Meredith integrated Ole Miss with the help of the National Guard. It was on the cusp of outward racial turbulence and the fight for civil rights, because in this free county, black people had no rights. They had separate public bathrooms and water fountains, separate schools, separate beauty shops and funeral homes. They could not use public libraries, and they did not vote. People had to pass a test and pay a poll tax to vote back then.
It was also the time of an intense race for space—outer space, that is. President Kennedy wanted a man on the moon during the decade of the 60s, and we couldn’t seem to get a man off the ground and into orbit. But the Russians could. Their 1957 Sputnik 1 was the world’s first satellite to orbit the earth. They were far ahead of us in science and technology. With their early Sputnik launches, they proved 1) they were winning the Space Race, and 2) they had rockets capable of launching nuclear weapons right on top of us. So the next year, 1958, NASA was formed, and the US committed men, money, and technology to competing and winning the Space Race. And IBM developed a mainframe computer that NASA installed right at the time of our first manned flight into orbit to compute the needed mathematical data. All these issues collide and overlap in the movie.
Before IBM’s involvement, all the math by NASA to figure launches, trajectories, and splashdown coordinates was done by human “computers,” or mathematicians. The movie is about a group of female Colored Computers, and it focuses on the stories of three African-American women. Hidden Figures is a true story about 1) women, 2) black women, and 3) black women in a world of white men / engineers only, giving viewers complex and complicated layers of issues to understand and follow. These three women cross all gender, race, and professional barriers as they dream big and push forward to go where no one else has ever gone.
Katherine Goble Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson step up to the task, each in their own way, but all beginning as Colored Computers at the space flight center who commuted to work together. At the leading edge of the feminist movement and the civil rights movement, they rise in the ranks of NASA along with the country’s greatest minds, tasked to calculate the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit and guarantee his safe return. [Spoiler Alert] Katherine was assigned to the room of flight engineers who did the launches of Atlas Friendship 7, the moon launch, and the later space shuttles. It was her calculations that got Glenn safely into orbit and safely home. Dorothy realized her job was going to be taken over by a computer, so when she wasn’t allowed to check out a library book on computer programming, she stole it (she paid taxes!) and became the expert and trainer on NASA mainframes. Mary became the first African-American woman engineer by going to court and getting permission to attend classes at an all-white school.
These women are real American heroes and an inspiration to all, regardless of gender, race, or profession. It takes a special kind of person to stand up, step up, speak up, trust herself to go into the unknown, and push herself to make history.
When I was a little girl, the Sears & Roebuck Christmas catalogue came every October. That’s how I knew Christmas was getting close. It was a shiny, red, magical book, with Christmas tree lights, maybe a rosy-cheeked Santa, and little boys and girls in warm PJs on the cover. I’d sit on the couch and turn the pages through this “wish book” and dream of all the toys, from sleds and ice skates and bicycles and dolls—all sizes, all kinds—and doll wardrobe cases and dress-up cowboy and Indian outfits. There were microscopes, rock polishing kits, toy pianos, teddy bears, and train sets. There was much to pick from.
On Christmas morning, at barely light, the living room would be full of toys under the tree. Its red, blue, green, and yellow lights made all the presents sparkle and shine. My little sister and I, awakened by our father, barely had our eyes open, were shy at first, just standing there and looking at all Santa brought.
Oh! It was a wonderland of new perfect and pristine toys! My daddy would dive right in, laughing and picking up each toy, playing with it first. He had more fun than we did. I remember a blue bicycle the year I was seven. One Christmas, we got a merry-go-round. A pogo stick was one of my favorites. We got dolls—lots of dolls. There was the Bannister Baby, the Madame Alexander, the 36-inch doll, Chatty Cathy, and then the Barbies came along. There were pop beads, jewelry boxes (I still have mine!), pearls, roller skates, and boxed games. In our stockings were candy canes, chocolate Christmas candies, and oranges. To this day, when I see a lighted Christmas tree, I still remember those long ago Christmas mornings in my little house on Deering Street, with my mama and daddy and sister, and I still get that funny-happy feeling in my tummy.
When I got a little older, my daddy told me that when he was a little boy growing up on the family farm at Hardy Hill in Kemper County, Mississippi, all he got for Christmas every year was a toy wooden car, a handful of firecrackers, and a couple of oranges. My daddy and mama grew up during the Great Depression in the 1930s, when people didn’t have any money, some didn’t have any food, and they certainly couldn’t afford Christmas presents. Dad seemed happy, though, remembering what he got. I could picture those bright-colored oranges down in his soft red-felt stocking hanging from the fireplace mantel. Maybe oranges were rare and special back then, and it was a treat to get one, all sweet and juicy and colorful. So I carried forward the tradition. When I grew up and had two little boys, I always put an orange in their stockings.
I wonder now if my daddy’s parents, my grandma and grandpa, were so old that they were close to the old traditions and grew up with legends that I didn’t know about.
The Legend of the Oranges
‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
“A Visit from Saint Nicholas”
Once upon a time in a faraway land, there was a man named Nicholas, born in a village on the Mediterranean seashore in the country we now call Turkey, 270 years after Jesus lived not too far away. Nicholas inherited a large sum of money, but spent his life giving it away to help the poor and the persecuted, and eventually became a bishop in the Christian church and a saint.
One day Saint Nicholas heard the villagers talking about a poor, widowed man who had three beautiful daughters but was having a tough time making ends meet. The father worried that he wouldn’t be able to find suitors, or husbands, for his daughters because he didn’t have money for a dowry. It was a custom in days of old for girls to give money, called a dowry, to their husbands upon their marriages. Saint Nicholas wanted to help, but he imagined the man might be too proud to accept charity. One night, he went to their house, climbed up on the roof, and tossed three bags of gold down the chimney while the family was sleeping. One of the bags of round gold coins landed in the toe of a stocking that was hanging from the mantel. The girls had washed their stockings and hung them up by the fire to dry.
When the family awakened in the morning, they found the gold, including the bag in the sock which had turned into a ball overnight—a shiny bright golden ball. Because of Saint Nicholas’s generosity, the daughters were now eligible to wed, and their father was happy.
So, Hardy and Jillie, the bright-colored oranges your great grandfather, your grandmother, and your father got in their little-boy-and-girl stockings were a symbol of the shiny bright gold left by Saint Nicholas in those long-ago stockings hanging by the fire. Giving the orange is a way to celebrate generosity and caring for others, without thinking about a gift in return.
Today, maybe there’s a lesson for you. If you get an orange in your stocking, remember Saint Nick, the poor father, and the three beautiful girls. Remember the gold. Believe. Believe in the random kindness of others. And believe enough to let yourself be moved to show kindness to those in need. Give a hug to your grandma; give a kiss to your mama and daddy; give a smile and nice word to your friends. When you share the sections of an orange with someone, you are sharing the gift of you, sharing what you have and giving from your heart. For giving is the true Christmas spirit.
I shared this on Facebook because I thought it was powerful. This is someone else’s story – not mine – but in 7th grade, I would have never spoken up at all. Would you have? Would you now?
“A few of us choked out some words . . . but were immediately squashed.”
Everybody I know has basically told me to shut up. Some of them hate what is happening in our country and are hurting and disturbed, too. Some are loving it. Some just plain have no clue and are happy to have a new Savior that can heal everything from a headache to lack of a job. Some just vote for the R Party no matter who’s running.
I keep telling them that I can’t be quiet and I can’t not say anything if I see something distressing. Something wrong. Something completely against the Bible I grew up with and the teachings of my parents and church and school. Something that makes a mockery of the way I raised my children and the stands I took as a classroom teacher.
I believe SILENCE IS ACCEPTANCE.
One little thing happens. One lie is told. You sit back and let it go. Another lie, another ill-meant action, and you turn your head and pretend not to see. Another and another. It becomes easy to slide into a pattern of silence, of closing your eyes, of ignoring wrongs, of taking the position, “It doesn’t do any good to say anything.” It becomes easy to just smile and sit back and let your character melt at your feet.
I read Anne Frank’s diary several times in junior high and high school. Every time I read it, I thought: How could people let this happen? How could they hate this one group known as Jews? How could the rantings of one madman lead to so much destruction and death, when there are so many good people out there?
Now I know.
I also thought: This kind of thing could never happen in my country.
Now it is.
SILENCE IS ACCEPTANCE.
“Don’t ever let anyone tell you that what you see with your own eyes isn’t happening.”
I’ve climbed those narrow steps behind the swinging bookcase up to the secret annex in Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam. I looked out the window at a tall church steeple nearby. I refuse to go back again to a place created by hate, fear, and silence, so near to God.