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.
My friend Neil O. Jones lost his long battle with lung cancer the last day of January 2017. The Roundtable Writers Group, of which he was a member, spoke at his funeral service on his behalf, doing readings by his favorite authors, as well as original works.
I am honored to have written and read a poem with my friend Susie Dunham. I’m sharing it below in honor of Neil, a fine man who had friends all over the country who came to pay respects. He was blessed to have his writer friends, his “brothers” from the 173rd Airborne Brigade, fellow college professors, the Muletown Hog Chapter of motorcycle friends (a 20-bike tribute! Thanks to Jerry Knox who organized this!), Gerald (T-Bone, childhood friend from Dallas), local friends, children, and grandchildren to gather to celebrate his life.
January 31, 2017
We Lost a Friend
Susie Dunham and Kathy Rhodes
We lost a friend today.
We’ve lost other friends and family to cancer,
but we’ve never lived it so close.
Close enough to see week to week
month to month
year to year.
We saw how it took pieces of you.
Teasing and testing you to
fight harder than you did in the
jungles of Vietnam, to
fight harder to stay alive.
Fifty years ago in that January,
your worst battle of that war,
Operation Junction City,
you fought to keep your brothers safe.
Now in this January,
your worst fight of this war,
you battled with bravery and honor
to stay with the people who
will miss you
that the battle is lost.
This ain’t Nam.
From Neil’s book Brothers, All
“It was then I knew,” you said. “Nothing would ever change. I would get out of this life whatever I could and think of Vietnam only when it attacked me [whenever] it … chose. It was the ghosts of my brothers … It was Agent Orange. There was no escape,” you said. “The mark of the Beast would keep coming back.”
“It is the cancer coming back and building in me that I can’t get away from,” you said.
“Now there is a new way to fight it—a new drug … approved … twenty days before my cancer in progression receives it.
Another battle ahead.
Five decades of war, college, love, children, grandchildren, work, teaching American literature in college, now this—more war,” you said. “I am trying desperately to save myself from the enemy, firing with every weapon I’ve got. I face the deep, unfathomable abysm.
And so it begins.”
And so it ends.
We lost a friend today.
You fought the war back then,
and now near’ four years of battles,
one after the other:
surgeries, chemo rounds, radiation—
new wonder drug!
you left this world
fifty years after you left that old war.
You got out of life what you could.
“Half scholar, half rube,” you said.
Renaissance man, country boy.
You taught the classes.
You rode the mules.
You rode the scoot.
You told the stories.
You wrote the book.
You fought the battles. You did your part.
It’s that, sometimes, in life, what’s supposed to save you does not.
The beast, it turns on you.
Many battles won, but the war rages on.
Maybe you, first in that new cancer treatment,
can help those who come behind.
For in life, what matters most is doing for others, all brothers, and
You won before you lost.
You won before you lost.
It works well. Fire and writers. Bonfires and readings.
Friday night, we — Currie, Chance, Susie, Colleen, Neil, and I — met in Neil’s pasture around a fire pit he carved out in July. We roasted hot dogs and ate them with potato salad, slaw, and beans. Then Neil made each one of us a s’more.
It was dark. Cold. We heard an owl, we heard coyotes, close, screaming. “That means there was a kill,” I said. Colleen brought her dog, Jazz, and for five hours, we took turns throwing sticks and branches for Jazz to retrieve.
We took turns adding logs to the fire — even Jazz threw a few in, we roasted marshmallows, we warmed our hands, we drew our circle in tighter. We even sang “Happy Birthday” to Chance and ate cupcakes and listened to musical cards. Mine had the song “Hot Diggity Dog.”
Then we pulled out our stories. And we took turns. We read by firelight and flashlight. We talked about storylines and word choices and novel first chapters and memoir segments.
It was quiet in the country, but for our voices and the words we’d put together, but for our laughter and sharing.
Susie taking a picture
Dark, in the country, under a half moon was a perfect setting for Chance’s description of death — as one meets darkness and sees something like a thousand fireflies in a field before him, and each glow is a memory.
This night will be one of those glows.