Neil O. Jones wrote about war, sometimes spot on, sometimes indirectly, but always with an effective punch. Neil died one year ago today. What better way to remember him than to share a story he wrote maybe twelve years ago. This one has a favorite saying of his: “champion of the world.” I do miss his voice, this dialect, this storytelling mind.
One thing about Neil: he never drank. Maybe a sip of wine or a beer now and then, but never much, because of his alcoholic father.
Of all Neil’s boyhood lifetime friends from the Oak Cliff section of South Dallas, T-Bone is still with us. Ronny died as a young man in an auto accident. Jimmy died a few months before Neil did. And any little boy named Victory Over Japan deserves his own story.
By Neil O. Jones
If there was ever an individual’s name to represent his baby boomer generation, it was my friend Victory over Japan, called V.J. for short. He was born the same day as the event—August 14, 1945. Though he was not in the neighborhood long, he made two memories that are so sharp, they will always be with me.
His family lived one street over from me there in south Dallas, on Shellhorse Road, about halfway down, on the left, of the deadend road. Two other buddies, the brothers Jimmy and Ronny, as well as their mom and dad—Papa Earl—lived at the end of Shellhorse. Actually V.J.’s mom met my mother before he and I met. They often rode the same bus home from their jobs and they talked and got to know each other on their walk home from the bus stop. They both worked selling to the public, my mother at a clothing store and V.J.’s mom as a waitress at the downtown Dallas Woolworth’s lunch counter. The women learned they had boys near in age, and as they got to know each other better, they learned they had another like concern—alcoholic husbands.
I first met V.J. in the summer of my tenth year. Jimmy, Ronny, T-Bone, and I were taking turns rolling down the steep gravel hill on Shellhorse Road in the brothers’ Radio Flyer wagon. We were seeing who could roll the farthest with just the driver pushing himself off the hill. T-Bone was the leader so far, as he had marked his spot with the marking rock. He was a good six feet ahead of Ronny, who was about three feet ahead of his brother, Jimmy. It was my turn. I gave myself a good push-off, and I had a clean mount. I was able to miss the slowing big rocks and deep gravel. As I made my way down and saw I had a chance for a win, I heard an encouraging voice.
“Lay flat and scoot it when you slow down,” V.J. said from his seat on his porch.
As I approached the marking rock, at first I didn’t think I was going to get there. Then I thought I might just tie T-Bone. My front wheel was finishing its last revolution when I heard, “Now. Scoot it.” And I gave it one good scoot, enough to claim the long distance neighborhood championship of the world—by a half a wheel length.
“Neat,” V.J. said. “You did it.”
The rest of the guys came down to verify the mark. They were all talking about the run when I noticed my new coach-cheerleader friend still sitting on his porch. I told him, loud enough so the others could hear, “We’re going to do some suicide dives. You wanna come?”
He was up before I finished the question. We all gave our names as we walked back up the hill. “I’m V.J.,” he started out. “My whole first name is Victory over Japan ‘cause I was born the day the Japs give up. I go by V.J. And my daddy was in the Army somewhere in the Pacific, my mom told me. And I was born that day and my mom said she knew my dad would be coming home and she was so happy about me being born and victory day and him coming home and she figured it was a sign or something so she named me Victory over Japan, but like I said, you guys can call me V.J. Ever’body does.” I got the feeling he had told that story a few times.
There was an odd silence. Just saying you were maybe named after an uncle or grandfather, didn’t seem like much. Finally I could think of nothing but the obvious. “I’m Neil. These two are Jimmy there, and Ronny. They’re brothers. The cotton top there is Gerald, but we call him T-Bone ‘cause he’s skinny. You can just call him T-Bone. Ever’body does.”
At the top of the hill we looked back at the run. Shellhorse Road, from our angle, began on the high end at Jimmy’s and Ronny’s yard, and butted into busy Lancaster Road on the lower end. The flat part between the brothers’ yard and the hill was our starting point. One kid would drive the wagon while another pushed him across the flat part of the road, past Mrs. Cullum’s house and under her big pecan tree until the steep downhill part was reached. The suspension-less wagon bounced on the little rocks and slid a little on and over the bigger ones. In season, we cracked a mess of pecans in our path. At the plummet point, the runner gave one last shove of the wagon just as the driver reached the steep drop in the road. The worst or best wreck I ever saw, depending on your perspective, happened the day V.J. joined the troupe.
It must have been V.J.’s fifth or sixth run as driver and he had made it all the way down without wrecking and he was feeling a little cocky, I guess. T-Bone and I were getting ready to be the pushers when V.J. said, “Can’t y’all push any faster? You push like a couple of girls.” T-Bone and I looked at each other. Without saying anything, sometimes we could communicate pretty well.
T-Bone pulled the wagon back into Jimmy’s and Ronny’s yard so we could have more of a running start. We both kicked out holes as starting blocks to get a good jump start. We each took a back corner and rocked the wagon back and forth.
“On three,” I said. “One . . . two . . . three!” And we were off. I timed “three” in rhythm with the forward rocking of the wagon.
The rear of the wagon scooted a little to the side and for a moment tried to catch up with the front. With both his fists together on the wagon tongue handle, V.J. turned the front wheels and adjusted nicely. The wagon straightened just in time before coming to the wallered-out tire ruts on the edge of the brothers’ yard. It was a washed out spot on one side that everybody slowed down for as they drove in. V.J. either could not control the wagon or he aimed for the hole as he hit it square. The front wheels dipped, followed by the drop of the back wheels and the wagon was airborne briefly, slamming down with T-Bone and I still hanging on and pushing as fast as our little legs would carry us. Once on the level part of Shellhorse, we got good grip with our Keds and the speed increased to the point of reaching maximum velocity just as we got to the edge of the hill. Our timing was good because we both gave our parting super shove in sync and with such force that we both stumbled and fell as we launched our bodies horizontal in the act.
V.J screamed. He began to lose control immediately. Bouncing a little sideways, he over-corrected and was headed for the ditch. I looked up from my position on the ground to take in the visual that happened in the next few seconds that I, or T-Bone I suspect, will never forget.
V.J. tried to bring the wagon back into control but there was no way. His right side wheels slipped in the ditch and I heard him scream again just before he slammed into the end of Mr. Woodruff’s culvert hard enough to bust out a piece of concrete. The collision put a big dent in the front of the wagon and the wagon tongue/steering wheel bent funny after it nearly impaled and then flipped V.J. And he took another pretty good lick as he flew out, skidded a ways on his hands and head and wound up rolling to a stop in the middle of old lady Johnson’s petunia patch. One of his shoes flew a good ten feet farther.
Old widow Johnson had to have been in her eighties then but people who had known her for years claimed she was as spry and mean an old hen as she ever was. She didn’t put up with foolishness from anybody, especially neighborhood toeheads who had no respect for her flower garden. She came near swallowing her dip as she arose from her rocker on her front porch.
“Well I’ll swanee,” she hollered. “You kids ain’t got a lick of sense in the bunch of you! Get out of my flowers, boy!” and she fairly jumped off her porch and was whacking him with her walking stick as she continued yelling at him. “I didn’t sweat and (whack!) dig to plant ‘em (whack!) just to have you (whack!) waller all over ‘em!”
Mrs. Johnson’s piercing voice cut through the neighborhood, and one at a time heads looked out of windows and some folk came out front to see what the ruckus was all about. V.J., poor V.J., must have landed harder on his bean than we thought because he was hobbling away fast, but the wrong way. I hollered at him and he sort of got his senses back, luckily before he walked into the zooming traffic of Lancaster Road. He did a hobble step pivot on a stiff leg and was headed right. He was sniffling and his head was bleeding, as was his hand he was holding against his chest, but all-in-all he was limping along at a pretty good clip, bumping up and down with each step and favoring his right side. On his shoeless left foot a dirty white sock was pulled off the ankle and bent under his foot and dragging.
T-Bone got the wagon, and I threw in the broken off front wheel, and he pulled it up the hill. Jimmy stuck the piece of concrete back, as if Mrs. Johnson would keep her mouth shut to Mr. Woodruff about it. Ronny went into Mrs. Johnson’s yard to get V.J.’s shoe so he caught a double barrel shot of her wrath at close range, but he was quick and did stay out of stick-swinging reach. Jimmy was running ahead with his arms held out like a receiver and Ronny saw he was open so he let the shoe fly in a wobbly spiral. Jimmy caught it in stride and passed us all and was the first one back to Mrs. Cullum’s pecan tree. The rest of us joined him, with V.J., the wounded one, hobbling in stiff legged and last. He looked plumb pulverized and pitiful, but as he caught up with us he started to laugh between the sniffles. The rest of us joined in. We would face the consequences later when we had to. For the moment we were on top of that hill and we laughed till we hurt and we were alive and loving it. V.J. made his bones that day.
My other strong memory of V.J. also involves him getting the worst of it, this time from his dad. There were a few times I was in V.J.’s house when his old man was there. He was always drinking Kentucky Times whiskey and every time I saw him, he was already there, drunk as a souse. I knew the speech, and the bloodshot eyes, and the smell all too well from my own dad, and I didn’t like to be around it at home or anywhere else. We usually played outside. The neighborhood kids didn’t play much at V.J.’s house or at my house for the same drunken reasons. I’m sure I was at his house more than the other kids because I understood his situation, like he understood mine.
V.J.’s daddy did mostly labor jobs on construction sites when he could get the work. He also did odd cleanup jobs in the neighborhood. Everybody knew to talk to his wife the night before if there was a job because she would keep him sober that morning to go to work. And he worked fine as long as he was sober. The family owned no car so he either rode the bus to construction jobs or got a coworker to pick him up. He never worked regular.
In a way I hated that old man, and in another way I felt sorry for him and in still another way, I admired him. I hated him I think because, like my dad, when he got drunk he was mean as a stepped-on water moccasin, and he took out his anger on those close to him. I felt sorry for him because he had the saddest face on a man I have ever seen. His mouth was downturned on the ends like an Emmet Kelly clown face, but there was nothing made up about it. His eyes were blank, distant and empty when he was drunk and quiet. When he was drunk, loud, and mean, his eyes were cutting and vicious looking, like Death’s head as I imagined. V.J. had told us about his dad’s experience in the Phillipines, as he had heard it from one of his dad’s Eighth Army buddies who had visited once. One time I saw the father’s scar V.J. had told me about. It was an indentation on his left side that stuck in about a half inch and wrapped halfway around his side below his ribs. V.J. told me it was where a Japanese soldier’s bayonet had pierced him and then ripped out his side as V.J.’s dad wrestled it away and then killed the soldier by pounding his head to mush with the rifle butt. He was not a man to be trifled with, and I was one of the few people who knew that.
Late that fall, T-Bone, V.J. and I were rolling down Shellhorse again. The brothers’ wagon had since been wrecked too often and the axles were bent, so their mom turned it into a planter she kept under their front room window. Not to be sidelined for long, the three of us came up with a makeshift hill racer. It was just an oblong wooden crate we had attached with casters we had found in T-Bone’s garage. Although we did the best we could, the vehicle looked kind of funny because there were two sizes of wheels. We tried it both ways and learned it rolled better with the small wheels in the back, making it less likely to flip forward. We couldn’t guide the thing; we just sort of aimed it before we shoved off the hill. There was just enough room for two to ride. The small wheels dragged on some of the bigger rocks, preventing us from getting up much speed. We did ride on the opposite side of the road from Mrs. Johnson’s, per V.J.’s request. Once I was pushing the two of them and at the last second pushed the back end a little sideways so it would head for the old lady’s yard, but my scheme didn’t work. T-Bone and V.J. both stirred up a dust cloud as they bailed out into the gravel before they would risk the wrath of Mrs. Johnson again.
V.J. and I took our turn as pilot and co-pilot. T-Bone had just given us a good send-off. I was in the back and couldn’t see much. V.J. was waving and shouting, “Hey, Daddy, watch us. Here we come.” I looked around V.J. as we bounced down the hill and saw that his dad had just turned up Shellhorse and was walking toward their house with a sack of groceries. He waved back. We came to a stop about twenty feet from him.
“You boys be careful with that thing, you hear?” he said as he approached us.
“Yessir,” V.J. said. “Look at our two-man racecar. We made it ourselves.”
V.J. and I got out so he could get a good look. He tilted it on its side and said, “Oh yeah. She’s a good ‘un, all right. No brakes and no steering wheel, but you got you a nice rope handle to pull it up the hill with.” He laughed a little. “Yeah. She’s a dandy. You boys just be careful, and you best not let your Mama see you.”
Most of the two hours of daylight left we spent riding that hill, until V.J. found a horned toad that caught our interest. In turn we petted it and studied it and V.J poked a little finger in its mouth just to show us its pink insides. We all liked horned toads but V.J. especially loved to mess with them. T-Bone caught a grasshopper and tried to feed it to the horned toad but I guess it was not in the mood for eating with three giants around it pulling its legs and rubbing its underbelly and poking at its thorny head.
When we heard his parents going at it, V.J. kneeled down and put the horned toad back in the grass. “You go on little guy. I’ll play with you again some day.” V.J. stood and said to us, “I gotta go. He’s drunk by now and something set him off and he may be getting rough.”
“Why?” I asked. “Why go now? Do what I do and wait till it blows over and he goes to sleep and things quiet down.”
“No,” V.J. said. “I can’t,” and T-Bone and I watched as he opened his screen door and entered just as there was a loud crash of something breaking inside.
T-Bone and I started back to our homes on Arden Road, but we took our time. The yelling lowered to just the man talking loud, but we could still hear everything being said. Then the fight picked up again. This time it sounded like something heavy was slammed against the wall and it seemed the whole house shook. Then we heard V.J.’s voice, “Don’t, Daddy, don’t. Leave her alone!”
The man yelled, “Why you little . . .” and then there was a cracking sound, and the sound of jostling and things being turned over and the mother’s voice begging the man to stop, “Before you kill him.”
The mother pushed the screen door open with one hand and was pulling her son out of the house with the other. The drunken man came through the door a second later and threw a couch pillow at them, but missed. “Go ahead and go and sleep outside for all I care. Just get the hell out!”
We came up to them and the mother seemed glad to see someone. “Neil, is your mother home? Do you think we could come over? My boy here is gonna need some tending to.”
I told her yes and we all went to my house where we got in the light and my mother did what she could for the two of them. V.J. was the worse off. He had a black eye and his nose was bleeding and looked kind of bent. There were scratches around one of his wrists, but what amazed me was the mark I saw next. As I stood behind him, I saw something through his thin tee shirt that was dark and big. I pointed it out to my mother. She had him raise his shirt to reveal the second visual image of V.J. I’ll never lose. It was the perfect outline of a red handprint. Later it became a bruise-blackened handprint.
V.J.’s mom kept saying she was sorry for putting her problems on us and my mother told her it was no bother. She told my mother that her husband was not usually that way, but he was not feeling well lately and that made him mean. Mother nodded and said, “Yes honey, I know.” They stayed about an hour. I walked back with them and watched as the mother picked up her couch pillow in the yard and they entered the dark, quiet house.
A month later on a Saturday morning early, I ran to V.J.’s house because I had caught a fat horned toad and I wanted to show him. On his front porch I saw through the front window the house was empty. There was a hand-drawn “For Rent” sign attached to the screen door with bobby pins.
As I sat there on his steps, I felt the movement of the horned toad in my shirt pocket. I pulled it out and poked my little finger in its mouth to see its pink insides. Then I put my little thorny-head buddy between my feet and watched as it hesitated in its sudden freedom.
“Go on little guy,” I said. “Lay flat and scoot. I’ll play with you again some time.” I poked it a little and it ran into the high grass.
On my way home, I moved slower. I wondered what happened to V.J. and his family. I think about it still, now and then. The mother probably stayed with her husband; she had few choices. V.J. stayed around at least another five or six years, for his mother’s sake, if not for his own protection. He would have gotten as big as the father and maybe held his own in future go-rounds. The father, I suspect, continued to see an eyeless, misshapen Japanese face every time he drew back for another swing at his Victory over Japan. He is likely dead by now. My guess is V.J. and his mother are glad he is finally able to rest.
A walk to the river became a New Year’s Day tradition when I had my golden retriever and lived in Fieldstone Farms in the late 1990s. I continued the tradition with my first cocker spaniel. A branch of the Harpeth River snaked across the northern edge of the street next to mine, and there are walking trails in Fieldstone, so I’d walk the dog first on the trails and then through an open field of dead, brown grass and dried stalks of weeds to the tree-lined rocky river. We’d stand on the hard-mud bank and watch the trickling flow.
Why a walk to the river? I suppose because a river is a good symbol for life—for the journey we take over the years from one point to a far point in the future, from beginning to destination. A river is good inspiration and shows us how to journey on.
The river has movement. Water keeps flowing onward. No matter what, it keeps going. It doesn’t stop—doesn’t get distracted, doesn’t get down and quit, doesn’t lose its focus and purpose. I wish people were made like that. I’d stand on the path at the edge of Lynnwood Branch and watch the water rush westward, and I’d get caught up in the thought that I should keep moving forward, too, and hopefully, with the same momentum, the same compulsion to “get there,” wherever “there” is.
The river finds a way. Slabs of rock sit beneath the flow, and big rocks and boulders stand in the way of the water, but the river peels off around or over the obstacles, driven to move on. The river keeps going around fallen trees and strainers. The river doesn’t stop at the obstacles and give up. I wish people could do that. People tend to look outside themselves, at others, at a higher being for rescue from obstacles, and not to the power within, like the river does. The river has its own energy and draws from it to get around. We have our own power source, too, without and within at the same time. At the river’s edge, I’d stare at frothy-white riffles pouring around rocks and look for meaning for me.
The river has highs and lows. Just like people do, like I do. Sometimes the river is full, deep, and faster moving, and other times it is low and trickling. Either way, it still has a push to get to its destination, to complete its purpose, to be and do. I need the river’s inspiration.
I live in a section of my new neighborhood that is in a U-shape, bordered by Aenon Creek. So today, January 1, I will continue the tradition of going to the river seeking an example for the new year. Even though upon awakening it was one degree outside, with a chill factor of a negative five, I will dare to get out of my Cuddl Duds pajamas, wrap up, and walk to the river with my new cocker spaniel. I need to see the creek moving on and finding its way, even though today it might be at a low.
Happy new year to all, and may you find hope and example at the river.
Twenty Seventeen. You brutal taker. You evil manipulator. You kicked, pushed, and machete-hacked at me. You tried to knock me down and shut me up.
I stood up for Christian values, and you sent a Christian bully attack. I lost maybe a hundred friends because of it. I can’t go home, I couldn’t go to my class reunion, I lost my past. But I am strong, and I know when I am right, and so I keep standing. It’s the way I’m made. Nevertheless, it hurt.
You took Neil. And one by one you gave my friends challenges to deal with.
You broke me, Twenty Seventeen. You broke me.
Instead of sliding away, though, I chose to push back. I made decisions that have changed my life. Good things began to happen. Appropriately, my essay “Pushing Up the Sun” was published in A Second Blooming, and I did a book signing at Barnes and Noble in May with editor Susan Cushman and author River Jordan.
“God uses broken things. Clouds break to give rain, and seeds break to produce new plants that make fruit or flowers. The seed comes from a plant that thrived in a season now gone. It lies dormant, tender parts packed inside a hard shell, all folded up. It needs water to soften it, needs warmth and sunshine, needs time. For the seed to achieve its ultimate purpose and become what it was destined to be, it has to come undone. The shell breaks, and the insides come out, and unfoldment occurs.” . . .
“By nature and need, I pushed the walls until they cracked and broke and fell into destruction, and parts of me began to come out into the new. Unfoldment was what I experienced. Growth didn’t happen in a fast burst of activity. It was a process, and it was ongoing as I walked further into the light to see the person I was becoming.” . . .
“Like the seed parts, I was standing up, reaching out, and growing stronger. And like the plant, I was establishing a leaf system to absorb power and nutrients from the sun and strong roots to draw water from the source and hold me firmly through the winds.” . . .
“I’m not going to sit around in the darkness after sunset, not going to linger in what was. I am going to follow the beam of light home over the smashing water. I am standing under the sun and pushing it up.”
Because of that, I still have me. I have me!
Many people can’t legitimately say that now. But as far as growing-up principles, ground-in values, and a Christian worldview, I think I am still the person I was before Twenty Seventeen. I didn’t let a political representation or party skew my views, alter my right and wrong, and change my spiritual perspective. My beliefs now and all through 2017 are the same as what they were in 2007 and 1997 and 1987 and so on. If anything, I am more open and more accepting and more in search of enlightenment, which is the way it should be. I should still be growing and seeing with more light and love the people and issues of my world. I should be calling out the hard things as right or wrong, good or bad, I should be seeking truth, I should be reflecting my inner light and the person I am instead of falling in line with the masses and excusing the wrongs in the world. It is what I was called to do.
Immanuel Kant said, “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity,” and that immaturity comes from the lack of courage to use his own reason, intellect, and wisdom without the guidance of another, such as church and government leaders. I so much desire to use my own mind and voice and not be one in the “great unthinking masses.”
I am more perplexed, impatient, and angered than ever at those who have acquiesced, condoned, and normalized wrong beliefs and behaviors—in other words, given up their spiritual values. I don’t understand those who follow blindly; those who pick up any extreme statement or belief because it falls in with what they want to believe, even if that belief is not consistent with what they proclaim; those who try to make a visibly and obviously bad political representation into something good. I still need to work hard at understanding and loving those who do this, those who are unable to discern right from wrong and who readily reach out and reel in the bad words, actions, and behaviors, those who can’t speak in their own voices and are part of the unthinking masses. I admit I have not been good at understanding and accepting those people. I am a failure at it. I don’t cut people much slack. You either are or aren’t a Christian. And if you are, you should act like it. You can believe the Bible all day long, you can be a “prayer warrior,” you can sit on a pew every Sunday, and that’s all good, but if you proclaim it, then your beliefs and behavior should reflect it. Twenty Seventeen took that away from many and rendered them incapable of seeing it.
On Christmas Eve at my son’s in Asheville, I took my dog for a walk and saw an image of light that stays with me:
At the top of Maney and Fenner I
Stand at eye level with mountain peaks off in the distance,
Pisgah, Cold Mountain.
Above blue tops the sun
An aberrant glow ball behind a film of clouds,
It’s not a star that shines this eve
But a sun, with filtered light, giving
Hope that the world will clear and the
Sun will shine true and new on all.
Now, on this last day of the year, I’m ready to step into the next the happiest I think I’ve ever been in my life. So thank you, Twenty Seventeen, for not only were you a brutal taker, but a blessed giver. You gave me some goodness and some light, and you gave me me. And I want more of it all in the next to come.
I want enlightenment. I want to keep standing up for good, truth, and the right values. I am committed to keep calling wrongs out. Maybe I can be softer about it. I don’t know how to be hard and soft at the same time in a hard world.
Maybe I can find a velvet hammer to use in my efforts.
AUGUST 1944 – 73 YEARS AGO – ANNE FRANK WAS FOUND BY NAZIS IN SECRET HIDING PLACE IN AMSTERDAM, SENT TO A DEATH CAMP
“Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart.” ~ Anne Frank
The Diary of Anne Frank. I read it every year as a teen. I was a post-war child, born of a father who fought against the atrocities of Adolph Hitler in Europe, ended up at the base of Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest, and spent a year in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, two hours from Hitler’s mountaintop retreat in the Bavarian Alps.
I was fascinated by the genre, by the first-person voice of a girl my age recording real-life experiences. As a college student, I went to Amsterdam and took a tour of Anne Frank’s house with its secret annex and hidden staircase. I remember the swinging bookcase and the stairs up to the secret room—narrow, steep, and dark. I remember walking around in the large room that hid Anne and her family. It was filled with windows letting in sunlight when I was there. It was hard to picture that once, the windows were blacked out for secrecy and protection. I stood at one window and looked out at the city teeming with people and life. The most meaningful image was that of a church steeple.
If Anne could’ve looked out that window, she would’ve seen hope and help.
The steeple image has stuck in my mind for almost five decades. I’m now trying to make meaning of it.
It’s the Westerkerk, the West Church. Rembrandt was buried there in 1669. It’s old. It’s a church with a steeple that towers above the city, marking its location so people can find it, pointing upward, and portraying its purpose as a place of God, of believers, of love, of hope and help.
The steeple serves as a visual testimony to all who walk in its shadow.
What happened in the shadow of the steeple seven decades ago when Anne Frank was a twelve-year-old?
There were surely good and God-loving people in the church. As they sat under their steeple, surely, they sang, prayed, took of the Body and the Blood. And then what? When they walked out the front doors, on the sidewalks by the canals, to their homes in the shadow of the steeple, did they live out the church’s mission, their mission?
When I read Anne’s diary as a young girl, my underlying thought was of the people, the good people, who let this happen to her. I mean, how could they? Why didn’t they do something? I realize some did help—provided protection and a path to fleeing the insanity that was. But many did nothing.
Were they unaware? Were they afraid? Of taking a stand? Of carrying out the church’s mission? Did they hide in the shadows?
Ultimately, young strong men—soldiers, like my dad—from other countries were called in to save them from the madness they’d allowed.
Life experience has taught me that good people are mostly silent. It’s easy, better that way, more acceptable to stay quiet in the darkness, to align with similar others, to hold inward vigils, and to excise those who stand out of the shadows.
Anne’s is a tragic story, because hope and help never came.
This is the first summer I really don’t care about growing things.
I’m tired of growing things. Tired of trying to keep the weeds out, worrying about pests and infestations, Japanese beetles, poor soil, mockingbirds and towhees that fight over the blackberries, and possums that come to watch the ripening of the muscadines. Do you know that I have old pantyhose hanging outside on the blackberry vines next to my fence? Yes. I do. To scare away the birds. I didn’t pick enough berries this summer to make a cobbler. The birds got them all. And last night when I took Heidi out before bedtime, there was the possum sitting on the second shelf of the baker’s stand on my deck, as he did last year, come July. He tried to hide his head behind the church birdhouse he was kneeling beside.
I’m tired of fighting nature. You can’t win. Things are going to grow where they are not supposed to. And things that are supposed to grow, don’t. I look at the six tomato plants I set out in April. There’s not one single yellow bloom. The pole beans are running amuck and flowered out in red and I’ve harvested one bean. I’m too old for this. And too tired.
I clear the weeds out of the beds, and they’re back in a week. I can’t get a grip on this. And the Bermuda grass—that awful spreading stuff—will eventually cover the whole house. I just know it. I can’t tame my yard. I just can’t. Not anymore.
This is the first summer that in June, I’m ready for winter. I look out at my yard and think only of preparing it for cold. Defining the flowerbeds in a downtime when things don’t grow and take over. Fresh mulch to sit under snow. No vegetables to wrinkle up and host bugs and mold and leaf rot.
I’m ready to ditch it all.
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.