Thursday, January 28, 2010

On a personal note

Today I'm saddened to learn of the passage of a person whose voice I had never heard, but whose voice has been in my head for 40 years.

Author J.D. Salinger's voice reached me in 1970. I had just left the Army a little more than a year after I had returned from Vietnam. It was in an English class that we received what I consider a "gift assignment" -- to read his short story, "For Esme -- with love and squalor."

More than any piece of work by any writer, this moving, personal and oh-so-realistic story inspired me to write and gave me permission to find and embrace my own voice.

I didn't understand why, every time I read the story, my head released a tidal wave of tears and snot and everything else that goes along with mega-sobbing -- I didn't understand, that is, until 30 years later when I was able to find the direct links to the pain of the main character, J.D. Salinger himself.

Imagine that. I had an empathic bond with a superstar, albeit reclusive, writer.

For those who wish to know a little bit about what makes me tick a little off beat today, I urge you to read this wonderful story. Again, it's a short story -- short enough that you can actually give yourself the gift of a few minutes to embrace great writing and a poignant story.

It's one of the "Nine Stories" by J.D. Salinger that's available in most any bookstore. But you can also read it and even print it out from this link:

I urge you to share with me (and others if you wish to comment on this post) the manner in which this story touches a part of you.


Anonymous said...

Nice story you got here. I'd like to read something more about this matter. Thnx for giving that info.

Don Ray said...

Thanks for the kind words. I'm not sure which part of the post you have interest in learning more.

Throughout all of the years I treasured the "Esme" story, I never connected it directly with my own life experiences (combat in Vietnam and a handful of other things).

I was one of those "quit being a crybaby, brother veterans" guys. I truly believed that the "druggies" and alcoholic Vietnam veterans were just a bunch of losers who entered the military and came out losers.

In the late 1980s I wrote a letter to the older brother of my high school and Army buddy who died in Vietnam. Looking back, I can now see all of the signs of PTSD in my letter. It would take many more years before I would discover the impact that the war and other things in my life had on me.

I'll see if I can paste it here. It looks like it worked. If you've read "Esme", you'll see a touch of it in the letter that I've had to break up into several comments (space limits).

Don Ray said...

The letter, Part 1

(PFC William H. Bric III was born on March 11, 1949. He died on August 23, 1968. This letter is to his older brother.)

September 16, 1989
Mr. Stephen C. Bric
Dear Steve:

I'm writing to you because you're the most senior member of the Bric family that I could locate without actually talking to anyone directly.

This is the letter I've been meaning to write to you and your parents for 21 years -- but couldn't. Many times I hesitated for fear of the pain it might trigger in your parents. But it was just as much for fear of my own pain that I held back.
I'm sure you've never met me. You probably knew my sister, Nancy, from school. I went by the name of Don Ripley then, but that still shouldn't ring a bell. Suffice it to say I knew of you at John Muir Junior High as Bill Bric's older brother. That made you special in my eyes.

It's a long walk from Capitol Hill to the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial -- but there was no other way for me to get there. It was February of 1988. I was in Washington D.C. to cover a congressional hearing that involved a Los Angeles news story. I stayed an extra day with a fellow journalist who lives a block away from the Library of Congress, the Supreme Court and the U.S. Capitol. I was glad he had a prior engagement the next morning. That meant I could go off on my own without having to explain. I knew I had to go to the Memorial -- but also I knew I couldn't say the words aloud. It wasn't on the Capitol Mall maps posted here and there. It was obviously too new. I knew I couldn't ask for directions or even tell a cab driver where I had to go -- I knew there was too much of something in me that was pounding to get out.

So I wrapped my wool scarf tightly around my ears, jammed my hands in my overcoat pockets and I walked.
The only person I was going there to see was Bill.

Continued in Part 2

Don Ray said...

Letter Part 2

As I walked through the snow in the direction of the Washington Monument I tried to remember as much as I could about Bill. I remembered a rainy morning, also in February, but in 1966. A girl I had been seeing called to tell me her brother Steve had died. Steve was about 13 at the time and had been confined to a wheelchair his whole life. Steve had enjoyed chasing his sister and me up and down the sidewalk in his wheelchair. He could maneuver himself so quickly. I remember feeling how he had been cheated in life. His sister said Steve didn't have a lot of friends -- not even enough for a full complement of pall bearers. She was three short and asked if I'd help out.

My mother heard my half of the conversation and waited for me to hang up before she asked me. "Why did you turn her down?" It was one of those questions that didn't require an answer. I thought about it for less than a moment and called my friend back.
"That's nice of you," she said, "but we're still two short. Do you know anyone else who will help?" The funeral was the next day. I called every close friend and then started calling kids I knew from school. Of course, Bill Bric didn't hesitate for an instant. He had never met Steve. In fact, he wasn't sure who Steve's sister was. "Sure, I'll be there," he said. "But I don't have a suit. I'll see what I can do."

The next morning Bill was there, as promised, in an over-sized Navy pee coat I believe he borrowed from your father. I learned altruism from him that rainy morning.

Bill was a quiet and gentle person. That made it all that much more surprising the following year when word buzzed around Burbank High School that someone had taken on the heretofore meanest guy at school and won -- and it was Bill Bric that did it. The guy I'd never seen angry apparently stepped forward when the self-proclaimed bad guy picked a fight with someone Bill thought was much too small. Bill wasn't a whole lot bigger, but he stepped in anyway. He taught me about sticking to one's beliefs -- even when the odds were drastically skewed in the other guy's favor.
One day Bill told me about his involvement with the Burbank Police Explorers. By now I really looked up to Bill. It didn't take any coaxing to get me to join up. We had a lot of fun directing traffic during events at the Starlight Bowl. Bill had me convinced I should be a policeman.

Continued in Part 3

Don Ray said...

Letter Part 3

When we had outgrown the Explorers program and graduated from high school I didn't see Bill for a few months. Then he resurfaced as an Army trainee. I told him I had taken the test for the Air Force and was hoping that when I enlisted I'd get a good assignment. Bill spent a good three hours explaining why I was fool to join the Air Force -- a four-year commitment, no job guarantee. He was in for only three years and there was no question that he'd wear a green beret one day. He asked if I'd go with him to his recruiter and listen to what the man had to say.

As I neared the long reflective pond that stretches its way like a blue carpet up to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, I realized that back then I was able to actually do something for Bill -- he got a three-day pass for signing me up in the Army. I remembered how he coached me in how to prepare for basic training. He said that if I took control of things during the reception period -- showed some leadership and all -- that I'd surely be appointed as a squad leader. He was right about that.
Even though Bill enlisted months before me, we were both still in training in the spring of 1968. I was at Military Police School at Fort Gordon, Georgia. Bill was in a nearby training unit -- getting closer every day to wearing that green beret.
With both of us being in training, it was difficult for us to get together. But on April 4th, the eve of my graduation from M.P. school, Bill got word to me to come and visit him at his unit. He showed me around his company area in the darkness of the evening and then we went to a movie together at one of the theaters on the base. I don't remember the movie, but I'll never forget the images that followed. Word was spreading throughout the area that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had just been killed.

I remember that a lot of guys were happy about it -- practically cheering. I also remember not knowing who Martin Luther King really was. It was just a name in the news -- a lot like Vietnam.

That was the last time I saw or spoke to Bill. The assassination of Dr. King would result in nearly everyone in my unit having their orders changed. Everyone would be shipped immediately to Ft. Dix, New Jersey for riot control training. Only a handful of us who had been arbitrarily designated as sentry dog handlers would be shipped overseas.
We were given a few weeks of leave before we were shipped to Okinawa to be assigned dogs to train. My mother tried to convince herself that we'd train in Okinawa and then be assigned somewhere safe. It did no good to spell it out for her. Mother refused to drive to the airport with us. She walked as far as the car and then turned and ran back inside, holding her hand over her mouth as if it would somehow keep her from crying.

I walked up the steps that led up to the giant, seated statue of Abraham Lincoln. I still hadn't found the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial. The Gettysburg Address is etched on one of the inside walls of the Lincoln Memorial. I had memorized it in the third grade, but it didn't mean anything to me until that cold morning. I held my hand over my mouth -- as if it would somehow keep me from crying.

Continued in Part 4

Don Ray said...

Letter Part 4

We landed at Kadena Air Force Base. While were waiting for someone to pick us up, a couple hundred tired young soldiers landed for refueling on their way home from Vietnam. It was an ominous message they had -- more images that would be forever etched in the human mind. "Good luck, guys," one of them said. "They're really taking names down there."

While we were training in Okinawa we heard about the assassination of Robert Kennedy. What was going on back home?

On July 1st, my group landed, dogs and all, in Cam Ranh Bay. On the 4th of July we were flown to Saigon and eventually driven to Long Binh. Within a month, the demeanor I'd learned from Bill helped get me shipped out earlier than normal to Soc Trang, a detachment in the southern part of the Mekong Delta. By August I'd settled in and become familiar with the sounds of incoming mortars and snipers' bullets.

When I turned to walk down the steps I was amazed at how far away the Washington Monument seemed -- and how much farther still the Capitol was. I'd walked a long distance. Then I noticed the people walking off to the left, toward statues of three soldiers in jungle fatigues. I had -- maybe instinctively -- found the Memorial. As I walked to it I did everything in my power to not look anyone in the eye.

If you took all of the discomfort, danger and fear I experienced during my year in Vietnam and combined it into one horrible moment, it wouldn't come close to the devastation I felt when I read the words my mother wrote me. She didn't send the clipping from the Burbank Daily Review. That would have been too easy. She mustered up 19 years of accumulated motherhood to try to soften the words she knew would hurt me so much. My friend was dead.

When I finally located panel #47 west, line #38 I was surprisingly composed. Maybe it was because I was among others who had somehow come to terms with their losses -- losses of actual family members.

I was able to take a taxi back to my friend's place, but I was never able to tell him, or anyone, about that morning. But I vowed I'd track down Bill's family by his birthday. I couldn't do it. I decided to make contact on August 23rd of last year. I guess I still wasn't ready. Then I froze up again the following March.
This June my girlfriend and I went to Washington, D.C. on a business/vacation. We visited the Memorial. It was Cindi's first time. She never asked about the name I again looked up. She stood silently as I stared at the wall. Then she quietly handed me her camera so I could take a picture of Bill's name. When she had the film developed she gave me the print -- again, without asking or saying anything.

Last night I was sorting through some boxes and found an old record album. I cranked up the stereo and listened. Now it was time.

This letter is an awfully long way to say a few simple things to you and your family . . .
I'm terribly sorry about your loss and mine.
I am a better person because of what Bill gave me.
I sincerely hope my contact is not intrusive or overly painful for you.

I'm sure my letter can't do much to help any of you -- but I truly believe it is somehow good for me.
Sometimes it takes a long, long time to work through things. It makes a person tired.


Don Ray

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