Friday, March 28, 2008

Dubuque Blues

One of the amazing things about the Internet is that you can set off on a journey with no particular destination and eventually, you'll get there (nowhere at all) but what you see and learn during the space between can change the shape and color of your day. As I do on most workday mornings, having spent a lot of time in Central Europe when there was an East and a West Germany (how to tell them apart now? Think 'Trabant' and 'BMW' and which one you now see on the road) I visited the website of Stars and Stripes, a daily newspaper, at one time based in Darmstadt, West Germany, aimed at US Forces in the region.

As a result of winning the Cold War, the USA and NATO cut the operating overhead in the early Nineties and I and my family were part of that-and that's how I wound up back in the Land of the Round Door Knobs and more specifically here in the Nutmeg State. In the sixteen plus years since our retreat to this side of the Atlantic, a lot has changed in Central Europe to include the number of US military stationed in what a former Secretary of Defense called "Old Europe."

It's nice to take a couple of minutes scanning the online pages and read about places I'd spent a lot of time in during what now feels like another life: Heidelberg (yes, The Student Prince but he was conspicuous in his absence when I was there), Stuttgart, Hohenfels, Hanau (they're closing that all down and giving it up back to the civilian authorities who have no real idea what to do with it, yet), and Ramstein Air Base, the largest military airstrip outside the USA.

There was a story this morning on a variant to the Vietnam War Wall of Remembrance, in Washington D.C. that so many from across the country, and around the world, have travelled to see. There's a traveling version of the Wall that community leaders in Norwich hope to have in the region during the semiseptennial celebrations next July and that was sort of where I was mentally when the story mentioned a new online site that I clicked on (and hope you do, too), http://go.footnote.com/thewall.

I suddenly remembered a school chum, a prep school classmate and entered his name. There in the silence of the stone, he was as he appears on the Wall and a pathetically small amount of additional information. Roy and I were classmates for three years-fish out of water in a Manhattan prep school where we didn't belong with classmates who didn't let a day go by without reminding us of this. Roy's dad had been a Formula One driver in a long-ago Europe whose family had fled Hungary as the Soviet tanks crushed the dissident movement in 1956, making sure the Hungarian Revolution remained only a Revolt. Roy, his mom and (I think) a younger sister made it to shores of this country with not much more than they could carry and had to begin again.

My last name, actually, my father's last name and his association with the school made sure while I would never be embraced-I would, for the most part, be tolerated. Roy was not as lucky. with a last name that our WASP classmates couldn't seem to pronounce no matter how often and how loudly they tried, and a stoicism when harassed that infuriated them, he was a daily target for bump-into on the stairwell going up to gym built on the roof, or on the landing near the library on the second floor. There wasn't a day he wasn't picking up his books, knocked to the floor, by an 'accidental' collision that saw the other party smile as he hurried away. Roy put up with this and did and said nothing except to make an entry in a little note book he carried with him that would have the date, time and a one-line summary, something like 'Charlie Hardy punched me after English Lit on the way to math.'

In the summer after our junior year (or as it was called there, Form V), I left the prep school and never saw or heard from Roy or anyone in my class ever again. Yet, I can recall months later, though I no longer remember how, hearing Roy, who had also left before his senior year began, had stopped by the school in his Army dress uniform while he was home on leave. I'd always wondered about that-the courage it took to take rationed time, your leave, and spend some of it someplace where you had never been welcomed, basically to show those still there that you had survived, despite their animus. I wound up getting a look, some time later, of the Yearbook of what would have been our class, and there was a black and white snapshot of Roy with Charlie, Hardy's elbow resting on Roy's shoulder, wearing Roy's dress cover (his bus driver hat) at a jaunty angle.

Roy was three weeks older than I, I remember that as I type this. And I also remember the surprise and dull disbelief I felt less than a month after beginning freshman classes at Rutgers College to learn that Roy had been killed in action in South Vietnam. And I realized until earlier this morning when I came across the website, I hadn't thought about or of him in decades so while I had this chance and a semblance of grace still remaining, I said farewell to a part of my childhood that I've worked hard to keep locked up. Roy believed in what we were doing in Southeast Asia, though I don't ever recall him being vocal on any aspect of it. He left school to join the Army and die faraway and all alone, because that's how we all die, no matter where or when. And while his name is part of a wall, I'd like to think he's also part of a bridge from where we were to where we're going. If I pass through there again, I will be lucky.
-bill kenny

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