By Kim Heikkila
I've known a few vets but not well. However, since my junior year in high school, I have been very interested in the war and its effects. I took an honors seminar on the topic in college, have read books about it, and, of course, seen all the fairly recent related movies. So, my contact with the actual event and its participants is pretty indirect.
A year and a half ago, however, I went to Washington, D.C. We saw the Memorial, but also went to Arlington National Cemetery. It was a really gray, rainy day; but the few of us on the bus tour stood outside at the grave of Audie Murphy, near the "Changing of the Guard."
While we waited for the bus to pick us up, a gentleman nearby struck up a conversation. Initially we talked about why they threw coins on Audie's grave, and he explained that it was a way of speeding the soul's trip to heaven -- or at least that's why they did it when he was in the Navy in Viet Nam.
We chatted a bit more, then were just kind of hanging out in the rain waiting for the bus. Soon after, we heard the sound of a funeral procession coming down a nearby street. The VN vet ran towards it, and I decided to follow him, to get a better look.
As we approached the procession, he expressed how meaningful it was to see a funeral at Arlington, how similar it was to Kennedy's, and referenced his experience in Viet Nam again. He was very friendly and open and helpful, explaining various nuances.
The procession passed, we chatted a bit more, then got on the bus. My friend and I stayed on while he and his friend got off at the next stop.
I thought about him for a long time afterwards. He was so pleasant and seemed like he'd have been willing to answer the many questions I later realized I had about being in VN. I was very sorry to have let the opportunity pass, knowing I'd never see him again.
This encounter did affect me for a long time. Still does, in fact. I wrote a "letter" to this vet, knowing I'd never get it to him, just as a way to express the many thanks I wished I had said at the time. Who knows...maybe he accesses this Home Page.
We met on a gray, rainy, November day in Arlington National Cemetery at the grave of Audie Murphy, the famous Texas war hero and film star.
After the departure of the couple who explained to me that they were from Waco, Texas, and had always wanted to see the grave of their home-state hero and did I have a penny, you dug a penny out of your pocket and placed it on the cold, wet headstone. Then you stepped back, close to where I stood, and gazed across the rows of neatly aligned grave markers. Innumerable.
I glanced at you from underneath my umbrella. You wore straight-leg jeans with exposed gold-orange stitching, big white no-name tennis shoes, a light-brown leather jacket, and a blue foam baseball cap. You are tall, with dark hair, and a long face. And kind eyes.
Feeling bolder than usual, I asked you, "Why pennies?"
"I don't know," you answered in a deep drawl.
Then, "When I was in the Navy in VietNam, we'd throw pennies overboard to wish the dead a speedy trip to heaven."
The rain fell, filling my shoes with sucking wetness. We stood for a minute more considering such speedy trips and how pennies made them speedier. We stepped off the cement platform next to Audie's grave, built to accommodate the thousands of annual visitors, and headed in different directions to wait for the tour bus to pick us up and take us to the next stop.
You wandered carefully among the rows of white, pausing to consider each unknown name and life before you. I thlopped over to the sidewalk where my friend stood sullenly, cursing the weather and her saturated shoes, as she stared down the road, waiting for the bus.
The bus didn't come.
Then, through the silvery rain and hushed conversations of respectful visitors, came the timeless sound of horses clomping, trumpets mutedly blowing in honor, feet solidly stamping down the path toward the resting place of the body in the wagon.
It took me a while to notice it. I had been watching you weave your way around the headstones; then you stopped and stood stiffly, staring at nothing in particular, listening to the sounds of death. Only when I followed your slow and deliberate gaze through the trees toward where the sound was rising did I realize what it was.
My sense of history and veneration heightened by the solemn changing of the guard a few minutes before, I was drawn to the procession as it wound down the street just beyond the hill near Audie's grave. My usual sense of propriety and inconspicuousness would have prevented me from chasing it down had I not seen you, in unbridled yet respectful interest, charge up and over the hill to get a better look. In that moment, I decided to follow.
I dropped my umbrella at the feet of my friend and ran across the street and up the hill, paces behind you. I reached the top and saw you ahead in the distance, along an intersecting graveyard road, long legs taking short running steps toward the entourage. Restraint battling with childish, breathless wonder, I walked-ran through the wet, soft grass, past curved rows of identical headstones, to get a better look and feel a part of something larger than myself or the moment.
As I paused to take a photo of the company of twenty-one guns, honor guard, horse-drawn carriage, riderless white horse, and military band, you were retracing your steps toward me as the soldiers curved along the road. I let you pass, then hopefully clicked the shutter of my 100-speed film through the drizzly, heavy air. When I took the camera down from my face and paused wonderingly in the space and time of ages, you said gently from behind, "You could get a better shot from over here."
Your words and voice became a part of my reverie rather than an intrusion into it. I turned and followed you around the graves of John Foster Dulles and Earl Warren, down the spongy hill, and again caught sight of the string of escorts.
The air hung with mournful regret and deference to the one who'd served his country. It seemed as though we who witnessed this ceremony were in some small way united with those who understood honor and patriotism and duty and decisions and consequences, to the exclusion of the rest of the world who engaged only in daily living. Even to the exclusion of the water-logged tourists who waited impatiently for the tour bus below.
We quietly approached the parade as it passed, and you took off your blue foam baseball hat and laid it across your heart. I quietly clicked another photo, realizing the improbability of it turning out, and in some way not caring. As the procession wound out of sight, the band playing an unfamiliar military dirge, we stood and held the moment a bit longer.
The spell was broken by the sight of our tour bus veering from its path behind the procession toward our stop. You replaced your cap, and we turned and walked together toward the bus stop. You spoke eagerly of the event we'd witnessed, noting that Kennedy was buried in the same manner -- riderless horse and all.
You seemed transported by the opportunity to witness a burial at Arlington..."Not many people get to see that, y'know. It's really something to see, especially for me because I was in Viet Nam in the Navy. That's just the way Kennedy was buried. Those picures should be kept forever..."
Your eyes danced as you spoke to me and yet to yourself. The southernness in your voice tripped over the speed of your thoughts.
We returned to our travel companions, boarded the fogged tour bus, and continued on to Arlington House. You and your friend got off, happily seeking more significance, while my friend and I stayed on, seeking only dryness.
I don't remember now anything I said to you or in response to you, except the question about pennies. What I remember is your generous sharing of yourself with a strange, wet woman who knew nothing of military tradition nor honor nor universality except what she thought she gleaned from the written word.
My memory, as it fades, confuses questions I actually asked with questions I wish I had asked or reactions I had given you in return for your honest indulgences...something as simple as "Thanks" or "What was it like...to be in VietNam?" I feel certain you'd have answered willingly, even appreciatively.
I am sorry that I left these things unspoken. I am sorry that I forfeited the chance to know something or someone who would so willingly tell me how it was, how it is. I am sorry it was so wet. But, to you, honored vet, I send my eternal and heartfelt thanks for showing me a part of you, a part of our country, and a part of myself that otherwise may have forever gone unnoticed.