Requiem for Ronnie
[I thought I had already published this on The Billy Goat Blog in the past, but realize I haven't. So here it is...]
They lived down the road from us. Ron, his two brothers and three sisters and I with my brother and two sisters would get together and play; play in the woods by their house; play back by the river that was on our farm. There were the times of hanging May Baskets on one another’s door in celebration of the coming of that month when winter’s blast was finally a memory.There were the games played and little plays acted out. There was the time one of Ron’s sisters had a serious illness, I believe it was Rheumatic Fever, and she had to stay in bed along time, and we were finally able to briefly visit her and give her a little get well gift. There were the “Daniel Boone” and “Lewis and Clark” expeditions back along the river and in the woods. Yes, the romps and play of childhood, a happy and an innocent time of life in that decade of the 1950’s.
On Sunday, our church had an early service. Their church’s service was a later service. Often as we came home from our church service, we would pass Ron and his family as they were going to their church’s service. That passing of one another became a rite in itself: a familiar cycle and pattern of our lives from week to week giving a sense of comfort and stability.
For a few years Ron's father worked the farm right across the road from ours. When they were working there, my brother and I would sometimes go over to visit and lend a hand if needed. Sometimes my dad would do custom farm work for his dad; opening a field of corn, combining a field of barley. So it was we grew up together, and in that small rural community, being neighbors meant you were friends.
Eventually Ron's father got out of farming, and they moved to town. A number of neighbors came together to help with the move. When they moved out of the immediate neighborhood, contact with the family was diminished.
In our small rural school you pretty well knew who everybody was. So what words do you use to describe the relationships you have with people in a place like that? In high school I got to know Marilyn. She was older, and in my brother’s class. We worked on the high school newspaper, we were casual friends, and her younger sister was the first of several girls that would break my heart. She was intelligent, capable of seeing through my naïve intellectual presumptions, and at times telling me so. Marilyn had a reddish tint to her hair and a hint of freckles that gave her a more subtle kind of attractiveness. Those features apparently were inherited from her Irish mother. While in high school, Marilyn’s mother died from cancer. She shouldered responsibility for her father and two younger sisters.
A few times at the high school dances, she would ask me to ask her to dance. I can still see in my mind’s picture, the look in her eyes, the turmoil of fear, pain, and frustration; the fear of being “left out”; or of being left behind in life. Most of the guys were probably intimidated by her intelligence. Only a few would ever dance with her. It did not bother me to oblige her request at those times. I struggled with my own feelings of not quite “fitting in”. It was as if in those times together on the dance floor, for a few brief moments we affirmed one another’s existence and worth.
Ron and Marilyn were in my older brother's class. Ron was not an outstanding academic student, though he was intelligent enough, and did graduate from high school. On the other hand, Marilyn was the class' s valedictorian. Somewhere along the line they began to date. At first glance, it was kind of an odd match. Ron came across as a simple kind of guy, but Marilyn saw some of those good things under that quiet exterior that others might tend to overlook. I don’t know that Ron ever dated any other girl before he dated Marilyn, or that she ever dated any other guy before Ron. In either case they had each other and were no longer “alone”.
The war. It was increasingly in the news. It increasingly became a part of our conversation. More and more it came to loom in the back of our minds; a dark cloud off on the horizon that keep drawing nearer and dominating the horizon of our thoughts; that war going on in a small Southeast Asian nation called Vietnam. We didn't understand it. Why didn't we just go in and clean up on those guys and get it over with? We thought of it in terms of the conventional kind of war fought by our fathers’ generation only a very short time before. We thought we were right being there, but people were getting killed over there, and there were anti war protests. How could this be? It was very bewildering.
There was in the school an older teacher whose son was in college. His son visited the school one day. He wore insignia clearly indicating he was against the war. There was some uproar by some of the students against his wearing that insignia in the school. Some of us found ourselves torn between our patriotism and our firm commitment to free speech issues. The stable, comforting world we had known was starting to un-ravel.
The first local Vietnam fatality occurred; a guy recently graduated from the high school and married to a girl in my class who was still in school. Our whole class went to the funeral, and afterwards to the cemetery for the burial. It was a clear cool day; the sun shining, the sky blue with a few white clouds here and there, the young widow weeping.
Guys were continuing to be drafted right and left. If you didn't get a college deferment or some other deferment, you were in. A lot of guys ended up going in. I had a deferment for college. There I would sign up for the required ROTC classes.
Ron was drafted into the Marine Corps. I think it was after boot camp he and Marilyn were married. One night, shortly after they were married, a few of the family and friends got together and we shivareed them. Ron had to haul Marilyn in a wheelbarrow the short distance down to the main four corners of town. Marilyn had to haul him back in the same. The rest of us accompanied them, beating on pots, pans, old farm tools, and whatever, making all sorts of noise and racket.
That fall I left for college. Back home I had been a relatively larger fish in a very small pond. In going to a major state university campus, I barely registered at the plankton level. It was a strange new world to me. The culture shock was at times almost overwhelming. It is only in looking back that I see how provincial my view of the world had been up to that point. Eventually I settled in best I could, and managed to get passing grades in my courses.
I didn't hear much news from back home. I knew Ron was in 'Nam. Then in May 1968, the news came. Ron had been killed: a casualty of "hostile small arms fire". Being away at college, I wasn't there for the funeral. It seemed un-real to me. It didn't sink in as to what it really meant. I was becoming caught up in my own bewildering emotional turmoil of what it meant to grow up and become an adult. With all that focus in my mind, what happened to Ron seemed as far away as Vietnam or the moon.
In my sophomore year of school, I was finally able to come to grips with much of the emotional turmoil of the year before. The summer between my sophomore and junior years, I was back home, working at the local factory. It was then that Marilyn came back into my life.
Why did she come to see me? To this day I’m not entirely sure. Marilyn came by the shop when I had my lunch breaks. She looked terrible, real thin, having lost weight, grief and pain written all over her face. She wanted to talk. I was very new in my faith. I tried to help best I could, but felt totally inadequate. I didn't know really how to help her, but in looking back, I wonder if she was really just looking for someone to listen. Could it be that in the pain of her face and words, there was once again that fear of being alone?
She told about going to church, and praying Ron would safely return. But then he was dead. Her unspoken question being, “Where was God in all of that?” Even now, so many years latter, I am not entirely sure how I would answer such a question. In the space of a few years she had lost two very close people in her life, her mother and her husband. I could only in a very inept way tell her what God had done for me. From her verbal and facial response, I realized I was far from making any apparent connection to where she was in her grief and pain.
After a few of those lunch time visits, she stopped coming. I never saw her again. I heard a few years latter she had re-married and had several children. Apparently, somehow, she had been able to go on with life. Later, her father passed away. One time, when visiting, I saw her youngest sister singing in the choir at a local church. I didn’t have a chance to talk to her. She had been youngest of the three sisters, and I’d never really got to know her. That was the last time I saw any one from Marilyn’s family. From time to time through the years, I wondered how Marilyn was doing: if she had come to knew some measure of happiness and joy in life.
Early my junior year the draft was being changed to a lottery system. If your birthday was drawn with the short number you could kiss your college days goodbye, and plan on forwarding your mail to Vietnam. On our dorm floor we all put a bit of money in the kitty. The guy ending up with the lowest number would take it all.
I don’t remember his name. He was one of the boys from Flint. A group of those Flint boys had kind of ended up living in the same dorm floor. This guy had just gone through a hassle with his local draft board regarding his student deferment. He had just had that deferment restored. We gathered together to watch the drawing as it was broadcast on TV. When that first lottery drawing was over, he had the lowest number of any of us. He got the kitty. I can still picture his dropping shoulders, the dejected look of dismay on his face. My own number was one of the highest of those on the floor. He’d be going. I’d be staying. What could I say to him?
In the spring of my junior year at college, the Kent State shootings happened. Since I was attending a major state university, it was no surprise when the campus erupted with anti-war demonstrations. When passing by one rally, I saw the demonstrators handing out posters with the names of the men from Michigan killed in Vietnam. I looked for Ronnie's name. I had the idea in my head that if l saw anyone with it, I was going to take it away from them even if it met a fight. After all, I was the one who had known Ronnie, and in my mind there was something profane and obscene about his name being used in such a manner by a total stranger. I never did see the placard with his name.
I sat with one of my friends on a low hill along the main street running along side of the campus. The marchers went by, led by the acting University President who has just gave a speech declaring his opposition to the War. They marched by carrying their banners and signs. How many of them I know not, but clearly a number in the thousands. It was the high point of the protest movement, the apex of the radicalism of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, the “Age of Aquarius” with its false hopes and empty dreams.
I graduated from college, and the years began to roll by. When down home, from time to time I'd visit the local cemetery. There were the gravestones standing silently in rows arranged amidst the neatly cut grass; monuments to the remnants of the memory of lives lived; people who had lived and breathed, worked, loved, and at the end of their days, had been laid beneath the sod to await the Great Day of all days. People I use to know were there, older people including my grandma, people who had been alive and I had known when growing up as a child. And back in the center of the new section was Ron's grave, marked by the bronze plaque.
One time I was there for a Memorial Day ceremony. There were the usual appropriate comments and rituals; the sober faces of those there to remember fallen loved ones. There was the familiar sound of the bugle playing the familiar notes making up the Taps. Ron’s sister was there... I think she was crying, but couldn't tell for sure... If she was not crying, she sure looked like she wanted to. It was in those years I started to hate that war, that miserable war. Nixon had resigned... Saigon fell...What was it all for?
I have visited the Gettysburg Battlefield, and stood at the place of Picket's Charge. I have stood on the battlefield at Antietam where blood had flowed like a river. I have visited the Wilderness Battlefield in Virginia, and could only begin to imagine the horror that had raged among that now quiet and peaceful wooded land. Whatever else war is or is not, it is indeed "hell".
The years continued to roll on. In the last part of 1990 Iraq invaded Kuwait. It was said that Hussein had gas and a whole bunch of nasty things. As the year turned to 1991, it became clear there was probably going to be some kind of military action. As civilians, we had no idea what lay ahead. I had visions of body bags all over the place, and I very much feared it would be another Vietnam all over again...
Wednesday, January 16, 1991, the Gulf War started. For some reason I started to think about Ronnie... The memory pictures of those long ago years played across the screen of my mind. I found myself weeping, weeping for Ronnie and all the guys who died and were going to die. ...I hated war... There have been and will be wars that need to be fought, but nevertheless, to this day I hate war.
The images of those we use to know in our younger years are frozen in time. The picture of Marilyn and Ron carried in my mind is the young Marilyn and Ron I knew back in high school. If I passed Marilyn on the street, I probably would not recognize her, or she me. Time takes it’s toll on all of us. Also, a lifetime separates those who once knew one another. How does she remember those days so long ago in light of all she has experienced since? How were the passing years molded in light of the fire she went through back then? That is another story not given to me to write. It may be a story never told. My hope and prayer is that the final chapter of that un-known story will somehow read, “She lived happily ever after…”
I worked on family genealogy for some years. I knew one of our distant cousins had married Ron’s youngest brother. The day came when I received the information on that family. There in the list of the family’s children was the name “Ronald” with the notation he had been named after his Uncle who had been killed in Vietnam. Ron was not forgotten.
Cruising the Internet, I came across the “Virtual Vietnam Memorial”. I did a search and found Ron’s listing. There was a place where those who had known him could leave a note. A Marine comrade had left one note, Dan had left another note: Dan, another neighbor kid who had lived around the corner from Ron and his family and remembered. I added my own note. Ron was not forgotten.
Recently when down home, I visited the local library. A lady with a teenage boy came in. They wanted to use the scanner, and my sister, who is the librarian, asked me to show them how to use it. As we talked, I thought this woman looked vaguely familiar. I asked and she told me her name. She was Ron’s youngest sister, and the young man was the younger of her two sons. I had not known her very well. She had been so much younger then the rest of us. She was scanning pictures of the family to use in making a calendar. I looked at the familiar faces. I thought of this story sitting in my notebook back home. I didn’t say anything to her about it. It just wasn’t the place or time to… the place or time to let her know… to let her know Ron was not forgotten.
Someday I'll go to the Washington, DC and visit "the wall"... I'll look up his name and see it engraved there along with so many others, others I never knew... But I did know Ronnie... I know when I see it; I'll probably cry my fool head off...
(Postscript to a Requiem)
(If I Could Dance With You Once Again)
(Written by J. William Newcomer, Copyright March 2001, J. William Newcomer, all rights reserved. )